After army service during World War II, he enrolled at University of Wisconsin, majoring in English. He received his B.A. in 1948, his M.A. in 1949 and his doctorate in 1952. His teaching career took him to Wayne State University, Boston University, Ohio Wesleyan, University of Idaho at Moscow, University of California at Riverside, and then University of California at Irvine, where he first taught in 1967. His field of study was Victorian literature. In addition to publishing numerous articles and monographs, he edited, with Herbert Schueller, the letters of John Addington Symonds. Peters received a Fulbright Fellowship to Cambridge, England in the 1960s to work on Symonds' letters. In 1965, he published The Crowns of Apollo, a scholarly study on Algernon Charles Swinburne. After Peters' Songs for a Son was published, he devoted more time to writing and study of contemporary poetry. Fellow poets Charles Wright and James McMichael and novelist Oakley Hall taught poetry at UC Irvine during this time and shared directorship of the university's well-known Master of Fine Arts program.
Peters is a prolific poet, having published some 30 books of poems, and he is an important critic of contemporary American poetry. In his controversial books of criticism — The Great American Poetry Bake-Off series, Peters Black and Blue Guides to Current Literary Magazines and Hunting the Snark: A Compendium of New Literary Terminology — he has assessed more than 400 contemporary poets and critics. He also wrote poetry reviews for the Los Angeles Times.
His Workers, Drones & Queens of Contemporary American Poetry offers readers the best of these writings collected in a single volume. Included are some 35 essays on and reviews of such major figures as Robert Bly, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Diane Wakoski, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Tess Gallagher and W. S. Merwin, as well as commentaries on the work of many lesser-known poets.
Billy Collins, a former student of Peters and now a noted poet in his own right, once described Peters' poetry: "[…] modifies poetic language and breaks new artistic ground. By combining playful rhymes with painfully serious matter, he has returned new tonal possibilities to poetry. By fully exploiting the metaphor of the body, […] he has provided a fresh code for the expression of feeling ..."
Poet and author of Iron John, Robert Bly, wrote about Peters' American Poetry Bakeoff book of criticism as "not maternal ... insights are set down simply, unornamented, as if intended to glance off, and yet I think they are important, and belong to the center ... He deserves numerous readers, particularly among young poets dissatisfied with the celebrities who keep writing the same poem over and over again ... [His] essay on Robert Creeley is superb; the best essay on his work I know."
He has been published by both large and small presses, including W.W. Norton, Wayne State University Press, Crossing Press, New Rivers, Cherry Valley Editions, Unicorn Press, GLB Publishing, Paragon House, Chiron Review Press and University of Wisconsin Press. In the fall of 2001, the 40th volume of his Familial Love and Other Misfortunes was published by Red Hen Press. Peters has served as a contributing editor for The American Book Review, Contact II and Paintbrush.
His poetry covers a wide range of themes and forms, from intensely personal volumes of private celebrations and losses — the death of a son, the break-up of a marriage, and his rural Wisconsin origins — to excursions into the psyches of a vast gallery of historical eccentrics, numbering among them, a Bavarian king, a Hungarian countess (and mass murderer) and a British romantic painter. The root of his interest in personae poetry goes back to his studies of Victorian poet Robert Browning. He adapted both King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Elizabeth Báthory, the Hungarian Countess, for theatrical presentation, performing them around the country. His Poems: Selected & New includes a rich sampling of work written over the past 30 years, while collecting in a single volume many of Peters' best poems.
Poet Diane Wakoski best describes his poetry, "The fascination with the dead, with the rotting, with pigs rooting into the earth, a poem about a primal scene in a root cellar, discovering sex and the underground, taboo, death-related experience — this is what all of Peters' poetry is about […] which gives it great originality and power."
His acting career developed after countless poetry readings. Peters wanted to reach a larger audience with his poetry by transforming his personae poetry into theatrical monologues replete with memorized scripts, lighting, settings and sound tracks. He performed at Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles, at Carpet Company Theatre in Los Angeles, Fine Art Theatre at UCI, Provincetown’s Summer Theatre, St. Matthews Church near Broadway, New York and many college campus venues. He took acting lessons from his colleague, Fine Arts Professor Robert Cohen (acting theorist), at University of California, Irvine. These performances are all well-documented in Peters’ journals, video recordings, flyers, playbills, posters and scrapbooks, replete with reviews and photos, which are all housed and catalogued at UCSD Mandeville Collection.
Peters has written four memoirs of his woebegone days during the 1930s in the North Woods of Wisconsin. His last memoir was on the death of his third son which took place in the 1950s. Thomas Keneally, author of Shindler's List, summarized Peters' second memoir, Nell's Story, by saying, "As a fascinating exercise in obscure lives retrieved, as a joint effort in painful and exultant memory, this rich memoir has the playful seriousness and inventive charm which characterizes the work of Robert Peters ...""
Peters has also judged competitions for fellowships and prizes for an assortment of small presses and for the Poetry Society of America and PEN International. He has enjoyed Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and won the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award of the Poetry Society of America.
All of Robert Peters' papers from 1950–1990, including letters, manuscripts (both published and unpublished), and journals containing his poetry and prose, are on deposit in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, the University of Kansas, Lawrence. His working library of contemporary poetry, with related papers, is now in the Rare Book Collection, Bowling Green State University. Recently his remaining archives have been obtained by the Weisel Library Special Collections, University of San Diego.
Shortly after his divorce from his wife Jean, Peters met poet Paul Trachtenberg and established a relationship lasting more than 36 years.
Robert Peters, 1988, by Robert Giard
Robert Peters and Paul Trachtenberg, 1988, by Robert Giard
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digital
More Particular Voices at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Particular Voices
More Real Life Romances at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Real Life Romance
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