An Interview with Molly Peacock

Andrew Tolson

Jason Guriel: Do you read much contemporary poetry these days? Who are some of your favourite younger poets?

Molly Peacock: I do, indeed. Here’s a random list of some younger or emerging poets who always interest me: from the U.S.: Rebecca Wolff, Amber Flora Thomas, Jonathan Weinert, Alessandra Lynch, Richard Newman, Andrea Carter Brown, and Amy Clark. In Canada: Sonnet L’Abbe, Jake Mooney, George Murray, Lara Bozabalian — and Jason Guriel, of course!

But there’s a generation of very established poets younger than myself I read with great pleasure. A. E. Stallings (U.S.) and Sue Goyette, Stephanie Bolster, and Carmine Starnino (Canada).

I still read my contemporaries with delight, Phillis Levin, Elizabeth Spires and Rachel Hadas in the U.S., and A.F. Moritz, Lorna Crozier and Ricardo Sternberg in Canada. And my iconic living or just passed away elders: P.K. Page in Canada and Sharon Olds, Louise Glück and the sainted Richard Wilbur in the U.S.

JG: Your work often touches on feminist concerns. What do you think of some of the work of your contemporaries in this area?

MP: I love the work of Sharon Olds, Louise Glück (who would not consider her work feminist), and Lorna Crozier. It took tremendous energy for those poets to introduce a vibrant female sexuality into poetry. Olds’ or Crozier’s twentieth-century work — or mine — may come to look dated to other generations, but in their day it was explosive and exciting, and the biographer in me feels that future critics will recognize that. The generation of women poets writing now has grown up with these role models, but for me (who never once had a female professor and who had to plough though the tables of contents of anthologies for the women poets of the past), the work of those who are sister-companions in poetry was vastly important. It’s still a sexist world. Women need their role models. I hope I’ve become one of them.

JG: Despite the fact that it’s become less controversial to write in traditional forms, a majority of American and Canadian poets still write in free verse — or so it seems, based on what the magazines are publishing. You’ve written about your chaotic childhood, which seems in part to have inspired the impulse towards traditional form, towards ordering experience. What do you think continues to lead so many poets to free verse? The illusion that free verse is easy? The MFA programs? Something in the larger culture?

MP: A writer starting out has to see herself as new. Technique and traditional form feel old. I think it’s as simple as that. MFA programs are filled with a hunger for the new — and with the requirements of self-directed study. Think of the poor student with no background who has to bring his own syllabus and reading list to the meeting with the professor. What’s going to go on that list? Especially if the professor is trained only in the free verse of a mere generation before the student. It takes a certain confidence and oddball sense of detective work to unearth influences from the past. Dare to read Alexander Pope’s little poem “Epistle to Martha Blount,” I say. And dare to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “Grief.”

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

Molly Peacock is a widely anthologized poet and biographer. Her most recent collection of poems is The Second Blush and her latest nonfiction is The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. Forthcoming is Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions with illustrations by Kara Kosaka. She is Series Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry. Jason Guriel holds her poetry under his microscope in Molly Peacock: A Critical Introduction.

Jason Guriel’s work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English. In 2007, he was the first Canadian to receive the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine. He won Poetry’s Editors Prize for Book Reviewing in 2009. His latest collection of poems is Satisfying Clicking Sound, and his essays and reviews were recently collected in The Pigheaded Soul.