Welcome To The Writer’s Journey: Mary Mackey On Writing Advice and the Writer’s Life

amazon river blue emphasisWelcome to my blog The Writer’s Journey where, among other things, you will find my monthly People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series and writing advice for writers and teachers of writing.



A Stunning Review of “Travelers With No Ticket Home”

Travelers With No Ticket Home Porms by Mary MackeyPoet Susan Kelly-Dewitt has written the following stunningly intelligent, powerful, beautifully crafted review of Travelers With No Ticket Home, my most recent collection of poems. Her review originally appeared in Poetry Now a few days ago.  Kelly-DeWitt goes straight to the heart of my poetry, understanding not only its meaning but its more subtle intentions. She sees both the darkness and the light, the exotic and the familiar.

I am re-posting her review of Travelers With No Ticket Home here, because I think you will find it a pleasure to read.

Travelers With No Ticket Home
by Mary Mackey

Reviewed by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Mary Mackey’s new book of poems, Travelers With No Ticket Home, is mystical, passionate and strange. It picks up where her previous collection, Sugar Zone, left off—continuing the journey through the ravaged jungles and rainforests of the 20th and 21st centuries, reminding us that, wherever we are, history insinuates itself into our lives, exiling us from ourselves, from the past and from each other—so that we are always “travelers with no ticket home.”

Here Mackey also continues, as she did in Sugar Zone, to weave the English and Portuguese languages together into a lyrical text that becomes, in its own way, a third language unto itself—as if to say that all language is finally one language if we can learn to speak as members of a global community.


The first section of the book begins with a poem called “Jacobs Ladder,” that sets the tone for what is to come. In it we get a portrait of the speaker’s great aunts, “hair done up in braids/ calico feedsack dresses aprons full of chicken feed”—turn-of-the-20th century Midwestern farm women for whom a Brazilian landscape, an Amazonian rainforest, or their great-niece speaking the Portuguese tongue to them, might have seemed incomprehensible:

“queridas tias / dearest aunts the jungle is thicker than corn
mais grosso do que o milho
greener than cucumbers/ mais verde do que pepinos
filled with black lagoons that shine like obsidian

In the Old Testament story, Jacob’s dream of an unbroken ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it, comes to him as he flees in exile toward an unknown future; the dream connects him to the promise of a homeland, a kind of earthly and spiritual ticket home. (Genesis 28:11-22) The great aunts might have grown up with that story, but the poems that follow catalogue a brokenness that dispels that myth.

The poem ends with two lines that set out the theme for the book: “we all stand at the foot of a ladder that’s missing rungs/ speaking in tongues no one can understand.” (Mackey’s endnotes also remind us that “Jacob’s Ladder” is a traditional block quilt pattern; one can think of Mackey’s book—six separate sections, each with its own design—as a kind of word-quilt.)

The second section of the book, called “The City of Apocalyptic Visions,” drops us into that very world so “foreign” to the great aunts:

“How you loved it in the beginning
the flashing sequins the bare thighs and breasts
the drumming that you said made you feel
as if you were being passed from hand to hand
over a crowd of 72,000 people
who loved you more than your own mother…

the samba whispers terrible secrets!
you cried but you would not tell me what they were

how easy to it is to give ourselves to the gods, o meu bem
how hard to take ourselves back

[from “After Carnival”]

And so it is with Mackey’s “travelers”—which is again to say all of us—who are “like souls trapped between two worlds.” (Mackey has traveled to Brazil regularly for twenty-five years and, as in Sugar Zone, the poems here are grounded in those years of exploration and travel.)


we walk on the bottom of an invisible ocean
under us the ground heaves in slow waves

look the masts of a thousand ten thousand a million
sunken ships surround us in a cage of pale flame

over our heads vast green clouds tremble in the dying light
the Waika have warned us to be silent
they say if we open our mouths here
we will drown

Much to the poetry’s advantage, Travelers also reintroduces the surrealistic shamanistic dream figure, Solange, who first appeared in Sugar Zone.

Tempting as it is to think of her (at least in part) as doppelganger or alter ego, Solange insists on being much more than that: She is soothsayer, truth-sayer, lover and doom-monger; materializing and vanishing again and again throughout the book. To my mind she is surely one of the most interesting characters ever to appear in a book of contemporary American poems.

Solange Taunts The Colonels of Para

She lifts the flowers to her lips and blows on them
until the petals flap like the wings of egrets
she disappears becomes invisible incorporeal immaterial/delusional
transforms herself into a snake stalks us like a jaguar
tears out our throats and heals us with a kiss

when the colonels and their jagunços come to kill her
she greets them by pulling up her skirt
which of you fat men with big guns and small pistolas
is brave enough to enter the door that leads nowhere she cries
which of you wants to die with the taste of cashews on your tongue?

after they run away she sleeps for forty days
when she wakes she tells us to place another row
of small black seeds on her tongue calls them
the bitter stones that pave the path to Paradise

Not surprisingly reviewers have compared Mackey to Elizabeth Bishop, who traveled to Brazil intending a brief visit and stayed on for the better part of two decades, living there during the Fifties and Sixties with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares. (Soares committed suicide in 1967.) Bishop would surely have described herself as “a traveler with no ticket home,” and Mackey alludes to her Brazil-Bishop connection in the poem “View From The Balcony”:

View From The Balcony

Nine times the sun rose over the bay
nine times the sea looked as if some great
fish had been slaughtered between
the channel and the point

in the streets people dressed in strange
brightly-colored clothing
danced to songs of drought and starvation

each night the spirit of Elizabeth Bishop
walked in the park her lover had designed
where palm trees waved like human hands
the wind was a cough that stopped and started
and the heat burned like strong coffee

from our balcony high above it all
we could see long white ships taking people to kinder places

this is how we learned about despair
this is how we were schooled in it

“Bright-colored clothing; dancing to ”songs of drought and starvation; ships “taking people to kinder places”—these are things Mackey’s travelers see along the way—this is how they enter the land of Despair.


Travelers chronicles much about the Brazilian world—the favelas, the homeless street children, the military “fat men,” the polluted waters, the anacondas and bocarubus—the cruel and gorgeous set side by side or peeled away in layers.

The poems here seem to say: No matter how much good the travelers intend, no matter what beauty remains in the degraded land/human-scape, history has left things in ruins. We understand then why, when the travelers encounter “the last six speakers of Arikapu” (in the poem “Under the Bocarubu Trees”)

they did not turn to look at us standing there beside our canoes
we were the noise that had drowned their silence
the thieves who had cut out their tongues
pale ghosts in their green light
our words harsh and incomprehensible
as the ringing of axes


In the last three sections of the book, Mackey shifts her focus to include some intimate family poems that in some ways hearken back to “Jacob’s Ladder”—poems like “Language Lessons” and “To My Mother on her Second Non-Birthday”—among the most emotionally touching poems in the book.

These are followed by a penultimate section of poems called “The Kama Sutra of Kindness” (several poems reprinted from earlier books), which explores the place of kindness in erotic love (eros and agape).

Walking Toward the Largo do Machado

when the smell of jasmine
flows through the streets of Catete like a warm fog
when the scent is so liquid you can
breathe it in get drunk and stagger
I think of all the years I have loved you
and all the years I will go on loving you
I think of how we protect each other from pain and betrayal
how each night we wrap ourselves around each other
and peace floats above our bed like a canopy of white petals

The final section, “The Martyrdom of Carmen Miranda,” is composed of a single poem, an elegy for the Brazilian samba dancer and film actress who became one of Hollywood’s shooting stars but was, in the process, reduced to caricature—with “the fruit basket hats,” allowing herself to be “done up in pompoms like a pet poodle.”

Here is an excerpt from the closing stanza:

Carmen like you we are all travelers
who set out believing we can bring back
something to make it worth the trip…
something that will make us happy and whole…

It is a poem that brings us back to the central theme of the book, to exile and to those missing rungs in our own Jacob’s Ladder.

Susan Kelly DeWittSusan Kelly-DeWitt is the author of The Fortunate Islands and ten previous print and online collections; a new book, Spider Season, is forthcoming in 2016. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Northern California Book Reviewers Association; her reviews have appeared in Library JournalSmall Press Review and Poetry Flash, among others.


What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction?

What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction? (Part 1 of a 2 Part Series)

Foremothers CoverWomen’s Visionary Fiction is not a new type of Visionary Fiction. It has been around for decades if not centuries. In fact, for all of recorded history (and thousands of years before writing existed) women have been associated with visions, mystical experiences, spiritual powers, magic, the ability to bring new life into the world, heal the sick, and speak to the dead.

