In Conversation

Simon Pettet

On a blustery winter’s night in the middle of January the likes of which can make you wonder, given the shocking stillness of all else, whether or not the wind is all there is that’s in motion, I staggered out of my place on Meserole Street, and took the L train in from Brooklyn into Manhattan to see a poet whose work I had recently been reading with considerable admiration. After I met up with Laura, my companion, at the top of the street, we repaired to the upstairs section of Solas, the tapas bar on 9th street where the reading was to be held (under the aegis of Greg Purcell and the fine folks at the St. Mark’s bookstore), and where we hoped to catch what snippets we could of legendary poets Susie Timmons and Simon Pettet, over the rant and rumble of the mid-week celebrations in the busy bar below.

Portrait of the artist by John Sarsgard.

How refreshing it was hear a man whose poems are, sine qua non, lyric poems, without the sentiment that such poetry is so often, and so wrongly, freighted with. My attention was piqued and sustained throughout his entire performance, the brevity yet richness of which made me feel as though some odd trick had just been played on the passage of time, some legerdemain, some sleight-of-hand, right there in front of everyone in the room! His reading could scarcely have exceeded the space of a half-hour (less than that, surely?) and yet Laura and I could not help but look down at our watches and wonder if they were somehow perhaps broken, since it felt as though the poems that we had been listening to had led us through a rather remarkable distance in that very tight period of just a few minutes.

Generously attentive to the hordes of well-wishers who came up afterwards to congratulate him, Simon, his cheeks flushed after the reading’s exertions, was relaxing in a big old stuffed armchair, nursing a pint of Guinness, and signing copies of his books. I lingered until it seemed like a good time to introduce myself, and, after we exchanged a few words, about…well, salmon actually! (I’ll explain all that later), I requested an interview for the Rail, which he readily granted.

Simon Pettet has lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the same run-down tenement building that’s housed other great New York artists—among them poets John Godfrey and Larry Fagin, and, pre-eminently, the late great Allen Ginsberg—for now over thirty years.

The most recent collection of his poems, Hearth, (the collection he was reading from on that blustery winter evening), is lately out from Ed Foster’s Talisman press (available from SPD, or GDI, the independent distributors, at $17.95), and runs to just under 200 pages. It brings together, under one cover, all of his published work from that thirty-year period, it’s a kind of “Collected-Poems-so-far.”

We met for our interview one week later. It was, thankfully, a warmer day as I ambled past the incense dealers by the mosque on First Avenue, rounded the corner on 12th St., and located his building, situated across the street from Mary Help of Christians, a white alabaster church with dark brown wooden doors.

I climbed a flight of stairs, knocked twice, and he ushered me in, polite and obliging, though with some urgency, since he was busy on the phone, engaged in an animated conversation with a friend. I had been quiet and musing but somehow the pace of the situation woke me up. I suddenly felt pleasingly alert.

I made my way, somewhat spellbound, through the hallway and into the main body of the apartment. I was immediately entranced by a typical Aladdin’s cave of books and papers—and paintings!—A beautiful oil painting of José Marti, for example, by the Cuban primitivist Gregorio Valdes hung above the desk. In the hallway was an ink drawing of Sappho in porcelain-blue profile by famed anthropologist, filmmaker, ethnomusicologist, Harry Smith. In the kitchen I observed a lovely collage, crafted on a Chinese fan, by poet Alice Notley, and a collage of a Japanese woman in what was once perhaps a mirror frame (this one, it turns out, was by Pettet himself). A Morandi-style oil painting of a stove, with a kettle and such like atop, hung to the left of it. Not to mention countless stacks of books piled up all over the room.

It struck me that all this bore, in more ways than one, something of a resemblance to his poems—which is to say, meticulously compact, and yet, at the same time, teeming with wild surprise. When I arrived I was offered, in the typical English fashion, tea, and was entertained for the next few hours with generosity and an attentive open ear.

Roger Van Voorhees (Rail): You told me that you got started writing poems quite early, and by early, that would mean somewhere around the age of four! Was there a time when you began to become more aware of yourself as a poet?

Simon Pettet: Well I have this poem in Hearth that goes:

I am squatting like the proverbial egg on a wall
White concrete it will hurt me if I fall
It is the hour of mid-to-late afternoon
Summer seems—and actually is—endless

That’s a specific memory. Yes, well I was always writing things, even illustrating! That was something that I think I did early on, intuitively.

Rail: The poem “Worship in the early part of the book is a tight four four-line lyric. Maybe we could look at that as a way in, an entry-point into your work..

WORSHIP
Old anxious and thin gray haired in white
suede hat and white fine coat dull stockings
to bright afternoon sun woman closes her eyes
and takes off her shoes.

Pettet: Yes, that’s an observational poem, á la Charles Reznikoff or William Carlos Williams. It’s a poem of attention to a specific moment, and the skill (if it has any) lies in the unobtrusive, unflinching objectivizing of what’s in front of you. So, the title of the poem, “Worship, what I’m doing with that is reminding you that this is a sacred moment…

Rail: And perhaps that attention to something as it is, where it is, is a form of worship in itself….

