Myth and the Environmental Crisis

Rebecca Vincent is a freelance writer and editor with a PhD in mythology who  writes about myth, nature, and environmental issues. In the following essay, she considers the connections between mythology and the current environmental crisis.

Myth and the Environmental Crisis

by Rebecca Vincent

    You’d have to have your head in the sand these days not to notice that we’re in the midst of an epochal environmental crisis. Wildfires lick at our heals while ancient icebergs frozen since the last ice age collapse into the sea (how much longer till we need boats in Manhattan?); glaciers supplying water to millions in Asia simply disappear, more floods, more droughts, more mudslides, and on and on. Twenty-five percent of species on earth are threatened with extinction.  Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum of London, one of the authors of the UN Biodiversity Report released May 6, 2019, posed the question: “can you imagine how people would be reacting if 25% of all major companies were facing bankruptcy?  Ecologically, that’s where we’re at.”

How can turning to ancient myths help shift where we are in this pivotal moment of life on earth?  What do ancient stories have to tell us that will help light our way toward a more livable and sustainable future?  Most myths we think of in the traditional sense when we use the term “myth” emerged from cultures of the preindustrial world—cultures that were immersed in the natural world; cultures that had a vastly different relationship with nature than we modern humans have today.

Peoples of the past created stories about spirit beings inhabiting the stars because they saw the stars at night glistening in a black sky, unlike most of us today whose night skies are polluted by a dull glow of artificial city lights.  People told stories about spirits and deities of streams, rivers, hillocks, desert oases, ice hummocks, and even water bubbles because these natural entities were an inescapable part of their daily lives.  The natural landscape was a world of sacred beings and relatives. 

We have, in the contemporary urban world, simply gone indoors where we no longer notice the natural phenomena happening outside our dwellings, cars, and work places.  Because we’re hidden inside, we’re collectively blind to the impact we’re having on the natural systems that surround and sustain us—clear cut forests collapsing into mudslides, coastal cities whose beaches have been stripped of protective mangroves swamped by ocean and storms, the desertification of once green lands, the drenching of land and water with toxins, and the trash.  The amount of plastic trash on earth has now surpassed by weight the combined total of all seven billion human beings alive today.

The price of our lack of awareness of natural systems is becoming increasingly hard to avoid or deny.  Our collective attention is being constantly swept into a frenzy of alarm as floods, droughts, hurricanes, fires and other extreme weather events intensify and worsen.  More of us are forced to wonder if these cycles of climate chaos will descend upon our very own doorsteps.  Indeed, according to the United Nations, one in seven humans alive today are fleeing some kind of turmoil, much of that caused by environmental devastation.  In sheer numbers, more humans are presently fleeing climate and societal chaos than at any other time of human life on earth. 

In the  twenty-first century we speak collectively of water and nature as “resources.”  We think of them in terms of their utility in upholding contemporary  societies.  Nature and water have gone from being deities in the pre-industrial past to commodities today.  How can myth help us out of this crisis?  

Myths and stories from pre-industrial times and from living indigenous cultures call our attention back to natural phenomena we have forgotten.  They remind us of a time when nature was not a commodity but instead sacred and populated by holy beings.  Myths remind us of a different way of perceiving and interacting with the natural world than our predominant one of exploitation.  Instead of draining ancient aquifers to frack for oil or flushing the toxic remains of coal mining into slurry, water sources were deemed holy.  People presented gifts to the spirits they perceived as residing over particular water sources.

Salmon, seals, whales, sea otters, and a diverse array of other nonhuman creatures were taken as spouses and viewed as relatives.  Boundaries between species were fluid, and creation stories of myriads of diverse cultures tell of primordial descent from these unions with fish, snakes, and other animals.  Traditional Passamaquoddy myths from the Northeastern US describe the tribe as descending from unions between pollock and humans.  The Arapaco of the lower Uaupes in South America consider their tribe’s origin to be from a union between an anaconda and a human woman.

Myth shows us, by means of contrast, our perceived lack of interconnection with the natural world. Our collective consciousness is no longer oriented around the natural world, nonhuman animals, deities or mythic beings.  Instead, modern consciousness is dominated by technology, machines, buildings, and cars. Of course we cannot simply lift the mantle of ancient beliefs about the holiness of nature and water from earlier times and overlay it on our own.  We’ve grown into another era and cannot simply abandon technology and industry and revert to prior times. But noticing how nature and water have shifted from deity to commodity illuminates the distance that has arisen between people and nature in the modern era.

Tribal elders of the Achuar Tribe of South America say that radical changes in human actions toward nature are not all that is needed to alter humanity’s life-destroying course.  They believe a fundamental change in the collective dream must take place in modern consciousness for any sort of real transformation to occur.

We are at a pivotal moment of life on earth.  The science is clear.  We must change the way we are living together and on this earth, and we must restore a more harmonious, less exploitative relationship with the natural world.  Our understanding of “nature” must transform from one based on utility, one where we define nature as a “resource”, to one based on respect and gratitude. We need a radical change in our collective dream.  

Indigenous peoples around the earth can help lead us.  It is not too late to listen to the voices of those cultures but we must act quickly.   Indigenous earth-based cultures around the world have survived and continue to fight for their existence against the continual assault of mining and utility companies intent upon pillaging their lands and cultures.  As Tara Houska, an Ojibway writer and tribal attorney, points out:

My people are the keepers of the sacred—the last beautiful places, rich ecosystems, and healthy earth left. Eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity didn’t happen by accident. When embedded traditional value systems are interwoven with the living world, stewardship, sustainability, the rights of nature and those yet to come are simply ways of life. Certainly, colonization did its best to wipe those values out of existence, but many of us hold on or revitalize and defend.

The struggles for environmental health and human justice are twin sides of the same coin.  They cannot be waged separately. Indigenous peoples around the earth offer models of harmonious connection with the natural world based on respect and stewardship that can help alter the modern path forward.

According to English folklore, nature spirits would live in a spring, lake, stream, or grove of trees only as long as they were remembered and addressed respectfully; if they were neglected, they would depart and the land and waters would feel soul-less and dead.  This same pattern of story is found in mythic traditions around the world where the spirits of land and water admonish humans to respect them, treat them well, and maintain harmony with the nonhuman world; otherwise drastic and terrible consequences ensue.