When women authors finally cracked the Paper Ceiling of Publishing in the early 1970’s, they began to draw on their visionary heritage as they struggled for cultural recognition and spiritual identity.

The best of Women’s Visionary Fiction is not preachy or didactic. Mystical, flowing, beautifully crafted, it draws on folk traditions and esoteric sources as it creates new worlds, explores the after-life, and evokes other states of consciousness and other realities. Yet many of the early examples, fine they are, still remain unknown except to a small audience of readers.

Waterlily cover DeloriaFor example, in 1940, Native American author Ella Deloria wrote Waterlily, a visionary novel that takes as its subject Lakota (Sioux) culture before the Lakota had contact with Europeans. This fascinating recreation of Lakota rituals, culture, and spiritual life, was not published until 1988, nearly twenty years after Deloria’s death.

In the past half century, women have written visionary fiction about witches, midwives, herbal healers, priestesses, goddesses, fairies, oracles, and angels. In fact, sometimes the authors themselves have been witches, midwives, herbal healers, and priestesses. Take for example Starhawk, San Francisco’s most famous witch. Her novel The Fifth Sacred Thing (Bantam, 1993), is a post-apocalyptic vision of the San Francisco Bay Area as a newly created ecological paradise governed by a council of elderly women who are guided by their dreams.  

Usually, as in The Fifth Sacred Thing, Women’s Visionary Fiction takes as its subject the path of peace rather than the path of war. But this is not universally true. Maxine Hong Kingston’s visionary autobiography The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (Knopf, 1976), not only redefines what it means to be a Chinese American woman; it blends folk-tales, legends, and visions to create a fierce woman warrior with magical powers.

Since the 1990’s the growth of the Women’s Spirituality Movement has inspired women to write visionary fiction about the Earth as a living Goddess. Sometimes known as the Gaia Hypothesis, this idea that the Earth is not real estate to be developed, but a living being to be cared for is slowly making its way into popular culture.

The Year The Horses CameThree of my novels, The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring, take the living Earth as their subject. Written for a popular audience, they recreate the religious rituals, visions, poetry, and mystical bonds between the Earth and the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Neolithic Europe.

My new novel The Village of Bones, which will be published in early 2016, continues my visionary exploration of the Gaia Hypothesis as it explores the possibility that small bands of human-like survivors (hominids) were the original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures, which appear so often in European folk tales.

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss some of the major works of Women’s Visionary Fiction in more detail and answer the question: Can Men Write Women’s Visionary Fiction?

Find Syllabi for courses in Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Women’s Visionary Film on my Educators Page.

Get the latest news about Women’s Visionary Fiction and my forthcoming novel The Village of Bones by clicking here.

Read my People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series, take a look at my Guide to Women Writer’s Archives, find me on Facebook, and know that your questions and comments are always welcome.

This essay on Women’s Visionary Fiction originally appeared on the Visionary Fiction Alliance Blog, November 2, 2015.



My Literary Papers Are Going To Smith College

Archives for literary papers in beautiful libraryAfter procrastinating for fifteen years, I finally vowed this summer to place my literary papers somewhere where they could be properly archived and preserved. My poems, novels, and manuscripts are going to be housed at the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library at Smith College in Northampton, MA. This means  Smith is taking my first editions, manuscripts, rough drafts of my poems and novels, fliers for all the readings I’ve done, copies of all the publications that contain my work, and a lot of other things including my literary correspondence. This also means that if you have ever published one of my poems or written me a letter or an email that does not contain intimate personal information, your work will also be housed with the Mary Mackey Papers at Smith forever or until the human race goes extinct from climate change.

If you are a writer, an artist, editor, or publisher, or have records of a career that will be of interest to future scholars, I urge you not to follow my example and wait fifteen years to archive your papers. Please do it now while you are alive to make vital decisions about your collection (like removing all those old love letters).  I talked to archivists from thirteen universities and special collections libraries this summer, and several of them told me that the life expectancy of digital material is about five years. If you aren’t old enough or far enough along in your career to archive your papers, please make hard copies of your material. The history of the twenty-first century is being written on water. Let’s write it on stone.

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Jane Hirshfield On Craft and Inspiration

Poet Jane Hirshfield talks to poet Mary Mackey about Craft and Inspiration in this People Who Make Books Happen Interview.

Jane HirshfieldJane Hirshfield is the author of eight books of poetry. She has edited and translated four books presenting the world of poets from the past and is the author of two major collections of essays. Her books have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award and England’s T.S. Eliot Prize. Named best books of the year by The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon, and Financial Times, they have won the California Book Award, the Poetry Center Book Award, and the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. A resident of Northern California since 1974, she is a current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Mary Mackey: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Jane. March of this year saw the publication of two new books: The Beauty, your eighth collection of poetry, and your second book of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. Today I’d like to talk to you about craft and inspiration, but before we begin, could you please tell us something about The Beauty?

Jane Hirshfield: I write my poems one by one, not as books, and the very point of a poem is to be distinctive, one-of-a-kind, and beyond paraphrase. So all I can usually do is give some sense of poems’ terrain.  In this book, though, the opening section of the book is more coherent. The poems have “My ” as the first word of the titles: “My Skeleton,” “My Corkboard,” “My Species,” “My Sandwich.” Each is its own investigation—but as a group, they also explore the shifting boundary of what we think of as the self and what we think of as non-self. To say “my” is to personalize, to make subjective, sometimes to own. Yet in the end we own nothing, not even our own ribs and wrist bones. These poems explore that paradox, they look both at the dearness of our lives and at their provisionality, permeability, perishability.

The Beauty poems by Jane HirshfieldThe Beauty has running through it as well the sense of stock-taking that arrives at a certain stage in a life. There’s the sense of a life’s shape, poems of mourning, poems of personal love and our broader interconnection. Like its predecessors, the book carries in certain poems the awareness that this country remains at war. It also dips its ink at times into the surreal; one poem is titled “Two Negative Numbers Multiplied by Rain.” Last, there’s a fair bit of science—proteins, the microbiome, references to physics. I hope  this happens always in ways that serve poetry’s central reason for being: to enlarge and expand our sense of our own existence and the ways our lives are shared with others.

Mary Mackey: This seems like a good moment to ask you to say something about Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

Jane Hirshfield: Ten Windows is an exploration of how it is good poems do what they do, and why that may matter to us. This book of essays came out eighteen years after the first one, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, which meanwhile seems to have become something of a small classic. Both books are a bloodhound-following of one scent: how is it that shaped words affect us they do?

The “how” in the subtitle matters. The book offers close readings of many individual poems, both to unfold their substance and to reveal some of the sleight-of-hand work by which they are made. Many things happen in poetry under the surface of the reader’s awareness—and those hidden elements of meaning are often the reason we find ourselves moved, though they are not what we consciously see. We see—as we should—the poem. We see its images, hear its musical depths and translucence, feel the spring of release into larger being without know what has unlatched us.

 Ten Windows essays by Jane HirshfieldSome of the latch-springs looked at in Ten Windows are uncertainty, hiddenness, surprise, paradox, the way sometimes a work of literature is going along looking at one thing then looks at another— and that quick glance out the window changes everything in the poem or novel or play, exactly as putting an actual window into a room changes how we then see everything inside the room. That particular chapter, “Close Reading: Windows,” is one that writers beyond poets–novelists and non-fiction writers and playwrights–have been very excited about. They felt it named something they had not before been quite as consciously aware of. It’s not a device to use mechanically or all the time—but it is something to have in your toolbox of craft.

 I hope both Nine Gates and Ten Windows are helpful to their readers as readers and also helpful to those who are writers as writers. They aren’t craft handbooks in any normal sense, but craft instruction is there, on virtually every page. They have each been called “life handbooks”— I like that. Literature is not an arcane activity or idle entertainment—it’s a way we can know our lives’ living-through more fully, opulently, broadly, and wildly.

Mary Mackey: How does your process of writing essays differ from your process of writing a poem?

 Jane Hirshfield: This morning, in the midst of our fourth year of California drought, I went outside on waking and found the ground wet, with actual and entirely unexpected rain. The arrival of a poem feels something like that— beyond my control, a surprise that unlatches some new way of saying and feeling, some new way of knowing. Essay-writing is also a path toward discovering something I didn’t know before, but one that feels much more under the sway of intention. Usually I write an essay because I’ve been asked to teach, to give a lecture. Then I spend a long time trying to find some good  and interesting question. Only after I’ve found a question worth exploring for a few months do I begin writing prose. With poems, it’s the opposite: I never know what a poem is going to be addressing until after it’s written. Poetry comes from a pre-Linnean world—you don’t know the name, you don’t know the species or genus, you just see something that seems to be alive and record what you see. The poem itself is both the creature and its name.

