How We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry

by Emily Wolahan

Last year, when Peter Gizzi's In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011 was published, we at JERRY clambered to get a copy and pledged to review it. I fought for the chance to take it on and then, reading through poems that span four books, I found I was paralyzed to say anything coherent. 

I first came across Peter Gizzi's work in New York in 2008, it showed me possibilities in verse and imagination that I didn't even appreciate at the time. Throughout his poems, he explores how the imagination investigates art, language and itself. His is poetry in which thinking unfolds—an intoxicating blend of witnessing a mind and feeling that you are somehow a part of that process, that you have been given access to it. Encountering the poems in 2014, I could see in Gizzi's lines moments when I had figured out something about my own work and moments when I'd learned how to accomplish an approach or a line break or a phrasing that had plagued me. Gizzi showed me the way.

Trying to talk about Gizzi's work with my fellow editors, Ethan Hon and Dan Bevacqua, it occurred to me that how we talk about a poet's work reveals his or her place in our constellation of poets. Better than a review, we at JERRY decided to enlist several working poets and writers to take part in conversations about of a handful of Gizzi's poems over text-message.

These conversations reflect how many of us engage with poetry we love: we talk about it with other poets. We think about how it relates to our own work. The exchange might be casual or in depth, but it means something to chat about a poem, to get excited by its lines, and to be shown another way of looking at it by the genius of our friends. 

Bardo discussed with Robert Whitehead

This Trip Around the Sun Is Expensive discussed with Sumita Chakraborty

Saturday and Its Festooned Potential discussed with Ethan Hon

Blue Peter discussed with Christopher Kondrich

The only flaw in this approach to reviewing In Defense of Nothing is that I wasn't able to chat with other poets about any of Gizzi's stunning long poems. His ability to sustain insight, interest and surprise over several pages of a poem is one of his great gifts to us. In Defense of Nothing tracks decades of Gizzi's insight and development as a poet who appreciates the power of investigating ourselves, our art and our language.

Wesleyan University Press, 2014; Paperback forthcoming in April, 2015