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Peter Austin lives with his wife and three daughters in Toronto, Canada, where he teaches English at Seneca College.  Over a hundred and fifty of his poems have been published, in magazines and anthologies in the USA (including: The New Formalist; Contemporary Sonnet; The Lyric; Iambs & Trochees; The Pennsylvania Review; The Barefoot Muse; 14 by 14; The Raintown Review; The Shit Creek Review; Lucid Rhythms; The Chimaera; Road not Taken; and Trinacria), Canada and elsewhere.  He was December, 2008’s poet of the month at the Formalist Portal and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He also writes plays, and his musical adaptation of The Wind in the Willows has enjoyed four productions, the most recent in Worcester, MA.

Gisberta left behind
Transphobia the day she quit Brazil
For Portugal.  Encouraged by her kind,
She made it as a dancer, topped the bill,
Her raunchy bump-n-grind

Earning a roomy flat,
A hunk with a Ducati, clothes to spare;
But no one likes a girl who runs to fat,
Loses her bloom, her muscle tone, her hair,
So that, at length, was that.

Reduced to selling sex
To men as rough with tico as with tongue,
Over each eye a sagging circumflex,
She now slept on a building site, among
A clutch of lesser wrecks;

And there they found her, those
Boys from St Joseph’s home for orphaned youth.
They used her as an ashtray, tore her clothes,
Then, “shit!” said one, uncovering the truth:
“She’s got a fucking hose!”

When she’d been gagged and bound
(The coroner’s report took time to tell)
They reamed her with a spar that someone found
And, on a three-count, dropped her down a well,
Where, unremarked, she drowned.

[Gisberta (née Gisberto) Neto was murdered in Feb,
2005, by a gang of boys aged between 10 and 16, who
lived at a nearby orphanage.  Tico is slang for penis.]

Poet’s Corner by Russell Bittner
Interview with Peter Austin

Christmas once again past.  Gifts once again cleared out and friends sent home.  And once again, time to settle in for a long winter’s night.  We’re also coming up on the second anniversary of the “Poet’s Corner”—so high time, I think, we look beyond our own borders for talent.  And we don’t have to look far!

Just to the north of us, Peter Austin wields his pen like a saber—which is most uncharacteristic of Canadians inasmuch as a more peace-loving people may never have existed on the planet (dismounted and outside of hockey rinks, that is).  But Peter’s animus is not randomly directed.  Rather, it aims at “principles” that are distinctly unprincipled, at “truths” that are distinctly untrue, at hokum that is just that—hokey.

I owe a vote of thanks for my introduction to Peter to Professor Joseph Salemi, whom I interviewed for Long Story Short in June of 2009, and whose own poetry review, Trinacria, first appeared in January of 2010.  It was in that first issue of Trinacria that I read three of Peter’s poems and was mightily impressed.  I e-mailed him, and here we are.

As always—and for starters—his bio.

RRB:Before we get into the matter of poetry, Peter, please tell us something about this musical adaptation of yours of The Wind in the Willows.  “Musical adaptation” suggests orchestration—or at least notes of a kind for an instrument or two.  Are you a musician in addition to being an accomplished poet and father of three graces?

PA:Regarding The Wind in the Willows, I may have taken a small liberty in describing it as a “musical adaptation.”  It does include five songs, for which I wrote the melodies. Having grown up with a piano-teaching mother, I know enough about musical notation to commit a tune to paper.  Orchestration, however, is beyond me and was left to the various theatre companies.  One hired a music student to write piano accompaniment; one paid a professional musician to orchestrate for half a dozen instruments; and so on.  Another one of my plays (Hansel, Gretel and a Pixilated Prince) recently enjoyed its premiere, also in Worcester, MA.  It, too, included a handful of songs.

RRB:I think I already know the answer to this one, Peter, but can you tell us the difference (for you) between writing poetry and writing song lyrics?

PA:That’s an interesting question, which I’d like to begin answering by saying that I have a great respect for good lyricists.  I’m thinking particularly of Sondheim, whose biting satire, marvelous sense of rhythm, and audacity when it comes to rhyme all leave me breathless.

