A Conversation with Peter Schmitt

Peter SchmittPeter Schmitt is the author of four collections of poems: Renewing the Vows, from David Robert Books (August 2007); Hazard Duty and Country Airport (Copper Beech Press); and a chapbook, To Disappear, from Pudding House. He has received The Lavan Award from The Academy of American Poets; The “Discovery”/The Nation Prize; and grants from the Florida Arts Council (twice) and The Ingram Merrill Foundation. His poems have been featured on National Public Radio’s Writers Almanac (read by Garrison Keillor), and his poem, “Packing Plant,” won The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival open competition in Farmington, Connecticut, in 2001, chosen out of 632 entries. His poems have appeared in many leading publications, including The Hudson Review, The Nation, The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Southern Review, and have been widely anthologized. He has also reviewed poetry for The Miami Herald and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. A native Miamian and graduate with honors from Amherst College, where he studied with Richard Wilbur, and from the University of Iowa, where his teachers included Donald Justice, Peter Schmitt has taught creative writing and literature at the University of Miami since 1986.

Where were you born? Describe current family life.

I was born in Miami, and to my surprise, am still living here. My local family consists of my mother, who lives in Bay Harbor. I’m single, and share my residence with Chelsey, a highly intelligent and mischievous 17-year-old cat.

What do you do for a living? Why did you choose this vocation?

I have taught creative writing (poetry and fiction) and literature at The University of Miami since 1986. As a student at Amherst College, I was considerably influenced by certain teachers (like Richard Wilbur, Barry and Lorrie Goldensohn, and David Sofield), whose balanced careers of teaching and writing seemed a highly attractive model to emulate. By about 20, to write and to teach at the college level was what I wanted to do with my life, and I’ve been fortunate to have achieved that goal.

Who are your favorite writers? Why?

It’s very difficult to narrow the list to only three, but I would cite these poets: Elizabeth Bishop, from whom I learned that “quiet” and “understated” need not mean “minor;” Robert Frost, who brought home to me the centrality of metaphor, who for all his association with the natural world, with only one or two exceptions never wrote a poem without a person in it; and Donald Justice, also born in Miami, and one of my own teachers [at the Iowa Writers Workshop], whose dedication to art and to the craft of poetry provided an example that I will always hold before me, if never match. As with Bishop and Frost, Justice epitomizes clarity and reveals an emotional power made keener by restraint.

What was the first book you fell in love with and how have your reading habits changed over the years?

My mother claims I began to read at two, but as I don’t remember, I also can’t recall what must have been the first book I loved, though surely there was a first and have been many. I will say that I’m quite a slow reader—having read so much poetry over the years that I’ve become an ear-reader rather than an eye-reader. I wish I had more time for reading—reading of all things, especially novels. Significant gaps loom in my reading I’m embarrassed to admit to.

What are you reading now?

Just at the moment, I am as usual in the middle (slowly) of several books: poetry collections by Jim Daniels, Elise Partridge, Alison Townsend , and Natasha Trethewey; story collections by Max Apple (which I hope to review) and William Trevor; a novel by Brock Clarke, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in NewEngland (good title); a history of Florida hurricanes, by Jay Barnes; and several magazines and literary journals (Atlantic, New Yorker, Paste, Hudson Review). Over the coming break I hope to make some headway in Robert B. Shaw’s Blank Verse, a form I teach in my poetry writing classes.

On Friday (12/7/2007) I will be featuring an interview with Mervyn Morris.


Rethabile said…
Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, wow. I'm bright green. Does it get any better?

I agree that balancing writing and teaching, like Peter (and others), sounds like a dream. Thanks for these interviews, Geoffrey. Looking forward to the one of Mervyn.
Give thanks, Rethabile.

The teacher in me loves these interviews because I get e-mails from young writers who have all kinds of ideas about balancing writing and living.

There are many variations on the writing but a constant seems to be as Al Young once said, "low overhead."


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