Occupying the Moment: An Interview with Alexandria Peary, New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate
By Kari Ann Ebert
A practitioner of mindfulness in all areas of her life, Alexandria Peary has first-hand knowledge of how that practice can help writers overcome writer’s block, engage with the present moment, and enjoy the process of writing. Many of her initiatives stem from what she calls her “lived practice,” and she writes, teaches, and speaks extensively, bringing help to writers who struggle. Her blog at prolificmoment.com assures its readers, “Your ability to write is always present,” and she takes a deep dive into the nature of writing and the paradoxes writers encounter when they sit down to work. One such paradox, “To communicate with others, we often have to forget about or overlook other people. In other words, to eventually communicate with others, we first communicate with ourselves,” opens the door to addressing the very essence of mindfulness. In this interview conducted through email, Alexandria discusses her initiatives as Poet Laureate, but also gives a glimpse into the path she’s traveled in strengthening her own writing and mindfulness journey. You can read poems by Alexandria Peary here.
Broadkill Review: You were appointed as New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate in October 2019, and during your four-year tenure, you are charged with the task to “heighten the visibility and value of poetry in the state.” Can you talk about your vision and initiatives that will bring this task to fruition? What have you already seen blossom in the poetry community of New Hampshire?
Alexandria Peary: Currently, my main initiatives as state poet laureate focus on offering mindful writing workshops to survivors of New Hampshire’s opioid crisis and the establishment of a North Country Young Writers’ Festival for students in the more geographically isolated northern tier of the state. (If you look at a map of New Hampshire, it’s tall and craggy, with population density in the south, closer to the more urban Massassachusetts.)
When I accepted the poet laureate position, I realized I could draw a nearly straight east-west line from northern New Hampshire to central Maine where I spent my childhood and started writing poetry. As a teenager, I had slim opportunities to explore my burgeoning curiosity about creative writing, and any encounters with poets, literary magazines, or other young writers left an indelible impact. So I wanted to give creative opportunity to the North Country, as opposed to the areas within easy driving distance from my house. I’m deeply grateful for the support I’ve received for these initiatives: a 2020 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship, a Tillotson Grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and a grant from the New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative.
Aside from those two macro projects, my intent is to serve the writers in my state at every stage of their writing experience, from prewriting to publishing. I’ve co-facilitated adult online Submit-a-thons and a teen online Submit-a-thon (Jodi Picoult, Ira Sadoff, and Tom C. Hunley were recent cameo appearances); organized an anthology for residents and a series of online readings (COVID Spring: Granite State Pandemic Poems), with a sequel (sadly the pandemic continues) this April 2021, as a way to honor National Poetry Month. Because my academic specialty-passion is mindful writing theory and pedagogy, I also offer online workshops to residents on mindful writing to overcome writing blocks.
Online, of course, is the optimal word. All of us are sitting inside our green screen parentheses. I do think that the online environment has helped poetry and writers flourish in this state over the past year. Pre-pandemic, the driving distance between Littleton and Nashua, say, would have been prohibitive for attending readings and other events. I’ve noticed this year that virtual events are attended by writers and readers all across the state. We’re a much closer community, ironically, than we were during less socially restricted times of folding chairs and wine in paper cups. The people at Zoom deserve the Nobel Prize! I can’t fathom how driven into the margins of isolation we’d all be feeling if this pandemic happened during the 1980s, say, pre-internet.
BKR: In the The Nervous Breakdown Self-Interview (2014) you speak about what it's like to hold two seemingly disparate degrees: Composition-Rhetoric and Creative Writing. You say, “I also ricochet between creative and scholarly work.” How do you see this playing out in the projects you choose to breathe into being, both as a teacher and a writer? What’s the balancing act and how does that manifest itself?
AP: That ricocheting has changed since that interview largely because my work in mindful writing bridges the two fields. Increasingly, I’ve been offering mindful writing presentations and workshops to the public and to creative writing communities. I’ve done scholarly work in mindful writing (including my book Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing), but because mindful writing is a lived practice for me, one I use every morning at the desk, it’s more of a walking-across-a-footbridge kind of thing rather than mentally bungee jumping. I just completed a commissioned article on mantra as a mindful writing technique for New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, which the editor, Graeme Harper, will be reprinting in a book.
