An Interview with Peter Cole

I met Peter Cole on a squally winter afternoon at a café on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem. My teacher, Gabriel Levin, had put us in touch. Gabi had turned me on to Peter’s work a few months earlier and his multilingual poetic practice had already begun to figure strongly in my own translation of American Yiddish and Hebrew writing.
     I was especially curious about Peter’s interest in my cousin, Charles Reznikoff, about whom he had written briefly in a recent free-form essay, “The Invention of Influence: A Notebook” (Poetry, Jan 2013). We sat for a long while and spoke on various topics, from his forthcoming book of poems, to the translation class he teaches at Yale every spring, to Reznikoff, Zukofsky and the Yiddish modernist poet, Mikhl Likht.
     The conversation flowed on, and toward evening, before parting ways, we agreed to continue our exchange via email while he was in New Haven. This interview is a product of that correspondence.

Peter Cole has published five books of poems, most recently The Invention of Influence, which came out in February from New Directions. He has extensively translated Hebrew and Arabic poetry, both medieval and modern, into English. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.


Ariel Resnikoff: In “The Invention of Influence: A Notebook”—a journal you kept for Poetry magazine a while back—you write that Hebrew became for you “what Arabic was for the Jewish poets of Spain: the way out that led, curiously, in.” Can you elaborate on the significance of this dynamic in your poetry? 


Peter Cole: I can try. The Andalusian and Eastern Jewish poetry I first encountered in the early eighties and then began to translate a few years later opened me up to an entirely new sense of the poem. That poetry’s approach to sound, ornament, form, quotation, the sacred, the foreign, originality and tradition—all eventually rewired my poetic self and led to what’s become, well, my life!

Was that poetic self somehow within me all along? Or something that emerged from the movement between modes and poles and cultures? That dynamic—the endless loop of the inner giving way to the outer and the outer somehow reflecting and then altering what’s within—has come to figure centrally in my poetry, first in Things on Which I’ve Stumbled and now, especially, in The Invention of Influence. All of that came through Spain.


AR: I’m reminded here of the Rothko quotation you include in “The Object and Its Edge”: “I don’t express my self in my painting. I express my not self”; and also of the lines from your “The Reluctant Kabbalist”: “…what was beyond/ suddenly lying within, and what had lain/ deep inside–now…apparently gone…”. What relationship (if any) do you see between Rothko’s meditation and your own poetics? 


PC: “The Object and Its Edge” is an early essay of mine that looks at the work of Oppen and Zukofsky through the lens of Rothko and Barnett Newman—so I’m quoting the Rothko there in relation to those writers, and probably with Oppen in mind. I suppose that around that time—1983 or 84—it applied to my own poetics as well. But the lines you quote from “The Reluctant Kabbalist,” from the new book, involve a different poetics—one in which outside and inside are engaged in a much more fluid and, in some ways, mysterious relationship. At this point, I wouldn’t use a phrase like “my not self” in relation to my own work. Though the vision of “self” that informs my poetry now certainly goes beyond the “personal.”


AR: Can you say more about the mysterious relationship between “outside and inside” and its connection to the “self” and the “personal” in The Invention of Influence? I am thinking specifically of the lines from “On Being Partial”: “Not the impersonal,/ but that which hovers here/ between the ‘I’ of the opening/ and the ‘us’ of your possible listening…”


PC: I suppose that I’ve always been fascinated by places of transition and transmission, of translation in the most radical sense (i.e., one that goes to the root of things). That translational space is “mysterious” in part because it can’t be controlled, only navigated. It’s no more or less mysterious than everything is, including this conversation. Likewise with the lines you quote from “On Being Partial”: They point to the fact of our always being a “part” of something, of in a sense not really existing “apart,” or without relation. At the same time, being “partial” also indicates preference, which is highly personal and which determines just about everything—who our friends are, what books we read, what clothes we wear, what food we eat, how we write, and what (and who) we like to look at. Which is to say, taste. So the space beyond the “’I’ of the opening [of the poem]” isn’t exactly “impersonal,” it isn’t a not-self; it involves oneself in constantly reconfigured and reconfiguring relation to others (to other people and other things, including words). That’s also the heart of what Pound called “the live tradition.”


