Books In Conversation
Molly Peacock with David Varno
Poet Molly Peacock is back in town, to perform her one-woman poetry show for one week in February at Urban Stages. The Shimmering Verge is about the line between ordinary existence and the heightened state of reality inside a poem. Humorous, moving, and sexy, the stand-up monologue uses Peacock’s best-known poems about her family, her spirituality, her marriage, and urban life. Always excited to bringing poetry to the public, Peacock was one of the creators of the Poetry in Motion program on New York City’s subways and buses. The show is part of Portraits, a touring festival of one-woman theatre programs, and plays together with Nona, featuring cartoonist Victoria Roberts.
David Varno: Are you excited to return to New York?
Molly Peacock: I’m thrilled! I lived full-time in New York from 1981-1992, before I began to split my time between here and Ontario. But the minute I gave up the Manhattan apartment, the opportunity to do this show came along. I guess it’s true that if you close a door hard enough another one opens up.
Rail: How do you place your show in the current poetry/literature (and off-Broadway theatre) scene?
Peacock: Although I love performance poetry, my show doesn’t fall into the poetry jam, spoken word scene at all. I’m a page poet, and what I want to create is a theatre atmosphere that leads the audience into the mental and emotional ambience of a poem, the interior of a poem, where the writing actually takes place. I don’t want to show them poetry, I don’t want to yell poetry at them; I want to invite them inside that place, which I call “the shimmering verge.” I want to invite them to cross into a heightened state of imagination so that they can participate in the world of language and images. And even if that world is about desperation and loss, the process of its words and images and music is gorgeous.
Rail: Had you ever worked with Victoria Roberts before the tour’s opening in DC? How do you think her work relates/contrasts to your own? What sort of literary relationship (or otherwise) do you have with Roberts?
Peacock: I’ve always loved Victoria’s cartoons [published in the New Yorker], and the poet Patricia Carlin introduced us to each other several years ago. I realized Victoria liked theatre, so I went to the theatre with her. Victoria had wanted to create a theatre piece from a cartoon character who never seemed to speak in lines. The character spoke in paragraphs – actually somewhat like little meditative poems. When Victoria was looking for a director, I suggested Louise Fagan. Louise and Victoria began working together and Louise brought Andy Creeggan [from the Barenaked Ladies] in. Andy does the music for both our shows. I know it seems weird for a cartoonist and a poet to have shows that intermesh, but they do mesh, not in subject matter, but in a kind of subtle and quirky style.
Rail: The “Favor of Love” monologue, from the show, strongly reflects your story-telling nature. Are you interested in the tradition of oral history?
Peacock: Absolutely! What’s better than hearing a story? And what’s better than hearing one intimately? A teacher of mine, Milton Kessler, said once: write the poem to the head on the pillow next to you. That’s the distance between you and the reader. I want that sort of intimacy carried into the oral and aural tradition. But a poem isn’t a story; it uses narrative to achieve a lyric moment.
Rail: How do you relate the intentions of The Shimmering Verge to the Poetry in Motion project?
Peacock: Poetry in Motion is absolutely the best volunteer work I ever did. It brings poetry to millions of bus and subway riders. I am thrilled; I am honored when I see them [read] it. It gives voice to their interior lives. I hope The Shimmering Verge does the same thing. To bring an interior state into a public realm and not betray the interiority of that state or condescend to the public – THAT’S what I want to do.
Rail: I came across an announcement for a discussion you gave at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis here in New York, in which your poetry was said to “[Investigate] the psychological underpinning of human experience.” Do you think there is any investigation directed at your audience in your performance, or is it personal, in the way that exhibitions of your private life are partially veiled? Is there a process of investigation in each performance, or do you intend with the readings to convey your investigative results?
Peacock: Because I use my life in my art, the verge between experience and art and between poetry and the psyche has always profoundly engaged me. I have been lucky enough to have spent some intense years in psychoanalytically based psychotherapy with the same person, and I have been fascinated by therapy as a lens for art. And with art as a lens through which to view the human interior. I am not remotely interested in art therapy. I am a practicing artist and I never think of my poetry as self-expression. I think of my experiences as the raw material for my art, just as knowledge of geography or history or painting or politics can be raw material for art. Therefore when my poetry is said to investigate “the psychological underpinning of human experience” I think that’s quite accurate.
