Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Mary Mackey

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams by Mary Mackey

Mary Mackey

New York Times best-selling author Mary Mackey became a poet by running high fevers, tramping through tropical jungles, dodging machine gun fire, being caught in volcanic eruptions, swarmed by army ants, stalked by vampire bats, threatened by poisonous snakes, making catastrophic decisions with regard to men, and reading. She is the author of 14 novels, one of which made The New York Times bestseller list; and 8 collections of poetry including Sugar Zone, which won an 1012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence, and The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974 to 2018, (https://www.amazon.com/Jaguars-That-Prowl-Our-Dreams/dp/0996991123/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1529199139&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Jaguars+that+prowl+our+dreams&dpID=51NetZ9HU5L&preST=_
SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch)which won a 2018 CIIS Women’s Spirituality Book Award and the 2019 Erich Hoffer Award for the Best Book Published by a Small Press. Mary’s poems have been praised by Maxine Hong Kingston, Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Marge Piercy, D. Nurkse, and Al Young for their beauty, precision, originality, lush energy, and extraordinary range. You can contact her at https://marymackey.com and hear her read 26 of the poems from Jaguars (including the ever-popular “L. Tells All”) at http://voetica.com/voetica.php?collection=5&poet=890

The Interview

1. When and why did you begin to write poetry?

I made up rhymes, songs, and  poems before I could read, but I first started writing poetry when I was eleven. That year, inspired by a geometry class, I composed a series of poems about the shapes of leaves—obtuse, congruent, angled, blown, and fluttering. I subsequently went on to write about 30 more poems on other topics, which I sewed into a small booklet dedicated to my parents. This booklet is now archived with my literary papers at Smith College.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I think I was about three or four years old when my parents began reading poems to me from A.A. Milne’s collection When We Were Very Young. I loved these poems, as did my brother and sister. All three of us can (and often do) quote lines from them. My favorite poem in the collection was “Disobedience,” which probably tells you something about my attitude toward life and poetry.

3. How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I was almost entirely unaware of the dominating presence of older poets for several reasons, most of which stem from the fact that I am female. At my college (Harvard) the Poetry Room, where all readings took place, was located in the Lamont Library (the undergraduate library) Women were forbidden to enter Lamont, so I never was able to hear any of the famous poets who came to Harvard including Allen Ginsberg.
Women were also not welcome in Harvard’s sole creative writing class. Entry was by competition. My junior year, I was the only woman at Harvard allowed to take Creative Writing, so it was me and nineteen male undergraduates. I had no mentors and no systematic education in contemporary poetry except the education I gave myself.
For many years, I felt left out and deprived, but as time has passed, I have begun  to see  that the exclusion on the basis of gender was actually a gift. If I had been mentored, allowed to enter Lamont and hear great poets read, and even allowed—as the men were–to have dinner with them, I would have probably been shaped into an academic poet who wrote – or at least tried to write—like the dominant older poets. Instead, excluded and ignored, I developed a style uniquely my own. I don’t write poetry that is like the poetry of most other poets. I write in my own voice, and I have Harvard’s official policy of discrimination against women to thank for that.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I write in the mornings when I am closest to my dreams. I rarely write for more than four or five hours at a time, because my energy tends to decrease as time passes. A poem can’t be forced into being. You need to be fresh, alert, and in touch with your conscious and unconscious, posed, as it were, on the threshold between imagination and craft.

5. What motivates you to write?

I have no idea. I simply enjoy it. I love words, love how they move through my mind and take on form and substance. I have no goal when I write except to create something I like, something that seems whole, perfect, lyrical, and coherent; yet at the same time something that trails into the unknown and the unspoken.

6. What is your work ethic?

Writing poetry isn’t work—at least not for me. It’s the highest form of play. I do it because I enjoy doing it. In other aspects of my life, I am, and always have been, hard-working, highly organized, and meticulous about the details of life and art.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

The rhythms, metaphors, ideas, mystical experiences, flow and rhythm of the poems I have read remain somewhere in my mind like a subdued concert. I can call on the form of them, if not the content, when I am writing. I believe they give my work depth and solidity and connect me to the past and the world at large. The writers I read when I was young have served as constant inspiration and have motivated me to do things that have substantially influenced my own poetry. For example, When I was nineteen, I learned Spanish so I could read the poetry of Saint John of the Cross in the original. When I was twenty-three, I learned  Russian so I could read various Russian poets including Osip Mandlestam and Sergei Yesenin.
That said, fever and jungles (https://marshhawkpress.org/mary-mackey/) have influenced my poetry more than the work of other writers. On multiple occasions,  I have run fevers approaching 107 degrees. During these experiences, I have heard voices, had hallucinations, and seen the world in a way that I never see it when I am healthy—a veiled, strange, inexpressible world. For six years when I was in my twenties, I lived in the jungles of Central America in a remote biological field station. Later I spent time exploring the jungles of the Brazilian Amazon. Many of the mystical and surreal elements in my poems stem from these experiences. As a result, I am particularly drawn to the work of mystical poets like Blake, Mirabai, Rumi, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Basho. By the way, it’s interesting to note that Saint Theresa had her first mystical visions when she was in the throes of malaria.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I admire a wide range of contemporary writers, some famous, some not well-known. I am not going to name them, because that would exclude other writers equally worthy of admiration.

