Originally published in Dichtung Yammer as “Exchange between Mary Mackey & Susan Terris” (ed. Thomas Fink, Sept 1, 2020)
Susan Terris : I’m interested, Mary, in the fact that the new poems that open your most recent collection The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams are about Kentucky and seem to be more complex, more intimate, more raw than any poems you’ve written on this subject before. Another, less savvy poet, might have put the section Infinite Worlds before The Culling, then back-tracked to the past. Opening the book with a poem about Aunt Ebbie and her fortitude, immediately welcomes the reader into that Kentucky world and, therefore, into the book as a whole. Tell me more about the Kentucky poems. How did you come to write them now?
Mary Mackey: I wrote the Kentucky poems as a tribute to and meditation on the strength and resilience of women, poor people, and all human beings who have undergone deprivation, tragedy, illness, grief, and suffering and come out the other side still able to live happy, productive lives.
When I was in my early thirties, I read a short essay by a holocaust survivor who described how he had healed himself from effects of the horrors he had experienced and gone on to have, in his words, a “happy life.” He said that he had vowed not to let his captors take joy from him. For many years, his words both haunted and inspired me. How do we survive? I have asked myself. How do we get over things and come out in one piece? How do we accept loss and go on? How do we accept the death of those we love and ultimately our own death? How do we keep evil from depriving us of joy?
After the election in 2016, I was feeling sorry for myself. One day when I was in a particularly sad and anxious mood, I took a long walk, and—as usual—carried my phone along with me. I often get ideas when I walk, as if the rhythm of my footsteps helps generate the rhythm and images of poems; but on that day, something strange and unprecedented happened: all twenty-one of the Kentucky poems came to me at once in a huge wave—came to me so fast that it was all I could do to get one recorded on my phone before the next came. It was as if they had been living in my mind for years waiting to be released.
Susan Terris: In what way do these poem help shape and explain other aspects of your life or your poetry life?
Mary Mackey: What I realized at the moment the Kentucky poems came to me was, that from the time I was a small child, my Kentucky relatives in general, and my Great Aunt Ebbie in particular, had shown me how to be tough enough to survive loss, pain, and grief—not tough as in “hard-hearted,” but tough in the sense that they did what they had to do because they had no choice, and did it without complaining because complaining didn’t help them survive drought, fires, physical disability, grief, hunger, and oppression.
On my paternal grandfather’s side, my Kentucky relatives were Famine Irish. On my paternal grandmother’s side, they had come to this country in the 1600’s as indentured servants. My ancestors nearly starved to death, and yet they persisted. My Great Aunt Ebbie was literally eaten by hogs (she lost a leg and most of an arm ), and yet she persisted. The small family farming culture they created on the banks of the Ohio in Western Kentucky no longer exists. But there were important lessons in it, just as there were important lessons in other subcultures that, like so many of the Earth’s species, have also gone extinct. So, I wrote the Kentucky poems not so much as autobiography as an act of cultural preservation. I wrote those poems to give myself courage and to remind myself to never give up. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the Kentucky poems wrote me.
Mary Mackey: Susan, could you please tell me why you so often do poems in series? When you complete an individual poem, what in it or in your creative process lets you know that you’re not finished with the subject and need to keep going?
Susan Terris: I think in order to tell you about why I write poems in series, I need to try and explain a little about who I am first, because it’s related to my need to create day-to-day continuity for myself. The on-going metaphor for my life is that I start with a trowel but end up digging very deep holes. As a child growing up in St. Louis, I was curious about the meanings of things. I used to call up the librarian (yes, all before Google!) at our main library at 10:05, right after it opened to find out things like: Is a teuthologist the name for someone who studies octopuses? or What year was Roy Cohen born? A first child, outwardly a “good child” who was fascinated by the out-of-doors, I picked up snakes and lizards,, fished crayfish out of streams. But I also prowled through half-built houses, had a secret fort in the woods, bicycled 20 miles out a major highway to my best friend’s chicken and pig farm. I was a serious ballet dancer until I wasn’t good enough. So then I immediately became a competitive swimmer, an actor in school plays, and a serious white water canoeist.
