Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Peter, I’d like to start with a question about poet Ronald Johnson. I’d love to hear about how you came into contact with Johnson, his work, and his archive. Could you talk about the importance of Johnson’s work on your own writing practices?
Peter O'Leary: I wrote to Ron out of the blue in 1992 when I was twenty-four years old, at a crossroads. I was working at the time for a correspondence high school on the South Side of Chicago, miserable in a way in no way unique to someone in his early twenties, wanting more than anything to make my way in the world as a poet. I had admired Ron’s work for two or three years and that spring was deeply immersed in reading ARK: The Foundations, a book that almost completely informs my sense of the possibilities in poetry. I had read some interviews with him here and there, tracked down further installments of ARK in various journals, and intuited that if I wrote him and asked him how to go about solving this problem – the problem of making my way in the world as a poet – he would respond kindly and maybe give me an answer.
After sending my letter, I didn’t have to wait long: I received a neatly typed two-page letter that told me what to do, and more or less continues to do so, as if I’d somehow managed to summon the Cumaean oracle. Or William Blake. For instance, he told me, “But remember that writing is a solitary, even lonely thing, and is not done in workshops. There is just you and the blank page, and there is no one to overcome but yourself. ENTER THIS GATE (and you just might become a poet worth your salt.)”
I wrote about this extensively in a memoir, “Gilding the Buddha: My Apprenticeship with Ronald Johnson,” which was published in Ronald Johnson: Life and Works, edited by Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger (National Poetry Foundation, 2008), so I won’t rehearse what I’ve already covered in detail. (I included a lot of the letters from Ron in that piece, including the full text of that first letter.)
I’ve also talked in various places about some of the tasks involved in organizing the archive and in handling the work of being Ron’s literary executor, most extensively in an interview I did with October magazine a few years back. The work involved in this role is sometimes very interesting – especially at first, when I spent time going through all his papers, organizing them, and getting things prepared for publication. As the years have drifted by – Ron has been dead for twelve years now – the work has gotten more ordinary – in the sense of just being something I do – but no less important, I hope.
When a poet like Ronald Johnson, who was essentially obscure but with a core group of devoted readers, dies, you’re kind of fighting against time, which will one day rub away even the letters in Shakespeare’s name. But you’re doing it in a way you never really think about while you’re alive – you yourself as a poet, trying while you live to serve the art. When Ron’s work came into my hands in this way, I realized it was now part of my life to make sure his work stays alive. For me, this means spreading interest in his work by publishing new poetry, reprinting older poetry, and working constantly to get his collected works into print. I’ve been fortunate that Flood Editions, edited by Devin Johnston and my brother Michael, has taken on the task of putting works of Johnson’s into print. But we’re also aware – “we” being Devin, Michael, and myself – that the work needs to find its way to a university publisher to ensure its lasting presence.
But there are plenty of other things to do, too: organizing the archives; making the work available for anthologies and for researchers; encouraging people to come study the work. As I said, even as these things become more ordinary, they’re no less interesting.
In the years since Ron’s death, I’ve noticed growing interest in his work – nothing huge, but I take heart that younger readers (most of them poets, admittedly) clearly are finding substance, inventiveness, and the vibrant aspect of the creative imagination at play in his work. Radi os, Ron’s rewriting-by-excision of Paradise Lost, because so formally ingenious, gets a lot of the attention from the creative writing crowd, but it’s pretty clear that readers are tuning in to ARK, his masterpiece, a poem in spite of my quotidian relationship to it I continue to revere.
Ron and my own writing practice: early on, his influence was constant. My first book, Watchfulness, was essentially a book of journeywork, written under his advice. (Every poem in that book was one he looked at and corrected.) Not long after I put that collection together, Ron died. I was writing a dissertation on Robert Duncan at the time (this was in 1998; I was living in Vienna), and I began to shift into a different – gloomier maybe, but more extravagant – rhetoric in my poems. This involved the discovery of an idiom, one I consider personal property, I suppose. It’s evolved over the years, of course: I would say that when I was writing with/for Ron, my focus in the poem was on the word, moving from word to word, positioning and cantilevering meaning from one word to the next. During the shift, I began to pay attention to the sentence as the atomic unit for my poems. There it’s stayed, I think, with forays into ways of building up the sentence – especially using repetitions (anaphora, chiefly), but also stripping it down. But Ron’s direct influence has returned of late as I worked on and finished a long poem directly related to Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”