It would have been easy to miss Bob Perelman — a distinguished American poet — at the campuswide New Writing Series workshop last Wednesday. Looking subdued in his beige shirt and faded jeans, he sat patiently among the audience until it was his turn to speak.
He opened with a quote from his poem, an intensely political work about the former vice president.
“We may not have chosen to live inside Dick Cheney’s mind, but we do,” he read aloud. “Wyoming, I read somewhere, is the safest place to live in North America./ No tornados, no tsunamis, no earthquakes, no hurricanes, monsoons, cyclones, or floods. No major airport: No big planes crashing in the sleet. Not even much traffic: Not too many car crashes./ But if living in Wyoming is so safe, living inside Dick Cheney’s mind, though it was formed in Wyoming and stood for Wyoming in the Senate, is not safe at all.”
Perelman’s work is flourished with this sort of political nuance. The poem begins with the political figure Dick Cheney before continuing into deeper historical, governmental and political waters. The New Writing Series was founded in 2007 by the Division of Arts and Humanities. It is an initiative that aims to enrich the UCSD art community by inviting guest poets and writers to read their works.
Perelman’s invitation to participate in the New Writing Series overlapped with the archiving of his poetry in the Archive for New Poetry — a branch of the Mandeville Special Collections Library that houses an extensive collection of manuscripts, sound recordings and poems by American poets. The archive, founded in 1968, highlights alternative approaches to writing that have developed since 1945.
Perelman, who has visited San Diego several times before, all for art-related purposes, currently lives in Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on modernist and contemporary poetry at the University of Pennsylvania.
Perelman grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. He attended the University of Michigan and later the University of Rochester, where he earned a Master’s degree in Greek and Latin classics. His career in poetry began in 1969, when he attended the University of Iowa to take part in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing there. After completing the Writers’ Workshop, he took up residence in Hills, Iowa, where he became the editor of Hills magazine.
In 1976, Perelman and his wife, Francie Shaw, left Iowa for San Francisco. He then founded the San Francisco talk series in 1977, which allowed writers to discuss the poetics and politics involved in language. That same year, Perelman extended the talk series across the pond while studying abroad at King’s College London.
After the establishment of the talk series, Perelman taught part time but soon decided to pursue a career in academia. He earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.
Throughout his career, Perelman has published 16 books of poetry. His best-known collections of poetry include “IFLIFE” (2006), “Ten to One: Selected Poems” (1999) and “Primer” (1981).
Perelman is associated with the “Language” school of poetry — poetry that riffs on the interplay of sound and meaning. But he said that he didn’t agree with the characterization.
“The style of my poetry is innovative, I would say,” Perelman said. “I don’t tell stories in my poetry. But some parts would seem to be unusual uses of language.”
In addition to writing poetry, Perelman has allocated time to being a poetry critic.
Two of his major books of poetry criticism include “The Marginalization of Poetry” (1996) and “The Trouble with Genius” (1994).
While Perelman steered clear of his books of critique at the New Writing Series, he did share poetry from his popular works — mostly from “Primer” and “IFLIFE” — but also poems from the still-untitled book he is currently working on.
Although many of his poems are laced with political, Perelman said he didn’t have an agenda.
“I am not writing poetry for a single political purpose or anything like that,” Perelman said. “I have all sorts of political desires, but they don’t go directly into the poetry.”
When Perelman puts pen to paper, he hopes that his words achieve a greater purpose.
“I can’t boil out a single message about my poetry,” Perelman said. “I don’t have one unified cause. I am, I suppose, writing poetry to improve the quality of life in a very indirect way. Hopefully, it makes people’s minds a little bit livelier and happier.”
Perelman read for nearly an hour, shifting his feet from side to side and speaking intently into the microphone. At times, he managed to elicit laughter from his audience due to the occasional curse word in his poems.
The mood of the Visual Arts Space shifted when Perelman shared a solemn piece entitled “For Emma.”
The seven-stanza poem was written to honor and remember the life of the late Emma Bernstein, daughter of fellow poet and close friend Charles Bernstein.
“Maybe that’s why/ we invented the present/ as a place to live, to keep the things we do know/ know so exactly, keep them exactly, keep/ all of them, keep what we know/ near, at hand, alive in our minds:/ Emma.”
At the conclusion of his reading, Perelman took questions from the audience. One such question was, “What is your favorite poem?” Perelman leaned back and let out a loud “Hah!” The question had caught him by surprise.
“I don’t know,” Perelman said. “I can’t answer that. I usually like things about 90 percent of the way through. Sometimes poems I really like, I really don’t like at all. It’s a little bit like, ‘Oh, I can’t stand this. I can’t stand this … oh, I am in love. This is a great poem.’”
Although Perelman has been writing for over 40 years, he said poetry remains a thrilling career for him. He cited the number of books of poetry he has authored as evidence that poetry has never lost its thrill for him, in spite of the years.
“I write poetry because I find it exciting,” Perelman said. “I am very happy doing it. It is part of an ongoing enterprise and a much larger enterprise — human culture.”