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Susan Kelly-DeWitt Kelly-DeWitt was born in San Francisco but spent most of her childhood in Hawaii before it was a state, living for several years on the grounds of an historic artists’ colony called Wailele. She moved back to Northern California in 1960. Kelly-DeWitt is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and the author of Spider Season, The Fortunate Islands and nine previous print and online collections . Her work has been widely published in numerous journals and anthologies, both at home and abroad, and has been featured at Wordstock, and on Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. She is also an exhibiting visual artist.
Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Susan. Let’s start at the beginning: Why did you become a poet?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Hard to know! My mother had a beautiful clothbound volume of Leaves of Grass. My father could recite The Iliad though he had only an eighth grade education. My parents also knew Don Blanding in Honolulu in the early 50’s, so I probably heard the word “poet” at a very young age. I was always a voracious reader but I never thought I could actually be a “real” writer or poet myself until I was in my twenties, in college, and read Plath. Having had a lot of trouble and tragedy in my life by then, Plath’s poems showed me there was a way to write about that.
Mary: How old were you when you wrote your first poem?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I may have written some small silly ditties when I was a child but the first “real” poem I remember writing was when I was a freshman in high school.
Mary: What was it about?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I had read A Tale of Two Cities and subsequently wrote a long poem–two or three pages in rhyme and meter–called “The Guillotine”, about a prisoner marching to his execution. The last lines were: “So spoke my head from its place unseen/ Where I left it, near the guillotine.” I always get a big laugh when I tell this story to high school students!
Mary: That’s hilarious. My first poem was about garbage collectors. So, which poets have influenced you?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: So many! In childhood/adolescence, Poe, Coleridge, Dickinson–though I never actually thought I could be a poet then. After that some of the biggest influences–where I read everything I could by and about–were Whitman and Dickinson; Blake and Yeats; Rilke; Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Ratushinskaya; Neruda; Bishop; Kenyon, Oliver and Dove; Hillman and Gluck; Kinnell; Merton; Heaney and Boland; Mistral; Milosz; Rumi; Transtromer; Levertov (who was also my mentor when I was a Stegner), and Plath, of course. The three Wrights have been very important to me also–C.D., Charles, and James Wright especially. Finally, and hugely, my early mentors and now dear old friends, Dennis Schmitz and Sandra McPherson.
Mary: What inspires you to write a poem? How do you get the initial idea?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Reading other poets always inspires me–I enter into a conversation with them and start replying, connecting associatively via lines that come into my head and make it to the page. Also, when I take my daily walk I frequently begin to get a line. When that happens, I keep it going for as long as I can, memorizing what comes, keeping each line as an evocative unit, in terms of both rhythm and meaning, and push it as far as I can. As I said in another recent interview, I also “see” the poem as a shape in space–a word sculpture. (Now that we have cell phones I sometimes pause to type out the lines on my Notes app.) When I come home I start to work on what I have. Sometimes the poem simply finds me–as one did a day or two ago, when I walked by jasmine vines in bloom and inhaled the perfume–I have been writing and revising it ever since.
Mary: What are your personal poetics? In other words, what are you trying to do with regard to both form and content when you write a poem?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I am a big believer in Denise Levertov’s “Theory of Organic Form”–that the poem must find it’s own shape/life, life-force as it evolves on the page. I believe this even when I am trying to write a villanelle or a sonnet. For me each line (as Levertov said) must exist as “an evocative unit of thought.” I also want to write something that will connect across time, space, class, culture–something that celebrates or articulates or witnesses for others in some small way–and/or something that helps someone through its beauty or use, or both.
Of course, as Frost said: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” The poem has to teach me something, take me somewhere new–the poet as detective, solving the mystery. The poet as photographer, developing film in the darkroom.
Mary: You’re the author of nine Chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry, beginning with A Camellia for Judy published by Frith Press in 1998. How has your poetry changed over the last twenty years?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: You know, Mary–I’m not sure that I am the best judge of this. I did try, in Spider Season, to tackle some new subjects and to feel my way to a different kind of poem-shape. I think in the early years I was still discovering my own voice, and I hope–especially with Spider Season–that I have now found it. That said, I have always tried to include poems that address history–personal, political, social–in some way. I don’t think this has changed. The natural world and the visual image have always been important to my poetic vision and self (probably stemming in large part from growing up in Hawaii and living for several early years in a defunct artists’ colony surrounded by art and a tropical rainforest)–I’d like to think I have gotten better as an observer of those worlds, but I am not sure that I have. I’ll have to listen to the critics for that.
