April 2004

Laura Leichum


An Interview with Molly Peacock

Before I knew anything about Molly Peacockís poetry, I picked up her memoir Paradise, Piece by Piece by sheer happy coincidence. It called to me from the sale shelf at Unabridged Bookstore and the moment that I read the cover of the book and the first few pages, I knew that I had to have it. This woman, this poet, told her life story will honesty, wit and humanity. She spoke about her working class background, her difficult childhood with alcoholic parents and how she became a writeróand most interesting to me, she also spoke most adamantly and eloquently about her choice to not have children. As she told me, she had hoped to really open up a conversation about what is, surprisingly, still a very radical womenís issue.

Her poetry is also filled with similar qualities -- the same attention to issues of female identity, as well as the joys and complexities of relationships (she is very happily married), and other observations about life heavily intertwined with her personal history. In her recent collection Cornucopia, Peacock gives us a generous and revealing selection of poems from earlier books as well as some wonderful new work. Her use of form, most often the sonnet, is playful and her choices in rhyme and meter are very much driven by the emotional pull of the poem. Peacockís agile mind is a wonderful thing to see in action and her lively language makes this a thoroughly enjoyable collection that you will find yourself dipping into again and again.

Molly Peacockís recent book Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems has just been released in paperback from W. W. Norton & Co. Currently poet-in-residence, Poetís Corner, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, she divides her time between New York and Toronto. She is president emerita of the Poetry Society of America and one of the originators of the Poetry in Motion program. Peacock is a Woodrow Wilson fellow as well as lecturer at the Unterberg Poetry Center and a writer in residence at numerous colleges and universities. She is married to Michael Groden, a Joyce scholar.

Molly Peacock recently came to Chicago to participate in the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference and we had a chance to discuss, among other things, her recent book, the future of formal poetry, censorship, and the unlikely sources of poetry in our lives.

I am sitting with you at AWP and I wanted to start with a question related to the conference: I know that you are here doing a couple of panels and I heard this year that there is a record attendance, a thousand more people registered than last year. The bookfair I heard has probably about doubled in size since the last couple of years [laughter] what do you think this says about the current position of writing programs and also poetry in the world today. Is this an encouraging sign, obviously it must be.

I am extremely encouraged by it and, but itís just part of the growing awareness of and commitment to writing in the United States. And the creative writing programs, I think especially the low-residency programs, I know I teach at Spaulding University, a low-residency program out of Louisville, Kentucky, and I have seen a tremendous number of my students here. I think itís students and people who study writing and they bring a lot of passion here, this is a very passionate place, itís passionate and intense and exhausting and there really is an honest to god literary exchange and it's fabulous. Writers operate in isolation, a lot of them in tremendous isolation, if youíre teaching at a school in the middle of nowhere, so this is incredibly important for a lot of people. Itís a bit less important for me since I live in two urban areas but itís still nice for me to kind of get out and take the pulse of contemporary American letters and the pulse is here.

There is a sort of buzz that has been going around the conference -- as you probably know the United States government made a recent announcement basically prohibiting publishers from editing, translating, and even publishing works from ďAxis of EvilĒ countries, places like Iraq and North Korea. What are your thoughts about censorship in writing -- has that affected your personal writing or your work for the Poetry Society of America. Were there any situations that arose, any examples that you could give?

I am wholly, and to use a word that I just used before, passionately, in favor of free speech in all its forms. I am completely and utterly slavishly committed to free speech and I think that anything less -- one iota less -- erodes democracy and that means that I am in favor of people being allowed to say anything. I think that there are violent hateful things that people can say and I do think those things taint the air, but better for the air to be tainted and for us to recognize it then for these voices to go underground. Because then there is no free exchange, itís not fluid, it gets rigid, solidified, and no growth is possible under those circumstances. So I am quite radical about it.

And the Poetry Society of America?

Oh yes, so I have always be quite absolutely and utterly committed and in fact, during my years as president of the Poetry Society, censorship issues actually didnít come up, they came up when we put poetry on the subways [The Poetry in Motion program]. The censorship had to do with, and I went along with it -- we did not put poems about fire on the subways. . .

That was probably a good idea.

You know we thought there were plenty of other things to put there, and itís not like we were saying that poems about fire are bad, itís just that we just thought we might go in a different direction. We didnít particularly put violent poems on the subways and there were a couple of other things that we chose not to do in response to some of the requirements of the transit authority in New York. I always felt that that was in some kind of aesthetic and common sense realm, and I also always felt that I could make an argument for something I thought was important, if it had, say, a fiery image in it. [Laughter] While we had some rules, nothing really came up, but I am very fierce about the subject so if something had come up, I would have swallowed hard and gone to the barricade for it. I am not afraid of taking a political stance. I donít like breaches and I am not a particularly contentious person at all, but if my back is against the wall I can certainly muster all my inner forces.