9. Why do you write?

I don’t know. When I was teaching graduate and undergraduate Creative Writing courses, I used to ask my students the same question. Often they said they wrote “to be published,” “to become famous,”  to be “real writers,” or (on more than one occasion) “to attract romantic partners.” But the best answer, the answer that I discovered marked writers who would have the persistence and talent to mature, develop, and keep on writing was: “I don’t know.” If you don’t know why you write, if you are willing to keep writing even though you never get a single poem published, if you would write for an audience of penguins if stranded in Antarctica, then you are a born writer. With luck, you will also have talent and will develop a mastery of your craft. But in any case, you will no more be able to stop writing than stop breathing.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I would say: “Write. Write. Write. Keep Writing. Teach yourself how to revise. Master your craft. Set high standards for yourself and your work. Don’t inflict rough drafts and unpolished material on your audience. Make your poetry more than autobiography, more than a sermon, more than a political tract. Make it beautiful, coherent, haunting. Connect to worlds seen and unseen. Read constantly. Know what is going on in the world around you. Develop empathy and compassion. Look into all the dark places in your heart. Ask yourself what you want to leave behind when you are dead. Take each poem as a gift and be grateful for it.”

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

At the moment I am writing the last novel in my Earthsong Trilogy and a series of new poems, some of which are centered around a modern version of the Greek prophet Cassandra. I believe Cassandra—who speaks the truth about the future, yet is never believed– is the perfect spokesperson for a world caught up in climate change and rushing headlong toward disaster.

Longer Biography

is Professor Emeritus of English and former Writer-in-Residence at California State University, Sacramento. Related through her father’s family to Mark Twain, she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan.
Her published works include fourteen  novels: Immersion, Shameless Hussy Press, McCarthy’s List, Doubleday; The Last Warrior Queen, Putnam; A Grand Passion, Simon & Schuster; Season of Shadows, Bantam; The Kindness of Strangers, Simon & Schuster; The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale, Lowenstein Associates.; The Year The Horses Came, Harper San Francisco; The Horses at the Gate, HarperSanFrancisco; The Fires of Spring, Penguin,  The Stand In, Kensington Books, Sweet Revenge, Kensington Books; The Notorious Mrs. Winston, Berkley Books; and The Widow’s War, Berkley Books. Her two comic novels, The Stand In and Sweet Revenge (Kensington), were written under her pen name “Kate Clemens.”
Mackey is also the author of eight volumes of poetry. Her current collection, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974 to 2018, recently won the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for the Best Book Published by a Small Press and a California Institute of Integral Studies Women’s Spirituality Book Award. It was also chosen as a Finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize. Her other collections of poetry include: Travelers With No Ticket Home; Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence and Finalist for the Northern California Book Reviewers Award in Poetry; Breaking The Fever; Split Ends; One Night Stand; Skin Deep, and The Dear Dance of Eros.
Mackey’s books have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestseller lists, sold over a million and a half copies, and been translated into twelve foreign languages including Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Her poems have been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Dennis Nurkse, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ron Hansen, Al Young, Dennis Schmitz, and Marge Piercy for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. Besides winning numerous awards, her poetry has been featured four times on The Writer’s Almanac.
A screenwriter as well as a novelist and poet, Mackey has also sold feature-length screenplays to Warner Brothers as well as to independent film companies. John Korty directed the filming of her original award-winning screenplay Silence.
Mackey’s nonfiction, scholarly works, and memoirs have appeared in various journals and anthologies. She has reviewed books for The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, the  American Book Review, and a variety of other publications; has lectured at Harvard and the Smithsonian; and has contributed to such diverse print and on-line publications as The Chiron Review, Redbook, and Salon. A fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she is an active member of  the Children’s Literature Committee of the Northern California Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle, The Authors Guild, and The Writers Guild of America, West.
After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, she moved to California to become Professor of English at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS) where she became one of the founders of the CSUS Women’s Studies Program. She also founded the CSUS English Department Graduate Creative Writing Program along with poet Dennis Schmitz and novelist Richard Bankowsky. In 1978 she founded The Feminist Writers Guild with poets Adrienne Rich and Susan Griffin and novelist Valerie Miner. From 1989-1992, she served as President of the West Coast Branch of PEN American Center involving herself in PEN’s international defense of persecuted writers.
During her twenties, she lived in the rain forests of Costa Rica. Recently, she has been traveling to Brazil and incorporating her experiences in the tropical rainforests into her fiction and poetry. At present she lives in northern California with her husband Angus Wright, Emeritus Professor of Environmental studies. To learn more about her and her work, you are invited to visit her website at: https://www.marymackey.com and sign up for her quarterly newsletter at http://eepurl.com/CrLHT
Mary Mackey’s literary papers are archived in the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Her collection of rare editions of small press poetry books authored by Northern California poets is archived in the Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room.

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