In college, I took up modern dance, which I continued until I was in my mid-fifties. This, too, was a kind of series, since I danced, I wanted to see others dance, wanted to learn about choreography, about how music was paired with dance, how to keep a body from injuries, took up learning to tap dance, too, etc. etc.. With my husband, whom I married at age 21, I moved to San Francisco. No white water canoeing in western rivers, so he and I (and then later with our 3 children) hiked, wildcrafted for edible food, went down wild rivers on Huck Finn rafts and wooden dories. I took up kayaking, went to grad school, starting writing books for children and young adults. Then, after twenty-one of those books were published, my daughter became seriously ill, and I made an abrupt change back to poetry. As all this was going on with my family, I would spend a part of every summer in my family’s northern Minnesota lake home. More outdoors time. But whatever I did, one thing always led to another: my life has always been a series of series. This is today, I’d tell myself. What’s next?
As a poet, I never plan to work in a series. Usually it begins with just one poem. Ghost of Yesterday series started with “Sink or Swim,”a poem about a miscarriage my mother had at our cabin in Minnesota where the doctor put her on the kitchen table to remove the placenta of the non-living fetus. The Take Two series began with my outrage over reading of Einstein’s treatment of his wife Mileva and the question of whether Mileva, also a physicist, was actually his partner in discovering relativity. In this instance, I suddenly realized I had more to say about couples, even those who where not romantic duos. So I plunged on ahead with Sancho Panza and his donkey, Jacqueline Kennedy and Maria Callas, Beowulf and Grendel’s mother and many others.
With the Memos poems, the series began after a day I was in DC at the Lincoln Memorial and saw a vivacious teenager with a port wine birthmark covering half her face posing full face for a photograph. After I wrote that poem, I suddenly knew, I had something to say to Heathcliff, to the cat who keeps bringing me dead birds, to the man who gave me his mother’s wedding ring by mistake, to the former child prodigy etc. etc..
Mary Mackey: How do you know when to stop; how do you tell when the series is complete?
Susan Terris: As you clearly saw, the crux is not where I start, but why I stop. The easy thing to admit is that sometime I stop because I lose interest. But the answer is more complicated than that. In any series of poems, there comes a moment when the new poems still being attempted are starting to repeat themes I’ve already dealt with. Often people ask why Memos wasn’t a full-length book or Take Two. My real answer is this: no more ways to differentiate. I stopped at 20 poems or 38 poems, because I was done. Most of these series have ended up as chapbooks—seventeen of them now. But selections of poems from each series have made it into my full-length poetry books.
Susan Terris: So, I’m going to move from the technical subject of series to something spiritual. Your poetry often contains mystical elements. Where do these come from? How important are they to the understanding of your work?
Mary Mackey: The mystical element in my poetry is one of the primary keys to understanding my work if, indeed, anything mystical can be said to be “understood” in the ordinary sense of the word. I believe it may have its origin in the very high fevers I have run since I was a small child, some of them approaching 107 degrees. At the age of six months, I developed pneumonia, ran a high fever, and—according to my parents—nearly died. I don’t remember this, but I do remember the next time I had a dangerously high fever just before my third birthday. I’ve written about this experience in “Fever and Jungles: On Becoming A Poet,” and in the title poem of my collection Breaking The Fever. The short version is that I had a hallucination/vision/mystical experience–call it what you will—of children singing to me through a screen-like veil that separated my world from theirs.
Since then, I have run fevers close to 107 degrees eight or nine times, and each time when my temperature rises above 106, I have experienced a different reality from the one we experience at 98.6. I make no claim as to whether what I see is real or unreal. My best guess is that these high fevers may have modified my perceptions in a manner that has allowed me to understand—at least at some level—what mystics like Mirabai, St. John of the Cross, Santa Teresa, Blake, Basho, and Rumi may have experienced–moments which no one, even the greatest of poets, has ever been able to put into words because they occur in a place where words no longer exist.
