To think I almost missed him. I was reading through poetry submissions (I read all submissions several times on different days for exactly this reason) and I stumbled upon Simon Perchik’s poems for the third or fourth time. This time, as I slowly read the poems, something happened, some kind of, what? I felt a deep emotional connection, a pathos. I reread. What exactly was I feeling, and why? Based on the words, the syntax, the lines, the stanzas—I couldn’t figure it out.
Somehow, through the miracle of black shapes on a white page, words, Simon Perchik had compelled me to look, to think, and to feel more deeply, although I’d be hard pressed to explain what his poems are “about”. I knew we had to include his work in the spring 2021 issue. After I sent an acceptance message, he offered to send a review copy of The Weston Poems (2021), and before long I had received a hard copy of that wonderful collection but also a wealth of information on Perchik and his poetry from Rich Soos, Editor in Chief at Cholla Needles Arts and Literary Library in Los Angeles, from whom I was fortunate enough to receive a digital review copy of Perchik’s magnum opus The Family of Man Poems. Through Soos, I learned that Perchik had spent 8 years tirelessly working on this book, which was published April 1, 2021, by Cholla Needles Arts and Literary Library in honor of National Poetry Month.
Soos hails Perchik as a “national treasure whose work has appeared in over 700 magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Partisan Review, The Nation, [and] North American Review. He is 97 years old (born December 24, 1923) and over 30 of his books have been published since his first book of poetry, Bomber’s Moon, in 1949.”
According to Library Journal (Nov. 2000), “Perchik is the most widely published unknown poet in America….” All these years, he has been relentlessly honing his craft, and his goal? From the poet himself, of The Family of Man Poems, to testify to humanity’s “overriding need to comfort one another.”
Maybe that’s what I was experiencing that day when I paused for a careful reading of Perchik’s submission, comfort in recognizing that these poems, while they refuse to speak of anyone in particular, spoke of us all, of things that, while almost inexpressible, are possibly more important than anything else. Interested? If so, I invite you to read on.
Erin O’Neill Armendarez (EOA): Your latest collection of poems, The Family of Man Poems, 1982-1990, represents eight years of intensive work, a true labor of love. Please share with our readers a brief overview of this book and what it means to you as a poet at this point in your career.
Simon Perchik (SP): You asked what, if any, meaning The Family of Man Poems has for me. I don’t know the answer to that. I never considered the book as a whole. Just wrote a poem prompted by the first photograph (in the collection published by MoMA) and kept on going. I never considered the photos as a whole, nor my poems as a whole. But I now think I was wrong. On reflection the 482 photos are really 1 photo. And maybe I too, have written just 1 poem (in 482 stanzas.)
EOA: Most poets reading this interview will be jealous to discover that Charles Olson, the famous Black Mountain poet, actually wrote a blurb for the cover of one of your books. You have known so many esteemed poets and artists over the years. Which would you say was the most influential on your career as a poet, and why?
SP: You mentioned the blurb Charles Olson gave me for my first collection. Have a great story to tell you. Though I wrote in college, after admission to the bar in 1950 I didn’t write for about 10 years while building a law practice. When I began to write I found a copy of Black Mountain Review in the house and sent them some poems. I got back a letter saying the magazine had folded some five years ago. It was signed by Olson who went on to ask, “Did Corman get in touch with you?” What a welcome back! That he remembered my name, that he ever knew it had a lasting impression. He was a very generous man. But don’t think I know many poets. I don’t.
EOA: You have described your process for writing poetry in previous interviews, first writing several pages on a selected photograph or image, and then writing several more pages on disparate topics drawn from your readings on subjects in philosophy, mythology, or science. The poem itself spontaneously emerges as you attempt to resolve contradictions, finding your “hook”, which signals the beginning of the budding poem. Do I have that right? And has this process evolved or changed over the decades, and if so, in what ways?
SP: Yes, you have it right. I confront a photograph with a contradictory, irreconcilable image or idea from myth or science and then reconcile the two. Exactly what a metaphor does for a living. And it never fails. A perfect cure for “writers’ block” I hope your readers will agree after reading “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities”.
EOA: You are on record as one who eschews narrative poetry, and also as one who is deeply moved by the abstract painting of artists like Mark Rothko, the sorts of paintings that sometimes leave skeptics standing in museums thinking, “This is art?” In your opinion, how are abstractions depicting the intangible able to inspire such deep power and pathos?
SP: You mentioned Mark Rothko. He’s my role model. He knows that when you stand in front of his painting there is nothing of the real world in it. To cope, the brain will shut down. And the viewer’s unconscious tries to make sense of it. What we have in this art form is the artist’s subconscious talking to the viewer’s subconscious. I try to do that.