The ancient Greeks believed two springs of water were to be found in the netherworld: the waters of forgetting which come from the Lake of Negligence, and the waters of remembrance from the Lake of Memory.  We are standing right at the brink of irreversible change unless we alter our collision course with the natural world.  Let us seize this moment before it is truly too late.  Let us drink once more from the spring of memory and rekindle the ancient awareness of the critical importance of earth and water.  Let us stop destroying the earth and instead salvage the fine web of interconnected life forms.  Youth today demand this change. For any kind of livable future, we must recognize that we are inescapably intertwined with the natural world; that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.  Let us turn our attention to the indigenous peoples of this earth and listen to their stories and their struggles.  Let us stop  pillaging our planet and instead launch together into the long work ahead of restoring these relationships and the ecosystems that support all life.


Andy Purvis quote from PRI, The World, May 6, 2019.

The amount of plastic trash surpassing the total of all human beings alive today from Patagonia, Recycle issue, September 2019, p. 05.

Human migration statistics from Paul Salopek, Walking With Migrants, National Geographic, August, 2019, p. 45. 

Passamaquoddy myth of descent from pollock from a radio series on native music and culture, Oyate ta aloha (Songs of the people) broadcast on WOJB April 10, 2001.

The Arapaco origin myth from, Nijel J.H. Smith, The Enchanted Amazon Rainforest, Stories from a Vanishing World. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1996, p. 93.

Pachamama belief about a change in our collective dream from New Dimensions radio interview with Lynn Twist, broadcast on WOJB, April 15, 2001 and also from

Tara Houska passage fromTara Houska on the Voices of Indigenous Elders, LitHub, Sept. 18, 

English folklore about nature spirits departing if forgotten from Terri Windling,

Ancient Greek belief about two springs of water in the netherworld from Jean Rudhardt, “Water.” Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 15.  Ed. Mircea Eliade.  New York:     Macmillan and Free P, 1987, p. 357.

Rebecca Vincent is a freelance writer and editor  with a PhD in mythology who writes about myth nature, and environmental issues. Her writing has appeared in various publications, anthologies, literary reviews, and blogs.  She has recently launched an online educational program that offers courses in writing, myth, and environmental studies. You can learn more about her and her work and connect with her by visiting her website and

John Keats influences Mary Mackey’s poetry

Poetic Influences: Mary Mackey on John Keats’s “Negative Capability”

John Keats’s Letters on “Negative Capability” and “The Poet Has No Identity”

One of the most important influences on my development both as a poet and a novelist are two letters written by the English poet John Keats in 1818. In the first letter, addressed to his brothers George and Tom, Keats develops the concept of “Negative Capability,” which he defines as the ability to “remain in uncertainty” as one writes. I believe that Keats has touched on something profound here that is integral to the creative process.

By definition, creation involves uncertainty. When you create, you make something that has not existed before. If there is no uncertainty, if everything about your subject is already known, then you cannot add to it by creating something new. In his letter to his brothers, Keats suggests that writers needs to find the courage to write without knowing where they are going and without judging if everything they are saying is logical. Keats calls this “negative capability.”

When I write, I intentionally enter this state. I don’t judge what I’m doing or worry about endings or goals. I write whatever comes to mind and let the poem create itself. A poem initially comes from my inner voice, often bubbling up from the depths of my unconscious as a wordless image that translates itself into words. That said, it is vital to recognize that this spontaneous first draft is not a finished poem. The state of “negative capability” does not extend to revision. In order to succeed, poems must be crafted with the logical part of your mind. To turn a first draft into a finished poem, you need to summon all the strength of your intellect, drawing on everything you have read and thought. You need to revise, revise, and then revise again, all the while preserving the power of that first draft while transforming it into a work of art.

In the second letter, addressed to his friend Richard Woodhouse, Keats claims that “the poet has no identity.” This is an invaluable concept that is as important for a novelist as it is for a poet. What Keats is saying is that poets must put aside their identities, abandon their egos, and fully imagine what it is like to be other people even if those people are wicked when the poets are virtuous, cruel when the poets are kind, deceitful when the poets are honest. In other words, Keats is again suggesting that poets must be able to suspend judgment and spontaneously empathize with everyone and everything. This radical act of compassion is at the basis of poems which transcend autobiography as well as the creation of characters in novels who are believable and have psychological depth.

Thanks to Keats, I have learned to put  Mary Mackey aside when I write and become Ophelia, Juliet, Cleopatra, Leda, Cytherea, a Portuguese conquistador, Carmen Miranda, dengue fever, Elizabeth Bishop, Santa Teresa, a ball of army ants, a tropical jungle, a flock of parrots, a troubadour who lived 6,000 years ago, and my own mother. To have no identity is to become, for a brief, joyous moment, all things. It is a great gift, a touch of infinity, the soul of great poetry.


From John Keats On Negative Capability: Letter to George and Tom Keats, 22 December 1818]

… several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

From John Keats On The Poet Has No Identity: Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27  October 1818

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.

When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated – not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children….

Mary Mackey’s original Chapter One essay can be found here.

Mary Mackey received a BA from  Harvard and a doctorate from the University of Michigan. Her award-winning writings reflect her experiences in the cities and jungles of Latin America, her childhood summers on a western Kentucky farm, the visions and dreams of high fevers, and meticulous research for her historical novels. She is the author of eight collections of poetry including The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974 to 2018, winner of the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for the best book published by a small press and a 2018 CIIS Women’s Spirituality Book Award; and Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and Finalist for the Northern California Book Reviewers Award. Her poems have been praised by Maxine Hong Kingston, Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Dennis Schmitz, Al Young, and Marge Piercy for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. She is also the author of fourteen novels, one of which made The New York Times Bestseller List. A Professor Emeritus of English at California State University Sacramento, she was one of the founders of the CSUS Graduate Creative Writing Program and the CSUS Women’s Studies Program. In the late 1970’s she joined with poets Adrienne Rich and Susan Griffin and novelist Valerie Miner to found the Feminist Writers Guild. From 1989-1992, she served as President of the West Coast Branch of PEN American Center involving herself in PEN’s international defense of persecuted writers. Mackey’s literary papers are archived in the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Her collection of rare editions of small press poetry books is archived in the Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room. Mackey’s teaching and public readings are famous for their hilarity as well as for their memorable insights.

This essay was originally published on the Chapter One page at

Jaguars go to Harvard and Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Harvard has invited me to come to Cambridge, Mass., to read poems from The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams as part of the Harvard Authors Speakers’ Series.

This invitation, which I think is due in large part to Jaguars winning the 2019 Eric Hoffer Small Press Award, came as a surprise, but–better yet–it comes as a sign of how much Harvard has changed in its attitude toward women since I was an undergraduate.

In those dark days of Harvard misogyny, women were prohibited from entering Lamont, the undergraduate library, which meant I never got to hear Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost, or any of the other famous poets who came to Harvard read from their work.

