The American poet Robert Peake is fast making a name for himself in the literary circles of London and around the British Isles and now with his latest poetry project called ‘Transatlantic Poetry’ has generated a great buzz amongst the poetry communities of Europe and the US. I had the pleasure to get an interview with Robert about his move from California to England and to find out what exactly ‘Transatlantic Poetry’ is, the future of this project and the writers involved.
You seem to be settling very well into the English country lifestyle, how are you finding your new home?
It seems to have taken me about two years to reassemble a fully-functional adult life in another country. I’m not sure if that is fast or slow. That said, it was all worth it. We’re now in a little village equidistant between London and Cambridge, near an airport that offers inexpensive flights to all the major capitals of Europe. I have always felt very at home in the countryside, and am getting to know the local horses on my lunchtime walks. Yet I can be in London in an hour, and most other major European cities in two. That still amazes me. Plus, I grew up in the Sonoran desert, on the US-Mexico border, so the lush wet greenness of it all I find equally stunning.
And how is living in England affecting the way you write poetry, is it inspiring or influencing the theme and structure of your writing?
There definitely seems to be a higher regard for forms—both traditional and experimental—on this side of the pond. I actually find that very compatible with, and encouraging to, my original grounding in verse, and especially sonnets. The sheer musicality and musical range of voices in this country is also working its spell on me, I think. There are, in fact, so many “Englishes” here, each with their unique tenor and cadence. My work has always been grounded in the music of plain speech, but I think my understanding of what that can mean has been both broadening and deepening through the experience of living here. So, that’s some of how I see the influence working structurally and technically.
In terms of theme, I suppose I have always been interested in whatever has occurred to me observationally—looking either inward or outward—and, of course, being here has heightened my senses by disrupting routine. For the first several months, I kept taking pictures of street signs that were ever so slightly different than their equivalents in America. It made me think a lot about word choice—why one culture might say “yield” where the other says “give way”; one says “exit” and the other “way out”. So, my themes lately have very much been that of an outsider looking in on British landscape and culture, because of course that is where I find myself and also where I find the poetry of everyday living.
You seem to be a very busy man lately with writing for The Huffington Post and a new collection ‘The Silence Teacher’ published with Poetry Salzburg and now this exciting project ‘Transatlantic Poetry’, tell us all about this and what inspired you to bring it together?
I left a vibrant poetry community on the west coast of America and discovered an equally dynamic one in the UK. I edited a special feature on British poetry for the US poetry journal Silk Road Review, which was my way of contributing to the ongoing transatlantic cross-pollination. As I began thinking about how I might bring all of these poets together for a reading, I hearkened back to contact I had from Google about using the Google+ Hangout on Air technology for live poetry readings, and started looking into it as an option to let these British poets read live for an American audience. It all came together nicely, and those readings are scheduled for October.
I also realized that there were other opportunities at hand for this technology, such as pairing up one American and one British or European poet to each read their work and then engage the viewing audience in live questions and answers. I started asking around, and some amazing poets expressed interest. I was impressed with how these well-established poets with strong international reputations were so game to try new things, to explore the possibilities of this new medium with me. Poets are up for it.
You had your first broadcast on Google+ with poets Michelle Bitting and Andrew Philip, which I watched and loved, very inspiring and interesting. Were you pleased with the way it went?
I was delighted with how well they both read, and with the conversation that followed. It felt very immediate and natural to be with them, as though we were all in the same room hanging out together. Yet scores of people tuned in from all over the world to watch and participate with that “intimate” setting. I was pleasantly surprised with that aspect of it—being both personable and global.
And any hiccups in your first broadcast or new technical discoveries for future readings?
Well, yes. The downside of living in a cottage built in the 1840s is that I don’t have the same broadband capacity that I had when I was in my London flat. Owing to my wireless connection being at the other end of the building, Google warned me about my network being imperfect several times during the broadcast. That finally manifest in the last couple of minutes of the broadcast getting cut off.
Still, people loved it up to that point, and an audible cry went out across the community when it cut out, showing that people were really engaged with the live broadcast. I’m getting that sorted out before our next one, so we should have smooth sailing from here. Everything else was remarkably easy to use, and it has also been easy for me to teach the poets how to use this intuitive approach to broadcasting themselves. Google has done a really nice job with bringing multi-channel video to anyone and everyone who has a computer with a webcam and a broadband connection.
