The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Peter Mishler about his debut collection, Fludde, the effect of ritual on poems, and childhood psychology.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I’d like to start with the title. When I first picked up the book, I imagined something connected to Chaucer or Middle English, but the end note tells a different story. Can you tell us some about how that story informs your book?
Peter Mishler: Right. Sure. Well you wouldn’t be wrong about the Middle English—the title of the book is referencing the title of a twentieth-century opera for amateurs by Benjamin Britten… which takes its libretto from a Middle English mystery play (which tells the story of Noah’s Flood). So the libretto is actually sung in Middle English. But as it relates to me personally: the opera, made most famous probably, for how it was represented in the Wes Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom (in case that reference point helps) was one that I performed in as a boy. Britten wrote the opera intending for children to play the role of the animals. I played an owl. I realize now, having written the poem “Fludde” for the collection, that this experience heavily bored itself into me. Imagine being a seven-year-old and watching this play being performed—about which I had little reference because I didn’t grow up studying the Bible or anything like that—and hearing the canned thunder from the cheap church speakers—and the adults singing operatically in Middle English, and sitting in my owl costume next to the other owl (two by two!) nervously waiting for the big entrance where we fled to the ark to escape punishment by God. It was sublime and strange and surreal for me.
Brian S: So you didn’t really even know the story? In that it had no significance to you, I mean. And then you’re being bombarded by this language that sounds sort of familiar but not really, while in a costume. That’s wild.
Peter Mishler: Right. Which is a beautiful way to describe poetry, “language that sounds sort of familiar but not really.” I like that. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s image of the child hearing the adult voices on the other side of the door that he can’t quite hear but understands somehow. I guess I knew that the animals got on the boat with “Noah” and they escaped because God made it so, or something like that. I have a seven-year-old nephew and I’m thinking of the way he would describe it now. He’d probably just be really into the flood—but not the import or significance or something. And I wasn’t raised with the fear of some larger deity or anything, so the thunder and the costumes and all that scarred me at a purely uncanny level… maybe even worse than the threats that are sometimes exacted on children by the religious?
Scared, not scarred. Although that might be accurate, too.
Brian S: I was raised in a very religious family, and I can tell you that either wording works.
The images in that poem are so interesting, too. Like this bit near the end:
We were placed
in line as if meant to return
Which suggests the idea of the Christian warrior while also giving the visual of kids being lined up for their part in a play, and then to tell me that you weren’t really religious and that really throws another level into the mix.
Peter Mishler: Right! By the way, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I’m grateful. Although the poem itself appears to have some ritualism occurring in it for the children. From what I can tell (and I say this because I often feel like I am reading my own poems for the first time after writing them) the children in my poems often end up in these situations in which they are called to order, under control in some fashion, or that there is a larger design in which they are unconsciously participating in.
Brian S: And then the third and second-to-last lines in the poem:
We were told God was winnowing us
into fascinating lutes
That sounds like the kind of thing that religious adults would say to children as a way of trying to get them to understand the idea of divine power maybe, the idea of being a tool God fashions for His purposes. I kind of want to see this in performance now.
Peter Mishler: So, Brian, while I didn’t grow up in a religious family, I think that the play and my experience of participating in the play is a correlative for other kinds of mediation, control, and exploitation that concern me. The lines you mention really do sound that way.
Brian S: Do you think parenthood has affected the way you approach your writing?
Peter Mishler: I wasn’t a parent when I finished the book (my daughter is nineteen months old now, and our second child is on the way), but my sensitivities toward how children are treated is a main subject of the book, as far as I can tell. And so the things I’ve written about in the collection and the way I’ve written about children—especially their imaginative potential and the ways I’d hope to protect them, are certainly fostered in my household.
Brian S: I ask that in part because my own twins are four now and I know it’s hard to be both a full-time parent and a creative person, because kids take both your time and your energy, and the the rest of life doesn’t pause just because you’ve had kids.
I also want to add that it’s a little surprising to learn that this book was finished before you and your partner had your first child, given how prominent a role children play in the book.
Peter Mishler: Absolutely. I empathize completely. I hope this summer will be the summer of making new work. It has been a challenge for sure—I am just happy and grateful to know that some of that creative energy has gone directly into my play with my daughter. I wrote and recorded a record for her last summer, and only wrote one poem. So there are some things I can do with her around that are for both of us.
Yes. I suppose that is surprising to think about. Child psychology has been a fundamental interest of mine for quite a while. And I was one, and I think there was plenty to work out there in poetry. I remember reading Letters to a Young Poet and Rilke reminding his interlocutor that when there is nothing else to write about you have your childhood. And I took that seriously as a young person starting to make poems.