The nature of my professorial employment has also shifted since I stepped down from First-Year Writing Director, a position I’d held directing the composition-rhetoric program for eighteen years, at two different institutions. These days, I’m teaching creative writing courses and undergraduate and graduate courses in mindful writing at Salem State University.
BKR: You’ve talked about a period of severe writer’s block you experienced in your writing life, describing it as “a 5-year painful block.” You discuss how it ended once you found the practice of mindfulness, but how did it begin? What was it like? What other strategies did you try before you found mindfulness? How has that propelled your teaching and your own creative process?
AP: My writing block began during my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was in my early twenties and struggling to make ends meet, working several parttime jobs, including an early morning shift as a wheelchair attendant and another unthawing pastries at the university bakery. That was my first year; during my second year, I received a graduate assistantship through the International Writing Program, an experience that permanently glued my curiosity about writers from outside the States. Iowa was a highly competitive bile-at-the-back-of-the-throat environment where it seemed to me that students sometimes scurried for favor and attention—gifted writers, I might add, my fellow students. I think my working class background left me feeling a bit of an outcast. As a defense mechanism, I strove for self-negating perfectionism (my “Martha Graham” phase), which lasted throughout my twenties and early thirties, where I’d work for nine months straight on a single poem, often getting up at 4 AM (occasionally earlier) before a job, subsisting on oatmeal and black coffee. I wasn’t very kind to myself. My strategies? Self-abnegation. Isolation. Starvation (literally and metaphorically).
Several years later, the severely premature birth of my first daughter (eleven weeks early) in combination with mindfulness saved my writing life. My husband and I had to leave Sophia at a neonatal unit in Boston; we were separated from our daughter by 60 miles for a month, followed by another three weeks when she was transferred to a closer hospital in New Hampshire. I’d sit at the desk each morning and allow myself to occupy the moment; it was my way to process the grief. My afternoons were spent driving to Boston.
What happened was that I no longer wrote for external audiences; writing became purely my relationship with myself in real-time. And I started to write and write. Poems from that time are included in my first book, Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers. I have never considered those poems my stronger pieces, but what was far more important to me was that I permitted myself to enclose imperfection in the amber of publication. So those new mother/premature baby poems appear alongside “Martha-Graham-Knees-on-the-Studio-Floor” poems like “Egyptian Tomb of Emily Dickinson” or “The Word.”
Mindfulness has propelled nearly everything I do as a writer and a teacher. It’s part of my introduction to creative writing courses, and it’s part of my graduate courses (this semester, a course in nonfiction and fiction narrative). I would not be as joyful a writer or a teacher sans mindfulness. I am deeply grateful to the writing moment.
BKR: Jaswinder Bolina says your most recent poetry collection, The Water Draft (2019, Spuyten Duyvil), “plucks experimentalism out of the dull classrooms of postmodern theory and takes it joyriding through madhouse America. Half surrealist romp, half anti-art, half taxonomy of our bizarro nation, these poems are wholly a love song to irreverence.” Can you talk about how you approached writing and assembling this collection? How do you achieve work that weaves classical allusions, wildly diverse associative leaps, and metalanguage in a way that reads irreverent, but also feels reverent at the same time?
AP: I guess this comes from my mindfulness perspective. I try to not evaluate or label whatever arises in the mind, not even by genre. I’m interested in engaging the mental formation (metalanguage, contemporary reference, etc.) wave by wave. Maybe the reverence (thank you for saying so) comes from the fact that I’m perceiving emerging material with detachment.
BKR: Ellen Bass, in an interview appearing in Adroit Journal, says, “And what I try to be alert to––that moment when the poem starts to veer toward something I didn’t anticipate, didn’t know before I started writing. Many times the poem doesn’t open up or I’m too dense to hear what it might be offering me. But sometimes I’m able to catch it.” Can you speak to your own experience with this phenomenon?
AP: That’s a lovely quote from Ellen Bass. From a mindfulness perspective, writing poetry (or any genre) is a matter of listening; the first language that arises is always—always—intrapersonal, meaning language spoken by and to the self. We tend to overlook that in our school-based training to “consider our audiences.” As a result we invite readers, those fictional creatures from the future, to sit at the edges of our desks as we write, evaluating work that we’re only now typing or thinking. I call them “reader ghosts” or “audience demons” in my 2019 TEDx talk, “How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Write.”