Susan Terris: I find that fascinating. Especially since I’m a person who never runs a fever. Even very sick, my temp won’t reach 97°. What other gifts have the fevers given you?
Mary Mackey: I suspect that high fevers also may have slightly modified the speech and thought centers of my brain. As my body temperature approaches 107 degrees, I often begin to laugh, tell jokes, and speak in rhymed couplets, sometimes for up to four hours at a stretch. I find it interesting that Santa Teresa had her first mystical visions when she was suffering from the high fevers of malaria.
In other words, although in 99.999% of my life I am a rational, sane, reliable retired professor of English who prefers David Copperfield to A Game of Thrones, I have little doubt that fevers and the inexplicable experiences they bring with them have made me into a poet. In my poems, I frequently struggle to describe the indescribable. I try to touch the edges of a different reality. I attempt to put a great, unbounded wordlessness into words that are too small to contain it.
As for the jungle: sometimes I wonder if Nature is God’s great metaphor. But since I don’t know what God is, or even if God is, that’s a question I can’t answer.
Mary Mackey: I’d like to move now from mystical to haunted. There’s often a haunted sense to your poems, Susan, as if something is stalking the poet, as if the poet can neither grasp nor completely understand either the past or the present, as if time itself slips through the poet’s fingers. The title of your 2012 Marsh Hawk collection of new and selected poems is Ghost of Yesterday. Could you tell us more about the ghost of yesterday and what role he plays in your poetry and in your creative process? Why is he masculine? Why does he so often seem to control the poems he appears in? What is his connection to memory, time, and childhood?
Susan Terris: The answer to that haunted sense you find in my work is simple yet somewhat hidden. When I was studying Latin in high school, my teacher gave me a Latin motto –“Carpe Diem”. I prefer the literal translation of that as “Pluck the Day”. Mostly, I live very much in the present, but, as I said, I spend my summers at our family lake home in northern Minnesota, and there I am all ages yet none. This place is a capsule of my entire life, the place where past and present meld together. That’s part of what you are seeing, sometimes with sotto voce comments purportedly from my father who died more than 60 years ago.
It’s sometimes said about the rabbi’s wife (or the minister’s) that her life is careful and grounded. Then it’s often also said, “Oh, but she has a rich inner life.” Do I also? Maybe so. I’m also left-handed and, as a famous coach once declared, “Left-handers see life off two frames to the left.” Guilty. I’m not claiming a dreamy inner life, but I am the kind of wild and fierce person who poses as a calm, competent one. What you are seeing, Mary, as haunted is more what’s hidden, revealed only obliquely in my poetry. It’s not my father but the impulses of being caught between woulda-shoulda-coulda and who I really am. Speak truth. Reveal. Yet not too much.
Actually my father aspired to be a writer but graduated from college in 1929 and writing then would have been a folly and not an option. As a young man, he’d been a speed skating champion, so he supported my riskiest behavior like running white water rivers in a canvas canoe or writing poems. By the time I came into the world, he was a careful, measured person. But – yes – he would not have approved of the man in love with me for many years when I was married, which I was at 21 and stayed married for 56 years until my husband, deep in Alzheimer’s, died. Yet in my layered way of experiencing life, my father might well have applauded my boldness. White water with a paddle or yellow pad with a pen, my inner life combines with my outer one to create a kind of fearlessness. But, still, I am haunted by what I try to do in a poem, by what I never manage to do. I don’t expect perfection, but long for a clue to find out how to grab hold of that mythical gold ring on an old merry-go-round. I’m always interested in trying something new. What if? Could I? Is enough ever enough? Carpe diem, I often remind myself; and being safe is not the way to succeed as a writer. But then, when I fail, all I ask of myself, is to fail well.
