A Poolside Conversation with Molly Peacock interviewed by Marci Calabretta
Molly Peacock is the author of six books of poetry, including The Second Blush and Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems. She is also the author of several books of prose and a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and other leading literary journals. Among her honors are fellowships from the Danforth, Ingram Merrill, and Woodrow Wilson Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. In Canada she is the series editor for The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and a Contributing Editor for the Literary Review of Canada.
Senior Editor Marci Calabretta of Print-Oriented Bastards had the pleasure of interviewing Molly Peacock over a cup of tea at the Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove, Florida on April 4, 2015.
Part I: Borders, Boundaries, Poetry and Nonfiction
Marci Calabretta (MC): Thank you
for being so generous with your time. How did you come to write poetry?
Molly Peacock (MP): When I was a little girl, I wanted to be something special, but I didn’t know what that was. Though I came from a working class family, my mother was a reader. Her books were from the library, romances and westerns, but she read constantly. My grandmother (her mother) would write me little letters, and possibly just to set me to doing some kind of activity, my mother wrote the alphabet on the top of a piece of paper, saying, “Here, write your grandmother a letter.” This is always how my mother gave instructions: “Here’s the alphabet, figure it out.” I realize now, though I resented when I was younger, that this made me extremely independent. I remember I asked, “What should I say?” My mother responded, “Dear Grandma.” Obviously I didn’t know how to spell, so I followed where she pointed. She’d say, “There’s the D, there’s the E.” That began my sense of writing. I also didn’t realize that the alphabet would lead me to a lifelong sense of “something special.” My grandmother sent me poems she cut out from The Perry Herald as well—this was so long ago that they actually published poems in the newspaper. I didn’t actually write a little poem till I was 10, for a class assignment.
Later I had a wonderful 7th grade teacher who’s still alive (and we still have lunch!) and her name is Bernice Baeumler, and I say her name in every interview. [laughs] Because 7th grade was like a little artists' colony. We wrote every day, she’d read the stuff out loud, and I got to hear my work out loud—important for a poet. She got the school system to make a literary magazine and publish the poems. I was thrilled. So that was childhood writing.
I didn’t grew up in an intellectual household, or even a middle-class household. (Everyone says they’re in the middle class now, now but I have to say we really weren’t—ours was a very working-class environment.) But there were these tiny moments of real engagement with words, and there was school. And if it hadn’t been for school, I don’t think that I would be a poet. Having teachers respond was the biggest impetus to becoming a poet.
So what about you?
MC: [Laughs] oh, for me, I always loved to read. I have an older brother, and it was always a competition, so I wanted to read first, and my mom encouraged it. We were homeschooled.
MP: Oh you were?
MC: I try to hide that fact most of the time [laughs].
MP: [Laughs] wow, so you were homeschooled all the way through?
MC: Mhm. So I actually didn’t even know what to do with college, I was like, real grades, what do you do with those?
MP: And a different...that must have been a huge adjustment.
MC: Hm. I actually felt really well-prepared, kind of like yours, my mom handed me the books and said, "Go study. You have to be self-disciplined. We’re busy." I figured if I could get all my schoolwork done, I could read all afternoon, and I was always that kid who was like, I really want to write, I’m not good at any of the other subjects. So she encouraged it, my mom, and my dad too.
MP: And did you grow up in Miami?
MC: No, I actually grew up in upstate NY. I was thinking, you grew up in upstate NY, right?
MC: I grew up in Ithaca. My brother went to school in Buffalo.
MP: Your brother went to school in Buffalo! I’m from Buffalo, and my grandparents lived between Buffalo and Rochester, in a little town up there, so not terribly far from Ithaca, so I know your landscape completely. And I went to Binghamton University. And Binghamton U. has my literary papers. (I’m sure you can go paw through them if you want to!)
MC: That’s amazing. So few people I meet are from upstate NY. They always think NYC NY.
MP: Oh my gosh. And then you went to University of Miami? How did you get down here?
MC: I actually started at community college, because most colleges at the time didn't seem to know how to evaluate your homeschooling. So I went to cc, and then I transferred to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
MP: Ah, yes, I know it.
MC: And then I went to Florida International (FIU) for grad school.
MP: And studied with Denise Duhamel.
MC: Yes, Denise, and Campbell McGrath.
MP: Ok. I have your trajectory now.
MC: [Laughs] yes, and then I got married, so I’m down here. Married to a Miami native. He’s not going anywhere.
MP: And when did you get married?
MC: Year and a half ago.
MC: Thank you.
MP: Very nice. So Florida is a huge change from upstate NY.
MC: I actually miss the snow a little bit, especially the fall.
MP: And the landscape. It’s really beautiful.
MC: Yes, and the hills. I miss hills.
Cornucopia W. W. Norton & Co. 2004
MP: When I get back into that landscape, I’m just like…oh, I’m home. It’s great. Not everyone thinks where they grew up is the most beautiful place in the world, but upstate New York really has great beauty, and Ithaca--
MC: Ithaca is Gorges, that’s the motto. I miss it a lot. I keep telling my husband that we should try to move, but I think the cold might kill him.
