Contemporary Poetry Review

As Interviewed By:
Ethan Paquin

Painting the Fugitive Truth: An Interview with Eric Pankey

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.This interview was conducted by e-mail from October 23, 2000, to February 14, 2001. For several years I've been fascinated with Pankey's half-Classical, half-Baroque poems—and his meditative, pensive style that allows for examination of spirituality and the art-God relationship without seeming trite. One gets a real sense of reading a pioneer of sorts when one picks up The Late Romances—with echoes of Stevens in "Essays on a Lemon" and of Wright in "The Kingdom Likened to a Field of Weeds," but rendered with wholly unique, formal panache—and Cenotaph, released in 2000 by Knopf. Thus our discussion on vision, influences, and the poet's take on all things poetry in 2001: MFA programs, teaching creative writing, and the publishing landscape. Pankey teaches at George Mason University.

PAQUIN: The word is obviously very nebulous and abstract, but your work is brimming with "spirituality." I'm curious about the impact, if any, those poets Merton called "contemplative saints" may have on your work or poetic vision—St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Ruysbroek, Pessoa and Rilke, among others?

PANKEY: Among those poets who use the realm of the poem as a place to explore what we might call the habit of the spirit as well as the condition of the soul, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne were the first I came to read and to admire. I was drawn as much to the density of their poems and its gravity, the elaborate, if not, at times, overwrought surface of their poems both in sound and figuration. I tend to be attracted to the meditative mode, how in it the poet can measure, reflect, dwell in thought. The meditation tends toward length—a casting out and reeling in, a spiraling outward, a weaving and unweaving—yet Hopkins in the dark sonnets and Donne in the holy sonnets move inward, as if at their heart there was pinpoint with the density of a black hole. Beyond those you mention above, I would include Herbert, Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot, Crane and more recently Hill and Milosz as spiritual questioners I continue to read and delight in.

PAQUIN: I just can't shake the similarities in poetic vision between some of Merton's poetry and Cenotaph, both of which amply examine the meditative mode (or, as one of your poems contains, the "visionary mode") and Contemplation.

PANKEY: The poem is not a vessel for thought, a receptacle for what I have previously known. The poem is a way of thinking, a vehicle for that thinking, a way to write toward what I do not know. Such a habit perhaps leads toward "subjects" the certainty of which is always just beyond one's grasp or articulation.

PAQUIN: Cenotaph seems to confront the somewhat tired, critic-speak tag, "contrast between inner/mental and outer/physical landscapes." There's explicit mention of this dichotomy in "Cold Spring Brook 3," with "He has made of the narrow threshold / Between landscape and contemplation / an unlit altar where he augurs, // Without the sentiment of regret." Your charting of the ruminative soul seems a call that we salvage the forgotten spiritual landscape.

PANKEY: I like your phrase "charting of the ruminative soul," which has about it the act of precise demarcation and the act of attentive observation of a "subject" (for lack of a better word), that is often ineffable, without bounds or form. I do not mean to argue for the "tired," as you phrase it, "dichotomy," but through language, to confront paradox, that gist that conjoins the irreconcilable.
     For all the obsessive repetitions, for what may seem, after the decade effort of these last three books, ground that should now be left fallow, for all the continued return to interior or exterior "landscapes" (a made and arranged construction, not at all a synonym for "Nature" or even "nature"), I do not begin to write poems with anything more than words, the medium of the art. I do not sit down and say, now I will write a poem in which the Divine is the central irritant, or I will write an elegy, or a love poem. A bit of language gets stuck in my head and I turn it over and over again, patch onto it, unravel it, re-weave until I discover its shape and its argument. The medium itself is the starting place of my contemplation and exploration, is the ground of the experience and experiment of the poem. Yet in the end, I end up with elegies and love poems, poems in which the condition of my soul is the grit around which language forms.

PAQUIN: I'm wondering about your beginnings as a poet. When, and how, were the seeds sown?

PANKEY: The first thing I can remember wanting to be as a kid was a cartoonist. I was always drawing and doodling. Then in sixth grade, I was kept in from recess because my teacher accused me of plagiarizing a poem she had asked us to do in a fifteen minute in-class writing assignment. There was no way I could have prepared for this great theft, because we had not had any preparation for the assignment. We had read no poetry and the writing of a poem had little to do with whatever the lesson of the day was: sit or set, lie or lay, leave or let.
     I liked recess and did not like missing it. Such a punishment for having managed to write a poem made me realize that that poem just might be good and that I had a talent for something other than drawing Spiderman or Charlie Brown or Wile E. Coyote. So that sixth grade teacher gave me a confidence and a curiosity about the art of poetry that I might not have had otherwise.
     Often the next year, I would flee the turmoil of my home life (both parents drank a good bit and were never at their best when drunk) and ride my bike to the public library. The aisle straight ahead as I entered the door had on one side the 700's in the Dewey Decimal System, which included art monographs and art history books, and on the other side the 800's, which included American and British poetry. I would load my arms with books from both sides, find a table, and read until I had to head home. I learned a great deal about art history and I read poetry with a hunger and an openness to whatever I found on the shelves. I can recall Wilbur, Rexroth, Patchen, Kibran, Roethke, Berryman, Keats, McKuen, Snyder, Moore, and Hopkins.