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Coming up with the title was largely intuitive. I woke one night with that title in my head. I had written quite a few new poems during the previous months (known as the “spider season”) and I had encountered numerous spider webs on my morning walks. Spider also means “mother” in dream symbolism. Since this is the first full-length collection I have published since my mother’s death, I’m sure that had something to do with the intuitive part. The book also casts a wide web of connections for me–parts of my life that I have not written about before.
Mary: What are the three most important poems in Spider Season? Why?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Well, first let me say: I think we know the writer/artist is often the least qualified to judge her/his own work! That said, the three I might choose from Spider Season now would be “The Subject of All Poems is the Clock” and “First Light.” Number Three would be a tie between “Interrogative” and “Don’t Forget.” I would choose these because they all tackle the large existential questions, and some of them also witness the political and environmental crises that loom over our planet’s future.
Mary: Do you have any other new work you’d like to mention, or any new books in the works?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I do. A third full-length manuscript is making the rounds–it is titled The Moon Bee. I also recently had a group of poems published online at Mudlark. They are poems that give voice to some painful experiences I have not written about so explicitly before.
Mary: You are a visual artist as well as a poet. How do these two aspects of your creative life influence one another?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Well, I have often been told that I am a very “visual” poet–that my imagery allows the reader to “zoom in” and focus. Over the years I have taught several workshops where we explored the painter/photographer’s techniques and language as useful tools for the poetry writing process. My life as a visual artist has taught me to “see”–to attend, remove the distance between myself and the subject; it has also helped me (especially watercolor painting) to recognize the fortunate accident, and to know (usually!!) when to stop.
Mary: How has your involvement in the Sacramento literary community influenced your work?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Stanley Kunitz once wrote: “Poetry withers without fellowship.” Our literary community casts a wide web of friendship, support and creative energy. Getting involved with the Sacramento Poetry Center in the late 70’s brought me into that web, and I have been there ever since. As one of the early members, readers, program directors, workshop facilitators, and editors of the literary magazine, I found my place in the world, and I continue to treasure every moment spent in that nurturing environment which does not differentiate between “inside” and “outside” the academy. The word “community” (as defined by Webster’s) says it: a unified body of individuals–and so it is, and so we are.
Mary: If you could ensure that one of your poems would survive to be read 500 years from now, which poem would it be, and why have you chosen it?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Tough question! That said, “Apple Blossoms” would be my choice today because I think that it captures the struggle for survival, the beauties and complexities of the human dilemma in a very plain-spoken way. Kooser used it on his American Life in Poetry column, and I know that a lot of people have connected with it since then. I think it would still relate to a reader as long as there are people, long winter nights, bees and spring blossoms. Of course with Trump’s position on climate change, 500 years may be far too optimistic.
Mary: “Apple Blossoms” is one of my favorites too. Here it is, accompanied by your painting “Pink Leaves.”
One evening in winter
when nothing has been enough,
when the days are too short,
the nights too long
and cheerless, the secret
and docile buds of the apple
blossoms begin their quick
ascent to light. Night
after interminable night
the sugars pucker and swell
into green slips, green
silks. And just as you find
yourself at the end
of winter’s long, cold
rope, the blossoms open
like pink thimbles
and that black dollop
of shine called
bumblebee stumbles in.
Copyright © by Susan Kelly-DeWitt Kelly Dewitt 2001
Mary: Do you have any upcoming readings or classes? How can people get in touch with you?
Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I am going to be teaching my Poet as Camera class in Stockton CA on June 24th as part of the University of the Pacific’s Creative Writing Conference . I will also be teaching a five month private workshop on hybrid forms in the fall. People can contact me via my website at: http://susankelly-dewitt.com/. My public email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for readings–I just took part, as the Featured Poet for 2017, in Solano Community College’s annual launch-reading for the Suisun Valley Review, and I am happy to be part of the upcoming launch at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts on September 23rd for Know Me Here – An Anthology of Poetry by Women, edited by Katherine Hastings. Hopefully you and I will be reading together, Mary, since you are also in the anthology.
Mary: Thank you, Susan. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I’m looking forward to reading the poems in The Moon Bee.
