Megan Peak, author Girldom (Perugia Press) and contributor to Issue Sixteen.

Megan Peak received her M.F.A. in Poetry from The Ohio State University, where she was former Poetry Editor aThe Journal.  Her first book of poetry, Girldom, won the 2018 Perugia Press Prize and was published in Fall 2018. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas with her son.

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Holly Mason: Congratulations on receiving the Perugia Press Prize! How did you respond when you heard the news?

Megan Peak: Thank you so much, Holly! Well, of course I was shocked and incredibly excited, but really what made the news most memorable was that I had just stepped away from my son in the NICU, who was born over 3 months early at 1 lb. 10 oz., to take the call from Becky at Perugia Press. Talk about highs and lows. It was surreal to hear my book had been chosen at this time in my life when I felt so far away from poetry. I am forever grateful for that call and for how it slowly pushed me back to the pages of Girldom and to newer works.

HM: Approximately how long did it take you from start to finish to write the poems and put together Girldom? And what within that time kept you writing?

MP: I would say it took about five years total. I spent the three years in my M.F.A. program working on these poems, my thesis, and then about two more years refining the book’s order, playing with the narrative arcs, adding new pieces and removing ones that didn’t fit anymore.

What kept me writing? I suppose the world did; it has never ceased to catapult me through both wonderful and terrifying experiences that, for me, are best processed on the page.

HM: What was the process like for choosing the Girldom cover image? And what are your own meditations on that image?

MP: That’s a great question. I was lucky enough to collaborate with a former partner on this image, which was such a unique process and is now quite bittersweet when looking at the cover. To work with another artist is such a privilege, especially when you get to watch them translate your work into something else. We read the book in its entirety together, and then she went through and marked the poems or images that “spoke” to her. She began drafting and sketching then moved into the digital realm, where she pretty quickly came up with the book’s cover as it looks now.

To me, the cover image is both provocative and delicate, which I suppose in a way encompasses a major thematic juxtaposition throughout the book. There’s this female body—bared, not entirely there, head exploding with stereotypically gendered colors, her frame surrounded by darkness—that exhibits a kind of violence present in the book. And then there’s the pale pink, the faint blue, the soft edges of the body, the way it glows against the black backdrop that speaks to the tenderness that can also be found within the poems. It’s a beautiful and smart image, and I’m lucky to have it as my cover.

HM: In “Self-Portrait As Stinging Nettle,” image carries and holds meaning, and this seems to happen in other poems throughout the collection. I am wondering if you would be interested in talking about the way poetry allows for this mode of communicating?

MP: When I was growing up, my favorite books were the ones that engaged all my senses, that allowed me to close my eyes and exist in the worlds the writers created on the page. I could chant with the witches in Macbeth; I could explore the moorlands with Catherine and Heathcliff; I could discover color and smell, pain and pleasure, along with Jonas in The Giver.

Imagery is crucial in my poems. I want my readers to be able to experience something when reading, and to be able to craft a poem that is grounded in an image, that walks toward, through, and / or away from an image has always interested me. I think poetry absolutely allows, requires even, the image as a mode of communication, translation, and reflection. The white space on the page, the opportunity for friction in line breaks, the precision of language—all of this within poetry urges us to communicate through vivid imagery.

In Girldom, I like to think of imagery as a kind of prism. There are images repeated throughout—the ice and snow, the wasp, the river, the girl—and I wanted the images to evolve as the book progressed. I wanted the reader to notice the stinging insects, the iced-over river, the girl turned woman, and I wanted them to see if and how these images changed from poem to poem, how that in and of itself is a way to communicate transformation, experience, and redemption.

HM: There is a pairing between tenderness and pain throughout the book that is quite compelling. For instance, the last stanza in “Wasp & Nettle”:

Here where I finally realize the sting
surrounded by all that is soft, the thistle
among all this tenderness, the sweet
wind passing through like an arrow.

I once read a Pema Chödrön quote that talks about “the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself,” and it really stuck with me when I needed it. Is there anything you can speak to about this pairing in the book?