On Monday, October 21st, at 7:00 PM, I’ll be reading from Jaguars at The Harvard Coop (which is what Harvard calls its bookstore). I’ll also be talking about the fires raging in the Amazon, since so many of my poems are set there. I plan to  dedicate this reading to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who like me, was turned away when she tried to enter Lamont because she was a woman.

I’ll also give a shout out to Margaret Atwood who was pursuing her graduate studies at Harvard the same year I was a freshman. Atwood used Cambridge and Harvard Yard as settings for both A Handmaid’s Tale and Testaments. 

Drop by and join me if you’re in the neighborhood.
Time: 7:00 PM. Place:The Harvard Coop, 1400 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA 01238.

Poetry Protesting Climate Change

Poetry Protesting Climate Change

The Invisible Forests of Amapá
                                 by Mary Mackey

Crested Capuchin, Nectar Bat,
Three-toed Sloth,  Golden Lion Tamarin,
Red-Handed Howling Monkey, Dark-Throated
Seedeater, Blue-Winged Macaw

great rivers veiled in steam
sixty billion trees
reaching toward a sky so green
it burns like copper

The Mystical Poetry of Mary Mackey in The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams

“If you allow yourself to see this collection as a metaphor, I would suggest it depicts a poet drawn to fire, to destruction, and to experiences so intense they force you to question your life, your priorities and your raison d’etre.”

On the [Pank] Magazine blog Joan Gelfand reviews Mary Mackey‘s THE JAGUARS THAT PROWLS OUR DREAMS

[REVIEW] The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams by Mary Mackey


Having just won the Eric Hoffer Award for the Best Book Published by a Small Press in 2019 and a Women’s Spirituality Book Award, The Jaguars that Prowl our Dreams: Collected Poems 1974-2018 is a stellar work. In the span of forty years, Mary Mackey has published 14 novels, most with big five publishers (two under the pseudonym “Kate Clemens”) and eight collections of poetry, one of which, Sugar Zone, published by Marsh Hawk Press, won her the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence.

Added to these accolades, two of Mackey’s quirky and sensual poems from the series “Kama Sutra of Kindness” (Travelers With no Ticket Home) were featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. All this was accomplished while teaching Film and Creative Writing at California State University Sacramento for over thirty years.

Mackey is a magnificent thinker with broad passions: pagan cultures, literature, anthropology, ecology and history are subject explored in “Jaguars.” After graduating with her PhD from The University of Michigan in 1970, she arrived in Berkeley, California, and began publishing in earnest.  Her first novel, Immersion, was recently re-released. An ecofeminist novel, which takes place in the jungles of Costa Rica, it is a portent of climate change.

Serious topics such as ecofeminism, history, and ecology might sound dry, but like many magnificent thinkers before her, Mackey is in full possession of a wild and wacky sense of humor that always puts her readers at ease. I’ll also say here that while her mind is magnificent and her interests broad, her work, while stunningly layered, is always accessible.

I first fell in love with Mary Mackey’s poetry when she arrived at the open mic at the Gallery Café (San Francisco), a series that had a reputation for attracting exceptional poets. Mackey’s vibrant jungle imagery mixed with her confident and mellifluent Portuguese enchanted and enticed me to learn more about her work.

From Sugar Zone:

Eles estão comendo   they’re eating
purple snails   powdered viper venom
lagartas esmagadas   flowers that dye their lips
the color of blood   singing of cities of blue glass
and the jaguars that prowl our dreams”

We are not in Kansas anymore, I whispered to myself. Or even San Francisco.  It was thrilling.

As I became increasingly familiar with Mackey’s new collection, I was beguiled, awestruck and amazed at her ability to embrace the beauty of the world while being able to hold the frighteningly challenging, particularly in Brazil where real and present dangers were omnipresent. Rather than recoil, Mackey remained alert to the terrors and danger, external and internal threats:

Sempre me amendrontou    I have always
been afraid  tankers strung out along the horizon
like a necklace of black
seeds   a idéia de ter um filho   of the idea
of having a child   let’s get drunk
on cachaça forget her outstretched
hands her face   the delicate angle of her nose

Mackey allows anxiety its full due, asking questions with no answers, setting down posits that lead nowhere except to more difficult questions.

tell me why they are burning
palm trees on the road to the airport
why the water tastes like ashes
why the windows of the cars are blind?

(Sugar Zone)

As a poet and reviewer, I had spent time researching Elizabeth Bishop’s source documents at Vassar College. In my essay, “Elizabeth bishop’s Alternate Worlds,” I explore Bishop’s development as a poet and novelist and the work she did before and after her experience in the Brazilian jungle.

I had delved into the boxes of archives guarded by the college where the young Bishop had studied and been taken under the wing of the well-connected Marianne Moore. As I worked, I began to make connections between the two poets.

Connections yes. But I want to make something clear before we go too far down the road:  Bishop’s visions that resulted in a series of mystical and magical poems were inspired by experiences in the Brazilian jungle with ayahuasca – a century before the hallucinogenic substance became a household word. Mackey is, and has always been, stone cold sober.

From the poem: “I Went to the Jungle Seeking Hallucinations”:

“I drank nothing I ate nothing
yet the fevers made me prophetic”

The daughter of a medical doctor, her experience with “an alternate world’ and visions began at a young age with an unfortunate predilection for running dangerously high fevers; an experience which terrified her parents but gave her the first opening to another reality.

From “Breaking the Fever”:

When I was young
fevers were attacked
the grown-ups would rub you
with alcohol
wrap you in wet sheets
refuse you blankets
fan you, feed you
plunge your wrists in cold water

In this poem, we have the entry into the world of a child disabled by illness in the form of a ravaging fever. Mackey uses a fine, but almost sickly rhythm here that telegraphs that this forced bed rest is just the beginning of the saga. Using recombinative rhyme (echoing/ wrap you, refuse you blankets, fan you feed you), we are in unflinchingly dire territory that is about to get worse:

“…At 105 I would start to hear voices
soft and lulling
at 106 faces would appear
swimming around me

stretching out their hands
they would gesture to me
to join them
I was always very happy then
floating out on the warm brink
of the world.”

No ayuhuasca required.

The second and third pages of the poem are absolutely magical, but it’s a spoiler if I tell you where this poem goes.

Whatever the outcome of that 106-fevered experience, one thing is certain: it opened Mackey to a world she could live with, so that years later, when she is struck in the Amazon jungle, she maintains the strength and presence of mind to pen another brilliant poem. For example, in her recent poem “105 Degrees and Rising,” Mackey writes that fever:

‘lifts [me] from my bed/in an ascending spiral /whispering my name over and over”

If what comes before prepares us for what comes next, Mackey has been prepared as a child by those fevered visions, once striking in the safely of her parents’ home, now striking in the far away, primitive jungle. In both cases, she hangs tight.

