1) Your most recent poetry collection, Sightlines, won the 2019 Prize Americana and is largely comprised of ekphrastic poems, yet all of your previous books contain poems centering on, or inspired by, the visual arts. What inspired you to compose a book-length ekphrastic project? Was the manuscript something you planned, or something that evolved organically?
The poems are not all ekphrastic, strictly speaking, in that they do not all gloss visual
texts. Some are concerned with the painters themselves (or, in a few cases, sculptors), some with the equivalences between subject matter and the artist associated with it (Audubon and birds, for example), some are even autobiographical, exploring my own past as an art student and painter. The notion was to extend and deepen the trope. Constant and variable. As for the trope, it suggested itself when I found I had enough poems for such a book, poems which didn’t fit a strictly Homestead focus or that of the natural world, aided by a few that could have, which serve as links to my other books.
2) Do any particular painters or artistic periods recur throughout Sightlines? Additionally, how do you see the poems testing the tethers—and perhaps tensions—between the lives of artists, the work they’ve given us, and the creative impulse in general?
Two sections of the book are given to individual figures and their work: Audubon and
W. Eugene Smith, both of whom I’ve been drawn to elsewhere. The other sections are fairly catholic. No artistic periods, although the poems exploring my own background as student and painter obviously involve a particular timeframe. What’s constant, in the poems themselves, as well as their various subjects, is what Stevens calls the “Blessed rage for order,” the impulse to create articulate forms. I’m thinking of the word articulation and its meaning in architecture as the concrete expression of specific elements. I think of the poem like that, an articulation. From which we fall back into Babel.
3) You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you’ve long nurtured a love for painting and that it was among your first artistic passions. How did a boy from Homestead, Pennsylvania, growing up in a working-class family, discover his curiosity and talent for painting? How has this lifelong relationship with painting influenced your poetics?
Drawing and painting were points of orientation for me from earliest childhood, one of the registers of solitude, it seems to me now. For years they were my only constant and sustaining interest, reinforced by having the talent for them, all skill being joyful as Blake proclaimed. Then in my early twenties, poetry began to attract me with what became an increasingly greater urgency. Unlike Blake, I got to where it seemed clear I couldn’t do justice to both arts and I stopped painting, though that sense of working on something that’s made has stayed with me. And the sense of the poem as having a kind of physical existence in spite of the intangibility of words. Since my paintings were figurative, that premium on seeing has remained with me as well. The image maintained regardless the medium. Matters of craft were also transferred.
4) I’m taken by your phrase “registers of solitude” and wondering if you could speak to that more fully. In what ways does your creative process make use of, or rely on, solitude? Do you feel that there is a greater premium on solitude for the artist in an increasingly technocratic culture?
Solitude is the clearing. In it we wean ourselves off the diversionary. It’s also where the
precincts of the imagination most reliably reside. A short poem can take me weeks to get right, sometimes even years. There’s simply no way I could manage this without being at my desk every morning, where I can be reached (is this still called inspiration?), before the fraying of the day. “Solitary toil” Yeats called it. Time as a span of attention. It takes me untold hours to work through all the false starts and bad choices to where some vital contact with the poem can be made. In an increasingly technocratic culture, it seems to me, it’s not just the imagination that’s at risk. The interior life itself is being crowded out and with it all manner of vantage points and understandings. We’re left at the mercy of the binary.
5) Reading through your past collections, I’m fascinated by how easily you float between formal verse and free verse. You are equally adept at each, and I’ve long admired your sense of sound. What role does form play in your writing process?
Well poetry is an art form, one of whose elements is sonic. In his essay on Pound, John Berryman says that poetry is written with the ear. Or as Pound himself puts it in the Cantos, “form is cut in the lute’s neck.” For me the main challenge has always been in finding the shape of the utterance (diction, image, sound), both in the line as a unit of composition and in their aggregate which is the poem. It’s got to where, working on
a new poem, I’m revising as I go, line by line, the forward momentum a matter of finding some lyric charge engaging enough to furnish the energy I need to proceed. Otherwise it’s just doggerel. Then there are all the revisions afterwards when I find the expression’s only approximate to something more compelling. From the cellular level up—accentual, syllabic—you see what happens whenever a singular integrity is lost.
