It can be difficult to know if or when, during the course of a conversation, Lucia Perillo is joking. That’s not to say she has no sense of humor—far from it. For years poetry critics have rightly praised Perillo for her finely tuned comic sensibility. “She’s the funniest poet writing today,” wrote David Kirby in his New York Times review of Perillo’s fourth collection, Luck Is Luck (Random House, 2005). Indeed, one suspects that the fifty-year-old enjoys a laugh as often—if not more—than the next poet. It’s just that the dry humor is so deeply ingrained in her manner of speaking and writing, her wry wit so seamlessly interjected, her perspective on things so unique and pointed that one begins to wonder whether she’s just revealed a secret, told a joke, or perhaps both.
The poems in her new book, Inseminating the Elephant, forthcoming in April, are similarly marked by a hard-edged frankness and simultaneous vulnerability. Her publisher, Copper Canyon Press, describes this combination as an “attempt to reconcile the comic impulse—the humorous deflection of anxiety—with the complications and tragedies of living in a mortal, fragile ‘meat cage.’” And one need look no further than the title of her new book in order to see proof of just how directly—and with how much humor and irony—she confronts those complications.
You see, the elephant in the book’s title (the elephant in the room, one might call it) is disease—multiple sclerosis, to be precise. Perillo was diagnosed with MS in 1987. She was twenty-nine years old, teaching at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, and working seasonally for the National Park Service, leading visitors on nature walks at Mount Rainier. Today she’s in a wheelchair, having lost the use of her legs about eight years ago. She also works with a service dog named Dawby, a golden retriever she received from a women’s prison a few years ago. “He’s really a great dog despite his foibles,” Perillo notes dryly, “and the funny thing is that his problems are very similar to my problems. His neuroses are a reflection of mine. It’s really weird. He’s very slobbery, and Perillos tend to have a lot of saliva in their mouths.” Then comes the pause—a beat, two beats—that moment pregnant with uncertainty: This is funny, but she’s not laughing. She continues: “And I feel like I’m very needy, because of my writing, I need a lot of positive feedback and affirmation, and the dog needs a lot of affirmation too.” And there’s something in the way she delivers that last part, the ring of satirical truth perhaps, that reveals the smile that was probably there all along.
It’s funny, too, because both have received a lot of positive feedback: Dawby for his help around his owner’s home in Olympia, Washington, and Perillo for her poetry, which has been published in five books over the past twenty years. Having studied wildlife management at McGill University, in Montreal, and worked in the field for several years—first in Colorado, then in California—Perillo took an interest in creative writing after hearing a poetry lecture by Robert Hass at a community college south of Palo Alto. Soon thereafter she decided to attend Syracuse University’s graduate program. Three years after she earned her MA, in 1989, her first book, Dangerous Life, won the Morse Poetry Prize and was published by Northeastern University Press. The positive feedback kept coming: Her second book, The Body Mutinies (Purdue University Press, 1996), was awarded the Kate Tufts Prize from Claremont University; in 2000 she received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, worth five hundred thousand dollars; in 2005 Luck Is Luck was named a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize and she received the Kingsley Tufts Prize. In addition, her other books, The Oldest Map With the Name America: New and Selected Poems (Random House, 1999) and I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature (Trinity University Press, 2007), have been similarly well received.
All of which makes her modesty and self-deprecating humor that much more effective and disarming. But if her comic sensibility, particularly in her poetry, can seem dark (“I’m so far gone / I can say anything: Hello Mister Death,” she writes in “Love Swing”), it’s likely because Perillo has experienced her share of darkness, only to come back out into the light to describe to her readers the unlikely beauty she has seen there.
Did you have literary aspirations from a young age?
No. I had a college friend who was a writer. He lived in the apartment above me and he would stay up at night and type. I thought that was very romantic, so when I graduated from college and was unemployed and lived with my parents, I, too, started staying up at night writing.
What were you writing?
Oh, bad things.
What happened to that material? Did it make it into the drawer?
I think I destroyed it. It was not very good, as you would expect.
What was it like to win an award for your first book, having fairly recently entered the “world of poetry”?
I have always had a lot of shame attached to publication. I was affected by the movement toward confessional poetry, and I was also very taken by women poets such as Sharon Olds, who seemingly wrote from their lives and wrote sort of hard-edged things. And I wanted to out-hard-edge the hard edge. That was my intent. So having done that I thought, “Well, is it good?” I was a little ashamed of laying myself bare but I also had qualms about whether the poems were any good.
Well, getting published is one thing, but winning an award to get published—that must have been some kind of validation for you.
Yeah, but I suffer from what they call “impostor syndrome,” so I always think that there’s been some kind of mistake.
Has that feeling softened a bit over the years or is publication still cringeworthy?
A little bit still, and I think as I’ve gone along my qualms have more to do with the quality of the work: Did I achieve my goals and are the poems as good as I could have made them? My family now understands that I lie all the time, so they just take anything that’s offensive as a lie—which it usually is.
Does your wondering about the quality of your poems mean you revise a lot?
