Interviewed by Katie Cantwell
NICHE: Tell us a little bit about “Italian Nobody.” The impetus for that poem seems to be stemming from a very specific emotion but, from a technical standpoint, how did the form of that poem come to you? Are structures, sounds, and images things you must discover as you’re crafting each poem, or does one of those elements come to you first?
JOYCE PESEROFF: This poem is a radical revision of an elegy I’d been struggling with for years. In the original and in this I admit something difficult (the original had a different something). I love Megan Marshall’s work, and when she published Margaret Fuller: A New American Life I heard her give a talk at the Concord Free Public Library, near my home. Someone in the audience asked what Fuller’s friend, Sophia Hawthorne, could have meant by writing that she was glad Fuller had died rather than return to Boston with an unsuitable husband and their child. Marshall replied that she thought it was a form of solace: since Fuller couldn’t survive, it was consoling for Hawthorne to believe it was better that she hadn’t. I revised the original elegy because of the feelings a 19th century woman expressed towards a 19th century writer that I recognized in myself over 100 years later.
NICHE: How does a poet write about something very personal, and yet, keep the writing open and accessible to a larger audience?
JOYCE PESEROFF: I think of Emily Dickinson’s poems—often the reader has no idea of what’s behind the poem, but the feeling is absolutely clear. In “It dropped so low—in my Regard,” someone has seriously disappointed her over something! We don’t know who it is, or what happened, but the nuance of how it feels, and how the feeling develops, is scrupulously observed. I don’t think a reader has to know anything about Jane Kenyon or Margaret Fuller to respond to “Italian Nobody.”
NICHE: Someone once said that one of the hardest things a writer must do is face a blank page each day. Most writers form strict routine to keep themselves writing. Do you have a routine that you follow, and if you do experience writer’s block, how do you get past it?
JOYCE PESEROFF: I’ve never kept a routine. I like working in the morning but I don’t work every morning. When I start something, I might work at it all day, coming back like a hummingbird to the feeder, never sated. It can take me years to finish a poem. It took me a while, when I started writing, to realize you could start one poem before finishing another.
I see more and more writers doing book-length projects—perhaps that’s a good way to maintain a schedule. Some writers assign themselves formal exercises when they go dry—write a pantoum; use a word bank; free write for five minutes then circle three things you like best and go from there. When I’m stuck I look for found language that interests me and let the poem reveal why.
NICHE: What would you say is the main distinction between prose and poetry?
JOYCE PESEROFF: The pleasures of “Song of Myself” are different from the pleasures of Middlemarch. Poetry is interested in word as word: its sound, its shape on the page, its play on the muscles of jaw and tongue.
NICHE: Learning to write is a life-long process. How has your writing evolved from book one to book five? Which poets have you learned from, and how might a young writer go from imitating their inspirations to embracing or crafting their own style or aesthetic—for lack of a better word?
JOYCE PESEROFF: Jane Kenyon once said, “Everyone knows something nobody else knows.” Each poem is the story of what that is at a particular time and place in my life. For me style evolves with subject—form follows function. The new book includes a sequence based Shakespeare’s sonnets that began with sound rather than narrative or imagery, a rare way for me to begin a poem. Perhaps the need to alter my approach—and Shakespeare—sprang from the same source as elegy, that desire to transform the dead to something living.
I’m not sure writers can imitate their inspiration without adding their individual voice. Voice—a certain diction, manner of thinking, way of perceiving the world—is what you start with, and craft teaches you how to express it most effectively. In college I was inspired by Keats and Diane Wakoski, Hopkins and Robert Creeley—precious few women among possible models—and later Bishop and Rich. All of these writers pay meticulous attention to their subject. If I had a motto, it would be “Pay Attention.”
NICHE: Speaking of books, what can you tell us about Know Thyself?
JOYCE PESEROFF: The title comes from classical Greek understanding of what it means to be human: “You’re not an animal/or a god, take the middle path.” The book attempts to figure out how this works in a world where identity is fluid, character and culture are fragmented, and landscape is overwhelmed. It includes a cat hit by a car, two actors playing Shylock, bees, an alligator, a double murder, a few myths and fairy tales, including the Bible. I’m absorbed by the natural world and how we imagine it—more and more as the subject of elegy. The book was written after the deaths of my parents, so elegy is a sustained note in the chord.
NICHE: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
JOYCE PESEROFF: Read everything—read your contemporaries, read poets of the last century, and the century before that, and the century before…. Read science. Read history. Read your great-aunt’s diary. Research subjects that obsess you and make poems from that. Don’t be afraid to write badly. I throw away half of what I write.
NICHE: Is there anything else you want our readership to know?
JOYCE PESEROFF: Whenever something new develops in poetry, many will argue, “That’s not poetry.” Think of the reception of William Carlos Williams by the Poetry Society of America. Think of spoken word poets, poets who incorporate graphics, poets who write in code so robots can read them. It’s all poetry.
This interview originally appeared on Niche’s website on June 5th 2014.