MP: But I have to say I love the foliage here in Miami. I love all the different kinds of palm trees. We visit Fairchild Botanic Garden this afternoon—oh I hope they have labels on the palm trees, because I can’t really identify them.
MC: Fairchild? Oh that’s one of my favorite spots. They do have labels.
MP: Very good, very good. I’m always running around hoping for labels on trees! So in your poetry, do you recall upstate NY? I know I’m interviewing you now, you’re going to have to publish this as a conversation, not an interview! That’ll work, don’t you think? So does your poetry reflect that landscape?
MC: it’s kind of strange because I’ve been able to write about every other place I’ve lived, but I think that Ithaca for me is a little bit sacred in terms of--
MP: Maybe a little fraught there too. Because I mean you were a little girl there, right? That’s where you were born?
MC: I was actually born in Korea, and came over as a baby.
MP: Ohhhh, ok. so what’s your first language?
MC: My first language is English. I was adopted. Not to add to the confusion.
MP: I’m getting this. There’s plenty of--not plenty, really, but there are a number of adoption memoirs, but they are written by the mothers who adopt. But your generation is just growing up, so now it’s time to hear your point of view.
MC: Yes. Right now I’ve only found two Asian American poets who write about being adopted, as being the adoptee.
MP: And who are they?
MC: Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut. She had an interview recently on NPR talking about adopted children. And then there’s another one--I forget her name. She has a book with White Pine Press--Paper Pavilion.
MP: That’s a great title.
MC: It is. Jennifer Kwon Dobbs. She talks about being adopted, so it’s very interesting. I haven’t written about it yet. I’m a little bit nervous about it, I think.
MP: Well, it’s huge for you. It’s the basic story of your life.
MC: It’s true.
MP: I can see why you wouldn’t want that material workshopped. But at the same time, it’s your source. It’s beating underneath everything else you are and do.
MC: That is one of the things I was thinking about. I was looking at some of your poems, and they feel very lived, autobiographical in many aspects, which is interesting because so many people say that poetry is closer to nonfiction than fiction.
MP: I do think that poets are very good nonfiction writers. I say that, trying not to be self-serving because I also write nonfiction! But nonfiction and poetry share an approach to voice. Both essays and poems usually have a single voice. There are examples, of course, of two or more voices, but generally the lyric poem, or what we call the lyric narrative, (that is, the contemporary American poem), is a poem of a single voice. And nonfiction is also written by a single voice, a single inquirer. This is especially true in creative nonfiction where a persona drives the essay forward.
At this point in my life, as both a poet and a biographer, I’m really interested in people’s life stories and the shapes of people’s lives. That’s why I asked you those questions. I can’t help it, I can’t help myself! Though I’m fascinated by other people’s lives in my prose, I have to say my own life drives my poetry. (I think that some poets go to great lengths to disguise that.) For some poets, the thought drives the poem. For me, often it’s seeking to express unnameable emotions. I don’t mind giving my own personal coordinates in the poem. I’m not afraid of the pronoun “I.” When I read a poem, for example “Pink Dog” by Elizabeth Bishop. (Do you know that poem?) I can’t help but think of Bishop’s mother having been declared insane, and this crazy dog at Carnival time being in some ways both her mother and Bishop herself. I don’t mean to over-psychologize, but I can identify with that dog and be curious about what it meant to Bishop. I’m aware of her biography, and it does not diminish the poem for me.
I’m aware of John Keats’s biography, aware of how young he was when he wrote those poems. It does not diminish the poems’ magnificence. When I read the late poems of Wallace Stevens, I’m aware that they are the poems of an older man, aware of all his accomplishments. Why would I try to wall off the biography of the poet? To me, it’s like trying not to smell a scent. You can’t wall off your nose. You can hold your nose, or you can put a mask up to your nose, but you have to go to huge lengths not to smell something. And I think that the life circumstance of the poet floats in the syntax and vocabulary of the poem as if it had its own special odor. Just like the way we’re here, in this Coconut Grove air: we can smell suntan lotion, and smell the foliage around, and while I can’t actually smell the chlorine from the pool, there’s probably a hint of chlorine mixed into our atmosphere.
MC: That makes so much sense.
Paradise, Piece by Piece by Molly Peacock Riverhead, 1998
MP: I feel that that’s simply part of appreciating art. That’s even part of looking at a painting. We don’t always associate smell with images, but paintings, like poems, conjure up olfactory associations. I won’t necessarily know the biography of the painter, as I might of the poet I’m reading, but so-called extraneous facts come in, they’re part of the energy of the atmosphere.
MC: That makes sense. Wow. So then the bridge between nonfiction and poetry for you must have been a fairly easy one when you started your memoir?
