portrait Molly Peacock

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 137 ~ October, 2008

Molly Peacock, a poet and creative nonfiction writer, is the author of six books of poetry, including her most recent collection, The Second Blush (W.W. Norton and Company, June 2008) and Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton and Company, 2002). Her other works include How to Read A Poem and Start A Poetry Circle, as well as a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece (both published by Riverhead Penguin/McClelland and Stewart).

A former Poet-in-Residence at the American Poets’ Corner in New York City, and former President of the Poetry Society of America, Peacocks awards include Danforth Foundation, Ingram Merrill Foundation, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, National Endowment of the Arts, and New York State Council on the Arts Fellowships. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, and The Paris Review, as well as The Best American Poetry.

Peacock also wrote and performed in a one-woman staged monologue of poems, The Shimmering Verge, which she performed in theaters throughout the United States and Canada, and was showcased at Urban Stages in New York City in February of 2006.

Peacock is currently on the faculty of Spalding University, a low residency Master of Fine Arts Program, located in Louisville, Kentucky, and is spending the 2008-09 academic year in New York City on a Fellowship from the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City of New York Graduate Center.

Born in Buffalo, Peacock received a B.A. magna cum, laude from Harpur College (SUNY Binghamton) and an M.A. with honors from the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Toronto with her husband, a James Joyce scholar.

Derek Alger: You were fortunate to have a special teacher in junior high school.

Molly Peacock: Her name is Bernice Baeumler, and she created a kind of artist’s colony for us in that class. We wrote nearly every day (or at least I remember it that way). I didn’t write with that kind of heavenly permission until I first went to the MacDowell Colony.

DA Did you have special plans when you went to college?

MP: I wanted to be something special, but I didn’t know what that was. In high school, I’d look at the Table of Contents of my textbook and think, “Gosh, if I could grow up and have just one line in this Table of Contents, that’s what I want.” It was pie in the sky then, but as I look back on what seemed an impossible wish, I realized that’s what’s called in yoga class, “setting the intention.”

I was the first person in my family to go to college, and my working class farm-girl mother told me that I would since I was a child. I went to the State University of New York at Binghamton and studied with the poet Milton Kessler. He gave me the best advice about my poems. He’d point to something in a poem that he thought was successful and he’d say, “See that?” “Yes,” I’d say. “Well,” he’d say, “do that again.”

When the Oxford Book of American Poetry arrived in the mail, and I saw my name, I thought of Mrs. Baeumler, and Milton Kessler, and my mother, and that intention I set, and felt happy and grateful. I dedicated my book How to Read a Poem and Start a Poetry Circle to Mrs. Baeumler, Milton Kessler, and another distinguished poet and teacher, Richard Howard.

DA: You went through a period you describe as wanting to be “a normal person.”

MP: I stopped writing from 1970 to 1973. I associated poetry with alcoholism, substance abuse and craziness. Our undergraduate classes had been visited by Anne Sexton, who committed suicide, John Berryman, who then committed suicide, and John Logan, a frightening alcoholic. Since my father was an alcoholic and my sister was a substance abuser, I was terrified that poetry would drive me over the edge. I just wanted a so-called normal life. But of course I couldn’t stop writing really. I had no choice about that. But I realized that I did have a choice as to what kind of life I’d live. I didn’t have to be crazy or drunk to be a poet. I had a terrific therapist help me with that.

DA: Fortunately, you learned alcoholism and substance abuse are not a prerequisite for writing poetry. And then you were off to Johns Hopkins University.

MP: Richard Howard was a huge influence on my literary life. At Hopkins, I was in his first ever poetry workshop. It was marvelous. He brought in all kinds of literature and never commented on our poems in class at all. But he did comment in private conferences. The most important question he asked me was, “Well, dear, you’re running on pure emotion in these poems. What are you going to do when the emotion evaporates?” Hmmm, I thought, it’s NEVER going to evaporate. But I knew what he meant. I had to get some structural underpinning in my work. That’s when I became a nascent formalist.

DA: It must have been a big decision to move to New York City.

MP: When I got my M.A. from Hopkins in 1977, there were hardly any jobs for writers. They all seemed to be one-year jobs in culturally lonely places. There’d be a one year job in say, Morningside, Iowa, and another in, say, Wichita. That would mean arriving at a strange place and immediately starting to search for a job for the next year in another strange place. That seemed to me to be an awful way to live. That’s why I decided to pick the place, and then find a way to live a literary life there. I picked New York. I had friends in New York, and a boyfriend there, too.

DA: What did you end up doing?

MP: It was the Reagan years. There were no jobs in the arts. Those jobs had been cut. I ended up teaching 7th grade English at a Quaker school, Friends Seminary.

DA: Obviously you liked it.

