This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Jeffrey Pethybridge.
Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Rebecca: Oh yes! My question, too. I thought it was a typo when we got the ebook version. And then realized it wasn’t, in print.
Brian S: I actually asked Carmen Giménez Smith (of Noemi Press) about it at AWP.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: The black pages are called “mourning pages,” and it’s an early modern or Renaissance printer’s tradition.
Brian S: Oh. I should have guessed something like that, given your references to much older things in this book.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: It’s like “pouring one out”: a show of respect, of honor and grief for the departed by wasting a (scarce) resource, so early modern elegies would be printed with all black pages or enormous borders.
Rebecca: Ahhh! That wasn’t in the notes in the back, right? Because I read them and don’t remember it.
Brian S: Because they wanted to show how much they cared, so much that they would burn money, basically.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Brian, yes.
Rebecca: Ahhh! That’s cool (cool isn’t the right word).
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, I didn’t note that / I’m not sure why.
Brian S: When you worked with Dante, did you translate any of him yourself, or did you work with translations?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: All my hacking through the Italian was with other translations right there on the table, so the other translations were my guides.
Rebecca: I noticed that you published a lot of these poems individually, which was interesting because they fit so well together and because there are parts that I accepted as I went along but didn’t fully understand till the end, such as the lamps. Did you encounter any problems with the journals who printed them as individual poems? Or did they ask for notes?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, I guess I encountered the usual amount of problems—rejection—trying to publish the poems.
Rebecca: Ha. Well. Rejection is the worst.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: And one journal wanted to publish a set but thought that they were too much their own thing and wouldn’t ultimately work in the magazine and turned down my offer to write a note to introduce the poem. And that was a DREAM journal / so heart-breaking.
Rebecca: The poem that I guess I’m talking about as an example is “Twenty Thousand Songs.” I really like that poem and its rhythm, but I liked it near the beginning of the book without understanding everything you were doing with the palms/psalm/lamps and the Golden Gate Bridge.
I guess the point is that I’m excited that Crazyhorse published that poem!
Also: sorry about your dream journal not publishing your poems. That blows.
Brian S: This is a hard question to ask, but I feel like I have to. I know that especially in San Francisco, the local papers don’t report on suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge anymore because the suicide rate goes up when they do. Did you ever hold back from trying to publish these poems because of anything similar?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Well, I think these are two different issues.
Rebecca: The suicide rate goes up in San Francisco when local papers report on suicides? I didn’t know that.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: The poems were written before I knew of the American Association of Suicidology’s guidelines of best practices for how survivors of suicide might tell their stories / and in some ways the poems do violate those guidelines / but then poetry will do a different sort of work than other forms of speech acts or testimonies.
Rebecca: There are guidelines? (I’m showing my ignorance. I never imagined.)
Jeffrey Pethybridge: For the record, I think it’s probably best that the SF Chronicle doesn’t publish reports of each and every bridge suicide; however, I do think the abdication of all reckoning of the number of jumpers is a real step backward in the fight against suicide.
Gaby: I had no idea there are guidelines.
Brian S: Yeah, I hope that question didn’t come off as being accusatory or anything. I apologize if it did. I felt you handled the issue really delicately, balancing the obvious love you feel for your brother with the very thorny issue of suicide.
Gaby: That’s fascinating.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: I can send the PDF of the “best practices” to accompany the chat online if you want.
Brian: No, I didn’t feel even the hint of accusation.
Brian S: I also think that the people who argue against a higher barrier on the Golden Gate are doing suicidal people and their families a real disservice.
Rebecca: It’s interesting that early on, someone mentioned in the Facebook group that he felt like some of the poems romanticized suicide, and I don’t necessarily think that they do, but at the end of the book I came away with this feeling of being pulled under with the depression, but also really affected by what suicide does to the survivors. A strange paradox, I guess?
And that speaks to the power of the poems, I think. That’s what I’m trying to say.
Brian S: Are there more suicides in November than any other month? Is that why you referred to it as the suicide season in so many places?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, I feel very strongly that the book refuses—nearly absolutely—the romanticization of suicide, and to this point, I’d point out the poem “Good-Bye O Sun,” in which the teacher-voice of the second section tells the class that if one of their friends talks about suicide, intervene even at the cost of breaking the friendship.
Brian S: Yes, I reread that section just an hour ago, and found myself nodding along in agreement.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Brian, November is traditionally called the suicide season, and is in the OED that way, which is where I got the language from, but as that poem reveals, in temperate climes, April is actually the month of the most suicides.
Gaby: Jeffrey, this may seem like too simplistic a question but I am fascinated with (and I think many readers are as well) the way a book comes into being. I wonder how the book accumulated for you. When did you know something was happening (did you?)? At some point, did the idea of the world of this book become clear and how did that influence the writing of the “next” poems?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Gaby, I started writing in the summer of 2007, so about six months after my brother suicided, but that writing was nearly shapeless, almost without genre—a real unique experience for me.
