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An Interview with Lucia Perillo.

LUCIA PERILLO WAS BORN IN NEW YORK CITY IN 1958 AND GREW up in the suburb of Irvington. She graduated from McGill University in Montreal in 1979 with a major in wildlife management, subsequently working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She took her M.A. in English at Syracuse University, working seasonally at Mount Rainier National Park. She is the author of six collections of poetry: Dangerous Life (Northeastern University Press, 1989), The Body Mutinies (Purdue University Press, 1996), The Oldest Map with the Name America: New and Selected Poems (Random House, 1999), Luck is Luck (Random House, 2005), Inseminating the Elephant (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), and On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). She has published a book of essays, I Hear the Vultures Singing (Trinity University Press, 2007), and a collection of short stories, Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain (W. W. Norton, 2012). Her awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes, the Samuel French Morse Award, the PEN/Revson Award, the Verna Emery Poetry Prize, the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Washington State Book Award, the Washington State Governor's Arts Medal, and the Bolcones Prize. Inseminating the Elephant, awarded the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Prize of the Library of Congress, was a designated finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry; On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. Perillo's work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Northwestern Review, Chicago Review, The Paris Review and this publication, among others.

For most of the 1990s, Perillo taught in the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University. She has also taught at St. Martin's College, Olympia, Washington, and at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives in Olympia with her husband.

I'm indebted to Rodney Jones and Marianne Boruch for introducing me to Perillo's scalding insight. Her poems are requisite showers of the real, the vulnerable, the beautiful-awful expressed with a naturalist's precision and quirks. The work has ferocious eloquence. And it's funny.

This interview was conducted by email at her request. "I don't think I'm that much of a talker, I'm more of a writer," Perillo said, acknowledging that email interviews "take more time" but allow her to control conversation's inevitable lapses. She's not forgotten an interview whose transcript went unedited: "I sounded like a dope: Mrs. Kind Of ... the Queen of Like."

LESLEY VALDES Writing is so "interior" a process, I always wonder about an artist's workspace. What is yours like?

LUCIA PERILLO Mess. Board on two filing cabinets. Typewriter, computer, wires, wires. I've never had a particularly "inhabited" writing space, with photos, quotes and all that. On my desk I have a plush toy loon that makes a loon cry when you squeeze it.

LV Do you write on a computer? Use a recorder?

LP Sometimes when a song comes to me, it is helpful to record it: the dogs of the childless are barely dogs. But then the batteries wear out, or I send the recorder through the washing machine.

I have written on a computer for years, but I fight this predilection because I don't like what it does to the writing process, how it brings editing into the picture right away. So I use other systems, typewriter, notebook, and everything ends up being rather disorganized and haphazard. Something in me resists organization.

LV How do poems come to you?

LP This is a tough question, but it seems there are two methods: either as the little song or as the idea. As far as little song, right now I'm working with a phrase from Temple Grandin: Pigs want new toys. You can give a pig an old phone book--this, apparently, is a good toy for a pig, But after a while a pig will start playing with a metal chain, a bad toy, just for the novelty of something new. Pigs want new toys. Where does the song want to go?

Maybe more often, I'll have an idea: say I want to write an elegy for the poet Philip Booth, who was one of my professors, using tugboats as the, um ... objective correlative? This is a probably an overburdened conception, though, and I want to devolve back into a child-state of free play with words, but the devolution is difficult, I am finding. At this point in my life, I want to be shaken up.

LV Can you speak about your process? Image? Association?

LP I'm sure I have certain beliefs and practices after all these years, but by now they're innate and because I'm no longer in the classroom I'm not sure I could articulate them. I do believe that a poet should want to disrupt those beliefs and practices, and maybe a good poem is an organized system of disruption.

At first I said I have no system, but I've thought about this and realized there indeed is an actual physical process. As I said, I have to start a poem by having an idea, a debility that I'm trying to cure myself of. I usually either draw a blank or sift through the silicon particles and dig out some former failed assemblage, and for several days or weeks this failed attempt will remain a failure, and so I pace around, bereft, because my life has come to nothing.

But at some point I will have a subsequent realization that will fix the poem or create it, and then there are the good hours of writing, that usually stretch to days, and then the glorious period of finishing the poem. I hold off on printing because I want to kill the least number of trees as possible.

LV How do you revise? Marianne Boruch calls hers "doing hospital rounds," going draft by draft as if they were patients ...

