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inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #0 of 150: David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 30 Oct 06 19:58
    
We're pleased to introduce our next guest, Mary Mackey, and her latest book
of poetry, _Breaking the Fever_.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #1 of 150: David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Sat 11 Nov 06 22:51
    
Mary Mackey is the author of four previous collections of poetry and
eleven novels. Some of her works have been published by small literary
presses; some have made The New York Times bestseller list. The poems
in her new collection, "Breaking the Fever" (Marsh Hawk Press;
www.marshhawkpress.org) have been praised by poets Wendell Berry, Jane
Hirshfield, Dennis Nurkse, Marge Piercy, and Al Young for their beauty,
precision, originality, and extraordinary range. Sometimes lyrical and
mystical, sometimes autobiographical, sometimes fierce, and at times
even shocking, Mackey's crisp-edged perceptions are, as Hirshfield has
noted: "set down with a sensuous, compassionate, utterly unflinching
eye."

Readers who want to sample some of the poetry in "Breaking the Fever"
can find it at www.marymackey.com.


Talking with Mary is Carol Adair, usually called rubi.
 
She's been a member of the Well since 1994, is host of Fitness and of
the Poetry Conference. In her spare time, she teaches English at the
College of Marin.

Welcome to both of you!
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #2 of 150: Carol Adair (rubicon) Sun 12 Nov 06 11:57
    
Thank you. And welcome Mary. As a long time fan of your novels, I'm so
excited and happy to be talking to you about your latest book, 
"Breaking the Fever" You've written, what?, ten novels! And now this 
wonderful book of poetry. How did this change come about? And how is
being a poet different from being a novelist?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #3 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 12 Nov 06 16:13
    

Publishing a book of poetry is not so much a new step for me as a
continuation of a long process that began years ago. My first published book
("Split Ends") was a collection of poetry. In fact, for the first ten years
of my career, I was a poet exclusively. Then I started to write novels. I've
always loved writing poetry and continue to write poems while I am writing
novels. It's good to have a new collection in print.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #4 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 12 Nov 06 16:14
    

Writing poems and writing novels feels very different. The creative impulse
is the same, but novels take a long time (two or more years), and are
rational, logical, and demanding. You have to plan them out, know where you
are going, and be able to remember thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of
tiny details. Of course in a well written novel, you pay attention to
language and choose each word carefully; but you also have other things to
think about, particularly if you write historical fiction, which I often do.
For example, next spring Putnam/Berkley Books is publishing my novel "The
Notorious Mrs. Winston." It's set during the Civil War which means I needed
to understand what the heck rifled canons were and when geese migrate.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #5 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 12 Nov 06 16:15
    

Poetry, in contrast, is more of an explosion in my brain. It comes as a
great wave of image and emotion which I translate into words. I revise each
poem again and again, looking for the perfect combination of word and rhythm
and ambiguity. I'm constantly surprised. I never know where I'm going.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #6 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Sun 12 Nov 06 20:45
    
"An explosion in my brain" I love that.  

At the same time, when I read your poems, I read stories, with
settings and chapters and plots and characters. To me your poems burst
with story. Take, for example, from "Breaking the Fever" - "Memories of
My Own Underdevelopment" or "Agapanthus" or, maybe my favoriate "The
Myans Take Back Yucatan". Especially this last one.  Don't you think
that your time spent being a novelist has also made you a story-telling
poet? 

What HAS influenced you into writing poetry? For that matter, into
being a writer?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #7 of 150: kate (katecat) Mon 13 Nov 06 07:15
    
Hullo Mary! what struck me right off the bat about these poems is how
well-titled the collection is. For me your poems to have a fever-dream
quality--no definition is especially solid, things transform into each
other very easily. "The breakfast nook,' which is quite disturbing and
lovely, is a great example of this. 

The poem 'Samba' fits for me there too--of course makes me think of
shiva's dance of creation and destruction and transformation.

This is a rather mundane question but I am curious--did you indeed
have a lot of fevers as a child? Do you think it bent your brain a bit,
in this excellent way?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #8 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 13 Nov 06 14:28
    

Actually, I think the reverse is true, rubi. I think my inclination to tell
stories everywhere and at all times first surfaced in my poetry. Later the
same inclination informed my novels. Of course, not all of my poems are
narrative. I like to write poetry that is accessible at first glance, but so
deeply layered that it keeps opening up and surprising the reader. However,
I like to think that I am as capable of writing a totally obscure,
incomprehensible poem as any contemporary poet. I do on occasion do so, but
mostly I choose not to.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #9 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 13 Nov 06 14:28
    

