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Interview with Christian Peet

Interview with MFA in Creative Writing Graduate Christian Peet

The following interview between Goddard faculty member Beatrix Gates (BG) and Christian Peet (CP) occurred in 2006 in Brooklyn, NY, driving near Bellows Falls, Vt., on the phone and via email:

BG: Tell me about your new book, The Nines, published by Palm Press, an excellent small press, started by Goddard MFAW graduate, Jane Sprague?

CP: In September, my chapbook, The Nines, was published by Palm Press. The Nines is a series of texts I’d envisioned as prose poems, but are better described as lyric mock-essays combined with short fiction. Although they don’t speak directly about the “war,” the texts certainly share the Bush Administration’s approach to “facts.” The first drafts were written in summer 2003 in response to the Words of Mass Deception being used to justify the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. I used a collage of excerpted, unrelated critical, scientific, and instructional texts (on nine subjects as varied as linguistics, Monet, geology, and break dancing) as a background over which I drew my own “nonsensical” connections and conclusions.

BG: What else is cooking in your work and what has grown out of your Goddard experience?

CP: I’ve finished two book-length manuscripts--America’s Most Wanted and Big American Trip. More than half of America’s Most Wanted is from my Goddard thesis. Nearly all of the poems in America’s Most Wanted are written in blank verse/ iambic pentameter, in metrical verse of some form with a few free verse and prose poems. The manuscript focuses on blue-collar experiences in the rural and agricultural, sometimes suburban, US. A poet-friend said “the poems are a controlled act of compassion for the lives of people from whom America has turned away. . . .”

BG: America’s Most Wanted has wonderful ironies in the title. And Big American Trip--whose trip are we on?

CP: Big American Trip, begun in the last semester at Goddard, is something of a cross-genre project in which the text assumes the form of postcards addressed to a variety of people and organizations (US political figures, multinational corporations, mayors of tiny western frontier towns, et al), authored by a lone “alien” of unidentified nationality, ethnicity, and gender. A speaker of many languages and master of none, taking comfort in Terrance McKenna’s belief that “the starships of the future will be syntactical,” the “alien” travels (by automobile) from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast as s/he studies Strunk and White and deconstructs the language of road signs, the talk of people in gas stations and rest stop bathrooms, the radioed speeches of the US President and Staff—all the while searching for something (A friend? A job? A home?) and coming up empty.

BG: Your speaker explodes language and identity, but certain passages in Spanish bring to mind Mexican immigrants. The speaker also sounds like one of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pesoa‘s extension of selves. How did the speaker enter your imagination?

CP: Working at a convenience store in Washington while pursuing my Goddard MFA, many of my “hot deli” customers were Mexican-Americans who picked berries or worked dairy farms in the Dutch-settled towns. Adulia—“Julie”—my co-worker, who all but ran the store, spoke Spanish. When she wasn’t around, however, not only did the second shift fall apart, but many of my customers and I were left to exchange and learn key vocabulary by means of context, gestures, and facial expressions. Truth is, I felt more comfortable in language limbo than I did listening to many of my English-speaking customers. People in and around Everson are a fun mix; maybe half are artists, musicians, granolas, snowboarders, Mexicans and Nooksack Indians; the other half are tall, blond-haired, generally conservative folks who wear their Christianity on their sleeves and their bigotry under their belts. As in many smalls towns in the country, whole farms in Everson would disappear over night if their immigrant employees did the same. My finishing Big American Trip at a time when immigration is such a hot issue is, however, coincidental—and of course, immigration has always been a hot issue. But rather than coming from any one alien perspective—Russian, Mexican, Italian, Israeli, Haitian, Cuban, Cambodian, Senegalese, Bangladeshi, a Berliner lost without a GPS and looking for directions on a Salish Indian Reservation—my hope was to create a book with a syntax and grammar at once common and extraordinary, a hybrid language that might speak to anyone who has ever felt out of place or at odds with the Language of a Nation.

BG: Do you feel related to the world around you?

CP: I feel “related to the world around,” and tend to begin there, rather than with the “I.” With the exception of one or two poems, I’ve avoided autobiographical work. For the last couple years my work has sprung from global concerns, letting whatever personal resonances I have around the subjects reveal themselves organically.

