Interview with Mary Mackey, Part 2

To follow up on Mary’s recent reading at Cal State (congratulations, Mary!)  here is part 2 of her interview.  I especially like her answer about inspiring creativity.

Lisa: Do you feel “exiled and displaced” from The United States?  What can a sense of exile do for a poet? How can it change a poet’s viewpoint or improve a poet’s writing?

Mary: I don’t feel alienated from the United States in any major way. I’m very much an American writer with strong roots in the American Midwest and South, particularly in rural, Western Kentucky. I’ve never wanted to live permanently in another country, but I have traveled in Latin America since I was in my early twenties, lived in remote jungle field stations, gone thousands of miles up the Amazon,  and spent over two decades living for months at a time in Brazil.

When you live outside the United States for any length of time, you see it differently, and you definitely experience a sense of exile. Simply speaking a foreign language much of the time exiles you from your childhood and your dreams. Also, unless you are bilingual, you appear to be less intelligent and less well educated than you really are.  As a foreigner, you constantly feel displaced. Small children correct your grammar. Little things trip you up. Once, because I didn’t know the word for “lentils,” I tried to make a lentil stew out of some sweet, tropical seeds used to make soft drinks. There are few things that taste worse than soda pop made with onions and a hambone.

Yet at the same time, there is incredible richness in such exile, particularly for a poet. Your head becomes filled with the sounds and rhythms of another language. You hear wonderful expressions and metaphors that don’t exist in English. Your perspective becomes global instead of national. You see your own country as a foreigner might see it, while at the same time feeling what it is to be a stranger in a foreign land. One thing poetry can do is make us see the world with fresh eyes. In exile, in a foreign land, you see many things as if you were a child again. Songs, animals, even the smell of the wind are all new to you. As a poet, you can take all this newness, this strangeness, all this sense of displacement and let it ripen in you until it emerges as a poem. After a while you may even find yourself dreaming in a foreign language.

Lisa: How can visions , dreams, fantasies, visions, and mystical experiences stimulate creativity?

Mary: All the things you’ve mentioned don’t just stimulate creativity; they are the very source of creativity. Creativity doesn’t begin with words or rational thoughts. It starts somewhere deep in you at a place where language does not yet exist and then  bubbles up into your conscious mind.  Depending on your religious beliefs, you may see visions and mystical experiences as hallucinations or as gifts from the gods. But no matter what you think they are or where you think they come from, they perform an essential task: they allow you to make unusual connections between things. In poetry these connections often come appear as metaphors, but creativity is not limited to writers, musicians, and artists. For example the organic chemist August Kekulé came up with the structure of the benzene ring after he had a dream about a snake seizing its own tail.

Lisa: Would you call yourself a mystic?

Mary: Yes and no.  As I’ve said, many of my poems come out of mystical/spiritual/visionary experiences. What I’ve seen in those visions leads me to believe that there is more to the universe than our brains can comprehend.  In fact, I’ve always believed that in many respects our brains have evolved to prevent us from seeing things as they really are. There’s simply too much information to take in. That world-beyond-our-world–or whatever you want to call it–is complicated and beautiful beyond our ability to absorb it. Any animal that saw the Greater Reality all the time would freeze like a deer in the headlights and be eaten by some animal with fewer distractions. So given these beliefs, I’m by definition a mystic.

On the other hand, I am probably the most rational mystic you’re likely to encounter. I don’t believe in many of the things you might associate with mysticism, and I have a long-standing interest in science, particularly the natural sciences. I read scientific journals, and I respect and employ rational thought.  Whenever possible. I like to reason things out. I have moved between  two poles–the mystical and the logical—for as long as I can remember. I even wrote my doctoral dissertation on 19th century science and mysticism.