I do think there are ways that essays and poems share a process. I write the first drafts of both forms by intuition, but intuition guided by the demands of shapeliness. And I revise both poems and essays keeping in mind that compass-sense, and the magnet of arrival, and the effort to offer for every moment of a reader’s attention something worthy of that exchange.

Mary Mackey: What are the primary sources of inspiration for your poetry?

Jane Hirshfield:  Each poem’s source is sui generis. What I can name, perhaps, are some of the conditions of inspiration. Life itself brings something that demands a poem. A death, the multiple swerves of love, some more subtle fracturing. I don’t think anyone has ever written a good poem out of a sense of complacency, out of mere desire for self-display, or out of idle gamesmanship—even if you tried to, if the poem finds its life, something else inevitably shoulders its way in. Hunger, tilt, the burr of empathy, grief, or bewilderment— in these are the beginning of poems.

Mary Mackey: What can poets do to nourish and encourage inspiration?

Jane Hirshfield: Part of a young writer’s task is to find what it is that nourishes and encourages them. We are each unique in our needs. For me, part of finding a new poem has to do with entering a deepened silence and so a deepened listening. To be undistracted and permeable, to be vulnerable, to feel safe enough to invite unsafety into the room. Poems are risky. They undo who you are, what you thought you thought.

And then, there is this: if you are going to have something to write about, you must be fully exposed to the world, to other people and beings and weathers. Even a poet as sequestered as Emily Dickinson had a family, correspondents, a dog, a garden, a library. The Chinese recluse poet Han Shan had the wildness of his mountain home, and a friend, Shih Te, who would come to visit. The Turkish poet Hikmet, in prison, had his life before prison, his fully developed heart and mind, his sense that his words would find readers who would need them. We are part of the largeness of existence, and can’t write without its full collaborative presence. No world, no words.

Mary Mackey: Besides reading all the poems of Jane Hirshfield, which I heartily recommend, what five additional poets should people read in order to learn how to write well-crafted poetry?

Jane Hirshfield: I’m afraid an adequate list would run closer to fifty, to five hundred. I’ve learned craft from reading the English-language tradition (a phrase I use in the broadest possible sense, not only what was meant by that word in the 10th grade English classes of my youth, though those poets, too, are indispensable), but also in translation. Polish poets, Spanish and Portuguese poets, Greek poets, Japanese and Chinese poets, Russian poets, Indian poets, Scandinavian. Much of my craft knowledge comes from studying Latin for five years when I was young—I learned to scan meters, I learned the awareness of rhetoric, both in the larger sense and in terms of shapely and memorable turns of phrase. I acquired an abiding love for the poems of Horace.

I don’t think I can argue for readers of this conversation to all start studying Latin and Greek, or Sanskrit, or the Malay languages, or Arabic. I do think that translating teaches you to read poems closely, for their craft and for the grain of their heart-wood. Translation forces you to grapple with the particulars and nuances of meaning and it awakens you to the subtleties of grammar, which are in truth the possibilities of existence. Think about what the future perfect tense really means—the sheer chutzpah and optimism of it: “By next month, she will have married.” Such a verb tense tempts fate… yet we cannot abstain from its promise.

Mary Mackey: What can creative writing teachers do to nourish and encourage inspiration in their students? Can inspiration be taught or is it an innate talent?

Jane Hirshfield: There’s a line I love by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski: “Rivers from rivers, paintings from paintings, poems from poems.” Surely the first inspiration must be lullabies, nursery rhymes, skipping rope songs. Later, someone—parent, teacher, or friend—offers a doorway into other poems already written.  It matters that imagination be welcomed rather than discouraged, that experimentation be honored even when it doesn’t quite succeed. The desire of a young person to express herself, to be seen for who he is, is such a fragile ember. Innate talent surely matters, but it can be fanned by one wind, put out by another. The teacher’s job is to know how to foster and not to throttle. To demonstrate the love of art and what it brings, and to craft invitations that lead to a full attendance. And finally, the teacher’s job is surely to make themselves dispensable, so the student can go on to become her or his own authority, to write what that person alone can write.

I taught for five years in the California Poets in the Schools program, and saw the effects of that way of teaching—expose young people to good poems, give them the chance to participate from the inside by writing their own, and lives change. I wish every student in the country could have such an experience of words made their own lives’ shapeable clay.

Mary Mackey: All your poems without exception are beautifully crafted. I know from personal experience that learning the craft of poetry is a long, complex process. Could you please briefly take us through one poem from The Beauty, and speak a little of its journey from inspiration to final draft? Here is the one I have in mind:

          A Cottony Fate

Long ago, someone
told me: avoid or.

It troubles the mind
as a held-out piece of meat disturbs a dog.

Now I too am sixty.  
There was no other life.

                  Jane Hirshfield  
              (from The Beauty, NY: Knopf, 2015; all rights reserved)

How did the idea for “A Cottony Fate” first come to you? As an idea? An image? A phrase? A rhythm?

Jane Hirshfield: Well, the immediate beginning, I took out of the poem, except that it lingers on in the somewhat mysterious title. The poem began with some lines about an Italian kitchen towel— but when I went to revise it, I found that the most alive part was what you see here. The towel, as towels do, did its good work and was then set aside.

The poem’s real beginning, though, came forty years ago. An early writing teacher suggested I should be wary of using the word “or” in poems. (I do sometimes still  include that word, but I always think about it.)  It was only as I was writing this poem that the advice returned to me as perhaps good advice for a life. I’ve reached the age when certain choices cannot be made again. The verb tense switch in the last line reflects that.

Mary Mackey: Did you write the first draft of “A Cottony Fate” in a single sitting or in pieces over a long period of time?

Jane Hirshfield:  The first drafts of my poems almost always come to me in a single sitting. There have been exceptions to this, but they are rare. I do, though, revise poems, sometimes over a long time. Time is an invaluable editor: it allows the objective words on the page to assume their fully independent life, which you then can see more clearly. There’s one poem in The Beauty that needed more time, it seems. I’ve realized I want to revise it. I’m pondering asking my publisher if I can switch two words, in two adjacent lines, for the paperback.

Mary Mackey: What did you cut from the earlier drafts of “A Cottony Fate”?

Jane Hirshfield:  The kitchen towel. Beyond that, I would have to go back to look at the first draft to answer. I only remember now that the poem was once a great deal longer.

Mary Mackey: What did you add?

Jane Hirshfield: The ending. It took cutting the poem down to find the question it was asking of me, and to find what felt a right response to that question. Not a definitive answer; there’s always another answer. But a response that felt right the way hitting a bell can feel right. You know it by feel and by sound.

Mary Mackey: Did you read various drafts of “A Cottony Fate” out loud to yourself in order to assess the rhythm of the lines or do you have some other method for assessing poetic rhythm?

Jane Hirshfield: I don’t ever say my poems out loud when I write them, but from the first words’ first murmur, I hear them. On the voice, with sound. Earlier in this interview I said, “No world, no words.” Here I’ll say, “No music, no poetry.” Some reviewers seem to think that if music isn’t big, baroque, visible stuff, the poet doesn’t care about the rhythms and tones and sounds. But free verse poems, at least as much as ones of “formal” meter and rhyme, are formed. They require their own strength of music, or they will dissolve into muddled chatter.

There’s one other poem in the The Beauty that shows what I mean:

               Two Linen Handkerchiefs

How can you have been dead twelve years
and these still

              (from The Beauty, NY: Knopf, 2015; all right reserved)

That’s the whole poem. Its meaning entirely depends on hearing its question’s tone, on hearing the voice of the living person who has been brought to write it, who has been brought to stop speaking mid-sentence. Letting you hear that is what prosody and music do. Each word here is equally weighted. It’s almost impossible to get English to do this for so many words. I didn’t plan it— the poem spoke itself in my ear in the measures of grief. But that is also part of how craft works, how music works— they are based in reality. You learn these sounds and gestures by your awareness of actual voices in the world in actual circumstances. How grief, say, can either throw a person into an aria or into silence.