It is in the “Infinite Worlds” section of Jaguars that Mackey begins to let loose with imagery that is memorable, remarkable and absolutely frightening, but always adhering to poetry’s rules and codes and aesthetically pleasing in the darkest ways:

From “Ghost Jaguars”

by day   you told us   the dead crouch in the jungle
arms wrapped around their knees
heads down   blind
living in a great blueness
that expands to the horizon
like an infinite ocean

at night, they rise
and hunt ghost jaguars
drink the black drink
fuck the trees

If you allow yourself to see this collection as a metaphor, I would suggest it depicts a poet drawn to fire, to destruction, and to experiences so intense they force you to question your life, your priorities and your raison d’etre.

It is true that, for many writers, the edge is where they feel most vital and at one with themselves. Take the journalist Marta Gellhorn, who craved war coverage as much as Hemingway needed to fish or Neruda needed his political disruptions and protests. But unlike an Ezra Pound, or a even a Carolyn Forche, there is never  a sense of judgement or partisan politics in Mackey’s work. The poems stand on their own.

And then there is the figure of Solange, a figure Mackey first introduced her readers to in her award-winning collection Sugar Zone. Solange appears repeatedly through out Mackey’s later poems. Is she real? A lost friend? I don’t know, but I do believe that if Mackey had not been opened to an alternative reality early in life, Solange, the mythical and magical creature, could never have manifested.

Here is a recent poem in which Mackey introduces us yet again to this alter ego/goddess/mythic figure:

“Solange in her Youth”

sometimes you froze among the briars
deaf to our pleas to come back to the boat
froze as if you were listening
to a great slow rush of water
that would someday bear you away

I identified Solange as a spirit sister, and I love her, and I think in many ways, Mackey must love her too. Take for example, this excerpt:

“for a whole week, I missed Solange
Por uma semana eu tive saudade….

for twenty minutes   I
stood in the deserted street . . . looking
for something
no longer there”

This progression of an image from book to book is exactly the beauty of a collected work: It engenders analysis; it gives readers the chance to discover how a poet arrived at point c from point a. It is, in its best form, a roadmap of a poet’s oeuvre.

Not all authors progress as Mackey has from her initial deeply personal to increasingly spiritual work. We don’t all go from the concerns of the immediate (career, partners) to thoughts of the world or to cultivating the ability to look at the wider world with compassion, patience and empathy.  Not to mention, we do not all possess the mettle to position ourselves in the middle of a remote jungle where, given our proclivity toward fever, we would likely face another bout of illness.

Reporting that Mackey has progressed from personal to global is not meant as a blanket laudatory statement. Mackey is very much a product of her times, having started publishing in the 70’s when women writers were seeking to analyze their personal lives – the correctness of their politics, their sexual relationships and their career choices. One must remember that Mackey began writing her poetry just as an entire movement of women was breaking the chains of invisibility, just as entire classes of people today ache to break the chains of poverty, drug warlords and .

And for all of this poet’s serious looking, connection making, and reportage, Mackey is in full possession of humor; she takes life, but not herself, seriously. This humor puts us at ease. For example, I find it impossible not to laugh when reading “L Tells All,” Mackey’s rewrite of the myth of Leda and the Swan, reincarnated as a confession in a supermarket tabloid. Apparently, Leda’s relationship with Zeus did not go well:

“we had nothing in common
his feathers made me sneeze
I was afraid to fly
he was married
(of course
they all are)
we even had religious differences

This critique of a collection of Mackey’s best poems from a total of four  of her eight collections, leaves four collections I have not given their full due. To summarize: the early collections function as the foundation of Mackey’s magnificent mansion: we have a stand-alone section entitled “A Threatening Letter to Shakespeare,” and four previous book length collections: Split Ends (a deeply personal collection –  4 poems included) One Night Stand (3 poems on the topic of sexual politics,) Skin Deep and The Dear Dance of Eros 13 poems total on the topic of a young woman choosing to move through the world, the walls she hits, and the doors she pushes open.

Like the painters Gaugin, Picasso, Manet, this poet would never have found her rhythm had the early poems not been written. They are part of the journey and the training of the muscles of listening and opening, crafting and communicating.

And, finally, in 2018, along with writing new poems about the tropics, Mackey began to explore her Kentucky roots. These Kentucky poems form the section “The Culling”  open the collection. Personally, these poems, as much as I support delving into one’s heritage and being transparent, are like an astronaut taking up gardening. It’s a fine pursuit, but we know that she must have the dream of space on her mind. These poems read like an addition to the family archives, an exposure of a painful roots, but they do not possess the same fully inhabited, magical, exotic and inspired worlds of the other collections. Perhaps because the information came down in family lore rather than immediate experience, they lack the same emotional investment, and even curiosity.

Still it takes a confident poet to lay down the tracks of a family whose matriarch was mangled by a hog, where guns prevailed, horrible catastrophes were common, and men were summarily valued over women. The hazard here, is that by opening with this series of poems, Mackey runs the risk that her readers may not not recognize the depth of her talent and the pyrotechnics she displays in her recent mystical poems and the award-winning books that have catapulted her to fame.

Author of “You Can Be a Winning Writer: The 4 C’s of Successful Authors” (Mango Press), three volumes of poetry and an award-winning chapbook of short fiction, Joan Gelfand‘s novel set in a Silicon Valley startup will be published in 2020 by Mastodon Press. Recipient of numerous awards, nominations and honors, Joan’s work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Huffington Post, Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Kalliope, The Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Levure Litteraire,  Chicken Soup for the Soul and many lit mags and journals. Joan coaches writers on their publication journey.

Mary Mackey WINS 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for Best Book Published by a Small Press


The Eric Hoffer Awards Committee has  announced that Mary Mackey’s collection of poetry The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974 to 2018 (Marsh Hawk Press)  has won the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for the Best Book Published by a Small Press.

The Hoffer Award highlights salient writing, as well as the independent spirit of small publishers. Since its inception, the Hoffer has become one of the most important international book awards for small, academic, and independent presses and a platform for and the champion of the independent voice. This award also honors Marsh Hawk Press, which has published Mary’s last four collections of poetry.

You can get more information about Jaguars and buy copies by clicking HERE

The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams is also available from and



The Eric Hoffer Awards Committee has just announced that Mary Mackey’s collection of poetry The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974 to 2018 (Marsh Hawk Press)  is a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize. This small list or “short list” of finalists is an honored distinction of its own and is announced publicly during the spring of each award year prior to the grand prize announcement.

