Here is the final piece of the recent interview with Mary about her new collection of poetry, The Sugar Zone. It has been a privelege to talk with Mary again, and I’ve enjoyed the comments that have come in, especially the ones about the value of language. It has made me think about how that can be translated to the page. Thank you Mary, for your graciousness in allowing this interview.
Lisa: The poems in Sugar Zone contain enough stories for 50 novels. Do these stories come from your own life? Have you really been under machine gun fire in Colombia, driven through riots where people threw burning palm trees onto the highway, experienced a volcanic eruption, and nearly been drowned by a pack of young children who were trying to steal your watch?
Mary: Yes, all those things happened to me and more. In fact, something always seems to happen to me when I travel, perhaps because I rarely travel like a tourist. I’m more likely to find myself staying in a place with a thatched roof than a good hotel or eating something strange like iguana stew rather than hamburger. I don’t seek out danger out, but it finds me: I get crawled over by army ants, a rabid bat tries to sneak into my sleeping bag, I nearly step on a nine foot pit viper. Any number of biologists who work in the tropics can tell similar stories, but few poets regularly venture so far from the margins of civilization. Of all the things that have happened to me, the worst was having an illiterate fifteen-year-old soldier hold my passport upside down and try to read it while pointing a machine gun at me, safety catch off.
Lisa: Do you think all writers need to be willing to take risks?
Mary: Yes. To write well, you need to have something to write about besides writing. This means you need live life to the fullest, and to do that you need to be willing to step outside your comfort zone and confront experiences head-on. How you take risks depends on what kind of writer you are. You can look inward and examine your deepest joys, fears, passions, and traumas; or you can throw yourself head-long into the material world. Traditionally, woman writers have looked inward or confined their writing to describing the domestic sphere—home, family, marriage, children. Jane Austin and Emily Bronte are good examples. Most male writers have looked outward, taking passage on a whaling vessel like Melville or traveling up the Congo River like Conrad. There are exceptions, of course, but this has been the pattern.
When I was a young woman, I decided that I wanted to be the kind of writer who looked both inward and outward. “When I am an old woman,” I thought, “I would rather regret the things I have done than the things I didn’t do.” It’s amazing how few things I now regret. It’s very scary to be in a volcanic eruption with stones falling out of the sky, but later you realize that you have been given a rare, powerful experience that you can use in your writing. Adversity sharpens your wits and your intellect. Even when things seem to be going from bad to worse, you can whisper to yourself: This is great material. If I survive, I’m going to write about it someday.
Lisa: Poet and novelist Marge Piercy has called the poems in Sugar Zone “death haunted poems.” Why do so many poets write about death? Why did you? Can you give us some examples of poems from Sugar Zone that are death-haunted?
Mary: The four poems in Sugar Zone that deal with death most directly are The Night You Never Saw, Cold Snap, Nightlight, and Absolution. Yet there are also poems that are funny, poems about lovers and passion, poems about the beauty of the rainforest and the surprising gifts you receive when you travel in foreign lands.
Lyric poetry—the kind of poetry I write—is about the great mysteries of life. Death, along with love and nature, is one of the three greatest of these mysteries. Poets write about death for a number of reasons, so I’ll only speak about why I do it. How can we—you , I, all of us—cease to exist? It’s almost impossible to imagine our own deaths and almost unbearable to experience the deaths of those we love. Both my parents died in the past three years. I still can’t believe that my mother and father are gone, that I will never see them again. I keep probing that mystery, asking: Where did they go? Where do we all go? What comfort can we find? What is the moment of death like? How can the inevitability of death help us live our lives with greater awareness and compassion? Is there anything after death? Poetry helps me come to terms with all these questions, and allows me to offer my readers—if not answers—at least possibilities.
Lisa: The poem “All the Way Down” takes a car crash and slows it down into an encapsulated moment of almost peaceful dreaming. You captured that moment of suspended disbelief within the terror of adrenaline perfectly. How quickly after the event did you write the poem? Was it an immediate reaction, the poem formed from the event, or was it later after you’d had time to reflect and recapture?
Mary: I almost never write about things immediately after they happen. That car crash occurred well over two decades ago. I can recall being fascinated by the way time changed and expanded in the moments before impact and how long those moments seemed. There was no sound. Everything seemed to happen very slowly, as if we were drifting through water. I had a lot of time to think, but since I wasn’t driving, I couldn’t do anything but observe. When the crash actually happened, I felt as if I had been ripped back into normal time. I screamed. I was terrified. But before that I felt nothing but a kind of long, peaceful contemplation of the possibility that we were all going to die.
Lisa: I like how your format your poetry, by adding extra spaces within lines. This adds a pause when reading out loud, an impact felt more than simple line breaks similar to drawing in breath. Do you write that way, or do you insert the pauses when revising or maybe reading out loud?
Mary: The blank spaces are as much a part of my poems as the words. I put them into my first drafts, but later, as I revise, I often change where they occur. They represent places to draw breath when you are reading out loud. They are also places for your eyes to rest for a moment before moving on. You can think these blank spaces as small islands—as calm places where the you can enter the poem, pause for a moment, feel your own feelings and think your own thoughts. Just as spoken words cannot exist without silence, written words cannot exist without the page that surrounds them.
I’d like to close this interview by asking readers to look again at the last sentence in Mary’s interview. The written word cannot exist without the page that surrounds them. I’m going to have to ponder that for a while.