Having said that, I doubt if anyone would dispute that it’s a lower-order skill than writing poetry.  There aren’t many lyrics (even Sondheim’s) that would stand on their own; nor are they intended to.  Even the Lennon-McCartney masterpiece ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is pretty feeble without its melody, misplaced good intentions of several literary anthologists notwithstanding.  One difference, I suspect, has to do with listener/audience (usually in a hurry to be gratified and get onto the next song or the next plot twist) versus reader (hopefully with enough time to read, re-read and savour the intricacies and subtleties of a well-written poem).  Song lyrics usually have a simple rhyme scheme, easy to digest syntax (no sentence too long, please!), a knee-slappingly predictable rhythm (including a great deal of end-stopping), and fairly obvious imagery.  A poet can and probably should avoid all or most of these.  Doing so makes his job harder, but the result is more gratifying.

I’m not sure how well the following poem will illustrate this, although I do defy anyone to sing it.  In it, I have married a time-honoured form (that of Herbert’s ‘The Pulley’, which I don’t think has a name) to a very modern, very ugly story.  As with many of my poems, the energy comes from a deep, abiding anger with the mistreatment of the weak by the strong.  It’s actually one more howl of outrage at the way my older brother treated my mother while I was growing up, but that’s another story….

RRB:This is a remarkable piece, Peter—as much for its technical accomplishment as for its subject-matter.  One of the things I’ve always appreciated about formal poetry is the restraint it imposes on the poet.  One could wax quite hyperbolic on a subject like this one; instead, your approach—if you’ll pardon the poor pun under the circumstances—seems almost sanguine.

You’re the first formalist I’ve interviewed here at the “Poet’s Corner” since we met Joe Salemi in the summer of 2009.  People (even—or maybe especially—other poets) too often suggest that formal verse is antiquated, fuddy-duddy, so yesteryear.  I think you’ve disproved that notion in one fell swoop.

However, I wonder whether you’ve run into some of the same resistance yourself.  If so, perhaps you could tell us something about it before you bring on your second piece.

PA:I have, indeed, Russell.  And when I first realized that formal verse was my ‘calling’—or rather, I should say, when I first tried to get into print—it became very clear that I wasn’t even going to get past the front door of many poetry magazines.  I remember reading in the Poet’s Market comments like, ‘if it rhymes, it had better be immortal’ (so, if it doesn’t, mediocre will do?).  To me, the whole formal-versus-free question is rather infantile—like time spent debating the superiority of men to women or vice versa—instead of celebrating them as different but of equal worth.  One thing I will say, though, is that the fashion for free verse has allowed far too many people to call themselves poets (and get published, God help us) who really ought to have stuck to doing crossword puzzles.  Somewhat germane to this topic, allow me to present my next poem, which also happens to be in my favourite form—the sonnet.

RRB:Touché, Peter.  A well-wrought sonnet is not a trivial thing.  Yours—Elizabethan/ Shakespearean, I believe—is well-wrought.  Most of the sonnets I see these days take enormous liberties with the form.  For me—traditionalist though I may well be—there are only three forms:  (1) Petrarchan; (2) Elizabethan/Shakespearean; or (3) Spenserian.  Perhaps you’re not as curmudgeonly as I—or perhaps you’re more forgiving.  I often used to argue with sonneteers on this point—until I just gave up.

But I haven’t changed my opinion.  Why call a thing a ‘sonnet’ if all you’ve got to show for it is fourteen lines?  Fourteen lines does not a sonnet make.  It simply makes fourteen lines.

But inasmuch as you’re obviously a master of the form, I’ll let you correct me if I’m wrong.

PA:No, Russell, you’re right.  The problem is, once you allow one rule to be broken and still call what results a sonnet, you’ve justified the breaking of more and more. Is Shakespeare’s ‘sonnet’ #145 (written in iambic tetrameter, not pentameter) the real deal?  I don’t think so.  And what about Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias,’ which employs an unorthodox rhyme scheme (ABABACDC EDEFEF)?—or Wordsworth’s   variations on the Petrarchan sestet (CDDCDC and CDCDDC)?  However, I give these poems the benefit of the doubt (and I have to admit that the reason is selfish.)  After all, I’m guilty of similar tinkering, as in the following—which I’d hate to think of as only ‘fourteen lines’ by the way (smile).

