Carrying the Light:

An Interview with Megan Peak

Megan Peak received her M.F.A. in Poetry from Ohio State University, where she was former Poetry Editor at The Journal. Her first book of poetry, Girldom, won the 2018 Perugia Press Prize from Perugia Press, 2019 The John A. Robertson Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters, and was named a 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist. She lives in Fort Worth, TX with her son, Auden.  

LH: Can you talk about what it was like to write intimate poems about family members and also what it has been like now that Girldom has been published? I think about your poem, “What I Don’t Tell My Mother about Ohio,” and the piercing first few lines:

 

Daughters tell lies. We are lovelier

this way. So I say: the snow sprawls

softly in the morning. And my mother

believes me...

 

MP: Well, I think family is almost always fair game for most writers, but that never makes it easy or comfortable when writing, reading, or publishing these kinds of poems and stories. Luckily, I have a pretty wonderful family who has always supported my writing, so I never felt like I couldn’t write intimately and truthfully about experiences that involved them.

 

LH: And how does poetry help us tell truths we couldn’t tell before—help us tell the truth to ourselves and to others?

 

MP: The container of the blank page. The specific image. The musicality and pace. The intentionality of each word and line break. I believe the elements of poetry give us a path, or many paths, to truth by allowing us the opportunity to meander through the mystery, line by line, image by image, until a truth, the truth, many truths are unveiled. 

 

LH: Your poems are teeming with life from the underbrush: beetles, bees, cicadae, ghost crabs, flowers, roots, nettle. The speaker and the flora and fauna of the poem seem to house one another, inseparable and yet sometimes antagonistic, indicative of both struggle and rebirth. Where did you grow up and how did the region influence the way you viewed the world, the body, and beyond?

 

MP: I grew up in the country in a small town west of Dallas / Fort Worth, Texas. We lived right next to a huge ranch, so we’d wake up to roosters crowing, peacocks and guinea hens strutting in our front yard, horses kicking up dirt in their frenzied tantrums. So much of it was magical, even the harsher moments—the sting of a fire ant, sharp burrs catching on our clothes, a snake midway through eating a frog.

 

I think what I witnessed in nature rang so true to me as I grew older. I realized that while there’s pain in the world, there’s just as much, if not more, tenderness to counter it. The lens of the natural world allowed me to make tangible some of the experiences about which I found difficult to write.

LH: I’d like to hear your thoughts on writing about violence. There are poems in the world that are about the speaker perpetrating violence on another, poems of witnessing violence, poems where the speaker is the victim of violence. I think some might agree that there are also poems that feel like a violence, or perhaps a trespass, is being done to the reader in that the poems are gratuitous in their violence. What, do you feel, makes a poem about violence successful? Does the poem also require something else? Resilience? Redemption? Something else? Are there any poets that you feel write particularly well on the subject of violence?

 

MP: Writing about violence is tough, in my opinion, and I don’t know if there is a “right” answer as to how to write successfully about it. I only know what I’ve read and what has moved me and how the poems in Girldom tackle violence on the page.

When writing some of these poems in Girldom, I approached them like a photographer adjusting her lens. I wanted to get it just right—the appropriate focus, the right amount of light, contrast, etc. —which sounds exploitative; however, this disassociation, this out-of-body phenomenon was my experience of sexual assault. So, I didn’t really want to focus

I realized that while there’s pain in the world, there’s just as much, if not more, tenderness to counter it. The lens of the natural world allowed me to make tangible some of the experiences about which I found difficult to write.

on the act of violence itself, rather the way in which the world continues to go—the moon goes on shining, the river still runs, the dawn rises steadily. These poems remind me that there are violent moments and tender ones, times when we are fragile and others when we are resilient, and for me, that reminder is what makes these pieces successful.

 

Beth Bachmann comes to mind and her book Temper. Tarfia Faizullah as well. Jessica Lynn Suchon is brilliant, and I can’t wait to get my hands on her new book.

 

LH: Can you tell us the story behind the arresting cover art for Girldom?

