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November 22, 2013

Salem State poet wins prize from Iowa

Alexandria Peary, an English professor at Salem State, specializes in helping people overcome writer’s block.

She clearly isn’t suffering from that malady because her new book of poems, “Control Bird Alt Delete,” was awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize from Iowa University Press for 2013.

“It’s a book about the environment,” said Peary, who lived in Maine when she was young. “It’s a book about New England, Lowell, mills, stone walls.”

But Peary has struggled with her writing at times, especially after attending the highly competitive Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she graduated in 1994.

“For most people, it’s very harsh,” she said. “I was 22. I had a block for years.”

Relief came as a mixed blessing following the premature birth of a child, an experience addressed by a number of poems in her first book, “Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers” from 2008.

“I went home without my baby, and the only way I could cope that summer was to write,” she said.

Because she wrote to serve a private need, rather than to satisfy an audience, Peary wrote “poem after poem after poem.”

“It’s very freeing to seclude yourself,” she said. “We don’t let people have enough privacy with their writing. The teacher is like a watch dog.”

Peary’s last book, “Lid to the Shadow,” won the 2010 Slope Editions Book Prize, and her first book was awarded both the Joseph Langland Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Mudfish Poetry Prize.

Her poetry is private, but it isn’t confessional. Her poems have subjects, but they incorporate the process of composition in their end result, which gives them a wildly inventive surface.

“I’m a meta-writer,” Peary said. “I like to refer to language while I’m writing.”

Though her work may strike some as a recent invention, it is only a more explicit version of something poets have always done.

“I refer to the act of writing,” Peary said. “Shakespeare did that in his sonnets.”

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