Did you have any bad reactions to any poetry that was put on the subways, as in people asking you to take it down or to censor what was put up there?

Only once.

Only once, can you tell me about that?

We had an exchange program with England and it was the early English poem "Western wind, when will thou blow" and it has a line ďChrist, if my love were in my arms again,Ē and it was the word ďChristĒ that was incendiary, it was the only time that we got letters, honestly. So isnít that amazing, so there it was, somehow someone decided to be offended by that but nothing else. Itís really amazing -- uniformly, the most positive thing that I have ever been involved with as an arts program in my life. There was simply no downside to it.

That is amazing because New York is such a large place with so many different kinds of people and I think that itís wonderful that you were able to put together a program that, as you said, didnít have any basic bad reaction from anybody.

Not at all. We had some poems in Japanese and Greek and Chinese and Spanish and we really wanted to reflect the entire population of New York and the whole world that passes through New York.

I remember them when they came to Chicago, too. I was so excited when I saw them on the train.

Absolutely, uniformly positive and who would have thought that they would still be going, theyíve been on the subways for 12 years in New York.

One of the panels that you are on here at the conference, itís actually a caucus discussion about the private practice of poetry. Is that something that youíre regularly involved in and what are some of the pros and cons of working with people one-on-one as opposed to in a workshop or an MFA program?

For the last fifteen years I have been working one-to-one with private students all over the English-speaking world, usually in the U.S. and Canada, North America, sometimes Central America, occasionally in Europe. And it is a kind of apprenticeship work. I work with some people for a limited period of time. I work with other people over many years and many books. Theyíre long term, intense relationships, they are mentoring relationships, they are coach-like relationships, as well as editing relationships. I think of it using a musical model, where even though there is formal musical training, a musician will study with a maestra or a maestro, itís like that. Itís not a substitute for school. I also teach in Spaulding Universityís low-residency program at school and itís different from what I do privately because the private agenda is simply the studentís. And usually the writer is a completely serious writer, often been out there in the world, often already has an MFA. Or they are middle-aged, theyíve always wanted to write, and something happens in their life where they feel this itch and theyíve got to do it now. Or theyíre quite young and gifted and in some circumstance where theyíre not school or their school isnít working for them in some way or another and we do a little work together and then they go back to school or off to graduate school or something like that. I work with people in extremes, I usually have somebody that Iím working with whoís dying, who has to get a book finished.

Wow, how does that feel to you?

Itís wow, the first time it happened I thought I canít stand it, I would talk to this person and I would have to take a nap afterwards. I have done it enough so that I feel that they are teaching me. I am going to know how to go to the next world better because I have worked with some of these quite extraordinary people.

It must be a constant reminder of a different perspective on life.

Absolutely and so these relationships are intimate and intense and formal at the same time. I work exclusively on the phone. People e-mail me their manuscripts and then they snail mail me a hard copy and then I set up a series of phone appointments. And it is hard work but I absolutely adore it, I am privileged, absolutely privileged.

How amazing to receive these packets in the mail and messages over the ether -- it must be inspiring for your own writing.

I canít say that itís necessarily specifically inspiring for my own writing. It is inspiring and satisfying for my own being and then that on some level translates into my writing. But I try to keep my writing pretty separate. I write in the morning, I never talk to students in the morning, this is an afternoon and early evening activity, thatís when I earn my living. But the morning, thatís for me.

Going back to a comment that you made when I asked you about censorship, you said that youíve never been afraid to be political, and what I noticed when I was reading through your recent collection Cornucopia, was that many of the poems have obviously a lot to do with female identity. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you consider your poetry feminist?

Yes, I donít have any problem saying Iím a feminist. I donít have any problem saying that my poetry is feminist. There are people who get nervous around the word Ďfeministí but, and possibly itís because of my age, but I remember when my second book was published and that was in 1984, so twenty years ago. Random House gave me the list of places and people in America that they were sending my book to and there were maybe, I donít know, sixty or seventy people on this list and there were probably about four women. So that will just give you an idea of the sort of climate and so I donít have any problems calling myself feminist, but I must say in those early feminist days I donít think women were as interested in publishing my work as men were. So Iíve just tried to lead as deeply a literary a life as I can. I mean I have other concerns, obviously I have my politics, but I feel that these ďwomenís issuesĒ are deeply human issues.

