Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 17 Nov 06 09:36
My second experience, came during a summer I spent on a hippie commune in Northern California. We had no electricity (and not much food unless you counted vegetables from the garden and goat yogurt), so at night we had to entertain ourselves by singing and story telling. It turned out that I was much in demand as a storyteller and that the children in particular liked me to tell them stories. This commune was as close as I am every likely to get to a Neolithic tribe. (In fact, living there was partly what inspired my three Neolithic novels: "The Year the Horses Came," "The Horses at the Gate," and "The Fires of Spring.") So to sum it all up, I believe that if I had never learned to read or write, I would have still been a storyteller.
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 17 Nov 06 09:36
Kate's question about Kansas is more difficult to answer. I think what may have been lost is exactly what Kate notes: a sense of familiarity. Seen from a distance or in memory, Midwestern culture can seem as strange as any culture on earth. Imagine for a moment that you have never seen lime Jello salad with pears. Someone puts a dish of clear, brilliantly green, quaking stuff in front of you with large, pale, objects floating in it. What do you do? Is it a window? A work of art? food? Do you dare stab it with a fork to find out if you can penetrate the green stuff? Why has it been served at a church supper? It appears that only women make it. Does that mean it is part of some sacred female fertility ritual? Are you going to have to eat it? Can you actually put something that wiggles like that into your mouth?
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 17 Nov 06 10:44
Actually, Mary, you may be drummed out of the corps for disclosing the lime jello fertility secrets. Ahem. But you're so right. Looking at it all afresh--being an anthropologist in your own culture--is what poets are for us.
Hoping to be a goddess, but settling for guru (paris) Fri 17 Nov 06 17:53
You are a consummate story-teller, Mary (I say that as one who has read several of your novels and poetry books, and as a friend who enjoys your ability to weave interesting and often amusing stories in 'normal' conversation). Are there distinct 'muses' that work for you in each of the different venues (poems, novels, conversation)?
Paula Span (pspan) Fri 17 Nov 06 18:24
Let me ask a prosaic question of the poet: Difficult as it is to get fiction published, to make any sort of living at it, to get publishers to promote novels and the rest of the world to pay attention, to just plain keep at it -- difficult as all that is, it's harder by far for poets. Poets get less of everything -- advances, sales, reviews. How do you summon the courage and energy, not to keep writing poems (I doubt you could stop), but to keep collecting them, publishing them, going to signings and readings, all the stuff you have to do to give them a shot at being read? How do you overcome the discouragement that must set in from time to time?
Mary Mackey (mm) Sat 18 Nov 06 08:55
Hmm, distinct muses. I never really thought about that. In some ways, all my stories/poems/novels/etc. come from the same place-that liminal point between the conscious and subconscious. In fact, as you may know, the word "liminal" comes for the Greek word for threshold, which is perfect because when I get ideas, I feel that I am balanced between two worlds-one full of strange, dream-like material, the other logical and capable of remembering that material (which is important, because otherwise I would forget my ideas the way a person forgets dreams almost immediately after waking). Yet in the broader sense, I have different muses for different things. My poems tend to come from strong emotions; my novels from an endless fascination with stories; my screenplays from visual images; my conversation (and thank you for saying you enjoy it so much) from a delight in entertaining other people and making them laugh.
Mary Mackey (mm) Sat 18 Nov 06 09:13
You're right that American poets live on the crumbs of the literary scene (if they are even lucky enough to get crumbs), and it is very discouraging at times. Anyone who writes poetry hoping to make money is, of course, barking insane unless they've signed a deal with Hallmark. So how do I overcome discouragement? Well, first I tell myself how much more fortunate I am in every way than most people on this planet. I have a job; I eat regularly; a great deal of my work has been published and well received; and I don't live in a mud house infested with blood-sucking bugs that will give me Chagas disease (which basically eats away your heart). So in this respect, the travel I have done in Brazil and other tropical locations has put the poet's life in perspective. Next, I find happiness in my husband and my friends, not in whether or not people read my poems. Also, I've meditated every day since 1975 (maybe missing a month total in all those years), which helps me feel calm. In other words, I do things completely unrelated to poetry so I can keep on writing without getting discouraged. When I am really down, when someone has done or said something particularly unkind or insensitive about me or my work, I remember Emily Dickensin, who had almost no poems published during her lifetime. Half the battle is stubbornly refusing to give up.
