Alexandria Peary: NH Poet Laureate, Mindfulness, and the Monkey Mind
As New Hampshire Poet Laureate, Alexandria Peary “serves as an ambassador for all poets in New Hampshire and works to heighten the visibility and value of poetry in the state.” I contend she is perfect for the role. Let’s start with, she is funny. I found this as I read her latest book, Battle of Silicon Valley at Daybreak. Her creative mind gives us a poem where emojis are at war and are battling. It is creative and sweeps the reader up into the story of their lives. Fun.
Alexandria is a professor at Salem State University, teaching courses in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and mindful writing. She shares with us how she helps undergraduate students grasp how we are intermeshed and how to be comfortable with ourselves and stay in the present moment. Check out her TEDx talk, How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Write, on YouTube for a deeper look at the concept.
Frankly, you don’t make money writing and publishing poetry. You do it because you need, love, want, and have to write it. The state chose well when they picked Alexandria for the honored position of poet laureate.
Don’t be afraid. She makes poetry approachable. “Be patient with yourself,” as she urges us to read poetry. I find poetry is a search for those lines you find that you can’t live without. Give her poetry a read. You may find a gem of a line you, too, can’t live without.
I want to start with what poetry is to you.
“Poetry is the language of the internal mind. We think in fragments, and it’s connected to a greater whole. It’s fleeting, a briefer reading experience than prose. For some, it’s almost a form of religion.”
You are the poet laureate for New Hampshire. Would you tell us what that means?
“It's a tremendous opportunity. I think of it as in academia there's something called service-learning, which is when students go out, and they do work in the world, community work. I, just as a professor, find academia to be sometimes so rarefied and disconnected from people that, for me, it's extremely gratifying. As a mindful writing expert, I'm always out there in the community doing things all the time for people and their writing. In this capacity, you can just bring that skill set to the community and leave the classroom. My dissertation is on leaving the classroom. As a first-generation college grad, I feel I want to do stuff that has nothing to do with academia."
"What I've been doing for whatever reason, I just want to support other people's writing because my father didn't have a chance to have a college education. My mother certainly didn't even graduate from high school."
Where are you from?
"Maine, but my mother is German, and my father was American. It pained me to see people who couldn't have confidence in their self-expression, as in my mother's case, to express or get an education to express artistically. She was a painter. I'm in love with writing. I'm in love with my writing. I'm in love with your writing. The reason why is that I just feel it's such an important component of life. One doesn't need to be a poet professionally, just writing and the ability to have that confidence and not carry around that stone backpack of doubt and wishing to write all your life. As the poet laureate, I'm all about the whole thing, from writer's block to helping people start giving them opportunities to publish and have a public presentation for their work. I'm going to miss this part. I love the community service aspect."
It's a great position in the state that is so recognized. I'm thrilled for you.
"I think New Hampshire residents are extremely blessed for a state with a low population. There is so much going on in the state in terms of writing opportunities, groups, and networks. During the pandemic, all the opportunities just blossomed. Zoom is a blessing. We've been able to do things with the North country without driving five or six hours. Truly in this state, we need a great index someplace with all the different things people can sign up for because this state is blessed."
How do we pull all of that together? I would like to have that on the NH Writers' Project website.
"That would be a good idea by getting in touch with people and having some email chain or Twitter feed. Have a hashtag. Get people like me, and I would reach out to two other people. There's the arts council. A lot of people would know there's so much going on. I can think of four or five things to get involved with creative writing."
I listened to Krista Tippett, The On Being Project, and a poet on there said, "a poet trains us to hear what we haven't heard before." How should a person listen to a poem?
"I'd be very patient with yourself. Poems are not straightforward prose. It's always like the language behind the language, sort of indirect or at a slant language. It's almost like hearing someone speaking English, but it's not quite English. I tell my students to trust their instincts. We're trained to think we're not good enough as readers or writers of poetry. I always tell my students they should use their gut. What's your emotional, physical, embodied reaction to what we're about to read? What does it remind you outside of the classroom? Listen to the responses. What I do when I listen to a poem, especially if I'm hearing it read, I don't see it on the page. I ask myself afterward what lingers, what persists, what might I remember twenty minutes from now in my busy life if I thought about this poem. What's the kernel? Most of all, trust your reactions and responses."
