‘Playful Reading for Grownups’: An Interview with Molly Peacock

Molly Peacock picBy Ariel Gordon

Molly Peacock is a former New Yorker who currently lives in Toronto. She’s written six books of poems, a memoir, and the best-selling The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.

Alphabetique coverHer latest book, Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions (McClelland & Stewart), is an abecedarium, which is traditionally a book used to teach the alphabet. In this case, it’s also a collection of short fictions.

What do you want people to know about Alphabetique?

Alphabetique is playful reading for grownups. It’s a fun book of 26 tales, each one pretending that a letter of the alphabet is alive. Plus, every tale comes with a collage illustration by the brilliant Kara Kosaka. The stories are full of family dilemmas, whimsically solved by the shapes and personalities of the letters.

As a writer, how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

I love giving readings, but that’s because I’ve had help from a fabulous voice coach, Kristin Linklater who wrote Freeing the Natural Voice. As a child I loved reading aloud and vied to be the narrator for school theatrical performances. Now, I actually get ready for reading aloud. Practice! The minute you step in front of a microphone you are performing. You have an obligation to the people who showed up for you. When I can deliver to an audience, I also somehow restore myself. The process not only brings me back to an appreciation of what I did, but also to an appreciation for the fact that people got themselves dressed, found babysitters, put gas in their cars, and bolted their dinners in order to come and hear me. I’m grateful.

Your hybrid biography of artist Mary Delany/meditation on the creative life, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, found you writing towards an artist and her artwork. This latest project moved in the other direction, from text to artwork. Tell me about the collaboration between yourself, Kara Kosaka, and CS Richardson.

Working with Kara Kosaka was one of the richest artistic experiences I’ve ever had. AND, we’ve never met in person. After I wrote The Paper Garden, I wanted to be released into purely imaginative writing. I started to make line drawings of my tales, but my own drawing skills are, um, primitive. I started wondering about collaborating with a illustrator. Could an illustrator urge my tiny tales to a larger scope of imagination? When C.S. Richardson, the novelist who wrote The End of the Alphabet and who is also Creative Director at Penguin Random House Canada, suggested the sublimely gifted digital collage artist Kosaka, I knew that my vision (after all, the vision of an author is really the images the author works with) would be realized in a similar way to a librettist’s vision being released by a composer. Kara read the stories from the inside out, highlighting images I never would have thought to bring forward, creating a whole landscape of animals, flowers, swords, letter openers, sculptures and, best of all, subtle but jewel-like colors for each letter of the alphabet. Her work makes it the most beautiful book I’ve been privileged to publish.

BUT! This book isn’t just a collaboration of two. It’s more like a string quartet, to continue that musical image, because C.S. Richardson’s design and direction, combined with our editor Lara Hinchberger’s sense that this book is also about wordplay and grammar, created a four-way email relationship that added a crucial creative layer. Each Thursday Kara would sit with her little daughter Mae at her feet, creating a collage, emailing it at midnight Pacific time from Vancouver. Friday morning I ran to open the collage and comment on it. Over the weekend Richardson and Hinchberger would chime in. Even the subtitle of the book came from the collaborative quartet. We agonized that this book is really an abecedarian for adults (as well as for wise children) but wondered how to convey that. C.S. Richardson playfully inserted the subtitle into one of his cover designs and, voila, we had it. Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions contains all our voices.

How is a collage like and unlike a poem?

A collage is like a poem because it is associative. You can leap from one image to the next. It’s not like a poem because a poem has to unfold sequentially. One word comes after the next. But in the collage the layers are perceived simultaneously. A lyric poem works to stop time. But a collage has no time—only space.

What’s it like being a dual citizen of both the Canadian and American literary communities?

It’s a privilege to be a citizen of both communities, but I feel that my imagination is better supported in Canada. I begin all my literary projects here, where I know that people are receptive to invention. In Canada we feel that an audience will be with us, ready to go on our adventure. But in the States the audience has more of a “show me” attitude. You can’t begin slowly. You’ve got to begin with fireworks to keep their attention. In Canada you can ease into something, be curious. However, there is a self-starter quality to American literary life that I really enjoy. It’s a bouncy energy, and it’s fun. In Canada I find the literary energy more contemplative. It nurtures me in a different way. In Canada the literary community is small. It has the big pleasures and little miseries of living in a small town. In the States, there’s always another neighborhood to move to, literarily. Here, you have to get along with your neighbors.

You were the founding editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English series. Why is such a thing important for Canadians and for Canada’s writing and publishing community? 

I’m still the series editor! Founding this series has been incredibly important on two fronts. First, it gives all those Canadians who are curious about poetry, but don’t know where to begin, a great starting point. This anthology isn’t only bought by poets. Moms and uncles pick it up.  Teachers use it in classes. Savvy business people who want a great quote for a speech buy it. Second, on the literary front, Best Canadian Poetry in English has stirred interest in Canadian literary journals in print and online across the country.  It has stimulated well-known poets to return to publishing in literary magazines, because those are the sources we draw on for the anthology. Poets are proud to be in it, and we’re lucky to have Tightrope Books support it. Our new 2014 volume guest edited by Sonnet L’Abbé and co-edited by Anita Lahey comes out this month.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

By the Book: Stories and Pictures by Diane Schoemperlen. I’m writing The Rose Artist, about the fabulous, relatively unknown, Canadian still life painter Mary Hiester, the first woman to have a solo show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1922—the year after she died, alas.

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