portrait Peter Filkins

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 47 ~ April, 2001

Peter Filkins, a poet and translator, has a forthcoming collection of poems, After Homer, due to be published in January by George Braziller Books. Filkins is the author of a book of poems, What She Knew, and his translation of a novel by Alois Hotschnig, Leonardo’s Hands, was published in 1999. His translation of the complete poems of Ingeborg Bachmann, Songs in Flight, was named an outstanding translation of 1994 by the American Literary Translators Association.

His poetry, translations, and criticism have appeared in the New Republic, the American Scholar, New Criterion, Paris Review, Agni, American Poetry Review, Partisan Review, Iowa Review, the Literary Review, TriQuarterly, Contemporary Literary Criticism, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and the New York Times Book Review.

Filkins studied with Joseph Brodsky at Columbia University, where he earned an MFA in poetry, and was a Fulbright Fellow in German at the University of Vienna from 1983 to 1985. He has held residencies at the Yaddo Artists Colony, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Filkins currently teaches and is the head of the Poetry & Fiction Series at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, MA.

Derek Alger: I see that your upcoming book of poems, After Homer, is
dedicated to Joseph Brodsky. He must have had a great influence on you.

Peter Filkins: I had the good fortune to study with Joseph Brodsky at Columbia University in the early ’80s. He meant a lot to me as a teacher and a poet. In fact, there’s an elegy to him in the book.

DA: How would you describe the poems in your book? Is there a special theme?

PF: Some of the concerns of the book touch on the same concerns Brodsky was interested in. An ability and a desire to look at how concerns in different eras span across time. How poems in the book speak to Chekhov, the sinking of the Luisitania, Benvenuto Cellini, the Persian Gulf War, and passages from Homer’s Iliad. I was interested in how different eras speak to each other at the same time. It’s not a book of different historical moments but how they speak to each other. Brodsky had a way of doing this; he had a broad range.

DA: How does After Homer compare with your first book of poems?

PF: After Homer is a different book than What She Knew, though of course that may be more apparent to me than to others. Nonetheless, I feel the first book was very meditative, very ethereal in its approach to everyday things, whereas the new work is a bit more direct.

I don’t really think of the new poems as better – just different. It’s more like the first book is about how I think, whereas the second is more involved with how I feel. The truth most likely lies somewhere in between; the two dovetail with one another to make a complete whole.

DA: How did you first come upon Brodsky?

PF: A Part of Speech was the first I read of Brodsky. I remember seeing the front page of The New York Times Book Review, it was a double review in 1979. That’s how well I remember it. Seamus Heaney’s Field Work on one side and Brodsky’s A Part of Speech on the other.

DA: And what happened?

PF: These were my two favorite books and the two poets who meant the most to me at the time. It wasn’t possible to study with Heaney, though I met him briefly while I was studying at the School of Irish Studies abroad when I was at Williams College. I read both books and was taken with each. Brodsky was teaching at Columbia. He really was the reason I went there.

DA: Did you always know you were a poet?

PF: Yes, very early on, at 16 in high school. I was always interested in science and then something got me interested in literature, and once I was, there was no turning back. The possibilities were inexhaustible. I read The Odyssey and A Tale of Two Cities, and they really began to turn me around, but it was a movie that really brought it all home for me.

DA: What movie?

PF: There was a moment in the film of Dr. Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak’s novel. It was not about Zhivago as a poet but of Zhivago and Lara at the train station going to the country to escape. The Moscow crowds were moving toward the train, and this may sound sophomoric and adolescent, but I watched that scene and immediately knew I wanted to make something like it. The funny thing is that I didn’t think that I wanted to make movies or become an actor, but that somehow through writing I could do to others what that scene did for me. In retrospect, I realize that what I simply wanted to do was move people, which is what good writing does in small, large, and complex ways. Instinctively, I saw that before me on the screen and wanted to make it happen for myself.

DA: Did you go on then to study literature in college?

PF: Yes, I was an English major. Out of 32 courses, I think I took 28 literature courses.

PF: It was a wonderful period, I locked myself up in a room and read. I spent a half semester in Vienna and a half semester in Dublin. Then I took a year off after graduation and went to live in Wales where I built stone walls. It was wonderful, beautiful. I wrote a poem called “The Wall,” which is important to me. What I learned there confirmed the joys of work as a progress of making, a process that allows one to arrive at a certain satisfaction over time rather than momentary triumph. It’s an attitude, a mien, that I would suspect is useful for any artist.

DA: And then came study at Columbia?

PF: I entered the MFA program in 1981 and took a seminar with Brodsky. I remember that the next year a group of us asked if he would teach a tutorial on Russian poetry. He immediately said yes. We met in his apartment every Sunday night and he would give an hour and a half monologue on Russian poetry. Simply amazing.

