Book recommendation: A Friend Sails in on a Poem

cover of Molly Peacock's A Friend Sails in on a Poem courtesy her website with purple Book Recommendation headline down the righthand side above Center logo
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I don’t think any of us at the Center can write a straight book review. We are too passionate, too connected to what we read, too unwilling to be objective. Perhaps I unfairly speak for Jennifer and Helena, but Teneice frequently recommends her fave reads and Shawna regularly goes “beyond a book review,” as she did last week. This week, I’m here to write unobjectively about a book I’m excited to unravel some of my connections to, and to recommend to you midway through National Poetry Month: Molly Peacock’s A Friend Sails in on a Poem: Essays on Friendship, Freedom, and Poetic Form.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was applying to graduate schools for writing. I didn’t have a lot of guidance in the process, but the bit of direction from my undergraduate poetry writing professor that I remember most vividly was this: Don’t worry about researching schools or programs. Make a list of your favorite contemporary writers. Find out where they teach. Apply there.

At the top of my list was Molly Peacock. We’d been reading her new and selected poems (Cornucopia) in my capstone course, and she’d given a reading on our campus that lit me up. I didn’t know we could make poems about sex groups and horrible things our parents said to us. I didn’t even realize I wanted to make, was already trying to make, those kinds of poems until I heard Molly’s. To this day, the closing line of “Cut Flower”—about a tiger lily leaning away from others in a vase—is, for me, a tattoo-worthy mantra, a reminder not to be lured back into toxic relationships: “Thus separation was the power I could wield.”

So I applied to Spalding University’s acclaimed brief-residency MFA in Writing program, and nearly fell over when I was accepted. I would get to study poetry with Molly Peacock (and it was formative, fruitful, inspiring).

But first, I met Teneice.

A Friend Sails in on a Poem is about the nearly half-century friendship between two poets, Molly Peacock and Phillis Levin. It’s part memoir, part poetic (process) analysis, and part biography of a working relationship between two dedicated writers. It’s smart, contemplative, honest—and it made me think about my own poetry pal, who also happens to teach here at the Center.

When I arrived on Spalding’s campus for the first time, Teneice wasn’t the first person I met, but she was the first person I met who, like me, was staying in the inexpensive dorm rather than the four-star hotel down the block, where most of the other writers were lodging. We became fast friends, walking everywhere on campus together, then venturing out into the city of Louisville for meals and errands. But what cemented our friendship was our mutual obsession with poetry. We stayed up late eating junk food and reading our favorite poems to one another. We swooned during readings, giddy to be in the company of REAL WRITERS. By the end of that first residency, we were reading original poems to each other and making plans to start an online literary journal.

Which is all well and good, but would it be true that residency friendships only last for the 10 days of residency? Would Teneice and I be able to nurture our connection once we returned to our very real real lives—to her marriage and soon-to-be second, complicated pregnancy, to my crumbling relationship and dead-end day job? Yes, because we started exchanging poems and comments.

Like Molly and Phillis, Teneice and I met in a writing workshop when we were in our 20’s. Like them, we were at different phases of our lives, but were both seeking to be “the makers” of them. One of us/them was supremely interested in figuring out how to structure some of the messiness of her early life, while the other sought “to create something universal and everlasting” through free verse. While reading this book, I thrilled at a dozen or so familiarities—not the least of which is the value we two sets of friends place on good food and drink—and I imagine many other readers of this book are doing the same as they consider their own writing besties.

The clear takeaway, the living arc of this book, is how a love of poetry and a commitment to a writing life, or any artistic life, can bind two people to one another. Can bind two women, while any and all other relationships come and go—mine with my mother, Teneice’s with her beloved mentor, and between the two of us, a half dozen semi-notable men. While Molly sails between writing about her life’s developments and those of her friend, the points of intersection become calm waters, ports in which to weather their separate storms. Molly shared how their emergent-adult pathologies “could have led Phillis and me to a disaster of a friendship where she was the needy one and I was the helper,” if not for the care they took with one another and the “sense of intimate trust” that developed between them. For Molly and Phillis, there was no critiquing of one another’s work, only responses and, most valuable, acknowledgment of talent, effort, and superlative ambition. Molly called it “respect…for watching something emerge.”