 

MP: I was lucky enough to collaborate with a former partner on the cover, so the process of creating the image was extremely intimate, and I had a lot of say throughout. We focused a great deal on duality since the book tackles the multifaceted nature of female experiences. For example, color choice was very deliberate—the dark background, the lighter tones of the girl’s body, the pale pink and blue. Then there’s the juxtaposition of sharp and soft lines—the strong font, the jutting jaw and neck, the blurred torso, the fading head of the girl. All the elements speak in some way to the book’s main themes of violence and tenderness, the dark and the light of any experience.  

 

LH: Having written about sexual violence in an age where more women and people of all genders are telling their stories and seeking community in this way, how has your life changed since the publication of Girldom? What has been the general response from your community, your readers, the people you know? How has telling your own truth and hearing from others effected your own reflection/ processing of the past?

 

MP:  Obviously, the collection is timely because of the #MeToo movement, but I was writing these poems before I knew about that movement, before there was a social platform or hashtag to promote awareness about sexual violence and assault. So, I wouldn’t say my life has changed significantly since the publication of Girldom or because of the publication of these poems; however, I have received many messages on social media from sexual assault survivors who have found the book and connected with it in some way. I have met people at readings who have come up and told me they’d been trying to write about their experiences with assault, and that hearing me read certain poems gave them the courage, inspiration, permission to return to the page. This has been the most rewarding and exciting part about Girldom’s release—connecting with others and hearing their stories. I mean that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Coming together and creating community through poetry, experiences, art.

 

I’ve always found that having others bear witness to my trauma or grief has been helpful in the healing and reflective process. That’s not to say I don’t get sad sometimes when reading some of these tougher poems, but my readers have never made me feel anything other than loved and safe and respected, which has been crucial in my own healing.

 

LH: In the final poem of the book, “The Room Below This Room,” the last lines blossomed in my throat when I read them out loud:

 

But what I need becomes

what I am: a line of women

with raised flags. I think: I’ve room

for love. They pour out the window.

I think: not a door but a window.

 

What I feel from these lines is hope, but not a hope that entirely relies on the goodness or fortitude of others. A hope that comes from within—a recognition that who I want to be I already am. There is room for love if I say that there is…if I declare it. In times that feel oppressively dark, who or what is carrying the light? How much of the responsibility to make change falls on the self, and how much falls on the shoulders of the collective? And tell me, dear poet, what role does the writer play in the changes to be made in 2019?

Writers, artists, and storytellers are essential in promoting change. We always have been, even if it’s in hindsight. We are the light-bearers, the culture-keepers; we are the ones to hold up the mirrors and the lanterns to illuminate the world.

MP: That’s such a beautiful reading of this poem. You know, this poem came out of workshop with Brenda Hillman. She put our entire class into a meditative trance, and I think the poem reflects the togetherness of the room—how we were all silent and walking through this landscape she created—and yet how completely alone we were during the exercise.

In my experience, I have had to carry the light myself, but often finding that inner light, that inner hope, was fostered or sparked by others around me. So, to answer your question, I think real, substantial change needs both—the collective and the self. I recall another line from this poem:

I call for stairs and some unroll.

I think: if there is one door but

the things I could do with two.

 

We could easily change these lines to answer your question: if there is one light but / the things I could do with two. Or three or four.

 

Writers, artists, and storytellers are essential in promoting change. We always have been, even if it’s in hindsight. We are the light-bearers, the culture-keepers; we are the ones to hold up the mirrors and the lanterns to illuminate the world.

 

LH: What kind of poetry and/ or prose would you like to see more of in 2019 and beyond? What kind of writing should get more attention and why?

 

MP: Goodness, that’s a big question. I think, in terms of the literary realm, we are making progress in the support and advocacy of those voices that are often underrepresented; however, there’s always room for more writers of color, more women, more LGBTQ voices, more writers with disabilities on our shelves, in our literary magazines, in our classrooms, and on our minds.

 

LH: What lies ahead on the skyline for Megan Peak? What other projects, personal and public, are you engaged with?

 

MP: That’s a great question. 2018 was a big year for me. My son was born 3.5 months prematurely and had to stay almost that long in the NICU. Girldom made its debut in the world. My marriage fell apart. All to say, in 2019, I plan on enjoying my son, who is one year old, extending some grace to myself, and delving into new poems that explore the connections among motherhood, grief, joy, and the body.