Interview: Joyce Peseroff
Interview by: Ben Hurst
When I first set out to get a full picture of Joyce Peseroff, I didn’t know how I would pull it off. Joyce was the first professor from the UMass Boston MFA program I met, and I remember thinking even then that she defies the profile, the easy blurb. I had sent her an email mentioning that I would be in the area and would like to chat with her briefly about the program and what I could expect of the coming year as a new student. She obliged and arranged that we’d meet in her office. When I arrived, I expected a rundown of the program’s numbers, a recitation of some up-coming classes, and a friendly goodbye. I’d never get that from Joyce.
Joyce approaches every conversation with sincerity. Not just honesty, but sincerity of presence. She asked about my writing, talked about her work and her travels with her husband. She told me how excited she was about having me join the program. Then she kindly offered to give me a tour of the campus. She made me feel at home, like I belonged there, and when she guided me to the shuttle back to JFK station, I believed her.
Nine months later, I knew the opportunity to write a profile of Joyce for Breakwater Review, would be my way in. My chance to figure out what it was about Joyce that was so fascinating. I arranged an interview and started reaching out to her friends and colleagues. Each kind word they offered about her work was tinged with admiration for her as a person. Steve Cramer, a poet who’s exchanged work with Joyce for years recalls,“Joyce is one of my ‘favorite friends,’ and seems to me remarkably centered, empathic, and un-invested in the seductions of ego that so characterize the mentality of poets (my- self included). I depend on Joyce to help me keep things in perspective, probably more than she knows...” Maybe that was it. Poets, being beset at all sides with the threat of poverty and irrelevance in a media-saturated culture, often find themselves clinging to their egos like overboard passengers to shrinking life rafts. But there was something in the way Joyce talked about poetry as a lifelong problem to be wrestled with that convinced you that the present moment is what mattered.
When I arrived to interview her, we started our conversation by talking about the connections that poets make throughout their careers and how that’s affected the program at UMass Boston. Only then did the walls of her office strike me. They were covered in pictures of other poets, notices about other poets’ readings, and even poems of some of her closest friends. Her office was a monument to inclusiveness.
When she mentioned Greenhouse the inclusiveness came full circle. Joyce started the literary magazine Greenhouse with poet Jane Kenyon in 1977, and according to Joyce the goal, “was to find a place where writers who wouldn’t usually publish together could have a conversation with each other.”
As we talked, I heard about the writing group that she was a part of in the late 70s that included poets Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, David Ferry, and Barry Spacks. Joyce was the only woman in the group, notable in itself, and she was also the youngest. In addition to discussing each other’s work, the group would bring in drafts from Lowell and type-scripts of Bishop, and they would explore, in Joyce’s words, “different ways to think about writing, different ways of approaching writing.”
Then there is her poetry.
Frank described his first time seeing Joyce’s poem “The Hardness Scale” as “thrilling.” “All of us were amazed,” he said, because “All of Joyce’s toughness of mind and brilliance of invention were suddenly at work.” In this poem Joyce takes her readers on a journey across the literal hardness scale, the measure of the toughness of minerals, while metaphorically exploring the hardness that can develop between lovers over time.
These qualities have been the defining characteristic of her work throughout the years, and “Source of the Positrons,” which is included in this season’s issue of Breakwater, has it in spades.
Much of this profile has consisted of stitching together the recollections of others. I think that is how the true reckoning of humans occurs, in the remembrances of others made known. In the case of Joyce, she will be reckoned as a dear friend, as a warrior of inclusion, as a contemplative, as a mystery, as a poet residing on the edge of the world, beckoning.
BH: I want to get a sense of both you as a writer and you as a person. I think those are two selves that sometimes operate in interdependence and sometimes in a vacuum. I want to explore that a bit. To start, where did you grow up? What was your childhood like? And what did you want to be when you were growing up? Because a lot of us don’t have the idea of being poets when we’re kids.
JP: Well I grew up in New York City in a middle-income housing project in the Bronx that was built for the WWII veterans. There was a tremendous housing shortage all across the country, but certainly in the city. So I grew up in a place that in some ways was very homogenous. All these people were children of veterans of the Second World War. And ethnically too we were divided. There were Italian families and Jewish families in the neighborhood for the most part. But growing up in New York City was wonderful! When I was probably no more than 13, I was going to Manhattan all the time. My junior high school sold tickets to the Sunday matinee performances of the New York Philharmonic for 99 cents. So my friends and I would take the subway down to Carnegie Hall and we would hear Bernstein conduct. We were really a part of that cultural mix in the city. Later what was going on downtown in Greenwich Village was something we were all aware of.