Teneice and I were similarly tethered by pie-in-the-sky goals, but our history of exchanging writing and feedback didn’t originally look like the standard of identifying and building on strengths that we espouse here at the Center. We didn’t shy from critique because we were “brought up” in our respective literary educations to believe that such pains were the price of our commitment to getting better. We couldn’t write fast enough. There were prizes to be won, book deals to make, teaching gigs to land! Our thick skins grew in direct proportion to our page counts. Now, two decades later, we are much gentler with one another, having settled into our empathy and more discerning ambitions, and knowing and respecting our differences. I love a heroic couplet, while Teneice is always going to cringe at a concluding hard rhyme. But we’ve evolved, opened up–for example, we both came to believe that prose poetry actually exists (But WHAT IS a poem without line breaks?! we'd exclaim, spilling cheap beer with our wild gestures of protest). All that matters is that we write what is meaningful and true for us. If you’re someone who needs to hear that, read it again, out loud.

Molly and Phillis read everything the other one wrote, and so it was with Teneice and me. While Molly and Phillis gathered for meals to read their poems to one another, Teneice and I used the chat function in Gmail to pass drafts back and forth while we were at our respective jobs or caring for our respective babies. Whole books gestated in those saved chats. I joked to her once that our entire relationship happened in G-chat, and her reply came in two typed messages: 1) No way. (brief pause) 2) We text, too.

Because I love the poetry of Anne Sexton, I know that Sexton and Maxine Kumin had second phone lines installed in each of their New England homes so they could spend long afternoons on calls discussing their writing, often setting the phones down for stretches while they revised, then picking them back up again to resume the exchange when they had new lines and images to consider. I’ve always loved that story, and have held it up in comparison to what Teneice and I accomplished in G-chat. Now, I can add to the comparison not only the tedious poetry exchanges of this pair, but also this delicious anecdote from Molly about her meetings with Phillis:

“...sharing a meal with Phillis meant sharing a delight in detail amidst a barrage of free association. Phillis would open her mouth as we sat down, and a torrent of language would come toward me like a weather front. The waitperson would return again and again to take our order, and we wouldn’t be ready. In desperation I would yelp, ‘Fifteen minutes of silence, Phillis!’”

Apologies, Teneice, for all my torrents over the years!

For the poetically inclined, there is plenty to admire here in the way of analysis, especially about formal poetry. Phillis edited the incredible Penguin Book of the Sonnet anthology, and Molly wrote whole books of poetry dedicated to the form that became the subject of my master’s thesis, and which I still revere above all others. But for those less fluent in the language of discussing poetry, be assured that this isn’t a laboriously academic or intimidating read. The friendship narrative carries the book. And if you’ve never read Molly Peacock before, know that her warmth, candor, and storytelling skills are top-notch, and her love of poetry infectious.

One more passage to illustrate the drive and stamina it takes to stand sentry over the time you reclaim to make art, and the value of having even one other person who understands and will stand with you:

“To have a gift for something that is not understood or valued in the greater world, for something that is discounted, not an obvious part of an economy, mystifying to businessmen, held suspect by politicians, viewed as a hobby when in fact it beats at the core of life, forces the person with that gift always to engage in wily espionage to protect and nurture it.”

Molly and Phillis are still trading poem drafts. Teneice and I don’t exchange writing as frequently as we used to, but we both know we can ask the other to read anything, any time–including this essay-ish book review, which she read before I clicked publish. If you’re reading this post, however you came to it, I hope you have a friend as fired up about (your) writing as you are (theirs), and that you two always read one another’s words.

Have you read, or will you read, this book? Do you have a writing bestie? Share with us in the comments.

Buy A Friend Sails in on a Poem at (and support independent bookstores across the U.S.)

Learn more about Molly Peacock and Phillis Levin

Related reading: Center books reviews and recs

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