Peter Wortsman’s book of cut up poetry is out today. It features both the original cut ups mirroring a translation on every other page. Wortsman is a poet, essayist and novelist and in Borrowed Words his dependance on the words of others does not hinder his creative ear and offers some playful pieces of art that are the actual cut ups composed of newsprint, glue and lined paper for the eye. You can find Borrowed Words at your better book stores, big box retailers as well as direct from us here. I spoke with Peter on the eve of his new book being published recently.
You write novels, stories, essays, poetry, songs, profiles, travelogues and plays, and also translate from the German. I like that these works can act as watermarks for your creative life. For instance, during the Covid crisis, the Deutsches Theater in Göttingen, Germany, presented a scaled-down version of the German translation of your play, The Tattooed Man Tells All, that would not have been staged in such a stark manner had we not suffered through those times. (The play ran for eight months in repertory, so somebody must have done something right.) Your new book, Borrowed Words, was born out of writer’s block during the pandemic and would probably not have been birthed were it not for the interruption of the outside world.
Every text is a response in form and content to the moment of its composition. This is not a conscious choice for me, but rather an involuntary organic response to various stimuli. Irritated oysters drool, their salty spit occasionally congealing into pearls. Genre is a fluid notion. A literary chameleon, I alternate disguises to meld with my environment and hide from predators.
Do you work in different arenas and let the field for one of these areas lay fallow as a plan?
I have no gameplan. When I’m weary of one form, I take refuge in another, oftentimes fiddling with multiple parallel musings, the one seeping into and informing the other. In the early days of the Covid pandemic lockdown I relished the solitude and the dearth of interruptions. But over time it got to me. Writing felt too much like a solipsistic, navel-gazing stunt. Initially I cut up and rearranged words borrowed from various sources to pass the time as a virtual game of solitaire, never intending to publish the result. To my surprise, the assembled texts made poetic sense, and in fact, better bespoke the nervous mood of the moment than compilations of neatly chiseled sentences.
Borrowed Words is a book of poetry created by cut ups. I believe that you had initially intended the book to not include the actual physical cut ups, just the completed poems, is that right? I find it sublime, having both versions of the poems mirroring one another. The poems can be read in an entirely different fashion with stark differences not just visually, but emotionally. The glue drips, the curled paper, the implied pathos on the originals that sometimes read like ransom notes. This presentation of both versions of the poems also calls to mind books of foreign language poetry that have the original poem followed by the translated version, or Blake’s placement of prints with the poems on the right margin.
As I said above, these cutups were not originally intended for publication. Glue splotches, broken bits of type, stray fingerprints and trapped hairs initially made no difference. Like a sculptor’s slip mold or a photographer’s negative, the cutup itself was just part of the process, a sloppy means to an open end. Over time I took greater pains to work cleanly. The pasted composite on the page felt more like an artifact with all the telling imperfections of a piece of ancient pottery. It seemed essential to preserve and display the irregularity of the original side by side with the clarity of the transcription.
You were touring your last book, Epiphany of a Middle-Aged Pilgrim, Essays in Lieu of a Memoir, up to the edge of the Covid 19 lockdown. I think you one-upped other authors by pre-writing your pandemic book, and now you have moved on to taking prisoners with poetry in Borrowed Words!
Rather than taking prisoners, I would hope that these renegade “ransomed” words set the imprisoned reader’s mind free to play, in the spirit of the book’s epigram borrowed from a letter whipped off to a friend by the great German DADA collagist Kurt Schwitters: “We play till death drags us away.”