Susan Terris: Mary, you’re rather haunted also, aren’t you? Infinite Worlds, the second section of The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams introduces a new poem featuring Solange, a character who has appeared repeatedly in your poetry, and who was first introduced in your collection Sugar Zone. In this new poem, Solange is drifting from real to surreal. The recurring fever poems (here but also throughout the book) offer fever-dreams that make reality become the surreal. Tell me more about this phenomenon of real/surreal. It’s something I do in my own work. I’m curious to know if you do this with intention. Or are the fever-dreams inexplicable?
Mary Mackey: I wouldn’t call myself “haunted,” but when I write, my mind moves fluidly between the real and the surreal. I experience ordinary, plain, unadorned reality; and at the same time, I see the alternatives that reality offers, the dream-like possibilities that cluster around objects,, the barely-conscious connections between words, images, scents, sounds, and touch. I can look at a bowl sitting on a table and see it simply as a white china bowl; but at the same time I can see it—as I have written in in my poem “The Breakfast Nook”—as “a white sound/ swirling into a depression/ of unspeakable depths.” I can pick up a fork and see it simply as a fork (which is what I do most of the time, because to do anything else would be impractical when I am eating). But if I concentrate on that fork, focus unwavering attention on it, I can see it as a “long shining road/that branches at the end/into four paths/that lead nowhere.”
So, in answer to your question, I would say that my use of the real/surreal is not entirely intentional nor is it entirely spontaneous. The surreal always clusters around the real the way the petals cluster around the central disk of a sunflower. I can choose to ignore the surreal, ignore the real, or use both in a poem. But I don’t create either the real or the surreal. They just are.
Susans Terris: And then there’s Solange. And again Solange, often not stepping from real to surreal but directly into magical realism –- maybe influenced by Lorca, Breton, Marquez yet also by the consciousness and mythic imagination of the indigenous people of Brazil. Will you tell more about how you immersed yourself in magical realism while still holding on to that notion of “there are so many ways to die here/ I’ve lost track” (from Inquisition)
Mary Mackey: I’ve never immersed myself in magical realism. I’ve read Lorca, Breton, and Marquez, because I got a doctorate in Comparative Literature that involved both French and Spanish; but I read those authors long after I was writing in the way that has come to be called “magical realism.” Yet at the same time, both personally and in my work, I never lose track of reality. I am a practical person. I change the oil in my car at regular intervals, alphabetize my spices, meet deadlines, and appreciate antibiotics. I believe in the validity of logic, scientific research and expertise. I have had a life-long interest in ecology, tropical biology, botany, epidemiology, and mathematics (although I often find understanding mathematics and contemporary physics difficult).
Yet this practical, logical side of me does not stop me from seeing that reality in itself, completely unmitigated by magic and dreams is more mysterious, beautiful, and powerful than anything I could imagine or invent. I look at the trees along banks of a river and see them shining with light. I look into the water at sunset and see a great river of black birds flying toward the sea. I know for an absolute fact that there are no actual birds in the river, but the shadows of the ripples on the surface of the water look like a flock of crows, and the forms of nature repeat themselves endlessly in expanding symmetry as fractals repeat in the curve of snail shells, grains of dust, and the rings of Saturn.
As for Solange, she first came to me in the poem “Sugar Zone,” published by Marsh Hawk Press in 2011 in my collection of the same title. Since then she has reappeared in a number of my poems, many of which are now collected in The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams. Who is she? Perhaps she is a priestess, a muse, a lost love, a shaman, a shape-shifter, a goddess, a ghost. Perhaps she is me, or perhaps she is the spirit of the jungle incarnate. She might be a jaguar seen in a dream or a Mae-de-santo lost in a trance. Perhaps Solange is all of these things, or perhaps she is none of them.
One of the things I like most about poetry is its capacity to contain ambiguity.
