10 Questions for Joyce Peseroff
- By Christin Howard
“To a woman with Alzheimer’s
a dark red rug
looks like a hole in the floor—
a bloody hole. She can’t open
her front door
without stepping past it… —From "Irish Music," Summer 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In sixth grade, I began working on a Nancy-Drew-style mystery. Since many Nancy Drew books included references to other books in the series via an asterisk and a footnote, “*See The Secret in the Old Clock,” I decided to add allusions to my own yet-unwritten texts—a tween, Bronxite Borges. In the end, plot confounded me and the novel didn’t go beyond six pages. That’s true for any attempt at fiction I’ve made since.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I started writing seriously as a college student, first swooning after Keats, then reading Creeley and the Black Mountain poets, and admiring Diane Wakowski’s spirited long line. I’m eternally grateful to early days when fresh out of grad school I worked with Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart and David Ferry, whose combined wisdom honed my practice. Later, Jane Kenyon and Alice Mattison were my first readers, and Jane’s work still influences me.
What other professions have you worked in?
None, really. I learned more about editing and publishing as a member of the Alice James Books cooperative than I did at my first job at Newsweek, and that experience led DeWitt Henry to hire me as Ploughshares magazine’s first managing editor. I also held the usual string of part-time adjunct jobs, one at a seminary for men studying for the Greek Orthodox priesthood. The Boston Celtics used the college gym for practice, and my students would walk in late because their Gregorian Chant class ran overtime.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I wrote “Irish Music” very quickly, without my usual months-long process of revise, revise, revise. Certain details originated with an Oliver Sacks article and a terrifying novel narrated from the perspective of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s. I wanted to imagine the nature of comfort in a world that seems fierce at withholding it.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I write a lot about the natural world, attuned to a landscape in rural Maine I’ve been observing for forty years. I grew up in New York City, but my father, a public school teacher, worked summers at a camp in “the country,” and I loved every twig of it.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I can’t seem to write in a coffee shop or in bed or while traveling. I need to sit upright at a desk with familiar books and photos at my elbow.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My dear friends Teresa Cader and Steven Cramer have been my first readers for over a decade. Nothing goes into the world without their approval!
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I envy those polymath writers who are also accomplished musicians, photographers, or watercolorists. I’m not! If I could, I’d enjoy the physicality of painting big, big canvases.
What are you working on currently?
I’m putting final touches on Petition, my sixth book of poems, out with Carnegie Mellon University Press Fall 2020. I also write a poetry column for Askold Melnyczuck’s Arrowsmith Press blog.
What are you reading right now?
At AWP 2018 I bought Evie Shockley’s Semiautomatic—a breathtaking, meticulously written book I can’t put down—along with Brenda Hillman’s Extra Hidden Life, among the Days, and Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, a selection from those reproduced and transcribed in the complete collection The Gorgeous Nothings. So you see I’m a little behind in my reading, sometimes by 150 years.
Joyce Peseroff’s fifth book of poems, Know Thyself, was designated a “must read” by the 2016 Massachusetts Book Award. Her recent poems and reviews appear in in On the Seawall, Plume, and Woven Tale Press.