As for the possibility that fever has bent my brain in an "excellent way"
(as Kate put it), I think that there is no doubt that very early experiences
of delirium and alternate levels of consciousness have made me appreciate
the fluidity of boundaries and the tenuous quality of reality. Those fevers
also helped me understand what mystical poets like Blake and St. John of the
Cross are saying. The upshot is that I have a very strong interest in hard
science combined with a spiritual/mystical streak. I think this is fairly
unusual. All I have to do to see categories blend (as in "The Breakfast
Nook") is to stare intently at an object. After about five minutes, it
always looks like nothing I have ever seen before. In other words: Point of
View Martian.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #10 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 13 Nov 06 14:29
    

Other influences on my work have been: meditation (I have meditated everyday
since 1975), nature, environmental/ecological issues, new scientific
discoveries, Neruda, Lorca, memory, low blood sugar, Blake, Huxley, the
French symbolists, Baudelaire, Petrof Vodkin, visionary painting in general,
Einstein's Theory of Relativity (particularly with regard to time), and many
other things too numerous to list.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #11 of 150: Carol Adair (rubicon) Mon 13 Nov 06 18:14
    
Not being much of a fan of obscure poetry, I'm grateful that so many
of your poems are accessible on the surface and then deepen with each
rereading. They catch me and keep me going back for more. Can you tell
me if there is a particular poem in "Breaking the Fever" that you might
say is a "key" to this book? If you were forced to choose one that
could speak for the others, which one would it be? And, of course, why?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #12 of 150: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Mon 13 Nov 06 19:06
    
Mary, I do love your list of "other influences."  They're a kind of
poem in themselves.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #13 of 150: asparagus before librarians (katecat) Tue 14 Nov 06 09:52
    
I love that list too! And had to Wiki Petrov-Vodkin, whose name I did not
recognize--but I know that "Bathing of a Red Horse" painting from somewhere.

I love the structure of this book. I particularly lik ethat the second
section is called "The Californian," although it seems to be about travel as
well as California--that sense that we take our home-selves with us when 
we travel. You seem to have done a great deal of travel--does that fit in 
with your tendency to blur boundaries in other ways? How has it influenced 
your poetry?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #14 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 14 Nov 06 11:52
    

If I were going to select a key poem, it would probably be the title poem
"Breaking the Fever" because that poem speaks about the alternate state of
consciousness that produces poetry. So why don't we start there. "Lynchburg"
is also one of my very favorites, but it's probably too long to post. It's a
transformation poem that pairs the unlikely duo: Hindu theories of
transformation and transcendence and a famous Civil War Battle--and of
course, being about war, death, and transcendence it also is making
reference (albeit indirectly) to the current war in Iraq.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #15 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 14 Nov 06 12:12
    

Travel doesn't stand alone for me. I have combined it with learning
languages. If you will forgive a small, but necessary, brag, here: when I
got my doctorate, I studied French, Spanish, and Russian. Much later I
learned Portuguese. I speak all four languages, plus English--French well,
Spanish and Portuguese moderately, Russian (because I am rusty and out of
practice) haltingly. I have had an opportunity to go to very remote places
(the rain forests of Costa Rica and the Amazon, the backlands of Brazil,
small villages in India, the jungles of Brunei). There I have had an
opportunity to speak with people who are poor beyond what most urban
Americans can imagine, and on various occasions to be a guest in their
homes. Also, I have witnessed events that (I hope) I would never witness in
the United States (like the massacre in "Memories of My Own
Underdevelopment) When you speak a foreign language, you can read the great
poetry in that language, talk to its people, and compare your own culture to
another. But a side effect you don't usually anticipate is that you also
become a different person for a while. I am not the same Mary Mackey in
Spanish that I am in English or Russian or French or Portuguese. In Spanish
I am more formal and polite, in Russian more romantic, in French more witty,
and in Portuguese more of a party animal. So here we have more blurring of
boundaries, and all of this, of course, changes my poetry as it changes me.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #16 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 14 Nov 06 12:22
    

I just realized that I never answered the question about childhood fevers.
Yes, I did have very high fevers as a child, not to mention pneumonia and
numerous step throats. If it weren't for penicillin, I would have died at
the age of six months, so it's all been a free ride since. I've run high
fevers all my life. The last time I had an out-of-control one was about
fifteen years ago in a small Mexican fishing village where there were no
doctors and no way to get to one. When my fever reached its peak (107), I
started cracking jokes and speaking rhymed couplets. The rhymed couplet
thing went on non-stop for about two hours and scared the hell out of my
husband who was sure I was either dying or about to go into convulsions. I
have no idea if other people speak in rhyme when they get delirious, but in
my case, this must somehow be related to the way my brain creates poetry.
(My last high fever was about three months ago-a mere 104-hardly in the
ballpark; fever doesn't get fun until you hit 105.)
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #17 of 150: asparagus before librarians (katecat) Tue 14 Nov 06 13:03
    
good god. I had a low fever just a few days ago that made me stare at an
oddly-shaped object for 5 minutes wondering what it could be (vacuum 
cleaner). I can't even imagine 107.