The Eric Hoffer Award highlights salient writing, as well as the independent spirit of small publishers. Since its inception, the Hoffer has become one of the largest international book awards for small, academic, and independent presses and a platform for and the champion of the independent voice.

Jaguars in the Library: Poetry, Passion, and Archives

It’s spring, and I have a lot of good news. It’s been a wild ride since September when Marsh Hawk Press published my new collection of poetry The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974 to 2018.
First, Jaguars sold out the day it was published. Then it made the Small Press Distribution bestseller list. A few weeks later it won a California Institute of Integral Studies Women’s Spirituality Book Award.
      Since then, I’ve been on public radio three times, done 36 events, and given talks on everything from creativity and craft to Mirabai, army ants, and Goddess worship in Prehistoric Europe.
     Jaguars is now into its 4th printing. On May 9th, I’ll be in New York where Harpers Magazine is sponsoring a reading and interview with me at Book Culture on Columbus ( Time: 7:00 pm  Place: Book Culture on Columbus, 450 Columbus Ave, New York, NY.) But my favorite event title is the one the librarians at  California State University Sacramento came up with for an event I’m doing for them on April 10th: “Jaguars in the Library: Poetry, Passion, and Archives.” Librarians you rock! It just doesn’t get better than that.

In “Fever and Jungles: On Becoming a Poet“: I describe the strange things I see when my fever rises above 106 degrees and how these visions, combined with the jungles of Costa Rica and Brazil, turned me into a poet. This very short poetic memoir is part of the Marsh Hawk Press Chapter One series, which includes or will include memoirs by Jane Hirshfield, D. Nurkse, Phillip Lopate, Rafael Jesus Gonzalez, Indigo Moor, and others.

Listen to me read 27 poems from The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams at, and check out Chaucer and Emily Dickinson while you’re there.

Less Stress More Joy

(Photo of Rico Tirebiter by Chuck Karish)
Rico says life is too serious to read the news first thing in the morning. Grab a bowl of kibble, and start your day with the comics.

Good News From Friends
Congratulations to:

Beth Spencer for The Cloud Museum; Maurya Simon for The Wilderness: New & Selected Poems, 1980 –2016, Sharon Olinka for “Tainting Her” Sensitive Skin Magazine; Renate Stendhal for Kiss Me Again Paris Award Finalist for the 2018 LGBTQ Non Fiction Best Book Awards; Eileen Malone for her poetry collection It Could Be Me, Although Unsure; Floyd Salas for the reprint of his collection of poems Highrunning Heart; Cristina Biaggi for her personal history of feminist art Activism Into Art Into Activism Into Art; Joshua McKinney for his poetry collection Small Sillion; Joan Gelfand for You Can Be A Winning Writer: Craft, Commitment, Community, and Confidence making #1 on Fupping Media’s Top Books for Writers; Judy Wells for Dear Phebe, The Dickinson Sisters Go West.

Other Upcoming Events

To see my complete schedule of readings and other events please CLICK HERECLICK HERE

Fever and Jungles: Mary Mackey On Becoming A Poet

I do not have an MFA. I became a poet by running high fevers, tramping through tropical jungles, dodging machine gun fire, and being caught in volcanic eruptions, swarmed by army ants, stalked by vampire bats, threatened by poisonous snakes, and making catastrophic decisions with regard to men. And then there was reading.

I read constantly, compulsively: secretly under the covers with a flashlight after I had been put to bed; defiantly when I was supposed to be doing the dishes or sweeping the kitchen; sneakily in any class that was boring. As proof that my reading addiction was out of hand, I offer the fact that I was quite possibly the only student at North Central High School ever to be sent to the principal for being in illicit possession of a collection of the poems of William Blake. (Fortunately when she busted me, my math teacher did not find Ovid’s highly erotic The Art of Love, which had somehow made it into our school library uncensored.)

            How did Jungle Woman and Bookworm come to inhabit the same body? How did they combine to make a little girl born in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the height of McCarthyism into a short, scrappy woman who began writing poems at the age of eleven and never stopped? The answer is both simple and complex.

The simple part is that I desperately wanted to get out of Indianapolis. About the time I turned eleven, I started to realize that everything interesting was happening somewhere else. I had even heard rumors that in Paris people sat around in things called “cafes” and talked about ideas.

Paris, Rome, Antarctica, Mars: how, despite an impaired sense of geography, I longed to see them firsthand.  Books had already taken me to exotic places—OZ among them—but I had never really been anywhere unless you counted trips to the family farm in Kentucky and a brief jaunt to Niagara Falls where I got to enter a foreign country for the first time, albeit not a very exotic-looking one.

I imagine many of the children I went to school with also longed to go somewhere interesting, but I had an advantage. I knew that there were places so different from Indianapolis that they could not be described in ordinary words; and this is where it gets complex, because the thing that brought me this knowledge, the thing that did more than anything else to make me into a poet, was fever. But first it almost killed me.

The first time it happened, I was six months old. I don’t remember any of the events of my near-death experience, but I’m told I turned blue and went into convulsions. According to my mother, I would have died except that my father, who was completing his medical training in a military hospital, had access to penicillin—a drug not at the time available to civilians. The stuff was nasty: preserved in wax in a small glass bottle that had to be boiled before the penicillin was injected via a very large, hollow needle.

For most of my childhood, I dreaded that wax and that huge needle so much that I had to be chased and pinned down like a cat being taken to the vet, but on the night I nearly died before I had lived, the penicillin bought down my fever and saved my life.  But fever was not done with me.

The next time I nearly died was just before my third birthday. I remember that experience well, because it was the first time I saw how thin and bright the world could be. I remember lying on a green couch in a over-heated room. It must have been winter because frost coated the window panes, and snow lay on the bare branches of the trees in big lumps. My mother had given me a bottle of Coca-Cola on the principle that I needed to take in more fluids. My temperature must have been somewhere between 105 ͦ and 106 ͦ Fahrenheit, because I was already experiencing that wonderful, detached, floating feeling I always get above 105 ͦ.

Just for the record, the path from 98.6 ͦ to 105 ͦ is nasty: filled with aches, pains, uncontrolled shaking and the pure misery of sickness, but once you reach 105 ͦ everything changes. You start to feel irrationally happy. Your body becomes light and buoyant. By the time you get to 106 ͦ, you begin to discover that you are incapable of worrying, even though everyone around you is frantic with fear. The best is yet to come. Teetering on the edge of 107 ͦ brings the real poetic gifts, because a fever that high does something strange to your brain.

