Lucia Perillo’s most recent book, Inseminating the Elephant, continues the MacArthur Fellow’s exploration of what it means to be present in everyday life—to have an active mind and an imperfect body in the manufactured and natural worlds. There’s comedy, irony, wit, and philosophy throughout, familiar traits to readers of Perillo’s previous five books. But what separates Inseminating the Elephant from its predecessors is Perillo’s thoughtful examination of her life before poetry. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the fledgling poet was also a farmer, park ranger, and wildlife manager in locales across the United States. It was an active life full of the beauty and horror of the natural world, and it is a physical life that has since been restricted by the effects of multiple sclerosis. Despite such a debilitating illness, this conversation with Maria McLeod shows that the mental life of the naturalist continues unabated.
Maria McLeod: Lucia, your background and early training doesn’t include writing. I wonder, as someone who has taken a more nontraditional route, how did you enter the field?
Lucia Perrillo: In 1980, I had just gotten a job at the Denver Wildlife Research Center. I believe that place is closed now, but it was an animal damage control facility, meaning that it researched ways to kill animals to keep them from destroying livestock or agricultural crops.
We killed coyotes; we killed birds. I killed lots of things. So I graduated with this degree in wildlife biology to go off and study wildlife, and I end up killing wildlife. So it was really a weird time, a troubling year in my life.
But how I got into writing was this way: I was a single woman living in this strange city, and I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t want to go to a bar alone, but I discovered that I could go to plays alone, and it wasn’t weird, or I could go to poetry readings alone. So, it was just a way to have places to go at night that would be safe. And that’s how I came to poetry, too, by going to open mics, and just kind of stumbling into them, because it was something you could do.
Also, when I lived in Denver, I saw Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg read in Boulder. Ginsberg played with the band, and Gregory Corso’s wife was drunk and got bounced from the bar. The whole thing was very surreal. I remember that Gregory Corso’s wife stood up on a chair and then started screaming, “Where’s mah man? Where’s mah man?” [laughter] And I remember that he said something about her. “My wife just got bounced!”
Then people started dancing when Allen Ginsberg sang a song whose refrain went: “Don’t smoke cigarettes.” There was a woman who had a diaphanous gown on with no underwear, and this man was dragging her across the floor by her arms or her legs. Her gown went riding up, and the man dragged this naked woman across the dance floor.
MM: When you left Denver, what did you do after that?
LP: I went to California in 1981. I got a job at the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge. The exact spot—if you’re familiar with the movie Harold and Maude—Maude gets into it with a cop. The background is right where they built the headquarters of the building where I worked. I was a naturalist. I did a variety of things, but I led a lot of nature walks around southern San Francisco Bay. It was a mosaic of salt ponds, where salt was made by evaporating salt water. Mostly it was used by birds, migratory birds.
Again, I didn’t know very many people. I lived in Palo Alto, and I was writing a lot, and one day I pedaled my bike over to this writing workshop at the local community college. I saw this man give a talk, and I don’t even remember what the talk was about, but he had a captivating presence. I learned that he was giving a class at San Jose State, a night class, a poetry-writing workshop. That was Bob Hass. So I went and enrolled in his workshop.
MM: When I read Dangerous Life [Perillo’s first book, published in 1989] again in preparation for this interview, I looked for repeated themes. In the end, I decided it was a book about victimization, about calling attention to the victimizers and the victim. What was that book about for you?
LP: I don’t know why I was so interested in victimization, or I felt that I had been victimized as a woman. Certainly I was a person of privilege. I’ve never been a victim of a violent crime. I’ve never been raped, never had an abortion. I mean, I’ve lived sort of in a bubble. Maybe I felt like I had to create that myth for myself, or these violent events, because I hadn’t had one. I felt that you had to have that kind of transgression against yourself to really be a significant person. We were all writing autobiographically, in the manner of Sharon Olds. I was very influenced by The Dead and the Living and Satan Says. So that is the kind of poem I wanted to write, the autobiographical poem of the outstanding personal event, you know, the traumatic personal event.
MM: But you grew up during the Kennedy assassinations and that of Martin Luther King Jr. Also, you came of age during the Vietnam era, so certainly violence was part of your life. It was part of the landscape. Could we say that?
LP: Sure. And I think “oppression of women” sounds like a catchphrase, but that was part of the landscape as well. I think young women now don’t realize how it was. During my early job life, I was subject to a lot of discrimination and humiliation from my bosses. It was really pretty awful trying to go into a field that was predominantly male. How discouraging it was, people don’t realize.
But I will say that I became less interested in women’s issues when my identity as a woman was subsumed by my identity as a person who was sick. It was in ‘88 that I was diagnosed with MS [multiple sclerosis]. Then that identity overtook these earlier concerns because they paled. My earlier feminist concerns, my feelings of discrimination, were small potatoes compared to what I was up against subsequent to that. I acquired a new identity. Now, you know, I don’t even feel like a woman anymore. I don’t feel that’s my primary identity. It stopped being my concern. I felt that: Oh, I’m this other thing now.
