Robert Peake is an American poet living in the UK. His publications include In Situ (Otis College of Art and Design 2008), Human Shade (Lost Horse Press 2011), The Silence Teacher (Poetry Salzburg 2013), and The Knowledge (Nine Arches Press 2015).
Hi Robert. I hope you are well. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Firstly, congratulations on the publication of your most recent poetry book The Knowledge last year. For the uninitiated, can you tell us a bit more about it and how would you describe the poems in the collection?
For me, poems often arise out of necessity. I don’t always know it at the time – but they are usually a way to cope with being human, to contextualize and come to terms with some kind of trauma – including the trauma of everyday living in a 24-hour news cycle.
However, this is not to say the poems themselves are necessarily traumatic – they can be funny, wry, fantastical, or strange. In this case, The Knowledge arose from a heightened attention to language and culture stemming from my relocation to the UK from California.
So, these are poems of culture shock, displacement, and alienation – about the specific experience of being a stranger in a strange land, and also in the more global, existential sense. They celebrate the ways in which we are both separated by a common language, and united by what transcends language.
That’s a broad answer, but the poems are very wide-ranging, and that’s the umbrella under which they can all huddle together to stay dry.
You also created the popular Transatlantic Poetry series which continues to go from strength-to-strength. It’s a neat idea using technology to bring together people from all over the world who may not otherwise meet or chat. In what ways has the project fulfilled or exceeded your initial expectations and has it thrown up any surprises along the way?
What is most heartening about Transatlantic Poetry is the spirit of “us”. I raised the flag, basically said, “Nobody’s doing this yet – who wants to make it happen?” And many fine organizations and prominent poet-hosts came forward and said, “Count me in.” That was a pleasant surprise, and the growing sense of community around this project is just fantastic.
Another pleasant surprise was the sense of intimacy – of really being in someone’s study, where they write their poems, having a chat – that can be created with a video broadcast. My theory is that the poet’s natural habitat (for many of them, anyway) is not necessarily behind a pulpit on a huge stage, but in the smaller, cozier spaces where we actually read and write poetry.
So, I was delighted to discover this project breaks down barriers in the poetry world beyond just the geographical. We’re still exploring, expanding, and learning about what this project wants to become. In some ways, the success of this series has been yet another affirmation that there has never been a better time to be a poet and a lover of poetry.
You have created a number of film poems in recent years too (indeed your film poem ‘Buttons‘ enjoyed awards success). What inspired you to start making these initially and are there things you think the film poem genre can express that can’t be achieved in an ordinary poem?
My wife, Valerie, was a successful classical pianist for many years until an injury brought that career to a halt. Now, she can only play our piano for a few minutes at a time. Yet she is every bit as much a musician as I am a poet. So, the interchange between creative disciplines is a rich part of our relationship.
One day, early on in my settling in the UK, we noticed sunlight streaming through layers of branches and ironwork, casting shadows onto the wall of our North London flat. I grabbed my iPhone and filmed it. I wrote a poem, and Val wrote music, the recorded combination of which turned into our very first film-poem: ‘Piece Work‘.
So, what initiated and has since sustained our participation in the genre is a love of collaboration.
What I’ve discovered along the way is that poetry and experimental film have a kind of “special relationship” in the ways in which they both relate to memory and the evocation of feelings and impressions beyond what is being literally depicted. I wrote a bit more about this in a short article for Poetry Film Kanal.
As well as being a poet yourself, you also offer poetry tutoring services to others. I’m curious to know if working in this kind of setup has clarified your own thoughts on best writing practice and has it benefited your own writing in any way?
What is the saying? That you teach what you most need to learn.
In my poetry surgery sessions, I am always looking to support not only the poet in front of me, but the kind of poet they might be in ten years’ time. That is to say – I want to help them write what’s most uniquely theirs to write, which may be very different to my own style. In this way, it is very enriching, as the teacher, to delve into these sometimes less-explored branches of poetry’s family tree, to seek to understand what’s really great about a different approach, and to draw out the full potential of the student.
It also reinforces some fundamental truths for me: that so much of writing is about showing up and putting in the time (often easier said than done in our busy lives); that it takes time, distance, and perspective to be able to revise effectively; and that pushing beyond boundaries and breaking the “rules” we set for ourselves is where the most exciting work happens.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific goals you have set yourself?
I have a few readings coming up, in London, Torbay, and over in Ireland. I’m really looking forward to all of them. I am also just writing away toward whatever shows up next. My goals are daily goals – write!
One of the larger projects I am really excited about is the launch of a new website called Poet Tips. Much in the same democratic spirit as Transatlantic Poetry, I got the idea that if we could crowd-source recommendations about similar poets, we might be able to help people find new poets to read based on current favourites. So far the idea seems to be gathering steam, so it will be fun to see where it ends up.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to PoetrySpotlight?
I often find my commute a source of anthropological fascination. In this case, that fascination became this poem.
To the Woman Drying her Blue Nails Under the Over-Door Air Heater in a Suburban London Train Shelter
I salute you, rush-hour diva, clomping
down the platform on high cork heels
with glued-on stars, nimble as dynamite,
righteous as tattoo ink drying under skin.
You harden metallic polish under the heater,
prop the shelter door to keep it blowing
driving the acetone deeper into our lives,
smell of corrosion, starvation, dissolving
the plastic coating from our smiles.
The raised yellow warning strip is your
red carpet, the flash from overhead cables
a paparazzo bulb, and so you throw shapes
beside the sign that boasts breakfast:
“Croissant and coffee; tea and toast–
whatever you fancy, two for a pound.”
You process to a chorus of one-nostril sniffs,
part an aisle of scuff-conscious shoes,
and when you are gone, finally, I miss you.