Meet Molly Peacock. She is a multi-genre writer of poetry, biography, essays, memoir, fiction and even a one-woman show! Her poetry includes eight collections with her newest, The Analyst, due in early 2017.
Other books include a genre-busting Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions. It is a creative delight with lush illustrations by Kara Kosaka.
Molly’s non-fiction work includes The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, about an 18th-century artist who came into her creative powers as a septuagenarian.
Molly has another biography in process about a 19th- and early 20th-century American-Canadian artist. It’s titled Flower Diary: Mary Hiester Reid Speaks Up at Last.
Long active in public service for literature, Molly was one of the founders of the New York City subway arts project, Poetry in Motion in 1992. Now living in Toronto for fifteen years, she inaugurated the annual publication of The Best of Canadian Poetry and is also the editor. (A more detailed biography for Molly can be found at the link below our conversation.)
On a sunny day in New York City, Molly Peacock and I met at a French cafe that turned out to be a favorite we had both been to many times before. The windows were open to the street and the breeze cooled the restaurant, the sun reached in from the sidewalk, so amid the shriek of brakes, fire engine sirens, the clack of dishes and hums from fellow diners’ conversations, we began and in typical New Yorker fashion, we only heard each other.
SUZE BIENAIMEE: Molly Peacock, writer and poet, extraordinaire! You inspire me. What inspires you?
MOLLY PEACOCK: I’ve never quite been asked this question. I love it!
What inspires me is a combination of noticing something small that then sparks a memory.
One time on the street in New York City I saw someone had dumped a huge bunch of flowers in one of those big wastebaskets (that’s like a giant inverted basketball net). I looked down inside it, and the flowers were coming up.
That’s the kind of thing that might spark a poem in me. The image will float around then surface in my consciousness. Inspiration requires me to be alone. I wouldn’t have noticed this if I’d been talking to someone. Noticing something also evokes memory. Whatever memory it brings up eventually adds to the poem.
A new project I’m working on is to take every inherited object I have and to write a poem about it. I’m not going to just focus the poem on describing the object — how boring!
Since I don’t have children of my own, I’m going to pass these things on to younger cousins I don’t know very well. I’m hoping to memorialize each object in a poem. The poems might give my cousins some sense of the importance of these pieces of furniture, dishes, and textiles. The cousins didn’t grow up living with these things, so they might think, “oh, some grandmother’s table, let’s sell it,” and I want to avoid that!
But back to inspiration, the poems combine each object with a memory, and I hope this equation will create something even larger.
Sometimes I abandon these projects, though. I am not a perfectionist. (Laughs.) Art has taught me not to be a perfectionist.
Another thing that inspires me, but I hesitate to call it inspiration, is necessity. Often there is something pressing inside me that I absolutely have to write about to understand.
The Analyst, my new book of poems coming out in January 2017, was written from necessity. It’s about my analyst who had a stroke at age seventy-seven. She lost both memory and subtlety with language, so she had to close her practice. I was devastated, yet amazed because she rekindled her youthful artistic talent and turned her therapy room into an art studio. Although she had a big memory blast, she was able to reach out to me because we went back so far in time — forty years. Although obviously I was no longer in therapy with her, I would visit her, and I had the privilege of watching her transformation as she valiantly reconstructed her life.
She had been a talented painter as a girl, so talented that she studied with adults, but when she went to Radcliffe, things dramatically changed. She was harshly critiqued in her first painting class. We have all had to take classroom criticism, or witnessed it. This can be absolutely brutal. (Yes, yes, it’s especially a young woman’s story.) Because of what she called this “excoriating” critique, she turned away from painting completely and started taking psychology courses. She didn’t pick up a brush for 25 years — till she was in her forties.
Her youthful gift turned out to rescue her in her old age.
In my devastation at thinking I would never see her again, I wrote. The poems just poured out from my state of shock and abandonment. The Analyst is both a portrait of her and also a portrait of what she did for me.
But unwittingly during the years of our analysis in my late thirties and forties, I also did something for her. Just as she was helping me to recognize my talent, she was rediscovering her own gift. As she helped me manage rejection, she was taking painting classes. Of course I never knew that at the time. I found out more about her life post-analysis. As she helped me gain the strength to write book after book, my own energy was validating hers for painting.
After her stroke all this hit me. Oh gosh! She wasn’t able to overcome that professor’s criticism, but she was able to give me an incredible resilience to rejection. She walked away for twenty-five years, but she helped me stay my course. (I can’t tell you how often I’ve been rejected, but have, of course, gone on.)
Sometimes I am so busy that for inspiration to be available I have to disconnect from the world. For me, this disconnection is a mental action that feels physical. I feel like I’ve taken all my strength and put it in my arms to push the whole world away. Only then do I have a little bit of space in front of me where nothing’s coming in, and I can write. Part of the receptivity to inspiration means making that almost physical space for creativity. Is this only true for busy women? (Laughs.) I’ve done one busy woman’s biography (The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, photo of the cover above) and I’m working on another now. I’ve been researching an obscure but totally marvelous painter named Mary Hiester Reid, since 2012 and I’m writing her book now. Cross your fingers. It’s called Flower Diary: Mary Hiester Reid Speaks Up at Last. There’s no pub date yet.
