When MFA graduate and Blue Bicycle Books manager Sara Peck set out to write Yr Lad Bob, her recently published chapbook, she did nothing haphazardly. “The book itself is based on this group of poets that were writing, mostly together, between the mid-30s and mid-50s, and they were also writing to each other,” she says. Those poets are Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan, all of whom were part of the Black Mountain School in North Carolina, the first school to focus on the importance of teaching the creative arts. And when Peck says “based on,” she doesn’t mean that in the usual, influenced-by sense.
Yr Lad Bob is an unusual undertaking in that it approaches the question of authorial influence with an incredible amount of directness. Peck incorporates direct quotations from the poets as well as her own annotations on their work. “What I did was put together a reading list for myself of almost everything that Robert Creeley wrote and that Denise Levertov wrote and then a few pieces that the poet Robert Duncan wrote. I think it ended up being about 32 books or so,” she says. “When I read all of them, I wrote down every line that just broke my heart and kept heavy marginal notes. Then I wrote poems in response to theirs.”
And although it’s nearly impossible to decipher what is Peck’s and what belongs to the poets, there are spots where her annotations appear to come through:
life is not a walk across a field — problematic re FIELD?
as in the field field
field of Olson > form is or isn’t more of a revelation
picking up / the voices of wheat
These moments, like the direct quotations, are integrated so seamlessly that they never jar the reader out of the quiet universe Peck’s poems create. Rather, these pieces read like a smooth dip into the process of reading and writing, addressing, as poet Lisa Fishman writes in her introduction to Yr Lad Bob, Duncan’s claim that “to read is to write.” Although Peck experienced some initial anxiety over appropriating the language of her poetic forebears, it didn’t last long. “At least 20 percent or so are not my words, but I sort of wanted to — I didn’t want a person to be able to tell what was mine and what wasn’t by the end of the process. It was as much a project of ownership as anything else,” she says.
The poems, all of which are short, can be read one by one or continuously, although Peck says the separations from page to page are deliberate. The poems are culled from a manuscript of around 80 pages that she had intended to publish as a whole, but now she’s not so sure. “I feel really great about it in this small, contained space.” She has three other projects in the works too, two full-length manuscripts and another chapbook.
And though the financial fruits of poetic labor are as elusive as they always have been — not that any poet in their right mind would write for money — Peck is excited to be writing at this particular time in contemporary poetry’s history. “I have three jobs right now, none of which is my being a poet, but in all honesty, the nonexistent financial life of poets aside, I really think contemporary poetry is booming right now. There’s been more awareness, and a huge resurgence in small press,” she says. “And at least in small circles, there’s a lot of appreciation for experimental poetry. There’s more openness.”