A Fantastic American Swagger: Interview with Sam Pereira

Millicent Bórges Accardi
Darkness remains mysterious. Light is wonderful, but you only get there through darkness first. It is the very nature of why I write.

Un-assuming and often under the radar, the poetry of Sam Pereira has been hailed as “part John Berryman and part Richard Hugo, part Hemingway and part film director David Lynch,” but Pereira has yet to achieve the accolades his talent warrants. At the famous Iowa Writing Workshop, Pereira’s classmates included Larry Levis, Marcia Southwick, Angela Ball, and David St John, who praises Pereira’s work as having “a fantastic American swagger.”

Pereira’s first poetry book, The Marriage of the Portuguese, was republished three decades later and is still as topical as it was in the 1970’s, an ode to life’s uncertainties, “This is the work of someone fully experiencing what it means to be human in a society that continually threatens that humanity” yet true to his Portuguese heritage.
Today, Pereira lives with his wife and fellow writer Susan R. G. Pereira, in a rural community in the San Joaquin Valley of California, where he works as an English teacher in the public school system. His books of poetry include The Marriage of the Portuguese, Brittle Water, A Cafe in Boca and his latest Bad Angels.
Individual poems have appeared in several anthologies: Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets, The Body Electric, and How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets as well as in Alaska Quarterly Review, The American Poetry Review, Antioch, and Poetry (magazine). He is married to fellow writer Susan R. G. Pereira.
Pereira received a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, Fresno (CSUF) and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa, where he was part of the legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Literary influences include poets Philip Levine, Richard Hugo, Mark Strand, and Norman Dubie.
Millicent Borges Accardi: How does your latest collection Bad Angels differs from previous books?
Sam Pereira: In Bad Angels, there is a prevailing need to focus on a particular period—both chronologically, as well as emotionally. The period is one of expectations, some met, others only imagined. It is also a re-invention of my days as a graduate student in Iowa.
More importantly, though, it deals with a return to a time I played badly in most cases, a time that today, due to a late-blooming maturity I suppose, I can relatively skate through unscathed.
MBA: What is the significance of the title?
SP: I was raised Catholic, and grew up in a largely Catholic community of Portuguese and Italian families. While that has changed somewhat over the years, it encompasses the foundation of things for me, a foundation that I have worked very hard to sculpt more to my needs as I have grown older.
Bad Angels refers to, in my mind, the segment of the mythology that has always drawn people like myself toward its doorway. Darkness remains mysterious. Light is wonderful, but you only get there through darkness first. It is the very nature of why I write.
MBA: If you had to select one poem to share with our readers from Bad Angels, which one would it be?
SP: Absolutely, and thank you for asking. “A Modern Romance” I think distributes many of the things I have been working with over the years, and continue to hold dear even now. It is a poem that taps into human needs and desires, but also includes that need for genealogy we all seem to desire, either publically or privately. While it is not one of those chronological pieces I mentioned earlier, it is a marker, I suspect, on whatever this road I’ve attached myself to takes me.
A Modern Romance
Sometimes, there is just sadness
Everywhere a person looks.
his morning, it was
The drum of the washing machine,
Gyrating in some kind of dance
Designed to end with her bra, tied
Around the leg of a pair of pants.
Ultimately, sadness, even though
The percussion said otherwise.
This morning, that old briar
Allows him to think about being
Related to an otherwise forgettable
Portuguese man and wife,
Who managed together, in simplicity,
The joining of earth to sea.
Truly, the perfect sadness;
That absolute kiss of soil and cod.
They looked past each other, and
Marveled at the magic of their darkness.
 It had become expected,
In the years since Pessoa roamed
The exact same streets, talking
To himself; talking to darkness, which
Was only in its childhood back then.
MBA: How has being Portuguese shaped you as a writer?
SP: Funny thing, that. For a number of years I tried to detach myself from a particular lineage, and yet I found it presenting itself here and there along the way.
It obviously wanted to be included. So I stopped fighting it. Much of the basic grounding in whatever Sam Pereira has become is due largely to certain classic old world beliefs. Being Portuguese, like being a part of essentially any nurturing culture, provided me with a certain system of laws on how to be a man, how to live a life. Sometimes I broke those laws, which often led to poetry.
MBA: What poets do you teach in your classes?
SP: Because I teach middle school, and am somewhat expected to abide by the educational practices du jour, I am forced to find places in the school year to teach poetry.
What the suits feel poetry plays in life and what I feel are worlds apart, but I have managed to do so, I think. Not an easy trick, but along with Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, I have used poets like the incomparable Philip Levine, a friend and teacher, who died in 2015; Robert Bly, who remains a powerful voice, in spite of taking something of a back seat in popularity of late; Jane Hirshfield, a truly unique voice in contemporary poetry; and, yes, even the troubled and exquisite work of John Berryman.
How can someone share these brilliant minds with students who would rather be listening to the latest hip-hop artist? Carefully, I guess, carefully, and with love.
MBA: Your wife is a writer too, have you collaborated?
SP: Actually, Susan and I did that very thing early on in our relationship. We are currently working on re-submitting it for possible publication, once we do a few nip-and-tucks along the way. It is a collaborative novel, actually, which involves the use of poetry and prose as a device. It works. At some point, we are hoping the public agrees.
MBA: How do you write your poems? What is your process? (Dreams? Does a line come to you? Or the whole poem?)
SP: It varies, but one thing I have done now for the past few years is to set aside the early hours of the day to do nothing more than write, and by early I mean 5 A.M. or so. It is so quiet then, so peaceful, that I am usually able to focus simply and clearly on an idea and take it to its conclusion.
I have no set “process” other than that, and it seems to work. This past year, starting on January 1, I have written at least one poem a day, and we are now in the middle of summer as I write this. A lot of it is hopelessly bad, but some of it will appear in future books. Being the son of a man who loved working in the garden, I like to think weeding is among my skills.