These are wonderful and amazing stories.  Rhymed couplets!! Also, I am so
impressed that you are fluent in several languages. Do you ever write 
poetry in other languages?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #18 of 150: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Tue 14 Nov 06 13:37
    
Please answer that question.

Your fever behavior is jaw-dropping.  Most of us just moan and behave
badly.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #19 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 14 Nov 06 13:54
    

I've tried writing poetry in Spanish and French and writing song lyrics too,
but it just doesn't work. I think you have to have had a childhood in a
language to really feel it from the inside.

As for moaning and behaving badly = 98.7 to 104.5
above that it's party time
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #20 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Tue 14 Nov 06 13:59
    
And on the subject of fevers and poetry. Here's the title poem

Breaking the Fever




When i was young
fevers were attacked
the grown-ups would run you
with alcohol
wrap you in wet sheets
refuse you blankets
fan you, feed you aspirin
plunge your wrists in cold water

they knew fever had to be fought
because it let children see
forbidden things
At 105 I would start to hear voices
soft and lulling
at 106 the faces would appear
swimming around me

stretching out their hands
they would gesture to me
to join them
I was always very happy then
floating out on the warm brink
of the world

the fever children
would sing in high voices
liquid like silver bells
"come with us"
they would say
"come play, Mary"
and they would show me
maple trees turning red and gold
long aisles of sunlight
and woods that glowed and trembled

My body would start to come apart
very gently like milkweed fluff
and I would begin
to rise up toward their
hands
but always at the last moment
the dark circles
of the grown-ups' faces
would force me back down
and their fear would pin my chest
to the mattress
like black crystal paper weights

They would force more aspirin on me
more ice and alcohol rubs
more wet sheets
and if that didn't work
they would lift my naked body
and plunge it into a tub of cold water
ignoring my screams

"Come back"they would plead
"come back"
"come back"
and my fever would buckle
and snap like the spine
of a beautiful snake
crushed under a boot

Then the fever children
would abandon me
and I would be left in a world
of ordinary things:
light bulbs
used Kleenex
hissing radiators
thermometers

I would see my mother's pale
terrified face
and my stuffed animals
and my brother's crib
and my precious fever would lie
broken in a thousand bits
with no way to put it back together
and I could never explain
how kind it had been
and how foolish we were to fear it.
 
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #21 of 150: asparagus before librarians (katecat) Tue 14 Nov 06 14:35
    
"the warm brink of the world" is so lovely, and seems to be where a good
deal of your poetry takes place.

I also like the way these poems keep doubling back and incorporating the 
past--the third section, "When we were your age," does this most clearly, 
but it happens throughout. The poem "Replays" seems to be about this 
specifically--"the past /drifts out behind me/catching everything at 
random." So the past acts as a sort of net in your poetry?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #22 of 150: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Wed 15 Nov 06 07:49
    
We haven't said all that can be said about the title poem by any
means, so I'll want to say a little more about "When we were your age"
later.  I thought it was brilliant, that's what.

Yes, you seem to be drawing on an everpresent past, which indeed lives
side-by-side with the present.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #23 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 15 Nov 06 12:15
    


I am very interested in all aspects of time, particularly in time as encoded
in memory and time as a relative construct; so it's definitely true that the
images of the past play an important role in my poetry. (I recently gave
a speech in San Francisco about "The Time Traveler's Wife" and they symbolic
nature of time travel).

As for the "net" of time, please notice the last image in the last poem

Fishing and Weaving

in a room
where the windows
are radiant with dust
you sit
with your back to the wall
weaving white cotton

you toss it toward me
and it billows like smoke
rattles like stones
falls like pearls

I'm happy here!
you cry
your words become cloth
each cross-thread a vowel
each long thread a consonant
good
sturdy, tight,
pale
a shroud
not likely to ravel


This was an image of my mother speaking to me after her death. The
interesting, time-bent aspect of this poem is that my mother is actually
still alive.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #24 of 150: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Wed 15 Nov 06 19:45
    
Thank you.  I knew there was an aspect of that poem that eluded me.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #25 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 15 Nov 06 19:54
    

It probably eludes everyone. The word "mother" was in the original version
somewhere.
  

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