Poetry allows you to have these feelings, to explore your grief and joy. Poetry is a spit in the eye of the monster—a knife in its gut.
When Robert Pesich arrived at his new Sunnyvale middle school sporting a tan leather briefcase and a hint of a Serbian accent, the school bullies must have rubbed their meaty paws together in anticipation. Having recently arrived in the neighborhood, his Yugoslav parents bought their 12-year-old son an elaborate briefcase to start his new school experience on a high note. Instead, his sartorial difference stood out to the school neophobes, tipping them off to fresh prey. They moved in for the kill, delivering two years of nonstop abuse.
However, the bullies’ plan did not go as they had hoped. Instead, the boy developed intense coping mechanisms. He learned how to read people. Under such pressure, an interior life developed—an important first step on the path to becoming a poet, Robert notes.
He also bonded with the bullies’ other victims, and this camaraderie not only helped them cope, it thrust Robert into the role of leader. Sports was another coping mechanism, and Robert went out for cross country, track, and soccer—becoming captain of his soccer team. He looked out for the younger members of the team by communicating with them about their needs and fears. He was the oldest child and very concerned that his younger brother not have similar problems when he started middle school.
The young Pesich also continued his escape into literature, a practice that had been with him even as a young lad, when he and his brother climbed into trees and read all day—Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick—the ultimate escape novels. During his senior year of high school, Robert encountered a creative writing teacher, Richard Canavese, who taught him to create his own works of poetry and short fiction.
Another influence on Robert came by happenstance when his mother took him to the Stanford bookstore one day, and he picked up a college text on genetics. He became curious about the field; it seemed a natural confluence of his parents’ careers—his mother, a nurse, and his father, a design engineer.
Robert received a degree in genetics at UC Davis, but he also carried with him to college his fascination with poetry and enrolled in creative writing workshops. His literary mentors at Davis were doyens of the poetry world: Walter Pavlich, Sandra McPherson, and the legendary Gary Snyder. Snyder’s Buddhist influence taught Robert skills that helped with all his studies—the notion of merely “watching the movie in your mind, which helped mitigate anxiety, whether from poetry or a research project,” he says.
The dual forces of science and language continue to propel Robert decades later. He works by day as a lab manager and research associate for Stanford University School of Medicine and Palo Alto Veterans Institute for Research. But after he returns home for dinner with his wife, Sanja, and their two sons spends time with homework, reads to his children, and says goodnight as his wife’s heads to bed, in the quiet of their Sunnyvale house, Mr. Pesich transforms into a poet. While lesser mortals would let the fatigue be their undoing, Robert says it serves a positive function: to suppress his internal editor.
He has published the poetry collections Model Organism and Burned Kilim and contributed to the anthology Cuts from the Barbershop. Today, he’s at work on a new manuscript, “Erratum Corrigendum,” a collection he loosely calls love poems, although his definition of “love” is not necessarily romantic, but rather in the vein of an homage. Here he’s experimenting with longer lines, prose poems, and sometimes drawing from his experiences in the lab. “There’s a love of the language in the sciences, and I like to bring that into the poem.” Another inspiration for Robert’s work is his passion for tango music, particularly the use of the accordion. He’s intrigued by the dramatic changes in mood and tempo—from tenderness to violence.
Robert has inherited the editorial duties at poetry publisher Swan Scythe Press; he believes poetry serves a purpose in today’s society. “There’s a lot out there that takes away our joy—that says ‘no.’ No, you can’t be a woman in the sciences. No, you can’t be a man and write poetry. You’re not allowed to have these feelings. But poetry allows you to have these feelings, to explore your grief and joy. Poetry is a spit in the eye of the monster—a knife in its gut.”
He goes on to explain that “whereas science is trying to come to a clear understanding of a phenomenon, a kind of mechanistic understanding, a poem doesn’t have to be black and white. Competing ideas can be held together simultaneously. It helps us endure these conundrums.” Poetry also serves a role in the current political resistance movement against Trump. “The idea is married to the engine of passion, to keep that idea moving forward.”
The same spirit Robert invoked to fight schoolyard bullies can be seen today in his role as a community organizer for Poetry Center San José, bringing people together for a common goal and mentoring the younger members of the group. As president, he strives to provide venues for poets to share their work, organizing 100 events for 2018 alone. He believes that “in a live reading, there’s a raw honesty you don’t have in social media feeds. They’re the antidote to
an anodized digital world.”
Robert Pesich especially takes great strides to nurture young poets, advising them that failure is allowed. “So, you put yourself out there with a poem, and it fell flat. That’s okay, you’re learning something now. Test and retest. Remind yourself to look for a little deer path or some evidence that will likely lead you in a direction you were not aware of. Budding writer, be mindful of interrogating yourself,” words that seem suspiciously like they come from a scientific researcher who moonlights as a poet.
Written by Cathleen Miller
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 10.3 “Profiles”
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