Molly Peacock is author of the recently released biography, The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, as well as six books of poetry, including The Second Blush and Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems. Peacock has written and performed a one-woman show, The Shimmering Verge, and is the former President of the Poetry Society of America, where she helped create Poetry in Motion on the nation’s subways and buses. She teaches in the Spalding University Brief-Residency Master of Fine Arts program.
Interviewer: Your work has the gift of presence—a voice that is conscious and grounded in the present moment. In your latest collection of poems, Second Blush, you direct this consciousness to the domestic realm, praising objects such as paper clips and teacups—a drastic shift from the content of your earlier collections. How did you arrive at this new and seemingly more innocent subject?
Peacock: I had a life where the bad part came first, so I am a big appreciator of the wonderful life that I have now. Also, my husband is a cancer survivor. He’s healthy now, but the threat of illness makes you aware of all the elements of your daily life. So that’s part of my appreciation of domestic things. I didn’t write about those things earlier in my life because I am so ancient that when I was first really writing poetry and publishing it, second wave feminist poetry magazines were just beginning. People were writing a lot of what you can call “stove anger” and I so didn’t want to do that—not that I was against it, but I didn’t want to do that in my poetry.
Interviewer: You’ve written essays about the paradox of cultivating a private self in poetry. It seems important to grapple with the idea of privacy, especially in a culture in which people often don’t have control over their own stories or how their identities are represented. You have said that truth creates privacy. How does this manifest itself your work?
Peacock: I began writing about my body because I wasn’t finding those poems out there. They certainly exist now, in plentitude, but when I was starting, they didn’t exist. I then got interested in the whole idea of the male gaze. That’s a very common idea in film. I grew up watching films almost exclusively through a male gaze, and I eventually realized that there’s a male gaze in poetry. When I wrote about my sexuality, it was deliberate and joyful, a way to get a female gaze on male bodies. It’s been fun for me to write about naked men, to make a man an art object from a woman’s point of view.
In terms of privacy, there’s a weird way in which exposing something private about yourself gives you the control. It’s not that other people have exposed you. You have done it, and I think it makes a big difference because you have told a truth about yourself. If you define yourself then you’ve created the boundaries. In a weird way, boundaries create privacy. So by giving up your privacy and drawing a line around it, you’ve actually given yourself privacy.
Peacock: I don’t mind that label at all. It is feminist. But my feminist label has often been subsumed under my formalist label. I don’t think you have control over what you get labeled, and for a while I resisted those labels. But now I feel like, “Get over that and do what you do have control over, which is what you write about and the way that you write about it.” As far as writing about other poets’ work, I think that women don’t write about one another enough, so I’m glad to be doing this interview.
One thing that interests me is that people don’t label me as a “confessional poet.” I feel I’m just as confessional as anybody else writing about her own experience. Yet there is an implied “we” in my poems, even though I don’t say that. I’m a witness to myself in the poem. There is the “I” who is acting in the poem, but there is also “me” as the speaker who is witnessing, walking the “I” through the experience in the poem. So I’m both the guide and the fresh experience. I think of a poem like “Say You Love Me.”1 I am the actor in the poem, but I am also the witness and the guide to the experience in the poem; I’m guiding both the girl in the poem and the audience through a really terrifying experience. As a writer, I’m aware of the complexity of doing all of that.
Interviewer: This reminds me of what you describe in other interviews as “the two-track life”—when we occupy two separate roles that exist on the same track.2 It is interesting to think of these different selves as a way to manage our experience, so that raw emotion can be negotiated within a safe space.
Peacock: That safe space—I’m deliberately creating that. The last thing I want to do is have that unsafe blurting out—crazy, unformed, unmitigated expression of emotion—like someone just going off on you. That’s not art. I’ve had plenty of that in life. I do not wish to recreate it in my art. But I recognize the potency of those emotions.
Here’s a story from visual art. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal. I just know that when I heard it, it meant a lot to me. It’s about a man going to visit Isamu Noguchi, the sculptor.3 This person calls and says, “I want to speak to Noguchi,” and his assistant says, “I’m sorry, he’s working on a sculpture now.” The visitor is on his cell phone, looking through the fence, and he sees Noguchi out there and says, “I can see the guy—he’s just walking around.” Noguchi appeared to be just walking around, but in fact he was preparing his sculpture. He was looking for the right stone. Once he found the stone, he said he could release the sculpture from it.
I love this story because, from the outside, when you’re making art, it doesn’t look like you’re doing anything, just walking around. But I also love it because of the idea that if you find the right stone, you can release the sculpture from it. I think of my poetry as releasing the poem from those emotions.
Interviewer: The expression of emotion is often tied to risk, the idea of something being at stake. In Cornucopia, many of the poems seem to have high emotional stakes, whereas in Second Blush, the subjects seem safer. How has the role of risk evolved in your work?
Peacock: I love taking risks in a poem. That’s what writing is about for me. But at the same time, the craft of the poem creates the net underneath the high wire. I feel there’s a weird combination of safety and risk—creating safety in taking a huge risk. The safety is in the formal manipulation and in the play. When you’re playing, you can take these risks. Isn’t that what makes an entire crowd gasp at a sports event? It’s the risk of this player. You can take those risks when you’re young. But as you develop a body of work, you have to ask, what risks are open to me now? There’s always something risky, but you have to be quite vulnerable and open to your experience as you age. It’s easy not to be, because you’ve had certain successes, you have a reputation, and you don’t have to go to a hard place if you don’t want to.
Interviewer: Do you think that young women poets feel they have to go to hard places to grab attention in order to be valuable?
Peacock: I think every young writer writes out of that place. Why else would they do this? If, when you’re young, you write about a vulnerable subject, there’s also the painful sense that everyone is looking at you and you’re doing it in public. That’s probably something that young women have to come to an accommodation about. You, Kendra, you’re making decisions now about how you’re going to write, what you’re going to write, and who your models are. Are you going to go for abstraction and bury your personal experience, or are you going to be more out there? You’re making all of those decisions and reading all of these other poets to see what they did. It’s been very fun for me to watch younger women writers stake their various claims because I think they write about themselves differently than I did. It’s a different generation. It’s a different world. My god, I never had a female professor in college. I mean, just imagine that world!
Interviewer: How has your identity as a writer changed over the years?
Peacock: When I was younger I just wanted to be in my experience and my imagination. Now there is the biographer part of me, which I never would have chosen when I was young. I hated facts. Though I preferred reality to fantasy, still the idea of researched facts felt so uncreative to me. That’s the fun thing—you discover aspects of your creativity as you get older. It’s like pruning in horticulture: if you take off the top of a plant, then you stimulate the side growth along its stem. There is always side growth. That’s what happens to us after a while. Everybody runs into various degrees of trouble that lop off the top growth. But there is this side growth that happens, the source of which—I realize in myself—was there in childhood. I made certain decisions in life and stopped that side growth. But then it started happening later on in life and I chose not to stop it.
Interviewer: What have been the most surprising side growths?
Peacock: I never thought I would do a one-woman show. I never thought I’d write a memoir. I never thought I’d write a biography. I don’t know who I am and I don’t feel alive unless I’m tapping into creative energy. And at the same time it’s scary because I think, “Ugh you’re just ruining your reputation as a poet because you’re doing all these other things.” I probably would have written twelve books of poems by now. But, I don’t know. Does the world need twelve books of poems?
Interviewer: Yes! Speaking of, could you talk about the origins of your new manuscript? The poems I’ve heard have been biographies of letters with human attributes. Is this consistent throughout the book?
Peacock: Yes. The book is called AlphabeTique: the Lives of the Letters as Written by T. T is an old tree, the biographer of the alphabet. The letters T writes about are men and women, gay, straight, and transsexual. Each poem is a little biography. a little adventure. I didn’t write the poems in order. One day I wrote a poem about a man who stopped talking in his old age. I didn’t know what to call him so I just called him “C.” Then one day I was writing about a font I love called Bembo and realized, “Oh, I’m getting a B here.” Then I realized that the alphabet was unfolding. I started having fun. I didn’t realize that T was the author of the biographies until much later. The poems are free verse. When I tried to cage them up in a form, the lives in the poems couldn’t develop.
Interviewer: How often do you write in free verse?
Peacock: I go through phases. If a poem is narrative, I tend more towards free verse. There’s a loose formal structure underneath it, but not a tight formal structure because I have to let the story unfold. I tend to look for tight formal structures when the subject is purely emotional, when the narrative is very secondary to the experience.
I have to say that this is all in retrospect, because when I’m doing it, it’s just intuitive.
Interviewer: Where do the alphabet poems fit into this spectrum?
Peacock: They have requirements—the requirement of alliteration, the requirement of the design. In a way each one of them has enough self-instigated rules, so that while they’re not traditionally formal, I’m still engaged. “Bembo” is a fun poem—obviously out of my own experience. She’s at a “Font Colony” and she encounters bitterness, something that I’ve struggled with in my life. Something I don’t want in my life is to become a bitter old artist! I remember going to the MacDowell colony and seeing elderly artists. The really elderly ones, I adored. They were eighty and still doing it—they’d been practicing their art their whole lives, but I had never heard of them. And then there were the bitter ones—the bitter middle aged once who hadn’t gotten what they thought had been their share.
Interviewer: That sounds like a nightmare.
Peacock: I thought, “I don’t want to be that, please.” Periodically in my life I take my pulse and I ask myself, “You haven’t become bitter have you?” That’s different from being experienced. If you’re experienced in life you’re slightly jaded. That’s cynicism; you can’t help it. But that’s not the same as being bitter.
Interviewer: I’ve noticed a feeling among artists in the U.S. that there’s not enough to go around. It seem that one can risk becoming bitter at any age.
Peacock: I call that “Piece of the Pie-ism.” It’s the idea that success is a pie with only so many pieces. It means that when someone else gets a bigger piece, you don’t have enough. If we release ourselves from that metaphor, from the idea that there is only so much, then suddenly there’s enough. If success is more like air and not like pie, then you have room to exist. I think there is always jealousy and I don’t think you can get around that. I may be misusing jealousy. Maybe it’s envy, the idea of wanting what somebody else has, especially, say, in graduate school, where you’re in a very close pool of competition, even if it’s very nurturing and collegial.
At Spalding we have this saying that the competition is in the library. That motto is very helpful because it pits you against the great writers of the past instead of your roommate or boyfriend. When you’re both applying for scholarships and art colonies, both sending out your work to magazines, it’s very hard to step back from it. All you can do is say, “I’ve got to row my own boat, got to go my own course,” and you can’t hold back.
Interviewer: It’s now out in the open that women are publishing less than men.4 What do you think is at the core of this disturbing trend?
Peacock: I was having a conversation with a distinguished poetry editor at a major publisher about the difference between male poets and female poets in their careers. She said that if a life event happens to a woman—the illness of a mother, or a marriage, a divorce, a child in trouble—she gets the email that says she’s not going to get the book because something’s happening. Men never email her that way, she says. They might be having the worst year of their life, but they’re sending out their poems. I thought, yes. The big struggle in my own life is to not let my life events get in the way.
Interviewer: How have you overcome this struggle? What has prevented you from holding yourself back?
Peacock: I’ve learned a lot about taking rejection from men. I learn it at the gym where I train with my husband. I’m really a completely clumsy, horrible athlete. It’s a miracle I do anything. I end up there often as the only woman among three or four guys. We all get along extremely well. I watch how they tease one another, how they goad one another, how they react to their losses and screw-ups. There’s this whole sense of humor, and I watch how they separate wins and losses from some core identity each of them has. I didn’t play team sports as a young woman, so I have no idea if that goes on in young women’s sports. But I watch these guys and I think, “This is a good attitude to cultivate.” They’re having fun and they’re bouncing off of it. In some ways, when that poetry editor told me the story of how men and women respond differently to life crises and publishing, I thought about just staying in the game, no matter what—something that I struggle with, that everybody struggles with.
Interviewer: What advice would you give to young women writers?
Peacock: Don’t hold back. You have to go for it. Now you have all this energy and forward motion. Don’t stifle yourself. Let the world stifle you, if it does. Things will happen to you that may sap your energy, but don’t you dare sap your own. I have had a long and marvelous relationship with a therapist my whole life. I bring a lot of creative issues in there like, how am I going to do this, how am I going to get through this book or how am I going to get through this terrible period in my creative life. Because I have a therapist I can take these problems to, they don’t have to mar my relationships and friendships. However, artists are complicated, volatile, sexual people. All kinds of misbehavior go on in the fishbowl atmosphere of graduate school and you can’t avoid it. But you can go home at night and say: I have to go my own way.