So you maybe wouldnít separate them so much then? I donít tend to separate it, but I do write very much out of my own experience in poetry. I do write prose as well, not so much centered in my own experience. But my poetry pretty much comes out of whatever it is that is concerning me at the time.

You are a formalist, and the other thing I noticed in your book is that you are very fond of the sonnet form. First, I wanted to ask did this form choose you, you know how that happens, when you are working on things and you think, wow this really works for me, or did choose it? And what is your favorite sonnet form and why?

[laughing] I love sonnets. I loved them since I first discovered them in middle school, maybe. I didnít realize that I loved them because they have a limit. But when you write a sonnet you discover that having an end in sight forces you into a kind of compression that I love in art. I also embraced the sonnet because I, in my early life as a writer, was a very poor reviser. Every time I tried to revise something I beat the life out of it. There it was, dead on the page. I began to write sonnets at the same time, I mean seriously write sonnets, when I was working as a seventh grade English teacher. I wrote a poem every Saturday morning and I had to have made certain decisions earlier in the week because I couldnít face a blank page on Saturday morning. I started on Thursday to write the poem in my head. If I knew it was going to be a sonnet, I kind of already knew the guidelines and it was like ice skating in competition, you know you just went out and skated your routine and if you blew it you got low scores that day. So if I blew it I would say well, fine, Iím gonna have 52 of these poems by the end of the year, I could throw out half of them, I could throw out more than half of them and itíll be fine. Because I just couldnít revise, I just could go out and do it, get all the rhymes and the ideas. I would write them completely breathlessly, I mean I was almost spinning free.

Thatís a wonderful feeling.

Yeah, and so now I write them. I have a new book almost done and there is a ghost of sonnet underneath each one of the poems. And my new little assignment to myself was -- fourteen lines, single image. Itís fun, oh gosh, I just had a great time. I am having a great time doing this and Iím going to write these for years. So whatís my favorite sonnet form, I think I likeÖ abab cdcd, I like that kind of octet but then I like efg efg. Itís open, the first efg is totally unrhymed, you can make the turn without worrying about the rhyme. So I really like that. So thatís more of an Italian sonnet although I also like straight Shakespearean sonnet. But I tend to let the rhyme shift, like I might start off abab, and then suddenly I have cddc and I know that there is some unconscious emotional pulse thatís pulling it and I let that happen. And then what if I got effg, Iíll let that happen too, and Iíll just keep picking it up. I really love the unconscious surges that control the music. Music in poetry is both the least conscious aspect and the most consciously manipulatable part of it. I love being astonished by that play, I feel the significance of something taking over and I obey it. I donít try to wrench the poem back into some kind of stricture. I am not Jesuitical about my sonnet form. And in my new book, my new work, the sonnet form is kind of erased. Itís there underneath as a structure that gives me some limits, just as if I were a painter and chose the specs for how large or small the canvas is and chose a certain palette. Itís like that, it suits me. When I was younger I was so afraid of my subjects that fourteen lines contained the terror. And I have become happier in life; Iím where fourteen lines asks me to limit my exploration. Itís sort of a different enterprise, but itís still dreamy and wonderful. Thereís a lovely balance in it. To have poise in your body and a certain kind of mental poise, I feel thatís what it means to be at one with the universe. I feel that the physical poise and an emotional poise has to do with a kind of universal balance and it is lovely to participate in.

Related to that, what to you see as the current role of formalism in poetry and where do you see it going?

When I started writing formally, which would have been in the late seventies, I didnít know anyone else who was doing it. Then I met a lot of other people who were who kind of adopted me and I wasnít so sure I wanted to be adopted by them. There are a lot of things that you donít have any choice about and one of them is how people view your literary output. You really donít have any choice about it. So, fine. I think that formalism was intensely opposed, it was on one side of the bell curve and say, language poetry at the time was on the other side of the bell curve and the great middle of the bell curve was kind of the American Cheeverís Train School, I guess Iíd call it. I donít think thatís so much the case anymore. I think that formalism has infiltrated that great middle and I think that language poetry has also infiltrated that great middle. Thereís a mix out there and I think that probably every poet in graduate school considers their education incomplete if they donít have some formal knowledge. That did not used to be the case at all. I am completely self-taught in that way, I never studied this with anyone.

How did you begin that process of teaching yourself?