As you say that, I thought of one of your poems. The poem, Sonnet Branches, reads: The forearm of spring rests on the windowsill to the kitchen where I'm boiling opera for pasta." You're boiling opera for pasta? What is the meaning of that?
"The gesture behind it, I'm interested in the blended of the senses, synesthesia. You don't boil opera. It's sort of like Miles Davis hearing the color blue. I'm interested in synesthesia because I often think in life, we just relegate experiences to these categories. There's much more we know without realizing we know. That line comes from a Japanese writer named Haruki Murakami. He has a character at the beginning of a novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where the character is making pasta and listening to opera when a woman calls him he doesn't know off the cuff. I know I was thinking of Murakami and the mysteriousness that happened after that phone call. It's synesthesia."
I was listening to On Being about poems and God. How do poems relate to God or religion to you?
"I'm not Christian. I'm a mindful practitioner; it's more my present. I guess if I had to say if I worshipped anything, it's the unconscious. I feel that's more appropriate. I feel there's this much bigger force all around us."
Is that an inner voice you're listening to?
"It's also preverbal and nonverbal. It's a lot of stuff sensed that's not language. It can be a voice. I think this comes from a Buddhist perspective where everything is intertwined. There's this big thing out there, this in you and me but we're all interconnected. It's very intertextual, and everybody is intermeshed."
"I teach a mindfulness class at Salem State University in Massachusetts, undergrads. We had this day in the semester trying to get this difficult concept of the interbeing of Thich Nhat Hanh. He died this winter. He was a Vietnamese monk. It's so hard to get them to do this interbeing and how they should get comfortable with verbal emptiness. Here they're in a writing class with a professor saying you got to get comfortable with the nonverbal and not being able to write and pausing and all the silences. How do you teach that to a bunch of twenty-year-olds? I said we're all sitting in our seats right now. Let's just think about our clothing, the gasoline we use today, the food in our bodies, everything going on right now. What of all that, did we originate? Did I originate the gasoline? How long would it take me to make a car? The pen you're holding. Think about all of the hundreds of people who are behind that laptop in front of you or your sneakers, the food in your belly, the coffee on your breath. In point of fact, we're all intermeshed. It's the same thing with writing a language, it’s a consciousness too. So, I think that's my version of God."
I don't think of God when I read poetry. I love the language as it says something to me. It takes me somewhere. What words are important to you?
"Present moment. I love the phrase from E.M. Forster, the novelist. He said, "only connect. I think that's so important. My mantra is your ability to write is always present. That idea of the present moment."
Are you saying don't doubt yourself?
"I'm saying notice that you're doubting. Notice that you're feeling uncomfortable doubting. Just see it as a fire in front of you. You don't reject it. It's, oh, so I'm doubting myself right this moment. Just sit with it, and then everything goes away, and everything changes. I say to my students; you're never anything permanently. You're never a bad writer or a good writer. If you wait long enough, everything changes. To be plainly spoken, I do with people would doubt themselves less as writers and readers. I want to promote people's relationship with their language."
Should poetry be read aloud or silent?
"It depends. I know that for me, interacting with poetry it's silently. Some people do a better job of listening to the sonic like the qualities of sound."
What is your style of writing?
"I think people call me post-modern. But I frankly don't even know what that means. Maybe, I guess. I just think lively. I think engaged in the world. The last book, The Battle of Silicon Valley at Daybreak, is about now. It's got a lot of politics and social media. I'm happy I reflect on the world and see these things. I like to include tangible, concrete things in my poetry. Some humor. I try to be funny."
Who is your favorite poet?
"If I had to say one person, Emily Dickinson is my favorite."
I have pictures of her poems on my bedroom wall, along with Mary Oliver.
"I'll give my students a Dickinson poem and say, look at it, and I won't tell them who it's by. Most of them don't know who it is. Afterward, they're blown away because she is one of the most sadomasochistic brutal writers you'll ever encounter. She's not these little flowers and pansies. This woman is up to something. If I randomly go into a book to see where it takes you, bibliomancy, any Dickinson poem I pick up, I'm just typically blown away by something. She's great."
Rhyme or no rhyme?