For writing advice; a sneak peek at Mary’s most recent novel The Village of Bones; the latest news; course syllabi; 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, you are invited to visit my website homepage and click on the tabs where you will also find a number of stunning photos of Prehistoric Goddesses.
Your unconscious is packed with ideas, metaphors, visions, plots, dreams, colors, characters, emotions—in short, everything you need to write a great novel or collection of poems. But how do you get to it? How do you step out of the social agreement we call “reality,” and dip into this incredibly rich resource?
You could go to sleep and try to mine your dreams, but even if you dreamed an entire novel, the moment you woke up, you would forget most of it within seconds, because you hadn’t processed the ideas into your long term memory. Worse yet, when you dream, you are not in control, so you can’t do specific things like talk to one of your characters or work out a specific plot problem. Granted, some people manage lucid dreaming, but lucid dreaming is not a practical writing technique for a number of reasons. For example, you cannot always go to sleep when you need to.
Many years ago, I started looking for a technique that would allow me to be asleep and awake at the same time. What I came up with, after much trial and error, was a form of creative trance that allows me to delve into my unconscious whenever I want to, get the material I need for my poems and novels, bring that material up to my waking reality, remember it, and write it down.
Developing this technique wasn’t easy. Besides relying on my own imagination, I drew on many sources such as self-hypnosis, theta cycle sessions, neurophysiology, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and the Surrealist technique of Automatic Writing. As you might expect, I had many failures, but in the end I came up with a deceptively simple technique, which has proved extremely effective. Since I taught myself how to use creative trance, I have written many novels, collections of poetry, and screenplays. Better yet, I have avoided writers block.
I’ve used my creative trance technique weekly, sometimes daily, for many years. As with all things that are visionary and out of the range of ordinary consciousness, it can’t be completely described in words, only experienced. So, since I cannot sit down with you and personally guide you through the process step by step, I am going to give you a chance to get a feel for it by taking you into the heart of my creative process as I worked on my most recent novel The Village of Bones.
The Village of Bones is Historical Fiction which has visionary elements, but even in my novels which are purely Historical Fiction (such as my bestseller A Grand Passion, the story of three generations of women involved in ballet), I created most of the original storyline in a voluntarily induced creative trance.
Unlike A Grand Passion, The Village of Bones presented a special problem. On one hand, it was meticulously researched historical fiction firmly based on archaeological evidence, yet at the same time, it was set in Prehistoric Europe in Goddess-worshiping cultures that were filled with myths, visions, and prophecies.
With this contradiction in mind, I put my phone in Airplane Mode, sat down in a comfortable chair, picked up a pen (I find computers get in the way), opened my notebook, closed my eyes, took several deep breaths, and counted backwards to ten, imagining as I did so that I was walking down a flight of stairs. By the time I got to the bottom, I was in a light trance. The word “light” is important. I was neither awake nor asleep. Instead, I was poised on the threshold between my conscious mind and my unconscious mind, ready to move in either direction.
On this particular day, I had some work planned. Sabalah, my main character, was in big trouble. She was caught in a storm, her boat had turned over, and she was drowning. As she struggled to stay afloat, she going to have a vision of the Sea Goddess that might or might not be a hallucination. There were no surviving statues of this particular Neolithic Sea Goddesses as far as I knew, so my task for this afternoon was to envision the Sea Goddess so I could describe her.
I started with the Goddess’ name which I had created the previous day: “Amonah, Amonah, Amonah,” I silently chanted. ”Come to me”. A vague, shadowy form began to materialize behind my eyelids.
Before I go on, I want to be clear about what was happening. As I thought the word “Amonah,” I didn’t believe I was conjuring up a real spirit, channeling a mystical force, or having a religious experience. I believed, and still believe, that I was simply unlocking the resources of my own consciousness and my own imagination using the very practical tool of creative trance. I don’t claim to know where these visions come from, but I am convinced that under the right conditions, anyone can have them.
The form grew brighter and more distinct. I saw a woman walking toward me across the waves. Walking on water. Interesting. Since question/answer is the key to this technique, I settled down and began to ask myself questions.
“What color is her hair?” I asked myself. “Black, brown, blonde?” Suddenly the word “seaweed” came into my mind. Instantly, the woman’s hair turned green.
“What kind of jewelry is she wearing? Diamonds, topaz, garnets?” No, she’s wearing pearls, and something else, something reddish, something like . . . coral!