As I lay on that green couch, warm golden light—the kind you only see for a few moments at sunset—flooded our living room. My parents moved toward me so slowly that I could see their clothing billow out and collapse in an invisible wind. Bending over me, they lost their faces, and floated toward the ceiling like huge birds. The coke bottle on the coffee table multiplied into dozens of coke bottles, which flew up and circled in a huge glassy aura around their heads.

Behind my parents’ bodies, the light turned into a veil composed of long, rainbow-colored ribbons. The veil expanded, consuming the green couch, the blankets, the windows, and my parents.  Suddenly it parted, and I saw trees with red and gold leaves (impossible, because it was the dead of winter), and little children stretching out their hands and calling to me.

I couldn’t have had much of a vocabulary at that age. Nevertheless, words suddenly streamed into my mind and came out of my mouth, combining and recombining into entirely new things. I believe this was the moment I was given the gift of poetry, a gift which I did not yet have the skill or understanding to use, but a gift nevertheless.

I have captured this childhood experience best in a poem entitled Breaking the Fever  in my collection by the same name (Breaking the Fever, Marsh Hawk Press 2011). Although fever is far from the only topic of my poetry, it has provided the specific inspiration for well over a dozen poems and subtle inspiration for many more, many of which are in my most recent collection The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected  Poems 1974 to 2018  (Marsh Hawk Press, 2018).

What does fever show me? Are the things I see real? Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t claim to be a profit or an oracle. All I know for certain is that something strange happened to me on that afternoon just before my third birthday, something that would  happen again at least half a dozen times as I continued to run extraordinarily high fevers. The logical explanation is that I was hallucinating. Yet hallucination does little to explain how well-organized the words I babbled were, and how I sensed them as objects that regrouped and changed forms. Nor does it explain why, much later in life during high fevers, I spoke in rhymed couplets—sometimes for several hours at a time—and was unable to stop until my temperature dipped below 106 ͦ.

Actually, I am less interested in discovering an explanation for why these things happen to me than in the result, for starting at a very young age, fever gave me priceless poetic gifts: metaphor, because it showed me how one thing could easily become another; rhythm, because it organized the speech centers of my brain; a love of words, stories, and ideas, which had a life of their own and frequently came into my head so effortlessly that writing them down was like taking dictation. Best of all, fever gave me chance to see the world in a way that few other people see it. Am I insane? Fair question, but I if you are searching for a mad poet, I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. When I am well and fever-free, which is 99% of the time, I am almost boringly sane. I’m a practical, well-organized, Professor of English, dedicated to poetry as a craft, meticulous about revision, and unless my body temperature goes above 106 ͦ, I never hallucinate or speak in rhymed couplets.  

   Thus, although I received some of the building blocks for creating poems a little before my third birthday, it would be years before I knew what a poem was and many more years before I attempted to write one. Oddly enough, the break-through came in a geometry class. I was eleven, and it was late October. We were learning about triangles, and I was bored in a way that makes you willing to give in to any kind of distraction including counting the tiles in the ceiling. My classroom lacked ceiling tiles, but it did have large windows, which looked out on the front lawn of the school. The leaves had turned on the maples about a week ago, and now the wind was blowing them all over the place, sucking them into the air, whirling them around, and throwing them to the ground.

Up in front of the class, my geometry teacher was talking about obtuse and congruent triangles. Obtuse. Congruent. What wonderful words, I thought. At that moment it all came together: the wind, the leaves, the triangles, and the geometry lesson. Suddenly, I saw the leaves both as dead leaves and at the same time, as masses of colored light swarming in patterns. Suddenly I understood that leaves too could be obtuse and congruent. Picking up my pen, I quickly scribbled down my first poem:

Blown high on the wind unfurled
Gathered in masses of light
Softly though their numbered twirls
The autumn leaves in flight

Reds and yellows, pastels soft
Shapes obtuse and congruent
Blown high by the wind aloft
Motions precise yet fluent


            Not a very good poem, admittedly, but very important to me, because it marks the moment I fell forever in love with science, which I suddenly realized was not so different from poetry. Weren’t poets and scientists both trying to explain the the world around us? Weren’t they both exploring the unknown and attempting to make sense of it, trying to figure out how human beings fit in? The vocabulary of science was simply another kind of poetic language, and the beautiful logic of scientific proofs, like the words of a poem, had the same goal: creating meaning out of chaos.

            In the weeks that followed, I wrote twenty poems, which flowed out of me so fast I could hardly get them down on paper. In retrospect, none of them were very good, but I loved writing. I was intoxicated with it. I still had no desire to become a poet, have a career in poetry, or get published. I was just having the best kind of fun you can have.

Soon I realized that I had two problems. First, I had no idea what I was doing; and worse yet, I had no control over my poems and no idea how to fix them when they went wrong. Being a practical sort, I decided to read as much poetry as possible, pick it apart, and see how it was put together. I thought I could learn everything I needed to know in a few months, but, of course, I was wrong. Learning my craft took years.

My second problem was that no matter how pretty my poems were or how cleverly I combined words, I didn’t have anything significant to write about. I was a child. I was living in Indianapolis. I needed a  subject. You might say I needed a life. I couldn’t go on talking about autumn leaves forever.

If you don’t have a life, I asked myself, what do you do? The answer seemed obvious: You borrow one. With this in mind, I plunged into the biographies of poets and novelists, determined to discover how their lives had inspired their work. Soon, I discovered two things: First, the great poets and writers of the world did not for the most part live in Indianapolis; second, they were almost all men.

Male writers, it seemed, could do anything. They could drink themselves silly on absinthe and not give a damn if it rotted their brains. They could have wild affairs with their own sisters, “ladies of the night” (whatever that meant), and even other men. They could write passionate poems to their poet lovers; then shoot them down in seedy hotels, do prison time for the crime, and still be worshiped as the gods of poetry. While women poets sat home and knitted, male poets could sign on to whaling ships, meet psychotic sea captains and tattooed harpooners, go to war, and write poems about the tragic slaughter of young men in ways that brought tears to your eyes.

            The cards were stacked. Men had the whole world to write about, while I was destined to get a decent education, marry a nice man who would provide for me and my three children, and spend what little free time I could spare from taking wax off the kitchen floor writing poetry on domestic topics. Was there an alternative? I had never read or even seen a poem by Sappho, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova, or Sylvia Plath; and Emily Dickenson had been presented to us by our teachers as a talented, but disturbed, recluse, which didn’t make her much of a model.

            I didn’t want to be a man, but like a man, I wanted to be able to do anything and have the whole world as my subject. Most of all, I wanted to have time to write. Clearly I was going to have to figure out how to support myself in a way that left time for travel and writing.

