Name: Peter G. Witzig / Age: 25 / Location: New York, New York / Education: B.A. in English with a minor in Linguistics, Emory University / Current Title: Poet, Master of Fine Arts candidate at Columbia University School of the Arts
On Pursuing Poetry
“I grew up in a religious household. It was expected that we would know and study the King James Bible. That early environment was my first immersion into words, along with public school and the public library. I love what words do to me emotionally and what they can do to reveal.
I never thought of poetry as my primary creative pursuit until one of my college professors pointed me towards poems that had to do with my life. My exposure to poetry before then had been mostly in hymns, psalms, and choral music with some Shakespeare sprinkled in for good measure. I enjoyed all of these, but they still felt a bit distant or removed from the here-and-now. They felt unchangeable.
Once I realized that a wide variety of life experiences—song, prayer, work, emotion, the sacred, stories, trauma, characters, the Midwest, language, doubt—could be held in poetry and that I could shape and renew those experiences in poems, I found my calling.
Choosing to pursue a graduate degree in poetry writing is an attempt to follow that call.”
On Favorite Poets
“Among those living and writing right now, there are plenty of poets from my original neck of the woods (Minnesota) that I admire.
- Danez Smith (Don’t Call Us Dead)
- Matt Rasmussen (Black Aperture)
- Sean Hill (Dangerous Goods)
- Connie Wanek (Hartley Field)
I also love Jericho Brown (Please, The New Testament) for the way he delves into God, brotherhood, prayer, and sex. I love the innovative and forward-looking work of Cathy Park Hong (Engine Empire) and the gritty, honest work of Kim Addonizio (Tell Me).”
“I turn again and again to Lucie Brock-Broido (for the depth of language and originality), James Wright (for his sparseness and simplicity), and Philip Levine (for the way he writes about work and growing up working-class). And I will always love the Irish poet Seamus Heaney for the music in his verse.”
On Must-Read Books
“Read books of poetry! Poetry has always been relevant, but I am glad it seems to again be widely thought of as part of a well-rounded reading list. Poetry anthologies (like Contemporary American Poetry) are excellent starting places for sampling and finding out what one likes and does not like.”
- I think every person in the U.S. of A. should be reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s book of essays They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. It covers a wide swath of culture and recent events from Michael Brown to Prince to Carly Rae Jepsen. Hanif is also an essential (and hilarious!) Twitter follow for takes on culture.
- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young wanderer who attempted to leave society and live self-sufficiently in the Alaskan wilderness. It was later turned into an excellent movie that is also well worth a watch.
- Layli Long Soldier’s book of poems Whereas takes a hard look at what is and has been considered “legal” in the United States, as well as the experience of being alive in this country in 2018.
“Leaving time for life, leaving time for joy—to make love, to listen to music, to rest, to take a walk, to sit on the porch, to spend time with loved ones, to eat well—is just as, if not more, important to me as to-do lists, goals, or deadlines.”
On Significant Accomplishments
“Deciding to go to college and finish a degree was an important move for me. I was working construction when I applied, and I only decided to leave that work for school after I was offered me need-based financial aid. Not only did I find my calling in poetry writing during college, I was also exposed to a world beyond my hometown, was encouraged towards the beginnings of an intellectual life, and I met friends from a variety of backgrounds who changed me for the better and who I hope will be in my life for a lifetime.”
On Doing a Solo Hiking Trip
“Going on an extended through-hike had been a goal of mine for some time and eventually I said to myself, ‘What are you waiting for?’ It ended up being a sustained time for personal reflection and clearing my head before I returned to school. I love being active and spending time outside, so it was an ideal combination. The Superior Hiking Trail is one of the nation’s hidden hiking gems in my (admittedly biased) opinion!”
On Finding Your Passion
“I feel too young to give out advice, but I do like what Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “Wild Geese”:
‘You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’
Love what you love! Whatever you find yourself doing with some zest or excitement, follow that to its end. Rainer Marie Rilke famously told a young poet “you must change your life.” I am not so sure that he means one must change their circumstances—often that is not possible—but I do think it might mean being prepared to do something desperate, wherever you are.
For me, changing my life meant taking off after high school with no real plan and not much money when I felt like my hometown was closing in on me after high school graduation. I hitchhiked and rode Greyhound busses around the West Coast until I had a new vision of the world and of myself in it. That decision to take drastic action helped me to find my passion and looking back I think it was not what I did that mattered but that I had reached a point in my life when I was ready to do anything.”
“Once I realized that a wide variety of lived experience—song, prayer, work, emotion, the sacred, stories, trauma, characters, the Midwest, language, doubt—could be held in poetry and that I could shape and renew those experiences, I found my calling.”
On Positive Cultural Moments
“One of my favorite [cultural moments] just happened this past week! The overturning of Section 377 in India which decriminalized same-sex intercourse was a moment of light in the dim confusion of this year. The idea that being queer makes one illegal is absurd.”
“I think of writing as a full-time job. What works for me at the moment is to get up early (six or seven) in the morning and spend a few dedicated hours reading, writing, or revising previous work. Then I might head to class or work, depending on the day. The creative process is different for everyone; I try to read at least twice as much as I write to jumpstart creativity and to help my writing be informed by what has been said before me and what is being said around me. I think refining one’s writing craft is less glamorous than typically imagined.
My evenings tend to be more unstructured, but several times a week I try to dedicate time to a cultural event NYC has to offer. I try my hardest to eat a meal that I have made.
On weekends I might run errands, clean, cook, etc. but I also try to spend a whole lot of time doing a whole lot of nothing. I think that restful aspect of creativity is sometimes overlooked. Leaving time for life, leaving time for joy—to make love, to listen to music, to rest, to take a walk, to sit on the porch, to spend time with loved ones, to eat well—is just as, if not more, important to me as to-do lists, goals, or deadlines.”
“I use Spotify quite a bit to listen to music. I prefer Instagram to Facebook these days. I listen to podcasts using Overcast. One app I am trying to use more is LeapSecond. The idea is that you take a one-second video each day and it will compile them into a short video with a year of moments. I am trying to preserve positive memories whenever I can.”
“That decision to take drastic action eventually led me to my passion but looking back I think it was not what I did that mattered but that I had reached a point in my life when I was ready to do anything.”
“I was fortunate enough to study abroad while in college. I lived in Managua, Nicaragua for a semester. As part of the program, we flew to Havana, Cuba and spent ten days in that spectacular city. Not only was that entire time eye-opening in terms of understanding how the United States has impacted Latin America—mostly negatively, in my view—it was an experience with language and culture I will never forget. To encounter Havana was like encountering a whole and dynamic person. The layers were intriguing and endless.”