The Writer’s Hot Seat: Peter Mishler

15 March 2019 on Blog, Poetry, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags:

Peter Mishler is the author of Fludde (Sarabande, 2018), a book of poems selected for the Kathryn A. Morton prize in poetry by Dean Young, who said, “Fludde makes us feel, as only poetry can, that we’ve found a companion for our dream life.” Mishler is an editor at Literary Hub, where he curates an interview series. He lives in Kansas with his wife and two children. 

During a campus visit to UNH, Mishler gave a reading from Fludde, and also participated in an undergraduate poetry workshop Q&A. Our poetry editor, Anna Ohara, had the chance to ask him a series of questions about the book and his wider experience as a writer and reader of poetry.

Ohara: Thank you for taking to time to field some questions. To start, who are you reading these days? And who are you reading always?

Mishler: Thank you for giving me the space to think about these things, Anna. I appreciate your question because I’m always dipping in and out of books to see if something catches, but my more sustained readings are in books I’ve been reading and rereading for years. On the plane to and from New Hampshire I was reading The Neuropsychology of the Unconscious, a book that doesn’t quite explain away the unconscious as a scientific phenomenon but offers some reassurance, I think, for the ways in which the behavior of the unconscious—especially its aspects that create suffering—are neurological processes and not the fault of the one who suffers. I’m forever reading and rereading Medieval literature and so I have some songs and fables on the bedside table as well.

Ohara: In a small class session during your visit to UNH, David Rivard referred to Fludde as “a book of images” and encouraged his students to ask, while reading, “What does this make me think? What does this make me feel?” before the familiar, “What is this about?” Do you read in a particular mode? Do you have a particular aim when you encounter poems and other writing?

Mishler: One mode of reading that troubles me, and that I’m guilty of, is a kind of reading that intends to trigger my own writing. I know this is useful, and has been useful for me, but I also think it can create—in me, anyway—a sense of acquisitiveness and consumption that doesn’t sit right with me, and is not conducive to allowing the poem I’m reading to have its own life; it doesn’t allow me to accept its terms, and to be fully embraced. My goal is to approach a poem the same way the meditator apprehends the world after meditating: a little freer of self for the moment, which is a condition conducive to making new work anyway.

Ohara: During your visit, you described a marked difference between your writing during your MFA and after. Will you describe the arc of the years between finishing your MFA and publishing Fludde, your first book? How has your writing evolved and what have you been up to?

Mishler: The years after my MFA were a deep commitment to writing every morning and then going for walks to memorize poems of writers I love in the afternoon to experience their music. I did this every day. However, while I was learning a lot about poems, I felt that each of the poems I wrote during this time hit their heads against the same problem: feeling that my poems should be clearly representational of my lived experience and yet there was also the anxiety that this sort of writing was failing my imagination. I started to trust my imagination more. I mentioned this when we were talking in class that I was also learning, outside of my poetry, to trust myself, to value and honor my thinking, my feelings, to take care of myself. I found a way then to let my imagination speak more fully and openly and unconsciously, un-self-consciously, while also continuing to find spaces through my reading and memorizing which this new writing might also inhabit. I am working on new poems now and have written three or four, two of which I read at our reading: “Pastoral by Mattel” and “A List of His Flaws.” These poems, I hope, continue to demonstrate my reading and a willingness to trust my writing—that’s all I can really hope for.

Ohara: I have heard you say that with Fludde you wrote using intuition and automatic writing techniques to access your unconscious. That being said, there is an undeniable internal logic to the book—how do you go about balancing the more mysterious, intuition-based elements with a level of clarity? And, more broadly, how do you think of ‘accessibility’ in relation to your poetry?

Mishler: I think that the poem has to be completely clear to me—not in its meaning, but in the integrity and clarity of the writing. The artists I love most are able to translate the music of the depths, and yet I never question what they’re uncovering, no matter how unfamiliar or strange or “unclear.” I think the conscious aspects of writing are in understanding and perhaps developing or providing the best platform for the given act of speech that the poem, in its more intuitive drafts, seems to be revealing. The speech act is a communicative act that desires a scaffolding of clarity—the speaker wants to say something—and I want to provide a space for that, and even if what the speaker says seems coded or a half-sensical, there are ways that language can accommodate this clearly. The other way of thinking about this is found in trying to clarify the intuitively-created image. I sometimes ask myself: what is being done to the image? What surrounds the image? Where is it going, doing, how is it acting or being acted upon? In what world does this image exist? Clarifying what I would call the “cosmology of the image” is another “method.” I think for both of these reasons my poems never strike me as surreal. What I am doing feels absolutely real, due in large part to my responsibility to transcribe, translate, and provide space for what I think is being spoken.

Ohara: Is there something that you hope people take special notice of when reading Fludde?

Mishler: That the collection is dedicated to my wife and daughter, and if I had known then, could also have included my son. My family life provides the structure, safety, resources, and of course above all else love that allow me to continue to read and make poems.

Ohara: Is there a piece of writing advice that has stuck with you? Is there any advice you would give developing writers?

Mishler: The one that comes to mind now is that revision can be harmful to a poem’s best impulses. That revision might be better thought of as a complete reimagining as opposed to an act of clarification. That revision might mean making a new poem in which the writer makes an effort to avoid what might have failed in an earlier poem. Also, that in order to access something original, this might require efforts outside of consciousness, and to try to understand what those might be for a writer, and to find new ones when the old ones stop working.


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