By Millicent Borges Accardi
A Luso American with roots in Asia, physician and poet Peter Pereira is a primary care doctor located in Seattle, Washington, where he cares for an urban, underserved population of immigrants, refugees, housing project residents, and the elderly.
The author of two poetry books, What’s Written on the Body (2007) and Saying the World (2003), and a chapbook, The Lost Twin (2000), Pereira has been a recipient of several writing awards including “Discovery”/The Nation, Hayden Carruth prizes, and was a “Lambda Literary Award” finalist.
The founder of Floating Bridge Press, an independent publishing house, his individual poems have appeared in literary magazines such as Poetry, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and several anthologies, including Best American Poetry and To Come to Light: Perspectives Chronic Illness in Modern Literature.
Pereira’s writings have been compared to those of the famous Walt Whitman for their celebratory nature and lines that explore suffering alongside humor and hope. The writer Gregory Orr has called Pereira, “a master of many modes, all of them yielding either wisdom or delight.”
In this interview with Millicent Borges Accardi, Peter Pereira speaks of his Portuguese heritage, his nostalgia for things Portuguese, and his love for poetry and of healing.
Q: Where in the Luso world is your family from and where do you have Portuguese family ties?
A: My father Arthur Pires Pereira was born in Hong Kong and his family was of Portuguese and Chinese descent. They were in Asia for many generations before him, probably as part of the great Portuguese diaspora.
He grew up speaking Portuguese, Chinese, and English, he and his siblings often using whichever language had the best word for what they were wanting to say. But, when my father came to America, after WWII, he wanted to be American, and did not teach me or any of his kids any Portuguese or Chinese, which looking back is a bit of a shame.
I have not ever been to Hong Kong, but my sister Colleen has visited several cousins who still live there. I visited Lisbon a few years ago and loved it! The people are so friendly, and the food was amazing. I loved all the history and the art and music there.
People at the hotels and restaurants and shops would always recognize my last name (Pereira is a very common surname in Portugal) and would try to speak Portuguese to me. Unfortunately, I would have to say: Eu não falo muito português.
Q: How did you begin to write poetry? I guess I want to ask: which came first the chicken or the egg? Were you writing poetry before medical school? Or did you begin as a result or were you inspired by your work as a doctor?
A: I was an English major in undergrad, with an emphasis in creative writing and comparative literature. But I also loved the sciences, and earned a degree in Biology and worked in a research lab. I went to medical school thinking I would do research and become a science writer. But I discovered I really loved clinical medicine and seeing patients, particularly primary care and community health.
I have been a family physician at High Point Community Clinic in Seattle for over 30 years now, serving primarily a disadvantaged population of immigrants, refugees, children, young families, the elderly and the disabled. It is very challenging work, but also very rewarding.
Writing poetry has been a way for me to stay in touch with my creative life, as well as to explore the many difficult and complex experiences of medical practice. I think many of the qualities of a good physician are the same as those of a good writer: careful listening, attention to detail, non-judgement, and openness to possibilities.
Q: You have two poetry books What’s Written on the Body (2007) and Saying the World (2003) with Copper Canyon Press, which for poets is THE dream press. Can you talk about how publication came about?
A: My first full-length book, Saying the World, was chosen as the winner of the Hayden Carruth Award, which was a competition for new and emerging poets.
I had previously published a small chapbook of poems, The Lost Twin, with Grey Spider, a small independent press in Washington state, and it had been well received.
Being chosen by Copper Canyon for the Carruth Award, felt like winning the lottery! Copper Canyon is a very prestigious, well respected poetry press, and that gave the book a high profile. It was incredibly fun and rewarding to be asked to give readings and attend conferences.
I was lucky enough for lightening to hit twice, so to speak, when Copper Canyon accepted my second book, What’s Written on the Body, a few years later. It was a longer and more ambitious book, and in addition to the medical and family and love poems, there are a number of poems using word-play and exploring language. Again, I had a great time giving readings and attending conferences with it.
I continue to write, though not as prolifically as before. I have continued to publish poems occasionally in magazines and hope to have another manuscript (or two!) that may be ready to see the world in the coming years.
Q: Do you have a community of writers in Seattle? My mom would have said “A tribe that I pal around with.” Can you describe your poetry tribe? Who is in it? What goals (if any) you have and how have they been supportive?
A: I currently have a poetry writing group and a poetry reading group that each meet once a month.
The poetry writing group has been meeting in one form or another for over 30 years! Members have come and gone, but the core group has been consistent, and I count them as some of my closest friends and confidantes. We read each other’s new poem drafts, and give feedback and critique, as well as lots of mutual positive support. They’ve seen my poems from their humble beginnings and have helped me revise and shape them over time.
The poetry reading group has been meeting for about 5 years now and was started by my dear friend and former college writing professor Sharon Bryan.
It has some members from the writing group, and some members who are not in the writing group. We choose a different book of poems to read together each month, either something new or something from the past, and discuss it over wine and snacks.
The conversations are amazing: we each come from different perspectives and see different things in the poems. We discuss meaning, theme, form, organization, what works, what doesn’t work, what could have been done differently, etc.
We have strong opinions at times, and we also laugh a lot. I always come away feeling energized and more in love with poetry. And I think reading like this helps with my writing. I highly recommend a poetry reading group. If you are a writer, it gets you out of your own head for a while, and is very balancing and liberating.
Q: On the Floating Bridge Press website, the publishing company you founded, each editor lists their Favorite Poets— and I see many wonderful names like Marianne Boruch and Elizabeth Acevedo. Who are your favorites?
A: Louise Gluck was one of the first poets I read when I was first coming to poetry in the early-mid 80’s. Her book The Wild Iris was a touchstone for me, I learned so much from it. I have followed her books and career ever since, and she continues to be one of my favorites. Her recent books “Faithful and Virtuous Night” and “Winter Recipes from the Collective” are wonderful.