AR: I’m curious about your feelings towards Pound, especially with regard to his interest in medieval sources. In what ways is your poetry and/or translation practice in dialogue with his? 


PC: It seems to be increasingly fashionable to bash Pound or dismiss him outright, for reasons that have nothing to do with his anti-Semitic rants. But I’m still surprised when people do. Pound didn’t just call for the development of the live tradition; he embodied it. Moreover, as Berryman once put it (approximately), English hasn’t had an ear like that since Shakespeare. Finally, the range of his taste and appreciation I also find exemplary. He too contains multitudes.



      Invention isn’t god-like:
     it doesn’t create out of nothing. 
It works through what’s found: it discovers,
     and much like influence, it recovers 


a charge that’s already there,
     potentially, in the air…


These lines, from the long title poem of your new book, echo the same sense of potent discovery (inventus) we find in “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled.” I’m interested in the play between active and passive invention in your poetry. How much is invention a matter of seeking and how much a matter of stumbling upon?


PC: That’s a great question. Stumbling on things means nothing for poesis; it just means that you’ll have a rich inner life. What you do with what you stumble on, how you let it deflect or redirect you, is every bit as important as staying open. Likewise, you can actively seek all you want, and be incredibly disciplined. But if the world isn’t surprising you, then what do you have? And, more important, what will you be giving others in your poems?

   In other words, what you’re looking for helps determine what you stumble on, and what you stumble on in turn gives rise to what you want to find more of, or more about. And to the drive to find more. Invention is that charged and constantly shifting dynamic between these states.


AR: I’d like to shift gears here to discuss your interest in the work of Charles Reznikoff. Reznikoff is one of the only twentieth-century English-language American poets as invested in the Hebrew language and poetic lineage as you are. Do you see his Hebraism as directly connected to his Objectivist poetics?


PC: Directly, no. Indirectly, maybe. Do you?


AR: I think there’s a definite connection. In sections 14 and 15 of “Building Boom” for example:


How difficult for me is Hebrew:
Even the Hebrew for mother, for bread for sun
is foreign […]



I have learnt the Hebrew blessing for eating bread;
is there no blessing before reading Hebrew?”


Reznikoff’s estrangement from Hebrew in these lines allows him to go back to basics and grapple with the complexity of words themselves as things. It seems to me, then, that the connection must be, as you suggest, indirect, since Hebrew tradition is rendered most potent in his verse when it is treated from a distance. This is not true, I think, of Zukofsky’s Yiddish, which is so near to him at all times that he can never explicitly confront its significance. It is clear that in the case of Reznikoff and Zukofsky we are dealing with an Objectivist poetics steeped in questions of American multicultural-multilingualism. Do you believe this tradition is alive in your poetry and translation?    


PC: If you think one can use the term “American multicultural-multilingualism” in relation to poems published under a goyish name by a white Jewish guy from suburban New Jersey, then why not?! There IS a hybrid linguistic and cultural dimension to the poems I make, and it goes to the heart of those poems and the drive to compose them. The introduction of Hebrew into the matrix of my experience in an active way, along with a later infusion of Arabic, has had a decisive effect on my work. Ever since, I’ve often felt as though I were writing into the space between Hebrew or Arabic and English, whether I’m composing “original” work or translating.

     As for Reznikoff, I’m not sure it’s so easy to account for the particular qualities of his English, since his relation to both Hebrew and Yiddish remained distant. But it’s clear to me that consciousness of another culture, even the shadow of that culture, does inform Reznikoff’s work. He was always on the outside looking in. Does that explain it? I don’t know. Whatever the trigger or forces behind it, there’s something refreshingly jarring in his plainness, something uplifting in his reduction, something expansive and ramifying in his no-nonsense sense of the language and of law— to take the terms of his vocation and his profession.

   So, at bottom, yes, I sense something deeply, Hebraic, or Mishnaic in Reznikoff’s work.  Hence the lines that you quote—about a kind of back to basics approach to the language, as though he were learning English all over again and delighting in its ability to do the simplest things, rather than showing off with it.


