Interview by Craig Ledoux
Jeffrey W. Peterson was a 2011 Fellow in the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of West Georgia and his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. His work has appeared in African American Review and The Westchester Review. He co-directed the SLC Poetry Festival in 2013 and served as the Creative Director of LUMINA that same year. He currently teaches American Literature in Locust Grove, GA, reads for The Carolina Quarterly and The Boiler, and is on staff for ALLIANCE Drum & Bugle Corps and Atlanta Quest. He is the Poetry Editor and a founding member of Madcap Review.
What brought you to poetry, or who brought it to you?
I think I’ll go way back: my sister is 5 years older than me and was a really strong writer when she was in grade school. She used to write about me in her poems and short stories. After her teachers would gloat about her and give her scratch-and-sniff stickers, my mom would casually read the work to me and I hated finding myself in it. I started writing poetry to put her in my work, kind of like a form of revenge.
What took you beyond that mentality and made you a poet, or for you is poetry still an act of revenge?
I think/hope I abandoned that mentality pretty quickly. Poetry immediately became a refuge for me after the loss of a family member, so there’s probably a little bit of revenge in there somewhere, but I’d like to think that a majority of myself is dedicated to poetry because of the dialogue it allows.
My 6th grade and 12th grade teachers really pushed my work in the sense of confidence. They never told me anything technical. They just told me to keep on writing. I wasn’t a poet then, I was merely a writer. I still think I’m figuring out what a poet actually is, but I’ve had flashes of it when people have told me “I get it” after hearing me read a poem for the 3rd time in a year, or months later when they’re re-reading a poem I’ve since edited. Poetry is communication and dialogue to me, so I really feel like a poet when I hear someone or they hear me.
To you, what signals a finished poem? Is it the recognition you talk about, when someone “gets” it, or is there a point when you, individually, know a poem is finished?
I never believed the idea when I was younger, but I’ve silently accepted the notion that writing doesn’t finish. Writing can be abandoned, published, edited, read, burned etc., but finished is an island I can’t find. I can finish writing for the day. I can finish a prompt or assignment I’ve given myself, but that’s about it. I feel somewhat complete when a poem receives recognition and opens a dialogue, but all that tells me is that I connected with one person. Sometimes I “finish” poems and they seem to lack heart. That’s something I’ve held on to ever since I read Patti Smith’s book Just Friends. I’d never want someone to yell at my work and say it has no heart, so I try to remain aware of the life in a poem. I wonder if finished poems have life to them. I’ll say they don’t. For now.
You mentioned Patti Smith. Who else has motivated you or changed your perspective? Which poets do you read?
I’m glad you asked about motivation. Sherman Alexie changed my writing while I was in undergrad, but right now Jamaal May is the poet that motivates me. I’ve only heard him read in person once, but I was able to speak with him afterward, which isn’t something I normally do. Back then, he was reading all over the northeast and had two chapbooks. Within months, I found out his manuscript, Hum, was accepted by Alice James Books, which is a press I already loved. His work was amazing when I first heard him, so I already enjoyed his vibe. It was very motivating to see him back then, and now see him in Poetry and doing readings in my hometown of Atlanta. He’s on Facebook, always spreading poetry and love for the art. I’m pretty sure his next collection is complete or almost complete. The artist colonies that I’m applying to are starting to call him to teach there. That movement by him is amazingly motivational to me, because I was able to talk to him about the progress and then see that progress in social media and on the bookshelves.
What do you look for in poems or in poets? To put it another way, what do you respond to?
I like poems that break my ankles. When I enter a poem and I’m with the characters, narrator, speaker, scene, idea, etc., I’m following them. Sometimes I follow because I’m curious, sometimes I follow because I feel comfortable. I prefer the former, but either can work. As I’m moving through the poem, I love being shaken by something familiar and uncomfortable or something just plain uncomfortable. That’s when the poem is fresh. Now, as I’m following along, if the poem turns or jukes, I’m in. I’m there. I’m down. My ankle is twisted or throbbing because I didn’t see the move coming, but I’m still ready to go. It’s a kind of chase now. I’m chasing what’s in the poem out of sheer anxiety and curiosity and I’m either in a place that I don’t know or I’m in a revamped world I thought I knew.
