Interview with Poet Joyce Peseroff

On June 7, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times


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Friend to Jane Kenyon, member of the Alice James Collective, author of Know Thyself, and more…

Poet and editor Joyce Peseroff grew up in the Bronx. She earned a BA at Queens College and an MFA at the University of California at Irvine, where she studied with Donald Justice. She began a lifelong friendship with poet Jane Kenyon in 1973, when Peseroff entered the University of Michigan’s Society of Fellows. In 1977, after both poets had returned to the Northeast, Peseroff and Kenyon cofounded the literary magazine Greenhouse.

Peseroff is the author of several collections of poetry, including The Hardness Scale (1977, reissued in 2000), Mortal Education (2000), Eastern Mountain Time (2006), and Know Thyself. She has served as an editor for Ploughshares and edited The Ploughshares Poetry Reader (1987), Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake (1984), and Simply Lasting: Writers on Jane Kenyon (2005).

Doug Holder with Joyce Peseroff.

Her honors include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation as well as a Pushcart Prize. Peseroff lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: You are from the Bronx. I know a lot of great writers grew up there … Cynthia Ozick comes to mind. Is there a Bronx sensibility to your writing?

Joyce Peseroff: In my first book I wrote about growing up in New York City. There is a certain awareness about growing up in New York that you never lose. You are always aware of the people around you. You are always aware of how the landscape is made up of things – made by humans. One of the things I like is tension, between the outer world and the inner world. And you see that in the city streets. It is less likely in the suburbs.

Doug Holder: You were a part of a great literary collective, Alice James Books – that was founded in Cambridge, MA in the 70s. Can you tell us about your experience with this group?

Joyce Peseroff: It was a collective with an emphasis of publishing books by women. But Ron Schrieber was one of the male founding members. But the collective was formed to fill a gap for women writers. Women, at that time, were not finding an opening with traditional publishers. Jane Kenyon’s first book was published by Alice James. Celia Gilbert had her first. Kathleen Aguero was part of the collective. It was a piece of literary history. We had an office on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge. We did it all by ourselves. We did all the production, publicity, order fulfilling, advertising, etc. All decisions were made by a consensus. About 20 years ago, Alice James moved to Maine.

Doug Holder: You were the first director of the MFA program at UMass/Boston. Tell us about this.

Joyce Peseroff: It was something that the administration asked me to do, because they knew what a wonderful job Martha Collins did with developing the undergraduate creative writing program, along with Lloyd Schwartz. So we wrote a proposal and I was the first director. I was there for four years. We had strong ideas about the kind of students we wanted to have. We were looking for diversity. We wanted people who were from Boston, have jobs and wanted to finish an MFA without going into a low residency. Most of our classes are held after 4:00 p.m. We also looked for older students. People who have been out in the world and had stories to tell. We are a small program. We only have ten students, poetry and fiction. Everybody gets to know one another.

Doug Holder: You are friends with Donald Hall and the late Jane Kenyon. In fact, you got Hall to edit an issue of Ploughshares.

Joyce Peseroff: Yes, DeWitt Henry and I asked Hall to edit an issue. I first met Hall and Kenyon on a fellowship to the University of Michigan. There were scholars from all around as part of it. Jane and Donald were there-and I met Jane through Donald. They were married then. They had an informal workshop, with Greg Orr and others. Greg, Don, Jane and I along others would share poems there. After two years I came back to Massachusetts. Jane and Don moved to New Hampshire. He bought his family farm. We kept up our friendship. I would visit there. Jane and I were editing a small press magazine, Green House, at the time. We were looking to place and feature poets with different sensibilities.

Doug Holder: In your poetry collection Know Thyself, you pair lightness with pain and darkness. It seems that you are always looking over your shoulder.

Joyce Peseroff: Yes. Maybe because I grew up in the Bronx, and I feel the world is a surprising place. I am not world-weary. This is part of the way I developed as a writer.

Doug Holder: From the poems I read, you seem to have an ongoing conversation with your late mother.

Joyce Peseroff: I’ve lost both my parents within four years. I think when I write about the deceased, in someway I am trying to keep them alive and in the conversation.

Doug Holder: Have you ever seen ghosts?

Joyce Peseroff: No. But I have had dreams, and in waking life I was heartbroken that the folks I dreamed about were no longer around. I remember thinking, “That was a dream. I am never going to see those people again.”

 

No More Water

 

God so loved the world—

but we don’t love him back,

maybe don’t even believe

our fleabitten selves deserve affection

from a flea, let alone the Lord

of Hosts. We breed

like feral cats in a landfill

that know life is garbage

in various stages of decay

and delight in the rat’s raw morsel,

sheltering beneath a ziggurat

of tires too bald for the cunning

broker of rebuilts and retreads,

our greasy world waiting for rain.

— from Know Thyself

 

 

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