MM: So in 1988, was Dangerous Life completed as a manuscript at the time you were diagnosed?
LP: It was already complete, and it was already in [with the publisher]. The funny thing is that it has an epigraph from Nietzsche at the beginning of the book, “I sometimes think that I lead a highly dangerous life since I’m one of those machines that can burst apart!” But when the book came out, Tess Gallagher pointed it out to me. She said, “Oh, you’ve got this epigraph. Were you already diagnosed with MS?” But no, the book was already created before that. So it was a little prophecy from Nietzsche.
MM: So how did that book, winning those awards [the Samuel Morse Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and the Norma Farber First Book Award], and then your diagnosis of MS affect your career?
LP: I hadn’t published the book when I got the job at Saint Martin’s College. I was working at Mount Rainier. I had packed my truck from Syracuse. I was enrolled as a PhD student, technically, and I said, OK, if I get a job in Washington, I’ll stay there, and I’ll drop out of the PhD program. If I don’t get a job, I’ll go back and become a PhD person of some sort. So I did happen to get a job in Olympia, Washington. In ’87, I got this very low-paying job at Saint Martin’s, a Catholic college that was affiliated with a monastery.
It was half-time, half of $18,000—$9,000—which was slightly more than what I was making as a grad student. I was glad to have a half-time job. I was determined not to fall into the trap of being a writer and then having to go get a full-time job. I wouldn’t have kids. I wouldn’t have financial burdens. I’d keep my expenses low. I wouldn’t have a car if I didn’t have to. I could work part-time and keep working on my writing. So I took the half-time job at Saint Martin’s. It ended up being really complicated and a kind of horrible job. It absorbed more than half-time, of course, because they always abuse half-time employees. My plan was to also supplement my income by working weekends as a ranger at Mount Rainier in the winter. So I would do those two things, work half-time and be a ranger on the weekends, with skiers and snow-play people up on the mountain. But then I started feeling weird. I had the inkling from my previous sickness—a time when I had mysterious neurological symptoms just after college—that it might be MS. And indeed it was.
When the results came back, I decided I’d better teach. I wasn’t going to be able to be a ranger on the weekends, so I had to reevaluate my plans. Then, after doing the job for about two years, the book was published.
MM: You mentioned how little you were paid to teach at that time. Related to that, I recall your essay “Fear of the Market,” in which you write about commodity and exchange, about poetry’s worth and how we estimate value in this culture. Now, what is your relationship to writing and worth?
LP: Well, the nice thing about the creative writing system is that once you get that tenure-track academic job, and that income, those questions become sort of moot, because you know you’re stable, so you don’t have to think about money. You can really focus on your poem apart from money and prestige.
MM: And what’s your take on the larger, cultural attitude toward poetry?
LP: Well, it’s something like being interested in dollhouse miniatures. It’s a subculture, and there are people interested in poetry, but it’s not very visible on the national scene. Probably dollhouse miniatures, those interested, are a bigger subculture than poetry is. But making a good dollhouse miniature is probably really difficult. Or, you know, putting a ship in a bottle. Not many people want to do that anymore. Poetry is like that. But yet we have our society and our superstars. So it’s small, but the subculture is highly organized.
MM: In the sense of the superstars in the spectrum of poetry, where are you on the spectrum?
LP: Well, see, that’s the thing! I’m Lucia Perillo. Disabled. Housebound to some extent. I go shopping in my wheelchair at the food co-op up on the corner. I don’t often give readings because I can’t travel without assistance, and my husband’s not able to get away often. I’m just a person in bare feet and dirty pajamas most of the day. So I don’t feel like a superstar, even though W.H. Auden couldn’t wear shoes either; he had problems with his feet and went around in slippers.
MM: It seems in Auden’s lifetime, he may have been able to have more anonymity while in the world. Do you think there’s a different expectation for poets and marketing oneself in this era?
LP: Poets are expected to have a visible presence.
MM: Do you have a visible presence?
LP: No, I’d like to. Through technology I could be more visible than I am. I have done some virtual readings, which is nice because the university doesn’t have to pay for the plane ticket or for the hotel, so it’s much cheaper. It’s easier for me, and it’s cheaper for them, and all I have to do is be on a two-way camera system. People can still ask questions and make requests for poems. They can interact through that technology.
MM: You title your second book The Body Mutinies, and you include that title poem in the book, which re-creates the scene of you being informed of your diagnosis. And then there is “Retablo with Multiple Sclerosis and Saints.” It seems like you come out as someone with MS in this book; would you say that?
LP: Yeah, I did.
MM: Tell me about that choice, fears around that, or your intellectual concerns.
LP: Well, it became my new subject matter. In the first book, I wanted to have this myth as the female outlaw or the female victim; then in the second book I suddenly had this new identity as an afflicted person.