Actually, audience ghosts are a construct of that intrapersonal talk: we talk our reader demons into being, we evoke them. Audience ghosts are a common example of intrapersonal talk that could be better directed to more self-compassionate, generative means. I try to not interfere with what arises, to not impose my mindlessness on it, to not block what the poem wants with my mental formations about the future or past.
Also from a mindful writing perspective, form and formlessness are interwoven, which means that writing and non-writing are not detachable states. What this means is that I try to rest comfortably with moments of resistance when a piece seems to be avoiding my conscious gaze by slipping into the non-verbal. A day at the desk with a high word count is as meaningful to me as a day at the desk with a low or no word count: at least, that’s my intent.
BKR: Poets often ask each other, “Who are you writing for?” Perhaps this is a way to define their focus or direction, or perhaps it’s a way to allay the anxiety associated with what a reader might think of their work. Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you write? Do you find this question constructive to writers?
As you can probably tell from my answer about audience ghosts, I don’t think about an ideal audience, though if I did fashion an ideal audience, it would be as a sort of imaginary friend, a composite of the writers I most admire (Emily Dickinson, Italo Calvino, George Saunders, Laura Mullen, Susan Orlean, Martha Ronk, Clarice Lispector).
BKR: Along those same lines, in an article called “What does Mindfulness Offer Teachers?” on the National Council of Teachers of English website, you discuss the self-sabotaging tendency of writers who try to “appease” their “audience demons” or “imaginary readers-in-the-head” while writing. How is this different from knowing your audience? How can writers distinguish the difference?
AP: Our audience exists in a future moment; our audience does not exist during the present moment in which we write. As Shunryu Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In your mind, you create an idea of place separate from an actual time.” If we’re intent upon figuring out our “audience” as we write, we abandon the sanctity of our actual moment for a chimerical future.
You can’t ever know your audience, not in any literal sense. Whatever you think you know about your audience is a best guess. Our evoked reader is a composite being, a patchwork of previous encounters with likely several smudged and overlapping people. Very few of us writers will share the same moment as our readers when they encounter our work. We need to make far better use of that time-space difference if we want a prolific, calm, self-compassionate writing life. Otherwise, the back wall of our writing moment might be a mural of our doubts and worries.
BKR: In Peter Biello’s interview with you on New Hampshire Public Radio, you discuss your initiative called “I’ll be your reader” where poets email you their poems to read. You respond, but not in an evaluative way. You don’t offer critique, but rather simply extend your thanks for the joy of having read the piece. Why do you feel this is an important initiative? Do you feel writing has become highly transactional in nature? If so, how can artists in any genre encourage pure enjoyment of art?
AP: I’ve moved on from the “I’ll Be Your Reader” initiative. It was helpful to make initial contact with my community. I do believe in my heart of hearts that everyone who writes anything—casually, professionally—needs evaluation-free experiences of sharing their work. From the get-go, we’ve been trained by school settings (where the majority of people do their writing during their lives or at least that’s where their earliest ideas about writing are gelled) to write for teachers, with deleterious effects. Everyone can benefit from detaching from that cycle of writing/getting graded or writing/getting critiqued.
BKR: “One moment you’re a grade school girl putting a unicorn sticker on the cover of a notebook containing your very first poem. The next you’re leaning over a MFA application, and then you’re middle-aged on a Sunday morning, glancing over at the small family of journal and book bindings of your published works on a nearby shelf.” Your essay in Guernica addresses women’s literary ambition and the experience of being rejected or “declined” so often in their careers. Can you talk a little bit about the bigger picture you’re discussing here?
AP: If I had to put a pin in one of my main regrets so far in life, it’s putting up with mansplaning and mansplaying from male artists and male professionals. I can’t tell you how many times (and I’m absolutely sure I’m not alone) I’ve been told first-hand or secondhand that some male writer/artist or another thinks I’m “too ambitious” or “a phony” or “delusional” (i.e. the fellow MFA student who told people I was crazy to think I’d find a teaching job after the program). It’s something I recently described in my essay published in Diode, “Still Life—Writing Room, 2011-2019.” Take up more leg and page space, fellow women writers. Womansplay across those journal and book pages.
BKR: One of your passio