Peter Gizzi is an imposing presence. Words and sentences pour out of him as though he is at the mercy of his own need to speak. He changes subjects as if hoping to head off a confession he might later regret. But he's not telling secrets; he's talking poetry.
"I'm always narrating my bewilderment," says Gizzi about about his writing process.
In February, Wesleyan published Gizzi's fourth book, The Outernationale, an eagerly awaited follow-up to Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003). Gizzi's star as an American avant-garde poet began rising in the late '80s. His debut, Periplum (1992), was the first title from small press Avec books, and Burning Deck brought out his second collection, Artificial Heart (1998).
And in the '90s, Gizzi's poems began appearing in the Paris Review and in the Best American Poetry anthology. By the time Some Values appeared, Gizzi was already a well-known—though no less challenging—experimental poet. With The Outernationale, he continues to inspire young writers, but also offers those used to more traditional poetry a way into new kinds of poems.
Gizzi was born in 1959 in Massachusetts. His father, who died when Gizzi was 12, was an engineer and high-level manager for General Electric. This early loss may haunt Gizzi's poetry, but, he says, "I don't write autobiographical verse. Whatever crises or thresholds my emotions create are what my poems are about, but I don't actually say, 'I was here and that happened then.' "
After high school, he worked in the GE factory his dad had run. "I remember reading poetry to some of the guys in the factory. They were kind of cool with it, but I knew that it wasn't where I was going to stay," says Gizzi. He attended NYU, where he studied Greek and Latin and took a class with the legendary poet Galway Kinnell. Then he earned an M.F.A. at Brown University.
Gizzi is married to the poet Elizabeth Willis. They met when he published some of her early poems in an experimental poetry journal he edited called o-blek, in which he also published work by John Ashbery; Robert Creeley; Gizzi's brother, Michael, who is also a poet; and other avant-garde figures. At the time, Willis was attending the recently founded Ph.D. program in poetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo, then run by Creeley and Charles Bernstein. According to Gizzi, "Creeley called and said, 'I got you into Buffalo.' I said, 'I'm not going.' Two weeks later I met Liz. I called him back and was like, 'Can I still go to Buffalo?' "
Aside from romance, at Buffalo Gizzi began his scholarly work. For his Ph.D. thesis, Gizzi edited a series of lectures by the San Francisco poet Jack Spicer (1925—1965), which were published as The House That Jack Built (Wesleyan, 1998). Gizzi is now, along with poet Robin Blaser, the literary executor for Spicer's estate, and the two of them are working on a multivolume set of Spicer's collected works.
Gizzi describes his relationship to poetry as "total": "poetry gave me context to live my life. It's not just something I do," he says.
At first, Gizzi's poems can seem off-putting. Titles like "I Wanted The Screen Door Of Summer" only obliquely suggest what the poems will be about, and, in fact, Gizzi is uncomfortable with the idea that his poems are about anything: "hopefully, they just are." Leaping between subjects, they often employ sentence fragments, odd or no punctuation and unusual grammar. Nonetheless, Gizzi chooses images and rhythms that form clear pictures of emotional states. His poems bear the obvious scar of living with the knowledge that, as Gizzi says, "life is tenuous, and things can be lost in a second."
Gizzi also draws on popular culture, as in the sequence "A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me": "I'm responding to the larger sense of dislocation that one experiences on a daily basis. I turn the TV on and I don't know who they're talking to," he says.
Perhaps he explains himself best by taking about Spicer: "He is all about making yourself available to take in the palette of what's in front of you, which could be the newspaper, the sky, a discussion you had, your thoughts, the people who died in your childhood. They're not silent, they never stop speaking."