If I enter the poem and that’s the experience, then I like the vantage or the look of the place.
You have a tendency to set rules for poetry. Are these generally short-term reactions to something you’ve read, or are there subjects you consider taboo or passé? For example, at one point I recall you had banned the moon and the word “nape” from poetry.
I’ve probably called them rules myself, but I think they’re actually constraints. You’re on the right track by calling them reactions and interpretations of theories I’ve read though. At random points in my life, instructors gave assignments such as “don’t enter the poem through the front door” or “write without articles” and since I already give myself food rules and resolutions like removing enriched, bleached flour or high fructose corn syrup, I figured, “Why not carry that over to poetry?” I’m probably a little too boisterous about them, but I love removing words from my box like “moon” or “heart” and seeing what happens. It’s the poet in me. I see all writing as form, so removing language for a day or for a year is similar to stepping into a new form for me.
One of my recent poems actually arose from this banishment. Instead of continually rejecting the moon, I accepted it and wrote about it. I ended up writing about a moon made of cheese that melts and drowns the world. I didn’t know I’d end up with the poem I now have, but I’m glad I suppressed myself. By releasing and writing about a cliché subject, I found something.
You titled your MFA thesis “Slave Tools” after Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” What does that essay mean to you, and how did it inform your work? Is the action of “removing words from your box” a way to develop your own tools?
That essay means I have a long way to go in terms of writing as well as thought, maturity, etc. That essay made me reconsider the power of writing and how difficult it is to escape hegemony. Sometimes the essay made me realize hegemony can’t be escaped. I can’t even put into words what that essay has done to me. Lorde made me realize intent. I tried to do something with my thesis and ended up not being very satisfied with it since my intent was probably unachievable. Maybe I just haven’t realized how to achieve the goal yet.
For now, I’ll say that removing words is a tool that crafts me.
You start some of your poems with an epigraph. Sometimes they’re sourced from well-known writers, but occasionally they’re your own invention. To you, what is the function of an epigraph? Does it frame the content that follows, or does it set a mood? What’s the effect of writing your own epigraph?
When I read epigraphs, they show me where the author’s inspiration came from, they set the tone of the piece, and sometimes they even cement the piece upon completion. They definitely function as frames to me because I read the epigraph, read the poem, and then read the epigraph again. An epigraph reminds me of the song that begins while the movie screen is still black, white, or another color. They’re the preshow, so I enjoyed writing my own epigraphs because it was a mind ploy for me. It helped me write because I was able to put my trigger outside of the stanzas. The epigraphs also became a generating device and gave me a sense of control. I could probably remove them and the poems would still stand up, but at the time, I thought it would be interesting to create my own context and tell a story with epigraphs.
You have a long history with percussion. For you, is music an outlet separate from poetry, or are the two intertwined?
They’re the same, but they don’t feel the same. I sweat over drums, or at least I used to. I was heavy into rudimental drumming. Most people know it as drum corps or drumline. That was a different type of expression because I often had to pay to be there. I practiced at home and then showed up for practice or a show and created the music there. It wasn’t tangible though. Poetry draws the same type of sweat. It takes just as much work, but I don’t feel like I pay for it, even when I went to school. I don’t pay for poetry until I buy a book, and even then, I’m very willing to give that book to someone else for however long. I expressed myself through both, but they don’t feel the same to me because I performed for a set amount of time, usually 10 minutes, and could only drum in that form until a specific age. I still teach and give music lessons, but music doesn’t operate in my life as it used to. Music’s role in my life is evolving, whereas I think my poetry itself evolves and I try to make it take on the same role in my life at all times. I need to think on that some more.
If someone stopped you in the street and said, “Describe the perfect poem,” what would your response be?
I’d ask them what they mean by “perfect” and “poem”. One time I saw a lollipop on a sidewalk and there wasn’t a single ant on it. That was a poem.