MBA: Is there a “thread” or through-line, a central theme running through the poems in this book?
SP: Maybe. I’m not sure that it is all that different from some of my earlier work, but I think it is more cohesive in Bad Angels, than it was in other collections I have done. I like to think I am somewhere in between the worst romance writer in the universe and Samuel Beckett. It gives me a rather large game board to work with.
MBA: Do you have an editor, writing group or proof-reader of your poetry? Before you finalize it?
SP: When I married Susan, I not only married the woman I had been in search of for several decades; I also married a grand editor. Everything I write generally goes through Susan’s brilliant eyes before I show it to anyone else.
Also, I like to run poems I am particularly happy with by my long-time friends, the poets David St. John and Norman Dubie. Their insights and doubts are always welcome, as are Susan’s.
MBA: Who did the cover? Can you talk about how the art was selected?
SP: I decided, along with the publisher of Nine Mile Press, Bob Herz, to use a photo of a monument located in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, Iowa, which is, coincidentally, where both Bob and I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in the 1970s.
The Black Angel, as it is referred to, has a long and disturbing history to it, and that alone drew me to using it as the cover. There is one very memorable evening when Norman Dubie, and I ended up walking out to the cemetery and the monument, in particular. I think Norman wanted to make sure I had first-hand knowledge and vision of the place, and I am forever grateful for that gift.
Bad Angels
He rests on her inner thigh, a bad angel,
In a room fit perfectly for its darkness.
Whatever this is, it’s not because he thinks
He is a great lover. That is simply laughable.
He believes the most important time
Is a sigh at its middle; the purest wetness,
Those captivating tears. She tells him
About the white light; how it’s nothing
To fear. . .
MBA: Are there any poems in the book which represent your Portuguese background?

SP: In “One for the Contractor, Frank Beans” I am addressing the owner of a construction company that my father worked for in his early years.

