.Southern California poet PEGGY DOBREER is no stranger to the beauty and mystery of the body with her background in improvisational dance, but it’s the way she brings that mystique to her poetry that sets her work apart. Author of two previous chapbooks Face of Sky and Little Captures, Peggy’s debut full length collection, In the Lake of Your Bones (Moon Tide Press, 2012), reassures readers “over and again by precision and grace,” says Brendan Constantine that these poems were created as a balm, that if you wish to step into this world “no harm will come.” This invitation to be nurtured, to be feed comes to the reader even before the poems begin with the book’s dedication, “this book is for you.” That you, who is both universal and personal, is summoned in couplets, prose poems, aubades, psalms, and beautifully crafted quatrains—again and again inspiring connection and care. An author’s care for her readers and for the you who is so imperative to this work, “I called your name because/I dreamt I was vanishing…I dreamt you held me, were/ all I needed, bone to bristle,/ word to wonder of flight.”
Locally admired as a networker and great supporter of the arts, Peggy’s influence in the Southern California poetry scene is, much like her poems, of kindness and grace. In 2005 she started the Horse of a Different Color series, and until recently was curator of poetry readings at Loyola Marymount University’s Extension Program where she worked with such poets as Suzanne Lummis and Sarah Maclay.
Here at Litnivorous, we are thrilled that Peggy agreed to chat with us about poetry, her new book, and her journey as a writer. Peggy, who is currently studying in Prague, will return States side at the end of the summer. You can catch her at Poetry Stew in El Segundo on August 16th.
DANIELLE MITCHELL: Peggy, thanks for taking some time out of your Eastern European travels to chat with us! It’s no secret that you came to poetry by way of dance. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?
PEGGY DOBREER: My BA degree was in public speaking and theatre. After graduation I was in San Francisco directing an improvisational theatre company called Uncut Theatre, when Contact Improvisation was born at Bennington College. As soon as I tried it, I was hooked. The form was totally improvisational, based in kinesthetic partnership, working away from form, pure in-the-moment attention, no rules…just the laws of physics that govern bodies in motion. That, and a simple commitment to always take care of the self and the other dancers equally. And it wasn’t about pretty. The beauty of the form was found in the relationship between dancers and the exploration with gravity, weight, mass, inertia, and momentum. That’s where the magic was found. Cool metaphor for the kind of life I wanted to live.
Over the years Contact Improv grew to be scored for performance and to include language born out of the energy the dance initiated. Shortly before I injured my back, I started to work with Simone Forti, who had fused theatre and dance in a practice she titled Logomotion. More and more, movement gave way to language. It was an organic progression. Especially after an injury. My first poems were stories edited from solo performance tapes.
Writing is a totally kinesthetic practice for me and often the starting place when I teach writing and vocal dynamics.
And there is absolutely a connection between the mysteries of the body and what we write, whether we acknowledge and employ it or not.
In our culture, we are so overly stimulated sexually that often the more subtle wisdom of body is ignored. When we pay attention to it, we find a more organic truth and variety. It’s the language of the mystics, really. We see that even different organs and limbs have different voices, different wisdoms, different resources. When we attune to them, the work goes deeper, can be more transformative than when we only wade around in our brains, which are so influenced and short circuited by technology, advertising, and ego.
DM: Wow, that last bit is really incredible: “mysteries of the body,” “organic truth and variety.” It seems the natural progression is to next talk about In the Lake of Your Bones. How did that project come together?
PD: In some ways, In the Lake of Your Bones is a study of what we have just been discussing…of being informed by the body and the body of earth, the body of love…. the bones as a lake, fluid and malleable, the body and the mutability of form. You could say that I am a ‘slave’ to it really. Logic never works for me. After spending thirty years listening to the body…I can’t seem to ignore its messages even when they are completely illogical.
DM: That listening to the body is definitely felt in your writing. What is your writing process?
PD: My writing process changes all the time but I write almost daily first thing in the morning with coffee and Yoga, or right before I go to sleep to sort of ‘empty the bin’. My work life has been so full of data that it takes a while to get to what’s really real for me. However, I’m writing this interview from Prague, where I’m in a Poetry & Screenwriting graduate program with Jim Ragan at Charles University. There is so much new input here, so much beauty and history, and I am so out of my routine, and burdened with things I haven’t been able to take care of here, that I didn’t write anything for the first couple weeks….maybe too much stimuli…but that is WEIRD for me!! I’m usually way TOO prolific. Writing it all down and throwing a lot into the woodpile.
DM: It does seem like the excessive stimuli of travel dampens the writing process, doesn’t it? I had a professor in college who took several sabbaticals in Ireland, but he never wrote there. He would travel, drink, play golf and then come home and write in the comfort of his study. Only in his study, he’d say! Back to your woodpile. What about your revision process?
