Western Civilization

Where will you be when Li Po comes down from the foothills looking for Keith Moon?

Interview with "Western Civilization" poet Peter Jay Shippy

Western Civ

By Lito Velásquez

Conversations with Peter Jay Shippy feel like his poems: they invert and allude to themselves in a lovely, generative gyre of culture and humanity: His style promotes rather than restricts possibility. Like his couplets, it’s episodic and imaginative even as his poems seek to expose the real world. Shippy’s work makes you, like Lucas in the desert, take your slaps and like ’em too.

Why do you write poems?PJS

So they can be made into films, of course!

How does your writing process work?

Usually I have a nugget, some grit: an overheard phrase, an image, an incident, and an odor. Then I dismantle the wisdom, as Lacan saw it. He said that we don’t go to poetry for wisdom, but for dismantling wisdom. I’m much more comfortable in the detritus. 

Are you a formalist?

I have an expansive view of form—so—I think that anyone who writes poetry is a formalist.

What was the origin and process for writing your poem “Western Civilization”?

It came out of a life-long fascination with the idea of being marooned, from Gilligan’s Island to Defoe. I especially like the variations, not on an island but—a planet (Enemy Mine) or under a London overpass (Ballard’s Concrete Island) or—cue dramatic music—marooned in your mind! The image of someone, sitting on their car, in the desert, was very potent to me.

The poem opens with the speaker’s reference  to “Americans of a certain rage.” How does this describe Lucas, the main character of the poem?

Lucas is of a certain age, 40-60. In Haruki Murakami’s story “Thailand,” one character advises another: “From now on, little by little, you must prepare yourself to face death. If you devote all of your future energy to living, you will not be able to die well. You must begin to shift gears, a little at a time. Living and dying are, in a sense, of equal value.” Lucas needed to be marooned, in the desert to realize this. The slap at the end of the poem is the Zen slap. He’s shifting gears, with the bus that is taking him home to die in 10, 20, 5o years.

How are you “of a certain rage”?

When one of my twins wakes up at 4 am.

Is having twins like being slapped in the desert? Does your family make it into your poetry?

Are you Dr. Freud?! I steal lines and images from my children all the time. Just the other day, we were walking to school, playing the license plate game when Stella saw a bumper sticker: EARTH. She said, “The earth without art is eh.” That’s mine, now.

Why do you return to Lucas in your poems? Is this related or responding to other poets? How do you see him?

I wrote a book of poems about this Lucas fellow, an everyman, a coyote (like Wile E.) who could die in one poem and resurrect in the next. I’ve always liked sequences, with a character, a protagonist.  The IliadThe Dream Songs. I’ve always tried to find projects to work on—they keep me from getting lost in the questions that could keep me from writing (subject, style, etc.). I was teaching a prose poem class this semester, and we read Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendys, Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, Claudia Rankine’sDont Let Me Be Lonely, and Maggie Nelson’s Bluetsthose  are sequences that interest me. 

What inspired you to write “Western Civilization” in couplets?

I’ve always loved couplets. They’re better than Pi because they can end and unend. For the last few years, after “Western Civilization,” I’ve employed long couplets, 5-6 feet per line, with one period—in the whole poem, just one period.  In this poem, the couplets are just shapes. In free verse, all lines/stanzas are shaped to induce—rhythm and the juxtaposition of meaning and confusion. On the page, it’s visual. When you listen to William Carlos Williams read his Imagist-like poems, you realize that his termite towers of words are one or two utterances. I was thinking about mechanics, closed couplets and enjambed ones. They look so neat & tidy, but then boom—you can close the door on someone’s nose.

Does this have something to do with Lucas, his ability to end and unend?

Oh, I like that, his deaths and rebirths—wonderful.

Yes, so what about that? How do you use allusions and references in “Western Civilization”?

Everything that lives alludes. In the poem, I reference, which excludes some readers, and attracts others. It’s always a Venn diagram of correspondence, between writer & reader.

Aha, more Lacan! Would you say that theory is a big influence on your work?

No, I’m just a magpie—a thief.

So, talk about the many musics and songs in the poem. Why do you specifically name “Magic Bus, Live at Leeds” and “Substitute”?

Li Po likes “Magic Bus” because, well, this is a dude who liked to party, it is said. Lucas likes “Substitute” because it’s proto-punky, adolescent, and it speaks to class—and he’s not that, anymore. Punky. A rebel. He’s just a human.

Do you listen to anything while you compose poems?

I live in the Boston, so I have to listen music to drown out the traffic. Like a lot of poets, I tend to write to wordless music. Movie scores are helpful—maybe because they imply emotions? Philip Glass’ score for The Hours is good. I also like Cliff Martinez, a lot. Traffic & Solaris.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a manuscript called Levitations. It is to my previous book, A Spell of Songs, whatAmnesiac is to Kid A.

What do you want most as a poet? As a person?

Health insurance and benefits.

What’s the best word?

The best word is Stellatrix.

What’s the best curse word?

The best curse is, obviously: Poet! A poète maudit—too romantic? Although, the arts have always been attacked in America. Many Americans look at writing and painting as a waste of time—or worse.  The know-nothings are alive and well.

LitoA grad student in the Creative Writing MA at UC Davis, Lito Velásquez writes fiction, poetry and short personal essays. For more information on Lito, click here.