Mary Mackey: What in general do you do to your poems to improve and polish them?
Jane Hirshfield: There is no general, only particulars. I re-read, I re-experience, I notice how the words affect me. If something feels off the mark, I look for what might want to be changed. This might mean expanding, it might mean cutting, it might be looking for a word more alive and tensile to replace one that is flat and inert, it might mean changing the line breaks, the punctuation, it might mean finding an entirely new ending or opening or middle.

All I can say to the students I teach is: “In this place, in this poem, perhaps this might be tried.” My only general advice? Try to awaken a deepened and more accurate attention at every stage. And, I suppose also: Try to hold yourself to at least the same standard you would hold others. Your companion poets are both the living and the dead. Do not bore them, do not waste their time.

Mary Mackey: Your poems, as I’ve read them over many books, often end in a way that makes a connection between the visible, physical world and the eternal, spiritual world. Two linen handkerchiefs can speak to us of our relation to death, what lasts and what disappears. Sometimes it’s obvious in your poems; sometimes it’s subtle, but I see this as a note that runs throughout your work. At what point in the writing of a poem does this connection come to you? Does it precede the poem, or does it develop organically out of the poem as you write?
Jane Hirshfield: I think, to the degree that does happen, it comes because a larger awareness of the ground of existence and its grounding is what I want. Lightning wants to find trees, the large wants to find its way into our lives. While trees may not think they want to be opened by lightning, we humans do. I, at least, do. There’s a poem in The Beauty titled “Of Amplitude, There Is No Scraping Bottom.” In it are the lines: “You wanted to be ignorant, unknowing, thunderstruck, gobsmacked./ Wanted to be brought to your knees / by the scent of mushrooms you couldn’t know whether to pick.” Randall Jarrell once said that a poet’s existence consists of standing out in thunderstorms for a lifetime, hoping to be struck by lightning five or six times. One reason I turned to poems as a child, and turn to them still, is for just that—to become a conduit of the unfathomable.
Mary Mackey: Thank you for talking to us today, Jane.

Jane Hirshfield: It’s been a pleasure.

Join this  People Who Make Books Happen conversation with Jane Hirshfield. You are warmly invited to leave a comment. People Who Make Books Happen is where the experts hang out.

For writing advice; course syllabi; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition, Lesson Plans for California Poets In The Schools, and more information about writing and teaching, you are invited to visit my Educators Page and use my novels and collections of poetry in your courses.


California Poets In The Schools Lesson Plans

Interview with Phyllis Meshulam, editor of Poetry Crossing: 50+ Lessons for 50 Years of California Poets in the Schools

Low Res of final Poetry Crossing coverMary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Phyllis. Before we start talking about Poetry Crossing, the new California Poets in the Schools Lesson Plans book, could you please start by telling us in one or two sentences what California Poets in the Schools does?

Phyllis: Children learn by doing. So, although we usually start the conversation by introducing children to stunning poetry from all time periods, we primarily get them to appreciate poems by writing their own. We are a multicultural team of published poets, more than a hundred strong, working with students K – 12, in schools, hospitals, juvenile halls, and community settings in 33 counties around California.

Mary: Who are some of the well-known poets who have taught in California Poets in the Schools over the years?

Phyllis: Of course we are particularly proud of the fact that California Poets in the Schools poet-teacher emeritus, Juan Felipe Herrera, has just been promoted from California Poet Laureate to US Poet Laureate! But there are a host of other outstanding California Poets in the Schools alums: Jane Hirshfield, Al Young, Francisco Alarcón, Dorianne Laux, Genny Lim, Tom Centolella, Molly Fisk, Susan Wooldridge, Jack Grapes, Opal Palmer Adisa, devorah major, Eleni Sikelianos, Terry Ehret, Richard Garcia, Cecilia Woloch, Carol Lee Sanchez.

Mary: What do you think poetry has to offer students K – 12 and their teachers?

Phyllis: All of the arts are important to students, to all human beings. Paraphrasing violinist Joshua Bell, they’re what make us human. Poetry has a particularly important role to play in school, I believe. “Language Arts” and “English” are universally taught subject matters. But the art part is often insufficiently cultivated. I usually start off a residency asking my students “Who likes poetry?” and then “Who likes art?” Art always wins in numbers of hands and amount of obvious enthusiasm. “But,” I then go on to tell them, “poetry is art – art with words.” I ask what they love so much about art and get answers like, “it’s fun,” “you have a lot of freedom,” “it’s okay to do things your own way,” “it’s okay to be different,” “I like the colors.” “Well,” I say, “all of those things are true about poetry, too.” We are often so busy teaching children the mechanics of written communication that we forget that these young people have a lot on their minds and unique ways of viewing the world.

Students gain a tremendous amount of compassion when they see feelings like their own expressed in the words of others, and confidence as others appreciate the words they have written. Their words encapsulate their feelings, life experiences, what they want to celebrate, lament, the sheer joy of creativity, rhythm, music of language, etc. This is a tool that can grow with these students forever. Teachers gain profound new perspectives on children in their classes who have sometimes been viewed as difficult to reach. Even though we emphasize that poetry has no rules that aren’t meant to sometimes be broken, the importance of the skills of language, the importance of being able to communicate with language are also being taught and reinforced.

Mary: Let’s talk about Poetry Crossing. Where did the idea for a lesson plan book for California Poets in the Schools come from?

Phyllis: About ten years ago I had a trainee who asked me if California Poets in the Schools had a lesson plan book. I had to say no, even though the annual California Poets in the Schools student poetry anthology has routinely included a handful of lessons. I mulled over this absence of a go-to collection for several years. Then, as the 50th anniversary of the founding of our organization loomed¸ I proposed that we seize that opportunity to make such book a reality.   

Mary:  How will Poetry Crossing help teachers achieve some of the goals of Common Core?

Phyllis: We find it disappointing that Common Core scarcely calls for creative writing as such. But over and over the document asks that students learn to use “precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language.” It calls for children to understand “figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.” It calls for them to comprehend literature at an age-appropriate level. It asks that children read poetry and prose aloud with accuracy, at a pleasing pace, and with expression. It asks that they plan, revise, edit, rewrite, and that they write on a regular basis. Now can you tell me a better way to accomplish these goals than with the practice of poetry? In the table of contents of Poetry Crossing, the poetry skills addressed are identified after the lesson title. So if a teacher needs to teach a particular figure of speech, she or he can scan the table of contents and easily find the appropriate lessons. The introduction to the book includes suggestions on helping children to read aloud successfully.

The skills of metaphor, and of appealing to the five senses are so important that we have special terminology for them – the “magic wand of metaphor” and the “star of the five senses.” Again and again the “advice to writers” sections include reminders to children to use these special tools, very much leading to the descriptive details and sensory language prized in Common Core. Poetry Crossing lessons also straddle curricular boundaries into Science, Social Studies and more.

Mary: Can some of the lessons and writing prompts in this book be used by people teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level or is the material limited to K-12?

Phyllis: Oh, most definitely, these lessons can be used for older students. Many of the lessons are marked “for all ages,” and most could easily be adapted. A lot of us are getting feedback that teachers, friends and family members are finding the book to be a catalyst for their own writing. My daughter who, at 29, is developing her poetry writing practice, declared the book the most useful resource in participating in National Poetry Month’s poem-a-day challenge. One of our poet-teachers is leaving soon for Cambodia as a Peace Corps volunteer. She says that Poetry Crossing is one of only two workbooks she’s taking with her, because “the lesson plans and examples work wonderfully well for poets of all ages.”

Mary:  In putting this book together, you and the other editors sorted through fifty years’ worth of lessons from hundreds of poets who taught more than a million student writers. How did you decide what to include?

Phyllis: Well, we reached out to all current poet-teachers, and emeritus ones that we could connect with, and invited them to participate. We had open submissions for a couple of months. We also combed through old anthologies and asked for recommendations of memorable lessons from teachers who are, “alas, no longer whinnying with us.” We prioritized submissions that had outstanding sample student poems, lessons that would represent the cultural diversity of California, and lessons with adult sample poems that were stunning but kid-accessible and for which we were likely to be able to get publication rights. In addition to all the remarkable alums of the program whom I mentioned earlier, there are many illustrious poets whom I consider to be friends of California Poets in the Schools who would want to help us out. These include Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Gary Snyder, Ellen Bass, and more. So we encouraged poet-teachers to look through their files for lessons making use of the work of artists like those or ones whose work is in the public domain or ones whom they might personally know. One teacher had a contact with Ted Kooser, for example. Then we reviewed submissions, mindful of balancing age-level interests, and providing a varied palette of poetic tools, skills and styles.