BG: How did the Goddard MFA help your sense of yourself as a working poet in the world? Do you draw on the experience today—in your teaching, in your thinking?

CP: I draw on Goddard in so many ways that I don’t even realize I’m doing it. Several of my closest writer-friends are friends I made at Goddard. If my student loans had only “bought” my friends, I’d take the loans out all over again. The Goddard faculty—and this has everything to do with Paul Selig’s ability to choose the right people for the program—are a rare and wonderful lot. Yes, they are excellent writers. But this, in theory, is a given at any MFA program. I think what surprises students and ultimately makes all the difference is the lack of pretense among Goddard faculty. Notably absent is any atmosphere of academic / careerist snobbery or shenanigans. Even if a student comes in to the program hoping to “network” and make “connections,” they leave worrying more about whether their words can bring about new levels of consciousness. Rebecca Brown, Jan Clausen, Elena Georgiou, Bhanu Kapil, Juliana Spahr, yourself of course, and the list goes on—this is a group of writers whose social consciousness is more than a little at odds with insularity and elitism. Goddard faculty are committed to writing that matters outside the MFA network, and go out of their way to help students blaze their own paths. I’d like to think that I’ve taken many cues from Goddard, in the way that I facilitate classes and interact with students. Of course, early on I had to stop writing “letters” to all my students, because that level of response just doesn’t work in university classes of 35 students!

BG: Tell me about the impetus, the need for creating the online literary journal Tarpaulin Sky and later Tarpaulin Sky Press.

CP: Tarpaulin Sky started in 2002. I just set out to create something that I would want to be published in, if I wasn’t its editor. Goddard MFAW alums Michael Boyko and Julianna Spallholz have had the opportunity to be on both sides of TSky, as they came on staff shortly after being published in the journal. Becoming a press was a necessary next step if we wanted to continue supporting our writers. Small presses generally arise in order to publish work that is not being published elsewhere. Running a press/journal is service-work, the way I see it—“giving back” as they say in A.A.—directly supporting and building up the writing community.

BG: So you’ve been able to create community, while doing this invaluable creative service. More writers need to be creating spaces for our work to survive and flourish. How are you holding up?

CP: Running a press will always be more than a full-time job. I have some help now with managing web content, but I still design each issue, and I’ve designed all our books as well as overseen their promotion, distribution, sales, etc. It’s become more manageable, thanks to guest editors (again drawing on Goddard: Rebecca Brown and Selah Saterstrom) as well as increased numbers of excellent editorial assistants, interns. Elena Georgiou (still more Goddard), in addition to reading manuscripts, has gone out of her way to coordinate some fabulous readings for TSky, and Goddard student Alexis Smith has done great work as our Reviews Editor.

BG: A fine crew. We can look forward to the Brown / Saterstrom issue. Can you describe how you came to writing and talk about influences, specific people, who inspire you to go on writing?

CP: My family had no money. In addition to walking in the woods and building tree houses, writing was something to do that was creative and required no cash. My earliest stories were published in the school and town newspapers. I had some kind grade school teachers who took an active interest in my writing, sent me to youth writing programs at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Now, I’m inspired by my students: watching a writer develop—so incredibly quickly—is amazing. I feel positively blessed to call Selah Saterstrom a friend. She’s author of The Pink Institution and forthcoming Meat & Sprit Plan (Coffee House Press). The Pink Institution is at once staggeringly well-crafted and gut-wrenchingly fearless. I want very badly to be able to emulate it on both counts, but wonder if I will ever have the clarity of vision she possesses—not to mention the courage. Her approach to form’s organic development out of its subject matter is also a guidepost for me.

BG: Can you say any more about the process of finding form as you experiment in your work?

CP: I’ve always been obsessed with form. Even when I was writing poems in high school, I was into the rhyme schemes. But even my cross-genre work is obsessed with form—this one is exploring block texts, that one is using a numerical sequence, another one is playing with the idea of haibun, etc. I think some part of me—the insane part—appreciates the anchor that form can provide. The trick, the difficult part, for me, is allowing texts to exude their own organic form—that’s what I’m still learning to do.