Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Molly Peacock

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TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Molly Peacock

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Molly Peacock is one of the most widely-read living poets of our time. Her early work earned her a reputation for writing poems about love and sex with a rather delectable frankness. She has never been afraid of testing the more formal and technical styles of writing poetry, choosing instead to loosen her foothold on metre and rhyme, enabling her to further explore the sonnet and the villanelle. Her subject matter has broadened somewhat with the passing of time to entail more of a social conscience, touching on issues of family and war. Readers have embraced her subtle dexterities with form, finding her writing voice to not only be dazzling and spiritually comforting but incessantly honest.

Her poetry has appeared in numerous anthologies, textbooks and prominent literary journals world-wide, including The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The Best of the Best American Poetry and The Paris Review. She has served as Poet-In-Residence at the University of Western in London, Ontario, Bucknell University, the University of California and the American Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Devine in New York City.

Peacock is both a poet and a creative non-fiction writer, authoring several books of poetry which include The Second Blush (McClelland & Stewart, 2009) and Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems (Penguin Canada, 2002). Her newest book of non-fiction, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (McClelland & Stewart), released this October, is an extraordinary tale chronicling the turbulent and creative life of 18th-century botanical collage artist Mary Granville Pendarves Delany.

She also wrote and performed the one-woman staged monologue The Shimmering Verge in theatres across North America, including a showcase performance at Urban Stages in New York City in 2006. Beginning in 2008, Peacock has served as the Series Editor for The Best Canadian Poetry in English, published annually by Tightrope Books.

Originally born in Buffalo, New York, Peacock holds both Permanent Residence status in Canada as well as her U.S. citizenship. She is a transplanted New Yorker happily residing in Toronto with her husband, Professor Michael Groden.

Molly Peacock will read from The Paper Garden at the Globe and Mail/Ben McNally literary brunch on Sunday, December 5. See our Events page for more details.

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TTQ- You have lived in both New York and now in Toronto. How comparable are the two cities in terms of their respective poetry communities, and do you find there are more and more talented poets emerging in each market these days?

MP- New York and Toronto both have incredibly active poetry communities with scads of talented merging poets. Obviously, in terms of size, New York has many more poetry organizations and venues. In Toronto the venues are often tied to pubs and cafes. The launches in Toronto are fabulous for that reason. In New York the venues are more oriented to public space, such as Bryant Park or the Bowery Poetry Club. The launch scene is not as active in New York; launches are usually in bookstores or book parties in people’s apartments. There are also venerable poetry organizations such as The Poetry Society of America, Poets’ House, and The Academy of American Poets. Each city has its own poetry culture; Toronto's seems more casual and boisterous to me.

TTQ- Tell us about your newest book, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72, and about your fascination with the 18th-century botanical collage artist, Mrs. Delany, who you so eloquently paid tribute to in an essay published in The Best American Essays, 2007.

MP- The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 is both the true tale of the life of the 18th century gentlewoman who invented cut-paper botanical collage and a meditation on late life creativity. I loved researching and writing it, and I’m honoured to say that the book is fabulously designed, with thirty-four colour illustrations of Delany’s spectacular colour-bursts of flowers.

The book spun off from the essay that David Foster Wallace selected for Best American Essays, but I never would have written it without the support of my editor Susan Renouf at McClelland and Stewart. She had faith that a poet could become a biographer. And the Leon Levy Center for Biography in New York City had the same faith, offering me a year of support to complete the book. I spent time in England and in Ireland, where Mrs. Delany lived, to do the research. But I first saw the amazing collages in 1986 — and through a twist in fate was led to Mrs. Delany’s story in the 21st century.

Just to give you a taste of her life:

Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700–1788) was the witty, beautiful and talented daughter of a minor branch of a powerful family. Married off at sixteen to a sixty-one-year-old drunken squire to improve the family fortunes, then widowed by twenty-five, she would spurn many suitors over the next twenty years, including the charismatic Lord Baltimore. She cultivated a wide circle of friends, including Handel and Jonathan Swift. And she painted, she stitched, she observed, as she swirled in the outskirts of the Georgian court. In mid-life, she finally found love and married again.

Upon her second husband’s death twenty-three years later, she arose from her grief, picked up a pair of scissors and, at the age of seventy-two, created a new art form, botanical collage. Over the next decade, Mrs. Delany created an astonishing 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers, now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Flora Delanica.

TTQ- On August 26, 2010, Dionne Brand, the new Toronto Poet Laureate, unveiled her initiative Poetry is Public is Poetry, showcasing and celebrating the work of thirty-four Canadian poets on a series of six panels located in front of the Toronto Reference Library. Brand has stated, "poetry beautifies public space, pays respect to the intelligence of the citizenry, gives respite from the grind of daily living and engages the city's humanistic ideals." With Stephen Harper's threats to decrease the amount of tax dollars being spent on culture and the reductions to the funding of literary journals in Canada, do you think it's vital that other poet laureates across Canada and around the world step up like Brand has and do more to illustrate the importance of poetry in their own communities?

MP- I think everyone in the poetry world has a public obligation, even the shyest and most private of us. Volunteer work for every citizen makes you understand what being a citizen really is. Dionne Brand is doing a fabulous job. I volunteered for years at The Poetry Society of America and helped create Poetry in Motion on New York’s subways and buses. Even if one doesn’t have the personality for group activities, there’s always something a person can donate in terms of time to demonstrate to others the value of this art. A letter to Stephen Harper would be a good start. You don’t even have to get out of your pyjamas for that!

TTQ- You have been the General Editor for the first two editions of The Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope Books). What has that experience been like for you? What criteria is used, and how difficult a process is it selecting the best Canadian poems annually?

MP- Tightrope Books has treated this anthology with such respect and has devoted its energy to it so assiduously that each volume reaches a greater number of people. This is a series for poets, for lovers of poetry, and best of all for those curious about poetry who don’t know where to start. They can start with The Best. It’s been a wonderful experience for me — again, completely volunteer, continuing that theme from answer number four. As the Series Editor I choose the Guest Editor every year, and I collaborate with the Guest Editor in producing the Long List of 100 and the Short List of 50. It is agonizing! Our first three Guest Editors, Stephanie Bolster, A.F. Moritz and Lorna Crozier all experienced what a hard job it is to narrow down the choices. Canada has splendidly talented poets. Our single criterion is excellence. We don’t look for specific themes or styles or individuals. What’s been so fun is the discovery of younger talent and the resurrection of poets who thought they had been forgotten. It’s unbelievably time-consuming, as each of our valiant Guest Editors have discovered, but it’s also intensely rewarding. We hope we are creating Canadian literary history. Each new volume has a surprise set of themes. Isn’t the unexpected what poetry’s all about?

TTQ- Your one woman show The Shimmering Verge was first showcased at the Tarragon Theatre Spring Arts Fair in Toronto and at Rosenberg Kaufman Fine Arts in New York City back in 2002. How did that project evolve, and do you have any plans of performing The Shimmering Verge again, or possibly creating a new one woman show?

MP- The Shimmering Verge, my one-woman show in poems, evolved from my collaboration with London, Ontario, director-producer Louise Fagan. It was her encouragement and insight that let us do the hard work that finally earned the show an Off Broadway showcase. I’d love to do it in Toronto sometime. As for new work, nothing planned, but you never know.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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