Mary: How is this book different from other poetry instruction books?

Phyllis: There are many absolutely amazing poetry instruction books out in the world. What is unusual about our book is that it combines rich resources and ideas with a very convenient format. Fifty lessons in this workbook follow a simple two-page template. One page is directed to the teacher, with the rationale for this particular instruction and a recipe for teaching it. A second page is addressed to the student with sample poems by adults and children, prompts or an “advice to writers” section, and usually an engaging illustration. This page can easily be projected or copied as a handout so that students interact with it directly. Poetry Crossing is ideal for busy teachers because it is an action plan, ready to deliver.

Mary: Please describe the experience of teaching one of the lessons from this book.

Phyllis: We had a bit of an emergency when we discovered that getting permissions for the student poems originally in “The Fish” lesson was impossible. A deadline was looming and the plan’s author was up to her eyeballs in commitments teaching at the community college level. “All right then,” I thought. “I’ll teach it myself on Friday.” I had a seasoned class of 5th graders, many of whom had already turned in blanket permission slips, so I thought I’d have a pretty good chance of provoking some poems worthy of the book, but then, who knew?

I got out my stash of wildlife pictures from old calendars, then did as the lesson suggests and printed a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” from Poets.org. Armed with these items, I arrived at school. I told the children a few of the vocabulary words but that they didn’t have to know them all to be able to appreciate the poem. I mentioned that Bishop liked to travel, and had been on a fishing trip in Florida. I mentioned that she might have been a nurse during World War II. Then I read her poem to the class and asked them if they had any favorite parts.

They were pretty fascinated by what the inside of the animal might look like and how she might know this. Somebody suggested she might have cleaned a fish before, and someone else thought because she had been a nurse. Somebody liked the tinfoil eyes. I asked why there were pieces of fish-line coming out of the fish’s jaw and why they were like medals on ribbons. At least one of the children understood the metaphor and translated for the class. We talked
about why the speaker might have made the choice to let the fish go, and what that felt like for her, not to mention the fish!

I put a picture of an egret on the board and someone said its little “braid” feather in back was like a mullet and we made a nice group poem using the prompts. I had a few more pictures than children in the class, so they had some choices, and they could also share with neighbors. Then they went to work writing their poems. Students expressed a great deal of empathy for these animals that they imagined capturing and then letting go. Almost everyone was dying to share their work out loud. I left the class with a bunch of rich, new poems, and three of them are in the book.

Mary: What skills do children learn from writing poetry that helps them in life?

Phyllis: Learning to confide in a piece of paper, sometimes even more trustworthy than a best friend, is a tool for self-knowledge. Painful experiences, and even happy mistakes in the writing process, can turn into something beautiful, comforting, and inspiring to others. Then gaining the ability to stand and speak your truth in front of your classmates or the city council, this is a tool that can change the course of the world.

Observing; brainstorming; experimenting with language; discovering mysteries you didn’t even know were in and around you; re-vision. Many of these elements of our creative process are parallel to the scientific process. Putting oneself in the shoes of others, writing poems based on historical events or movements – these build bridges across time and between disparate cultures. I just successfully tried out a new lesson based on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen with 6th graders in May. This is a book of poetry that could be used to address the racial divide that we are still struggling with in this country. It is an example of the power of poetry to transubstantiate us into someone else’s body, mind and experience.

Mary: Tell us about a child whose life changed because of poetry?

Phyllis: I have witnessed so many transformations – bullies showing a tender side, and shy children finding voice and poise, juvenile hall children showing vulnerability and also pride. My colleagues have shared stories of homeless youth building their dream home/ ideal world with language, and students sending poems to incarcerated parents. Poet-teacher John Oliver Simon related a remarkable story that illustrates the long-term possibilities. John said he first met Carmen Jiménez in a bilingual second-grade class at Lazear Elementary. He noticed her insight and her attentive questions. It was hard to miss her lovely poetry and the fact that she was trilingual, English being her third language. Spanish is her second; her first language is Mam, a Mayan language from Todos Santos Cuchumatanes in the Guatemalan highlands. Carmen participated in a year-end reading wearing traje típico: a purple huipil in the pattern of her family’s village.

John taught poetry to Carmen’s class at Lazear every year through fifth grade and then she participated for a year in an after-school poetry class John taught in Berkeley. The group created a documentary in which Carmen was one of the stars. She said, on film, “Poetry is a light that came to save me.” John has kept up with Carmen through Facebook. She read at the Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival as a high school junior. In May, Carmen posted that she is accepting a full scholarship to UCLA.

Mary: That’s a wonderful story. Before we go, could you please tell our readers where they can get copies of Poetry Crossing.

Phyllis:I’d be happy to. Here’s a link to the California Poets in the Schools website: www.cpits.org   Poetry Crossing can also be purchased from amazon.com. And here’s a link to the summer issue of Teachers & Writers, which has a feature article on Poetry Crossing.

Phyllis Meshulam-PoetPhyllis Meshulam is a poet, and a veteran teacher and coordinator for California Poets in the Schools and Poetry Out Loud. As California Poets in the Schools approached its 50th anniversary, Meshulam encouraged the organization to publish a lesson plan book of “greatest hits.” She was appointed editor and, after much collaborative effort, the volume was released in the fall of 2014. Her work has appeared in many literary magazines, as well as in Tikkun, Teachers & Writers, and in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, winner of a Northern California Book Reviewers’ Award. As local coordinator of the nationwide program Poetry Out Loud, Meshulam has helped to make Sonoma County the most active one in the state of California in terms of numbers of participating students and she led a panel on POL at the 2012 AWP. With a B.A. from Pomona College, and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Meshulam is also the author of Valley of Moon from dPress and Doll, Moon from Finishing Line Press.

Join this  People Who Make Books Happen conversation with Phyllis Meshulam. You are warmly invited to leave a comment. People Who Make Books Happen is where the experts hang out.

For writing advice; course syllabi; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition, Lesson Plans for California Poets In The Schools, and more information about writing and teaching, you are invited to visit my Educators Page and use my novels and collections of poetry in your courses.


Beast Crawl With The Unrestrained Beast

Dancing foxCome to the Spice Monkey Restaurant in Oakland this Saturday July 11th, and hear Mary Mackey read her most beastly poems as part of Oakland’s 4th Annual Beast Crawl Literary Festival. With novelist/non-fiction writer Miah Jeffra, and poets Kirk Lumpkin, and Maw Shein Win. Curated by Leila Rae, publisher/editor Pandemonium Press. Book and Broadside Giveaway Table. Book Table. Theme: The Unrestrained Beast. TIME:  6:30  pm to 7:30 pm. PLACE: The Loft at the Spice Monkey Restaurant and Bar, 1628 Webster Street, Oakland (at 17th St, 2 1/2 blocks from the 19th Street BART).  This event is free and open to the public.

Online Creative Writing Classes Pros and Cons

Novelist and Master Teacher Elizabeth Stark Discusses The Pros and Cons of Online Creative Writing Classes

Elizabeth Stark PowersMary Mackey: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Elizabeth. It’s a pleasure to have you here to talk about online Creative Writing classes, a topic that’s of increasing interest to anyone who is teaching creative writing or considering taking a creative writing class. Could you please start by telling us about your background? For example, how long have you been teaching creative writing online?

Elizabeth Stark: I actually taught an online memoir class for the New York Gotham Writers Workshop around 1999/2000. Online teaching was not a familiar format at the time, and the course was conducted without video or audio—just posting. It turned out to be powerfully moving and surprisingly intimate. The group was very diverse. We had a WWII vet and a teenager, and we all felt that learning this way flipped the anonymity of New York City inside out. Seven years ago when I started coaching and editing writers again after my kids were born, my partner Angie set me up online, and she and I been evolving our course as the technology evolves But that surprising intimacy remains.

Mary: What on-line creative writing courses are you currently teaching?

Elizabeth: This term I am teaching a Book-in-a-Year course where students are writing all the key scenes in the structure of a story—for memoir or fiction–using published models such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Americanah, and memoirs such as Wild.

I also just wrapped up a year-long revision course called Book Launch: Revision where we read one person’s entire manuscript each month and met via video to discuss it at length. This structure creates a powerful community of readers and writers.

Mary: What do you have coming up in the future?

Elizabeth: I’ll be starting another Book Launch: Revision course in the fall which will be a workshop for entire manuscripts. I’ll also be teaching another Writing Studio where students actually write in class.