LP Because everything ends up on the computer, the editorial process is fluent, ongoing, overindulged. And yet I see things I would change in the published versions of my poems. I don't know if this continuous editing is a good thing. I like writers like Frank O'Hara and Ron Padgett who are maybe not so overworked. So I'm trying to be not quite so tight-assed. And yet I think my old poems have many words in them that are just space-fillers, and if I were allowed a do-over I'd tighten them up. It is a skill to be loose and rigorous at the same time.

LV What was the first poem that made you feel, "Yes! I am a poet"? Were you surprised to find you had this vocation; did it take some time to decide it was a vocation?

LP I started out in Robert Hass's night class at San Jose State. I worked at a National Wildlife Refuge by day and wore my polyester uniform to his class at night. This class became an ongoing community group and was tremendous fun and gave me a social identity as well as a set of poetic skills. Bob would get up before a packed room on the first day of class and say: "You guys have to pool your money and ten people have to register officially, or this class is going to be canceled for a lack of enrollment." I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled in.

I did write a poem in that class called "Jury Selection" that gave me a feeling of having broken through a flaming paper hoop. The poem would be embarrassing to me now, I think, were I to read it again, which I haven't, as it concerns a rape that was sensationalized in a movie with Jodie Foster. The actual rape occurred among a Portuguese community in Massachusetts, I think, and I was interested in how the community turned against one of its daughters to protect one of its sons.

LV Do you keep everything or throw away a lot of starts?

LP Nowadays it all ends up being a digital sludge that a few things rise out of.

LV "Notice how I have slipped into the present tense," your speaker alerts the reader in "Shrike Tree." This verbal "noticing" is a signature of yours (note, notice are used in other poems); there's a keenness of eye (and ear) that extends from the outer world even to syntax. "And notice how I've slipped into the present tense," the speaker says in "Shrike Tree," "as if they were still with me."
    Of course they are still with me.
   They hang there, desiccating
   by the trail where I walked when I could walk 

Good writers are observant, but do you think your powers of observation are particularly keen because of your training as a naturalist?

LP When I took ornithology as an undergraduate, one of the first assignments was to observe a bird for a day and write up an energy budget for it: how much time it spent foraging, grooming and so forth. And I realized that I was never going to be a good field biologist because I got too bored with such extended observation. This was a crushing disappointment. But I did come to know that noticing things is important, is what one should aspire to do.

LV Can you speak about the time and process it took you to write this poem, which uses the impaled birds as metaphor for the speaker's situation?

LP I think this was one of the first poems in which I decided to use my ailment in an obvious way, and I find the poem a little gratuitous, tottering on the edge of the precipice of sentimentality. However, I still like the poem, so this was a lesson--that it may be all right to err on the mushy side of things once in a while, especially because we have such a cultural proscription about what we call self-pity. Maybe I was trying to see if a certain amount of rigor of exposition could render self-pity palatable. I also should say that I'm interested in the idea of self-pity, what it is specifically and why it is forbidden.

I decided that pity toward me on the part of others was OK if it led them to action, if they therefore did something useful for me. This is 100% self-interest, but so be it. If pity wasn't useful I just snubbed it.

So what about self-pity, then? Is it useful? One could try to use it to extract useful actions from others, but this tactic could very easily be seen through and then there might be a backlash. Perhaps this is why we the general public reject self-pity.

My memory of the writing of this poem is vague. I know I'd written notes about the shrike tree: it seemed like a readymade. It was both a gift and a trouble, because the image was so good I knew it'd be a tough job to write a poem that would live up to it. I carried the tree in my head for a long while.

 Most days back then I would walk by the shrike tree, a dead
hawthorne at the base of a hill. The shrike had pinned smaller birds on
the tree's
   black thorns and the sun had stripped them of their feathers.
Some of the dead ones hung at eye level, while some burned holes in the
sky overhead. At least it is honest, the body apparent, not rotting in
the dirt.
And I, having never seen the shrike at work, can only imagine how the
breasts were driven into
  the branches. When I saw him, he'd be watching from a different
tree, with his mask like Zorro, and the grey cape of his wings.
At first glance he could have been a mockingbird or
  a jay if you didn't take note of how his beak was hooked, if you
didn't know the ruthlessness of what he did-ah, but that is a human
They are mute, of course, a silence at the center of a
  bigger silence, these rawhide ornaments, their bald skulls showing.
And notice how I've slipped into the present tense as if they were
still with me.
Of course they are still with me.
They hang there, desiccating by the trail where I walked when I could
walk, before life pinned me on its thorn. It is ferocious, life, but it
must eat, then leaves us with the artifact.
Which is: these black silhouettes in the midday sun, strict and jagged
like an Asian script. A tragedy that is not without its glamour. Not
without the ruins of wizened meat.
Because imagine the luck!--to be plucked from
  the air, to be drenched and dried in the sun's bright
  voltage-- well, hard luck is luck, nonetheless. With a chunk of sky in
each eye socket. And the pierced heart strung up like a pearl. 