Rebecca: I don’t think it romanticizes suicide, and I hope that this will make sense: it’s the power of suggestion, of remembering and understanding the dark places. But the equal power of the book is that I came away with feeling a great sense of absence because of suicide, that is “against suicide” as one poem title states. Does that make sense?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: And there were also the Dante translations that summer.
Brian S: If you don’t mind some inside baseball talk—how involved was Noemi in the way the book came together?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: I’d be happy to talk about Noemi and the editing process.
Brian S: Give us the blow-by-blow.
Gaby: It’s interesting. I was much younger but also had the experience of not knowing I was writing poems about my mother’s suicide until someone told me.
I would love to also have you talk about the issue of translation.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Gaby, I didn’t now the book was a book until a friend told me, I was just inside the work.
Gaby: It seems to me suicide lends itself to that. An act that resists translation in every form it seems to me.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: I busied myself with suicide to keep from suicide! As Burton basically said.
Gaby: I hear you. Anyway. Lots of questions. I’ll quiet down for a sec. 🙂
Jeffrey Pethybridge: The manuscript was a finalist in Noemi’s annual contest two straight years. That second year they said, Hey, let’s do this.
Gaby: What was it like when it was taken?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: And after a while I sent in a version / that got remarks from Carmen Giménez Smith and J. Michael Martínez / part of their commentary was make it more bookish, more treatise like.
Brian S: I was curious about that, because it doesn’t feel like a contest book to me.
Gaby: What was it like before?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: It was relief and excitement and sorrow.
Gaby: I have trouble imagining it in another form. Yes, I imagine the sorrow, along with the other parts.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: It had no notes / no appendix / no index.
Brian S: Were the pullouts there already?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Yes, the visual poems were always a part of the book / and I wouldn’t do the book with anyone who wasn’t committed to them.
“The Book of Lamps” underwent the most radical editing/revision: from 128 stanzas to 128 lines.
Brian S: Wow!
Gaby: Was that aided by an editor or was it your impulse?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: No, totally the editors: Sara Renee Marshall and J. Michael Martínez.
Rebecca: I was fascinated by the visual poems.
I’d never done any revision like that at all.
Gaby: How did it feel? I love that feeling.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Gaby, the revision brought the presence of my brother Tad alive to me in a radical way—I was weeping as I was revising the poem.
Brian S: I was too, but I was also glad to see the language in them available in poems afterward, so I could read the words without having to puzzle them out so much. I spent a lot of time bouncing back and forth.
Rebecca: Didn’t journals publish them individually?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, yes, Chicago Review did the “Striven the Bright Treatise” and VOLT did “The Sad Tally.”
Brian S: What’s the reception for the book been like so far? Or are we the first to really get hold of it?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Brian, the reception seems good, but you ARE among the first readers! Thank you!
Gaby: I think revision is one of the most rigorous emotional acts there is. Excavation. And saying goodbye and also seeing the ghosts come clear.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: I’ve written a smallish statement about revising “The Book of Lamps” which will appear along with some of both version in OmniVerse in the winter, I think.
Rebecca: Revision is beautiful and also hell, for me.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: I always revise as I compose, so I’d never undertaken anything like the revision of “The Book of Lamps” before.
Rebecca: It’s fascinating to think about cutting a poem so radically, but I always had a writing professor who’d say in workshop, “Do what the piece needs, not what you want!” And I think the poem is probably stronger for being so lean.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: The way I usually work means I get a good first version of the poem but the potential of revision is significantly narrowed, because the shape of the poem has been powerfully reified in my imaginings as I’ve “revised” it, as I’ve gone along the whole time / so this was totally new for me. I’m hoping to use the first version as the basis for a graphic novel of that poem, so with a little luck, it will yet have its day. But yes, Rebecca, this was about doing what the book needed.
Gaby: GRAPHIC NOVEL?!?!?!?!
Brian S: Okay, when you do that, I want to run an excerpt of it, okay? Are you working with an artist or doing the art yourself?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Gaby, yeah, totally. I had a start with an artist from the Bay Area but then she disappeared / totally weird.
Brian, I need to find a new artist to collaborate with.
Rebecca: Graphic novel?!!! Sorry…I got distracted for a second.
Gaby: Oh…I may have someone.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Gabby: yes yes yes!
Rebecca: Surely you must have some drawing abilities to make the visual poems what they were?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, I have some drawing ability / but those visual poems were made with Adobe Illustrator, which I learned for the sole purpose of the poems, all trial and error.
Rebecca: Ahh! Illustrator. It’s my nemesis. I do much better with Photoshop and InDesign.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, yeah, Illustrator can be tough / and I use it so infrequently that each time I start, I have to learn everything all over again.
Brian S: The numbers in the Ajax poem are horrifying, but not really surprising. What’s saddest, I think, is that they’re not well known.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Brian, yeah, that poem was really important to me, and I waited until the last moment to finalize it so that when the book appeared, its data would be current.