Mary:  Have you ever taught creative courses in a face-to-face setting?

Elizabeth: I have taught at colleges and universities and in living rooms and coffee shops. I love this kind of teaching, too—but the two forms of teaching are less different than you’d think. Right now, I drive weekly to Berkeley to teach an ongoing class whose students are very attached (as am I) to our in-person meetings.

Mary: What advantages are there to teaching online vs teaching face-to-face?

Elizabeth: Online classes allow people to enroll who would otherwise not be able to work with me because they live far away or have young children in the home or for some other reason. Teaching online also cuts out the commute for everyone. You are getting direct support, inspiration and mentorship right at your writing desk. How dreamy is that? You open to the blank page, and there is a published author calling you by name and telling you that you can do this. I think it is important for students to feel part of a community of fellow writers who want them to succeed. I am able to record each and every class, so if students have to miss, they can make it up. That’s something that at present real time face-to-face teaching can’t offer.

Mary: What disadvantages are there to teaching online courses?

Elizabeth: With the current technology—and I know it’s changing all the time—there isn’t a way to pair people up to read to each other or do other small group exercises. And there isn’t the same chance for before- and after-class socializing. In my classes, I try to address this by encouraging online conversations outside of class. My students get to know one another, sometimes traveling long distances to meet in person.

Mary: What technologies do you use to teach your online courses?

Elizabeth: Currently we use Google Hangouts, Facebook, our own web site and email.

Mary: What happens in an on-line creative writing course? What should students expect?

Elizabeth: It’s pretty similar to face-to-face in that everybody can see everybody else. Whoever is speaking pops up on the big screen, and the rest of us appear in little Brady-Bunch squares below. Individuals may always mute themselves so we cannot hear if kids are crying or phones are ringing. They can even turn off the camera. In short, there’s a lot of flexibility.

In my classes, we start with a check in and a short, focused coaching session for each writer. So many issues overlap: finding time to write, making decisions about the structure of a scene or a whole book, tackling revision, finding the heart and time to submit. We celebrate rejections, because the students most successfully published are often those with the most rejections to report. Rejection means you are on the path to getting published.

Mary: What happens in your craft classes?

Elizabeth In the craft classes after check in, we write using as inspiration examples I cull from a wide range of published work. Everyone has the chance to read what they have written aloud and receive encouragement and direction. Students often post their praise of each other in the course “chat section.”

Mary: How about Workshop classes? What happens in them?

Elizabeth: An online Workshop class functions much as it does in person. It is a a casual but rigorous conversation about the manuscript at hand, which we’ve all read carefully ahead of time. We start with praise and end with praise. Over the years, my students and I have noticed that the writer can forget the work has any redeeming value if the constructive criticism isn’t accompanied by a specific reminder of what works. The writer waits to speak until the end.

Later, we’ll each email our notes to the writer. I email my notes to everyone, as there is much to be gained from seeing the detailed edit of a work you’ve read closely. I also create a checklist of lessons that students can apply to their own writing, because it’s often easier to see these lessons when they are taken from another person’s manuscript rather than one’s own.

We conclude all our classes by setting public writing goals to spur us on. I keep my online classes very small and participatory. Six students, eight students. They run like seminars.

Mary: What do you enjoy most about teaching these online creative writing classes?

Elizabeth: I love the quality of students who’ve been drawn to them. They are almost invariably really talented, serious writers who are also warm, mutually supportive, and encouraging. The conversations are smart and invigorating. Personally, I love the community that we’ve all built together.

Mary: Do you think online classes will ever replace face-to-face classes? Should they?

Elizabeth: In the not too distant past, there was a big panic about e-books replacing print, and that seems to be leveling off. This is not an exact parallel, but I do think that e-learning and in-person learning can and should co-exist. It’s wonderful to be in a room full of writers, but it can be a miracle to look up from childcare, house-cleaning, a desk job or just the isolation of the page, and find a row of smiling faces waiting in your computer to discuss your work, cheer you on, and urge you to write.

Mary: What tips can you give someone who is planning to teach creative writing online? For example, is there an ideal class size?

Elizabeth: I prefer small class sizes because I want to hear from everybody, every time. From a sheer business/ profit stand point, this may not be the most effective model, but I am first a reader, a writer and a teacher, and the intimacy and connection forged in a small class is invaluable. An online platform can serve as a lecture hall as easily as it can serve as a close circle, but personal accountability and a chance to know one another individually helps us all stay on track.

That said, one could teach through Google Hangouts and YouTube to a very wide audience. For example, Angie and I are launching a podcast that we record through Google Hangouts with an audience of our students watching on YouTube, and they love that, too. There are many possibilities.

Mary: What should a student look for when considering an online creative writing course?

Elizabeth: My big concern about online teaching is that a lot of the teachers are no more qualified than their students to be at the helm of the class. Look for teachers who have publications and degrees. Then look to the student community—do they love the world of the online course? Are they finding success and creative productivity and joy? My own students are writing strong work and publishing it. I find that tremendously exciting, because it means that what we are doing together is working.

Mary: I know you do both videos and podcasts of your classes. Could you please leave us with some urls so we can take a look at them?

Elizabeth: At present the videos of most of the classes are only for the current students, but the podcast of conversations with writers and other story creatives and industry professionals will be available after June 15. I’ll give you the link to update then if I may. I also offer a free course on professionally editing your own work, called Fearless and Finished, which is available at http://BookWritingWorld.com. And if you get on my mailing list, I’ll send you inspiration, tips and other information about free courses. Finally, Angie and I will be launching a more independent Book-in-a-Year online course later this year.

Mary: Thank you for telling all of this valuable information, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much, Mary! You are wonderful!!

Elizabeth Stark (aka Elizabeth Stark Powers)  is the author of the novel  Shy Girl  (FSG, Seal Press) and co-director and co-writer of several short films, including  FtF: Female to Femme  and  Little Mutinies  (both distributed by Frameline Film Distribution). She has an M.F.A. from Columbia University in Creative Writing. Currently the lead coach and teacher at the Book Writing World, she’s taught writing and literature at UCSC, Pratt Institute, the Peralta Colleges and Hobart & William Smith Colleges. In fall 2010, she was the Distinguished Fiction Writer at St. Mary’s College in Orinda. She ’ s developing an online course to complete a masterfully crafted book in a year at http://BookinaYear.com

Join this  People Who Make Books Happen conversation with Elizabeth Stark. You are warmly invited to leave a comment. People Who Make Books Happen is where the experts hang out.

For writing advice; course syllabi; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition and more free information about writing and teaching, you are invited to visit my Educators Page.


Pamela Berkman photo, April 23 2015An Interview With Novelist Pamela Berkman

Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Pamela. Could you please start by telling us how you decided to write about Shakespeare? What led you to choose him as a subject for historical fiction?

Pamela: I have always, always loved Shakespeare, loved the plays, loved the language. In the end though, I wrote my book of Shakespeare short stories, Her Infinite Variety, in reaction to the movie Shakespeare in Love. That movie spawned a bit of a Shakespeare trend in fiction. But I wanted to challenge the way his wife Anne is dismissed with a line or two in that screenplay and in most people’s minds. There are so many misconceptions, beginning with the idea that she was an aging spinster he married for her property and because he got her pregnant. But when she married William Shakespeare she was the 26-year-old, well-thought-of daughter of an important local family. I got interested in all the women who surrounded Shakespeare and who appear in his plays, and went from there. I found out amazing things. There is a lot of very rich stuff about his relationships you don’t even have to make up.

Mary: Please tell us what you’ve written about Shakespeare.

Pamela: Among other things, I wrote Her Infinite Variety: Stories of Shakespeare and the Women He Loved

Her Infinite Variety Pamela BerkmanThis is a collection of short stories, each of which is written about or from the point of view of a female character in one of his plays or a woman who was actually involved in Shakespeare’s life. I wanted to try to tell their untold stories, especially the stories of the ones who are passive or voiceless or vilified. What was going on in Ophelia’s head? How does Juliet’s mother feel about what happens to her daughter? What’s Lady Macbeth’s side of the story? Why did Shakespeare’s daughter Judith marry such a cad? What kind of mother was Mary Shakespeare, and why?

Mary: What kind of research do you have to do to write about Shakespeare? Do you enjoy doing this research?

Pamela: I actually had a reasonable working knowledge of the Tudor period just because I was always interested in it. But when I started to dig around for details in Shakespeare’s life and plays, I found there was a rich vein to be mined. The documented facts about Shakespeare that we know about are few, although every now and then something new turns up.