I went to school at part of the city university – Queens College, which is also where Lloyd [Schwartz] went, though we didn’t know each other at the time because our time there didn’t overlap. That’s where I really got interested in writing poems, and part of it was just from reading poems. I was an English major, and I was studying all of these incredible poets. Probably Keats was the first writer I really fell in love with.
I’d always been interested in writing, even when I was very young. My first ambition was to write continuations of the Nancy Drew series, so I started writing my own Nancy Drew books with my own characters, but following closely her group of characters. So I guess it was fan fiction before there was fan fiction. Because the Nancy Drew books would sometimes have footnotes saying something like “See The Secret of the Old Clock,” I decided that I had to have footnotes too, referring to books that I hadn’t written yet. So there is a little bit of Borges there as well.
But I was a reader from the time I was young. I don’t think my novels ever went beyond four pages, so I wasn’t able to sustain that. In college, when I became more interested and serious about writing, it was poetry that interested me. I started to read it and write it. The first poetry reading I ever attended was when I was a freshman. There weren’t that many poetry readings then, not on campus. But Alan Dugan had graduated from Queens College and he came back to give a reading and he talked about his own experience taking a creative writing class. Mary Doyle Curran was his teacher, of the Mary Doyle Curran Prize here at UMass. And he mentioned one of the first things that Curran asked him, when he was writing a poem about his grandmother, But how did your grandmother smell? And that opened his eyes to what he needed to do in his poems.
BH: Where were you first published?
JP: It was in Salmagundi [Magazine]. That was in 1971. Talking about connections, Editor Bob Boyers had been a student at Queens College. I think the magazine was pretty new, and he was exploring his connections, trying to get people to contribute. I was in the second issue of Ploughshares--Bill Corbett had invited me to submit some work. That was in 1972. My favorite story about publishing was…there weren’t a whole lot of creative writing classes in the 60’s. I think there was one creative writing class you could take in poetry. There was an intro class and then an advanced workshop. One in poetry and one in fiction, and that was it. The professor of the poetry class also wrote a column for a leftist magazine called New Leader. I don’t know if it exists anymore, probably not. It was in the same sort of format as The New Republic. But he was reviewing an anthology of contemporary poets. It might have been the Donald Allen anthology, and he reviewed it and said this is a fine anthology, but where are these young poets? And he listed all his students. Of course no anthologist would know anything about us! So in a way I was published before I was published.
BH: When you got out of college was it straight to the academic world or did you do other things?
JP: I worked for Newsweek when I got out of college. Again, there were very few graduate creative writing programs then. I graduated in January, and just that final semester I thought Maybe I want to go to graduate school. Maybe I want to do it for writing. So I applied to the MA program at Cornell and the MFA program at UC Irvine. Part of me wanted to stay not too far from home and part of me wanted to go as far away from home as I could get! Between the time I started to apply and when I went to California, I worked the photo desk at Newsweek. And if I hadn’t gone to graduate school I probably would have stayed there.
BH: When did you meet Jane Kenyon?
JP: After I graduated from UC Irvine I moved to Massachusetts, and I was working for an insurance company. That was the sort of thing you did if you couldn’t find anything else. The hardest thing to do once you get out of graduate school is to sustain that impulse to write. It’s really important to find a writing community outside graduate school. And I did. I came to Boston because I had friends here who were writers. And so I was an insurance underwriter by day, a writer by night. I found out a new program had been started with the University of Michigan, a junior fellowship program based on the Harvard Society of Fellows. And Donald Hall was one of the people who was involved in getting that started. And I knew that one of my colleagues from UC Irvine, who was a year ahead of me, Richard Ford, had gotten this fellowship. So I thought, Well maybe I’ll apply to that. Then I won’t have to do insurance. So I applied and I was selected for an interview, and that’s when I met both Don and Jane. I think it was either right before or right after they’d gotten married. I ended up getting the fellowship. I was in Ann Arbor for two years, and that’s where Jane and I became friends.
BH: What years were you in Michigan?
JP: I started in the fall of 1972. But then when I was back in Boston, Don and Jane decided to move to New Hampshire. He’s written a lot about that. About his decision to leave teaching and go and live on the farm that belonged to his grandparents. I was one of the few people Jane knew within 500 miles when she moved there, because she grew up in Ann Arbor. She went to school there. She really didn’t know anyone in the northeast except me. So our friendship deepened there. And we started a magazine together called Greenhouse. It was started in 1976. We did a lot of soliciting for it. But as soon as you started soliciting, you started getting submissions, all based on word of mouth. Our goal was to find a place where writers who wouldn’t usually publish together could have a conversation with each other. We were trying to transcend the different schools and manifestos of the 60’s and 70’s and just put together writers we enjoyed no matter their particular aesthetic.