So while mysticism is the source of my poetry, rational thought is the source of my craft. I revise my poems in systematic, logical ways. They don’t just pop into my head. They are the result of a mixture of inspiration and a lot of concentrated effort. This combination of the mystical and the rational is probably why I am a novelist as well as a poet. Whole novels never come in a flash. They have to be written and rewritten, planned and re-planned. I revised McCarthy’s List, my first novel, all 350 pages of it, twelve times. I revised my most recent novel The Widow’s War, eighteen times.  Each novel I write takes from two to three years to complete.

Lisa: Have visionary/mystical poets like William Blake influenced your work?

Mary: Yes, definitely.  I am particularly fascinated by the way Blake combined his poetry with his engravings. There’s a haunting quality about all his work. Blake believed he was bringing us messages from another world. Of course his contemporaries thought he was stark, raving mad, which is an occupational hazard for mystics.

Part 3 to follow…

4 thoughts on “Interview with Mary Mackey, Part 2

  1. I love the explanation of how you feel living outside of your original country. I smiled about “little children correct you”. I am a nanny and one of my kids (7 years old girl) always corrects my pronounciation. Although many people do not hear any difference in my English. But I can definitely relate to the feelings about living away from home. You do get a very different view of your own country and the world in general. I feel the same. And as much as I feel like I am a German at heart and always will be, I still feel very much connected to the US and a little bit to Canada now.
    But I dont want to write about my experiences living abroad, this is about writing. I have to agree with the fact that there are expressions or ways to say things in another language that one would have never thought of in the first place. I remember that Lisa herself told me how I use words and expressions in my stories that describe differently then how she would have done it. Lots of times it is just because I wanted to make sure the reader understands what I wanted to say, and since I could not find one perfect word for e.g. an emotion I describe it with many words.

    For me also, for several years now I find it way easiser to think in English about emotions. I started writing in English so my friends in the US would understand, but I found it way easier to write in English then in German quickly. In Germany there were lots of situations where I couldnt find the right word and used the English one. And then there are words in either language that have lots of different words in the other laguage.

    I find it exciting and impressive lots of times to deal with the languages, other times very frustrating, when I cant find the matching word. But I will never regret learning another language to this degree that I feel bilingual. I wish I could speak more languages like this. It opens up so many more possibilities.

    I am impressed with your travels Ms Mackey!!!

    Unfortunately I dont know much about poetry in general, neither in German nor English.
    I like your thoughs on mystic and logic and think of myself similar.



  2. I have three friends, including Jenni, for whom English is a second language. All three have writing that is rich and beautiful. I love their choice of words and the phrases they use. Many times they write in a way I would never have thought of. I wonder sometimes if it is because they do not take the language for granted and think more carefully about their word choice when writing. It makes me strive to slow down in the editing process and take a closer look at what I choose and how I use the language.


  3. Jenni and Lisa: I am intrigued by what you have to say about speakers of English as a second language who are trying to think and write in English. I’ve always been glad that I’m a native speaker because English is famously difficult with all its odd, irregular verbs (go, went, gone), its crazy spelling (slough!), and its huge vocabulary. I sometimes feel as if we English speakers owe the world an apology for making English the nearly-universal language.

    With regard to writing poetry or fiction in a foreign language, I think Lisa is entirely correct in observing how speakers of a foreign language can’t take the language for granted and how they slow down in both the editing and writing process and choose their words with great care. Two of my favorite authors–Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov–were non-native speakers of English. They were superb stylists, better than the majority of writers for whom English is a first language. I often wonder if the rhythms of Polish and Russian contributed to the musicality of their prose.


  4. I’ve been reading Priscilla Long’s ‘The Writer’s Portable Mentor’ and she mentions something that I think ties in with this in a way. She writes about the musical part of words, of vowels that are higher in the note scale (eek) and lower (doom) and how, when structuring sentences, poets use that music to form their images. There’s a lot more to the subject of words as music, but I do think poets are masters of hearing the tune of the poem, and I am wondering if those who speak English as a second language don’t hear that, too. In particular it reminds me of how amazed I was when listening to friends in Ireland because their sentences went all up and down the musical scale, while my English seemed, in contrast, to almost be monotone.


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