“What color are her eyes?” For a moment her eyes shifted back and forth between brown and green. Then, suddenly they glowed.
“Skin color?” All colors. No colors. She’s a Goddess. She is all of us.
“What’s she wearing?” Not skinny jeans for sure. (Odd thoughts sometimes interrupt the flow of the trance). Long dress. Yes. She’s wearing a long dress. Wave-like. Blue of course like the sea.
“What does she smell like? Wind, salt, kelp?” Like flowers. She smells like flowers. “What kind of flowers?” Roses.
“How much does she weigh?” She weighs nothing. She’s a spirit.
For a long time, I sat there asking specific questions and waiting for answers most of which came in the form of wordless images. For some reason, I never could figure out how tall She was. My unconscious wouldn’t give that one up. But by now, the Sea Goddess Amonah looked real to me. I could see Her distinctly right down to the coral rings on Her toes.
Slowly I began to count backwards from ten to one, moving out of the trance as I climbed back up the stairs toward waking consciousness. On every step, I paused and made myself visualize Amonah again, and I commanded myself: “Remember. Remember.”
This final command to “remember,” is perhaps the most important part of a creative trance. If I couldn’t carry a complete image of Amonah back into the waking world, I’d have to start all over again.
When I got to ten, I opened my eyes just wide enough to see my notebook. Grabbing my pen before the last bits of trance faded away, I quickly wrote everything down paying no attention to grammar, spelling, or logic. I even wrote down the silly bit about the skinny jeans.
The result was not something I could use immediately. What you get out of your own unconscious is raw material. After creativity comes craft. So over the course of the next year, I polished this description of Amonah. Now I worked wide-awake, using all the techniques of novel-writing that I had learned over the years. I read the passage out loud over and over again. Searched for better words. Took out commas and put them in again. Here is the result which appears in Chapter One of The Village of Bones:
A woman emerged from the wall of crashing waves and walked across the sea toward Sabalah. Sabalah abruptly stopped crying and stared at the woman, stunned. This was impossible! . . .The woman kept walking, stepping over the waves as if they were furrows in a field of wheat. Her flowing dress was blue as a summer sea; her hair long and green, twined with seaweed and pearls. Her skin was dark and light at the same time, her eyes so bright, they glowed like the last flash of the sun when it falls into the sea at midsummer. . . . A sweet scent suddenly filled the air like the perfume of roses blown across water.
“Don’t be afraid,” the woman said. “I am Amonah, Goddess of the Sea,” and water is my path. I can walk above or beneath it as I wish.
Sitting down beside Sabalah, Amonah let Her feet dangle in the water. They were bare except for toe rings of rose-colored coral. She must have weighed nothing, because the end of the mast didn’t tilt the way it would have it a flesh-and-blood human being had sat there.
The Village of Bones was created from scores of similar visions, as were all the poems I wrote that year, and even part of one of the screenplays which I co-wrote with director Renée de Palma.
Using creative trance is a gentle, pleasant way to create the raw materials for a work of fiction. It is not like meditation because your goal is not transcendence. It is not like many forms of self-hypnosis because you are not trying to lose weight, stop smoking, or change your behavior in any way. It is not like prayer, because you are not seeking a closer relationship with God. Creative trance is a tool, a key if you will, that lets you unlock the riches you already have stored in your own unconscious.
Yet its power should not be underestimated. So let me leave you with a warning: If you decide to go deeply into your own unconscious, you have to be ready to deal with what you find there. Creative trance is not therapy. If you are upset, unhappy, depressed, or anxious, wait until you have a calm mind and specific writing goals and can set firm limits on what you will accept from your unconscious.
When you are in a creative trance, you should always be in control. If your Goddess appears before you with a hairdo made of snakes, you should be able to instantly turn those vipers into cobwebs and seaweed. Nothing you experience should harm you, scare you, or make you uncomfortable for more than a few seconds. A creative trance should be enjoyable from start to finish.
In The Village of Bones, the Goddess Earth gives Her people six commandments. The First Commandment is: “Live together in love and harmony.” The Sixth is: “Enjoy yourselves, for your joy is pleasing to Her.”
(An earlier version of this essay appeared as a Guest Post on the Visionary Fiction Alliance Blog on October 10, 2016).
