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…