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_.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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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