PAQUIN: What comprised and informed, as Elder Olson penned, the "universe of your early poems" and who helped you navigate this universe?

PANKEY: I read without judgment. Wrote down words I did not know. Attempted imitations. Wrote a poem with the exact number of lines as The Waste Land, but it leaned in style more towards Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna," than it did Eliot's! The rest of what success I might have had I owe to wonderful teachers. In high school in Raytown, Missouri, I was encouraged to attend poetry readings at the Jewish Community Center and to send my poems out for publication. When I did I had something accepted. I have been sending work out since.
     At the University of Missouri, three poets, Larry Levis, Marcia Southwick, and Thomas McAfee were most gracious to me. They read my work, introduced me to their graduate students, even fed me at times when I was broke. I can recall a reception at the Levis/Southwick household for Phil Levine, I believe, where there was an argument about whether Lou Reed or Neil Young possessed more duende. I knew everything there was to know about Lou Reed and Neil Young, but had to find out more about this "duende!"
     In graduate school, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I worked with more generous poets: Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, Stanley Plumly, Gerald Stern, and Henri Coulette. To this day, almost twenty years later, I am still learning the lessons they taught. I will be revising a poem, troubling some formal problem, say, and think, "So that is what Justice meant!" Or realize that what I had heard as an admonition, say, from Bell, was a compliment I did not know enough then to hear. The great example of all these teachers has served me well as I attempt to mentor my own students.

PAQUIN: Most of us seem to have in common that turning point where the fire was lit beneath us by a fanatical, passionate teacher: someone who inspired us to devote our lives to the art. Someone who implored us to explore, to become awash in what Eliot called the "sanctuary and choir" of poetry.

PANKEY: I have every faith in my students. I can only hope that I inspire them as my own teachers inspired me, that I have given them a solid background in the history and forms of poetry.
     Many of my students have gone on to not only write poems I love, admire, and envy, but have received notice from less subjective readers than I am. Others continue to write, but their lives have led them to do other good work in other genres, art forms, and professions. Their gifts have blessed those of us who worked with them, and taught us about the possibility of poetry.

PAQUIN: You mention music as an integral part of your writing process. What about the visual arts? Cenotaph brings to mind, of course, painters ranging from Tintoretto and Turner and de Chirico, whose painting graces its cover. It also calls to the forefront "sketches" and "sketchbooks," their fleeting qualities.

PANKEY: I have described Apocrypha, The Late Romances, and Cenotaph as a triptych, because I want to imagine them taken as panels, complete in themselves, yet set next to one another to create a new whole, as we might have an altar triptych with an image of the Expulsion on the left as you look at it, with the Crucifixion in the middle, and the Last Judgment on the right. These images draw from separate stories in, what is essentially, an anthology, which we read as separate and as a whole, an arc, a trajectory.
     Your question reminds me that what I often love best in an artist's work is the "study": the hand of an angel, a broken column, a rearing horse, a tulip ripped up, bulb, stem, leaf, and flower, all on the same scrap of paper, each radiant with potential, each compelling in its polish or sketchiness or the juxtaposition of the two. I would say that the poems in Cenotaph might appear more study-like, to some readers, and less finely polished, or at least, less baroque, than the surfaces of The Late Romances. One way to learn as a poet is to allow or disallow yourself certain things. I have done so consciously in each book and, while I hope what I have allowed or disallowed has strengthened my work, or expanded the vision and rhetorical possibilities of my poems, my reason for doing so is to learn to write a new poem rather than relying on what I might have become fluent in.

PAQUIN: What role does ekphrasis play in your work, particularly in your latest book?

PANKEY: I tend to be more interested in the form and theory of visual arts than I am in attempting to replicate or re-present a visual artist's image in words. De Chirico's writing on "metaphysical painting" is confronted, for instance, much more directly in Cenotaph than any of his images. Ideas of framing, of depth of field, of reflection, of shading, of sketching, of abstraction, of perspective and, so on, are all terms and technique I have attempted to bring over into poetry. "Attempted" is the keyword! I am constantly looking to other arts such as opera, chamber music, dance, theater for new formal possibilities for poetry.
     I have a new sequence of poems in Oracle Figures [Pankey's next book, which he's currently working on] and each section of the sequence takes its title from a Brice Marden painting: "Small Corpus," "Dance Glyphs," "Mask With Red," "Skull with Thought," and "Corpus." None of these poems attempt to recreate the image that is rendered in paint, but each is a meditation upon, and a conversation with, the painting's form, materials, and composition. I am actively involved in using the language to trace, to outline, to shadow, to adumbrate, to scumble, to delineate.

