In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Michael Pearce
1. Tell us about your poem in Volume 21, “Closing Time.” How did it come to be?
My mother was Jewish, my father was a WASP, and neither was religious. I find ethnicity confusing, and my ethnicity in particular. Since most of our social life came about through my mother, I grew up in a largely Jewish—though secular—community.
In my early twenties, I got a job in a shop that manufactured furniture. Soon after I started there, an older German craftsman asked me what sort of name Pearce was. I told him it was English. Next thing I knew, I was hearing angry rants about Jews. I was afraid to confront him, and to my everlasting shame, I never told him about my Jewish background. But some good came of it; I have tried ever since to make sense of my heritage, to appreciate its richness, to be open and forthright about who I am. This comes up in poems (and occasionally a story or play), often with some confusion and ambivalence—I’m still not religious, I have problems with Israel’s policies, yadda yadda. I’ve been in several Jewish museums over the years, but the one in “Closing Time” exists only in my psyche.
Incidentally, I learned something about my German woodworking colleague that has informed my understanding of the complexity of human nature: He was married to an African-American woman and took pride in that fact.
2. To you practice any other art forms? If so, do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I play music. I’m not a pro, but I’ve played lots of gigs at lots of venues over the past decade. Occasionally I’ve written stories and poems about the world of music. For example, I played briefly in a band called True Danger (yes, I should have known). After a gig in an insanely loud punk club in San Francisco, I became mostly deaf for two months. Any kind of conversation was difficult. Music was an ugly cacophony and I was certain I’d never hear or play it again. That debacle inspired a long story about a musician who goes deaf under similar circumstances. Eventually my hearing improved and I came back to music (though I steered clear of True Danger).
I think music informs my writing on a more subtle and pervasive level. Especially when I’m writing poetry, I find myself making decisions about where things are going from a rhythmic and melodic perspective—repetition with variation; enough repetition, time to introduce a new theme; speed up the action, slow it down; time to add visual detail, if only for a shift in texture; time to enjoy simple, old-fashioned assonance, alliteration, meter, rhyme—or time to avoid such hackneyed devices at all costs. I’m sure all poets are guided by a musical sensibility, some very consciously. But I suspect that the experience of playing melodies and, in particular, constructing solos puts more emphasis on sound-emotion connections and feeling your way forward through the musical landscape of a poem. Interestingly, jazz musicians often describe the process of crafting a solo as the telling of a story.
3. What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
A few years ago, while working on a poem that was going nowhere, I decided to just let my fingers wander on the keyboard—an ancient (and slightly depressing) creative writing exercise that I’d never tried before, nor have I since. At some point my aimless scribbling took a sharp turn and I found myself in a fictional town in a small mountain valley in California, a place that felt familiar but had different rules from the world I walk around in. I said ‘found myself’, but the me in the poem had a different voice and way of looking at things. I later named the town Santa Lucia, but haven’t given the narrator a name.
Something about the narrator and the not-quite-real landscape he moved through kept drawing me back. With each new poem I’d develop new characters and discover new and peculiar aspects of Santa Lucia. I felt like a child as I explored my imaginary town, and the persona of the narrator carries some of the naïve acceptance that I felt (and still feel) in that slightly magical world. I like that world, and I like my narrator; he navigates his life in a less guarded, more forthright manner than I do. He struggles. He tries to make the best of things.
I thought I was finished with the Santa Lucia poems a couple years ago. Then late last year another one came along, and then another. I’m in the middle of one right now.
Michael Pearce’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Spillway, EPOCH, The Yale Review, New Ohio Review, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. His fiction and poetry have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, among other national prizes. He lives in Oakland, California, and plays saxophone in the Bay Area band Highwater Blues.