Advice from Poet Peg Boyers: Seek Out Discomfort and the Unfamiliar
Deanna Piowaty: Having traveled and lived in so many places around the world—Havana, Pakambaru, Venice, Tripoli—do you find that in writing your poems you construct for yourself a sense of home? An identity that reaches across borders?
Peg Boyers: It’s true that I grew up as a kind of middle-class gypsy and that I early became adept at moving through different cultures and languages with ease, adding to my cultural bounty with each move. At a time when IDENTITY is something students are being encouraged to think about in a singular way, I am desperate to remain PLURAL in my many identities. The many places I’ve lived, the books I’ve read, the people I’ve known have all left their mark on me. I am in some deep way the sum of their parts and I want to be all these parts at the same time, all the time.
And yes, writing poems is one important way to cross borders of all kinds—gender borders, cultural borders, emotional borders and I have enjoyed that border-hopping immensely in my work, inhabiting voices from different eras and countries, sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman or a girl or even as a dog. One is given an array of identities from birth (my father was an Irishman from Pennsylvania; my mother a Cuban descended from Basque and Catalan Spaniards who were very likely originally Jewish) and from life’s accidents (I was born in Venezuela and it was my lot to travel to many countries as a child) and then one can go on to imagine still others. It’s a great privilege to do so by making art, but one can do so outside of that process by living one’s life imaginatively, improvising identity as one’s interests and circumstances shift. I like best to think of the popular word “diversity” as embodying the great diversity inside us all. I contain multitudes, as Papa Whitman said. Don’t we all?
Deanna Piowaty: At the same time, in writing about a particular place, event or person in time, do you ever find that you are creating for yourself an opportunity to linger longer? To keep that experience and awareness with you even as your body may move on to other ground? Does writing give one a sense of permanence? An alternative way of viewing our lives that is not necessarily arranged chronologically?
Peg Boyers: Ah, a sense of permanence: isn’t that what we’re all after at some level, even as we know there is no such thing? There is, as you say, definitely, a way in which we memorialize the past as we retrieve it in poems. But of course the past we memorialize is ordered and retold in a way we can live with. And yes, sometimes that reordering and retelling will involve dismissing the conventions of chronology according to what works best in the tale. The whole, we hope, will be true in all the important ways, but the parts are likely to have been altered so that they fit and highlight that larger truth that one is trying to get to the bottom of in a given work. The hope, I suppose, is that we can trick time by transcribing life into metered units called poems, moving through time measure by measure, tying it down as we move. But time will not be fooled or contained. It marcheth on.
At eleven I learned to lie.
Disobedience and its partner,
deception, became my constant companions.
How enormous then that first transgression,
against Father’s command, a sin damning as Adam’s:
walking to school alone.
We all lied, mother explained,
it was. . .necessario.
How else to survive
his sweeping interdicts
and condemning opinions?
Oh sweet allegiance of lies:
siblings and mother bound
together in a cozy tie!
My brothers’ lies
obdurate, built to last.
Mother’s were infirm little things,
infected from birth by her obstinate grace,
fated to die as soon as they hit the air.
But this lie, the lie about me, was sturdy,
knit, as it was, from the fiber of maternal love
and a wife’s defiance.
Go ahead; it’s right.
Walk alone. Grow up.
Each assurance a coercion, each coercion a shame.
The lie was a coat of mail
I’d don each day, threading my arms
through its leaden sleeves,
pulling its weight over my head,
for my father’s wrath.
In it I was strong and getting stronger,
but tired, always tired.
Oh to rest, shuck the lie and confess!
Father forgive me, I knew not what I did!
At night I’d rehearse the lines
and pray for his cleansing fury.
In the morning I’d meet him in the hall,
already crabby in his gray lab coat,
barking his harsh observations
about my robe (pink: ridiculous)
about my face (vacant)
about my voice (inaudible).
Mother, how did we produce such an insect!
I was used to this.