My favorite part was discovering little jewels that I could spin into a story. For example, about a hundred and fifty years ago someone found the legal record of the incident that was the spark for my story “Mary Mountjoy’s Dowry.” Shakespeare, it seems, was the go-between in getting the daughter of the family he was lodging with in London married. The bridegroom sued the family for the money he was promised, and Shakespeare had to testify. So I thought about what family and interpersonal dynamics might have been going on there, especially between Shakespeare and that young woman. Then there are things about him that didn’t make it into my stories, at least not yet. For example, after Shakespeare’s death his daughter Susanna sued someone for slander because he had said she had a sexually transmitted disease. She won.

Mary: What other historical novels about Shakespeare would you recommend? What do you like most about these novels?

Pamela: I haven’t yet found anything that really grabs me. Maybe that’s why I’m writing about Shakespeare again, for myself, because I haven’t yet found the novel that’s perfect for me. But there are some new ones out there that I want to give a try. As soon as I get some time, I want to read Dark Aemilia, by Sally O’Reilly, which puts a magical spin on one of the possible candidates for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, the poet Aemilia Bassano. And Mary Sharratt, who is such a terrific writer, is also coming out with a historical novel about Shakespeare and Aemilia called The Dark Lady’s Mask, which I’m looking forward to. There’s a lot of genre mystery and romance out there now. And there’s a type of story that uses Shakespeare’s life and work as a jumping off point, like the science fiction novel Station Eleven, or contemporary novels like The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips, or The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Neil Gaiman depicts Shakespeare and his wife in Sandman. I even saw a Dr. Who episode about him.

I guess it’s only natural that writers would be drawn to exploring the psyche of this man who is often called “the greatest writer who ever lived.” Everyone has their own take on him – charming and confident, tormented and guilty, whatever. 

Mary: I understand that you’re working on a novel about Shakespeare right now. This is exciting news. Can you give us a little sneak peek at it without giving too much away?

Pamela: There’s a tradition, with some possible evidence, that Shakespeare served as a schoolmaster “in the country,” in his youth. In the novel I’m working on, he has to flee home as a teenager to go be a tutor in a great house in Lancashire. Adventures follow. I’ll leave it at that.

Mary: Traditionally, all English majors are required to take a course in Shakespeare. Do you think he’s still relevant?

Pamela: Oh, absolutely. His psychological insight, his understanding of human motivation, his fully formed characters – all those things are timeless. That said, it’s important to remember that not everything he wrote was Hamlet or King Lear. He had his early clunkers, too. Even Shakespeare had to develop and mature as a writer. Which is so interesting and cool. I understand that the language puts some people off. I say, just relax and read it to yourself in a conversational tone, and see what shines through.

For example, really read the “To be or not to be” soliloquy all the way through and appreciate how many of the lines have become part of our lexicon. No other writer of his time wrote so prolifically or wrote so many stories with such variety and such memorable language. And believe me, no Elizabethan playwright or poet, not Christopher Marlowe, not Ben Jonson, nobody, even comes close to writing women like Shakespeare did! Not the sheer number of characters, not their complexity, and not their variety.

Mary: Thank you, Pamela. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I’m looking forward to learning more about Shakespeare when your novel is published.

Pamela Berkman’s two short story collections were published by Simon & Schuster. The title story of The Falling Nun was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and Her Infinite Variety: Stories of Shakespeare and the Women He Loved made the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list. Her short story “Duty,” about Juliet Capulet’s mother from Romeo and Juliet, appears in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s high school textbook Collections. Pam holds an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College and worked as a reporter before settling into publishing, where she is now a production manager. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two young Tasmanian devils – er, sons.

Join this  People Who Make Books Happen conversation with Pamela Berkman. You are warmly invited to leave a comment.

For writing advice; course syllabi in various subjects; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition and more information about writing and teaching for students and educators, you are invited to visit my Educators Page.

Marge Piercy On Writing Fiction and Poetry

Marge PiercyIn March Knopf  published Marge Piercy’s nineteenth collection of poetry Made In Detroit. Knopf has also recently published the paperback edition of her eighteenth poetry collection  The Hunger Moon.  Piercy’s poetry has been anthologized over a hundred times. She has written seventeen novels, most recently Sex WarsPM press has republished Dance The Eagle To Sleep, Vida, and Braided Lives with new introductions. Last May, PM Press published her first short story collection  The Cost of Lunch, Etc.  The paperback edition of The Cost of Lunch, Etc. will arrive this September with two new stories and an introduction. Meanwhile, her memoir Sleeping With Cats is out from Harper Perennial. Piercy’s work has been translated into nineteen languages. She has given readings, speeches, and workshops in over 470 venues in the U.S. and abroad. She invites you to visit her website at http://margepiercy.com

Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Marge. In January PM Press published your debut collection of short stories The Cost of Lunch, Etc. This month, Knopf is publishing your new collection of poetry Made In Detroit. You’re one of the few American writers I know who excels in writing both poetry and fiction. Could you please start by telling us how, in your experience, the process of creating a poem differs from the process of creating a novel or a short story.

Marge Piercy: Actually I’m not one of the few writers who write both poetry and fiction. There are a number of women writers who work in multiple genres. Adrienne Rich wrote both nonfiction and poetry; May Sarton wrote memoir and poetry; Muriel Rukeyser wrote poetry and biography; Maxine Kumin wrote poetry and fiction; Laura Kasischke, poetry and fiction; Maya Angelou, many genres; Denise Levertov, criticism and poetry; Alice Walker, poetry, fiction, essays. Jane Friedman has written essays and poetry; Margaret Atwood, poetry and fiction; Audre Lorde, memoir and poetry; Sylvia Plath, poetry and fiction; Erica Jong, poetry and fiction; Susan Griffin, poetry and nonfiction. And on and on. It’s relatively common for women to work in more than one genre.  You’ve done the same.

Poems start from an image, a phrase, an idea, a vision.  But novels start with theme and character.  You can’t mistake one for the other any more than you could fail to distinguish between an elephant and a hummingbird. Short stories have a narrower focus than novels. Everything put in has to work toward the common goal of that story. In a short story, everything has to count, whereas in a novel, digressions, the development of minor characters and meanderings of plot are acceptable and may add to the charm.  In poetry every word has to count; in short stories, everything put into it has to work for the story.

Mary: Does the initial inspiration come to you in different ways?

Marge Piercy: Sure. A novel often comes out of an idea, a theme, a subject I’ve been mulling over for years.  Then something happens in the world or in my head that begins to flesh it out. Poems are more immediate, at least in their beginnings. Anything can be the spark that starts the engine of a poem. A poem can come from looking out the window, having a conversation or an argument with a friend, a break-up, a death of a friend or a stranger, a demand from my cat, the morning news, a meeting, a hawk landing on a nearby bush, the scent of a flower, rain after a drought.  

Mary: What influence have your political and religious beliefs had on your prose and your poetry?

Marge Piercy: To me it’s all of a piece. There’s no difference between writing a poem about lost love or tulips than writing a poem about the War in Afghanistan or women’s right to choose. The poem has to work as a poem.  A lot of political poetry doesn’t feeling fully felt or fully intelligent. It’s too often concerned with being politically correct.  
Writing liturgy is different from anything else. I was one of a group of mostly rabbis who produced the Reconstructionist Shabbat Morning Siddur or Or Chadash.  Instead of a striking or surreal or even shocking imagery, you want imagery and language that is powerful and often with strong rhythm but that works for a group to say aloud.  It also has to fit into the traditional place in the service or the siddur and do what it required in that place. Some of my liturgy is widely used in Reconstructionist and Reform synagogues and havurot here and in Liberal prayerbooks in Great Britain.  

Mary: Your forthcoming collection of poetry is entitled Made In Detroit. You were born in Detroit and attended The University of Michigan.  Do you feel that your poetry is in general more personal and autobiographical than your prose?

Marge Piercy: Sure.  In novels I’m often concerned with the road not taken, the choices people make in their lives in a particular period and particular socio-economic and political situation.  I like to explore how choices work out through time. Fiction to me is about time. the vectors that act on someone in a particular place and time.  I wrote one semi-autobiographical novel, Braided Lives, but there’s a lot of different between that and my memoir Sleeping With Cats.. I tried to be as honest as I could about myself in the memoir; there are no such restraints in Braided Lives.