I never for a moment considered that I could do this by becoming a professional poet. Everyone knew that real poets starved in garrets. All you had to do to figure out that writing poetry was not a viable career path was read François Villon’s poem “The Legacy” in which Villon, the best-known French poet of the Late Middle Ages, said he couldn’t finish writing a poem because his candle had blown out, he had no fire, and his ink had frozen.

It took me about four years to figure out a plan that seemed to have at least some chance of allowing me eat regularly while giving me time to write and see the world: I decided to get a Ph.D. and teach at the college level. This decision to provide for myself is an essential part of the story of how I became a poet, and it had unexpected benefits.

            During all those years of study, I only took one creative writing class, primarily because it was the only one Harvard offered. It was taught by the talented Steven Sandy who gave me the first and only feedback I ever received from a published poet while I was a student. (An interesting sidelight is that to get into Harvard’s sole creative writing class, you had to compete against other students by submitting a sample of your work. That year I was the only woman admitted.)

            As I sat in Mr. Sandy’s creative writing seminar, surrounded by nineteen young men, I was almost a poet, but not yet the poet I wanted to become. I had no mentors: no male poets to take me under their wing, and certainly no female ones because there weren’t any at Harvard. I was still on my own, and the world I was living in—while far more interesting than Indianapolis—was too safe, too predictable, too academic, and much too rational. I didn’t want to write predictable, academic, rational poetry. I wanted to write poems that explored the world I saw above 106 ͦ without having to deal with starvation, incarceration, and frozen ink.

            Fate cooperated. In the fall semester of my senior year, I sat down to dinner next to a Harvard professor named Richard Evans Schultes. Since I was an English major, I had no idea who he was or what he had done, but we had a pleasant conversation about Charles Dickens, whose novel Pickwick Papers was the subject of my senior honors thesis. It turned out that Professor Schultes was a member of the Boston chapter of the Dickens Society, and he invited me to come to the Old North Church to celebrate Dickens’ 153rd birthday.

            At this point, you may be asking yourself what this chance encounter had to do with how I became a poet, and my reply is “everything.” After the birthday party, which involved singing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Dickens who, by my calculations was not going to eat his piece of cake, because he had been dead nearly a hundred years, Professor Schultes told me he was in need of a student assistant, and asked me if I would like the job.

            A few days later, I showed up at the Peabody Museum as he had directed, wandered past a stuffed display of the last Passenger Pigeon (which, rumor had it, had been shot by a Harvard expedition), and found Professor Schultes who immediately put me to work cataloging ethnobotanical specimens, which included among other things a cake of raw opium which had lain on a shelf unnoticed for some 60 years and a tortilla dating from 1897.

Before the day was over, I knew that: 1) Professor Schultes was world-famous in botanical circles as the “Father of Ethnobotany.” 2) Ethnobotany was the scientific study of how people used plants. 3) Professor Schultes had spent years living in the jungles of Central and South America collecting plant specimens and learning from the people who lived in the jungle how those plants were used. 4) Professor Schultes’ specialty was hallucinogenic plants and their uses, and he had been the first person to bring ayahuasca to the attention of Europeans. 5) That photo of the guy on the wall dressed in a loin cloth having hallucinogenic snuff being blown up his nose by two half-naked men who were only wearing feathers and penis gourds was the same person as the Harvard professor in the three-piece, tweed suit who had hired me to be his student assistant. 

This time there was no sudden revelation. Only gradually, as I worked in the Harvard ethnobotanical collection, did I realize the final things I needed do to become a writer:  I needed to live like Professor Schultes in some remote location beyond the comforts of civilization. I needed odd, unpredictable experiences. I needed the ecstasy and terror of nature in in its original state. I needed to find a place on this planet where trees outnumbered people. In short, I needed danger, and I needed to survive it.

What I didn’t need to do was sample hallucinogens. Professor Schultes had presented me with an entire footlocker of Banisteriopsis caapi—the main ingredient in ayahuasca—to classify, but I was never seriously tempted to concoct  a brew of the famous “black drink.”  From what I had read, and from what I learned when I listened to him lecture, fever had already given me some of the gifts people seek when they deliberately set out to alter their perceptions of reality, and it had done so without destroying my brain or leaving me addicted to any drug more potent than chocolate.  

The summer after I graduated from Harvard, I went to Costa Rica to a place where trees, mosquitoes, and possibly poisonous snakes, outnumbered people. For the next six years I lived off and on at the University of Michigan and at a remote field station in the middle of the jungle. Sometime during those six years, I became a poet. All the pieces were in place: vision, craft, subject, a wider world, time to write, and the means to do so without having to worry about frozen ink (although malaria was always a consideration). Yet until I was well into my fifties, the jungle itself was not the subject of my poetry. It was instead the silent muse behind my poems, the place where I found the unspoken and non-human; and where, far from civilization, I could contemplate the mysteries of what lies inside human beings both below and above 106 ͦ.

“Fever and Jungles” was first published as part of the Marsh Hawk Press Chapter One Series.

Novelist and poet Mary Mackey inspires writers

Interview by Susan Allison

After interviewing novelist and poet, Mary Mackey, I am moved to write a poem, dashing off lines quickly in what I call a “divine download.” I find nothing more exhilarating than this creative process, and I’m grateful for Mackey’s inspiration. Mary’s own inner voice has been whispering stories and poems to her for decades. Even before she could read, Mary made up stories and told them to her friends: “ I must have been four or five, and I quickly discovered that if I stopped at an exciting point, they would give me candy to continue. Poetry came later. I wrote my first poem in the Fourth Grade on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I’ve been fascinated by words from a very early age–the way they trip off your tongue and dance in your head. I think language is the great human art form, created by a collective effort of billions of individuals over vast expanses of time.”

I’m impressed that Mary Mackey is an equally successful poet and novelist. She is the author of eight collections of poetry, the latest being her favorite, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams : New and Selected Poems 1974-2018 , published by Marsh Hawk Press. In Jaguars, Mary writes of life, death, love, and passion with intensity and grace. Her poems are hugely imaginative and multi-layered. Part One contains forty-eight new poems including twenty-one set in Western Kentucky from 1742 to 1975; and twenty-six unified by an exploration of the tropical jungle outside and within us, plus a surreal and sometimes hallucinatory appreciation of the visionary power of fever. Part Two offers the reader seventy-eight poems drawn from Mackey’s seven previous collections including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 Oakland PEN Award for Literary Excellence.

Speaking of her latest book of poetry, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, Mary says, It’s been a wild ride this Fall. On the day Marsh Hawk Press published Jaguars…, the entire first edition sold out. Six weeks later Jaguars made Small Press Distribution’s Bestseller List. Although I had achieved some success as a novelist, I thought poets were supposed to live in miserable obscurity in an unheated garret; but apparently, after over 40 years, I’ve finally found an audience interested in poems inspired by Mirabai, Blake, Saint John of the Cross, Second Wave Feminism, and the singing of frogs in tropical rainforests.”