LV This extraordinary poem, the title work from Luck is Luck, is out of print. So is your first book, Dangerous Life, which won the Morse Poetry Prize. It concludes with "The Revelation," in which the speaker, on a road trip to Nevada, encounters sex workers buying groceries, or as your speaker puts it:
    I found all the whores of Babylon
   in the Safeway, buying frozen foods
   and cokes for the sitters before their evening shifts.
   Yes, they gave excuses to cut ahead of me in line,
   probably wrote bad checks
   but still they were lovely at that hour,
   their hair newly washed
   and raveling ... 

What do you remember about the process of this one?

LP All I remember is that this poem began as a much longer, bad poem that I wrote in Stephen Dobyns's workshop. He suggested that I chop off most of the poem and then I might have something workable. That's where I started.

LV Any thoughts on the concerns, the obsessions underlying all your work? It's never the aboutness of anything but the wailing underneath it, to steal a line from Frank X. Gaspar. By way of saying that the maker of "The Revelation" sounds so securely the one behind "The Second Slaughter," and especially "Samara," both from your recent collection.
    I hit Tonapah at sunset,
   just when the billboards advertising the legal
   turn dun-colored as the sun lies
   down behind the strip mine.
   I found all the whores of Babylon
   in the Safeway, buying frozen foods
   and cokes for the sitters before their evening shifts.
   Yes, they gave excuses to cut ahead of me in line,
   probably wrote bad checks,
   but still they were lovely at that hour,
   their hair newly washed
   and raveling. If you follow
   any one of the apparitions far enough--the
   fallen ones, the idolaters, the thieves
    and liars--you will find that beauty, a
      cataclysmic beauty
   rising off the face of a burning landscape
   just before the appearance of the beast, the
   that is the flower of our dying into another life.
   Like a Mobius strip: you go round once
   and you come out on the other side.
   There is no alpha, no omega,
   no beginning and no end.
   Only the ceaseless swell
   and fall of sunlight on those rusted hills.
   Watch the way brilliance turns
   on darkness. How can any of us be damned. 

LP I think, or hope, that my obsessions have changed over thirty years. But maybe not. It's not the job of poets to understand or even be conscious of their own obsessions. That's the work of critics, to point these out.

In my case my memory is so bad now that I have little recollection of what my obsessions were, if I ever understood them. I'm sure that feminism played a major part, and my energy for this battle has waned. But that's a subject for somebody's Ph.D. thesis.

LV So many lines in "The Revelation," including the image of the Mobius strip, put me in mind of "The Second Slaughter" in terms of the life-death cycle and the particular and generous empathy that informs your work. In "The Revelation," "the fallen ones, the idolaters, the thieves and liars"; in the more recent work, the usually maligned jackal, proud, even defiant of purpose in the scavenger cycle that is life. The speaker of "Slaughter," having given animals the first lament, guards "my inhumanity like the jackal ... in a posture that looks like appeasement / though it is not."

LP It's a cliche of poetry that it must sympathize with the downtrodden. Now, it would be interesting to write a poem that aligns itself with the oppressors. That might get some heat going.

LV Can you speak about the development of your persona? How much is the speaker-poet and how much is really Lucia? You've mentioned the "grand autobiographical myth" in one of your essays. In the third stanza of "Samara" (On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths) you have the speaker say, "oh, shut up, Lucia. The rule is: you can't nullify the world in the middle of your singing." Another Perillo "signature," this penchant for vernacular asides, which ground us, make us laugh and feel more human as matters quite serious are being discussed.

LP There was a time in my life when I believed that evolution in one's poetic ability was a matter of coming more fully and authentically into one's whole person. I don't know if I still believe that because I don't know what any of those terms mean, if there is an authentic self to come down to. As Stephen Hawking says of the universe, quoting Bertrand Russell quoting somebody about some indigenous myth about the world riding on the back of a turtle, but what's holding the turtle up? It's turtles all the way down, Hawking/Russell said. The self is like that.

LV What were the formal considerations that led you to compose "Samara," in numbered sections and in couplets, both of which seem atypical for you?

LP Uh ... maybe I felt the imperative to try something new. If you believe in the principle of organic form, it's the poem itself that grows the form. The poem required it.

LV The title itself, "Samara," means "winged seed," I discovered by looking up the Autonomous Vehicle Laboratory on YouTube just as you had mentioned in your poem. I had no idea such robotics for unmanned flight (for biological purposes) existed until I read your poem.

