Joyce Peseroff, a poet and a teacher for four decades, says she finds inspiration and intimacy in the open spaces around her home at Huckins Farm.
And that comfort has grown since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Just being able to have so much open space makes a difference,” said Peseroff, who has lived in the Dudley Road neighborhood for nine years. “It’s almost rural here. As someone who writes about the natural world, the environment has inspired me since Covid.”
Her sixth collection, Petition, was released by Carnegie Mellon University Press a few weeks ago. And there have been challenges. “I had six readings scheduled for three months and all of them were canceled.”
She has been reading at gatherings on Zoom, and that’s different. “Usually when you have an audience you can sense a response in the room. Of course, you just have silence after you read something on Zoom. On the other hand, all of my live readings are in the area, but now people from all over the country have been able to attend.”
Peseroff added that “I have a website, which I manage and which includes multimedia.” She noted that her husband, Jeff White, has a small but specific role: “When something’s finished, he reads it.”
“My work, in general, is based on everyday experience,” Peseroff related. “Most of my poems are about our common everyday life: being a parent; being a daughter; seeing family change. I write a lot of elegies. I’m very interested in the natural world, in growth, and the cycle of nature, and I see parallels between that and our human lives. I hope these are expressed in a way that connects with a contemporary reader.”
She noted that she returned early from her usual winter in Florida, “and started writing about the situation, about the virus. I took a walk every day. I hadn’t seen a New England spring in five years, so a lot that got my attention made its way into different poems, poems that wouldn’t be here if not for coronavirus, because my poems are from everyday experience.”
Peseroff traces her love for writing back to the fifth grade in the Bronx. “I was a real reader, and I decided I was going to write my own detective series, based on Nancy Drew. That didn’t go very far,” she laughed.
“But my interest in writing continued, and I really got interested in poetry when I was in college. I was an English major so I was reading. Shakespeare knocked me out and I was reading Keats and Emily Dickinson and some of the Moderns, like T.S. Eliot. I just was entranced by what they did with language, how they were able to compress so much into so little.”
“The compression of poetry is what can make it seem different to someone who hasn’t read a poem in a long time, someone not familiar with it. Every word needs to be unpacked.”
Peseroff received her undergraduate degree from Queens College, then went to graduate school across the country at the University of California, Irvine, earning a master’s in fine arts in creative writing.
She taught English and creative writing at Emerson College in Boston in the late 1980s and early ‘90s and was managing editor for the literary journal Ploughshares, later affiliated with the college. “It was the sort of place where writers would drop in and chat and talk about what was going on in the literary world. When I first joined the first issue was an international issue edited by Seamus Heaney, from Northern Ireland, one of the great poets of the century. That was really exciting.”
Her most recent position before retiring six years ago was at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where she taught for 17 years. “While I was there the university started a graduate program in creative writing, and I was the first program director and involved in creating and setting up the curriculum and working with faculty, attracting students, which was incredibly rewarding.”
Throughout her teaching career, she kept writing – “you sort of had to do that to stay on the faculty. Publication is important, and the fact that I was a poet of national reputation was one of the things that got me these jobs.” Her honors include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation as well as a Pushcart Prize.
Peseroff’s latest collection was completed before the onset of the pandemic in the United States, but “some of the themes of separation and how to heal, about things that divided us as a society, are relevant. There are poems about what separates people in all sorts of situations — cultural, personal things, separation due to death, what keeps us from being together, what makes us lonely.”
“The title poem refers to the petition to correct all the things that we have done historically and economically. It is a kind of plea – let’s try it again. Maybe this time we will get it right.”
“The process for getting books out has all been slowed down,” she continued. Her publisher has a small staff and review copies were delayed. But she noted that “all authors have to deal with those limitations. A few months ago, you couldn’t get copies period. There was a time when the whole supply chain was disrupted.”
But this, too, shall pass. “I can bear what we have to bear now,” Peseroff said, “if we know there will be an end.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763
Click this link to learn more about The Bedford Citizen’s first community reporter.