Mary has also published fourteen novels, has been on the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists, and her novels have been translated into twelve languages. She does have favorites: “I’m very fond of my most recent novel The Village of Bones because the characters do surprising things and the story revolves around the idea that your enemies sometimes can be converted by loving kindness. But I also like an early novel of mine, McCarthy’s List, because it’s so outrageously funny and (unfortunately) so relevant since it deals with a woman taking revenge for sexual harassment in comic ways (at one point she sends her attacker an exploding parrot). I also love Season of Shadows, an historical novel set in the Sixties, which combines a strong friendship between two women with several love affairs, the Civil Rights Movement, international politics, and a bomb-building-cell of the Weather Underground.”

Mackey never set out to be a poet or a novelist, but just wanted to write poems and stories and has continued to do so for decades. I ask her if she can write poetry and prose simultaneously, or if she focuses on one genre: “I write my novels on a computer. They take a long time—usually two or three years, and since I write historical fiction, a lot of research is involved. Writing a novel takes organization, logic, and patience. Poems on the other hand come to me quickly. I always write the first drafts out in longhand in a special notebook in order not to interrupt the flow. My poems are more personal, more connected to my subconscious and to my dreams and visions. When I am writing novels, I rarely write poems. When I am writing poems, I am almost never writing a novel. Yet although I often write the first drafts of the poems very quickly, I spend a long time crafting and revising them. I put my novels through at least twelve revisions. I usually revise my poems from eight to twenty times before I will let anyone see them.”

Wanting to know more about her craft, I ask Mary to explain her writing process: “I usually close my door, turn off my phone, and write five to six days a week from about 9:00 am to about 2:00 pm. I have long had a deal with myself that, if I can’t write, I have to spend those hours writing about why I can’t write. I can almost guarantee that if you spend two hours writing about how you can’t write, you will start writing something interesting out of sheer boredom. In addition, many years ago I developed a trance technique to inspire me. At these times, when I am in a “liminal state,” partly waking and partly dreaming, I have access to a vast trove of images and ideas. If I am having trouble with a scene in a novel, I go into a light trance and run the whole scene in my mind like a movie. With poems, I call up the images and metaphors that dwell in the deepest parts of my conscious mind—almost in my subconscious—and then I write fast and freely, recording everything that comes up whether or not it is useable. Later, I am meticulous about cutting and polishing my poems, but when I am in a trance, I make no judgments nor do I exclude anything no matter how silly or irrelevant. I think that this technique is what gives many of my poems a mystical, visionary, even prophetic quality.”

I find her writing process unique and fascinating, and also want to hear about her publishing experience: “There is a different story connected to the publishing of each book, and things have changed so much over the past forty years, that the way I got novels published as a young author is probably no longer relevant to writers today. The short version is that the Gatekeepers were strict and the gates opened rarely, but once you got in, you were taken care of in a way almost unimaginable in 2018.”

“My first novel Immersion was published by the legendary Shameless Hussy Press. After that, I wrote five novels no one would publish. Then I wrote McCarthy’s List. I sent it to an agent. The agent liked it. She convinced Doubleday to publish it. Subsequently my novels were published by Putnam, Simon & Schuster, Bantam, Penguin, Kensington, New American Library, and Berkley Books. These publishers sent me on books tours. They advertised my novels here and overseas. They made one of my novels— A Grand Passion– into a New York Times Bestseller. Those days, unfortunately, are over. I have the deepest sympathy for contemporary writers who are trying to get novels published. So much talent is going to waste, and American literature is the poorer for it.”

“Poetry is a cheerier story. My poetry collections have been published by small presses that give me cover control, that never change or edit my work without consulting me, and who do their best to promote and sell my books. My last four collections, including The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams , have all been published by Marsh Hawk Press, the best publisher I have ever had. Marsh Hawk, which is a non-profit press, has been dedicated to highlighting the breadth of affinities between poetry and the visual arts for almost twenty years. Their covers are beautiful, and they stand behind their authors with advice and advertising. They’ve put together a book tour for me in the New York City area for next May. I think that it is partly due to Marsh Hawk that Jaguars has made the Small Press Distribution Bestseller List.”

Mary Mackey has so much electric energy, and I’m sure she is working on new projects:

“Marsh Hawk Press is doing an anthology entitled The Chapter One Project , featuring the memoirs of outstanding poets from diverse background recalling the ways by which they found their start as writers. I recently wrote a piece for Chapter One entitled Fever and Jungles: On Becoming A Poet. In it, I discuss how very high fevers and the time I spent in the rainforests of Costa Rica and the Amazon made me into a poet. This piece is part of a longer memoir I am writing. Fever and Jungles will go live on the Marsh Hawk Press Blog December 1 st. Among other things, it contains a description about how having a fever above 106 once caused me to speak in rhymed couplets for several hours.”

“Also, my readers would like me to write another volume of the Earthsong Series. I have a rough outline of a new novel for the series and am playing with a plot set in the Goddess worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe that will take up where The Village of Bones left off. In addition, I’m writing a series of poems, which I have in a folder marked Cassandra . Although I’m not sure that will be the title of the collection, I think Cassandra is the perfect spokeswoman for an era when some people, against all evidence, continue to deny that climate change is happening. As you’ll recall, Cassandra saw the future and warned people what was coming, but no one believed her.”

In many ways Mary Mackey reminds me of Cassandra, the prophetess in Agamemnon, and I believe her! I hope her words have inspired you as they have me. As a former college professor, she leaves us with practical wisdom: “The best piece of advice I can give you is: don’t give up. I kept a huge pile of envelopes on the top shelf of my bookcase in my office at CSUS. Below them were copies of all my published books. When students came in, I would point to the envelopes and say: ‘All of those envelopes are full of pages describing why I can’t write, why I’ll never be a writer, why I have nothing to say, and why I might as well throw in the towel, go back to school, and learn something useful like anesthesiology.’ Every writer has doubts. Every writer gets stuck. The trick is to just keep on going. It’s very hard to be a writer. There are so many easier, more pleasant things to do—things you might actually get paid for. But if you like to write, keep on writing those poems and stories only you can write.”

Mary Mackey has a B.A. from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The University of Michigan and is related through her father’s family to Mark Twain. At present, she lives in northern California with her husband Angus Wright.  You can find her work and more information at

The post Featured Member Interview – Mary Mackey appeared first on Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco Chapter.