I started the process of teaching myself when I was in graduate school and I thought, god, I donít know what a line is. Why do you break a line here as opposed to there? And I thought, there has to be some formal implications of this that no one will tell me. Everyone was just telling me -- well, this is an interesting break -- but what does that mean? What if I thought about lines, how would I do that? So the only kind of whole line that I knew was iambic pentameter and I didnít know how to do that so I just started counting to ten, thatís a start. Because I hate exercises, I hate them. I might give myself rules, but the idea of a poem as a mere exercise is anathema to me. My poems have to mean something to me or I am completely uninterested in writing them. So I just kind of started with those little rules and Paul Fussellís book Poetic Meter and Poetic Form meant the world to me and I kept it by my bedside for years reading a little bit here and a little bit there. I used to do that with Babette Deutschís Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms and looking at different things and trying different things. I donít try different things so much anymore, it doesnít interest me to conquer them. Thatís kind of how I did it. Iíll teach myself a little bit about this and Iíll teach myself a little bit about that. I wasnít comprehensive about it, I learned it in that sort of natural way. There is terminology I donít know and people invite me to give formal lectures in university classes and Iím not that good at it because I am quite instinctive about it. Nobody ever taught me, so I am not very good at quantifying it or codifying it for someone else.

So when youíre teaching a class and youíre teaching them about form, do make them do exercises?

Yes, but I lead them to it. Some people are very facile with forms and they just jump right in, but if I have somebody whoís not I actually just make them count syllables in the beginning. And then we might be able to get to counting stresses. And then we might introduce the whole line very, very, very gradually. I am the kind of teacher who teases out ideas with students, which means the student might have a lot of output, but I am not the kind of person who clamps down and says this is what youíre going to do. Iíve got a little bit of a different bargain with the student, I think, and it depends on the student, some students just feel jailed and I have to get them to understand that form is the inside of a poem, itís not the outside of a container. Once they get the idea that itís not a container, itís not going to hamper them, then they can do a little work together.

That leads me to another question -- you teach both in Canada and the United States, do you see any difference as far the direction that poetry is taking, and how it is taught there?

Yes, huge, huge. There are no low-residency programs in Canada. The University of Toronto for the first time is having a graduate program in creative writing. Think about that, the biggest university in the most major place. Canada had a very British idea that writing is best learned outside the academy, that itís not teachable. And only recently has it become an idea that it could be taught. As a result the literary environment in Canada has a different feeling to it. I love it because Canada as a country values its literature as defining its culture and defining its identity in the world. So there is something in Canada called CanLit, meaning literature produced by Canadians. And literary work is valued, deeply, deeply valued in Canada. So for instance when I published Cornucopia in Canada, the publisher paid for the book party, arranged the book tour -- whoa, where am I, I really am in heaven. The publicist for this book had a list of people that she sent one of poems in an e-mail everyday for about ten days, something like that. Just little things like that, that there is time to do because itís a little bit of a less crowded a literary landscape and also there is some sense of honoring authors there. Itís quite different. Canadian poetry tends to be longer, and interestingly, there is an expectation on the part of the Canadian poet that you will stay with the poem until it develops as opposed to shooting fireworks from the very first line. So an American can sometimes feel that a Canadian poem might be ďloose,Ē or what is this person talking about, why havenít they gotten into it right away, when the Canadian poet is thinking about broad themes and a kind of prologue. So itís quite different, itís fascinating.

Finally, I wanted to askódo you have a memory of your very first encounter with poetry? I remember in your memoir you mentioned something about in third grade creating a calendar with a poemÖ

It was in fifth grade.

Was that your first experience?

That was the first time I wrote a poem. I thought it had to have a rhyme scheme and I remember exactly, it started off ďMarch is such a pretty month, filled with lots and lots of snow," I canít remember the third line, but I remember the fourth line that rhymes with snow, ďHas thirty-one days, you know.Ē [Laughter] And I loved that I addressed the reader and I did it out of desperation, but in a way my writing process at the age of ten is not hugely different from my writing process now, I have to confess. [More laughter] There was something about getting that correspondence that was important to me. And also I found poetry kind of outside of school, it was not much taught. And I lived in suburban Buffalo where there werenít a lot of books, Iím from a working class family, I was the first person in my family to go to college. I did discover thin little small books of haikuÖ and I did love them, quite independently, and didnít really think about writing poetry, but did love those poets and I read those poems over and over and over again. I was more of a novel reader at the time and I still read a lot of novels. And my grandmother wrote me letters in which she enclosed poems.

Do you know why she did that?

She liked them. She would cut the poems out of the local newspaper, so you can imagine she wasnít sending me Keats. But I didnít realize that she sent me these things until after she died and I was going back through letters that I had received from her as a child and I thought, ohhh! So it really did start at home. She was a farm lady, a kind of classic church-going, quilt-making, pie-baking, violet-smelling grandma. Like the best kind of archetypal American grandma you can find. So there they were being sent in the mail and itís not something I remembered until I was a grown-up and I saw -- aha, thereís the seeds.