Could you tell how you came to discover these sources of your poem ... also that wonderful line in the second stanza of "Samara":
    Somewhere Darwin speculates that happiness
   should be the outcome of his theory--
   those who take pleasures
   will produce offspring who'll take pleasure, 

LP I do remember that this poem started with my trying to recall the scientific name for a maple seed, and thinking it was samsara. The poem started with that misconception, and when I unraveled my mistake, a Google search of the correct word, samara, led me to the video of RoboSeed.

... I am so disorganized that I didn't write the [Darwin] source down, but I believe it comes from the autobiography Darwin wrote late in his life.

LV How have your thoughts on form (for your own work) evolved? It strikes me that your poems are looking simpler even as the ideas are getting deeper, but it could be that my mind is simply not so deep as I should like it to be, so that when I see fewer words on the page I make this simplistic assumption. "Samara" is a deep and complicated poem of great beauty.

LP I used to teach a forms-of-poetry class in which we read [Denise] Levertov's essay on organic form ["Some Notes on Organic Form"] among other prose by poets who laid down their theories. I hope I'm moving toward clarity of statement and uncluttered expression, and I've been thinking about that these days more than form itself. Levertov's thought is that the poem finds its form, and this is liberating but also a burden. Free verse may be tennis with the net down, okay, but you also have to invent the shape of the ball and whether the paddle is going to be a fishing pole or a fly swatter. And then make up the rules of the game, what the ball bounces off of, etc.

LV I took a workshop whose thrust was "destabilizing the narrative," a quest I'm struggling with in my own apprenticeship. I've noticed that many of your poems, especially the early ones, are strongly narrative but they still avoid the linear and still pack a wallop: they remain dramatic lyrics. How did you learn to do this? Dickinson's "Tell the truth but tell it slant." A particular mentor who helped with this?

LP One of my most vivid memories from Bob Hass's class at San Jose State in the early '80s is the night when he brought in Frank Bidart, who had just written his long poem about Nijinsky. He read the whole poem, very intensely, raking his fingers through his hair. That poem made a deep impression on me, along with his other early monologues, "Ellen West" and "Herbert White."

Another important happenstance was the first time I realized, "Now that I am writing poems, I should go into a bookstore and buy a poetry book." This was in Palo Alto, also in the early '80s, and first book I found on the end-cap and bought was Tar by C. K. Williams, which continues to influence me, along with his other work. I admire the way his work continues to evolve.

Those were also the years of Sharon Olds's The Dead and the Living. And somehow, maybe through my teacher Philip Booth of all people, I became aware of Ai's "Killing Floor."

In 1991 I went to teach in southern Illinois with the poet Rodney Jones, from whose work I continue to learn and steal.

LV To continue with these influences and inspirations ... was anyone in your family, going way back, a writer?

LP No one in my family has been a writer. We're more anti-writers: leave no trace. Blend in and fly under the radar. When we went looking for my ancestors' graves in Croatia, on the island of Hvarr, the stones had been dug up and broken and piled in a heap. I thought: aha! That's the signature image.

LV What about your mother? What traits of hers do you think contributed to your poetic sense or spurred it because of oppositional or temperamental differences? (Was she the reason you first went to med school?)

LP I never went to med school, though, yes, it was my mother's dream for me to become a doctor. That's how I started down the biological road, a wonderful road. It astounds me now that I chose wildlife studies out of the blue when I was a teenager, how that serendipitous choice has guided me almost every day, no matter what else I've been doing.

LV What does she think of "Tripe," in which a speaker-daughter watches her mother cooking the stinky stuff? It's a hilarious, feminist poem of wordplay and dramatic irony. How much is real, how much "grand autobiographical myth"?

LP Writing, of course, is a mixture of fact and fiction. My parents were pretty much first-generation American; my mother's parents were from Croatia and my father's were Italian, and especially with my mother there was this desire to figure America out and blend in and not call attention to the fact that you had cardboard patching the holes in your shoes. I don't think she approved of my desire to become a poet, (1) because of the financial ramifications and (2) because of the potential for airing of dirty laundry. She remains an exceedingly private person.

I think of tripe as a throwback food. Do WASPs eat organ meats? No, generally not, I suspect. I remember my father bringing home slices of tongue. How tongue-y it looked and how good it tasted.

LV In your story "House of Grass," the narrator is a doctor who watches his wife die, and then their neighbor is "impelled by beauty." He says that, of all creatures, "the perfection of birds is like no other mortal thing. You never see them get scraggly until the bitter end, and even then it seems it is the eclipse of their loveliness that kills them more than any underlying disease." Your work, too, seems impelled by beauty and the macabre black comedy of the world ... impelled by candor that includes the worst smells, "the exudates of ugliness." You've said you think our society is repressed ...

