Molly Peacock, a Torontonian by way of New York City, is an acclaimed poet and the series editor for The Best Canadian Poetry in English. Her newest collection, The Analyst (Biblioasis), begins with a great loss when Peacock's real-life analyst suffers a serious stroke. Loss begets art in this case, however, when the titular analyst turns to painting, a passion that had been put aside in favour of psychoanalytical training years before.
The richly visual poems in the collection investigate both the loss and the art. As the dynamic of care is reversed between patient and analyst, a decades-long relationship is exposed to the light, bringing with it complexities and fascinations that Peacock mines to devastating effect. A book that addresses gratitude, fear, art, and language itself, The Analyst is a powerhouse collection from one of our smartest poets - and there are even some laughs along the way.
This isn't Peacock's first literary interaction with visual art either; her book The Paper Garden delved into the life of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, whose breathtaking and delicate cut-paper floral pieces from the 18th century are considered pioneering work in mixed media collage.
We're pleased to welcome Molly to Open Book today as part of our Lucky Seven interview series. She tells us about the phenomenon of "ambiguous loss", the interesting significance of an ancient word for poet, and makes a very good case for an unusual category of writing instrument.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
When my psychotherapist suffered a stroke and closed her practice, I began writing poems about our incredible, unusual, forty-year relationship and the value of the examined life. (I didn’t meet with her steadily over those decades, but we were always intermittently in touch.) She survived the brain hemorrhage, but with great memory loss. I never thought I would see her again. Then came a strange reprieve. She did have fragments of long-term memory. Because I was one of her first patients, she reached out to me, and our post-analytic relationship began.
After that my poems came from what is called “ambiguous loss” (that phenomenon we experience when a person is “there but not there”). Then another turn took my breath away. She began painting to save her life. Unable to read, unable to remember, she could look, and this looking led her to reclaim her daily existence, using a girlhood talent for drawing. At this point I realized I was watching the person who helped me through every major crisis in my life, from my father’s alcoholic violence to my sister’s drug addiction, to my mother’s depression (and the deaths of all three) help herself through the crisis of her age. (She was 77 when she had the stroke.)
Now my poems came from a tender role reversal: witnessing the person who validated my vision (me, a working class girl who desired to be a poet) now become the artist she herself wanted to be, but because of a harsh critique at university long before, had turned away from. An essay I wrote for Partisan.ca, “My Analyst of Forty Years Had a Stroke—and Became an Artist,” explains this all in depth.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
As the poems grew in number, and I began to realize I was making a book, a basic question emerged. What makes a human being thrive? The poems showed an answer: making. The verb that allows us to thrive is “to make.” For me, that means writing. For my former analyst, that means painting. For some of us that means making a garden, a dinner—even a date. The Anglo Saxon word for poet, scop, means “maker.”
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
My therapist had her stroke in March, 2012, and I began the first poem at the end of that month. I put the final touches on the manuscript in August, 2015. Three very intense years.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I need space in my head as well as my writing space, which is a small, beautiful 10 by 10 foot former sunroom, built in with cabinets and a hand-made desk. But I don’t draft poems there! I like writing poems curled up on the couch, first thing in the morning, before my husband gets up, before I am fully awake, with a cup of tea, on a purple or blue ruled pad, with a mechanical pencil or sometimes a wooden pencil covered with Japanese paper. No food yet. For later drafts, when I need to type the poem into my laptop, I enter that wonderful study. For even later drafts, I love to have a conversation with a friend. Can a friendship be a writing instrument? Oh yes!
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I find moaning to my friends and yelling at my husband supremely helpful.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
For the last ten years I’ve been the Series Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English. I am always asking myself what makes a great poem. Two things: Passion. And virtuosity. By passion I don’t mean the loudest emotion, but genuine, vulnerable emotion. By virtuosity I don’t mean verbal razzle-dazzle, but I do mean vocabulary, even seemingly simple vocabulary, that allows that poet to realize a vision through the music of lines. One truly great poem for me is George Herbert’s “Love III.” Eighteen lines contain a huge, but personal, intimate and sexual conversation with his idea of God—and self. “Love bade me enter, but my soul drew back.” Right now, with Assistant Series Editor Anita Lahey, I am choosing The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry, sifting through our first nine volumes for the great poems of the last decade. We’ve got some surprising and spectacular ones—stay tuned…
What are you working on now?
Flower Diary: Mary Hiester Reid Speaks Up, a biography of Canada’s amazing flower painter, the first woman to have a solo show at the AGO, in 1922. Never heard of her? Hoping to change that.
Molly Peacock is an acclaimed poet, essayist and creative nonfiction writer. She is the author of The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, at once a biography of an extraordinary 18th century artist and a meditation on late-life creativity, as well as The Second Blush, love poems from a midlife marriage. As President of the Poetry Society of America, Molly Peacock was one of the creators of New York's Poetry in Motion program; coediting Poetry In Motion: One Hundred Poems From the Subways and Buses. She serves as a Faculty Mentor at the Spalding University Brief Residency MFA Program and is also the Series Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English.