BH: When did you start to work on The Hardness Scale?
JP: The Hardness Scale was my MFA thesis. Rather, the spine of it was my MFA thesis. Some of the poems there were written when I was a student, and the title poem was actually written when I was still an undergraduate. That book developed from my MFA thesis.
BH: Did you do much refining of it over the years or was it the kind of thing where you put it away?
JP: No, it changed constantly. Poems came in, poems went out. I would say that there are a number of poems that define the book, including the title poem. But then, as with any manuscript, you start evaluating the manuscript all over again with each poem you add to the collection. There are many writers who work on projects. They may be working on several books at the same time, or they might be writing prose for another project. I’m a total woolgatherer though. It’s very hard for me to see beyond the next poem or two. I’ve never really been a project-oriented writer. All my books have been collections rather than more structured work.
BH: I’ve noticed looking back over your collections that there is, in comparison to some other poets like Albert Goldbarth who is always writing and publishing, a larger span of time between your collections. Do you spend a lot of time just writing and then you come to a point where you say, Now I’ve got enough? How does that decision happen?
JP: I think that a lot of it has to do with my life. There was a big gap between my first and second book, partially because I became a mom later in life, and I found that very demanding. There were two years where I didn’t write at all. I just didn’t do anything. A lot of it was just dealing with that personal energy. I’m not prolific. I’m painstaking, and I tend to worry over lines and punctuation again and again. I throw out a lot of stuff that I write. I’m a writer who, even with all that worrying, I might look at it and say Well, it really wasn’t worth the effort. So even though I’m a slow writer I still throw out a lot of what I write. Or dismember it. Something that doesn’t come together in one poem may be reworked in another. I was the first director of the program here [at UMass] and I did that for four years, and that slowed me down too. Because a lot of the creative energy that goes into writing went into thinking about how to turn what was a plan on paper into something that was actually going to function. Just figuring that out as well took a lot of time.
BH: I’ve heard that you were involved in a writing group with, among others, Robert Pinsky, David Ferry, Frank Bidart, and Barry Spacks. How did that get started?
JP: That got started because James McMichael who taught at UC Irvine had gone to Stanford with Robert Pinsky. When I left Irvine and I was coming east, Jim said Here’s someone you should get in touch with. He mentioned me to Robert, and I was invited to a party at Robert’s once. He and David and Frank taught at Wellesley while Barry was at MIT. Frank Bidart had just been hired at Wellesley, so he was a new colleague of Robert’s. At this point David had published a book of poems. Barry was probably the best known of them for a novel that he’d published called The Sophomore. Frank’s book had just been accepted by Braziller, Golden State. Richard Howard was the series editor and writing an introduction to his book. Robert was just publishing; he hadn’t had Sadness and Hapiness accepted yet. I think it was Barry who suggested that we form this writing group, or invited me to join a group that had already existed. So we started doing that.
BH: How often did you meet? And what did you get out of it?
JP: It was several times a month. Frank would come to the workshop sometimes with poems by Lowell that he was working on and that he had asked Frank for advice on. So he would show us, Oh here’s what Robert Lowell is working on. He would also sometimes distribute recent typescripts by Elizabeth Bishop. It was just an amazing group to be a part of. Amazing is a terrible word. It was a very instructional group to be a part of. Each of these writers are really very different from each other, so I learned a lot about different ways to think about writing, different ways of approaching writing. They all had different aesthetic roots, though I think at the time David hadn’t yet started with his work on Gilgamesh. So his work was very different from the work he’s published since. And this was true of Jane Kenyon. Working on a translation liberates something in a writer that sometimes you don’t access just working on your own material. And Robert was writing the poems that would be in Sadness and Happiness, so it was a very fertile place. I was very much the junior member of this group. I was the only woman who was a member of this group. Part of the time that we met was part of the time that Ellen Pinsky and Barry’s wife Patsy were going to a woman’s group that night. So we met at Robert’s house. I learned an awful lot from these experienced writers, and I’ve learned to read writers I hadn’t read as carefully before, including Bishop.
BH: Bishop is the kind of writer that slowly unfolds over time.
JP: Well everyone would have read the anthologized Bishop: “The Fish” for example. I had a friend at UC Irvine who had gone to Harvard who was wild about Bishop. She had been a student of Lowell’s and she also knew Frank. She really started me reading North and South. I think also there was a lot to read in the 60s and 70s. I think this made me focus more on Bishop.