Pettet: …Yes. And the pleasure of communion with the sun is in there: “dull stockings to/ bright afternoon sun”. No word is (I hope) redundant, every word is an attempt to focus. Then the simple statement: “woman closes her eyes and takes off her shoes”. Without the title, this might just be taken as a banal quotidian moment, but with the title, I’m reminding you not only of what you mention, the worship in the act of that degree of close attention, but the worship also of her, closing her eyes, and, religiously, as it were, communing with the sun. It’s an intimate moment of attention between one individual and the world. I’m just observing.

Rail: Is the poem’s tension developed through a balance between surface and depth of meaning? Do the details of the poem point to a meaning that is deeper and perhaps beyond them?—or does the poem present to us mere detail only?

Pettet: Well, it’s a question of ambiguity. The reader must, indeed, does, bring whatever they will to it.

Rail: So the generosity you give as worship in the observation of her…

Pettet: …allows you to look at her, too…

Rail: Now, later on, you bring this poem back as the first section of another poem, “Stuyvesant Park Studies.” Do you do so because the sketch of that woman was taken in the midst of the other sketches included within it? As a reprise, does it show that the moment contained within your sketch remains fresh in a new context?

Pettet: The poem is repeated because there’s something familiar now when you read it a second time. The first time it is located as “Worship,” the second, it is now given as only one in a series of studies.

Old anxious and thin gray haired in white
suede hat and white fine coat dull stockings
to bright afternoon sun woman closes her eyes
and takes off her shoes.

Pettet: The first poem is very slow. It’s specifying carefully, and slowly, because it wants you to see this person. That and no more.

The second study…

A little tough blonde white kid probably older than a kid
Smoking a cigarette and clutching a beer and
making her point

…that’s a much more staccato, speedy pace. It’s a young kid. It’s not an old woman anymore.

Rail: The conjunctions in there throw you forward. It’s a lot faster.

Pettet: Yes. And it’s much more self-confident and aggressive and self-contained. It’s a kid.

These poems are just studies, and the attention is an attention to the immediate present that’s in front of you.

Rail: We don’t only see what your sketching, we get a sense of you thinking as you’re sketching, as when you qualify your characterization of the “…little tough blonde white kid” as “probably older than a kid.” There’s a shift of mood registered between the first sketch and second sketch, we see there you thinking and feeling in process.

Pettet: Drawing and sketching can be metaphors for thinking, yes.

The next one is equally measured.

Peter
Stuyvesant
Park

It’s a very specific intonation of what’s there. Instead of fast or slow, it’s deliberate.

The poor itinerant sleeps, the
Man in the wheelchair
goes round and round!

Rail: That next image, the man in the wheelchair, is a little strange.

Pettet: Yes. It’s a little strange, and it’s very circular, a very different dynamic to the one before. It’s not a fast kid, it’s not a slow woman, it’s another picture. And then the poem ends with this literal number of the date…

August 30 1980
(how round that date)

And so, in a reflective observation, the person who is sketching observes the date that he has just written.

Rail: It’s an afterthought.

Pettet: Yes, because look at that “3” and the “0,” the “8” and the “U” and the “G.”

Rail: And the word “August” sounds rounded, to be “august” does have a roundness to it, perhaps? Not only is the place in time “round,” it resonates with the man in the wheelchair who goes “round and round.” One begins to pick up on the poem’s cyclical sensibility, located in the sketching of scenes, with their different paces and rhythms juxtaposed musically to create a circular arch over the poem as a whole. Does the poem try to come full circle?

Pettet: Yes. The word “august” does manifest a roundness. So the completeness of the poem, if that’s the right word, and I’m not sure that is the right word, the content, is pure attention.

Rail: A first-time reader will immediately note the proliferation of short, five to six line poems in Hearth, and, even, without having begun reading them yet, will also, certainly, pick up on a prevalence of empty space in which they are carefully arranged and placed. Here, already, lies a clue to a singular quality in this work: that space is at play, and is also, always, at all moments in time, being addressed.

Pettet: Space is the arena of that play, yes.

Rail: Isn’t time an “arena” too?

Pettet: Yes it is also.

ANNUL
“Gold? What, real gold?”

O golden yellows and browns and still resistant greens
of hardy urban trees so different from country ones!
O how laughably swaying the tips of your branches are,
how beautifully autumnal your russet hold on me please don’t let up. As violence is to be seen in the outside world…

Rail: That there are so many colors in this poem fits perfectly into the logic of its argument. They are invigorated with more force than they can bare, and, as the last line of the poem suggests, are ecstatically subsumed within the violent emptiness of “the outside world.” “Annul” means, literally “ad-nullum,” “to nothing.” Indeed, autumn is, surely, always on its way to the “nothing” of winter.

The colors of the leaves are invigorated in their proliferation by their unhindered, un-relenting passage into destruction. The multitude of colors are there without a hint of irony: “How laughably swaying the tips of your branches…” This is surely a Blake-an laughter at their cosmic beauty!

