2012 was quite a year for Lucia Perillo. Her first collection of short stories, Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain, was published by W. W. Norton and selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best books of the year. Her sixth collection of poetry, On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, from Copper Canyon Press, was picked by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of the year, and our very own Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association has chosen it for its 2013 Book Awards Shortlist. This is far from the first praise that has come the way of the Olympia, Washington, resident. Not only was Perillo awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, she received the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for her second poetry collection, The Body Mutinies, as well as the Kingsley Tufts Award for her fourth, Luck is Luck. Add in the Washington State Book Award for her 2009 collection, Inseminating the Elephant (also a Pulitzer Prize finalist), the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America for Dangerous Life, the . . . well, you get the point.
Let’s not forget that Perillo is also “a damned good essayist,” as critic and poet Ron Slate noted. This is so clearly evident in her collection of personal essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness and Nature, which reviewer David Takami noted leaves its reader “transformed by the limitless power of her imagination.” What an imagination it is, and how inventively expressed. Lucia Perillo talks with Christine Deavel of Open Books.
CD: One of the many marvels of your work is the way it investigates difficult subjects — painful, uncomfortable, embarrassing, frightening subjects — with a relaxed grace. How do you view the role of emotion in your writing and in poetry in general?
LP: I guess I don’t see my subject matter as particularly difficult. When I started writing I took a poetry class at San Jose State with Robert Hass, and he said that if we found a poem we were working on embarrassing, this was probably a good sign and to keep going. Perhaps I took that advice too much to heart.
Poetry should strive to induce a visceral response in the reader. The poem should be inescapable, it should haunt. There is so much chatter in the world now, and a poem should aim above it.
CD: Even at their darkest, your poems are often laced with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. How does humor work for you, both as a writer and a reader?
LP: I like humor, though I know for some it deflates the import of the poem. Jack Gilbert, for example, has an epigrammatic poem about not writing funny poems. But if we look at the past, we see that parts of The Odyssey are funny. Shakespeare is funny. Take the line: “And in some perfumes is there more delight than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.” Surely that’s supposed to be funny.
Humor can be important in providing a rest when one is otherwise confronting the reader with difficult subject matter. At the same time, when Twain says the source of humor is not joy but sorrow, that makes sense to me. People think they’re getting a break, but there is no break.
CD: You chose an intriguing and startling epigraph for On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths — poet Weldon Kees’ lines, “No death for you. You are involved.” What led you to choose it?
LP: I was thinking of this as a direct address to the reader, after the perhaps unsettling title of the book. The author’s joke, that there be no exiting for the reader.
CD: I often feel that you are talking to me when I read your poems. What does the reader mean to you as a writer? Do you think about the reader when you write?
LP: I do believe in the idea of communication, in a poem as a packet of communication. A bit of news that someone would die if they didn’t receive, as William Carlos Williams suggests. So the reader is important to me, and I often address him/her/it explicitly.
At the same time, my ideal reader is myself, and my only job is to keep myself interested. I don’t want to be hamstrung by the reader. Luckily, when I’m writing poems I know the number of potential readers is very small.
CD: Your poems are not ironic, but they brilliantly note the ironic in our world. How do you travel that narrow path?
LP: I’m too old to be hip, for which I’m grateful. Too old to be part of what’s become an age where irony is the default mode of not just humorous writing but serious exposition too. I can observe this phenomenon but I’m pretty much estranged from it.
CD: You’ve had a long-standing interest in what I would call the natural world, and that interest comes through powerfully in your work. I’m wondering, though, how you would define the word ‘nature’ and whether your definition of it has changed over time.
LP: There aren’t a whole lot of nouns outside of nature, and not a lot of verbs either. But it took a long time for me to get this. When I was young, I worked in the field of natural science, and ‘nature’ for me was associated not only with my working life but with subject matter that seemed too airy, when I was interested in the dramatic monologues of Frank Bidart.
CD: Animals figure prominently in your poetry. What is their place there?
LP: My major in college was “Wildlife Management,” a phrasing that seems archaic and oxymoronic now. In school and in my working life, animals were the focus of my interest, but it took a long while before I figured out how I could write about them. Probably I had sentimental ideas about them. Now they are sentiment purgers.
CD: How does a poem begin for you? Has that process changed from book to book?
LP: There are two ways a poem begins for me: either a phrase with a (irregular) metrical pattern that I find appealing will start to repeat in my head, or I’ll have an idea, as limiting as that seems, that one should begin with an idea for a poem.
My handwriting is not good anymore, so I’ve come to rely on the computer. The problem with using a computer is that it makes editing too tempting, and so one begins to edit too early–the messy generative work just seems too crude. When that should be the thrilling part.
I bought a typewriter on eBay to help with this problem. And the other day, I actually wrote a poem in a notebook. It’s been a number of years since I wrote a whole poem in a notebook.
CD: In essays, you’ve written with candor about living with multiple sclerosis, though you referred to it more tangentially in your poetry. How do you come to writing about illness and is the choice to include it in your work a shifting one for you?
LP: Early on, I wanted my poems to be readable for people unfamiliar with my biography—I sought to provide a platform, like a diving platform, for these readers; another platform, another reading, for readers who knew I was ill. I think that’s still my intention, though often in my books now there is biographical information, maybe in the jacket copy, that will explicitly state that I’ve got M.S.
Bringing a wheelchair, however, into poems is a tricky thing because it tends to bleed over everything. And once you give it entry, you’re stuck with it. I call it “a transcendent signifier.”
CD: You’ve recently published your first collection of short stories. What does that form offer you that poetry doesn’t? Has writing fiction affected your poetry?
LP: I’ve written fiction alongside poetry throughout my writing life, most of it failure. When I’ve engaged in sustained periods of fiction writing, I’ve thought, that’s it, I’ve wrecked myself for poetry. I’ve always managed to come back, though, sometimes after having to struggle for a while, and the interesting thing is that I always come back changed as a poet, and that has been a benefit.
CD: How so?
LP: I think the change has to do with forgetting. In the time away from poetry, I forget something I used to know; some preconception I had falls away.
CD: In one of your poems you refer to being ‘ruled by curiosity.’ What is your curiosity often tweaked by and how do you scratch that itch? Are there some things that just don’t interest you?
LP: I’m not easily bored, though I doubt my next poem will be about Nascar racing or Beanie Babies. But you never know.
“To the Field of Scotch Broom That Will Be Buried by the New Wing of the Mall”
Half costume jewel, half parasite, you stood
swaying to the music of cash registers in the distance
while a helicopter chewed the linings
of the clouds above the clear-cuts.
And I forgave the pollen count
while cabbage moths teased up my hair
before your flowers fall apart when they
turned into seeds. How resigned you were
to your oblivion, unlistening to the cumuli
as they swept past. And soon those gusts
will mill you, when the backhoe comes
to dredge your roots, but that is not
what most impends, as the chopper descends
to the hospital roof so that somebody’s heart
can be massaged into its old habits.
Mine went a little haywire
at the crest of the road, on whose other side
you lay in blossom.
As if your purpose were to defibrillate me
with a thousand electrodes,
one volt each.