Molly Peacock is a writer’s writer: prolific, versatile and courageous with her creative choices. She’s also a consummate teacher—the perfect person with whom to talk about craft …
Gretl Claggett: Molly, your ten books range from poetry to essay collections, and from memoir to a genre-busting hybrid that combines biography, botany, history and memoir in your latest book, The Paper Garden. (Read the New York Times review here: An Artist of the Botanical World.) Present throughout all your work, though, is a singular voice and a poet’s sensibility for precision, music and metaphor. In what ways does your foundation as a poet help you to write prose? Has it ever hindered you?
Molly Peacock: Thank you for that marvelous description of my career. I so appreciate it, because if you are the kind of artist who crosses genres, people don’t always know quite what to make of you. It’s wonderful to see your integrated description of all I’ve done. I was smitten by poetry at the age of 12, entranced by metaphor. Metaphor, and its companion simile, invites you to compare things, especially disparate things. At the same time as my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Bauemler, encouraged my poetry, she was also teaching me to write formal essays. I fell in love with compare/contrast essays. I go through the world conducting a continuous “compare and contrast” essay in my head, and a metaphorical “like” and “as” visualization in my imagination. It’s such a rich way of being!
Also, I live in two countries, Canada and the United States, and I’m a citizen of both. I literally go back and forth over a geographical border in the same way as I endlessly, and with joy, compare ideas, objects, flowers, people, emotional states and stories in my imagination. It’s one way a poet got attracted to 18th century botanical classification!
In a weird way, the “like or as” comparison mechanism that operates with simile and helps make metaphors is also embedded in comparing and contrasting. My poetry and my nonfiction actually have the same source.
I’ll tell you how poetry hinders prose. The compaction of thinking as a poet, the leaps you make in a metaphor, can clot prose. Prose requires the element of time. Lyric poetry collapses time, and the more a poem approaches a little painting, the more time is translated into space. I have to remind myself that, even though I can be visual and painterly in prose, I have to make ROOM. Ideas and stories have to happen in time. Images, of course, don’t.
For example, just think of Basho’s marvelously complex haiku:
No one spoke,
the host, the guest
the white chrysanthemum.
This scene is as still as a painting—but, if time were admitted to this scene, it could be quite a piece of prose. (That said, I’m very glad it’s only three lines.)
p.s. I still travel to Buffalo to have lunch with Mrs. Baeumler.
GC: Does your process—discovering and developing the structure of a piece—differ between drafting a poem or outlining an essay or a book-length memoir project? What wisdom have you gleaned about structure from working in various forms?
MP: In either a poem or a big prose book, I love to have the structure in mind as I’m starting. That doesn’t mean I won’t abandon an intricate structure if it only serves as scaffolding; but for me, a structure provides a way through the wilderness of feeling and thought. In poems, the requirements of a sonnet, or a certain number of syllables and lines, function as a thread through that wilderness.
The structure I used in The Paper Garden? An image of one of Mrs. Delany’s astounding flower collages begins each chapter, serving as a threshold into thirteen different periods in her remarkable life.
Many people think of structure as a container, something that confines or jails you. But I think of structure as a skeleton, something that supports you.
GC: What excites you most about switching back and forth between genres? What do you find most challenging?
MP: When I was deep into writing my memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece, I abandoned poetry, because the prose rhythms took over, and returning to poetry was extremely difficult afterwards. I resolved I would never do that again, because both the lyric impulse of poetry and the narrative impulse of prose so enriched my life. I’m desolate without either one. Prose is at the forefront of my conscious mind, my social self, and my avid interest in fact. It is the genre of my maturity. It began when I married in midlife and moved from New York City to Canada. In a way I think of my prose as Canadian. Poetry is the back of my unconscious mind, deeper in my body, somewhere in my lungs and stomach. New York is poetry for me. It is my youth, my romance, the art that had the thrilling power to allow me to investigate psychological wounds and make, not confession, but shining song from them.
Tune in tomorrow to read Part II …
In the meantime, check out an excerpt from The Paper Garden.
Molly Peacock, a poet and a creative nonfiction writer, is the author of The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72 (McClelland and Stewart, October 2010, in Canada; Scribe Publications, October 2010, in Australia; Bloomsbury USA, April 2011, in the US; Bloomsbury, July 2011, in the UK) and six books of poetry, including The Second Blush (W.W. Norton and Company, June 2008, in the US and McClelland and Stewart, March 2009, in Canada) and Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems (W.W. Norton and Company in the US and UK and Penguin Canada, 2002). Among her other works are a memoir called Paradise, Piece By Piece and How To Read A Poem and Start A Poetry Circle (1998, 1999; both published by Riverhead Penguin in the US and McClelland and Stewart in Canada). She is the editor of a collection of creative non-fiction, The Private I: Privacy in a Public World (Graywolf Press) and the co-editor of Poetry in Motion: One Hundred Poems from the Subways and Buses (W.W. Norton, 1996).
Former Poet-in-Residence at the American Poets' Corner (Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York) and former President of the Poetry Society of America, Peacock is one of the creators of Poetry in Motion on subways and buses throughout North America. Currently she is on the faculty of the Spalding University Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts program. She also serves as Series Editor of the The Best Canadian Poetry in English, published each year by Tightrope Books in Toronto.