Mary Mackey: Now could you please speak about the tension between the real/surreal elements in your poems? Do the surreal images come to you naturally, emerging spontaneously as you write, or do you intentionally put them into a poem as you revise and polish it? What role do dreams play in this process? Have you been influenced by the Surrealist Movement and surrealist writers and poets like André Breton?
Susan Terris: The tension between real/surreal? You who do the most musical and amazing poetry using surreal or magical realism, are challenging me for an explanation? It may partly be dream fragments or the left-handed thing. I had my first story—something real/surreal, though I wouldn’t had had words for this then—published in a teenage magazine when I was twelve. It was about a young girl who talked to a man on a bench in a foggy evening. She didn’t know he was deaf, kept talking until the fog obscured him and he vanished. Then, years later, when I was writing YA children’s novels, each one had a chapter where the real drifted off into the surreal. My influence here was not Lorca or Breton or Marquez, but the South African playwright Athol Fugard. Almost all of his plays have a moment where the real leaks for a moment or so into surreal.
Writing those YA novels, this technique was intentional, and my editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux defended it when anyone questioned. But in my poetry, it’s never intentional. Yes, my dreams are vivid and strange – especially here in Minnesota where night is loons crying, much lightning and thunder, or a night dark and clear enough to see a comet and its tail without binoculars. The leaps in my poems from the real world to surreal are never planned and must come partly from unremembered dreams. My subconscious seems to barge into the literal and overwhelm it, I think. Then ask myself, Who wrote this? And then Who am I?
Fugard may have led me into admiration to this odd edge, but I think the real influence was my absorption, starting as a child, in classical mythology: Greek, Roman, Norse, German, Egyptian. Then books like the Odyssey, Metamorphoses, Gilgamesh, Nibelungenlied. Then later I studied and was absorbed by British classics such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Faerie Queen and work by Coleridge, Browning, Mary Shelley, Wilkie Collins, Christina Rossetti, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf. With all this packed somewhere in my head, I think of myself as a magpie, forever grabbing as bright bits of matter. And when I do write a poem where the real and surreal are fused, I feel as if I’ve been given a gift. At the same time, the rational part of my brain is asking: How did I do this? Does it work? And when can I count on this happening again?
Susan Terris: So, Mary, here comes what is probably my most complex question for you: Though your earlier poems, reprinted as part of the selected poems in The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, show turbulence and skill and a strong interest in portraying the lives of women, I’m not going to ask you about them. (I, too, did a book with a whole section of persona poems on women in literature.) I have a major question here. Breaking the Fever is transitional. But Sugar Zone is amazing and different from anything you’ve done before. Your poetry changed between the publication of these two books. Poems in Sugar Zone are denser, more complex, deeper. Dark-light, dangerous, amazing. What happened between 2006 and 2011? Yes, that’s my question.
Mary Mackey: Something did indeed happen. From 1987 to 2007, I was busy writing novels, a total of fourteen in all, and was known primarily as a novelist, although I had written poetry since I was eleven. During those twenty years, I only occasionally wrote poems. In 2008, I decided that I wanted to concentrate on poetry again. That fall, I applied for and received a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. During my time there, I wrote several poems a day. It felt awkward at first, but by the time I left VCCA a month later, I had had reconnected with the part of me that wrote poetry. In addition, as a Californian temporarily living among writers, many of whom had come from New York and Boston, I also realized—not for the first time—how much of an outsider I was on the East Coast and what a gift this was. Being excluded and often benevolently ignored, allowed me to find my own way.
Immediately after I finished revising Breaking The Fever, I began to write about the tropics for the first time. In particular I began to write about the rain forest, which I had fallen in love with as a young woman when I was living in jungle field stations. I also began to incorporate Portuguese into my poetry, searching for the lyrical space that lies at the conjunction between Portuguese and English. The resultant poems were fierce, ecstatic: grounded in the absolute reality of the jungle and at the same time mystical and visionary, for the more I wrote, the more I came to see that the rainforest, which was being threatened with extinction, was the great spiritual love of my life just as Krishna was the great spiritual love of Mirabai’s.