My dad was a carpenter in those days, and built the house I grew up in, pretty much as a one-man show, when he wasn’t building homes for others. Frank Beans—a nickname, obviously—his real name was Frank Pereira (no relation), was someone my father respected greatly, and I think of him and my father having something of the type of relationship I have had, learning from poets and writers who are/were slightly older than I am. I am 66 now, so there are fewer and fewer of those folks around these days.
MBA: The poems in Bad Angels seem biographical driven by an objective force rather than a subjective force, with some more subtle than others—Did you use a biographical or historical information?
SP: You pick up something in your question that is, I believe, at the center of how these particular poems came to be.
They are “subjective” in the sense that they have a certain sense of direction that can only be derived from the writer’s perspective. They are “objective” in large part due to their insistence and need for foundational stability. From that platform of objectivity, I am allowed, or gifted with, the joy that comes from creating something new and, hopefully, memorable.
MBA: You graduated the Iowa Writers Workshop in its legacy years. Who were your classmates?
SP: The interesting thing with a question like that is the fear of leaving people out. The place was, and is, crawling with talent, both poets and fiction writers.
The ones that I felt particularly close to during my time there included, of course, my amigos from Fresno—David St. John and the late Larry Levis. Also, a guy named John Bowie, who had been a student of Larry’s from L.A. State, I believe, and who had followed the call to Iowa, as so many of us lucky enough to have been chosen did. John was a dear friend during much of that time in Iowa City and, strangely enough, shows up in my work on occasion. For example, the poem “Losing Myself in the Snow,” which appears in Bad Angels, is dedicated to John, who died of a massive heart attack a couple of years later, in 1977.
There were people like Adam LeFevre, who is a fine poet and playwright, but also a well-known character actor today. He has gone on to be in several motion pictures, most recently The Lucky One, I believe. There were also many brilliant women in the Writers’ Workshop when I was there, among them Marcia Southwick, Pamela Jody Stewart, Angela Ball, and I could go on, but you get the idea…a veritable Land of Oz for writers in their early creative years.
MBA: Your teachers?
SP: I lucked out again in that regard—nothing but the best—not just my opinion, but pretty much the world’s.
The list includes the two teachers who were permanent fixtures at Iowa during that time, Donald Justice and Marvin Bell. Norman Dubie, who I mentioned earlier, was also teaching in the workshop then.
Along with those three, nationally and internationally known poets and writers would spend a year on staff, and that list was incredible as well. During my two years, I had a chance to take classes and spend enormously valuable time with people like Mark Strand, Sandra McPherson, and Charles Wright just to name a few. I hate using the term “blessed,” but I was blessed, dammit!
MBA: In Iowa City, did you have a favorite place to write? To hang out? I was there for a conference a couple of years ago and went to the famous Hamburg Inn #2 (a key stop for Presidential hopefuls)
SP: Yes! There is a poem in the new book that exists because of the Hamburg Inn.
I wrote largely in whatever one-room place I happened to be living at the time. The first was an efficiency apartment in the basement of a house. The second year, I managed to go up-scale to the ground floor of a two-story house, divided into rooms for rent. I felt gloriously free. During that period, Iowa City was undergoing urban renewal and many of the businesses were set up in what amounted to trailers, while the downtown was reconstructed into what it is now.

One of those buildings, a bar called the Deadwood, which exists today in a far slicker format I am told, was where many of us spent far too much time with the romance of thinking we were writers—a necessary step, I suspect, toward reaching the actuality of that dream.

MBA: The title poem “Bad Angels” seems to be about giving in to one’s urges and also the contrast between life and death (that in darkness–as you said– there is also light, the shining light that people–who have had near-death experiences–see. There is a campy playfulness in the poem, a shared secret lucky couples have.  It could be a sex scene or contemplation in a graveyard. Can you describe the setting you imagined while writing this?
SP: Or, if you will humor me here, a sex scene in a graveyard? But, seriously, your insightful question does a lot to answer itself, I think. The poem encompasses all of those aspects, I believe, but with the overriding quality of privacy, selectively shared with the reader. It’s a kind of cat and mouse thematic that I and, I would bet money, a good many other writers find attractive. It is, finally, a poem that matters to me in ways I trust come through by the end of the entire collection, Bad Angels.
MBA: In Bad Angels, is the statue of the Black Angel significant?
SP: Let me say here: It is an image that anyone passing through [Iowa City] must, at some point, be aware of. Use it. Don’t use it. The mystery continues to be written in stone.