MM: Did you worry about how you were going to be—I don’t know if the term “typecast” is correct—but did you worry about that at all, in terms of people’s perception of your work?
LP: I wanted the poems to be able to be read two ways. You could read them not knowing that I was a person who had an illness, or you could read them with that knowledge and have another reading of the poem. So I wanted them to foster two readings. Two layers. Where you could step into the poem on whatever layer you wanted to step into it on.
MM: After you won the MacArthur Fellowship in 2000 and you were deemed a poetic “genius,” what happened to your own relationship to writing poetry and to your own expectations?
LP: Well, it’s very difficult, because you feel like you have to write a great poem. I can’t just write my little drafts that don’t really make sense. I usually start with little scribbles on paper and when I reread them, they’re pretty stupid. It kind of shuts you down. For me, it was difficult to deal with it psychologically.
MM: And how did you overcome that? Or have you overcome it?
LP: It’s just time, I think. The period of the MacArthur is over, so now I can go back to who I am. I’m not sure that I wrote anything of much good—I wrote my book Luck Is Luck during the MacArthur period. I like some of the poems in that book, so that was all right, but it was tough.
MM: I wonder, unrelated to the MacArthur, what is your relationship to your writing? When you talk about your books, you say, “I like some of the poems in that book,” but you never seem entirely satisfied. What is your own relationship to your work?
LP: I think my success as a writer comes from the fact that I don’t think that anything I write is much good—and so I’m always trying to make it better.
But the downside of that, the negative, is something that William Stafford talks about. That is that writer’s block comes from when you set too high standards for yourself, and you don’t live up to your own standards. So his advice for writer’s block is just to lower your standards, which makes a lot of sense. You can start there, at least. You can always fix things up as you go along. But you have this idea of the poem that you want to write, and it’s just like glittering crystal in your mind. Then you go and you write it out, and it doesn’t live up to the crystal. So it fills you with a feeling of dejection and being a loser because you never live up to that first vision that you had.
MM: Do you feel like you’ve ever achieved the glittering crystal with any of your poems?
LP: I liked that poem “Foley” when I wrote it, very much. But I think I stole it from a poem by Ken Koch called “One Train May Hide Another.” But now when I go back and look at “Foley,” I think it’s sort of a gimmicky standup routine.
MM: Your book of essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature, was published by Trinity University Press in 2007. It seems that your work as a researcher is especially evident in that book. In fact, you mention conducting research in the essay “Knowledge Game: Gulls.” You call a person from Audubon and you ask what kind of gulls you are seeing. But you also really study them, read about them. Can you tell me what brought this book of essays about for you?
LP: A friend of mine, a nonfiction writer and journalist, said, “Well, you should write about your life,” prose about my life. So I wrote some prose about my life. There was not too much to say about having a terrible disease. I hadn’t really figured out what I would say about it except it sucks, you know. But that’s not a very profound statement. So I decided that I would write about the kind of interactions you can still have with nature as a disabled person. It’s hard because you don’t have the ability to go on unpaved terrain anymore. I lost that thing that I really loved, and what could I still do? It was a way of making little projects for myself. I had to write the essays, so I had to go look at the gull so I could write the essay.
MM: I think a remarkable essay is “Sick Fuck,” which was also published in Tin House, where you talk about being a disabled person, a person with MS, and still being a sexual person. Why did you write that essay?
LP: God only knows! I thought maybe people would want to read it. And I hadn’t seen anything like it. I certainly haven’t pursued the literature about disability, and there is a body of literature out there.
MM: A body of literature on disability and sexuality, or just disability?
LP: Disability studies is a whole academic area. This is one thing that’s a little troubling to me, now that I have this identity as a disabled person, disability has kind of become one of the new “in”—what is it?—minority groups. We’re kind of “in,” we’re en vogue now.
I feel like Clarence Thomas because I wonder—and I have a lot of mixed feelings attached to this—but I’ve always suspected that the fact that I was disabled played into my winning the MacArthur. I feel almost certain of that. I mean, surely not many other kind of mid-level poets are going to get pulled out of the ether to win the MacArthur. But if you’re a disabled mid-level poet, you know, it increases your chances. What does Clarence Thomas claim? That when you’re black, you never really know what you’ve earned by your efforts and when you’re being given the affirmative action little nudge, you know, additional benefit of the doubt.
I have been in the past invited to participate on panels at AWP [the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference], but never as a poet for my poetry. People always want me to be on these panels on disability, like that’s what they’re keying into about me.
MM: You’re getting typecast.
LP: Yeah, I feel that way. It’s hard to avoid being typecast, especially when you’re in a wheelchair, and you have this very visible marker to see beyond.
MM: And you write about it some.
LP: Yeah, about how people can’t really see beyond the chair. So I don’t know what to do about that except hibernate in my home and not think about it. I write about how, for me, it’s been really important to stay in my head, stay as a subjective person, and not try to go into the objective world of the world looking back. I want to just stay here.