I’d also add that the literary figures I’ve been most drawn to have been children. Particularly William Blake’s and Toni Morrison’s.
Brian S: Morrison and Blake is an interesting combination. I read a lot of Blake way back when I was in school, but was never assigned Morrison. I literally finished my first Morrison novel earlier this week. On the one hand, I have a lot to look forward to. On the other, I’m kind of mad it’s taken me this long.
Do you think of yourself as a pastoral poet at all? I picked up on that sense, with a bit of future dystopia thrown in, as I read the book, but I wonder how you see yourself.
Peter Mishler: No, but Milton’s “Lycidas,” which is in the mode of the ancient pastoral tropes, which, coincidentally, is also about the death of a young person, and was one of my first great models for writing. I don’t know how I see myself. I know that others talk about my poems in terms of surrealism, but I am really hesitant about using the term surrealism. I would have to ask you what you read as pastoral in the poems in order to answer that a little more clearly, I think. But because there is a youthful figure who is ultimately trying to understand and come to terms with inevitable encroachments of all kinds, in that case, yes, I can see my poems as having elements of the pastoral. I do like, with Milton (and with Blake), that he was able to take the genre and speak politically in an underhanded way as well as write such beautiful sweeping passages of natural beauty.
I’m so glad to hear you’re reading Morrison. I am in admiration of her in every way, and always will be.
Brian S: I wouldn’t say pastoral in the sense that Blake or his contemporaries would use the term, in part because I think the tension between city and countryside has morphed so much in the intervening centuries that the term applied today wouldn’t make much sense. But I think there’s a care for the natural world in your poems and an attention to nature in your images that creates a vivid landscape.
Peter Mishler: Thank you, Brian. The ecological crises of our world are so terrifying to me that I try to be as tender with the world in my seeing it as I possibly can in my poems. That tenderness was taught to me through poetry. Through the poets I’ve admired so much in their ways of seeing the natural world—Dickinson of course, and A.R. Ammons in particular. And the book does lament these landscapes and the encroachment of the inevitable ruins that capitalism makes, upon them. I do see the book as lamenting our world in that sense.
Brian S: Do you think that sometimes people use the term surreal when they mean weird or doesn’t-follow-a-typical-narrative-structure? (I think some of the connection is inevitable because Dean Young selected your book for the Morton Prize, for what it’s worth.)
Peter Mishler: I just don’t want to completely align myself with the surrealism of the twentieth century, for one thing, because I have some major issues with its some of the world views it purported (though I do really value some other aspects of it). And secondly—more importantly—when I am writing I am always, to me, writing what I am seeing or envisioning very clearly, so I am creating a kind of world that feels very real to me and is all packed with real emotional resonances for me, so I forget that the poems aren’t recognizable as real as in a direct representation of the real.
Brian S: Yeah, that’s the future dystopia element I mentioned in my piece, the moments from poems like “Mild Invective” where there are deer next to a gas station, the speaker is shaving in the car and “the elderly / fly their small crafts / above us, with cancer / and in love.” So much wrapped up in those lines; that sense of worlds clashing together and maybe some economic disparity and the inevitability of death.
Right, I think many people—and I’m guilty of this at times as well—forget that surrealism was as much a political movement as an artistic one, and it had some issues.
Peter Mishler: Yeah some major issues. There’s a book I want to read on that subject this summer, in fact, Surrealism and the Art of Crime. It’s from 2008, and it looks fascinating and powerful and it appears to subject Breton et al. to a serious critique/revision.
Brian S: Are you working on a new project yet?
Peter Mishler: I am writing new poems, but with no project or idea in mind. Or, rather, the goal is to make lines and not worry about what they might become. Because my book came together as a whole I am of course now extremely self-conscious about what the next book might look like, which is probably the worst thing I can do, the antithesis of just making new lines.
Brian S: Who have you been reading lately? Anything we should keep an eye out for? Other than the surrealism book?
Peter Mishler: The book release for Fludde is this weekend in NYC, and I am reading with Kimiko Hahn, and then I’ll be interviewing her for my Lit Hub series after the reading—so I’ve been reading her first and second books of poetry very closely, along with her newest (a chapbook also from Sarabande). Her second book Earshot is incredible. I would highly recommend it. Though they are very different poets with different concerns, I think that readers who liked Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas would appreciate Hahn’s second book. It is, like Long Soldier’s book, unabashed and beautiful in its poetic explorations of motherhood and of dissent.
Brian S: Oh excellent! I’ll keep an eye out for it. Thanks for joining us tonight and for this excellent book.
Peter Mishler: Brian, thank you so much for inviting me to do this. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Thank you.