|Painting the Fugitive Truth: An Interview with Eric Pankey|
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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 visionSt. 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 lengtha casting out and reeling in, a spiraling outward, a weaving and unweavingyet 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 artform 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.
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.
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.