Faculty Member Peter Filkins’s Latest Book is the Winner of New American Press’s 2010 Chapbook Contest
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Hear Professor Filkins recite a selection of poems from his latest book
In his poetry, Literature and Languages faculty member Peter Filkins attempts to bridge formal sophistication with an engaging voice that can speak to a large audience with emotional and intellectual clarity. “I show my students that poetry, good poetry, can be accessible, and that involving themselves with poetry can help them to see the world around them more clearly,” Filkins says.
Augustine's Vision, Filkins's third book of poems, was published in June as the winner of New American Press’s annual chapbook contest. Kelly Cherry, acclaimed writer and judge for the contest, writes of it, "By turns discursive, dramatic, and lyrical, Augustine's Vision presents a startlingly good poet who courageously interrogates ideas of evil, sin, and death while celebrating the goodness of creation, including both nature and the creations of humankind."
The book begins with the title poem, a reflection on St. Augustine’s attempt to reconcile the incongruousness of the world with his conception of “God’s invisible plan.” It ends with “Water Lilies,” an evocation of Monet’s impressionist capture of placid landscapes amidst the endless violence of World War I: “the sky itself reflected/ in the watery sway where a cloud adrift/ would later be captured by his brush/ in motion, each day in the studio/ another one spent to the echo of guns.”
The book reflects Filkins’s growing interest in history and art as vehicles through which to expand his grasp of the philosophical questions that animate his work. Filkins extends beyond his personal experience and contemporary context. He honed these skills translating the works of German-speaking authors Ingeborg Bachmann and H.G. Adler; work for which he received a Distinguished Translation Award from the Austrian Ministry for Education, Art, and Culture.
“I consider translation an extension of my writing life,” Filkins says. “It expands my vocabulary, my formal range, it makes me very flexible, and it allows me to write very different kinds of poems: different subject matter, meters, line lengths and sentence lengths, and different diction.”
“I’m interested in how we square our day-to-day existence with the massive forces of history that permeate our culture and our time,” Filkins says. “I’m trying to write to large subjects and concerns, but without succumbing to overly large statements or positions. It’s risky to invoke the human condition these days. I take that risk by speaking to what’s involved with being alive and aware to the dangers and confusion that surrounds us, while also affirming that we can understand something about ourselves.”
It’s exactly that sort of riskiness that Filkins injects into his teaching, asking students to engage with the complex diversity of human experience, and to question the incoherent and misleading language of a media-saturated world. He communicates to students that there is so much they can do, that positive change is possible, and that experimenting with and exulting in the power of language through poetry is anything but an escape from the world.
“Poetry is often marginalized, but in times of great crisis, or when we need clarity of vision, we turn to poems. Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” was submitted as a document in the court case that ended segregation in Boston schools, and W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was widely read and circulated in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.”
In Filkins’s classroom, poetry is the art of clarifying the disorder and loss inherent to everyday experience through words. This sense is reflected in the progression of Augustine’s Vision, which moves from a sense of darkness and duress to acceptance and wonder. “I have little patience with poetry or voices that only cry gloom and doom,” Filkins says. “The world is a very beautiful place and it is wondrous to be here. In the end, I would hope that my poetry attempts to affirm that which is wondrous and beautiful in the face of inscrutable loss.”
Filkins premiered the book at Berkshire Wordfest, held at Edith Wharton's residence, The Mount, in Lenox, MA. Among other places, poems in the collection have appeared in The Iowa Review, Narrative, Sewanee Review, The America Scholar and Southwest Review. Residencies at The MacDowell Colony and a Berlin Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin aided in the creation of the work. Filkins’s previous collections of poetry are What She Knew (1998) and After Homer (2002).