In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Peter Vertacnik
Your poem “The Book” in Volume 23 includes one repetitious line in each stanza that threads the narrative together. What does it say about this man that he refuses to accept separating from his former spouse? What was your intention in writing about divorce and loss?
The two refrains in the villanelle form often lend themselves to obsessive subjects, and the speaker’s refusal (or inability) to put this part of his past behind him certainly participates in that. I started this poem only with the intention to write something about books as physical presences and how people experience them as such, not just for the language they contain. I was genuinely surprised by the narrative that developed as I composed and revised it.
We chose to publish “The Book” right as the pandemic hit the US, but you didn’t write it with Covid-19 in mind, and yet it’s interesting to me how much more painful this separation would be for your speaker if this were set in the real world. How does separation from loved ones take on a new meaning for you now after having this poem published when we’re all secluding ourselves?
At the time I began writing the present version of this poem (Sept 2018), I was living in West Texas, far from my family and friends, and quite often felt lonely. Now, at the end of 2020, though I’m living in a different part of the country, I’m still separated from the people I love. So while the circumstances of the separation have changed, the feeling strikes me as remarkably similar. I don’t know if the previous isolation has helped me to better handle the current one, but it seems familiar in some ways. One thing that this poem has kept clear in my mind is that even during times of public crisis, people continue to suffer in their own individual ways just as before. I worry that our private suffering has been even more painful this year because of the increased separateness; it often feels that way to me.
It feels rarer and rarer to me to read contemporary poems that include a rhyme scheme. Was it difficult to stick with the form? Did you envision that from the beginning, or did it just begin to appear naturally?
While I didn’t begin with the definite idea of writing “The Book” as a villanelle in iambic pentameter, my drafts show that it proceeded in this direction fairly quickly. When I have only a vague idea or random set of observations that I want to try to make into a poem (as was the case here), I often choose a strict form to begin drafting in and let the rhyme and meter help me make connections I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. And that’s pretty much how this poem developed; the rhymes showed me what it was about.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
Simple things that seem trivial until they’re scarce: lazily eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations, the smell of my favorite restaurants, hugging my friends, meeting new people in person.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
This list would be far too long to record here, or even for me to remember properly. Recently, however, W.H. Auden’s and Anthony Hecht’s work–both poetry and prose–has meant a great deal to me, especially in terms of how to write clear and engaging sentences. Both of these writers can do this so well in both their poems and essays. I’ve also been learning a lot from translating Rilke’s poetry and the kind of intensive close reading that translation requires. Without dropping any names, I’m extremely grateful for my writing mentors, past and present. Some of them have been my teachers, some I’ve met at conferences, others I’ve never met but have learned from through correspondence.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I don’t. Both my aunt and cousin are professional visual artists, though; and several other family members have painted or carved as hobbies. This has meant a lot to me, especially when I was younger–being around people I loved and respected who were engaged in creating art in various ways. It helped me understand art as a process early on, not just as a product.
What projects are you working on right now?
In addition to all that’s involved with being a graduate student–taking classes, teaching etc.–I spend most of my writing time trying to revise and expand what I hope will be my first book of poems. I’m also slowly working on translating Rilke’s Das Buch der Bilder into English, as well as helping my friend Yifan Zhang translate some essays and poems by a contemporary Taiwanese writer whose work we both love.
Peter Vertacnik holds degrees from Penn State and Texas Tech. His poems and translations appear or are forthcoming in Alabama Literary Review, The American Journal of Poetry, The Hopkins Review, Literary Matters, The MacGuffin, Poet Lore, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among others. He is currently an MFA student at the University of Florida in Gainesville. You can learn more about him and his work at his website, or follow him at his Twitter (@PeterVertacnik) and his Instagram (vertacnik_writing).