"I've never been a traditional poet, but I did teach a craft of traditional forms class last semester. I told my students it's not my cup of tea, and I've been told I have a tin ear. I'm going to learn with you. They were very patient. At the end of the semester, I told the students why should there be a final on this class. There is a national college contest in formal poetry with a $500 first prize and no entry fee. Instead of doing a final, let's all get our poems together on the last day of class; you can enter or not. About two months later, I got a text from a student reading I'm honorable mention. Next text message, two honorable mentions. The next one reads I'm first place! Here's a student where I had to teach myself the stuff, and I was honest with them. One of them won the first place in the national contest."
Another poem I pulled was Counterfeit Clarice Last Lispector. "Pear choker on a possum, suit jacket on a raccoon. A skunk, a lynx, two tubby foxes moonlighting as twin nephews or as young men dated our daughters." Please tell us about this poem.
"A couple of the poems in that book reference Christ and the Last Supper. That one, Clarice Lispector, was a Brazilian fiction writer. She wrote one of the most amazing short stories called The Sharing of Loaves. It just blows me away. It's about people going to this lunch that they don't want to be at somebody's house. The speaker is just so bitter. It's seeping with why do I have to do this type of attitude. Then the host is biblical, really last supper-ish. It's like she's Christ. She comes out with this food, and the way in which the food is described is not normal food. The grapes are sadomasochists. The fish is described in a weird way. It's all kind of odd. By the end, the writer's redeemed. The last paragraph is about just realizing she didn't feel good enough to be there. But she is good enough. That piece I'm spoofing off of the Clarice Lispector short story. It's sort of about ingratitude."
Tell me about the cover of Battle of Silicon Valley at Daybreak. Who is on it and why did you choose it?
"The poem got accepted in an online magazine. I wondered if it got published because I never got notified, so I search Battle of Silicon Valley at Daybreak, and up pops this image. It was by a grad student. I wrote to her, Jennifer Shon Hill, I said coincidentally I've got this poem. I asked her if I could use the image for a cover. You've got Jeff Bezos and the other usual suspects. Jack Dorsey is one of them. The artist's name is Jennifer Shon Hill."
The cover makes the book.
"When I saw that somebody else had done a visual version with the same title, hers is Battle of Silicon Valley, and mine has at Daybreak. I think I was referencing a painting of George Washington. I had to have it. I reached out to her."
Wow, that is kismet.
What started the poem? Please describe it.
"It's a long poem. It's got stanzas that I tend to strum like a guitar. It's got certain repetitions. Mostly it is somebody looking at a mural in a cafeteria at a company, but this mural is odd. It's a battle scene; however, all the soldiers are emojis. They are fighting for net neutrality against internet regulation. There are a lot of references to languages used in different classical battle texts, Iliad, Homer. There are soldiers at one point from different periods, including the Revolutionary War. In one of the stanzas, there's a little scene in which a goddess falls in love with one of the emojis who works in a cubicle in Silicon Valley. She gets pregnant. It's got attributes of Hollywood and also Greco-Roman. It's a fun poem. Ultimately, when I published it, somebody from the magazine asked me to write a description of what's going on. Lots of lists. Lots of emojis and details. It's also talking about a person like me who never served in the military. I'm somebody who can read a book about the Vietnam War but have not had any personal service. These emoji are the ones who are sent to battle, and they die."
"That might be more of a fun side to it. We were in Italy, and I saw a wrap-around mural of a battle, and I saw in my mind's eyes, instead of men's faces, I saw thousands of smiley faces and whatnot."
I love the line, "Outfitted in a list supplied by Wikipedia (breastplates, gauntlets, steel collars, mail shirts."
"If you're poor you can get chain mail made from a 3-d printer. I love to incorporate text from other places like I'll change genres. I'll quote Wikipedia. The numbers in the poem I just made up. I wanted to give the sense of thousands of happy emojis, thousands of crying emojis. All the different types."
And then we have, "a Cubicle Emoji, petitions the Board of Directors to rescue Jim from his jangling fate of war, seduces him, give birth to a daughter, 1/2 Hollywood, 1/2 New Jersey mortal, with a weak ankle...Emoji were at war." Such a good poem.
"Thank you. That one makes me a little uncomfortable because I realize the topic, but it's also funny. That combination may not sit entirely well with some."