Yes. I’m like a painter who scrapes the paint off and reapplies it.
How did your diagnosis with multiple sclerosis affect your writing?
I don’t think I wrote about MS directly very often in the early years of the disease. I write about it more now. I wanted to write poems that could be read on two different levels: One had to do with the surface of the poem, a reading that was not connected to illness in any way, but I also wanted to support…a reading that was connected to my illness. A lot of people read my work and didn’t know anything about MS or my having that disease. I’ve never been interested in being a “disabled poet.”
Your not having written directly about MS early on—was that because your own thinking about it evolved or because the disease progressed?
My thinking about it did evolve because my initial thinking about it was just pure panic, which didn’t lead to particularly good writing. But now I have a more relaxed attitude toward my body.
Did winning the MacArthur and some of these other high-profile awards change the way you thought about poetry or wrote?
The MacArthur is a great burden actually, being the kind of person I am, because, you know, nobody had ever heard of me. When I sat down to write after that award, I felt under the gun—that I had to produce the great poem. That was a hard job to live up to, an impossible job, really. I remember when I sent poems out after the MacArthur and got rejections, as normal, there was a sense of shame: “I won the MacArthur and now I’m getting rejected from the, oh, Pig Iron Review.” So it was very hard after the MacArthur, and I don’t think that’s unusual.
I would imagine that would have fed into your earlier feelings—“Is this a mistake?” Though you must believe people at a certain point…
I really don’t. And the MacArthur happened to coincide with this period when my MS was worsening, and so I really couldn’t think too hard about winning the MacArthur. I had bigger concerns. I was going into a wheelchair at that point, so there was all of this other stuff happening. It was really pretty crazy, I could never be sure…I feel like Clarence Thomas in that I suspect, “Well, did I win the MacArthur because I’m a disabled person? Is it an act of tokenism?” You can never really get that clear in your mind, and I always have those suspicions when anything good comes my way. Are people just being nice to me?
Critics often talk about how unsentimental your work is. Can you talk a bit about how in your poems you are seemingly able to cut through the artifice and observe a more naked truth of things?
Well, that’s flattering. I think that when you’ve got a lot of things going on with your body, it’s a little difficult to be a good observer because you’ve got your attention…your logistics…you may have pain that you’ve got going on. It’s very cluttered to actually then stop and just observe the world, so that process of observation is somewhat artificial and contrived in my case. I always want to remind myself to pay attention to the world because it is hard to do.
It seems like the natural kingdom is a place you often go to in your writing.
Hemingway said something like he had to go to Paris to write about Michigan and he had to be in Michigan to write about Paris, so I think when I was working for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the [National] Park Service my interest was in writing about, say, serial killers and rapists and all of these high-profile feminist news cases, or even cases that I made up. Now that I’m more removed from nature because of my physical circumstances, I’m more interested in it. I’ve returned to it because I’m not there in the way I used to be, always immersed in it. But when I was immersed in it, I wasn’t interested in it as much. I thought it was boring.
In Inseminating the Elephant, your poems often address the reader either indirectly or directly: “Dear reader, do you know that guy?” and “you (hypothetical reader),” for example. What’s your conception of your reader?
I didn’t notice I had done that until the manuscript came together. I don’t really think about the reader. Is there a reader? When you’re writing poetry, if you’re a realist, you know that your readership is going to be pretty limited. Since it’s just going to be a few people, you might as well make your reader your twin, a double of you. So my reader is really myself. And why not? It seems there’s hardly a difference there.
I love the idea of writing something to your twin, but it also reminds me of the saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it…”
Right, but that’s liberating too. Lately I’ve been thinking that it’s nice to just surrender the idea of a readership and just let there be no readership and continue to do what you do, because what’s the point of doing anything in life? We might as well write poems. And I also sometimes think it’s a bizarre little subculture now, like people who are interested in dollhouse miniatures. I mean, there are probably more people interested in dollhouse miniatures. We are a subculture. There is a tradition that we’re following, and I guess there’s value in it.
It doesn’t sound like you’re worried that the culture or the segment of society that appreciates that tradition is reportedly shrinking.
Well, if you think about it, it’s only going to make you sad, because I think reading books is going to be—well, we know it already is—encroached upon by all the other media that is at our disposal now.
Where and when do you typically write?
I like to write in the morning, and I write in my office. My handwriting is pretty bad at this point. I have trouble with handwriting, so I have to type. But all my life I’ve tried not to make those rules, like “I am a morning writer” or “I am an evening writer,” because they become self-fulfilling prophecies. So I’ve always left it open so that I can allow myself to write whenever I want to. Sometimes I write at night; sometimes I write in the morning.
Is there a line of poetry you’ve published that you wish you could take back?
I wish I could take back a lot of it. I never look back at my first book and I rarely look back at the poems in my second book. I don’t like to look backward; I like to look forward. I would not want to be the Rolling Stones playing “Satisfaction” for the millionth time. Joni Mitchell said that what she liked about painting is that people didn’t ask Leonardo da Vinci to paint Mona Lisa again. They don’t repeat. I’m not a big fan of looking backward.
Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.