Robert Peake is a British-American poet living near London. He created the Transatlantic Poetry on Air reading series. His full-length collection The Knowledge is forthcoming April 2015 from Nine Arches Press.
Geosi Gyasi: Come to think of it, how has your study of poetry in the university helped you as a poet?
Robert Peake: As an undergraduate, I learned to love poetry as a reader. I had the pleasure of studying with poets like Robert Hass and literary critics like Stephen Booth, who opened my eyes to the enjoyment of both historical and contemporary poetry in a greater way. In the MFA programme at Pacific University, Oregon, I learned to deepen that appreciation for poetry as a reader, and furthermore to read not only as a fan or literary critic, but also as a writer. I feel that those two years of intensely reading and writing poetry with the guidance of my mentors accelerated my progression as a poet easily by a decade or more. It also contributed to my development as a poet and as a person in ways that I may never have discovered by simply writing by myself over time. It cemented my love affair with poetry to be in these environments. It made me feel that poetry is real and valuable, even if under-appreciated in our time.
Geosi Gyasi: What are some of the good memories you remember as a student at Pacific University?
Robert Peake: My best memories are about the people, and the atmosphere of the place–which I would call serious about the craft of writing, but unpretentious. One of our mentors started a tradition of ending every lecture with a sing-along. A group of students in my year saved a drowning man’s life by pulling him out of a river. These are the kind of people I wanted to emulate, both in life and in writing–the kind of people you can count on, who aren’t afraid to wade out into deep water, and yet who don’t take themselves too seriously along the way.
Geosi Gyasi: Which living poets have influenced you most?
Robert Peake: Robert Hass, as I mentioned, was one of my earliest major influences. His work has always resonated with me, and he also introduced me as a young and impressionable undergraduate to Seamus Heaney, whose influence was tremendous. My mentor Marvin Bell has had an undeniable influence, as well as poets like Jane Hirshfield–not only for their work but their way of being. I also felt that I hit a vein of gold when I discovered Polish poets in translation like Adam Zagajewski and Czeslaw Milosz (a friend of Robert Hass), as well as other Eastern-European-influenced poets like Charles Simic. They taught me that irony and wry humour could disarm a reader enough to slip in something essential “under the radar” as it were. There are so many; I could go on…
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a bit about the “Transatlantic Poetry on Air” readings in London?
Robert Peake: I started this reading series after I relocated to the UK, to bring poets together from either side of the Atlantic for live on-air readings and Q&A. It has garnered wonderful support from literary journals and national organisations committed to reaching new audiences with poetry. I wanted to create something that I myself would really want to watch and enjoy, to connect people from great distances and also connect to viewers in remote areas where readings are scarce. It has taken on a momentum of its own now, and I see it well on its way to becoming a major vehicle for how poetry gets transmitted and received in the twenty-first century.
Geosi Gyasi: As a technology consultant, do you think technology has influenced poets and poetry in any particular way?
Robert Peake: I think it has influenced the audience for poetry by shortening our attention spans, and I think poetry is always influenced by its audiences. That said, technology may also be the saving grace of contemporary poetry, because even as the fan base has dwindled since the advent of rock-n-roll, the ability of poets and poetry-lovers to connect and engage all over the world has expanded. The global audience for poetry today is therefore many times the size of what many poets enjoyed as a regional audience one hundred years ago. I think it is therefore a kind of “Invisible Golden Age” for poetry–with more availability than ever, despite the perception of scarcity.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you start a poem?
Robert Peake: I start much like William Stafford and his followers would–anywhere, with anything, with whatever comes to mind. I try to take hold of a thread from there, and let the poem have its way. Rarely do I start cold, though. I keep a single Word document with every false start, bad poem, odd idea–everything I write just gets “dumped” in there, like compost, and so I always have some creative fertiliser at the ready, instead of the terrifying prospect of a new blank page.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you know you’ve come to the end of a poem?