BH: So you were the first Managing Editor of Ploughshares. How did that come about and what was your experience at Ploughshares like?
JP: My book had been published by Alice James Books, which was a cooperative, and the press was run by its members. So I published poems in Ploughshares; I’d been in several issues of Ploughshares. The magazine was run for many years out of DeWitt Henry’s second bedroom. Then, Dewitt and Connie were having a baby, and the baby was going to take up the second bedroom. So the magazine moved out of his house into a little storefront in Watertown. And DeWitt realized he needed someone to help keep things organized. We had met each other, and he knew I’d worked with Alice James Books, so he thought that the experience would help me organize the magazine. So he hired me to be what I called “the barely-managing editor.” The first thing I found when I started working there was that they never sent out renewal notices to their subscribers. So that was my first act as managing editor, to make sure every subscriber got a renewal notice.
But it was a wonderful place to be because of all the work coming in, and knowing who was publishing a book. When you received a letter asking for permission for a poem that had been published in Ploughshares you knew, Oh, X has a new book coming out. It was wonderful to feel part of this community. Because we had different editors for each issue, it also meant there was no dominant aesthetic or taste. Again, it was an ongoing conversation and you never knew what was going to come in the mail. I was also the reader for the slush pile, and wonderful things would come in and I would get to forward them to the issue editor and people would drop in and we’d get pizza next door. It was part of my education as a writer. I think every writer should have some experience with a journal. I think it makes you a much better reader. I think it makes you think about your own work more clearly. I think knowing the nuts and bolts is really important. Those nuts and bolts have changed dramatically from 1980. We’re not talking about these physical objects, but these immaterial objects that appear on a screen.
We had a P.O. Box in Cambridge, so it was like bringing back treasure because you never knew what was going to be in the mail. On the other hand we would be mailing out issues from that P.O. Box, so we had to wrap them, label them, tie them up, and follow the post office’s rules. It seemed every little post office had its own rules. We picked up a distributor at that time, William DeBoer, a distributor for small press magazines back then. Once we started to ask people to renew we increased our subscriber base.
This was before Ploughshares became affiliated with Emerson, so it was really an independent magazine. Also it was independent in the sense that you didn’t always know if the gas heater in the office was operating properly or whether we were all getting carbon monoxide poisoning.
BH: With that being said, how important do you think independent presses are today? As the economics of maintaining a journal are becoming tighter, it seems many of them are being institutionalized one way or another.
JP: I think in many ways after state and federal government’s began to subsidize the arts, there was money for libraries to subscribe to journals. DeWitt Henry had a grant from the state to coordinate a program called Book Affair that placed small press books and journals throughout libraries across Massachusetts. Basically it was a grant for these libraries to buy these things, to spread literature throughout the Commonwealth. Such a thing would be unheard of today. So once that stopped happening, things have been closing in on the print journal. Even though the cost of production has gone down. I can remember certainly with Alice James but also with Ploughshares that you had to have someone typeset everything. The IBM typesetting machine was a great advantage at the time, but this was before it could be on a memory stick or a computer. Other prices have gone up like the price of paper, or the price of putting journals together. The journal Green House that we had printed in a plant outside of Concord, NH, the cost of just doing that has gotten much, much higher.
On the other hand, look at the proliferation of online journals. I think that people are finding alternatives. Now people are using web platforms to publish books. In a way, it’s not so much about the disappearance of the book and the publication, but the disappearance of the editor that makes it harder to go through all of this material. Magazines are, to use the fashionable word, curated. Someone is making a judgment. Often when you look at material online, especially with books that are self-published, you don’t know the quality. I think most of us don’t think much of self-published books, but, there was a self-published book recently reviewed by The New York Times. There is one in the latest issue of Ploughshares, recommended by one of the editors. So I think that publishing is changing so much and so fast, it’s almost not a question of suppression, or of people not being able to publish their work in journals, but trying to figure out, among all these publications, which one do you read. Which one is edited in a way that ensures that you read something worth your time? So I think that in fact there are more journals out there than ever before, and it’s just the form has changed. There’s always the beautiful physical object. I think there’s always room for that. I’d much rather take a copy of a journal with me than have my tablet. On the other hand, I can sit at my computer and read something that was published on the other side of the world, and if I publish something, it can be read by someone on the other side of the world. In a way we’ve all become ghosts; we’ve lost our corporeal selves.
BH: There is so much poetry out there, how are you going to comb through it all other than through word of mouth and someone saying Oh this person’s good.