Pettet: I’ve always venerated William Blake.

Rail: A synaesthesia is spun from perceptions bathed in actuality, even as they pierce through it to sheer potentiality, to nothingness. Hence the last line; one is shocked, literally arrested, stopped by that last line - “As violence is to be seen in the outside world...” One can delight in the truth as it is colored by a panoply of autumn leaves, with the droll and bitter knowledge of the un-stoppable passage of time and the destruction they resist, and fail to resist, “with flying colors”—as the phrase goes.

Each poem on a certain level really is an address to emptiness, to time and space. And the stuff of experience, in this case the gorgeous leaves described, amounts to less than the emptiness that surrounds them, which, paradoxically, infuses them with such plenitude that they are annihilated. So the poem is sung to the pregnant silence of which the leaves are only passing evidence; and, one might say that, in the same manner, the poem on the page is, itself, in some ways, an address to the blank white space that surrounds it. Pettet’s magic is that he manages to at once reveal and to color the truth, all within the same breath.

To quote what one might call his ars poetica:

MY METHODOLOGY

I accrue hordes
and then
winnow away,
It is a thankless task
tho’ not without
occult comfort.

Pettet: In my own practice of finding poems, after I’ve written something, I’ll put it away, and then pick it up again. I’m finding it again. I think to myself ‘ wow, I wrote that?’ Yes I did.”

Rail: This opens up a territory in which actual and reflective experience, the conscious and the unconscious, or as we could characterize it, the revealed and the occult, come into dynamic exchange. The liminal realm perhaps? It creates a fresh place in which time is re-invented.. What has already been done, what has already happened, with a second look, is treated as fresh discovery. What comes to be regarded is not only the experience that occurs in terms of what any given poem is about, but experience itself as a primary fact that cuts across all moments, and is ever-present.

Pettet’s poems often locate within various objects, events, scenes and people, a continuity of presence, a magical resonance that eludes causation. To quote from another early poem, Gas Leak, “Only a lad of twenty…” this line later in the poem is echoed by another line “Only the hiss from a gas jet…” The poem is, as all the poems are, structured in such a way that lines, and the subjects they address, and the voices that do the addressing, resonate, and that resonance is at once found and made.

GAS LEAK

Only a boy from the city,
Climbing the tower,
Muscles tight red face perspiration,
Checked shirt and dusty pair of Levi’s.
Only a lad of twenty,
Not yet finally reached manhood,
Lives at home, still, with his mother.
Simply the sound of a gas-leak——
Sally rushes out to see “what’s cooking”——
Only the hiss from a gas jet
Half past seven in the morning.

The driving force through which facts are transferred in Simon’s poems is a matter of trust, and his artist’s hand is there to guide it. He does not, however, systematically or otherwise, try to remove himself from the process altogether. He is (or at least becomes) un-abashedly Romantic, (for all of that position’s current un-fashionableness). He has also, noticeably, strived to remove from that position the machismo and dominating, vicious exercise of privilege often bestowed upon the artist’s un-checked will. His poem to Picasso, (The Bullfighter’s Secret) is one place where he seems to be making just such a distinction:

…The emblem of my desire is my
one true love
And so a troubadour (toreador) I be
not a matador
into the golden bowl
playing the ancient lays
The streets are dusty
and I love to walk them…

While a matador’s job is to slay the beast (“mata”—kill), the toreador’s task is to fight it, (“torear”—fight), with no final resolving blow dealt. So the dance does not end. Troubadour and toreador, the poet plays on in perpetuity. His will—the ego and its desire—is not central. It is instead just one element contending as it burns and strives within a larger movement and complexity of desires and forces.

When first we met, Simon spoke, intriguingly, about “salmon”—“salmon” the fish, but also, a quaint phonetic Mississippi twist of his own name—salmon/ Simon. The poem here first appeared first here in the Brooklyn Rail (November, 2008).

Salmon

you understand

too much

Why don’t you just
give it all up
and

leap from the
bottom of the
tub,

your wonderful skin
(vitamin-enriched)
glistening in the sunshine.

Rail: If this poem presents a question, at the end of it, rather than an answer, the reader gets a concrete image, no more, no less. There is this fact, which I note consistently in your work, of the persistence of the enigma. As you write in your poem “The Fool” “He will not sensibly/ answer your question but/ neither will he ignore it.”

As in many other of your poems, one receives the appearance, so reduced and so without context that it becomes resplendent. Does this presentation of the sun and the salmon’s skin in communion, in lieu of a response to the speaker’s question, suspend wonder? Is there a way to experience what the salmon knows just by being there?

Pettet: I would aspire to integrity and presence, and transparency (translucency?) in the world. I am in no way suggesting that I’ve laudably reached that harmonious point, but, like I say, my aspirations are one day to try to get there.

Simon Pettet’s Hearth is available from St Marks Bookshop, 31 Third Ave, New York, NY 10003, and, as noted above, via select distributors.