MP: Yes, because—it’s interesting that you say bridge, because when I immigrated to Canada, I crossed a bridge. Even though I am absolutely American—any Canadian recognizes me as American, [laughs] even though part of my family is Canadian—when I got married at the age of 45 and crossed that border—I also crossed the border between poetry and prose. I really had been thinking about memoir, because I had a problem to solve: how to express my choice not to have children. As I crossed the geographic and the genre border, it occurred to me that I could write a book where I tracked all the instances in my life where I made and remade the decision not to have children. If I did this, I could start to understand how I could define myself as a woman but not as a mother. Why didn’t I feel unfulfilled? Everyone tried to tell me that I hadn’t really lived unless I became a mother, but I also knew, given my background and given who I was, that during the years when I could have had children, it would have been impossible. Now, as I approach my 70th year, I feel I’d be really good at motherhood [laughs]. For other people, it only takes 3 decades of living, for me it took 7! There was something about being in a different country (and at the beginning, I didn’t know that many people, so I had time on my hands) that let me write the book, Paradise, Piece by Piece. Later on, as I met people and as I got involved in Canadian literature, my life up there became just as crowded as my life down here, but at the beginning I had the solitude, I had this new marriage, and I crossed that border. It just felt like I could try it.
And I didn’t go to school to write prose, which was another freedom--you’re homeschooled, you know about this. Homeschooling lets you be an autodidact. Not many people now are autodidacts. But there is a great tradition of women autodidacts all around the world. How did women educate themselves when they weren’t allowed to go to school? They took their education into their own hands.
I don’t know about the Korean poetry traditions. I do know a bit about the Chinese and Japanese traditions. (The only Korean poetry I’ve read in translation is courtesan poetry.) But in tenth-century China the poet Li Ch’ing Chao was the daughter of an influential family who recognized that she had talent. In a sense, she was homeschooled by her father and his friends. Virginia Woolf was an autodidact. When we hunger for ways to think and let that hunger drive us, we seek out ways of educating ourselves.
Writing my memoir was an education for me. Writing poetry has been, too. I went to college in the 60s, when free verse was everything. It was not in creative writing workshops that I learned about formal verse, it was as a traditional English major, marching through what was then the canon, beginning with the English Renaissance. I’m grateful for that because it let me understand the methods of formal poetry. When I decided to write poetry, I went to find out about those formal methods myself. As far as rhyme and meter go, I’m completely self-taught. I would go get books, for instance The Founding of 16th Century Meter, [laughs]—it’s a great book, incidentally—by John Thompson. Books of prosody would rest by my bedside. When I went to graduate school, no one taught this stuff, so that comes to your--I can’t believe it but I’m now answering your 2nd question!
You asked why I chose to speak about sonnets at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival this past January. I knew I had been invited because there was a hunger for formal poetry on the part of the people who attend the Festival. Because I’m self-taught, I feel that I’m able to set up a personal rather than a distant or more academic standard for writing a sonnet. I can show people how to write one, step-by-step, in a very basic way. There were people at the Festival who had never even chosen a limit on the number of lines for their poems. There were people who simply got out a piece of paper and started to write, and never thought about the fact that their poem had to end. Before you start a sonnet you know that it’s got to end—and pretty fast, too; it’s only 14 lines. Therefore, just to put a limit on the line length for some people is a big deal. Suddenly, they’ve framed the work before they’ve started it.
Limits can serve your art; it doesn’t mean… limits aren’t jail. Limits are chosen by you, the artist. If you made a mistake in choosing them, you can change to do something else. If the 14x14 square doesn’t work for you, you’ll change it. But limits are necessary. They create an area for play. If two children are playing together, they define their space often with their toys or pretend boundaries; they define the area. In sports, there are clear areas, a basketball court, a baseball diamond, a swimming pool. To define the area of making something, provides the playground for the poem, or the music, or any artwork. So that’s question 2.
MC: That’s interesting, because so much of contemporary poetry is breaking down those limits that have been set for us by previous traditions.
MP: Okay, so if there is a wall there and you break it down, then are you going make something out of the rubble, or are you just going start running away aimlessly? You could make an art out of just running away. But since you would be running in response to this wall you just broke down, probably you will make something in response to the break.
There’s also a psychological reason for why I’m interested in formal poetry structures. I grew up in utter chaos because my father was a severe alcoholic. We never knew what he would do. Was he going to push my mother down the cellar stairs? Break the legs off the kitchen table? I never knew what would happen, and in that atmosphere of chaos and violence, I came to need and love structure. For me, the idea of a poem on a page (like a little frog on a lily pad), was a promise kept. And there were many promises in my life that weren’t kept.
I don’t feel that I have to run and break down boundaries because I didn’t grow up with any. I’ve been constructing boundaries for myself my whole life.
Marci Calabretta is the author of Hour of the Ox, which won the 2015 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and Last Train to the Midnight Market. She holds an MFA in poetry from Florida International University, and has been awarded poetry fellowships from the Knight Foundation and Kundiman, among others. She is the producer for The Working Poet Radio Show.