Molly Peacock is a widely anthologized poet and writer. Her latest work of nonfiction is The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. Her most recent collection of poems is The Second Blush. Her next book is illustrated fiction, Alphabetique: Tales in the Lives of the Letters. “The Analyst Draws” is part of a sequence of poems about psychotherapy and poetry, prompted by the events described in the poem. Visit her web site here.
Molly Peacock interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Molly, one of the poems featured in this month’s Congeries, “The Analyst Draws,” will be reprinted in an anthology honoring the life and work of William Stafford. Can you tell us about that project, your relationship to Stafford, and a little bit about this poem?
First of all, I’m delighted to be in this conversation with you, John Hoppenthaler and to be part of the fascinating work you’re doing with A Poetry Congeries.
“The Analyst Draws” is part of a new sequence of lyric poems I’m writing. They are 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.
When Becca Lachman, the editor of A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford, contacted me, I saw that “The Analyst Draws” might speak to the idea of Stafford’s daily routine of writing. Lachman describes A Ritual to Read Together as “a chance for poets to honor/wrestle with/reflect on Stafford's life and work, and partly to test his legacy as his 2014 Centennial approaches. Fred Marchant and Kim Stafford will be co-writing the book's intro.”
Unlike some of the poets in the anthology who knew Stafford very well, I only met him once, in my twenties, at a party that turned out to be a crucial occasion. Here is what happened at the party—and for 38 years afterward. . . (This note will appear with my poem in Lachman’s forthcoming anthology.)
A Note about the Daily Practice of Art and William Stafford
I met William Stafford only once, in the early 1970’s, after he gave a remarkable reading of his poems in Binghamton, New York, hosted by the poet Milton Kessler. Then in my twenties, I sat moping on the stairwell at Kessler’s party. Stafford had to get past me to go upstairs, and as I raised my head toward him, he beamed at me an uplifting smile. Ever since, I’ve connected him with uplift.
At the time I was trying to separate the strands of creativity and craziness. The prevailing myth was that a poet needed her neuroses, no matter how destructive, and that a therapist’s drive toward ordinary thinking would so normalize you that you wouldn’t be a poet anymore. Not long after that party I decided that there had to be sanity in art making, and that, in fact, art making was the sanest part of my life, something that William Stafford understood profoundly. It is part of the source of his practice as a poet, the basis of his commitment to the daily making of art.
A few blocks away from the house where Stafford beamed the beneficent smile stood the office of the psychotherapist in this poem. She deeply understood the creative process, and with her I began a long journey, maintaining contact for thirty-eight years now.
After her stroke, I watched her meet the challenge of reconstructing her life—through art. As she began drawing (and later painting) every day, I witnessed again the uplift of the daily repetitive custom William Stafford advocated. The smile of the pencil, if you will. While in style my poem “The Analyst Draws” is not something I think Stafford would have gravitated toward (he wasn’t a rhyming couplets kind of guy), the intent, to me, feels very much a part of his gentle insistence on the profundity of an artist’s daily routine.
One reason I’ve been drawn to your work is that we’ve both come from working class backgrounds; I tend to not much trust folks who haven’t! I find your work, therefore, tethered to the body and our working through its gradual decomposition. One of the first poems of yours that I read, “The Lull,” speaks to this in its closing lines, “”Look hard, life’s soft. Life’s cache / is flesh, flesh, flesh.” For you, it seems to me, this decomposing body is the very font of poetry.
Yes, for me, the body is the poem and, of course, the poem has a body in stanzas and lines. This is why, starting out, I was so interested in form. I thought of form as a skeleton around which the body of the poem is made. To me, a lyric poem’s smallness is so attractive partly because you hover over it with your whole body. I’m talking more about composing than decomposing! But looking hard at decomposition is what “The Lull” is about, and you’re right, it’s an Ars Poetica.
Looking hard at something, noticing it in all its detail (even a possum on the railroad tracks) is the heart of what I do both as a poet and as a prose writer. I’ve been described as a “low new formalist,” because I’ve rarely used “high art” subjects, and this speaks to the working class background you and I have in common. Class is so rarely spoken about in poetry, but here are two thoughts. One is that I was afraid, decades ago, to broach my subject matter (by which I simply mean my own experience as a girl who grew up in a house where the reading material was either Popular Mechanics or the Burpee Seed Catalog, two sources where a writer can learn a lot about specific descriptions, btw) because I thought it wouldn’t be taken seriously. Who cares about a girl watching as her drunken father flings a boiling pan of canned corn at the wall? But I cared of course. And I attempted a rescue “by elegance.” That brings me to two: this rescue by elegance was my interest in the formal traditions of poetry. I wondered, and hoped, that if I became expert in those traditions I both might be true to my subject matter and be taken seriously as a poet. To become an expert celebrates something in yourself, your capability for survival, and for survival with the beauty of self-possession. I feel very lucky to have made an art from all of this.
You served as President of the Poetry Society of America from 1989 to 1995, and again from 1999 to 2001. I’ve been invited, once again, to become a member. What can you say to convince me that I ought to become a member? What role do you see the Society as playing in the incorporation of poetry in our culture? We think of writing as such a private affair. Do such organizations as the Society and AWP help writers in meaningful ways?
Yes, be a member! What will it do for you? Well, first of all it will help you, as someone who understands what it means for a working class person to come into contact with the revelations of poetry, to support Poetry in Motion, a program that I was privileged to help start. Poetry in Motion puts poetry on the nation’s subways and buses, particularly in New York City, where millions of subway riders and tourists read the poems, and get to take them home, too, if they buy the posters or anthologies. Second of all, it will let you be a part of the oldest poetry organization in the country, and, if you like this sort of thing, enter the contests that have been a legacy since the days of William Carlos Williams and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
John, writing isn’t a private affair. Even Emily Dickinson, as she pinned her poems to the apron of her nephew to carry next door to her sister-in-law, saw her poems going out into the world.