The investigation goes on in simultaneous tiers: I am the artist-witness to my experience, creating a witnessing voice. I am also the character in the poem who is having the experience. On stage, I am the narrator of the poem as well as the actor of the experience. The reader of one of my poems is the engager with the witness; the identifier with the character; and the analyzer of what is happening. For an audience member this is all even more complicated. The person in the theatre seat is responding to me as the narrator, and also identifying with the character I act out: my sister, mother, father, lover, husband, a cashier in a fruit store, myself as a girl or young woman etc. My investigation is both for myself and for the audience. I wholeheartedly give them any insight I have; but their presence gives me insight as well. In a way, we mentally hold each other’s hands.
The most important thing for me is that the veils are beautiful. Many of the experiences I had as a child (I grew up in a household where my father was an alcoholic and my mother was depressed and my sister became a drug addict—love in such situations is very complicated indeed) required psychotherapy for me to understand them. And my art, which is essentially a collage of attempts to understand what happened in any given experience, to unveil it—knowing it will never be completely unveiled and that the scrim through which I am viewing the past is beautiful in itself—requires psychotherapy for me to make it.
Rail: Do your one-on-one poetry tutorials have any relationship to therapy? Also, do they in any way take the same tack as your show, as far as directing individuals to the Verge? Or do you take a wholly different approach with performance, in addressing a group versus an individual?
Peacock: The one-to-one idea is the first basis of education: one individual shows another how to do something. My grandfather, with superhuman patience, showed me how to thread a needle at, say, age four or five. Even then I was aware of the time he was taking to show me how to perform a task through repetition and trial and error. That is education for me. There is an aspect of psychotherapy that is like education. I adore the room, the literal and the figurative room, where psychological transformation takes place. There is also a special aspect to musical education where a student comes to visit a maestra for advanced instruction. This is a precious conveying of knowledge between artistic generations. My one-to-one practice in poetry shares aspects of the musical instruction; aspects of my grandfather’s instruction; aspects of every teacher I ever had who really paid attention to me in the way that I can now use to pay attention to my students; and lastly the educational, but not the therapeutic, aspect of psychotherapy. I don’t do poetry therapy. I am purely interested in the art people make, though always I am charmed and fascinated and dedicated to the personalities of people who are artists.
The intimacy of one-to-one education, of mentoring, is a silver thread in the weaving of The Shimmering Verge. Yes, I am addressing a group, but I am speaking to each individual. I am showing each person how to bring the thread of metaphor through the needle of the experiences of their own lives.
Rail: Both you and Robert Bly appear interested in popularizing poetry, and also in the psychoanalytic process. I was brought to this comparison by your poem “The Fare,” which reminds me of Bly’s attitude towards the father figure, (though yours is about your mother of course) in terms of the course of resentment, regret, and reconnection. In the preface to 1990’s Iron John, he wrote, “The thought in this book does not constitute a challenge to the women’s movement. The two movements are related to each other, but each more on a separate timetable.” How do you respond to this quote, and to Bly in general?
Peacock: I owe Bly a huge debt because he has always stood for vivid emotion in art, and when poetry passes into periods of tepid feeling as it does now and then, Bly always reminds us that art is made of passion. He is also a great performer, and he has linked poetry and performance in fascinating and sometimes maddening ways. But Bly also can view himself as a simplifier, and we diverge there. For me the world and art are complex, and it is that very complexity, the elusiveness of understanding that is just like the illusiveness of determining whether a color is bluish-green or greenish-blue—that verge, that blurring where one boundary meets the other, say where the sea meets the sky, or the sky meets the sea—[which] is the place of art for me. As far as the women’s movement goes, I’m perfectly comfortable with saying that I am a feminist. The very sexual nature of some of my poems comes as a roistering response to the sexuality of literature created by men. I am also aware that women of a certain age—I am 58—become invisible. In my show a 58-year-old woman is very visible indeed.
The Shimmering Verge plays February 21-26 at 8pm, plus 2pm matinees on the 25th and 26th, at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th St.
David Varno is a writer of fiction and journalism, and is based in Brooklyn, NY
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.
Elizabeth Murray: Back in TownBy Douglas Dreishpoon
OCT 2021 | ArtSeen
Many archival gems are featured in Back in Town, the homecoming exhibition organized by Robert Scalise and Jason Andrew at the University of Buffalos Anderson Gallery.
The Artist and the PoetBy Edouard Kopp
FEB 2023 | Critics Page
Throughout his life, Robert Motherwell had a deep passion for poetry, which informed his aesthetic and nourished his practice as an artist.
Sarah Matthes’s Town CrierBy Kate Liebman
SEPT 2021 | Books
Winner of Persea Books Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, Sarah Matthess first collection of poems, Town Crier, is nothing short of revelatory.
PRAISE! ALL PRAISE! JOHN SIMS PRAISE POEM!By Bob Holman
FEB 2023 | In Memoriam
In Memory of John Sims