Samuel Peralta: The Physics of Poetry
“A poet looks at the world a little differently from others, and so does a scientist. I am very fortunate to be both. I find beauty in the cosmological consequences of dark matter, as much as I do in the written and spoken word. I appreciate the beauty in Heisenberg’s principle as much as Matisse’s economy of line. I’m probably one of the few poets in the world who literally dreams about tensor equations.”
~Samuel Peralta, physicist and award-winning author of Sonata Vampirica
by Samuel Peralta
Tonight I will draw over
the pencilled lines of the wings again,
not being able to hide them
the way the legs were hidden,
shadowed in flight behind the reeds.
Where my hand shakes,
there will be the hint of where
a sudden gust had startled it
as it began its rise;
where steady, the long neck
arches, as in a dance.
Just so, the reeds bend back
beneath the rush of wings
that are not there yet,
and where the long legs
come out from wading,
the waters circle back,
ripple after shimmering ripple.
Heron, alone and unchanging,
you are a moon whose two sides
are forever dark.
the secret hidden in the heart,
the river’s grain, the whisper,
the unseen tree
fallen in the forest,
and this uncertain moment
fading into stillness…
Shadowless, in shadow,
rising from the waters
like a dream.
It probably shouldn’t come as such a surprise that physicist Samuel Peralta is also a poet. After all, his father was an archaeologist and his mother a painter.
“At the same age I was writing couplets for my mom, I was building working typewriters with Legos,” Peralta tells us. “When I was a finalist in the Scholastic Writing Awards, I was also a finalist in my school’s Science Fair. When I got my PhD in physics, I won a prize in the UK Poetry Society competition.”
Recently, fellow Canadian poet, Salvatore Ala, profiled earlier in Combustus magazine’s “In Pursuit of the Sublime,” interviewed Peralta, as the first in a new series of poet-to-poet interviews.
INTERVIEW with SAMUEL PERALTA by SALVATORE ALA
Salvatore Ala: One of the first things that struck me about your wonderful poetry was the clarity of your language and imagery, like the contrasting imagery of your beautiful poem “Black Rock Light,” which closes with that masterful final image “… the freeze frame/of the iceberg ignites and lingers/captured in the daguerreotype of dream.” Was this clarity something natural to you or something you’ve cultivated and mastered?
Samuel Peralta: First of all, thanks to you, and to Deanna Piowaty, for the opportunity to talk about my work. Thank you as well for your kind words. Clarity of language and imagery doesn’t come easily. Years of editing experience make it seem natural, but poetry demands a higher level of precision in language and imagery that needs to be worked at, cultivated, honed.
Salvatore Ala: Recent trends in poetry, either language-based or politically-nuanced, have tended to turn obfuscation and chaos into an aesthetic. Being clear is seen as being cliché, bourgeoisie, even sentimental, even though many of our greatest poets like Czeslaw Milosz and Seamus Heaney do possess wonderful clarity and depth. What are your thoughts and in which direction do you see yourself moving?
Samuel Peralta: Although there may be a place for an aesthetic of chaos, I believe that public poetry – poetry meant to be read or responded to by others and not just by the author himself, as for diaries or journals – has a responsibility to its audience. We can’t assume that the reader has the time or inclination to decipher the writer’s private symbology. Assume that, and you lose the audience. I believe in providing the reader with several levels of meaning – the visceral, where the response is immediate even to the most casual reader; and the symbolic, which rewards a more critical reader. The most “sentimental” of my works, the pieces in How More Beautiful You Are are love poems; that’s my compact with the reader. But if you love language, politics, historical and literary allusions, genetics, cosmology – there’s a wealth of that in there for you, as well.
Flying over Connecticut, the earth
Begins to move. Like a beacon,
The seatbelt sign lights up,
And in its incandescent glare
The window stutters my ashen portrait,
Shaken from sleep. Forgetting where I am,
I reach beyond the faultline
To the seat beside me, desolate and cold.
And suddenly I feel the plate
Tectonics of our lives begin to separate,
My heart beats harder than the whirr
Of the propellers turning, desperation
Quivers into longing, trembles into a
Richter of desire.
All night the aftertremors shake me,
Shattering my calcite dreams.
My heart traces out its epicenter west,
Beyond San Andreas, to you.
Salvatore Ala: I loved your poems “How More Beautiful You Are” after Kotaro Takamura, “To a Woman Now Gone” and others. Kotaro Takamura has been one of my own favorite poets. His Chieko poems break your heart. I wonder if you could talk about Kotaro Takamura’s influence on your own work and perhaps you could tell us if you are working toward a selected translation of his poems.
Samuel Peralta: I was introduced to Takamura’s work by a professional Japanese translator, Leanne Ogasawara, who happened to be a follower of my poetry. Through her, I also linked up with Jack Peters, who produced a translation of the complete Chieko poems, and also Paul Archer. Tackling Takamura’s works led me to a completely new way of writing. When I am immersed in a Chieko adaptation, I imagine myself channeling Takamura’s poetic spirit, with his words only as a general guide. I don’t translate the words, I place myself in his situation, I make myself feel what he feels. To achieve this, I adapted the Stanislavski system, the Method, adapted it from theater and film, to poetry. I’d done this before, with other poems and persona, but never with such an intensity as with Takamura. I am working on a manuscript that will include my versions of the Chieko poems, along with biographical sketches of their Kotaro and Chieko’s lives; an excerpt “Sky (December 1955)” is on my website.