MP: What a fantastic quote! Well, the book handles quite a bit of trauma—the turmoil of growing up, the violence of assault and its aftermath, the ache in being a girl, a woman, queer, different. This book, though, also attempts to find beauty and mercy in the world. I hope this collection allows readers to experience a world where both pain and tenderness exist, a world that may be marred by violence but a world also threaded through with gentle and tender moments. I hope the poems in Girldom remind readers that there is something so delicate and necessary about self-care, preservation, and awareness to these moments.

HM: In Girldom, there is something very striking (and relatable) about the image of the young girl (the coming-of-age girl) as an observer. The book seems to hold meaningful commentary about what one learns and doesn’t learn and the varied modes of learning/instruction within the coming-of-age process. I don’t know if I’ve read another book of poetry, specifically, that seems to arc in this way. This makes me curious about two different questions. (a) Are there any coming-of-age pieces that spoke or still speak to you deeply? (b) And what wishes do you have for your own child in their coming-of-age process (a lofty question, I know).

MP: I love that you call the girl(s) “observers” since the book plays with experience and agency and where on the spectrum girls fall in regards to observance, experience, and how much say that had in said experiences.

One “coming-of-age” poem that I still return again and again is “Young” by Anne Sexton. I adore everything about it—how it glides through itself in one long sentence much how adolescence felt to me: just one long summer of wasps and stars and budding things like bodies and desire, pleasure and pain. I love the prickle of language in the poem, the innocence of the girl but also the way Sexton seems to imply a shift in that innocence toward the end of the poem.

As for my own child, that is such a timely question since I gave birth to my son earlier last year. As a mother, I think really what we all want is for our kids to be happy. As for growing up, I hope he will continue to see the world with as much awe and wonder and curiosity he does now for as long as possible.

HM: This is another perhaps hefty or possibly trite question. How do you make decisions about form? Some poems in this collection exist in tercets, others couplets, others a single solid stanza.

MP: You know, form has never been a huge part of my poem-making process. A lot of times, it has to do with line breaks or how the poem actually looks on the page. Sometimes it has to do with musicality and pacing—one long stanza might leave one feeling a little more breathless than, say, a poem existing in couplets or tercets.

HM: I found the sounds and phrasing of so many lines to be remarkably stunning. For example, these lines in “Riddance:”: “This act of clearing—quarry in my chest tidied,/ swept bare of stones.” Or the sounds in “Origin”: “Tell me the world isn’t still// balanced on rib bones.” And often what stunned me was the accompanied image of the natural world intertwined intimately with human nature and the human body. Within your composition process do you begin with sound or image first or do they come simultaneously? Also, can you speak to your interest in the mixing of nature and human nature in the book?

MP: Image almost always comes to me first and then the music. I have no idea what that says about me as a writer or human being, but I tend to see something, whether real or imagined, and then use language and lyricism to breathe life into it.

As for nature and human nature, it’s an age-old affair, no? It seems we are always battling one another, trying to overpower one another. We are always trying to coexist, find some sort of harmony, and that has always interested me. So much of both human nature and nature nature deals with that duality of pain and tenderness; there really is so much we have in common with the natural world if we took the time to look and listen.

HM: Who are some of the poets, writers, humans, and/or artists that you admire?

MP: There are so many writers and poets to admire, and my list is always growing. A few that come to mind immediately are Kathy Fagan Grandinetti, Raena Shirali, Kate Gaskin, Maggie Smith, Ada Limón, Paige Quiñones, Louise Glück, and Diane Seuss.

HM: Lastly, what reading recommendations do you have? Or what books do you love and feel super attached to/smitten with?

MP: I’m constantly returning to C.D. Wright’s “Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil,” since it never ceases to reignite my love for language. Everything by Aracelis Girmay and Kiki Petrosino blows me away. There’s just not enough time in the day to read everything on my shelves right now!

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Holly Mason
Holly Mason

Holly Mason received her MFA in Poetry from George Mason University, where she taught undergraduate English courses and served as the blog editor for So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art. Her poems have appeared in Rabbit Catastrophe Review, Outlook Springs, The Northern Virginia Review, Bourgeon, and Foothill Poetry Journal. She received a Bethesda Urban Partnership Poetry prize, selected by E. Ethelbert Miller. She has been a reader and panelist for OutWrite (A Celebration of LGBT Literature) in D.C. She currently lives and teaches in Northern Virginia.

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