Poems come out of everyday as often as they come from memory – which after all is experienced in and influenced [or distorted] by the present. They may come out of my own life or what I observe of others.  They may come from watching the news or reading a newspaper. They may come out of a sign viewed glancingly while traveling by car. They may come out of something good or horrible happening to a friend.  I don’t really divide my poetry into poems about me and poems about everything else.

Mary: Please tell us more about Made In Detroit.

Marge Piercy: Among other attributes, it’s the most striking of all my books. The cover is amazing.  It’s a photograph by Lori Nix, whose work I much admire. She and her partner create surreal dioramas and she photographs them.  

The first section is about growing up in Detroit as it was then and in my family and what has become of that city.  The second section, Ignorance bigger than the moon, goes through a year and my interactions with nature. The third, The poor are no longer with us, contains political poems. The fourth, Working at it, is comprised of my poems relating to Judaism.  The fifth, That was Cobb Farm, are poems mainly of observation of our lives, some narrative. The last section, Looking back in utter confusion, consists of ruminations on my loves, my marriage, my body, friendships, cats, mortality. Like the first section, it’s quite autobiographical.  

I feel Made in Detroit is a very strong collection of the best of my poetry of last several years.  Of course there are some funny poems, like “Let’s eat in a restaurant” about how fussy Americans have become about food.

Mary: The short stories in The Cost of Lunch, Etc. are wonderfully conceived and beautifully crafted. What prompted you to write short stories? Have you been writing them all along and not publishing them, or is this a new form for you?

Marge Piercy: When I started writing seriously after college, I wrote short stories as well as novels. But when my novels finally began to be published, serious novels in those days could be lucrative. I needed to support myself so I wrote only novels for decades. But serious novels generally don’t pay much these days for all the work that goes into them, two or three years minimum; and at my age, New York editors aren’t interested in me or my work.  Therefore, I’ve returned to my earlier love: the short story. I can easily get my stories as well as my poetry published and out to people. Short stories perform far better than pieces of novels. Some of the stories in Lunch are ones initially written many many year ago, although most of them have been revised or entirely rewritten. Most of the stories are new, ones I’ve written in the past few years. I’ve found I really enjoy writing short fiction and I intend to go on doing so.

Mary: You and your husband, the novelist and essayist Ira Wood, have written an excellent guide for aspiring writers entitled So You Want To Write: How To Master The Craft of Writing Fiction and the Personal Narrative. What is the single most important thing anyone who wants to be a serious writer should know?

Marge Piercy: If you want to write short stories, read short stories. Don’t read a book about writing short stories.  Of course I exclude our book, which everyone should read, obviously!  But do you want your appendix taken out by someone who studied The Way of the Surgeon or somebody who studied medicine and has taken out as many appendices as possible?

If you want to write science or fantasy fiction, read in that genre. Don’t try to invent the wheel. Learn how people in the genre that interests you have solved problems – or haven’t.  Sometimes you learn as much from books that have failed as from those that wow you. Learn to read like writer, meaning observing as you go how those writers use dialogue, how they pace, how they characterize, how they indicate time, etc.

Mary: Can you please tell us what you’re working on now and what we have to look forward to from you in the future?

Marge Piercy: I’m giving readings from Made in Detroit at universities, bookstores, festivals, and libraries. Some Knopf arranged, some I did.  I have two books in production with PM Press: one is a book of essays with some relevant poems called My Body, My Life.  It’s part of their Outspoken Author Series. It’ll be out in the fall. So will the paperback edition of my first and only book of short stories, The Cost of Lunch, Etc. It has an introduction I wrote and two new stories. Since the book came out, I’ve written three new ones but the third is in a collection of Jewish Noir that won’t be published until after Lunch, so it couldn’t be included. I have been writing a lot of poems.  I’ve been working on my hagaddah as I do every year before Pesach, adding a couple more poems, taking out some prose.  At the moment I’m doing research on Hannah Senesh for an essay I’ve promised for Linda Stein’s traveling art exhibit on women heroes of the Holocaust.  We’ve also trying to shovel out from this incredible winter.

Mary: Thank you, Marge. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you today.

Marge: A pleasure always to chat with you.

Join this  People Who Make Books Happen conversation with Marge Piercy. You are warmly invited to leave a comment. People Who Make Books Happen is where the experts hang out.

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So Many Ways To Die Here I’ve Lost Track

Travelers With No Ticket Home Porms by Mary MackeyReview of Travelers With No Ticket Home Poems by Mary Mackey

By Joan Gefland, Poetrymagazine.com, Spring 2015

After over twenty-five years of annual expeditions to Brazil, Mary Mackey’s exploration of the Amazon River ecosystem, indigenous cultures, environmental destruction, religious rites, samba, and the teeming streets of Rio remains fresh, insightful, and enlightening.

In her new collection of poetry, Travelers With No Ticket Home, Mackey’s keen eyes scan and inner and outer landscape that merges the rational with the mystical, deconstructing everything from life in the favelas, drug wars, the destruction of the rainforest, the omniscient spirit of nature–both healing and destructive–and her own feelings of displacement, all thrown into stark relief against a throbbing tropical sun and the teeming streets of Rio.

Mackey is a stranger in a strange land that is at the same time hauntingly familiar to her. In the opening poem, “Jacob’s Ladder,” she addresses her Kentucky ancestors, musing on how her travels have changed her way of seeing her place in the world:

“what would they have said/if I had spoken to them in Portuguese?/

dearest aunts/sooner or later/

we all stand at the foot of a ladder that’s missing rungs/

speaking in tongues no one can understand”

The use of internal rhyme in “Jacob’s Ladder” and Mackey’s other poems gives us a resonance of the past with the present, and a hint that after all her years (and mind you, all her books–13 novels and 7 poetry collections) she still struggles to understand and be understood.

Mackey has often said that she sees herself as coming from two poetic traditions: one that takes as its subject the physical world, and one that is mystical and even at times hallucinatory. As a result, her poetry is layered and complex, recording real moments from her own life, yet moving beyond those moments to signs, rituals, and visions that unfold from line to line as she tries to integrate personal meaning with glimpses of something more transcendent.

In “Inquisition,” for example, she speaks of her experience of being ill in the jungle:

“in this land god is a poisonous spider/

the size of a shoe  a lash of fire ants/

a snake with hinged fangs/

do not ask me how I am/

do not ask me if we will survive/

there are so many ways to die here/

I’ve lost track/”

Mackey repeatedly uses metaphor both as a weapon to expose social injustice and a map to explore undiscovered territory. Take for example “The People of Brazil Discover the Portuguese,” in which she imagines the first contact between indigenous Brazilians and the Europeans who sailed into Rio’s Guayanbara Bay on April 1, 1500:

“what is it that comes out of the east/

like a tower of bones/

white with fluttering wings/

larger than the largest bird we have ever seen/

what new plague/

is the wind blowing toward us/”

In almost all the poems, there is a sense of unease: of great beauty and equally great danger; of displacement and grief for the on-going destruction of the natural world that Mackey treasures mixed with her joy that so much of it still survives. In “The Invisible Forests of Amapá,” she combines a list of animals that are threatened with extinction with a rapturous description of the beauty of the rainforest:

“Crested Capuchin, Nectar Bat/

Red-handed Howling Monkey/

Blue-winged Macaw/

great rivers veiled in steam/

sixty billion trees/

reaching toward a sky so green/

it shines like copper/

As she did in her previous collection Sugar Zone (which won the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award), Mackey sometimes mixes Portuguese with English, giving these poems a musical quality, yet never going to far as to make them incomprehensible. Again she invokes Solange, that ambiguous, mysterious female figure who first appeared in Sugar Zone and who, Mackey has said, may be a muse, a shaman, a former lover, a guide, a spiritual teacher, her own alter-ego, the unquenchable spirit of the rainforest, or all of these combined. The poems about Solange provide some of Travelers With No Ticket Home’s finest and most poetic moments:

From “Onça Pintada/Painted Tiger”:

“trees and vines are tattooed on her body/

when she moves  they flow across her thighs/

like the Rio Solimões in flood/

Solange who stalks us by day/

Solange who is everything we have destroyed”

The poems in Travelers With No Ticket Home invoke a Brazil that Mackey knows intimately, yet a land that is, in the end, as completely unknowable as the depths of a human soul. Mackey has said she has no plans to stop her journeys, so I suspect we will be hearing more from her about those unexplored lands which like both south of the equator and within us.

Joan Gelfand is the author of the recently published The Long Blue Room (Benicia Literary Arts, 2014), and two other full-length collections of poetry.