Hoping to be a goddess, but settling for guru (paris) Sat 18 Nov 06 09:20
>Half the battle is stubbornly refusing to give up. Boy, ain't that the truth? I love your description of the various 'muses', Mary. Thanks for thinking about the question!
rubi (rubicon) Sat 18 Nov 06 09:53
Mary. That's probably the key to everything, "refusing to give up" I keep a picture of the Dali Lama on my office door in which he reminds us "never give up". On a whole 'nother note. What would you say particularly distinguishes your poetry from any other I might pick up? What compliment would you like to hear about your work?
therese (therese) Sat 18 Nov 06 13:05
Mary, thanks for sharing your time and your work with us. I read your poem, "Agapanthus," that was posted in the poetry conference on the Well. Perhaps because I am fond of agapanthus, I was jolted by the poem; not a bad thing at all. I read it as an aesthetic response, a fierce pulling away from beauty, which is then undercut in the poem by the energy given to that avoidance, as well as the descriptive energy, the beauty of the language devoted to the image of the plant. You end the poem with a startling image, metaphorically coupling the swaying stems of the agapanthus with that of cobras in a mesmerizing sway -- the deadly beauty that retains the power to sway. Was that your intent in this work, to take this stand on beauty? If so, does it go beyond the poem, is it an artistic statement?
Mary Mackey (mm) Sat 18 Nov 06 21:52
What distinguishes my poetry from other poetry you might pick up? That, of course, depends on what kind of poetry you are picking up. For example, I like to play with language, but playing with language isn't my sole aim. I strive to write poems that are moving, but not sentimental. I've had a number of people tell me they never liked poetry until they read my poems. I hope that's a good thing. As for what kind of compliment I might like the hear about my work: I would like you to say that my poetry is beautifully written, accessible yet complex, and that it changed your life in some way, perhaps only in a small way, but changed you so that you see the world around you a little differently. After that, I would want you do exactly what all of you have been doing: reading the poems and talking about them with me.
Mary Mackey (mm) Sat 18 Nov 06 22:10
Therese has asked a very profound question about "Agapanthus". There is indeed an artistic statement in this poem. I have always intensely disliked Keat's much quoted lines from "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"---that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." That statement is a dangerous lie. Many evil things are beautiful. "Triumph of the Will," for example, is a beautiful movie. Caligula was by all accounts an unusually handsome man. However, it's also good to remember that ugliness is not truth either. In "Agapanthus" the beauty of the garden leads the reader to believe that the poem is going to be about something good-love, perhaps or spiritual clarity. Instead, it's about lies.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 19 Nov 06 08:14
Agree about Keats. The image of the agapanthus as cobra is startling yet wonderful too. Cobras, after all, are not evil--they are just, well, cobras, doing what cobras do. I sometimes feel that lies take place in the interior more than they come from the exterior. (It was evil for our president to lie to us, but it was perhaps more evil for people to suspend their disbelief, believe his lies despite all evidence. A minority position, I guess; not one I've thought through very deeply.) But I probably wouldn't have thought about it at all without your poem, so yes, it has changed me.
rubi (rubicon) Sun 19 Nov 06 09:27
For those of you without a copy of Breaking the Fever. Here is the poem we are talking about.
rubi (rubicon) Sun 19 Nov 06 09:27
Agapanthus Mary Mackey (from Breaking the Fever) They blossom every August like the stripped skeletons of blue umbrellas how I hate them those goddamn beautiful merciless flowers bring me nettles or a bouquet of poison oak plant brambles on my grave but never make me sit in a morning-wet garden and listen to two blue-eyed men telling lies while a dozen agapanthus on long green stems sway slowly at my knees like cobras begging for a kiss
rubi (rubicon) Sun 19 Nov 06 12:22
I love that poem. It really scares me. Not, I think, of evil, but of clear, impersonal danger. As beauty often is. Nothing personal dear, but you're dead. Mary do your poems ever change on you? I mean have you written a poem that meant one thing when you wrote it and then later, even 10 years later, you realized that it meant something completely different? Have your own poems surprised you like that? (I know our human children turn out to be different than we intended.) Can you give an example.
Cupido, Ergo Denego (robertflink) Sun 19 Nov 06 16:38
I'll never look at flowers in the same way again.
Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 19 Nov 06 17:22
I think you can still trust violets and pansies, Robert. As for rubi's question: My very first novel, "Immersion" (which might be better described as a "novella" since it is under a hundred pages), changed on me in a very surprising way. It was a feminist novel about the destruction of the rainforest, written in 1968 at a time when people were still not sure if ecology was spelled with a "c" or a "k". It was also, as far as my editor can determine, the first feminist novel published by a Second Wave feminist press. In other words, it was at the very least fifteen years ahead of its time, and thus was greeted with bewilderment by almost everyone who read it. Now almost all the issues and ideas I raised in "Immersion" are mainstream. It has been strange to watch this happen, but stranger still is the fact that when I recently reread it (I am thinking of taking up the Authors Guild's offer to allow me to reprint it through backinprint.com), I realized it was filled with images of traps, nets, and suffocation. When I wrote "Immersion", I had no idea I was creating such a relentless atmosphere of claustrophobia. I was in a very unhappy relationship at the time, but I did not yet consciously know that I wanted to get out. It appears some part of me did know. I've never had a poem change on me like this, but "Immersion" is a very poetic novel, full of metaphor and images of transformation.
