Lucia Perillo was an award-winning poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist who received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 2000 for her raw, unflinching, and searingly honest poetry. Perillo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 30, and her poems examine the topics that were ever present in her mind -- disease, suffering, loss, and mortality. She published seven volumes of poetry, a collection of essays, and a book of short stories set in the Pacific Northwest, and her talent brought her to the attention of some of the most notable literary critics in the country. Born in Manhattan, she worked in wildlife management for several years after graduating from McGill University in Montreal. She moved to Olympia in Thurston County and taught creative writing at Saint Martin's University in Lacey. After earning a master's degree in English at Syracuse University she taught at Southern Illinois University and at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lived in Olympia with her husband James Rudy until her death on October 16, 2016, at the age of 58.
A Love for the Natural World
Lucia Perillo was born on September 30, 1958, in Manhattan in New York City and grew up in suburban Irvington, New York. She was the third of four children of Robert Perillo, a lawyer whose parents were from Italy, and Marie Joan Kucija, a librarian. She had two brothers, Bob and Marc, and a sister, Ellen.
Her parents hoped Lucia would become a doctor and encouraged her to study biology in college. She enrolled at McGill University in Montreal and started out as a biology major, but by the end of her college years had switched to wildlife management. Later in her career this naturalist background would inform much of her writing, and her spot-on observations about the wonders and shortcomings of the natural world feature prominently in her poetry.
Perillo did not grow up dreaming of a literary career but she was intrigued by a college friend, a writer, who lived in the apartment above hers. She found she enjoyed listening to the tap-tap-tap of his typewriter late into the night. "I thought that was very romantic, so when I graduated from college and was unemployed and lived with my parents, I, too, started staying up at night writing" (Larimer). Soon after graduating from McGill in 1979, she got a job in Denver with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Her interest in poetry began soon after; readings were among the few events she felt comfortable attending alone as a single woman in a new city.
"That interest blossomed. Moving to California in 1981 to work at the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, she enrolled in a poetry-writing workshop at San Jose State University. It was taught by Robert Hass [b. 1941] who later became the poet laureate of the United States" (Gates).
A Devastating Diagnosis
Perillo continued to write in her spare time and then decided to return to school, earning a master's degree in English from Syracuse University in 1986. She went on to enroll in the university's doctoral program at the same time she applied for a teaching job in Washington, where she was a seasonal worker at Mount Rainier National Park. And at this time she was also working on her first book, Dangerous Life, but before it was published, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988 at the age of 30. Perillo described the sequence of events:
"I was working at Mount Rainier. I had packed my truck from Syracuse. I was enrolled as a PhD student, technically, and I said, OK, if I get a job in Washington, I'll stay there, and I'll drop out of the PhD program. If I don't get a job, I'll go back and become a PhD person of some sort. So I did happen to get a job in Olympia, Washington. In '87, I got this very low-paying job at Saint Martin's, a Catholic college that was affiliated with a monastery.
"It was half-time, half of $18,000 -- $9,000 -- which was slightly more than what I was making as a grad student. I was glad to have a half-time job ... My plan was to also supplement my income by working weekends as a ranger at Mount Rainier in the winter. So I would do those two things, work half-time and be a ranger on the weekends, with skiers and snow-play people up on the mountain. But then I started feeling weird. I had the inkling from my previous sickness -- a time when I had mysterious neurological symptoms just after college -- that it might be MS. And indeed it was. When the results came back, I decided I'd better teach. I wasn't going to be able to be a ranger on the weekends, so I had to reevaluate my plans" (McLeod).
Perillo taught at and then ran the writing center at Saint Martin's in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As the disease progressed and it became harder to handle the physical demands of working outside the home, she would eventually turn to writing full-time. She strove to write poems that could be read and appreciated for what they were, whether the reader knew her medical history or not:
"I don't think I wrote about MS directly very often in the early years of the disease. I write about it more now. I wanted to write poems that could be read on two different levels: One had to do with the surface of the poem, a reading that was not connected to illness in any way, but I also wanted to support ... a reading that connected to my illness. A lot of people read my work and didn't know anything about MS or my having that disease. I've never been interested in being a 'disabled poet'" (Larimer).
Marriage, Books, and a MacArthur Grant
She met her husband, James Rudy, a theater sound engineer, in Syracuse and they married in Olympia on June 25, 1993. She taught in the creative-writing program at Southern Illinois University from 1991 to 2000, traveling to Olympia on the weekends to be with her husband. She also taught in the master-of-fine-arts program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
Perillo's first book, Dangerous Life, published in 1989, won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. The Body Mutinies (1996) won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University, and Luck is Luck (2005) won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award from Claremont, along with a prize of $100,000, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
In 2000, Perillo earned one of the most prestigious honors of all: a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, frequently known as a "genius grant." Perillo told reporters she was cleaning the bathroom when she got the telephone call informing her she had been selected -- "after learning the news, she went back to cleaning" (Gates). She later told an interviewer that for her the award was a burden professionally.
"When I sat down to write after that award, I felt under the gun -- that I had to produce the great poem. That was a hard job to live up to, an impossible job, really. I remember when I sent poems out after the MacArthur and got rejections, as normal, there was a sense of shame: 'I won the MacArthur and now I'm getting rejected from the, oh, Pig Iron Review.' So it was very hard after the MacArthur, and I don't think that's unusual" (Larimer).
