by Diana Rosinus, former Fourteen Hills Poetry Editor
Although I didn’t realize he lived nearby when I first stumbled upon his work online, Peter Kline is a true Bay Area treasure. Not only is Peter a former Wallace Stegner fellow and stunning poet, he is also a penetrating essayist. His writings on the writing process were part of the network of inspiration that reignited my love of writing and led me to pursue my masters in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Fierce writers like Peter Kline make it impossible for us to forget why we write.
Peter’s new book Deviants came out last month from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. The joy of craft behind each word makes this book a pleasure to read, even as the content is nothing short of haunting. As Randall Mann put it, “Deviants is a striking, unsettling collection.” Let’s explore the process behind this remarkable first book.
Fourteen Hills: Where and when did you create the poems that now live in Deviants?
Peter Kline: The oldest poems in Deviants date from 2003 or 2004, but the vast majority were written between 2008 and 2011. A big part of the process of writing the book was figuring out what the book was and what kind of poems should make it up – it did not begin from a concept, but rather was shaped through the process of writing. After graduate school, I had a large number of poems that I felt confident about and that I had had success publishing, but as I tried to discover the ideal form for the book I realized more and more that many of those poems were no longer compatible with the kind of work I was presently doing. It took me a long time to come to terms with this, however, so the book existed as an ungainly hybrid for a few years before I could see it clearly and purge the poems that didn’t belong. As a result, I have a full manuscript of poems that I will likely never publish in book form, since I’ve now outgrown them. I try to be, as Frost suggested, “Someone who lives in turning to fresh tasks.”
I tend to do my writing around the city of San Francisco – outside in a park if possible, in a café when it’s cold. But I’m not that fetishistic about where I get my work done or the circumstances under which it can occur, as long as I have some control over the ambient distractions.
FH: You open the book with an epigraph from Shakespeare, placing the reader in a classical/formal frame of mind, and yet you’ve titled the work Deviants. This tension persists throughout the book, as controversial/underground/outsider content is frequently presented through traditional forms and allusions. Is there a particular statement that you are making about convention by electrically charging this point of contrast throughout the book?
PK: I think there are two sides to my blending of traditional forms with non-traditional subject matter and approaches. In part, it’s simply natural to me. I have always been drawn to formal poetry. Learning formal technique was critical to my development as a young poet – it was what first allowed me to develop my passion into a clear aesthetic. My interest in music as one of the primary qualities of poetry has made sound-based forms a productive way for me to create different kinds of music – the wave-like repetitions of a pantoum, for example, are totally different from a sonnet’s delicate interplay of symmetry and asymmetry. In addition, I have been interested in outlaws and transgressors for a long time, and have always experienced part of my identity as an artist through the questioning of societal mores. So it’s not surprising that these two elements would combine in my work. I should add that I have never seen the use of traditional form as being inherently conservative, even if it is typically used to make more conservative kinds of utterance, or to make meaning in more conservative ways. It seems to me that in the work of our great formal poets – James Merrill, say, or Thom Gunn, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Philip Larkin – absolute formal control serves as a complement to emotional intensity and risk. A certain strain of contemporary formalism insists on a rigid sense of decorum and impersonality as an antidote to the excesses of confessional free verse. I find this aesthetic very limiting – there is simply so much more that can be done with form.
My union of formal technique with “outsider” content is also a deliberate choice. As I’ve said, formal poetry often works best when its strictness is combined with some unpredictable or dangerous subject matter – think of the erotic and existential crisis underlying Bishop’s apparently breezy repetitions in “One Art.” So it is always my intention to invite wildness into my poems, as much as they can handle. Another reason I frequently work in received forms is because they can be so effective in concentrating meaning in a poem – doing more with fewer words – by putting the poem in conversation with the great poems of its type that have preceded it. John Hollander’s Vision and Resonance is a wonderful analysis of this aspect of poetry, and one I find enormously influential in the way I think about form.
FH: I also noticed that along with the formal work in Deviants there are a number of free verse poems. How do you see the relationship between these two different ways of working?
PK: I have attempted to apply a formal sense to all of the free verse poems in Deviants. By a “formal sense” I mean a sense of shape and limit, not as strict as metrical verse, of course, but enough of a restriction to force me to make choices. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are the very narrow free verse poems sprinkled throughout the manuscript. The poems of both Robert Creeley and Kay Ryan were obsessions of mine at different times while I was writing the book. Each poet approaches the narrow line in extremely different ways, of course – in fact it’s hard to imagine two poets more different from one another! – yet they both reveal something important about the musical possibilities of such a form, as well as about the radical disruption of syntax through enjambment. In fact, most of my favorite free verse poets are specifically interested in the formal and musical possibilities of their verse. I think of Walt Whitman, with his capacious and cadenced biblical free verse; T. S. Eliot, who strained at the boundaries of blank verse until it became something wholly his own; Sylvia Plath, who took Eliot’s early sing-song method of irregular rhyming and strung it with barbs; Charles Wright, who worked from Pound to develop the delicate modulations of his “low-rider” lines.
FH: While reading Deviants, I got the sense that each poem was a kind of riddle, maybe because of the combination of opacity/mystery with rhyme and rhythm. Do you have an interest in riddle as a poetic form? Or was this more of a product of the distanced relationship between the speaker and everyone else, including the reader?
