Peter Streckfus Works on Poetry Inspired by ‘Acqua Alta’ and the Bass Garden

March 31, 2014
Peter Streckfus in the Bass Garden
In the Bass Garden
Some sources.
Peter Streckfus, Errings. Fordham University Press, 2014
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Peter Streckfus is the winner of the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, a gift of the Drue Heinz Trust/American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at George Mason University.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

The Academy gardens are one of the most inspiring locations in Rome for me. My wife, poet and translator Heather Green, and I trade mornings and afternoons working in our study and spending time with our  daughter, Ione, who turns two at the end of May. Afternoons, while Heather is up in the study writing, Ione and I often pass time in the orchard and vegetable area of the Bass garden, a quiet spot where we view the progress of plants and insects. Just lately she's become able to identify many plants: sage, rosemary, clover flower. Sometimes we sit on the stoop of the shed in the back of the garden and shell trumpet vine seeds. Her first simile happened there, opening the first pod in January. “It’s like a raisin.” Hearing her, only nineteen months on the earth, imaginatively substitute one word as a vehicle to describe a new thing, to give that new thing identity, thrilled me.

I just finished a draft of a serial poem about being with Ione in the Bass Garden.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

It hasn’t changed greatly, but it has headed more in one direction than the other. Before I arrived in Rome, I spent a month in the Netherlands, learning in particular about the new interventions being undertaken there to give urban, agricultural and domestic land back to floodplain, to make that country safer in the face of rising water levels. Since arriving, I’ve also spent time in Venice—and had the opportunity to witness firsthand the city’s acqua alta, or “high water,” as Venice was covered by extremely high tides in late November. St. Mark’s Square was under four feet of water that morning—it was astounding and horrifying. And then there’s Rome’s own history of recurrent flooding, and its relation to its river, the Tiber. My aim in beginning this third book was to revise a recurrent dream I've had for years, in which I live in house flooded by water. All of these experiences have entered what I’ve been writing as I had expected.

I anticipated also that being in the presence of my daughter’s new life, envisioning, as a father, the shores Ione will occupy in the future, would be a central element of this new work. I’ve been surprised by how much of my writing has addressed that experience directly, the experience of being a father.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

I completed work on my second book, Errings, in the fall. Fordham University Press just published it this month. In the meantime and since, I’ve spent a great deal of my energy in Rome reading, refilling the reservoir, if you will. That time has been filled with discoveries. I’d never read Ruskin before arriving. I am now in the thrall of his The Stones of Venice. The drama of his paragraphs astounds me—each ends like the final scene of an opera. John Stilgoe’s Shallow Water Dictionary came to me through conversations with the painter Bunny Harvey. Preservationist Max Page sent me to find Ivan Illich’s eccentric H20 and the Waters of Forgetfulness, which has become something of a keystone for my writing in the past month.

Lately when I write, often after reading, I darken my laptop’s screen so that it becomes a black mirror. I watch the mirror-image of my fingers in that darkness as I register words into my document. I cannot see, edit, or second-guess what I put down once it’s typed. I simply save it and close the lid. After a month or so, I return and mark what I want to use for the composition of poems. This method of accumulating raw material came one day in the study here, when I found myself again editing what I knew I should be only recording. It’s definitely been a kind of Eureka! The fingers in the dark reflective screen, and the screen itself, have become a sign for me—a metaphor for writing as receiving. As I’ve begun to turn this material into poems, that figure is appearing in the language.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

I look forward to the shaping of the raw material I’ve been accumulating over the past year and seeing what it becomes. 

For me, meaningful writing occurs where the places and subjects of my imagination finally overlap with the complications of daily life among the people I love. Travel has always been vital to this process—both the intellectual travel of reading and writing, and the physical travel of encountering places and people foreign to me, the experience of being myself foreign. My first book, The Cuckoo, and the second, Errings, are marked by this process. As I mentioned, here I’ve been accumulating material through travel and reading, while at the same time writing about the mundane. Ultimately, I seek bridges that connect these. 

How do my writing about recurrent flooding and my writing about Ione’s infancy touch one another? In the human state of infancy—which means in Latin “speechless”—we are flooded with new information about human actions and interaction. Once we pass through that state, at three and four, all the detailed memories of infancy, the particular moments that frame our learning, become useless, vestigial knowledge. New experience inundates us. Our memory of that previous state is cleared away. I’m still learning, in this year of generative writing, how to touch this and the recurrent flooding I’ve been studying (and, honestly, worrying over) as I imagine Ione and our child-to-come standing in the future. My ultimate goal is to make such overlaps in the language of the poem meaningful to myself and to my readers. 

What’s surprised you about the time you’ve had here?

I’ve been surprised by how much time in the fall went to finishing the second book, and the enjoyment of completing those tasks. I ended up writing and adding two new poems to the collection when I first got here. With the help of Architecture fellows Thomas Kelley and Catie Newell, I learned to work with Illustrator and took a strong role in the design of the cover for Errings, which I’m very happy about.

More recently, I returned to the US for a number of readings, and I just finished designing, with designer Kelsey Wickcliffe, a website for my work, which was also gratifying.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

Buridan’s ass starved between two equidistant and equally tempting bales of hay like this. Balancing these with the duties of family-life adds another bale. It’s been fun getting to know the other parents in the AAR community, seeing how they balance these. I think we’ve learned a lot from others. As we enter the last third of our stay in Rome, Heather and I have been putting even more emphasis on work time, wanting to do as much writing as we can before we leave. Even then, with my family and some of my fellow fellows, I get out and explore some part of Rome at least once a week. Last week it was the untouristed Pigneto area of the city, really an exciting and lively part of the city, where we had amazing Ethopian food in what looked to be a spruced-up former garage.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

The people who’ve passed through the AAR with us, the conversations and connections, will inform my work and my sense of what it means to be a thinker and artist for the rest of my life. I’m happy that some of the Fellows we’ve had the pleasure of knowing here also call DC home.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

My favorite spot in Rome seems to change every time I  find myself someplace new in the city. Today it was a falafel joint in the Jewish ghetto. The owner offered to let the people next to us sing for their supper. We tried to take him up on it, but to no avail. But no, later this evening, I was in Reynold Reynolds’s studio, watching his new seven-channel film installation, The Lost, play across the walls. I was lost myself, mesmerized. Today, that was my favorite spot in Rome.