Breaking The Fever is composed of the poems I wrote at VCCA and the poems I wrote from 1987 to 2007. Sugar Zone, Travelers With No Ticket Home, and the section entitled Infinite Worlds in The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams are composed of the poems I wrote after I realized that being an outsider was the one of the best gifts the world could give to a poet.
Mary Mackey: Susan, a number of your poems are written in the voices of literary characters like Beowulf & Grendel’s Mother, Tristan & Yseult; historical figures like Evelyn Nesbit & Her Mother, Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald; or a combination of the two such as Mary Shelley & Frankenstein’s Monster. These remind me of Browning’s poetic monologues—“My Last Duchess,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” etc. What is it that attracts you to this genre? What do the pairings allow you to say about couples? How does the “I” of these poems differ from your own “I”?
Susan Terris: Yes, a lot of literary characters. Perhaps I’ve already answered this. As I just admitted to you, I had a classical education. But there’s another pervasive influence on my love of literary persona already written and on my own efforts. I am – admission here – a self-described “theater slut”. I am madly, passionately interested and involved in live theater. In any year, except one with a global pandemic, I probably go to at least 2 performances a week. My tastes are eclectic ranging from Shakespeare or pre-Shakespearean drama to odd avant garde modern pieces under the Bay Bridge or in the Men’s restroom of a military compound. I’m not a playwright – except for one short piece called Virginia Woolf &Virginia Woolf, that has been published and performed. I also read plays to vet them for a small theater in San Francisco. This diverse interest in drama does echo in my poems along with admiration of poems such as Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and his “Porphyria.” All this inspires me to bring characters both real and literary back as persona pieces with a different twist or as poetic portraits. As I write, I’m looking for what may be hidden parts of other lives, as well as some of the hidden parts of my own.
You asked about the “I” and how much of myself ends up in a persona poem. Ah, yes, I need to mention here that I have always known I was an outsider. College in Boston, a life in San Francisco. I’ve treasured this, prized the fact that I don’t quite fit anywhere. That’s part of the reason I was bold enough, years ago, to take on James Joyce’s Molly Bloom and the amazing soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, I did this to use Freud’s question (Joyce and Freud knew one another’s work): “What do women want to talk about? How women want the power of the word.” Yes, that was me. And yes, when I wrote in the voice of Mary Todd Lincoln, I was filled with rage of my own sitting through a 90 minute, boring intro to the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference – so Mary, after Lincoln’s death – was speaking both with my rage and her loss.
Still, many of the duos of you asked about ended up in an Omnidawn chapbook called Take Two: Film Studies. Then, later, they were republished in my Marsh Hawk book Familiar Tense. In these, all the characters are destined to meet with disaster, to die, or to suffer the humiliation of ignominy. Yes, “characters”, because there tends to be something very theatrical in all of my persona poems. Though many of them are also outsiders, they’re not me. Actually, I’m more prone to fight for change than many of these couples. As a member of what I call the I-Hate-Hamlets, I believe passivity and accepting one’s fate is the worst way to fail or die. With the Take Two duos, I’m mostly a person reinterpreting others’ lives without adding mine. I care about them, about the mistakes they are making. I am afraid for what I know is coming in their lives. As a wife, a mother, a lover, a poet, I am also afraid of everything yet, therefore, afraid, somehow, of nothing. So, hoping not to head toward their fates, I’m always ready to take a risk. In life and as a writer, risk is all.
Mary Mackey: I agree: “risk is all.” What strikes me about the conversation we’ve been having is how we write very different kinds of poetry yet have many aspects in common. So here’s to being outsiders and taking risks: two women exploring the real and surreal, plunging into poetry like white-water canoers who don’t know if there’s going to be another waterfall just around the next bend.