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Art People: Peggy O’Brien | poet

  • Peggy O'Brien at her home in Amherst.
  • <br/>Peggy O'Brien at her home in Amherst.
  • <br/>Peggy O'Brien at her home in Amherst.
  • Peggy O'Brien at her home in Amherst.
  • <br/>Peggy O'Brien at her home in Amherst.
  • <br/>Peggy O'Brien at her home in Amherst.

When she is asked about having a poem of hers published in the April 8 issue of The New Yorker, Peggy O’Brien graciously says she was honored.

“It helps to be 68,” she says. “I mean, the object is to keep trying to write better, but I have my life, I have my husband and daughter and my granddaughters. I’m delighted, but it’s in proportion.”

In “Crustaceans,” O’Brien writes of childhood summer vacations at Rye Beach in New Hampshire. Life in working class Westfield, where she grew up, was “not leisurely,” she said in an interview at her Amherst home, and the family’s vacation spot was of a piece. It was “utterly pared down,” she said, a place where the cabins had those “slope-shouldered refrigerators.” Still, “you’re at the sea, eating lobsters, going clamming, and I would always be free to explore. I learned to fly a kite there.”

Return trips added adult perspectives, hints of which also made their way into “Crustaceans.”

It’s “a funny thing in life,” she said. “We go on vacation to be carefree, but we bring our cares with us. And we will try — dammit! — to have fun.”

O’Brien, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, discovered poetry as a student at Mount Holyoke College.

“I started reading William Blake, and it was just like something was ignited.” Poetry, she said, is “intense emotion expressed rhythmically, and I think that it either becomes almost addictive or it doesn’t — and in my case it did.”

After college O’Brien moved to Ireland — “a poetry-intense place” — where she taught and wrote for 20 years. In a 2010 review in the Irish Literary Supplement, Eamonn Wall wrote, “O’Brien’s poetry is similar in tones, textures, forms and gestures to the work written by some of the canonical New England poets of recent centuries — Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Robert Creeley, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver, and others — and she shares with these poets a keen interest in landscape and with who and what inhabits it, and possesses a great ability to detail its complex lives.”

O’Brien says she writes very slowly. Every so often, “I get a few big spiral notebooks at Hastings in town,” she said. “One of them will see me through about three poems, there are that many revisions.

“I might start at what I think is the beginning, but sometimes I realize it’s taken me a little while to warm up. Splutter, splutter, splutter — the car’s not turning on. ...”

The process — “a very grand word,” she says — can mean “waking up at 2:30 in the morning with some sort of breakthrough energy, crudely getting that down and then over the course of a week or weeks, trying to put manners on that mess. That’s a tricky, tricky business, because you can betray the living quality of what came out.”

Sometimes she’ll let go and pick it up later. “If there’s some life in a poem, maybe you can do something with it,” she said. “And if it looks like somebody has slaved over it and killed it, you’ll know it.”

What then? “I think what helps is that life has so many other things in it, so you go on.”

— Suzanne Wilson

Peggy O’Brien is the author of two collections of poetry, “Sudden Thaw” and “Frog Spotting.”

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