Q & A: Donald Revell
Can you tell us a little about John Frederick Peto and why—as well as how—your poem pays homage to him?
John Frederick Peto (1854–1907) was an American artist born in Philadelphia. His father was a merchant of firefighting equipment in that city, which figures a bit in my poem’s first stanza. There’s something deeply moving to me about the gaps that turn out not to be gaps at all between fathers and sons. I think often of Charles Ives’s father playing cornet in the Union Army’s marching band. And I think of my own father, who never learned to read but was the first to urge reading upon me.
Peto did contribute work to a few exhibitions in several cities, including Cincinnati, New Orleans, and St. Louis; but his first one-man show, at the Brooklyn Museum, did not occur until 1950.
I like to think that knowing something of Peto’s work would indeed be a benefit to anyone reading my poem. And I must confess that I’d be very impressed indeed, because I myself only came upon Peto’s work fairly recently. I was beginning to think about cover art for a collection of my poems called A Thief of Strings and decided to leaf through one of my favorite art books, Robert Hughes’s American Visions. And there I saw my first Peto, a beautifully minimal collage made from string, a key, and a picture of Abraham Lincoln. I was thrilled, and knew I had found a friend.
Can you say more about how “Creation’s a funny word”?
The phrase “Creation’s a funny word” is my ars poetica in miniature. Peto’s art is made almost entirely from nothing he can be said to have “made,” and yet it is his. Thus can art sometimes achieve greatness through a candid humility and unmediated delight in something found. I cannot claim ever to have experienced such delight, but I sure do admire it and rejoice in it. Peto and William Blake would get along, I believe.
Is the poem actually addressed to Peto?
My poem is not really addressed to Peto. Rather, I wanted to write one of my own poems as if I were, for a little while, John Frederick Peto but still living my life. The poem was written entirely outdoors in my garden, but while I was out there (over the course of several mornings) I tried to be Peto the entire time.
So who is being addressed when you say, “Old friend, I remember your first wife”?
For some years now, every occasion or subject for a poem has been an instance, sometimes sudden, of friendship. I responded to Peto and to his images and language because they seemed immediately intimate to me . . . i.e., they befriended me at once. In their spareness, they made a friendship space. And one friendship never fails to call all friendships to mind. Probably explains why I hold the “Wednesday” chapter of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to be a latter-day gospel . . . probably why I find Coleridge, sweet editor of one of the first real literary magazines, “The Friend,” to be a patron saint. (There’s nothing friendlier in all the canon than his “Conversation Poems.”) And so, while writing in the garden this poem about friend Peto, my oldest and dearest friend, poet/scholar Norman Finkelstein, came instantly to mind, along with the summer his first wife came to live in Binghamton (where Coleridge had once imagined a utopian community!) along with her enormous loom. Perhaps it was the strings in Peto’s pictures that brought the loom to mind.
And that striking last line, what do you mean by that?
I guess I’m saying farewell to Peto and showing him out through the garden gate, with mutual assurances that all is well.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine