You hold graduate degrees in creative writing and composition-rhetoric: what’s that like?
I like to participate in as many different conversations about writing as possible so I can slip in and out (like simultaneously attending several interesting dinner parties in the same building). I’m a fundamentally shy person with an extroverted sense of will. If that implies I stand in the margins for easy exit, for a quick egress, yes, that is the case. Probably, it has allowed me to do types of writing a more pinned-down person wouldn’t be able to get away with (in part because I am not fully initiated into one particular field and don’t always observe the rules and conventions). I’ve been able to research cool topics like a nineteenth-century etiquette author who snuck advice to wannabe women writers between pages on skirt lengths and silverware. Or an “autobiography” of a rejected manuscript in which the main character, a sentimental novel, recounts its treatment at the hands of an editor.
I also ricochet between creative and scholarly work. I wrote most of Lid to the Shadow, my second book of poetry, while at the tail-end of a doctoral program in Composition Studies, during the strain of qualifying exams, dissertation proposals, committees, and defense (plus motherhood and a full-time job).
Besides, I think that Composition-Rhetoric, Writing Studies, or whatever you want to call the academic specialization to which I belong has quite a bit of practical advice to offer writers and teachers about process, audience, and social considerations. Sort of carpentry-and-sawhorse practical, workmanship, though some creative writers tend to scoff at theory and pedagogy found in academic journals.
What do you like best about teaching writing?
Paul Valéry once said that poetry was a sort of separate language, a “language within a language.” And then there’s Wallace Stevens: “Tinsel in February, tinsel in August. / There are things in a man besides his reason.” I like to get students to speak that language of the unconscious. It increases the number of conversational partners, so to speak.
Also, I drool, pound the table, gasp, sigh, and exclaim when introducing certain poets (Neruda, Dickinson, Lorca, Celan, Stevens) to my undergraduates. I can’t believe I get a chance to unwrap the gold foil and pass them a poem like “The Idea of Order at Key West” for instance. It’s the same reaction I have to Peruvian food, Andrew Bird’s “Three White Horses,” or Elon Musk. I know some writers would prefer to be at their laptops fulltime. Teaching is never ever a drag for me.
What’s up with you and genres?
Genre is a lady. It’s actually etymologically related to the word for “gender.” When genre is mishandled, it can abrade like being called a “poetess.” When I was much younger, still a college student, genre made me into an object in its pinball machine. You make a choice to be a poet over a fiction writer and, whoops, unwittingly you’ve resigned yourself to a lifetime at a much lower pay scale. So picking poetry will always be like starting out your career in an economic downturn. I had an advisor who steered me to poetry, encouraging me to take an up-and-coming visiting professor’s class—Laura Mullen. She was so fabulous that I took “Intermediary” workshop the next semester only to discover I was locked out of the fiction-writing track in my degree program. It was an accident, but then I never looked back. These days, I honestly don’t think I will ever want to write fiction—but never say never. Now genre is less a professional and lifestyle-shaping force. Instead, I get to play with genre, balancing several at the same time, sometimes “recycling” material I find for one genre for another.
How has writing impacted your life?
It has given me morals and simultaneously made me amoral, given me belief and made me without belief. It has put me in a grand ballroom of Possibility, but it’s a white, completely blank, and possibly razed space. Often the people I love and cherish are nowhere to be found in that space.
What frightens you about writing?
What gives you the most joy about writing?
It’s an all-that-you-can-greet lifestyle, the poet’s. It’s like mindfulness practice: a fundamental openness to experience and change, a cultivated awareness of response. I never know what I’ll find in a morning session of writing. I am steered by each moment, and I often feel tremendous joy because of that level of acceptance.
What advice would you give to me about interviewing you?
Be careful because I’ll probably try to insert a long diatribe about my other interest—helping people overcome writing blocks and reduce their writing anxiety through Buddhist mindfulness practice. I’ll probably wander into self-promotion and tell you that I’ve taught several undergraduate and graduate courses on mindful writing, and I have a blog on the topic: alexandriapeary.blogspot.com. In the next few years, I hope to design a 3-d theory and pedagogy based on mindfulness. A fully developed theory of mindful writing, one that can be used in and out of the classroom, is one of my life missions.
But seriously, it really pains me to know that individuals are struggling with written ability. I want everyone to join in the expansive experience of writing. If someone tells me near a bouncy house at one of my kid’s friend’s birthday parties that he feels stuck in his writing, I really lean into it, wanting to help. I hope to somehow Pay Forward what Peter Elbow once gave me when I was a MFA student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He seemed to believe in me back then—a gift I couldn’t believe I was receiving. Because of him, I am not a miser of ability.
Your third book of poetry, Control Bird Alt Delete, was selected by Emily Wilson for the 2013 Iowa Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in April 2014. What’s Control Bird Alt Delete like? What sort of experience would you hope to give an ideal reader?
The birds are often smarter than anyone appearing in the poems in the book. Those birds are loosely based on Charley Harper’s illustrations (one of his last paintings, “Visit My Web Site,” is the book cover). I’d like a reader to get a sense of New England, of a landscape filled with signs of absence (cellar holes, rock walls, caving-in brick mills), of environmental erasures, of well-stocked bird feeders, of collapsing city towers, of a journey through the mazes of the twenty-first century. It’s a book of underlined places—of the distinct possibility of falling into the unconscious while crossing the room to answer the highlighted phone or turn off the yellow kettle. This book contains my exploration into the Jungian that I started in Lid to the Shadow. The first time I really recognized myself was while wearing my glossy overcoat, the moment I got my wings, while in San Francisco in 2009. Then after Lid had been accepted by Slope Editions for its book prize, I was riding a bus filled with business people and their mobile devices commuting to work in Boston, reading Jung’s Man and His Symbols for (embarrassingly) the first time. I gasped because of the recognition: there were the shadows I’d been holding hands with for the past two years. I was not wearing my fancy overcoat at the time.
Do you have a dream book of poetry you’d like to write in the future?
I think it might be interesting to collaborate with one other person on a book. I collaborate as a scholar and can see the benefits, but it doesn’t seem like poets do much team-writing. It could be amazing to braid my internal voice with someone else’s to make text—the right person. I’d also like to write poems about (not just using) the present moment. If I ever finish a collection as good as Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I’d be a happy, happy writer.
What’s in the last poem you’ll ever write during your life?
No, I’m not certain whether twerking is an enduring pop-cultural phenomena that will define a generation like break dancing, the Charleston, or the Twist.