Exasperated, he would stuff his red frizz into a beret,
hurl himself into his loden cape
and bolt out the gate–too rushed for truths.
Silenced again, I would resume my solitary mission,
lugging my books, wearing my lie to school
and back again, through the maze of city streets.
One day the mist briefly lifted and I saw
the winter sun pulsing silver and pale
through a hole in the sky–a quiet disk
hopeful as the moon.
A face emerged, white whiskers smiling,
familiar, professorial–an angel perhaps,
or a friend of the family–
here to guide me safely
across the river to school.
He took my bag and my arm,
allaying my fears with talk
calculated to soothe, flatter, amuse.
Gentile, cosí gentile.
Ever faithful, he met me at my gate
morning after sweet morning.
We chatted carelessly the whole way,
intimate as lovers,
never a snag
or worry to hold us up–
I, grateful and happy,
he gently leading the way.
My trust deepened daily with his purpose
in the snug darkness of short days
where the new lie took root.
From deep in the loam, the probing
stem pushed to the surface.
Meanwhile, the first lie grew light with practice.
And my coat assumed
the comfort of a uniform.
His purpose, obscured from the start by fear,
by innocence–canny innocence–
flared up in a question,
betraying an ignorance
both clear and obscene:
“Little Girl, would you touch me–here?”
Suddenly my hand, sweetly warming
in his flannel pocket, was pushed
to the hard, oozing center.
My hand recoiled.
But the ooze stuck.
In that minute my childhood ended.
I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me
to hide my shame in the place
where secrets were made and kept,
willful little liar, disobedient
sinner trying to find my way alone
through fog, through lies.
My life was filling up with secrets
and deceit’s secretions,
loneliness and melancholy.
I hugged my coat tight against my body
so that the lies and I were one.
Peg Boyers: What an interesting and profound question this is. Different people use their art for different purposes, so it’s hard to generalize. Sometimes, on the contrary, writing is a very handy way to exorcise rage and to focus blame. Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” comes to mind. Another poem I love which is not at all about forgiveness is “Curse” by Frank Bidart, in which the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks are indicted and sentenced to Dantean varieties of punishment by the author. Both draw on memory, the one from childhood, the other from recent history. And neither is forgiving.
I think for me going back to childhood memories has in fact allowed me to create versions of events I can live with and this maneuver does involve a kind of forgiveness, I suppose, including self-forgiveness. The speaker in “Coat” is based on Natalia Ginzburg, but the poem draws on my own similar childhood experience. The telling of the tale accomplishes a kind of truce with the past in which the truth is told in a way which understands and forgives the child who has chosen to lie to her family about her encounters with a stranger. Another poem on a similar theme, “Agua de Violetas” (from HONEY WITH TOBACCO) exposes the pederast Franciscan uncle who tries and fails to seduce the young girl entrusted to his care for an afternoon. But his failure makes him less of a demon somehow. At seven the girl is already stronger than he and so what might have been a deeply traumatic experience ends up being a source of confidence for the girl who will now know that she need not be victimized by those who might prey on her. That episode is from my own life and my framing it in this way makes sense of the fact that my uncles’ awful behavior was no big deal for me, a fact which has always bewildered me in retrospect. So yes, in this instance there is a great deal of forgiveness involved—towards the pathetic uncle and towards the girl who refuses to be implicated or traumatized.
Deanna Piowaty: “Ambition of Sand” is such a tactile poem. Has being a poet made you a more sensual human being? Or have you always been intuitively responsive to your surroundings and this sensitivity just naturally lent itself to the language of poetry?