6) Much of your older work centers on Homestead and its evolution, or disintegration, from a booming mid-century steel town to a place of industrial and ecological ruin. These same dire themes of regionalism, landscape, stewardship, labor, power, and a changing economy have come to dominate our national politics since the Great Recession, yet you’ve been writing about them for decades. Do you think Homestead’s fate foreshadowed our national fate? How do you feel about Ezra Pound’s notion of poets being “the antennae of the race,” particularly in times as fraught as our own?
I can remember being taught in grade school about the Industrial Revolution, which was there in full view below us in Homestead. Three miles worth of mills, their scale and elemental presence, the way they burned at night like the underworld. Their disappearance marked not just an economic and cultural shift but the end of a whole phase of history, a fact that no one seemed to think worthy of comment. The Iron Age to the Silicon. Now the rust belt’s just part of the great flyover, out of sight and mind, except to be dismissed as home to the benightedly regressive. If by “antennae” you
mean receptors, or susceptibilities, I think there’s something to it, gathered from the air, as Pound says elsewhere. Although that may be too inclusive a notion now, the culture so fragmented, our poetry subsumed in its own version of identity politics.
7) I’m struck by the understated and tragic tone of your remark that, even as a youth, you noticed that no one seemed “to think worthy of comment” that the very circumstances of their post-war lives were changing around them. Much has been made about the notion of poetry serving as an act of witness. Do you see these new poems in Sightlines, and indeed your older work as well, growing from an impulse to bear witness, or do you think of it in different terms?
To my mind bearing witness is corollary to paying attention and both are a conferring of worth. Both are also, or can be, acts of solidarity. As mentioned, a section of Sightlines takes for its subject matter the photographs of W. Eugene Smith, ones in which he documented the post-war Pittsburgh in which I came of age, that chiaroscuro world of mass and fire that has pretty much vanished. Paradoxically, by paying attention to Smith I’m able to bear witness to my own past as well, the shapes of its light. Something of that double focus—subject matter and its registering lens—is present in the other poems as well and is chief among their strategies. I don’t think of my poems as self-expression.
8) Seamus Heaney once wrote that the archaic well pump on his family’s farm was his omphalos, or earth-navel, and that it sustained him throughout his life as he explored the relationships between public history and private myth. You’ve written hundreds of poems about Homestead, yet your latest explorations of it feel as fresh and vibrant as ever. Is Homestead your omphalos? Are you sustained by a sense of home and belonging, or is your sense of place—and duty to it—more fraught?
In the middle of the long commissary section of The Bear, two cousins discuss “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” one of them remarking that for Keats to give flesh and feeling to his concerns, “‘He had to talk about something.’” For me that something has most noticeably been place—a world in which to explore the world, in which the reciprocities can be traced. Place is where I take my bearings. Homestead both pivot foot and circumference, enacting what you call “the relationships between public history and private myth.” So yes, an omphalos. Though in my case a navel is also a sign of separation, marking a connection to what no longer exists. Or a kind of scar in which what’s lost persists. To paraphrase Neruda, even in Homestead I miss Homestead.
Robert Gibb lives above the old steel town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, where he was born. His books include After, which won the 2016 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and Among Ruins, which won Notre Dame’s Sandeen Prize in Poetry for 2017. Among his other awards are a National Poetry Series title (The Origins of Evening), two National Endowment for the Arts Grants, a Best American Poetry and a Pushcart Prize. His forthcoming collection, Sightlines, won the 2019 Prize Americana.
Adam Tavel’s third book, Catafalque, won the Richard Wilbur Award (University of Evansville Press, 2018). You can find him online at adamtavel.com.