INTERVIEW WITH MOLLY PEACOCK
Interview conducted by Goddard BFA student Jay Sheets, for Duende Magazine, in November of 2015.
Jay Sheets: Your work reaches a large audience, and the international praise of your latest books, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, and Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions, is a continued testament to this. What can we expect to see next in regard to your work and current projects?
Molly Peacock: I’m very pleased to say that my publisher, W.W. Norton and Company, has just accepted The Analyst. The Analyst is a collection of related lyric poems with images both about a state of ambiguous loss (where a loved and respected person is still alive, but no longer the same) and about the restorative process of painting. The poems spiral off from a close and decades-long relationship between a patient and a therapist that drastically changes when the therapist suffers a brain hemorrhage, but survives. The now former patient—that’s me—having happily survived childhood emotional injury due to the talented work of the now-former analyst—that’s my therapist—becomes the companion and witness to the analyst as she makes a new life.
The analyst is reborn through her physical disaster into the painter she once was as a young woman. (Thwarted by a critique by her painting professor at Harvard, the analyst left the studio and studied psychology.) The poems make a full narrative of three years, with flashbacks through four decades. This is an absolutely real situation, and the poems are a response to it.
J.S.: I first discovered your work in the December 2014 issue of Poetry magazine. In that issue, your poems, “The Poet,” and “Q’s Quest," bring to life these amazing images that remind us of the power of allegory in poetry. There are revelations in action in these poems that speak beautifully to a creative process. How do your poems come to reveal themselves to you?
M.P: Thank you for liking “The Poet.” My whole heart is in it. My poems reveal themselves both in an inchoate idea and in a design, or a form. I seem to create a kind of mental playing ground before the poem can develop. I didn’t know how “The Poet” would evolve, except that I had set myself the assignment of writing a prose poem for each letter of the alphabet, and for using as much alliteration as I could without destroying the sense of the story. “P” was for poet, but I didn’t want to convey that autobiographically. Instead, I wanted to make a statement about all of poetry, but to take the grandness of that enterprise and make it fun, too. I thought of the first poems that influenced me as a girl: poems by Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki. Their haiku on the page had always looked to me like lily pads on a pond. The point of view of a young man in a far-off time seized me. He wore a kimono. (I always write poems early in the morning, often in my kimono-like bathrobe.) Could I actually write both the story and the poems of this young man? By the pond, and with a desire to include that delicious word “petrichor,” the poem was launched.
J.S.: You’ve said you’ve been shocked at the twists and turns your creative life has taken. How has your creative process changed or transformed over the years, in regard to branching out from poetry to prose, and what surprises you most when reflecting on this?
M.P.: I had always thought I would be a poet who wrote the very occasional prose. I imagined a shelf of my books, all thin volumes, with one somewhat fatter volume of short fiction. But that was a vision of a twenty-eight-year old. I saw my life in a line as straight as a bookshelf. But life is organic. It twists and turns in branchings. And we are influenced by the people we meet and love. I had no idea I’d re-meet my high school boyfriend who had become a scholar of renown in Canada and that we would marry. I had no idea I’d become a dual citizen with dual genres. In Canada I had the time to start writing autobiographical prose.
Life had closed in on me, earlier. My father, then my mother, then my sister died. Suddenly I was the sole survivor of my nuclear family. Before their deaths, individual events in life took on individual shapes, and I could put that shape into fourteen lines. After their deaths, I saw how whole lives had shapes. The largeness of that shape seemed to demand prose. As well, my husband has a life-threatening illness. (He’s still very much alive, happily.)
It turned out that such death and near-death events enlarged me. To my surprise, they made me hugely capable, and that means capable of writing big books about people’s lives, like biographies. Yet events also somehow distilled me, and that meant I could continue writing compact poems with passion.
Let me give you a metaphor. At first the seeming tragedies of illness and death felt as if I were trapped behind a wall that had been papered with densely decorative forest-like dark green wallpaper, something like a William Morris print in a nightmare. I kept feeling for a way out of that wall. Then one day my hands seemed to reach the edge of a door in the wall. The door had no handle; it was constructed so flush with the tragic wall that it couldn’t be seen (especially through the dense print of the wallpaper), it only had to be felt. The door was there all along, but I had expected it to be like the doors in rooms I had always known.
Without a handle and without a lock, all I had to do was give it a little push to get to the other side. Writing is an exit built into a seemingly entrapping wall.
How rich and lucky a paradox it has been both to see that wallpaper that doesn’t permit an exit and to feel the door embedded in it.
J.S.: In How to Read a Poem you write about discovering a personal mythology in your relationship to your “talisman” poems, the poems you carried around with you “like amulets against the world." You write that you built new stories around them and found new choices. Was there a specific revelatory moment with one of these poems that served as the catalyst for the discovery of your personal mythology, or was this revealed more over time as your relationship with these poems deepened?
M.P.: How amazing that coming upon a poem can suddenly determine how a poet shapes a whole body of work. Sometimes a small encounter with a few lines of another writer almost seems to provide the genes to the body of new work. As a college student I was introduced by my professer, poet Milton Kessler, to a gorgeous poem by Howard Nemerov called “Storm Windows.” You can find it online at the Poetry Foundation website. Nemerov is seldom read now; he may even be better known as the brother of the photographer Diane Arbus. The activity in the poem is something people don’t do any more, in an age of triple-track windows. But in Nemerov’s day, which was my childhood, my grandparents used to take out the screens from their windows in the fall and replace them with storm windows, extra panes of glass.
In “Storm Windows” when the poet comes home for lunch (who comes home for lunch any more?), he notices the storm windows strewn on the lawns because a sudden rain “drove the people indoors.” The windows press the grass down, framing an image as it rains: “through the water and glass / I saw the crushed grass, how it seemed to stream / Away in lines like seaweed on the tide.” This image seems to say something to the poet that he, in turn, would have liked to say to someone.
The ripple and splash of rain on the blurred glass
Seemed that it briefly said, as I walked by,
Something I should have liked to say to you,
That nebulous “something…”—what was it?—let me understand that poetry is about the ineffable. Things we seem unable to name lead us to poetry. The repetition of the “something” that Nemerov couldn’t get at, or that he knew but couldn’t or wouldn’t speak, allowed me to write poems where I couldn’t really name the feeling I was trying to describe, yet was compelled to try to find images for and a vocabulary that would evoke it. In a way, each of my poems begins with “Something I should like to say to you, reader, something…”
J.S.: We have a number of poets and writers in our writing program here at Goddard. What advice could you gift them and Duende’s readers with that was once gifted to you, that’s stayed with you throughout your career?
M.P.: Write as if you were writing to the next head on the pillow. Don’t write to a crowd. Don’t write to the nameless. Write intimately, as if you were speaking late at night, in bed, to someone who wants to hear and understand.
Even when you think you don’t have time to write, you do. A sonnet can take half an hour to draft. I often give students in my sonnet studio a mere twenty minutes to write. A surprising number of people finish! Don’t think you need meadows of time to compose a poem. That’s a lovely idea, but life isn’t an art colony. You may end up writing those fourteen lines in your dentist’s waiting room.