PK: I certainly enjoy riddles, both for their sound- and word-play, and for their intellectual challenge. However, I have never deliberately set out to write a riddle or to model a poem off of one, though I can see what you mean about the riddling quality of some of my poems. In “Second Fig,” for example, the intense rhyme and short lines combine with the speaker’s deliberate evasions to create a riddle-like effect. The whole poem develops the predilections and behavior of a particular group of people – the speaker’s “kind” – but it never explicitly defines that group, and it speaks in a winking, slangy, elusive form of word-play meant to partially obscure what it reveals. In this case, the speaker’s playful refusal to define himself or his “kind” is less a deliberate attempt to riddle than a function of his wary attitude toward those not of his kind. He is speaking to ordinary people, craving their acknowledgement and acceptance, and yet he is deeply ambivalent about the prospect of being discovered by them.
FH: Let’s talk more about the speaker. I felt like my tour guide through Deviants was a vibrant variety of ghost: incisive, vigilant, and hyper-engaged with the world, yet not part of it... separate... not quite able to--but wanting to--connect. I'm curious both about the formation of this speaker (was he consciously shaped, or did he emerge organically?) as well as this theme of being somehow separately intertwined with the world.
PK: I don’t write my poems so much as listen for them. So, in that sense, the speakers of these poems are my own ghosts, haunting me as they will, leading me at times to terrifying places. I guess I should emphasize that I see Deviants as having many speakers – the poems are not intended to express a single consciousness or experience. In the title poem, which is a sequence of six dramatic monologues, the multiplicity of speakers is probably already clear, but I also consider this to be more widely the case in the book. The happy-go-lucky, up-for-anything speaker of “First Fig,” for example, seems to me quite different from the embittered complainer of “Reckoning,” or from the more intimate and romantic speaker of “Long-Distance Sonnet.”
I think you’re exactly right about that sense of separation, which is a quality all of the speakers share to some extent. In fact, this separation is one of the guiding principles of Deviants – it’s one of the things uniting the disparate speakers into a coherent whole. Deviant behavior is an unwillingness or inability to comply with societal rules of conduct; its inherent condition is one of alienation from others. Deviance of all kinds seems to me to be actually widespread in our society, but the perception and enforcement of conformity means that those who exhibit it openly are made to suffer for it. Still, there are of course many kinds of deviant behavior that are rightfully discouraged by society because they are dangerous. There are certain speakers in Deviants whom I would never pick up hitchhiking…
FH: There is also a theme going on about power/powerlessness, and it seems to relate to this separation theme. In part five of the title poem, the speaker says, "I had more power the more I went unsaid." Tell us more about this angle of achieving power through invisibility and withholding, through seeking danger and then remaining on the periphery.
PK: The hidden watcher has a certain power over his subjects. He can observe them with a spirit of criticism, or calculation, or lust, or approval, without any fear of being rebuffed, or of having to undergo the same scrutiny. And as long as he remains in that position—separate and hidden—his fantasy can define the people he watches because they can never confront him in reality. They are exactly what he wants or fears them to be. But this position is also a tragic and self-defeating one, because a voyeur’s power is finally empty. Any real action on the world requires the watcher to make himself visible, but doing so would leave him vulnerable. So he tends to remain safe and isolated – and unhappy.
Part of this also relates back to Eliot’s Prufrock – “Do I dare disturb the universe?” One reason to distrust your own power is because you are afraid of taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions, whatever those consequences may be. Trying to pick up a stranger in a bar, for example, you might get a glare, get turned down flat, get a drink poured in your lap. But you might also get taken home. Each of these scenarios is potentially daunting. To involve yourself with other people is to become actively subject to them in some way, even if you’re enjoying the involvement.
FH: Interestingly, these deviant speakers seem to have an ability to be just as intimate with the reader as they are distanced. They are confessing, they are honest about their own fears, and they show us their darkness in an unusually beautiful (but not beautified) manner. Perhaps this awkwardness about intimacy is what allows for the greatest intimacy. The speakers also seem to let their guard down when addressing other writers directly. These are just my impressions-- tell us about your sense of the speakers’ abilities and inabilities to be intimate, and what this may say about deviants.
PK: Yes, the paradox that defines many of the speakers in Deviants is their need of intimacy, affection, or acceptance combined with their simultaneous revulsion, fear, or distrust of other people. Sometimes this can lead to a greater sense of intimacy for the reader because the poems put the reader in a privileged position – the speaker takes the reader as a confidante, disclosing highly personal information about his desires and anxieties. At other times, the reader is treated in a more adversarial fashion because the speaker has lumped him in with all of the other people he doesn’t trust. Another kind of speaker in the book might be thought of as exhibitionist, insisting on intimate disclosure even without the consent of others. And finally there are other speakers in this book of less pathological psychology who have no major hang-ups about intimacy, and whose relation toward the reader and toward others seems a healthier one.
FH: Finally, where do you turn when you’re in need of inspiration?
PK: I have many sources of inspiration, too many to name. The world has tended to repay my attention and curiosity by giving me poems, as long as I am diligent enough to take the dictation. But certainly I am always actively trying to encounter new people and new experiences; too much comfort or complacency is bad for my writing. I’m also always on the lookout for a new poet to blow my mind, or a familiar one to re-encounter. This is a big reason for the large number of poems in Deviants that make explicit or implied reference to other poets and poems – I find the conversation intensely inspiring.
Peter Kline teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and with The Writer’s Studio at Stanford University. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he has also been honored with residency awards from the James Merrill House and the Amy Clampitt House, as well as the Morton Marr Poetry Prize from Southwest Review. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, and many other journals. His first collection of poems, Deviants, was published in the fall of 2013 by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. He can be found online at http://www.peterklinepoetry.com.