PAQUIN: In "Sandy Point Road: An Eclogue," there is a particularly poignant line, "The is a path before me and I follow it. Home?" What path do you see yourself following? Where is you poetic journey taking you? To what truth?

PANKEY: I would have to answer with the line that follows, "Yes, there is a path before me and I follow it." Does the line answer the questioner's question "Home?" or is the affirmation merely that there is a path before me and I follow it. If there is a crossroads or a fork, I have no particular destinations in mind, so to turn off the road I am on leads only to new possibilities as would the other paths I have not followed. My poems, as I look back at them, tend to distrust final thoughts, to distrust Truth. They do tend to strive after a momentary truth, an instant of perception. A fleeting truth. A fugitive truth.

PAQUIN: Let's talk loosely about teaching poetry. Poetry in the classroom. What "methods" have you used, and which work the best for you? Is poetry able to be fitted into a neat pedagogical compartment or would you rather work with your, and your students', raw passion for poetry?

PANKEY: The poets I have worked with over the years in Master of Fine Arts programs come to such programs as apprentices to the art, to learn the history, the traditions, and the forms of their art, and to find a space and a span of time, a shelter, where they might practice and innovate upon the art in a supportive, eclectic, and lively community of other poets. I love Pound's notion that the mastery of an art form is the work of a lifetime. We practice poetry.
     I am not one of those who believes that an art cannot be taught, because of my own experience as a student. I have learned and continue to dedicate myself to learn from peers, teachers, from critics and theorists, and most importantly from constant reading.
     As a teacher, I begin where each student is and attempt to lead that student to models that might confirm or challenge them. I ask them to read widely and with a hunger. To write. To rewrite. To re-see and to rewrite again. I do all I can not to dampen their inspiration and spirit by trusting always that they are serious and committed to the art, by respecting their individual attempts, while asking them to push beyond their own fluency.

PAQUIN: How do you see the current state of teaching poetry, i.e. the proliferation of M.F.A. programs and degrees awarded? How will this so-called "glut" change the way poetry is viewed in future years?

PANKEY: I have read the polemics against the teaching of poetry writing and most seem to be based upon givens that just are not true. I do not need to defend the writing workshop on their terms.
     From the G. I. Bill forward, the university in America has become more and more democratized. In several of the polemics against M.F.A. programs, I sense a note of nostalgia for some golden age when the commoners were not infecting the art with their common-ness, that we have somehow made a high art base by our touch.
     The polemics tend to deny that poetry is a dynamic genre. That it has been always been "taught" from one poet to the next, even if those poets never meet face to face. They act as if the sonnet as a form, for instance, did not have the history it has had— changing in subtle and, at times, radical ways in the hands of its makers. Change is not to be feared in an art form, but desired.

PAQUIN: Your publishing range is quite broad: from Witness to Image, Slope to The Iowa Review. Share some thoughts on the current American publishing scene: the abundance of journals, the emergence of online magazines. Can the literary landscape sustain so many publications?

PANKEY: I know very little about the economics of small or large publishing, so I cannot say how or if the literary landscape can sustain so many publications. Wallace Stevens said "Money is a kind of poetry." And in that I believe he meant that money, like poetry, can offer a splendid exchange. Our belief in money's value is akin to Steven's supreme fiction: to know it is a fiction (why should someone trade a durable good for some printed rectangles of paper?) but to believe it nonetheless.
     But I do not believe that the inverse of Stevens adage is true, that poetry is a kind of money. A flood in the market of money can create inflation: too many dollars chasing too few goods. But a thousand dreadful poems do not devalue a single radiant poem to the reader who finds it radiant.
     The history of literary magazines is an interesting one. The Moderns created their own outlets for their formally radical work when the handful of journals and popular magazines available were more interested in publishing the conventions of the previous generation, or worse, a kind of generic uplifting poem. I believe the current generation is doing the same thing, creating new outlets, and as a result, expanding the audience for poetry.
     I tend to believe the number of good journals in America today suggests the quality of work being produced by young poets and not the opposite. The variety of journals, on-line or printed on paper, reflects the heterogeneity of the American populations as well as the vast distances between our east and west coasts and our north and south borders, reflects the rich diversity of styles, visions, and imaginations that equal this thing we call American poetry. I am encouraged and heartened when I meet young writers who are willing to step out of this booming economy for two or three years and apprentice themselves to the art of poetry, willing to work hard the rest of their lives to master the art form.

PAQUIN: Tell us more about Oracle Figures. What can the reader look for in that next book?

PANKEY: I am currently about halfway through two projects: one a collection of essays, interviews, notebooks, parables and adages about various poets and the art of poetry, called To Repair the Material of Experience, as well as my sixth collection of poems. All the poems written so far have appeared or are forthcoming in journals. I will let others read and address questions of theme.
     There is a path before me and I follow it. It seems to me, an unfamiliar path, a new direction, but who am I to judge! I am off from teaching next year with the support of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and the support of George Mason University, and hope to bring these projects to closure.

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2001 Contemporary Poetry Review