Peg Boyers: Hmmmm. I think I came to poetry through the senses rather than the other way around. My mother, though a strict Catholic, was deeply sensuous and she taught me that the route to the spirit—and then to its cousin, poetry—was through tactile experience. Going to the beach with her was a religious experience, requiring going into a kind of tactile overdrive as I followed her injunctions to feel my body thrill to the varieties of experience available to me as I breathed in the sea-air, felt the sand under my feet (toes, arch, heel!)—and finally felt the joy of total immersion in water, hair and all. She claimed that the sand of her native Varadero beach in Cuba was the finest (pure salt) in the world and that the sea water there was more transparent (glass!) than sea water anywhere on earth. She was deeply a-tuned to her body and to the world’s positive and wondrous impact on it. Food, the weather, every manifestation of beauty she encountered moved her to the core. I suppose “Ambition of Sand” is a kind of covert tribute to her and to that early training I received while still under her wing, though of course its overt subject has nothing to do with anything maternal, but rather with the desire to be transformed. The vocation to write poetry I think begins with a spiritual hunger and that hunger in me was awakened early through the body and the body’s desire for transcendence even as it celebrates its own joyous capacity for pleasure.
It was a beach
like all beaches, only perhaps more beautiful.
And the sand was pink not red.
We would arrive in caravans,
hampers overflowing with food and drink
like Aziz and his party on the way to Malabar.
The colonials and their servants away on an outing.
We would stop under thatch umbrellas,
towels and tablecloths spread out against the sea.
My mother in her skirted swim suit
surrounded by fathers of other children,
her olive skin lit through her straw hat.
They would laugh and drink beer
while the children did the usual beach things,
boring futile tunnels to China, running
at waves and then away,
daring each other to be swallowed.
I would go out by the forbidden rocks and pick off oysters,
then give them to the men to pry open,
cover with lime juice and suck dry.
Once, I saw my mother sucking
an oyster out of another daddy’s hand.
Her dappled face bobbed and smiled and her tongue
searched the shell for pearls.
Deanna Piowaty: Do you find yourself collecting evocative words in the same way that others might gather seashells or fill their pockets with pretty stones? Do you like to take favorite words out and rub them from time to time?
Peg Boyers: Ah, this is a question for my friend Carolyn Forché who does exactly this, and to great effect. I envy her diction! I am not a collector of anything, not even of words. Alas, no. I haven’t the temperament. Whatever I find as I troll my world for some means to express this or that issue I’m trying to explore in a poem, I spend right away and hope that tomorrow there will be other finds. Perhaps my need to speak other languages comes from this sense that I don’t have ENOUGH words, ever, for my purposes. So I switch gears and try out that other way of saying the same thing in another language and suddenly, yes, that sounds better. For a while at least. Often these foreign words, or their English cognates, find their way into the poems. So, no, I have no favorite words in my poetry box which I can take out and polish from time to time. But if I did, I probably would have put that box in a very safe place (an old habit from childhood) where I would never be likely to find it again, in case there’s a revolution again somewhere and we have to evacuate—fast!
Deanna Piowaty: You tackle such enormous themes in your writing. Has there ever been a subject that felt simply too daunting?
Peg Boyers: Well, I’m not sure my themes are more enormous than those of other poets I admire. It seems to me that the whole point of writing poems is to think about important matters—these huge, eternally significant themes—and to express one’s thoughts in a way that might communicate their importance to others. When I first started writing poems seriously in my forties I found that I didn’t know how to write about the very personal matters I needed urgently to write about first. I had to apprentice myself to a great writer, Natalia Ginzburg, and learn my craft before I could write poems that turned on issues like marriage, abortion and child molestation. Ginzburg’s sane clarity in Italian helped me find my own voice in English. With each poem in HARD BREAD I tried to employ a different form to match the subject that I was exploring. That first book was a kind of homework assignment I gave myself. After that, though, writing poems became much harder because I had to work with my own life and my own issues without the grid of Ginzburg’s life over my own. By inhabiting her life and circumstances I was able to say very personal things about my own life and circumstances. So the grid was also a veil. I miss that grid and that veil. And yes, there are certain poems that I’ve been working on for years that have not seen the light of day. Perhaps it’s because they are too hard—too daunting in subject— for me. I don’t know. But I return to them from time to time and once in a while even these recalcitrant poems yield and something is revealed.