And then there is play. Just as a child has to be safe in order to play, there have to be boundaries that make a safe playing space for art. It’s just a matter of dimensions, the way a hopscotch game is marked out in chalk or a baseball diamond is marked with plates. Once those outlines are designated, you can begin to play. In a poem the “play” takes place within the lines and stanzas.
I do think people are saved by their imaginations, and it’s our imaginations that give us strength. I absolutely believe this, and I think that if we falter out of fear, It’s because we’re not trusting our imaginations.
Anyone who has successfully survived trauma knows this.
I’m not exactly sure how to connect trauma to inspiration, but I know that inspiration is being available to your senses, and this availability to touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste cultivates imagination. Without the senses, no imagination; without imagination, no inspiration.
This brings me to delight. Even if I am writing about my most devastated and weakened moments, the writing itself lets me feel a certain kind of delight in the act. Even in a poem about a grave event, I find myself surprised by a realization. I’ll go “Oh!” That “Oh!” of surprise recognition is a delight. It helps make sense out of devastation.
Other people’s “making” inspires mine. So much of art is made in response to other peoples’ art. Some say “I don’t like art about art,” and I understand about distrusting too much artifice, but I’m speaking about the broader enterprise of human making.
As part of my research for my new book, Flower Diary, about Mary Hiester Reid, I was lucky enough to receive a grant from Access Copyright Canada to replicate Reid’s trip to Spain.
I announced my trip in a newsletter with an offhand comment that if someone ever finds a cave painting of a flower, then the rest of us will know there were women artists forty thousand years ago. Bascove, the painter, wrote back to me with a link to the El Castillo Caves in Cantabria, the site of many prehistoric small hand prints, perhaps by women. I looked at a map and realized I didn’t have to make a big detour, so I went. It was absolutely amazing. It was wet, cold and I went down, down. There were stalactites and stalagmites and I was following a flashlight held by our guide; it was slippery; a person could die from a bad fall just inching down those rocks.
At last we saw the hundreds of small hand prints. Some anthropologists think they are the handprints of women. (It’s controversial. But there’s no doubt that some hands have female configuration. Women tend to have ring fingers that are shorter than their index fingers, and men tend to have ring fingers that are longer.) I was so excited at the possibility of these hundreds of women’s hands!
This destroys the narrative that says men went out to hunt and returned to the caves to draw animals, while women cooked, had babies, and had no thought of expressing themselves. The ritual gestures of these possibly female hands are so inspiring.
These handprints are far down inside the caves. But cave dwellers actually lived at the surface openings, where daylight was available. Yet they put their handprints safe in a deep, protected place—a place for ritual.
You can still go to the caves, but I’m sure they will be closed one day like the larger and more famous cave painting sites are. Yet because I could actually go there, it was utterly inspiring — just to be in contact with the human capacity of “making” is inspiring.
But no, I didn’t go home and write a poem about it. (Molly made a long and thoughtful pause.) Yet.
SUZE BIENAIMEE: Molly, thank you, thank you! Your generosity of time and spirit are inspiring in addition to all of your wonderful triggers and sparks for inspiration.
Also, thank you for sharing your poem, Fret Not, with StudioSeeds readers:
by Molly Peacock
When you welcomed me for the first time since
your brain hemorrhaged, you looked so trim and well
in black and white you could almost convince
us both you were whole. Your living room welled
with light, the wall above the couch arranged
with your watercolors. “I hung them myself,”
you said proudly. Almost nothing was changed
(except for the attendant, making herself
small by sitting silently.) You’re witnessed now,
as you’ve witnessed me. “May I have a painting?”
I’d been afraid to ask, but I did somehow.
“You really want one of my paintings?
Then come in here.” Your bedroom? But I was
your patient! Before your brain bled. Yes, was.
I followed you into the narrow room:
plain as plain. Like a nun’s cell, the bed,
a single pallet, no headboard, a deep red
blanket instead of a coverlet. Blood bloom.
Nuns fret not at their narrow convent’s room.
No one could climb into that cot but one.
A tall row of wooden cabinets. One
you opened, and small paintings that had loomed
above my head (as I’d lain on your couch
and talked about, around, for, yet, because…and wept)
you brought out now from where you slept.
Your pallet. Next to your palette.
Red blanket like a hemorrhage contained
after a time bomb exploded your brain.
The painting I chose was small: two lemons
against a blue background, one with a tip,
a salmon-colored aureola. Lemons
like breasts, nurturing companions, the tip
of a sensuous world on a piece of paper
folding out and beyond and inward and
onto the contours of the conquered land
of your mind, landmined. We’re. Were.
You laid the yellow watercolor down
on your bed, a camp cot for the wounded
in a tent pitched on a plot of scanty ground.
Fret not. Fret you not. Forget-me-not: found.
So I lifted it up—then laid it in this frame
now on my wall. Hourly I pass your name.
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