But she had more important things to worry about: The MacArthur grant came at a time that her MS was progressing. "I had bigger concerns. I was going into a wheelchair at that point, so there was all of this other stuff happening" (Larimer).
Perillo's work continued to receive national recognition. She was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her volume of poetry Inseminating the Elephant, which won a Washington State Book Award as well as the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress. She was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in 2012 for On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, and her 2012 book of short stories, Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain, was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
"All the while, her illness closed the doors to the physical life she loved. Her response wasn't anger or self-pity, but humor and a grim fascination with the process of decay" (Baker). She was thankful for whatever work she could still produce, in spite of numerous and constantly growing problems.
"I used to write first thing in the morning, and that was really productive for me. But now I have caregivers come first thing in the morning, because I need to put these leg braces on, and that has disrupted my former schedule. So I'm needing to adapt to writing at other times, which is difficult, I'm finding. I'm still trying to get into the swing of it, but I don't have much expectation of myself ... I mean, it's hard enough to do anything at all at this point, so I should be thankful for whatever I get" (Grimes).
Despite her enormous physical challenges, Perillo continued to write crisp, creative, and evocative poetry that won critical acclaim.
"Ms. Perillo writes shrewd, well-organized free verse that marches straight down the page while its meanings peel off in multiple directions ... Her burdens don't seem to weigh down her graceful verse but to lift it skyward. The real human interest story about Lucia Perillo is how much of the world she spills meaningfully onto the page" (Garner).
On January 20, 2011, she gave a reading at Seattle's Benaroya Hall, sponsored by Seattle Arts & Lectures and her publisher, Copper Canyon Press. Her final book, Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones, published in 2016, was a compilation of poetry from her six previous collections along with some new work. "The new poems deal more directly with what was happening to her body and mind. 'What I Know' ends 'I seem to have become/an old woman whose television still/has an antenna whose only news is snow'" (Baker).
National and Critical Acclaim
Perillo's writing captured the attention and admiration of fellow poets and critics alike.
"I have two words for anyone who wants to know why people turn to poetry in times of need: Lucia Perillo ... She's the funniest poet writing today, which is saying a lot, since she's also the poet most concerned with the treachery practiced on us daily by our best friends and worst enemies, our bodies" (Kirby).
In her monthly poetry column in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Lund highlighted Perillo's "ability to balance the timely and the timeless, and to capture some of the struggles that all humans face, regardless of when or where they live" (Lund). But it was her skill in inserting razor-sharp wit into her examination of death and dying that was most often extolled by critics.
"Perillo approaches mortality with a light touch and self-deprecating humor ... Each dose of hopelessness is met with some kind of call for singing ... Humor is actually the key to the power of her poems: While it's tempting to assume Perillo jokes to protect herself from life's dark inevitabilities, in fact, her jokes serve to expose her. She rolls up her sleeves for our benefit, shows us her skin" (Teicher).
Her individual poems appeared in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, and Atlantic Monthly. But she was not just a poet. She also published a compilation of essays, I've Heard the Vultures Singing: Field Notes on Poetry, Illness, and Nature, and a book of short stories, Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain, "a Northwest gem, hiding in plain sight like an agate on the shoreline. Her stories are delicious dark cherries, ripe with the same twisty humor as her poetry ... The settings and tone in Perillo's fiction is downtrodden Northwest, and the comparisons to Raymond Carver [1938-1988] were plentiful when Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain was published" (Baker).
Unforgiving Emotions, Unrelenting Honesty
As often happens with people facing physical decline, Perillo was brutally honest in her interviews, regardless of the subject matter.
"I became less interested in women's issues when my identity as a woman was subsumed by my identity as a person who was sick. It was in '88 that I was diagnosed with MS ... Then that identity overtook these earlier concerns because they paled. My earlier feminist concerns, my feelings of discrimination, were small potatoes compared to what I was up against subsequent to that. I acquired a new identity. Now, you know, I don't even feel like a woman anymore. I don't feel that's my primary identity. It stopped being my concern. I felt that: Oh, I'm this other thing now" (McLeod).
Even her service dog, a golden retriever named Dawby, was viewed through her distinctive prism of offbeat humor:
"'He's really a great dog despite his foibles,' Perillo notes dryly, 'and the funny thing is that his problems are very similar to my problems. His neuroses are a reflection of mine. It's really weird. He's very slobbery, and Perillos tend to have a lot of saliva in their mouths.' Then comes the pause -- a beat, two beats -- that moment pregnant with uncertainty: This is funny, but she’s not laughing. She continues: 'And I feel like I'm very needy, because of my writing, I need a lot of positive feedback and affirmation, and the dog needs a lot of affirmation too.' And there's something in the way she delivers that last part, the ring of satirical truth perhaps, that reveals the smile that was probably there all along" (Larimer).
Gifted with this sly sense of humor, she managed to view her disease and its encroachment on her life in a matter-of-fact way. She told an interviewer, "I don't battle MS, I relent to its humiliations," and when asked "How do you manage to ... not fall into despair," replied "I've already fallen: this is the voice from the swamp" (Valdes).
Lucia Perillo died at her home in Olympia on October 16, 2016, at the age of 58. She "left behind a husband, a wide circle of friends, and seven books of whip-smart, stylishly brilliant poetry about everything from old boyfriends to shoplifting from a luncheonette to bra fittings to the best way to inseminate an elephant. Life, in all its savage beauty" (Baker). In addition to her husband, Perillo was survived by her mother, her two brothers, and her sister.