Deanna Piowaty: What have you found to be the best way to sneak up on a topic that at first feels just too big to adequately address?
Peg Boyers: Well, as you know, there are no rules or fail-safe methods. Sometimes a poem reveals itself through place before anything else. At other times voice is what comes. Or image. Or narrative. All of these approaches have been useful to me. But as I set off to write a poem it is perhaps persona that is the most important ‘problem’ for me to ‘solve’ initially, even if the persona very closely resembles a person named Peg Boyers whose biography has much in common with my own. I need to find her in the new context and discover what makes her tick in relation to the new theme. She (or he or it) will have to find a voice and a place and a story but first the persona needs to be identified and inhabited.
Deanna Piowaty: If you could live in any place and time of your choosing…?
Peg Boyers: I’m too superstitious to venture a wish so I’ll just say that this time and place suits me fine. I always pine for Italy, especially Venice. Probably the sabbatical year my husband and I spent in Florence when our youngest son was ten was the best year of my life, but the idea of going back to that moment terrifies me. For one thing it was the time of the Gulf War; how to reconcile that fact with my memory of sheer happiness on a daily basis? So even the Paradise that was Florence in the year 1990-91 was less than perfect and I don’t dare wish myself or any other self back to that.
Deanna Piowaty: Having intimately experienced so many different cultures, what advice would you offer for breaking down barriers?
Peg Boyers: The advice I give to my students (and yes, it’s based on my own experience) is to travel and to learn as many languages as they can. They tend to feel that already it’s too late for them and it’s important for them to be told that in fact they are very young and that age 20 or so is an ideal time to set off to discover the many worlds we are so lucky to inhabit. I encourage them to get seek living arrangements with host families and internships or jobs which place them in uncomfortable proximity with the unfamiliar. The ones who follow my advice are usually happy to have done so. I try to tell the ones who have a less than wonderful foreign adventure according to my plan, that the benefits will reveal themselves later. Sometimes they even believe me.
Deanna Piowaty: If there is one topic we each would be served to write about, what would it be?
Peg Boyers: I don’t think that there exists one universal topic that we all would be served to write about. Whatever the topic, however, my experience is that all good poems share one quality, that of honesty. We need to be as honest as we know how to be as we dig and dig, trying to get to the bottom of a given episode, relationship, feeling or dynamic. Even if the facts offered are not literally true, they need to be true in spirit. It’s strange, but I always find that if I am taking some sort of emotional short-cut to tie up a poem in order to avoid getting mired in complexity, I never succeed in hoodwinking that poem into being. It just doesn’t work. The more important the poem, the truer this is. The poem resists such maneuvers. Perhaps this goes back to an earlier question you asked about some themes, some poems, just being too daunting. One tries and tries, but as Borges put it so well in “Matthew XXV:30,”
You have used up the years and they have used up you,
and still, and still, you have not written the poem.
There may not be a single topic we all might be well served to address, but there is The Poem each of us needs to write. And reaching for that poem, time and again, is what this curious enterprise of being a poet is about. It is the reach that we are all well-served by.
Poet Peg Boyers was born in San Tomé, Venezuela, but spent her childhood on the move, living in such countries as Libya, Italy, Indonesia, and Cuba. She earned her BA from Skidmore College. Her collections of poetry are Hard Bread (Phoenix Poets (Paper)) and Honey with Tobacco (Phoenix Poets). Hard Bread contains a series of poems written in the voice of Natalia Ginzburg (1916–1991), an Italian writer, editor, and mother who witnessed World War II. Boyers carefully reconstructed Ginzburg’s experiences by illuminating the historical details of her life. Steven Cramer called the narrative “a great achievement of voice” in Poetry.
A lecturer in the English Department at Skidmore College, Boyers is the executive editor of Salmagundi.