AR: Harold Bloom, in his introduction to The Invention of Influence, writes that the sefirot (attributes/emanations) of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, which appear a number of times in your newest work, are for him “a useful rhetoric, tropes constituting a truly critical response for the appreciation of poems.” Can you speak to Bloom’s statement? What role do you feel the sefirot play in your poetry?


PC: Bloom also refers in the introduction to “the Kabbalah of Harold Bloom,” which is to say, that he reads that tradition rather eccentrically— far from the center of the circle it ripples out from. But having spent a great deal of time with Kabbalistic material over the years, especially while working on The Poetry of Kabbalah, I have to say that I find Bloom’s readings of even the most rarefied and elusive Kabbalistic systems to be consistently and remarkably penetrating. As for his saying that the sefirot are useful tropes for responding to poems— an approach he says “no living Kabbalist or scholar would agree to”: I’m neither a Kabbalist nor a scholar; I’m a maker of poems. And I’d agree with Bloom that the sefirot can be applied this way, even if I wouldn’t apply them primarily in that way.

    Unless, of course, one begins to see in the world itself an infinite series of poems in the process of constellation. A series of shifting and at times revelatory sets of relations. Which–I suppose I do, as Tevye’s wife, in Fiddler on the Roof, finally admits, after he’s asked her: “Do you love me?”


AR: Say more about your own application of the sefirot in The Invention of Influence. How does it differ from what Bloom suggests?


PC: The basic difference is that, at least in Kabbalah and Criticism, Bloom is primarily interested in applying this relational network to literary tradition. Whereas I’m trying to understand their action in a perceived and felt world, in experience. Though to be fair, he also understands the sefirot as language, or, as he puts it, “relational events.” And, in his introduction to The Invention of Influence, he acknowledges what he calls “the dark heart of Cordoveran Kabbalah,” in which the sefirot are seen as multiple facets or aspects of being, “a more-than Freudian vision of the intricacy of psychic life.”

I read the Kabbalists on the sefirot, however, and my eyes soon cross. It’s all a disembodied code, and one has to be deeply inside it to get the jokes, as it were. But there is, nonetheless, something extremely powerful about the understanding or experience that gave rise to the system, and I tried to let that experience give rise to poems on a few occasions. Not to force the system onto a poem, but to employ the sefirot as constraints, in the way that one would accept the constraints of a sonnet or a villanelle, say, and to see where that would lead. To let a poem grow out of them. At any rate, that was the experiment— to see if I could create the conditions in which that might happen. “What Is,” the poem about the trees and people and paths in the park near my New Haven apartment is one of the poems that resulted. It turns the sefirot into a complicated walk in the park. Actually.

   The other poem in the book that deals with the sefirot, “Song of Dissent,” is, as its title implies, more skeptical and in fact anti-sefirotic, though the registration of that dissent ends up acknowledging their power.


AR: I’m fascinated by your splicing of the Greek concept of “agon” with the Mishnaic Pirkei Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) in the “The Invention of Influence.” The result is not a clean fusion of traditions but, rather, a stroboscopic whirlpool of relational meanings, something like the Gysin-Burroughs dreamachine. “Poetry is something between the dream/ and the reading,” you write in the second section of the poem. “Which might be just: Poetry is something between…” Tell me about this betweenness. How does it figure into the relationship between teacher and student, father and son?


PC: That flickering sense you’ve singled out is precisely what I wanted from the splicing in the poem– the sudden juxtapositions and lingering afterimages superimposed on one another. Which is how we’re always slipping, in an instant, from teacher to student and back again, from parent to child, text to commentary, translation to original, and center to margin. Betweenness is all. Which is to say, ripeness. Or at least a condition of ripeness. For better and worse, that’s where I’ve known the fullest and most meaningful pleasure, in writing and in living. The trick is to give that experience the fullest possible expression. And to translate that sense of being between, of linkage, into forms— poems, conversations, and relationships— that are necessary and vital, even if, as translations, they’re inevitably imperfect, and never quite done.