DA: How did your interest in Bachmann develop?

PF: Brodsky put me onto Ingeborg Bachmann. He asked if I had read her poems. I was young and strong and stupid, so I decided to translate them. I had had some German and continued studying German at Columbia.

DA: Why Bachmann?

PF: I simply fell in love with the music of her poems as soon as I encountered it. When I discovered that Bachmann had not been translated, I applied for a Fulbright and got it. I did a double thesis at Columbia, my own collection of poems and a translation of Bachmann.

DA: What did you do with the Fulbright?

PF: I went to Vienna from 1983 to 1985 and was at the University of Vienna. I had a small stipend, and I basically did the hard trench work of translating Bachmann.

DA: Getting back to your own work, are there any special qualities you think one needs as a poet?

PF: It’s really important to fall in love with the craft. You need a complete immersion into the language. If you don’t love it, if you’re in it for the readings or some preposterous notion of financial reward, you best do something else. You have to realize that no one is really going to pay you much for your work, nor will you have a huge audience. There are few external rewards unless you have huge breaks or are discovered at the end of one’s life.

DA: Is there any special way you approach writing a poem?

PF: It’s different. Some poems have taken 15 years to write. I look to take it as far as I can, to exhaust all possibilities. Maybe it will be a failure, maybe okay, and maybe good, but the only objective is the responsibility to exhaust every possibility. Any success is mercurial and quixotic. Working on a series of poems is itself a kind of work in progress. You discover ideas as you go – things you didn’t know you had to say.

DA: You’ve been to a number of artist colonies. How has that helped your work?

PF: Artist colonies have been invaluable to my work. I’ve been to at least three so far, and each time I have set myself the goal to leave the residency with as much unfinished work as possible. The benefit of this approach is that it takes away the pressure of completing the “great” poem while at a colony. Instead, I try to generate as many rough drafts as possible, and to allow the work to go in whatever direction it wishes. I then come away from such a visit with an armload of drafts that I can begin to revise and polish over the years until some sense or cohesion begins to develop among a set of poems. Only when that happens do I begin to think in terms of completing a book.

DA: Do have any general impression of the state of poetry today?

PF: It’s very difficult, if not fruitless, to make generalizations about poetry today. There are so many approaches, so many styles and voices, that it’s foolish to try to sum up where we are. I worry sometimes, though, that poetry these days either forgets the everyday world and the common reader, or tends to retreat into academic obscurity or post-modern obliqueness. Eliot said that modern poetry must be difficult, but I don’t see why that has to be so. Directness and clarity can still raise difficult ideas.

DA: I should ask you about doing translations. What have you found during the process of moving from one language to another.

PF: Translating is very different than writing one’s original work, though closely related. When I’m translating, I have the illusion of attempting to pull off the best translation possible, i.e. the best rendition of the original that will carry all of its meaning and nuance into English. That is impossible, but it’s no less there as a working goal. It’s dramatically different then setting out on the venture of a poem that is trying to discover its ideal end or development as it goes.

DA: But you were recognized for your translation of Alois Hotschnig’s novel?

PF: As for Leonardo’s Hands, it was a book I read for a publisher and about which I was immediately very enthusiastic. I initially just recommended that it be translated, for I was too busy myself. But then it came about that Hotschnig himself read my translation of Bachmann’s poems and wanted to have me as the translator. This was just about the time that another publisher heard about the book and asked me to do a sample for it. Thus, it was simply meant to be. Hotschnig and I worked very closely together on it, became good friends, and I hope that we’ll continue to work together in the years to come.

DA: I see you teach at Simon’s Rock College? Does teaching go hand in hand with your poetry?

PF: I somehow always knew that I would end up teaching. Of course, it’s the primary way in which writers support themselves these days. However, I’ve also been extremely lucky to be at a place like Simon’s Rock where I have the chance to teach a wide array of subjects besides creative writing. While I very much like the latter, the chance to talk about Nietzsche or Plato or Dante keeps my interest in literature broad and ongoing – not simply in service to my current tendencies or interests as a writer. Often, in fact, I find that it stretches my own work in directions that I could not have predicted. Even the new book, After Homer, can be seen as a culmination of things I’ve happened to stumble on in translation studies and work with classical texts that might not necessarily be the first thing a contemporary poet would reach for.

DA: Do you feel that poetry can be taught as a craft of writing or is it good for many just to be exposed to the process for the beauty and wonders of language in itself.

PF: As for that vexed question – whether writing can or cannot be taught, I think the work I do with young writers is really a matter of getting them to respect their engagement with words and thus ultimately to respect themselves and each other. If going on to become a writer is a part of that, then all the better. If it means, however, my students can come away with a more complex and grounded feel for how to read themselves and the world around them through language, that’s fine by me.