Does the PSA help writers? Let’s say it helps poetry, and ultimately, putting poetry before a public helps writers.
Does AWP help writers? Let’s say it’s a hidden political force of thousands. Just think, 12,000 writers converge on a group of hotels every year. Now add four or so writers who stay home for every one who attends. Now you have 50,000 people who, if they put their talents together and didn’t think of themselves as so marginalized, would be an amazing force for good in the world, not because they have to come up with any other political agenda except the simple acknowledgment that the creative life is the necessary life. That creativity saves lives by making us value them.
As a dual American-Canadian citizen, I have to take this opportunity to talk a bit about a subject I know you’ve discussed before, the differences between the poetries, and the place of poetry, in the cultures of Canada and the U.S.A. In a Bookslut interview in 2004, you say, “It’s 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.” Do you find that still to be the case, or has there been some change? Are you speaking about the U.S. period affection for the lyric over the narrative poem here; that is, do Canadian poets seem more generally drawn to the implications of narrative poetry than they do to the brevity and immediacy of the lyric?
I’m speaking to the fact that culturally, a typical Canadian audience actually expects to wait for the artwork to develop, and that a typical American audience wants the punch line and wants it now. The confidence a Canadian poet displays comes from the relative certainty that people will attend and wait for what she has to say. That doesn’t mean there are no short lyrics—there certainly are! It’s a cultural attitude, and it creates a fascinating body of art that rarely becomes part of the osmosis at the border. Americans have to look for it. And nowhere better to look every year than The Best Canadian Poetry in English series from Tightrope Books! (Ed note: Peacock is the Editor of that Series.)
You, of course, also write prose, and your husband, Michael Groden, is a James Joyce scholar. How do either or both of these facts figure into your poetry writing, if at all? Can you write prose and poetry at the same time, or do you need to lay particular groundwork toward a different aesthetic space for each?
My husband’s amazing scholarship—he’s a textual scholar who pours over manuscripts—influences me every day, and no more than in the work I did in biography The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. That is the story of the remarkable Mary Delany, who, at the age of 72, in 1772, invented the art of collage, even though your art history texts will tell you that Matisse and Picasso did that in the 20th century. When I started to track Delany’s incredible evolution and spectacular floral collages (botanically accurate flowers step forth from dramatic black backgrounds), I was armed only with my poet’s observational skills. Soon I realized I’d have to wake up the nascent scholar in me. I was terrified, but helped in a thousand ways by my distinguished husband. We’ve known each other since we were 13, though didn’t marry until we were 45. (We had to practice on other people first.) Our life together is a day-in, day-out gabfest.
When I wrote my memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece, I abandoned poetry for prose, not understanding that I could compartmentalize those two arts. When I returned to poetry after the memoir, I resolved I’d never separate them again. And I haven’t. But the processes ebb and flow. No matter how much prose I write, I’ll always have a poet’s sensibility.
Finally, as you look back upon a very full writer’s life, and since I pose this question during the heart of spring graduation season, what words of wisdom will you impart to our fresh-faced, eager, slightly naïve, freshly-minted MFA and MA in Creative Writing students as they embark upon the next step in their lives as writers?
Schedule it. I mean that. Actually schedule the time you write. Then when your family and your job and Grandma and the wolf and your dentist demand your time, you can actually look at your calendar and say, I’m sorry, I can’t make it then. Can you do 2:15pm instead? If your time to write is actually designated in your ical, or written in your datebook, all those around you (including you yourself) will take it seriously. Your calendar is a monument to your time. Carve it—or be carved.
The Analyst Draws
Two days after your stroke, they hold out the crayon
you vigorously reject. Four days on
you do what you loved before language:
pick up a pencil and draw.
“Do you know how much raw
rejection you take?” you once asked me. Words
raked across my pink slips—words
you turned to after your rejection,
revealed at my therapy’s end.
that’s the method your studio teacher applied
when you were seventeen. Your father had just died.
The Radcliffe Dean had sent you
to learn the New Vision. But all you could do
was draw him dying. The Vision taught:
Drawing is Thought. But what good were an oval and two dots,
when they could have been his face and eyes?
Abstraction was just disguise,
so you took lines in an agony walk,
and after that class critique you’d walk
away from the studio—not to touch
a pencil for 30 years. Since touch
was exchanged for words,
you worked with what you overheard,
sensing beneath syllables their connecting lines.
How talented you became at drawing outlines
from the undisclosed shapes of inner life, teasing
out the pattern, taking
those lines for the walk to the interior
where I met you, wearier
when young than ever since. And ever since in awe
of the limning mind.
as I was drawn to you,
as you drew me to you
till I could walk away,
as you now draw away.
In The Air
To be proven naïve when you are old
unzips the carry-on wisdom you pack,
the crinkled garments every which way.
How could any of life surprise you now?
Your friendship’s expected trajectory
was once assured. Now its holdings unfold
below your airplane window, there a dot—
a pony? or colt? —bolts across the plains,
and things you trusted in their places
like barns and houses and cloverleaf exits
fracture in the vertical view.
Through cloud fragments, unexpectedly
a baby’s face looms out. Now your friendship
drops and plunges—just as in the romance stage,
when you were young and a friend left you for
a man, though here it’s a grandchild! Her romance
is brighter than sun in your eyes.
Light floods through the cabin, and you twist,
then, after your blinding, see she’s gone.