Rebecca: Oh, the Ajax poem! I liked that I could see the years passing in the poem, the perspective changing and maturing and still being horrified by the numbers.
Brian S: About “The Book of Lamps”—whose idea was it to break it up throughout the book?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Brian that was mine / in all versions of the poem, it’s always been spread out through the book in four parts.
Rebecca: Spreading it out really unifies the book with the repetition.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, thanks for that reading. That was an important element for me in the poem. Rebecca, both of those readings, “The Sword of Ajax” and “The Book of Lamps”!
Rebecca: I feel about this book, as I’ve felt about some of our past picks, that I want to reread it, maybe in a year, maybe in a couple of years, and add my future reading knowledge (of poetry, of everything), so that I’ll understand it a little better each time. It’s got a lot of layers. And I only feel like I’ve done the surface reading.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, I think that that feeling is one of the most important parts of poetry, like music / I mean who hasn’t got an album and on the first listen, you say, “Yeah, I like this, but inside, that reaction you know is the later listens that will turn into love. That’s one of the very things music and poetry are for me, that experience which is also a premonition or call to further experiences.
Brian S: Can you talk a little about your fascination with the stricture that you used in the title poem and elsewhere? The anagrams, I mean.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Brian, with the anagrams, I think of them as a kind of linguistic materialism which works with the book’s engagement with the materialist psychology in contemporary psychiatry (brain chemistry) and the early modern materials psychology of humoral theory, so the poem refracts those ways of conceiving of human affect and cognition. And also, as a writer, the constraints and strictures sponsor creativity for me / they help me make the poem.
Rebecca: I hadn’t thought about it in terms of music, but that’s absolutely true. I change a lot with new listens. I think Nick Hornby says in an essay that if you really, truly love a song and listen to it (or an album) throughout your entire life, you won’t associate it with one place or even remember where you first heard it. I’m not sure that’s 100% true for me, but I do see deepening connections with music…as with poems, as with books.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: And one of the first pieces i made was “The New Humors(1),” which started when I was reading the word serotonin in the dictionary and saw the anagram no tin rose, which then immediately recalled Stein’s a rose is a rose is a rose. And then I was launched into a poem.
Rebecca: Sponsor creativity for you kind of like writing a poem in a form?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Rebecca, yes.
Rebecca: This is fascinating.
Brian S: I’ve found myself recently experimenting with that using hashtags I pick up on Twitter. Not toward any theme, but just as a way of forcing myself to get outside my usual vocabulary.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Brian, VOCABULARY is my word. It’s totally how I think about the dynamic of form and content I’m working with in a poem and poetry.
Johannah: Jeffrey. (Sorry, I’ve been lurking on here a while. This is my first time at one of these chats!) Could you talk more about what you mean by “materialist psychology in contemporary psychiatry”? How do you see materialist psychology/contemporary psychiatry relating to anagrams?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: I just mean contemporary psychiatry focuses a great deal of attention on finding the cause of, say, depression at the material level, in the material mis-working of neurotransmitters and then redressing that mis-working with drugs.
Rebecca: That’s true about contemporary psychiatry. I’ve only been to see therapists, so they don’t normally push for drugs too hard.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Johannah, they are two different intensifications of material: anagrams are a linguistic materialism—making a poem mostly out of the letters of a given word; and the focus on brain chemistry is a focus on the material body as the cause of suicide rather than in the mind, the psychological drama.
Suicidologists approach the figuring out of suicide very differently than psychiatrists.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Brian, you’re ahead of me, but today I was reading Kate Greenstreet’s latest beauty Young Tambling.
Gaby: What an amazing book.
Rebecca: That was my first The Rumpus Poetry Book Club pick, two months ago.
Brian S: Hurray!
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Johannah, did I answer your question?
Johannah: Jeffrey—yeah, it makes sense. I am wondering if there is more of a connection between neuro and anagrams than just their shared materiality? Like do you see them sharing a specific immaterial-to-material conversion process?
Rebecca: What are you working on now, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey Pethybridge: I’m trying to work on a book called “Found Poem Including History, an Essay on the Epic,” which is a mix of prose and poetry mostly centered on the torture memos as the epic poem of America in the 21st century.
Brian S: Nice.
Gaby: Super exciting.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: So the Kate Greenstreet book is like research and dare and example and spur all at once.
Johannah: Sorry to derail this conversation. There is a bit of a lag on my end, and I also happen to be intrigued by anagrams.
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Johannah, whoa! I don’t know. I made some of my anagrams by hand / some I used an anagram generator / so for me the back and forth is really with that feeling of being in the machine and being outside of it.
Brian S: That’s the hour, and it really flew by. Thanks for joining us tonight, and for being willing to reschedule at such short notice.
Gaby: Thank you so much, Jeffrey!!!!
Johannah: Yes, thank you!
Rebecca: Yes! Thanks so much, Jeffrey! (And thanks for writing these poems.)
Jeffrey Pethybridge: Thank you all for reading the book and for typing here with me tonight!