PB: Revision and editing changes all the time as well. Most poems come out pretty well formed. Then I may go back in and poke around for stronger word choices and line breaks. I love working with a small group that I really trust. That is always helpful to me.
DM: Small groups such as workshops? Who have been some of your most influential teachers?
PD: Ha! Well, it’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Brendan Constantine’s Industrial Poetry Workshops. His energy in class is so much like the ensemble, experimental dance and theatre labs my sensitive and insecure artistic self grew-up in and thrives in. He doesn’t lecture or make demands for a certain type of work. He inspires, engages, fills, and confounds his students, gets us writing together, and through it all teaches so much about poetry. He has a mind that holds facts like a steel drum that is always turning. No matter what you write, what style or form…he draws up comparisons that send you deeper into your own personally relevant discovery of poetic history.
Class never ends in class. And I think it’s also about the poets he attracts. Some of my favorite and most trusted artistic relationships were formed in his courses over the years.
DM: Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing an Industrial Poetry Workshop and you sum up the experience perfectly! Who else?
PD: I am also really inspired by Richard Garcia’s workshops. He’s only teaches in LA twice a year but I sometimes work with him long distance, and he did an early edit of In the Lake of Your Bones. Sarah Maclay has been a strong influence for me, and I haven’t studied much with Cecilia Wolloch, but I turn to her work continually for inspiration. I love her writing. And I have learned a great deal about ‘Historicity’, a new slant for me, these last few weeks from James Ragan.
Classically speaking, I read Whitman and Rumi like scripture…and of course, I have many pre-poetry influences from my years in theatre. I grew up on Shakespeare, Pinter, Beckett, Mamet, Henry Miller. I also spent several years with the Padua Playwright’s Workshop, where I was inspired by Murray Mednick, Julie Hebert and Maria Irene Fornes, among others. I’m like a rag picker. I comb my experience for the art in everything!
DM: That’s a great list, one we could all benefit from being familiar with. As we end our chat together, is there any advice you’d give poets who’ve yet to publish their first book of poetry?
PD: I’d say follow your heart to the page. I’d say let every experience own you, just keep writing, censor nothing, make HUGE mistakes, check your ego at the door…and see what wants to be written through YOU…because it won’t come through anyone else.
Three poems from In the Lake of Your Bones
Technique | Peggy Dobreer
A dancer walks down Mission Street
with a Marlboro in one hand and a
latte from La Bohème in the other.
She is a rainbow muffler around thorax,
warming calves, pumping smoke,
dragging deep into the celery snap of
another San Francisco morning, and
itching to pull on the day’s first leotard.
This is Mariposa, heart of the dance.
A cable car up Polk, bus across town,
stop at the café and half a mile hoofing
it into the warehouse district.
Industrial doors open to cement hallways,
open to studio spaces softened by
sprung wood floors. The smell of
kiln and oils, and the long push of
a cotton broom across caramel floors.
Always care of the floor comes first, as
breath falls to lower chakras, dissolves all
dissonance, light streams in through
southern exposure. Today, the spirit of
Erick Hawkins wields the broom. Footsteps
are a barely audible imprint on the ear,
so quiet you can hear your breath.
Burn | Peggy Dobreer
The brick incinerator behind the back house was where I
learned to play with fire. The ground was covered in ivy. Vines
ran down the chimney and the chain-link fence along the edge
of our property, leaves big as a man’s hand. You could barely
get through. A cast iron door swung on crusty hinges, eroded
from the heat of fire to ask: tissue, newsprint, TV dinner
packages, and featherless birds who fell from nests in the yard.
They went in too. The year they made it illegal to burn trash
within the city limits small brush fires broke out everywhere.
Sirens were heard two, three times a week, most by the creek,
near the whitewashed bridge. That was long before global
warming, long before the fox was driven so far back into the
Aubade | Peggy Dobreer
for remnants in my side drawer,
a mollusk, an errant sock, a book
of matches catches the eye. Once
there was a market for such items.
They reminded customers of what
the Buddha said, or the final words
of a prophet whose last request
is that you dance on his grave.
How can you refuse? The rain
of your loss runs down the cheek
of each ronde de jamb, each piquet.
Music disappears behind your bias
and the heel of your breath hits
the ground hard with every step.
name in Devanagari script is crisp
and treacherous. Kali guides ever
dunda, with the instinctual caution
of a lioness with cubs. His footsteps
creep across the crepe of night, abrupt
as any leave taking, weather disturbing
the evidence, changing its hue.
.Peggy Dobreer, In the Lake of Your Bones, Moon Tide Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9839651-2-1. Presented here with permission from the author.