Simon Perchik: Correct! The photo is important only in that it makes me move forward. Not that the photo will ever be in the poem. 99.9 per cent of what is in that photograph never appears. So when people say, "You're writing a poem to a photograph, let me see the photograph" I say, "Listen, they have nothing to do with one another." Very often, there is a need to write. Just as there's a need to talk, and if you feel like writing but you don't know what to write - this is as good a method as any. It works for me. Sometimes these photos are tough to work with. When I get an idea that wasn't there before, like I get out of all of them, an idea of a roller piano with people sitting around it, then its a narrative which most people would say is not yet poetry. So I abstract it, which makes the process even tougher now because the job is not even half done, because the idea alone is peanuts: it means nothing. Then I sit down and make those words do the job of moving; I begin to abstract. I have a bit of distance so craft can come into play. I have to work as agonizingly as I do - at least until the point where I have something to abstract from. Abstracting the idea is emotionally less demanding than creating the idea or scene to abstract from. I've always felt that poetry, to have real power, does not depend upon insight: that's a nice insight, so what - but rather moving the reader in a way where they are unable to say why they are moved; like music. It's not easy, but that is what I try for. When a person finishes reading, they should say "I don't know what the hell that was all about, but I do know something is there." Like Mahler's songs, you don't know what is there but it runs right through you, tears you apart.
David Baratier: So a photograph is used to construct a narrative, and then the narrative is abstracted, broken down through the word choice, so that there is a residue of activity left over from the original scene - now twice removed by the time it reaches the poem?
Simon Perchik: Yes. In the poem that I'm writing now, the word "piano" will be absent, there will be a roller from the painter and there will be the word "music" - but there will be no word "piano" in the poem. I will leave it to the reader - because the reader has to bring something to the page too. They're not born in a vacuum; they should know that if there is "music," and they see the word "roller" in the poem, then the image or idea of a roller piano should surface. Of course, a lot of the meaning will be lost, thrown away, but if it is caught it will be more powerful. The reader will think they themselves came up with this idea, and that the writer never thought of it, that's the trick. Make the poem so they think they came up with the idea. For example, if you want persuade someone to do something, if you present it in a certain way they will come up to and ask "what if I do this for you?" and you can say: "that's a good idea." You wanted them to say that, so you lead them on to where they grasp it themselves.
So to revisit the poem, if I do this right, the poem I'm writing now will not have the word "piano," or "player piano," and my hopes are that the reader will grasp the meaning - there is a lot of risk involved - but even if they don't grasp it, nothing is lost, the piece will still hold together.
David Baratier: That's interesting. It seems in such opposition to what you said earlier, that poetry was a form of exorcism for yourself, and usually when I think of exorcism, the term "confessionalism" comes to mind, not a poetry such as yours where the reader and the piece supply ideas in tandem.
Simon Perchik: See, that's all part of the poem. Once the narrative is out you have exorcised everything you wanted to say. Then craft comes in to make the piece enticing. Then you abstract. The abstracting doesn't do anything for you. The benefit the writer gets out of the process is in the first part, when you get the release. Writing a poem is a form of release - from God knows what - if you knew what you were being released from you wouldn't have to write the poem. And, if you do it right, you can release the reader. If the reader says, "I don't know what happened but I feel different" there is some feeling they have been moved toward. They get the release too. They will say to themselves "why do I feel this way after the poem?" and start to question the whole process. Abstraction exorcises the reader; narrative exorcises the poet.
David Baratier: That reminds me a lot of Mallarmé - "what ever is to remain sacred must be shrouded in mystery" - that the field of the page and the words will give you the underlying idea. I was wondering about your influences, if there was a particular person who you studied or studied with early on?
Simon Perchik: I'll tell you who was and is a very big influence. I steal shamelessly from musicians. If you read all my poems you'll notice that the opening line has been stolen lock, stock and barrel, from Beethoven. They are all Beethoven chords, every one, bar-rump-pa-pa-rump-pump . I like to think that if you'd like to reach the marrow, you have to break a few bones, and Beethoven is good for that. And if you want to work the marrow you have to use Mahler. The power that Beethoven has combined with the ability of Mahler to go through you. Those are the big influences. Now the writers who are influences, well early on, Paul Blackburn, because when I started writing it was all rhyming shit, and Paul says "Well, you know you don't have to rhyme it." And I'm thinking, "What's this, something new?" (both laughter). So the early poems were rhymes - all iambic pentameter, nothing conversational so Paul says: "write like you talk, be in a vernacular, don't use words that nobody uses." So I started following him and it gave me a little freedom. Another guy who opened me up tremendously was Vincente Aleixandre, even more than Neruda and Neruda was a big influence, but Aleixandre had a way of - well, I'm trying to copy Aleixandre. He is not abstract, but close enough to it. I would like to go a little bit beyond him, but I'd be happy if I could just reach him. And of course, the power that Baudelaire has.