asparagus before librarians (katecat) Mon 20 Nov 06 06:00
(I want to step in and say a brief word in defense of Keats--I'm not sure I can defend his strange & famous equation, but he doesn't say "beauty is goodness, goodness beauty;" he says "beauty is truth, truth beauty." The first is patently untrue; the second is more interesting, at least to me.) It's very interesting to me that you can go back and see an early novel as more self-revealing than you knew then. I wonder what your most recent novel will show you in twenty years? And for someone (me!) who has never read your novels--is there one you'd recommend I start with?
rubi (rubicon) Mon 20 Nov 06 07:45
I certainly have a recommendation or two! Right beside me on my shelf. But I'll wait to see where Mary would start you. I think both sides of truth/beauty; beauty/truth is interesting. True? Who knows true? But very, very interesting. I've often heard the opposite: truth is ugly. Here's another question for you Mary, from the outside word. A poet friend of mine was surprised that your novel changed on you but not your poems. Since writing poetry is more "liminal" than writing novels, because poetry relies so much on metaphor, one might think that poems would talk to us far ahead of reason. Far ahead if the specific condition one is in when she writes. My friend asks if your poems mean pretty much now what they meant to you when you wrote them, then did they resolve anything in you at the time you wrote them? Do poems "make anything happen" in the writer? In the reader? In the world? "Does poetry matter" after all? And can you give examples.
Darlis Wood (darlis) Mon 20 Nov 06 12:38
I have another question, in sort of a different direction. How and when did you start writing? Did you know you just needed to do it, or did it happen by accident? Did you start with prose or poetry? Was it an extension of your enjoyment of storytelling? I guess I'm wondering: if you wrote about your life as a writer, where would you start?
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 20 Nov 06 18:12
Which novel would I recommend for starters? That's a hard call, Kate, but given that you are involved in the theater, I think you might like to start with "The Kindness of Strangers" which is about the radical theater in Berlin in the 1920's. Another good choice for you might be "A Grand Passion," which is about three generations of women involved in ballet. The only problem with both these novels is that they are out of print. If you want to see what's in print right now, you can go to my webpage www.marymackey.com or do a search on the iUniverse.com website for me (by name). Four of my novels have just been reprinted by iUniverse through a co- publishing agreement with the Authors Guild. Of those four (which are easily available), I'd say you would probably like either "The Last Warrior Queen" or "The Year the Horses Came" best. ("The Year the Horses Came" is the first book in a trilogy). Of course if you are feeling blue and just want to laugh until you can hardly breathe, I recommend my Kate Clemens novels, "The Stand In" and "Sweet Revenge." So rubi, what were you going to suggest Kate start with?
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 20 Nov 06 18:27
Why don't my poems surprise me the way my novels do? I have no idea. As your friend points out, you would think the meaning of a poem (to the poet) would be less steady, more subject to change, but I haven't found this to be the case, perhaps because I have always expected ambiguity in poetry and always known that there are near-endless possibilities hidden beneath the words. If I write a poem that only means one thing, I put it aside until I can fill it with contradictory possibilities. Perhaps this is why I am not surprised when I stumble across something new in one of my poems. It's not that the poems don't change; it's that I see change as one of the essential elements of poetry.
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 20 Nov 06 18:46
How did I start writing? As I said earlier, I told stories before I could write. I grew up in a family where reading was important (my parents read to us every night before we went to bed). My maternal aunt had had several short stories published, and my father's mother was a Clemens (as in Samuel Clemens). In the summer, I was sent down to Kentucky to the family farm where I sat on the porch after dinner with my relatives and listened to endless stories-comic, tragic, surreal stories, some of which dated back to the 1700's. I recall one about a little boy who hid in a field of wheat to surprise his daddy and got bailed by the bailer. I can still hear my uncle Wid saying: "Wap! wap! that wire jest coiled around him and cut him to snippets!" Tell a five-year-old stories like that, and you are either going to produce a writer or a psycho-killer. I went with writer. I never remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer, but I date my first really serious plunge into poetry from a geometry lesson I had in school when I was eleven. I was so fascinated by the regularity and beauty of geometric forms, that I wrote fifteen poems about geometric shapes in nature. The poems weren't very good, but I kept on writing and kept trying to get better.
rubi (rubicon) Tue 21 Nov 06 08:49
You hit exactly where I would, Mary. I would recommend "The Last Warrior Queen" and "The Year the Horses Came". In fact, I just bought those two to give as Christmas gifts. I just love your pointing out the relation of poetry and geometry, Mary. It's the regularity and elegance of poetry that attracts me also. That brings me to a question of how you write. You mentioned how poems come to you, the explosion. Then what happens. Does it take many revisions? Do you do a lot of revisions? And how do you know when a poem is finished?
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