I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the poets read their work and loved the discussion between the poets and yourself, very insightful as well as inspiring. Two very different poets reaching their audience in different ways on opposite sides of the world, will the goal of Transatlantic Poetry be to keep the two invited poets as different as possible and who is doing the inviting?
I have a short list of poets in mind, and am also enlisting the help of Chris Crawford of B O D Y to find suitable pairings. Every pairing I can think of has similarities and differences to it. I suppose I am looking for conversations that I think will be interesting above all. So, I am approaching it as if I were inviting the two over for dinner, trying to match poets up who would make the mealtime conversation interesting and perhaps benefit from knowing one another, and knowing one another’s work, a bit better.
Will your poets be mainly British and American or will you include continental Europe, Australians and maybe even Asian writers?
Right now my focus is on English-language poetry (and translations into English) by poets on either side of the pond (including continental Europe). That is partly because those are the two worlds in which I have some basis of connection, and also there is a logistical element, since you can only span so many time zones in one reading and expect good numbers of to show up live. Our broadcast was 5AM Sydney time, for example, which isn’t when most people think to tune in to a poetry reading.
That said, my hope is that this kind of technology can enable much more cross-pollination across a range of art forms globally. I happen to think that sharing and promoting art is a great way to underscore our essential human commonalities, which is one way to promote more peace.
And who do you have lined up for future readings and how do people tune in to listen?
We have Jane Hirshfield and George Szirtes scheduled for August 14th, which I am really excited about. I am expecting a big turnout for that event, but the good news is that Google can handle it in terms of technical capacity, since they’ve already done live broadcasts with many thousands of viewers. More are in the wings—so stay tuned to see who we have coming. Some exciting, well-known and well-loved poets have said “yes” and we are just working out the pairings now.
The idea of poets worldwide having a live reading and discussion is mind-blowing and a testament to the brilliance of modern technology, where do you think you can go with Transatlantic Poetry from here and where do you see this in a couple of years?
I think this could help to break down barriers in the ways that poets influence one another across the pond. There is something different about hearing a poet read their own work, and especially when they do so live. I feel most connected to a regional poetry scene when I frequent live readings in that area. The “area” in this case has just expanded tremendously in that regard for me, and I now get to share that feeling with others, that true sense of community and connection across borders. I don’t think this will necessarily replace the in-person coffee shop reading, but I do think it is a tremendous supplement and makes a palpable sense of global community possible.
I think we can go a long way with this. Linking up live events in different physical locations has been done before with special equipment and technical savvy. What is new is how easy it is for anyone to broadcast themselves with the Google+ Hangouts on Air approach. Anyone with a webcam can do this, which means that you can be invited into a poet’s personal space to hear them do what they do best—read their own work straight from their writing desk or front room—and broadcast that, rather than some expensive stage production, to the world. Somehow, I think that’s actually a format more suitable to poetry, perhaps even more respectful of its subtlety, immediacy, and intimacy as an art form.
And as I am a huge admirer of your own work, any new publications in the pipe line, any new projects?
Well, I’ve bitten off quite a bit already! I am, of course, still writing regularly. I am working on a longer collection at the moment, and publishing in various journals meanwhile, mostly here in the UK. So, watch this space.
Thank you so much for your time Robert, any final thoughts?
Thanks for your support, Stephen. It really is all about the larger community, and I appreciate your part.
Robert Peake is an American poet living in England. His newest short collection is The Silence Teacher (Poetry Salzburg, 2013). His previous short collection was Human Shade (Lost Horse Press, 2011) read my review here. Robert studied poetry at the University of California, Berkeley and in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at Pacific University, Oregon. In the 2010-2011 academic year, he was Senior Poetry Editor of Silk Road Review. He also recently finished editing a special feature on British poetry for Issue 8.1, due out in Spring/Summer 2013. It was a pleasure to get to talk to Robert here on this site and be sure to visit his website which is full of excellent article, essays and of course, poetry. Visit his site here.