Salvatore Ala: I am also curious about your adaptations from the Japanese. I know the Hiroaki Sato translations, but what you seem to have done is to have created new poems out of the old, quite similar to what Robert Lowell achieved in his book, Imitations, an important influence on many poets of his generation and after. Is this also what you sought to achieve?
Samuel Peralta: Yes, at least with the Chieko poems! While I’m not familiar with the Hiroaki Sato translations, I have the translations by Peters and Paul Archer, as well as other unpublished translations by Ogasawara. Although my renditions are not tied to the strictures required of translators, they have their own self-imposed strictures, that govern my own original poetry. I deviate from the original when I make a conscious choice to enhance the reader’s experience of what I perceive as the essential emotionality or philosophy of the poem. Translators are challenged with balancing linguistic faithfulness while trying to bridge the cultural gap. In my case, if it requires a Western metaphor or nuance in order to convey what I feel was the poet’s intent, then so be it. It is, after all, a Western idiom that I must work in. Ezra Pound helped enrich many readers with his renditions of the poetry of Li Bai (Li Po) – some would say in spite of his deviations from the original poems. How many present-day readers of poetry have searched out more of Li Po, because of Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”? And yes, there is a case for saying that my Chieko adaptations are palimpsests, that they are, in fact, new poems.
Salvatore Ala: The great American scholar, Helen Vendler, thought that a generation of poets have been ruined for having been reared almost exclusively on translations. Do you agree?
Samuel Peralta: Whether you agree with Helen Vendler or not – and her many opinions allow you to go one way today and another tomorrow – she definitely fires discussion, and that’s a good thing. English translations will never be perfect; but then, what is the poor English reader to do who wishes to read Dante, Ovid, Neruda, Li Po? I agree, to be able to fully appreciate the nuances of the “Vita Nuova”, one should be immersed in the original language, culture, philosophy; but to do so for every book whose writer who happens to have been born in a different country and century from my own – that’s not practical. It was a group of translators – Anthony Kerrigan, W.S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, Nathaniel Tarn – who introduced me to Pablo Neruda. Neruda’s poetry and the poetry of T.S. Eliot – himself edited by the remarkable Pound – engendered in me an encompassing love for poetry and poetic craftsmanship that had previously been a casual love.
Salvatore Ala: The first things I notice about poetry is form. Yours is exceptional. Sonnets from the Labrador are wonderfully varied and subtle. I wonder if you could discuss your literary influences and how they might have helped shape your own understanding of form.
Samuel Peralta: I read a lot, so the influences are varied – Galway Kinnell, H.D., Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Billy Collins, Gary Snyder, Carolyn Kizer, Rainier Maria Rilke, Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, Seamus Heaney, Wendy Cope. So many more. I have a Rod McKuen collection, and I think Eminem is a genius. I adore Raymond Carver. But the foundation starts with Neruda and Eliot. To Neruda I owe lyricism, emotionality and the melodic line; to Eliot I owe symbolism, literary allusion, and the objective correlative. Neither of them are formalists, so it is interesting that much of my poetry is structured. I wrote an article once on “Free Verse, Picasso, and Yachting,” in which I wrote: “I believe that you’re able to write the best free verse you can when you are most practiced at formal verse. Which is to say, while the best way to master sonnets is to write sonnets – the best way to master free verse is to write sonnets. It’s been said that Pablo Picasso, at 17 years of age, could paint as wonderfully as the old masters – and thus he freed himself to explore his own unique idiom. It’s the same idea.” In the article, I present a poem I wrote, a sonnet masquerading as free verse. Mastering structure – that’s true freedom.
ON THE ORIGIN OF THE FEAR OF DENTISTS
From an archeological dig
out of Mehrgarh in Pakistan, a relic
surfaces – a maxillary left
Second molar from an adult male.
On the occlusal surface, under light,
a single, deep, in vivo perforation.
Shaft anchored in a hollowed stone,
I imagine a sturdy bow-drill
In the palm, rotated by a stringed bow.
At its other end, a drill-bit of flint,
tipped to a crude, sharpened, conical point,
Braced against the wavering tooth.
Even now I hear the sound, from
somewhere deep in the Indus Valley,
echoing across nine thousand years
A Neolithic primal scream
Salvatore Ala: Having reached such a large audience, I’d like to ask if, like T.S. Eliot, you now feel the need to write criticism?
Samuel Peralta: No, I only feel the need to explain my own philosophies of writing, and the sensibilities that may have shaped individual poems. My digital books – Sonata Vampirica, Sonnets from the Labrador, How More Beautiful You Are, Tango Desolado and War and Ablution – all contain essays that explore all these. The thing is, why write criticism when I’m no good at it, and there’s still so much to say in poetry? That’s what I’m busy with: I have four new digital books waiting in the wings; a print-on-demand book that will bring together two of my digital books into a full print collection; and a manuscript being readied for offer to a traditional print publisher. This last is a collection called Letter to Neruda.