RRB:Under the circumstances, Peter, I think we’ll grant you some “poetic license.”  However, I’d hardly call this “tinkering” myself.  You’ve got perfect iambic pentameter.  The end-rhyme scheme is ABBACDDC EFFEGG—which, yes, is a bit of gallimaufry.  But I really think you’ve nailed the essentials—and nailed them well (once again, please forgive—under the circumstances—the poor pun).

At the risk of stretching your patience to the breaking point, how about one more piece?  Beforehand, however, perhaps you could share with us a bit of your own thinking on what poetry ought to be, ought to express, ought to achieve.  I’m not one for moral imperatives where art is concerned.  And yet, I think art does have a purpose beyond mere adornment.  If not, we could all fill our homes with Martha Stewart regalia and call it a day.

PA:One thing I think a poem ought to be is the result of effort, written perhaps in a moment of blinding inspiration, but then revised, polished, left alone, gone back to and polished some more—over months and even years if necessary—to get it right.  If it came out too easily, chances are it’s not fit for human consumption.

I also think it should evoke emotion, not express it.  If you want to whine, see a psychiatrist; don’t bother me with your petty personal problems.  Of course, there are those (such as Eliot, in ‘Prufrock’) who are able to turn a whine into a lament for the human condition.  But for every Eliot, there’s a myriad of lost sheep with insufficient wit and good manners to bleat in private.  My final contribution deals with that very topic.

I’d like to end by saying a couple of things about formal verse.  Most people would probably agree that the version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition orchestrated by Ravel is a richer listening experience than the original piano version, because it employs all of the colours of the orchestra.  Rhyme and metre are two of the colours in the formalist poet’s palette.  The writer of free verse eschews them.  Therefore, a poem written by him will have less to delight the reader than one written by a formalist of equal skill and dedication.  That, in any case, is my story—and I’m sticking to it.

RRB:‘Couldn’t agree more, Peter.  With all of the above.

It’s been an enormous pleasure.  Many, many thanks—and goodnight to you and yours.  Stay warm.

“Two Launches”

Two launches.  At the first you count a dozen –
The editor, the author and their wives,
One or the other’s sister, aunt or cousin,
The publisher who, stock in box, arrives
Late, catches breath while gasping invitation
To drink some vino, grab a cheesy bite.
The author stands; you tense with trepidation,
Then, Christ, you almost shout: this guy can write!

The other’s overrun by breathy misses
In Isadora Duncan scarves and beads,
Embracing, till the air is wet with kisses,
Doubles of Wilde or Waugh.  Their idol reads.
You brave each hour-long minute till he’s mobbed
Then, trying to escape, are seen and robbed.
“Look and Learn”

He hung, for eighteen hours, upon a post
That held a farmer’s fence up, near the town,
Until a passing cyclist cut him down.
A week, and he had given up the ghost,
Purportedly the victim of a heist
(The perpetrators having picked him clean),
But, likelier, of homophobic spleen.
Symbologists have likened him to Christ

Re-crucified, but others have recalled
The farmer’s trick of nailing up its skin
To warn away a varmint’s kith and kin
And heard, by drunken redneck thickly drawled:
“Here hangs … Fagela Shepard … look an’ learn,
Unless ya wanna … wind up in a … urn!”

[Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney are
serving life sentences for the 1998 murder, in
Laramie, Wyoming, of Matthew Shepard.]
“Belly Button Fluff”

Poets there are who never have enough
Of serving up their belly button fluff,
As if it were the Hope or Koh-i-noor,
Glinting with enigmatical allure.

How Byron viewed his boogers, no one knows,
Or Dickinson, the lint between her toes;
And why is Shakespeare found on every shelf?
Because he kept his ear-wax to himself.

[The Hope and the Koh-i-noor are famous diamonds.]