Some other favorites are Charles Wright, Franz Wright, Kay Ryan, Anne Carson, Carolyn Forche, Frank O’Hara, Heather McHugh, and Mark Doty.
Q: Do you have any Portuguese-inspired or poems with a Portuguese theme?
A: I have a poem in What’s Written on the Body titled “Crossing the Pear.” It owes a debt to Victor Perera’s (no relation) book The Cross and the Pear Tree, that explores the history of the great Portuguese Diaspora, particularly that which occurred in the wake of the 15th century Inquisition, where many Portuguese Jews were impelled to flee Portugal, and went to Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America, among other places.
I believe Pereira means “pear tree” in Portuguese, and I use the image of the pear tree to explore my relationship with my father, and our family tree.
Crossing the Pear
— for Arthur Pereira & Victor Pereira
The summer I turned twelve, my father and I
discovered a half-eaten pear
sprouting from the compost.
We tied it to a fence, watered and watched
two branches appear, then four.
There are twenty-eight pages of Pereiras
in the Lisbon telephone book.
All summer and fall I watered, then one morning: nothing
but bent twigs shriveled.
In my parochial school History books
the Portuguese were beautiful men who dangled
gold hoops from ear lobes and sailed
the Seven Seas. They told nothing
of the days of Inquisition, when for refusing pork,
or changing linen on Fridays, over 200 Pereiras
perished in Evora alone.
. . . the pear was forced into the mouth,
rectum or vagina of the accused,
expanded by force of a screw
to the maximum aperture of its segments.
The venerable pear, my patronym.
Scattered across continents,
expulsed from garden to garden.
If flight is no more
than an admission of guilt,
what was our crime?
Youngest of five brothers, my father
stole rice from under the bayonets of Hong Kong’s
Japanese invaders, attended Catholic mass with his widowed mother
every day but Saturday.
Twenty-eight pages of Pereiras:
the same as I would find in Rio,
São Paulo, Managua, Macau . . .
I bask in the shade of a spreading pear tree,
laden with new fruit. The name of my father
is all that’s left of him, a vague sweetness,
the taste of pear.
Q: Your poem “Perfect Pitch.” Can you share the back-story of how it came to be written? Was the ending created for a different purpose or perhaps there is a regional difference between music teachers in Washington and California?
A: I’m glad you enjoyed this poem. I arose from a story I heard on NPR radio one day. Yes, there might be a regional difference in the mnemonic for the music scale.
“F. . . the oven is an F” Samantha Foggle, age 3
Oh, to hear the world with such clarity.
Such surety. To know the note
of your breakfast chat is B-flat minor.
That the ’57 Chevy stalled outside the
garage is a D. To recognize the Apricot
kitchen paint for what it is: F-sharp.
To understand the way you feel for him is G,
definitely a G. And as you watch him
descend the scale of the front steps to his car
for work, the house quiets to an A.
The arpeggio of last night’s Every
Good Boy Deserves Favor
still ringing in your ears.
Peter Pereira, “Perfect Pitch” from What’s Written on the Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2007).
Q: What a fun play on words combining and intersecting two maybe three famous poems in your piece called “Fugue.” How did the figure 5 come to be a focal point of this poem? Was it based on the piece by American artist Charles Demuth?
A: For this poem, I took three William Carlos Williams poems (“The Red Wheelbarrow,” “This is Just to Say,” And “The Great Figure”), and put them in a blender of sorts (an online tool called a Markov Text Generator), then shaped the resulting text into a poem that I hope captures William’s voice as well as the slipperiness of language.
Charles Demuth’s painting “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold”, was actually inspired by William’s poem, “The Great Figure,” so it is a reverse ekphrastic of sorts. I’m sure I had this painting in the back of my mind while working on this poem.
this is just to say I saw the icebox and wheels
rumbling through the figure 5
I saw the white chickens
in the dark city glazed with rain
I saw the figure 5 in the white chickens
the plums that were in gold on a red wheel barrow
the plums that you were probably
saving among the rain water
I have eaten the dark city so sweet
the plums that were so sweet
this is just to say I have eaten the figure 5
in the plums that so much depends
that were in gold on a red firetruck
Peter Pereira, “Fugue” from What’s Written on the Body (Copper Canyon Press)
Q: What are you working on now? Is there an excerpt you can share with us? A few lines?
A: My husband/partner of 35 years, Dean Allan, who many of my poems have been dedicated to, passed away in October 2021, after complications of colon surgery. He was the love of my life and it has been quite a challenging year living without him. I have been working on a number of poems exploring our life together and my grief experience.
Here is one recent draft:
After my father died, my mother began to sleep
with a large teddy bear she could cuddle and tell her troubles to.
After a friend’s wife passed, he took long drives
alone in the countryside, comforted
by the dove-like sound of a woman’s voice
giving him perfect directions over his phone.
Some people will find a new pet after a spouse passes
and give it a secret name. Others will read books
their partner used to love, and in return receive
special messages to guide them through their day.
As my husband and I snuggle in for another night,
rubbing noses like sea lions in our many-pillowed dream chariot,
I try not to think about which of us
will fall asleep first —
or of what I, his slobbering Picasso-eyed pug,
would do without him, my faithful and alert Great Dane.
Creatures grown accustomed to each other’s ways,
like a pair of old horses leaning together in a field.
You will always be accompanied, an owlish palm reader once told me, years ago,
and I cried at the thought of it, not knowing why.
Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Through Grainy Landscape, 2021 (inspired by Portuguese writings) and the upcoming Quarantine Highway. Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant). Yaddo, Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal), and the Barbara Deming Foundation, “Money for Women.” She also curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series.
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