JP: You know I read Poetry Daily every day and their editors, in a way they filter and screen but they’re very eclectic. They include all sorts of writers from all sorts of journals and all sorts of publishers from the best known to the small publication that’s sponsored by a small college. So I use that as a technique to hear new voices, and I get 365 Samples from Poetry Daily. And then I can say, Oh I want to follow up and find more about this person. I also subscribe to the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day because again, there, you have a tremendous diversity that someone is editing, someone with very different tastes. There’s a real attempt at geographical range and a real attempt to be inclusive. I feel that those are two good ways in a poetry world that keeps getting bigger to try along with those connections. Often my students will tell me about writers I hadn’t heard about as well.
BH: I’ve been reading The Hardness Scale and I notice that you find a way to meld the introspective and the neurotic while keeping your reader grounded in the natural and the universal. How do you balance those things, both in The Hardness Scale and in your other work?
JP: I find that most of my work comes from a personal connection with something. It may not be what’s the most obvious subject or theme of the poem, but that’s where it starts. It starts from some personal resonance, and then the poem gets built around that resonance. And again, I think because I’m such a woolgatherer and a magpie, I take language from different places. I like to use found language. Like the phrase “Diamonds are forever…” [from “The Hardness Scale”], that’s a De Beers ad and it’s also the title of a James Bond novel. So I borrow language from all these sources and I try to put these together in a way that is both emotionally resonant and has a shape, has a sound, that appeals to me. And I never know how that’s going to work. Maybe that’s why I’m not prolific. I’m inventing the wheel each time I start a poem, and I just haven’t learned anything yet. Maybe there’s one thing I’ve learned…
I started approaching writing a little differently a few years ago when I started a sequence of poems that are based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. They’re a homophonic reading of the sonnets. That is, I would take the sonnet and type it out on my computer with blank lines between each of Shakespeare’s lines, and then I would take each word and find a word that sounded similar and do that for the whole poem. Then I would take away the Shakespeare portion and see what I was left with. How could I make this into something? How could I make a little drama out of these words? And often the words would lead to scenarios that were not at all in Shakespeare’s sonnet, but were little narratives or contrasts. So that was one way to get out of just looking out the window and thinking, Oh it’s snowing today. I was making a connection through the language rather than through the image or some quotidian personal experience. So I wrote 16 of them and then a coda. But I think that it’s probably again rooted in my interest in finding language in places you wouldn’t really expect.
BH: Do you ever start writing a poem and then get to a point where you realize, This is too personal or This is not universal enough to be worthwhile to readers?
JP: Often. I’m not sure if something that makes perfect sense to me will make perfect sense to a reader, and that’s why I still have a writing group. In fact, I work with Steven Cramer and Teresa Cader, and often when we are working with each other, the thing we focus on is just that question. Is that something that makes perfect sense to you that won’t make perfect sense to a reader? And how can we make that happen? And it’s not in the sense of too personal in terms of autobiography, but I think it is too personal in the sense of the mind being too close to itself.
BH: Your next collection, Know Thyself, when is that being published and who’s publishing it?
JP: It’s coming out next year from Carnegie Mellon University Press. They’ve published all of my work after my first book, and in fact reprinted The Hardness Scale as part of their Classic Contemporary Series. Jerry Constanzo, the editor, is extremely loyal to his writers, and I appreciate that. I don’t get any pressure about not publishing a book for a number of years, which is wonderful.
BH: In reading the poems you sent me from Know Thyself, it seems that you’re still wrestling with the same kinds of problems that you’ve been wrestling with in your work for years. What has changed over the years besides just becoming more refined as a writer?
JP: Basically I haven’t figured it out yet. What has changed? I guess I still write about those big themes: how to figure out the world. Each poem is an attempt, though probably a failed attempt because I have to go on to write another poem, so I haven’t figured it out yet. How has my work changed beyond just personal craft? I think again that has to do with personal experience. There’s been a lot more focus on grief and death from my own experience. Certainly my book Mortal Education was very much about Jane. It’s not the only thing in the book but it’s certainly very much about that. There are poems about grief over the death of parents, the grief and joy of seeing a child grow up. So in a way I think those have been explored more in my later work than in my earlier work. I hope I still have a sense of humor. I think it’s been coming back both in Know Thyself and Eastern Mountain Time.
About the Interviewer: Ben Hurst is a poet currently living in Boston. His work as been published in Foundling Review, Penwood Review, and Inkspill Magazine among others. His current interest is in the intersection of web development and poetry, making literature more responsive and experiential.