Robert Peake: Usually, there is a “dismount”, as in riding a horse. Yet sometimes it can be too tempting to conclude a difficult or uncomfortable poem, so I often try to push beyond the initial ending to see if I was cutting the poem off abruptly, if there was more to it that I was unwilling to venture into. Often, the poems end themselves. It doesn’t always mean the poem is “done”, and it certainly doesn’t mean it is necessarily any good. But once a poem has exhausted what it wants to say to me, I give it a rest. Sometimes a completely new poem comes out later, with similar themes, that is the “revision” of that poem in a much more successful form. So, I don’t try to force things too much. I try to let the poem tell me when it is through.
Geosi Gyasi: Your newest book, “The Knowledge” is due out in April 2015 from Nine Arches Press. Do you mind giving us a gist of what readers are to expect from the book?
Robert Peake: Many of these poems were written during an extended period of culture shock after relocating to the UK nearly four years ago. However stressful that was, it was also a heightened state of awareness. So, I took on the role of a kind of participant-observer in my new life, reflecting on London, on America, looking both within and without as a kind of “anthropologist on Mars”. You can expect a wide range of poems on the themes of knowing and knot knowing (I am told the title “Songs of Innocence and Experience” was already taken). I hope people close the back cover and come away with an experience they have never quite had before, that it provokes and startles and changes people, even for a moment, in some way.
Geosi Gyasi: Tim Krcmarik, author of The Heights praised you and your book, “Human Shade” as “Robert Peake is a first-rate poet whose collection, Human Shade, is a cycle of very tender and very finely crafted poems.” Could you comment on this statement?
Robert Peake: That was very kind of Tim, who is a fine poet himself. Tenderness and craft are, I think, my right and left hands–how I go about my work of making poems. To me, the human element is essential and necessary. For my purely cerebral delights, I turn to writing software source code. I think poetry can do better than be a head game, and so the tenderness informs my emphasis on craft. It fuels my fire. It is to render something essentially human, and ultimately ineffable, that I write.
Geosi Gyasi: While doing your MFA at the Pacific University, you were once selected by the faculty to give the student speech at graduation on the basis of “outstanding contribution to the programme”. Could you give as a glimpse of some of the things you said?
Robert Peake: The full text of the speech is actually available online: http://www.robertpeake.com/archives/469-pacific-university-mfa-commencement-student-speech.html The ending is the most important part, where I encourage myself and all of us to just keep writing, no matter what.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you keep a strict writing schedule?
Robert Peake: Days that I write are better days, even if the poems seem to be holding out on me. So, I have found that I don’t need to be “strict” necessarily, because not writing is simply too uncomfortable. I write often, which sometimes means every day. The morning is optimal for me, because I have my best chance at spelunking through the inner territory where poems are discovered before the day gets cranking and my emails and other duties are upon me.
Geosi Gyasi: This may sound frivolous but what’s the best thing that has happened to you as a poet?
Robert Peake: The moments I really live for are the ones where I discover that a poet whose work I greatly admire feels similarly about what I am doing. To earn the respect of those I respect is really the greatest joy, and a most satisfactory companionship.
Geosi Gyasi: Your website consistently ranks as a top poetry blog. Is there anything special you do that other bloggers don’t do?
Robert Peake: I got into the blogging game early, writing about the world’s most popular web programming language, called “PHP”. My traffic actually plummeted when I decided to make poetry my main focus. That said, I try to focus on writing the kinds of articles I would like to read. I also try to be a good citizen of the virtual community overall. Whatever I would do to be a good neighbour in real life, I aim to do online. People are discovering that the internet is not really anonymous, any more than living in a village is anonymous. For me, it has always been more about connection than traffic numbers, and my blog is just another way that I participate in village life.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re often described as a British-American poet. My question is, where do you actually belong: Britain or America?
Robert Peake: I belong in both places, because both places are my home. Britain and America have inclusive poetic traditions, so as much as I am outsider, I am also an insider. I do my best to learn from what each country has to offer–and especially from its poets.