LP The Giotto "Last Judgment" painting that I used on my newest poetry book dates from 1305. It includes, as we would say, full frontal nudity that is anatomically correct, many figures of both genders. This was displayed in a chapel in Italy for all to see. Our culture would not even inscribe an anatomically correct woman on a rocket we blasted into space.

I don't know how we became ashamed of being what we are. Marilyn Monroe wasn't ashamed, but she was Marilyn Monroe. We like to give the impression that we're liberated, but it's a constricted, neotenous version. An emaciated, bulked-up Monroe with a Brazilian bikini wax. Just imagine.

LV Your essay "Sick Fuck" discusses the comedy and pathos and reality of the sex act when one partner has multiple sclerosis and that partner happens to be you, the poet-writer. The essay predates by at least five years The Sessions, the movie about poet Mark O'Brien, who hired a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity. Even in 2012 the film stirred up controversy. What was your take on that film?

LP I didn't see it, though I remember being moved by the documentary it was based on.

LV If a filmmaker with integrity was interested, would you allow a movie of your life?

LP It would be really boring. Like one of those Andy Warhol films showing people in real time sleeping.

LV Do you believe in fate?

LP No. It does boggle me that there are currently six billion people on earth all going on their personal autobiographical rocket rides. There must be a lot of redundancy in the system, another Lucia out there (Loosher, my father said). Someone else having these thoughts.

LV You've written poems about visual artists, including Edward Hopper and lava artist Stephen Lang. Have you ever tried to paint or make art itself? What other arts appeal to you. Music? Dance?

LP I've tried to paint. I played guitar in high school and college. I was very unsuccessful in those art forms, and I think I came to poetry through a process of elimination. I finally found a mode of expression that I did not suck at.

LV How long have you battled MS?

LP I don't know if battle is the right word. I had a bout of it in '79, then it went away for a while. Continuously I've had it since '87.1 started using a wheelchair in 2001, and since then I've figured that whatever happens will happen. I don't battle MS, I relent to its humiliations, which are the same as the humiliations of most lives, only on an accelerated timetable. And my mind is still composed enough to take note.

LV How do you arrange your writing time? Can you write anywhere, or do you prefer certain hours, day or night?

LP Recently a category and class of people have come into my life--those who work as caregivers. It is an interesting word, caregiver, and an intimate line of work, like prostitution. I used to write in the morning, but now my time is organized around the caregivers' comings and goings. So I've decided to have no schedule, no rules, no self-fulfilling prophecies. Take what you can and be grateful.

I'm still experimenting with this philosophy. It lends itself to not getting much done.

LV How do you manage to stay in the moment, not fall into despair?

LP I've already fallen: this is the voice from the swamp. The trick is to make it interesting. My favorite quote is from Santayana, about life being lyrical in its essence, comic in its occurrence, and tragic in its outcome.

LV Who are you reading now?

LP I have a couple of things going now--Brian Greene on string theory and the structure of the universe; Alice Munro's stories because with so many claims on our attention it seems necessary to whittle the heap down to the best. As for poetry, I just had the pleasure of reading Spencer Reece's The Clerk's Tale and am eager to buy his new book. I also checked out Sharon Olds's Stag's Leap from the library because I hadn't taken a gander at her for a while and was reminded of her when I read Tony Hoagland's shout in her direction in this magazine. It is so important, I think, to keep poetry circulating in public libraries, where the economic pressure is not in poetry's favor because the librarians say these books don't circulate.

LV Who do you find yourself returning to (artists, writers, movie directors, etc.)?

LP I could watch Double Indemnity and A Touch of Evil over and over. And the movie A Face in the Crowd with Andy Griffith. I like Edward Hopper even though he can't paint faces. Alice Neel and Lucian Freud. In general, I prefer the representational over the abstract. I'm a little retrograde in my tastes.

LV Do you write with a reader in mind?

LP The reader is a tricky animal, and a confoundment. I think writing is hard enough without worrying too much about the reader; but on the other hand, if I can find anyone who is willing to take the time to read my drafts, I tend to pay attention to what they do not understand.

LESLEY VALDES is completing the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers in poetry. Former critic-at-large of Temple University's WRTI, 90.1 FM, and classical music critic for the San Jose Mercury News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, she has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and other national publications. She leads essay workshops at Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts in Philadelphia.
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Author:Valdes, Lesley
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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