EOA: The philosopher Wittgenstein is famous for having said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” In an interview with Tim McLafferty (Forge Magazine), you defined poetry as “words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated.” Hence, your poetry seems to try to express the inexpressible. Why, in your opinion, is this preferable to telling a story?
SP: You ask why not telling a story to reach into the reader is preferred over telling a story. The answer is simple: one is prose, the other is poetry. And poetry has the power. If I say “Your mother died” and you start to cry, if I ask you why you’re crying, you say, “You just told me my mother died.” Makes sense. But if you are listening to Max Bruck and you start to cry, if I ask you why, you have to say, “I don’t know.” Music is the most abstract art form. Maybe poets should move a bit closer to the unconscious composers work with.
EOA: I am curious about one thing, so I have to ask to gain a better understanding, if only for myself, but possibly also for readers. I completely understand what you’re saying about why you have chosen to use abstraction in your poetry. Your poems operate much differently than do narrative poems, and you accomplish what you set out to accomplish with them, which is, to me, quite mysterious, given your process.
It seems to me that there is prose that could be considered abstract as well, i.e some of Virginia Woolf’s work, some of Gertrude Stein’s, maybe some metafiction or magical realism. Or think of that ambitious, perplexing work Ulysses, by James Joyce. As you said in your essay, there are varying degrees of abstraction, given the writer. Hence--surely you do not mean to say that the narrative poems of Robert Browning, Robert Frost, Keats, Yeats, or Tennyson are not poetry?
SP: I agree with you that prose can also be abstract. And you have listed 3 of the greatest. I guess, being a lawyer, I feel the literary world needs to more clearly define what words may be called poetry and what may be called prose. Thomas Wolf uses the paragraph form for some very moving poetry. So “prose-poem” could also use a more exact definition. Maybe it’s hopeless. Writers write and let others decide where to slot the work. Maybe definitions are OK for law but have no business in art. As you see, though, as I have opinions, I also have nothing but doubts. Wish I could be more sure of my ideas.
EOA: In the same interview, you mentioned the collective unconscious, saying, “If I’m dealing with my subconscious, I’m dealing with yours, so that would be the connection.” When I read the submission that inspired this interview, although I had not yet read about your process, I felt that connection as I read your poetry. So—is your process and purpose more intuitive? When you find your hook, is it something you feel, or something you know, or both?
SP: You ask about what happens once I get “the hook”. Though you need a “starter” to make yogurt and “the hook” to begin a poem the similarity ends there. The “hook” more often than not will disappear. It served its purpose and got the ball rolling, so to speak. Once the poem has a footing, I pretty much let it go where it wants. At the end I’m as surprised as anyone.
EOA: Your poems communicate powerful feeling, yet I noticed you seldom, if ever, use words like joy, anger, courage, fear, sadness—the nouns that represent inner states of being. Do you consciously edit those words out, and if so, how does this help to create the intended effect on readers?
SP: Yes, I edit out the words that tell the reader how they should feel. I try to use words that will suggest it in a round-about way.
EOA: You seldom read your poems aloud in public, so let me ask you this: should readers attempt to read your poems aloud? Is it important for them to experience them that way? Do you read aloud to yourself as you revise? Or is it better for readers to focus on careful exploration of the visual and mental images along with the careful punctuation (or lack thereof) and shifts in syntax to fully experience each poem?
SP: I don’t like to read my poetry in public because it’s too personal, comes with a lot of baggage. Once I read a poem and froze on stage at the 4th line. I couldn’t finish the poem or the reading. Who needs it! If others find pleasure in reading the poems out loud, I’m happy. Very happy. I do not read the poem aloud while working on it.
EOA: In another interview with McLafferty, you said, “There are so many reasons why a poem is rejected. And what makes you think that the editors know what they are doing anyhow?” I laughed when I read that, because I know that it is true. We editors may miss some of the most unique, most profound work looking for something in particular, reading when we’re tired, pushing deadlines, etc. We, too, are human. What other advice do you have for aspiring poets?
SP: You ask if I have any advice for aspiring poets. Yes, I do. Don’t take anyone’s advice. Just read the poems. Just get to know the territory, what’s out there.
EOA: Are you working on another project now, or are you resting for a bit after completion of The Family of Man Poems?
SP: Yes, I am working on a new collection of photographs. I’m about halfway finished. I better be careful. I’m pushing 98 and the one thing the gods don’t like is hubris. So I won’t say more.