Like all visionary fiction, Women’s Visionary Fiction gives us visions, magic, prophecy, spiritual experiences, the ability to see the future, to walk through the past, to hear the dead speak, and see other worlds that exist behind the thin veil that separates us from them. But Women’s Visionary Fiction gives us something more. That something, simply stated, is women. Women write this fiction. In it, all the world, visible and invisible, mystical and real, is seen through female eyes.
In Part II of this series, I want to take you inside one novel written by a woman, and show you how the visionary aspects unfolded. The novel, which was only published a few weeks ago, is The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale. I am the author, and I know it inside out, having researched it for three years and put it through at least twelve complete drafts.
As the subtitle suggests, The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is written from the viewpoint of a woman named Sabalah, a young priestess who lives six thousand years ago in a Europe inhabited by Goddess-worshiping people who are on the verge of being invaded by marauding nomads who are about to bring male gods, warfare, and genocide to lands that have known peace for thousands of years. It’s an epic adventure of magic, prophecy, and passion that involves a perilous journey, a deadly threat, and a lover who is more than human.
So what, you may ask, are the visionary elements that make The Village of Bones Women’s Visionary Fiction, as opposed to simply Visionary Fiction? Well, first, as you can probably guess from my name (Mary), I am a woman. But more to the point, I wrote the first draft in a trance that produced a novel deeply saturated with female consciousness.
I didn’t write all of The Village of Bones in a trance, of course. You need your entire mind and all your rational facilities to structure and polish a novel, not to mention that I can’t type on my computer with my eyes closed. But the visions I describe in The Village of Bones are visions I saw as clearly as if someone had been running a movie inside my head, and the director of that movie was definitely a woman.
Was She me? That’s a good question. I developed this creative trance technique several decades ago, and I still don’t know whether the someone who gives me visions is my Muse, a Goddess, a spirit, or simply my own imagination. All I know is that when I called up the story of The Village of Bones, I saw female things: A Sea Goddess, dressed in coral and foam, who told Sabalah she would give birth to a magical child. A Huge Snake Goddess floating in mid-air who warned Sabalah to take her newborn daughter Marrah and flee west to escape the nomads. A powerful Oracle, neither completely male nor completely female, who gave Sabalah a sacred text called the Mother Book, which contained all knowledge past and present, and which could destroy all humanity if it fell into the wrong hands.
As I entered this prehistoric world of visions and prophecies, I saw everything through Sabalah’s eyes. Dolphins that would let you ride on their backs. Great temples sacred to the Bird Goddess built in the shape of birds. Powerful beings with psychic powers who could shape-shift. And one of the most powerful of all these strange beings was a not-quite-human woman.
I tell you all this to let you know that Women’s Visionary Fiction is not simply a category or a sign in a bookstore that tells you what kind of books you can find on the shelves below. Women’s Visionary fiction, in my case and in the case of other women writers I have spoken to, is not only ecstatically visionary. It is crafted from women’s lives and emerges from the deepest recesses of their unconscious. It is, in short, the stuff women’s dreams are made of.
Read Part I of “What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction?”
• Syllabi for courses in Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Women’s Visionary Film can be found on Mary Mackey’s Educators Page at https://marymackey.com
• To get the latest news about Mary Mackey, Women’s Visionary Fiction and The Village of Bones, click here.
• Mary Mackey, Ph.D. writes novels, poetry, and film scripts. A Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Sacramento, she is the author of thirteen novels and seven collections of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. Garrison Keillor has featured her poetry four times on The Writer’s Almanac. Her novels have made The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists and been translated into twelve languages. Her visionary novel The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is a prequel to the three novels in her best-selling Earthsong Series (The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring). Mary welcomes your questions and comments at marymackey.com where, you can sample her work, read her interview series People Who Make Books Happen, and sign up to get the latest news about her visionary fiction and poetry. You can also Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @MMackeyAuthor. Mary’s literary papers are archived at the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library at Smith College in Northampton, MA.
“What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction (Part II)” originally appeared on the Visionary Fiction Alliance Blog as a guest post by Mary Mackey.
A few months ago, I packed up six drafts of my recently published novel The Village of Bones and sent them to Smith College along with thirty-eight boxes of other materials that span my writing career. I have been saving these materials for well over forty years; and after fifteen years of inventive procrastination, I finally gotten around to archiving them. The result is that I now have a clean basement (who knew the floor was made of concrete?) and the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library in Northampton, Massachusetts has my Literary Papers.
