Who knew we had a world-class poet right here in Olympia? Her name is Lucia Perillo. Her talent and prestige are remarkable. No less a luminary than Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, said, “It is a delight to wander with [Perillo] into strange and imaginative territories. Always, I read her poems with surprise and (write it!) jealousy.”
Novelist Tom Perotta, author of The Leftovers, wrote of her first story collection: “Lucia Perillo isn’t just a strikingly original poet; she’s a top-notch fiction writer as well. The stories in this bleakly funny and harrowing collection are reminiscent of both Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, but the vision that animates them is Perillo’s own, unique and unmistakable.”
For years, I’ve known her as a woman in a wheelchair who swims at the Olympia Downtown branch of the Sound Sound YMCA. She is always accompanied by an aide and is lowered into the pool by a lifeguard using an electronic lift chair. She seldom speaks to us, but is polite when she does. When I heard that she is a poet and looked her up I was astounded to learn that she has been published in America’s most prestigious magazines: The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Kenyon Review, and has been awarded such distinguished prizes asthe Pushcart Prize (three times). She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Poetry Series and the L.A. Times Book Prize. She has been a MacArthur Fellow, also known as the “Genius Grant,” and locally she has been awarded the Washington State Book Award and Governor’s Award.
Perillo has published six books of poetry, a book of essays and a short story collection. Her latest books are On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (poetry)and Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain (short stories). Next year she will have a new book of poetry from Copper Canyon Press tentatively titled Time Will Clean the Carcass-Bones.
Perillo’s poems have been described as funny and tough, dark and bold. She shies away from nothing. The New York Times Book Review described her writing as “taut, lucid, lyric, filled with complex emotional reflection while avoiding the usual difficulties of highbrow poetry.”
In an unflinching look at the body, she writes:
WHEN YOU SPEND MANY HOURS ALONE IN A ROOM
YOU HAVE MORE THAN THE USUAL CHANCES TO DISGUST YOURSELF—
THIS IS THE PROBLEM OF THE BODY, NOT THAT IT IS MORTAL
BUT THAT IT IS MORTIFYING. WHEN WE WERE YOUNG THEY TAUGHT US
DO NOT TOUCH IT, BUT WHO CAN KEEP FROM TOUCHING IT,
FROM SCRATCHING OFF THE JUICY SCAB?
Writing such as this gives evidence of Perillo’s keen observation and of a sense of humor that can touch on the macabre. Consider these lines from her poem “Abandon,” a poem about dancing to old songs on a phonograph:
MEANWHILE EACH NIGHT BLED INTO THE NEXT, LIKE STORIES
TOLD TO HOLD THE KNIFE OFF SOMEONE’S THROAT,
THE SCRATCHES ON THE RECORD PATTERING
LIKE PINE NEEDLES DROPPING TO THE FOREST FLOOR
Images in her poems often lead in unexpected directions, such as in the poem “Foley” in her book The Oldest Map with the Name America, which starts off talking about Harrison Ford and movie sound effects and veers off in a surprisingly logical way to a comparison of black girl groups and white girl groups in sixties pop music, which leads into phone conversations for money, and then right back to movie making. When I asked her about this way of writing, which I thought of as stream of conscious, she said, “I always have a constellated idea or image. It may seem like stream of conscious but I hope it comes together by the end of the poem. I hope the reader will come along for the ride.”
We sat down to chat in a corner of Orca Books on 4th Avenue in Olympia. I asked when she came to Olympia and why. She had grown up on the East Coast and taught at Syracuse University among other places. She said she came to Washington to work a summer job as a ranger on Mount Rainier in 1987, and from there she came to Olympia to teach at Saint Martin’s College. It was in this time that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
I asked Perillo how it felt to win so many awards and which meant the most to her. She said, “People are interested in the awards, but that’s secondary and I don’t focus on that.” She said she would rather talk about poetry but said people are reluctant, perhaps intimidated by it. “People think they are unequal to poetry, that it’s complicated and impossible to understand.”
I asked what she would say to people who say poetry is too difficult and she said, “I guess I would read them a poem of mine or recite a poem by others.”
She said the most meaningful award might have been the Bobbitt Award given by the Library of Congress. “It was nice to go to Washington, D.C. and the Library of Congress. Lyndon Johnson’s sister endowed the award and her son hosted a banquet to award it, and L.B.J.’s daughter was there.”
Perillo says her influences have been W.B. Yeats when she was younger, Emily Dickenson and Wallace Stevens. She speaks of “stealing” from great poets of the past. “It was Frank Sinatra, I think, who said to steal from one person is plagiarism but stealing from everyone, that’s research.”
She says she still writes a lot and tries to work it in between such things as caregivers and physical therapy, and her wilderness. “I write when I can squeeze in a couple of hours.”