Alexandria Peary maintains a dual career in Creative Writing and Composition-Rhetoric. Her third book of poems, Control Bird Alt Delete, won the 2013 Iowa Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2014. Her other books include Lid to the Shadow (2010 Slope Editions), Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers (2008 Backwaters) and Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century (forthcoming, co-edited with Tom C. Hunley). Her work has received the Joseph Langland Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Slope Editions Book Prize, the Mudfish Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 2012 Theresa J. Enos Rhetoric Award. Her scholarship has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Review, Pedagogy, WAC Journal, Journal of Aesthetic Education, and New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing. Her poems and nonfiction have recently appeared in New England Review, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, Volt, Verse Daily, Map Literary, Guernica, Hippocampus, and The Chariton Review. She is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Salem State University and maintains a mindful writing blog at alexandriapeary.blogspot.com.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers was published by Backwaters Press in 2008. The publication seemed to correspond with other life changes (my first child, my decision to enroll in a doctoral program). Life was forcing me along to write. It’s something I describe at a guest post, “Water Breaks, Writer’s Block,” at Mother Writer Mentor: http://www.motherwritermentor.com/2012/05/07/water-breaks-writers-block/. The first book allowed me to enclose in the amber of publication writing I might normally have hesitated over. So the book made poetry low-stakes and informal in my own perception (all that really ever counts for a writer). I’m currently writing my fourth book of poetry, and it feels like a joy because I’m at last able to take on certain themes that I’d looked longingly at since the late 1990s.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Purely by accident. As a pre-teen, I was intent upon going to medical school. One day after school while dissecting a suicide goldfish using an ancient microscope a neighborhood physician had given me, I looked out at the April rain and the sheen of green on the leach field. I put down my tweezers and wrote my first poem.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I don’t usually “do” drafts. I also don’t predetermine the length of any writing project or separate actions into “starting,” “continuing,” or “finishing.” My writing comes out of a mindful process; it engages the language that occupies the present moment.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem begins for me with a fragment from my internal voice. This fragment is mindfully perceived and written by hand in an ordinary $1 composition notebook.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
It’s interesting to have one’s audience a few feet away (as opposed to the separation of space and time that occurs when doing the actual work of writing). The best readings and audiences make me feel like I can sing duende.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am interested in the presence of language—so meta language or references to writing frequently occur in my poems.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Don’t we all play a role in a larger culture just by purchasing, expressing, and breathing? I’m not sure writers are all that different except that they have the potential to give other people inner experiences, ones maybe not easily found in the social world.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It depends. I’ve been blessed with working with several extremely professional and insightful editors. Actually, I plan on posting shortly at my blog (alexandriapeary.blogspot.com) about the experience. Last summer in the Roman Colosseum, I learned the etymology of the word “editor,” and it’s one that will put a wry smile on any writer’s face. See my blog in a few weeks.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I was working on my dissertation and had told my adviser that I was planning on quitting the program. This admission was not said lightly since I (and my family) had sacrificed tremendously for five years for me to obtain a doctorate. But I was finding it impossible to proceed with the writing of the dissertation—not because I wasn’t excited about the subject but because of what felt like the manhandling of my potential ideas by one of the faculty readers. This person inserted the most unkind, sarcastic comments in his/her pink “Comment” balloons—the kind of relentless critique I myself would never ever perform on a student at an early stage in their composition. I still recall one comment: “This is one birthday party to which I don’t want to be invited!” I told my dissertation adviser I was thinking of dropping out of the program but would finish the dissertation regardless as a book outside of academia. He understood that what was under attack in my perception was my integrity as a writer. He told me, “From now on, don’t write a single word you don’t believe in.” I copied his emailed advice on a Post-It and proceeded to write the dissertation at a running pace.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
That ability to move between genres is essential to the mindful writing I practice. Genres are ultimately preconceptions; they shortchange the offerings of the present moment. I do not limit myself by genre during any given writing session and now write poetry, creative nonfiction, and scholarship.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
An early rise (between 4 AM and 5 AM). A cup of espresso. A mindful observation of my breathing and physical-psychological state. A jump-start poem by another writer (currently John Ashbery, Caroline Knox, or Wallace Stevens). The opening of my notebook and retrieving of my fountain pen. Sitting in the reflective pool of writing until around 6:30 AM when one of my two daughters invades my study.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I permit myself fallow periods and turn to another genre or project.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The scent of lost time that is emitted from the question, “What fragrance reminds you of home?”
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Most definitely visual arts. In addition to consulting poetry before I write each day, I look at paintings by 20th century artists—Roy Lichtenstein and Fernando Botero right now. Or a book on the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Caroline Knox, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Italio Calvino, Francis Ponge, Jean Follain, W.S. Merwin, Paul Celan, Pablo Neruda, the Buddha, Emily Dickinson, oh most definitely, Emily Dickinson.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I have a current prose project that means a great deal to me. It’s based on years of observing people struggle and succeed with writing. It’s about mindful writing and the sources of writing anxiety or blocks. I would like it very much if my theory of mindful writing could be of use to others, and this might entail a couple of sidekick projects branching off this main theoretical one.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
The other occupation is one I made up: a writing psychiatrist. I adore classroom teaching and would not want to give it up, but I have a dream of starting a private practice where I could meet one-on-one with individuals from all walks of life who struggle to write. I’d like to start a whole field—writing psychologists. My approach as a writing psychologist would mix mindfulness and various theories from the field of Composition-Rhetoric.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As a child, writing allowed me to have an inner life. That inner life afforded me chances for insight and awareness that seemed greater than what could be found from other types of activities or professions. So now I use what I learn from my writing practice in other activities during the day—teaching, parenting, being a colleague, being a friend.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Film: The Great Beauty
20 - What are you currently working on?
I like to balance multiple projects at multiple different stages; it’s part of mindful writing. I do a sort of call & response, asking my internal voice each writing session, “what am I honestly interested in working on right now?” When I have a variety of interesting projects, that variety corresponds with the fluctuation and quantity that can be found in the internal voice. I just wrapped up an academic article and sent it out, and my co-editor Tom Hunley are on the cosmetic proofreading last stages of our forthcoming Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century (Southern Illinois University Press in June 2015). So I’m working on a poetry book, various individual pieces of creative nonfiction, and a longer creative-scholarly project on mindful writing.
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