Inspiring Other Poets
“I want Poet Tips to be so successful in helping people connect meaningfully to the language arts that I don’t have to overhear the phrase, I don’t get poetry ever again.”
Interview with poet Robert Peake
How did you come to writing poetry?
The creative arts were always encouraged in my family; I dictated my first poem to my very patient mother at the age of five. It ended up getting published in the church newspaper. I started university as a computer engineering major, but the allure of poetry was too great—so I completed my degree in English literature with an emphasis in poetry, despite protestations that this was a foolish move.
I made my living in IT, writing poetry on the side, until I got married. In preparation for fatherhood, I decided it was time to “put away childish things,” including poetry. When our son James only lived three days, it felt as though my world had collapsed.
Poetry became a lifeline then, indeed the only form of language that made sense in coming to terms with complicated grief. I enrolled in a graduate program in creative writing, working full-time alongside writing and reading for the degree, and it was then that poetry took hold as both a necessary and integral part of my life.
Have you written in any other genres?
I used to write short stories and brief, absurd pieces of prose as a teenager. I would compile these surreal, disjointed, often somewhat subversive pieces together, and copy them out to distribute to friends. I called it “The Mind Dump,” and it became popular reading (in installments!) in the locker rooms and hallways of our local American high school.
Do you have writing rituals or habits, and how do you make space in your life for your writing?
This is very important to me. One of my undergraduate professors, Robert Hass, famously said, “Take the time to write; you can do your life’s work in forty minutes per day.” My graduate school mentor, Marvin Bell, reminded us, “The good stuff and the bad stuff is all part of the stuff.”
So, I essentially show up, and put in the time. Some days what comes forward is better than at other times. But I discovered that any day that I do some writing is a better day for having done so.
I write first thing in the morning, before the IT crises come rolling in over email, before the long draining commutes. By committing to my writing first off, I also commit to “being a poet” throughout the day—noticing and observing both inwardly and outwardly to fuel the next day’s writing session. So, while the actual writing periods are brief, the gathering process is ongoing.
You’ve authored several poetry books. Do you have any advice for poets trying to find publishers, either traditionally or independent?
But meanwhile, find ways to be “in the game” and enjoy the journey. For example, I found that I really love giving readings. Learning how to organize a reading set—in terms of which poems work well in sequence, and what the audience might want, need, or expect in pacing and tone—became an invaluable skill when it came time to arrange a manuscript.
It’s interesting that some of your books are offered in print, while others are e-books. How is it that you are publishing on both platforms but not simultaneously?
My most recent collection, The Knowledge, is available both in print and as an e-book. But other books have ranged from book arts collaborations with a letterpress designer created in a very limited hand-bound run (In Situ) to e-book-only volumes on specialized topics like the game of chess (In Pieces). They have all served different purposes in getting the work into the hands of people who might enjoy it. You dress the poems up warmly and send them out into the world and, in the end, they make their own way.
You offer something rather novel as a poet so to speak, one-on-one consultations as opposed to offering poetry workshops. Can you tell us how you came up with this idea and how it actually works? And why you might not be offering something similar but online?
The Poetry Society one-to-one Poetry Surgeries are indeed a unique and delightful way to dig deep into someone’s work and offer creative support. They came up with the idea as a way to support more individual attention for developing writers (or experienced poets who want a boost), and it has now gone nationwide. I give Surgeries in the Hertfordshire area.
There is also a place for the group workshop, and for online tutelage and support. However, for me, there is nothing quite like sitting across a table from someone with a cup of tea, poring over the pages of their fresh new writing and encouraging them on to new heights.
You’ve recently started up a new site called Poet Tips. Can you tell us what this site is about? And why you seemed to have modeled it on apps like Pandora or Spotify?
Straddling these two worlds of IT and poetry, I am constantly thinking about how we can use technology to better the art. So many of the technological “optimizations” we see nowadays are really about transferring power and wealth from the creative classes into the hands of technocrats. I think we can use technology to reverse that trend, following what works in the world of technology startups but never losing sight of the clear intention to do so in service to making the poetry community stronger.
So, PoetTips is a very simple idea with a big idea behind it. Simply put, it is a recommendations website that helps you find new poets based on the ones you already enjoy. More broadly, it is a revolutionary way to “map” the vast interconnections between poets in service to developing new readership for everyone.
What was your inspiration for starting Poet.Tips?
It has been incredibly valuable for me to have mentors and friends give me recommendations of new poets based on ones they knew I loved. It has opened whole new worlds to me aesthetically. Yet not everyone has the same access. So, the idea with Poet Tips was to “crowd source” many different recommendations to help people find their new favorite poets, and to make it freely available to all.
What is your long-term vision for Poet Tips?
I see the poetry “marketplace” as a space in which there is this huge demand for the experience of poetry, and this huge volume of poetry being written. Yet what people consider the experience of poetry to be is highly subjective. Furthermore, the actual “investment” most people have to make to have an experience that, as Emily Dickinson said, “feel[s] physically as if the top of my head were taken off”—is very high.
I persisted through a lot of poetry that I didn’t love, because when I did hit a “vein of gold” it was so fruitful, so enriching. In our current age of ever-growing distractions, it seems most people will not.
So, the vision with Poet Tips is to help people “find their next favorite poet,” and to make people fall in love with poetry on a much greater scale, by giving them a means to get there very quickly and effectively.
I am particularly interested in the applications to education, to library systems, to independent study—really, anywhere that people might make an inroad to poetry, I want Poet Tips to make that journey incredibly fruitful. I want Poet Tips to be so successful in helping people connect meaningfully to the language arts that I don’t have to overhear the phrase, “I don’t get poetry” ever again.
See Peake’s poetry in VOl. IV #5 of The Woven Tale Press