Salvatore Ala: Since you’ve been described as having been “at the forefront of a new media literary renaissance,” I also wonder what role criticism has played for you. Have you felt ostracized by the publishing community, the intellectual or academic community, or by hardcopy luddites who insist on the predominance of the book as book? Do you care?
Samuel Peralta: I haven’t really felt ostracized by anyone except the mass of people who are buying Fifty Shades of Grey. I wish there were as many people who valued poetry! While gaining a digital audience, I also placed works in mainstream print publications, partly to prove to myself that I could. Yes, I was a crowd-sourced Shorty Awards winner for poetry via Twitter, but last year one of my works was shortlisted for ARC Magazine’s Poem of the Year, administered by one of Canada’s most well-known print literary publications. I don’t believe in the artificial barriers between the old and new, and I’m trying to prove with my works that those barriers shouldn’t have to exist – that if the writing matters, you can thrive in both worlds. That unification, to me, is the real literary renaissance.
Salvatore Ala: Do you believe the “new media literary renaissance” has brought new and younger readers to poetry? Or has it somehow hurt poetry, as the purists tend to believe?
Samuel Peralta: I believe that new media has brought a wider audience to poetry. The numbers who have read my work online or in digital format far outstrip the numbers who have read my work via traditional publishing. I also believe that the democratization of distribution has meant that poetry that was reserved for personal, intimate audiences is now finding its way to the public. There is that perception that some metric for literary quality has diminished with the amount of such work now available – but those works were always being written, only in the form of diaries and personal journals. Again, I want to bridge both worlds, be a purist in terms of literary quality – but also have my works immediately accessible, immediately understandable.
Salvatore Ala: Living in a society that embraces multiculturalism also means never losing your identity. It is a double-edged sword. As a creative artist how has multiculturalism informed and affected your own life and work?
Samuel Peralta: I’m from a multicultural background. I was born in the Philippines, grew up there and in the U.S., finished a doctorate in the U.K., and have lived the last many years in Canada. My Philippine heritage means that I already started with a mix of Spanish, Chinese, and Malay identity. My identity is a melange of all those experiences, and it allows me to appreciate perspectives that being rooted to one culture perhaps excludes. It’s a strong enabler of the personas that speak through my poetry. It allows me to make my narratives more real for the reader.
Salvatore Ala: In your schooling in science and physics, were there some teachers who had an influence on your writing, not so much by the example of their own writing as by their personal direction or scientific vision?
Samuel Peralta: My physics and mathematics teachers taught me to appreciate the beauty in everything, from electronic circuits to thermodynamic equations. They also enabled me to make a living, achieve the financial stability to enable the pursuit of the arts. Those who directly influenced my writing were really the teachers of art and literature, who saw something in me as a young man, and encouraged me to write.
Salvatore Ala: The great French poet, Francis Ponge, said that the purpose of poetry was “to nourish the spirit of man by giving him the cosmos to suckle.” How as a physicist would you define the purpose of poetry?
Samuel Peralta: I’m not sure it’s as a physicist that I can best define the purpose of poetry. As a physicist, I see poetry in the mathematics of the universe, in quasars and pulsars and dark matter, and in that sense, the purpose of poetry is to express the balance in the universe. The physicist in me gives me a metaphorical construct that isn’t available to many other poets, it’s an advantage. But to define the purpose of poetry? That’s best left to the writer. Poetry is a shorthand, a way to express what is felt in the heart; it is a semaphore for the soul.
* * *
Samuel Peralta is a Canadian physicist and author, whose poetry has won awards worldwide, including from the Palanca Foundation, the UK Poetry Society and the BBC; he has also served as a juror for the Scholastic Writing Awards. His poetry has appeared in Existere, The Malahat Review, Metazen, MiPOesias, OCHO, Poets and Artists, Seedpod, Undercurrents, and other journals and anthologies. His recent digital books – Sonata Vampirica, Sonnets from the Labrador, How More Beautiful You Are, Tango Desolado, and War and Ablution – all topped their Amazon poetry bestseller category, and charted in the GoodReads Great Small Press Books list. His poetry blog can be found at www.peralta.ca.
Peralta has four books of poetry available – Sonata Vampirica, Sonnets from the Labrador, How More Beautiful You Are, and Tango Desolado – all of which have been Amazon poetry bestsellers, debuting at #1 on the Amazon Kindle Hot New Releases in Poetry.
Salvatore Ala is a Canadian poet who has published three collections of poetry: Clay of the Maker (Mosaic Press), Straight Razor and Other Poems (Biblioasis), and Lost Luggage (Biblioasis). His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies. He has also published six broadsides of his poetry. Read an interview with Ala in the Combustus magazine piece, “In Pursuit of the Sublime.”
François Gasnot is a French wildlife photographer. To connect with Mr. Gasnot: https://www.facebook.com/francois.duneuftrois