MP: Yes, I stayed eleven years. It was a wonderfully stable environment for me. I really needed that, and I wrote two books of poems while I taught there, Raw Heaven and Take Heart. Both were published by Random House, and my career as a poet was launched.

DA: You were considered a new formalist poet by many.

MP: Yes, a self-taught one. I never had proper instruction in prosody, really. But I taught myself about it because I really needed that rhythmic underpinning Richard Howard was talking about. I had hot emotional subjects that drew me, and I needed structures that would help me contain the heat of the feelings. The sonnet especially worked for me.

DA: Eventually your past caught up with you.

MP: Yes, I reconnected with my high school boyfriend from Buffalo, New York. When Raw Heaven was reviewed in the New York Times, he saw the review and wrote to me, just as I was giving a reading and heard his name from one of the Irish literature scholars who attended the reading. I got his address and was writing to him as I received his letter. His name is Michael Gordon, and he is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Western Ontario.

DA: So, you found your way to Canada.

MP: Years I realized that Allen Ginsberg’s adage, `first thought best thought’ was the perfect motto for my romantic life. The boy I chose at sixteen was the man I wanted in my life at forty-four. We were married in 1992, the year my mother died. My sister died a few years later. It was a tumultuous time because I was commuting back and forth between New York and London, Ontario. That’s what made me decide to become a freelance poet, and to start teaching students independently, one to one. I left friends Seminary and went completely out on my own.

DA: You also discovered your passion for writing prose.

MP: It just poured out of me, but I had no idea of how to structure it. My agent, Kathleen Anderson, worked and worked with me. It’s a memoir with a central question. The question was, why did I choose not to have children? And the book circles around and around that issue, uncovering all the complex, intriguing reasons.

DA: You were the editor of The Private I: Privacy in a Public World published by Graywolf Press.

MP: Graywolf Press is a marvelous publisher of innovative nonfiction, and is a book of essays by all kinds of fabulous writers from Jonathan Franzen to Yusef Komunyakaa, from Vivian Gornick to Wendy Lesser. I loved editing the book because I had many thoughts about privacy after having written a memoir, and these writers articulated many of them — and much more.

DA: Also, we can’t forget Poetry in Motion: One Hundred Poems from the Subways and Buses which Norton publishes.

MP: Poetry in Motion, the program that puts poetry on the nation’s subways and buses, was my very best volunteer effort for poetry. I was one of the co-creators, and though there are usually ups and downs in every big project, this project has amazing karma. It thrilled people wherever we went with it. Probably that’s because we never dumbed down the choices of the poems. We put Yeats, Shakespeare, Marianne Moore, Robert Hayden, Li Po, all on public buses and subway cars, then collected the poems into a nifty little anthology with my co-editors Elise Paschen and Neil Neches.

DA: Tell us about your project, The Shimmering Verge, and how it evolved.

MP: The Shimmering Verge, my one-woman show in poems, came about after I put together Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems for my editor Carol Houck Smith at W.W. Norton and Company. I had met a fabulous Canadian director, Lousie Fagan, when I was involved in a benefit production of The Vagina Monologues. I had acted as a girl, and it was a wonderful way to re-connect with that and to find new audiences for poetry. I also had to learn a new art in mid-life. I worked with voice coach Kristin Linklater, and she forever changed how I read poetry out loud. I also had the thrill of working with composer Andy Creegan. Best of all, here I was in my fifties, and I had to get really strong in order to have the stamina for the show. I started working with Jasen Miller of Libra Fitness. He’s the balance and flexibility trainer for the Canadian Opera Company, and I still work with him, and so does my husband. The show toured for three years in the States and Canada, and even did a limited Off Broadway run.

DA: Since you teach at Spalding University, tell us a bit about MFA low residency programs.

MP: Spalding is a very warm, very nurturing environment with high standards. The saying there is that “the competition is in the library.” That raises the bar without raising the interpersonal anxiety. I am very committed to teaching there. It also allows me to live in Toronto and teach in the United States, a perfect arrangement as far as I’m concerned.

DA: How to conclude? You write in dual genres — poetry and creative non-fiction, and you live in dual countries — the United States and Canada. What’s next on the agenda?

MP: I’ve just published a brand new book of short, lyric poems about marriage and married love, called The Second Blush. I realized that the poems I’m drawn to reading are short lyrics that often have single images, and that’s what I tried to write in this book. Though poets write lots of love poems, there aren’t really many married love poems. Those are psychologically more fascinating, to me at least, because time and development factor into the deepening love.

And now, in the prose department, I’m writing an impressionistic biography of the amazing botanical collage artist Mrs. Delany. She started her life’s work at the age of 73 — in 1773! It’s based on an essay I wrote called “Passion Flowers in Winter” which appears in The Best American Essays 2007. This year, I’m based in New York again as Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY Graduate Center to do work for this new book.