The Bookshelf: N.H. Poet Laureate Will Be Your Reader

Jan 17, 2020

New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alexandria Peary.
Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

Alexandria Peary is New Hampshire’s new poet laureate, and she’s ramping up her work as the state’s official advocate for poetry and the literary arts more broadly. As part of her work as poet laureate, she’s been reading work sent to her by New Hampshire poets.

 

NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with Peary about this effort and about her new collection of poetry, The Water Draft.

 

Read Alexandria Peary's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in poetry. "The Idea of Order at Key West" has to be one of the best poems in English, point blank.

2. Laura Mullen's The Tales of Horror. I recommend anything by Laura Mullen, one of the most important contemporary American women poets writing today. This book is fun and dynamic.

3. Charles Simic, New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012. A book by a master of imagery, an addictive read.

4. Calvino, Invisible Cities. Calvino's prose poetry (though genre-wise this book has also been classified as fiction) is an exemplar of imaginative possibility. My pulse literally races whenever I see this book cover, and I want to write, want to write, want to write.

5. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing. This manifesto on creativity is so important for embracing language in the digital era, for dwelling in 20th century possibility.

Editor's note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

As poet laureate, one of your initiatives has been to read work that's been sent to you. So tell us what you're asking people to do.

Oh, I have to say, this has been an absolute pleasure. It's called "I'll Be Your Reader" and information is available on my blog. And every Thursday, the first person, the first poem I find in my email box, I promise I'll read and I do read with pleasure. And later in the day, sometimes quite late in the day based on my schedule, I then email the person back and just say, thank you for letting me read your poem. I read it with pleasure. And the philosophy behind it is that a lot of writers are a little lonely and isolated or sometimes delay obtaining a reader because of maybe a little anxiety about showing their work and whatnot. And this circumstance I think works because they know they've been read by somebody who loves poetry, a person who also loves poetry. But this person is not going to evaluate or judge in any way. In these e-mails I don't say anything that's evaluative, positive or negative. I just simply have read with pleasure. And they know that they've had the attention of somebody reading their poem. And I have, I'm going to say a little secret here, I get a lot of these poems and I actually don't just read one. Sometimes I've been reading a few people on Thursdays and writing back to them and they are truly great. It's been a real pleasure.

So you're saying you don't provide feedback, but would you if people asked for it? If people are saying give me your critical response here, how can I make this better?

Not in this circumstance. Another circumstance, sure. Another context, because I am trying to create a space that's non-evaluative. So not good. Not bad. Nothing. No commentary. Just simply knowing that you have had somebody's ears, and their mind, and that they enjoyed your work without any judgment. I think it's really important from a writer's block or fluency or even a mindfulness approach. Just simply let us have writing happen without good, bad evaluation.

That's something that you've been focused on more generally, even before your time as poet laureate. Mindfulness. Why is that important?

To me personally or people you think in general?

To you personally, when it comes to your writing life, what is the relationship between mindfulness and writing in your view?

In my own writing life, I think mindfulness is everything to my writing life. I had a horrible writer's block for many years after graduate school and it really only ended because of mindfulness. And I don't have one now and writing is a consistent joy in my life.

Let's talk a little bit about your most recent collection, The Water Draft. In many of these poems, you seem to reflect at least a little bit on poems themselves, the space within a poem, what emotions it can contain, the emotional space it can create. What are you driving at when it comes to those poems in particular?

Actually, it connects to mindfulness because the referencing of language or poetry in a poem I think connects to being aware of the act of reading and the act of creating. A lot of my poems in the book that we're talking about, for instance, the poem "The Writer's Desk" and a couple others in there, are actually about the physical environment, the circumstances of writing. We tend to overlook the present moment of writing in thinking about a future audience or readers or whatnot, or content and meta-language or referencing language inside a poem draws attention. It's almost like Bertolt Brecht had actors wear gunky makeup on their cheeks to highlight the fact that you're looking at actors on the stage. I want people to be aware that they're reading and not in a self-conscious way, but rather it increases the present moment.

You've given us a list of your top five reading recommendations. On this list were the selected poems of Charles Simic and you called them an addictive read. Why? Why are they addictive?

Oh, there are some writers as a writer you have to be really careful of because, you know, your syntax, your way of writing all of a sudden will seem like that writer. And he is one of those writers for me for sure. He is so distinctive. And what he's doing artistically that... And his poems, the way in which he handles imagery and lot of the European references also interest me too. I just want... it's like candy. You want to unwrap it, want to eat it. And you keep going. And they're fairly short poems generally, too. So there's just something really appealing about his work on almost a visceral level for me.

Well, before we let you go, Alexandria Peary, I want to ask you what we might be able to expect from you as poet laureate. You're still relatively new in the job. What's to come?

Well, right now, I am hoping that... I have two initiatives I'm really hoping will come to fruition, I'm looking for funding for, and partners with. One is a youth writer's conference for Coos County students. I want to have a conference that is physically located up north, and that younger students in the state from the south can also join us, but that it's actually centered, central location, Coos County. So that's one thing I'm working on.

Why Coos County?

Oh, gosh. Why? First off, when I looked at the map of New Hampshire, once I became laureate, I went out and got a big map and it's nailed to my study wall behind my desk. So it's right behind me. Right. When I look at it, and I look at the state of Maine right next to it... I grew up in Maine. I realized that if you drew a line pretty much from that area east, you would hit where I grew up in Maine. And I did not... I was lucky to have the opportunities. I didn't have many opportunities for writing. Whatever was given to me it was a real blessing. I didn't realize it at the time. And I really want to help younger people who are... I want to give back. I want to help younger people who maybe are not getting the same opportunities as other populations in the state. Right. 

So that's one big initiative. And the second big initiative is I really want to work on writing to help survivors of the opioid epidemic, whether they're children or first responders, police, EMT, you know, EMS, people who respond to the opioid crisis to help use writing, mindful writing and poetry to process trauma.

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