What are “Literary Papers?” Well, “The Mary Mackey Papers,” as Smith calls them, include among other things: copies of all the foreign and English language editions of my novels and collections of poetry; multiple handwritten drafts of my works; copies of every magazine with my written work; fliers for most of the readings and lectures I’ve done; photographs of me from age two to the present; literary correspondence from famous writers like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Marge Piercy, and less well known writers who should be better known; posters almost too big to mail, and chapbooks so small that if you gasped, you might inhale them.
Smith even asked me to send them my juvenilia, a term for the things I wrote when I was a child; so I have had the fun of finding my first novel (a science fiction piece written when I was nine about a little girl who outwits alien robots) and my first collection of poetry (handwritten on lined paper when I was eleven).
As you can see, “archiving” your literary papers means much more than simply placing copies of your books in a library. A university archive is like a safe or a time capsule. Smith is going to put every scrap of my materials in a specially constructed part of the Special Collections Library where they will be preserved in a climate-controlled environment and protected from insects and mold, not to mention floods, fires, mudslides, and earthquakes. Thus, The Mary Mackey Papers will be available to the general public, students, and scholars of the future for all eternity, or at least until climate change makes the human race extinct.
I want to encourage every woman writer reading this to think about archiving her literary papers. (Actually every male writer should too, but that’s another issue.) Please don’t think: “There’s no use my trying to find a place to archive my work. I’m not important enough. No one will want my papers.” Almost every woman I’ve told about the archiving process has said this, including famous poets and best-selling novelists. On the other hand, when I mention archiving to male writers they tend to say: “That’s a great idea. Of course my work should be preserved for posterity.” Or sometimes: “I don’t think anyone will want my papers, but I’ll give it a try. All they can do is say ‘no.’”
The men are right. If you contact an institution about archiving your papers, the worst they can say is: “No, we can’t take them.” But if you don’t try, your work may end up in a dumpster. You need to archive your papers now, while you are alive and can made all the important decisions. Don’t leave archiving your papers to your heirs or they may dump your old love letters in with the rest, and you may end up being known to future generations as “Snookums.”
So how do you go about archiving your papers? Well, that depends. If you are younger, you probably don’t have much. In fact, everything you have may be in digital form, so you need to begin printing some of it out. Not all of it, but a few drafts, important emails, etc. You should also start saving fliers from the readings you do. And don’t throw away those poems you wrote when you were nine. Keats kept his early poems. Keep yours.
If you are over fifty (or already very well-known), you need to make a general list of what you have and estimate how much room it takes up. Then you need to find out which libraries, universities, or museums already collect the kinds of things you have.
Next, you need to send a brief email to places you think might be interested in archiving your papers. Introduce yourself, describe the highlights of your collection and its significance, attach a very brief bio, and ask them if they are interested in seeing more. My initial email was three paragraphs, sent out with the subject line “Interested in a literary collection?”
Archiving your papers is particularly important right now. Literary correspondences are occurring in emails; drafts of novels and poems are being stored in the Cloud; news of readings are coming via MailChimp. According to the archivists I have spoken to, the life of digital material is about five years. Then bit rot sets in, and the files are no longer readable.
In other words, the entire literary life of the twenty-first century is being written on water. Let’s see that it’s written in stone.
If you do archive your papers, that is to say if you place them in a climate-controlled environment in a university or museum archive, I have a present for you: I have created A Guide To Women Writers’ Archives on my website. Send me your information, and I will put you up there with Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, and Maya Angelou.
Mary Mackey is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. For more information about Mary’s books, including her recently published novel, The Village of Bones, please visit her website.
This article was originally posted on the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco Chapter, website. To see it in its original context CLICK HERE.
Set in the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Neolithic Europe, The Village of Bones is a prequel to Mary’s best-selling Earthsong Series, which includes The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring.
“Mary Mackey’s The Village of Bones gives us the vivid adventures of The Clan of the Cave Bear, the magic of The Mists of Avalon and Lord of the Rings, and the beauty of Avatar. Filled with the belief that love drives out fear, it contains stunning twists that will leave you wanting more.”
—-Dorothy Hearst, author of the Wolf Chronicles
The Village of Bones will be available on May 10 from amazon.com as a Kindle e-book and trade paperback.
After 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 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 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.
Some 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.
(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.
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.
Come 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.