It ends with, "they have seen how emoji blood sounds like a ring tone of a 50 gun salute in a thousand wavy ploughed lines, lines, lines, lines where truth is marching on."
"There's the famous civil war ballad with the truth is marching on. I'm rifting off of that."
"I tell my students how you handle success; it's how you handle your rejection moments. That's going to speak volumes about you and your path as a writer. One of my things as state poet laureate I started a youth magazine called "Under the Madness Magazine." I'm the managing editor, but all the teens are the editors. I've noticed we have contests with winners. These are open to any teen writing in English in the world. In our first issue, we've had some international teens. We're doing our second issue now for May 6th."
How will it publish?
"It's all online."
Tell me about mindfulness.
"I specialize; that's what I do outside of this poet laureate position. I specialize in mindful writing. I have a book on it. I gave a TEDx talk. One of the scariest things I've ever done. I give lots of talks all the time."
I have a friend who wants to do that.
"She should just do it. Do it. Do it. Try, try, try, try, try. There's a great book I got at the library on TEDx that talks about how to shape them. That was a real valuable resource by the guy who founded TED."
How did mindfulness start with you?
"It started at Iowa, and I had bad writers' block for years. I doubted and persisted and treated myself very poorly. I had a poem that I worked on for nine months. One poem. Nine months is ridiculous. I'd get up at four in the morning to work on it every day. I was so caught up. I pulled myself up, and then I'd falter. A combination of mindfulness practice and my first daughter was born very prematurely. They came together at the same moment. The only way I could cope was to come home to New Hampshire after visiting her, and it was so sad. I would sit at the desk and say, I'm going to write right now, whatever comes to mind. Whatever I'm experiencing now, I'm going to write. For the first time in my life, I put present awareness with listening to language, and suddenly I was writing."
"I noticed a high level of all I'm going to do is accept right now whatever arises, and I was able to write, and it never stopped afterward. I write a lot. I wrote a book in 2018 called Prolific Moment, an academic book on making a hard-core scholarly case why this isn't touchy-feely. In reality, you only write in the present moment. In all of our writing instruction, we don't have students engaging in the present moment. We never write in the past. You never write in the future. You only write now. This concept is catching on."
How do you stay in the moment when you are writing?
"One of the best ways is to become embodied. So, watching breathing and watching the physical sensation right now. There are a whole host of things to do. One tool you use is you become aware of your monkey mind. The ongoing chatter in our heads. It's always there. Day and night. I have my students meditate in class. We draw attention to the fact we are always off-roading from the present, taking us away, daydreaming, fantasizing, and hearing things. Try to stay, stay, stay. By staying, you get access to your monkey mind. A couple of things happen. The monkey mind is our friend because it is always giving us words. You always have something to write. A river of language, it's always there. You can see it and be non-judgmental. On the other hand, it's always telling us messages, not nice ones about our writing ability about the thing we're working on or the genre. Rhetoric is going on; we're telling ourselves and convincing ourselves of certain things. I get students to notice the monkey mind for content. Also, for how it's affecting their moods about writing, the preconceptions they bring to a task. For instance, now they're working on their final, and I asked them right now how they are thinking about their project. What language are you speaking in your head? And, if you followed that language, how is it going to affect your mood, your outlook, to finish your project."
"First is the monkey mind. The second is the embodiment. You start noticing you get ideas from everywhere. The last one is impermanence. Everything is always fluctuating and changing. That's cool because nothing is ever static. You're never one thing. You're not a bad student or a gifted writer. Things fluctuate. Watch it mindfully. It's wonderful. It's a blessing for a writer. I also teach them verbal emptiness, how to notice in that impermanence that nothing is going on, and not to be afraid of it. I also train students to notice that audience is very contentious. You might feel you'll get impaled in it. I have a Ph.D. in teaching rhetoric. You start noticing that there are no readers. At the moment of writing, you are wonderfully alone. You're separated in space and time. When teachers say, think of your audience's needs. That does such harm, in my opinion.”
“When you're writing, wherever you write, there is no reader. People act as though their teacher, editor, or critic is sitting on the desk and can see what they're writing. They feel judged. You're wonderfully alone."
"Mindfulness is my life. It's what I'm going to do outside of academia after my poet laureate term ends."