Just wishing Sam and Michael a happy release day for Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run.
What's the best way to celebrate a new book? With a musical playlist!!! Since I haven't actually gotten to preview the book (something I hope to rectify by this afternoon), my song choices are based on what Sam's told me about it. Maybe I'll update my picks after I've read it.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band).
Shenandoah (Tony Rice's version)
We've Gotta Get Out of this Place (The Animals)
Time Machine (Grand Funk Railroad)
Twilight (ELO) (Kind of appropriate, and I had to throw in an ELO song for Sam.)
Okay, and I just have to add this link to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down as performed by Joan Baez on the Muppet Show... I love the Band's version the best, but how can you deny Muppets?
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
In conjunction with National Poetry Month, I offer up this interview with Mary Crockett Hill, whose new book, A Theory of Everything, received the Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her collection was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye, who calls it "deeply original, magical, and weird in a good way." Yup. That's our Mary.
Mary grew up in Salem, Va. She was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, and she received her MFA from that school in 1993. I first met Mary soon after that when a mutual friend asked us to conduct a writing workshop for teens at the YMCA in Salem. Mary was the poet; I was the aspiring fiction writer (emphasis on aspiring). There are only a few things I remember about that hazy semester. One was that it took a lot of work to convince our group that there were more colors on the spectrum than black. Another is that we had a student who had no scars to write about, no blemishes, no sunburn. No zits. Another is that way too many 16-year-olds smoked cigarettes. But they were writers (with the possible exception of the no-scars girl). Maybe that explains it. Anyway, the semester ended. My friendship with Mary did not, and so here she is, talking a little bit about A Theory of Everything, (now available at Amazon.)
Me: For starters, could you talk about where you got your title?
Mary: Well, first I should probably say that I don’t really know what the title means. The Theory of Everything is some idea from physics, and I pretty much respond to physics like a little kid responds to a light show—Oooh, look at the pretty colors!
But as I understand it (which is to say not at all), there’s this notion that all the various physical aspects of the world might be linked together under the umbrella of a single universal theory. And even though I don't have a clue what that truly means, I love thinking about what it might mean in my own pedestrian way.
My poetry is so full of the stuff of the world—the lawnchairs, and the worn rugs, and the need to feed crazy people soup—and I always want to figure out how one piece fits with the next. Thus, a theory of everything. Not the theory, mind you, just one attempt.
An attempt that’s bound to fail, of course. And I’m alright with that.
Me:You have a full-time job and three kids. So when, exactly, do you write?
Mary: As counter-intuitive as it sounds, getting a full-time job actually helped me find time to write.
After my twin sons were born, I decided to stay home to care for the babies and my daughter, who was two at the time. Up until then, I had just been taking my daughter with me to the museum where I worked. But I realized that wasn’t going to be possible with a toddler and two babies. I mean, no one has that many hands. So for about four years, I was working as a fulltime mother. It seemed at the time that I wasn’t getting any writing done, but I must have been doing it at some point—maybe while holding a baby on my lap, maybe while drifting to sleep. Then, when I went back to work, I discovered something I had never before fully appreciated: the lunch hour.
Before I had kids, the lunch hour was just a time to eat food. But after kids, it became sixty blissful minutes when no one had a right to expect absolutely anything from me. I realized that I’d gone about four years without having a single minute of uncluttered mental space. So this lunch hour—it was an unbelievable gift. I set aside that time each day to write and organize what I had written. And in about a month, I had a draft of the manuscript that eventually ended up as A Theory of Everything.
I’ve recently changed jobs, and I’m now teaching English at Roanoke College. And really, as hard as teaching college can be, I feel like I’m seriously getting away with something. It’s a great job. I love it. And because of it, I don’t have to squeeze my writing into this little slot between noon and 12:59. There are some weeks that are so busy I can’t even think about scribbling at a poem, but other times, I’m able to sneak it in during the most unexpected moments. Last semester, for example, I wrote a poem while I was proctoring an exam. A few weeks ago, I worked on a chapter while my writing students were doing peer review. I know this teaching gig won't last forever, but I'm really trying to make the most of it while I can.
Me:Do you think motherhood has changed your writing? And if so, how?
Mary: I think motherhood has changed everything about everything. I always tell my oldest that she wasn’t the only one born when she came out. I was too. Having babies altered who I am altogether, and it definitely altered my writing.
The biggest change for me wasn’t necessarily the themes or concerns that I address my writing—though those changed too. Rather it was the fact that I no longer had time to write. So the poems that ultimately got written had to really matter me or I just wouldn’t bother.
In a way, all the poems in this book were somehow necessary, if that makes sense. They were the unavoidable ones, the ones that wouldn’t be quiet. I guess they made more noise than the babies, so I went ahead and wrote them.
Me:How much of your poetry stems from place, from where you live in Southwest Virginia?
Mary: Lots. I’m a child of Southwest Virginia and the way I see the world has everything to do with the place where I stand to see it.
Me:Tell me a little about "Woodbridge." (I ask because there's a Woodbridge by me, and I'm certain there are many unique swaths of land that bear the same fate, which is to say, annihilation by faceless subdivision or strip mall. I was thinking you were referring to farmland in Christiansburg but I wasn't sure …)
Mary: Woodbridge is a development in my hometown, a little suburban slice of pie. And there was this wide and hilly cow pasture at the end of a cul-de-sac. I loved sneaking in there and roaming around and such. I remember one time being surrounded by cows. I guess they thought I’d brought them a treat, and they were all looking at me with these expectant eyes. I was scared, but oddly happy too. I liked hanging out with the cows. But of course when the cow farmer died, the land was sold and developed into street upon street of McMansions. I know people have to live somewhere, but it made me sad that it had to be there. So that poem mourns the passing of the cow pasture.
The Woodbridge of the poem isn’t the Christiansburg Woodbridge or the one in Northern Virginia; it’s just one of the many. One of those places where something natural (or close to natural) is covered up by asphalt and vinyl siding and slapped with some idyllic name—Pheasant Ridge or Willow Acres or Eagle Run.
Me:Explain, please, about your experience as a toilet seat hand model.
Mary: Oh that. Sounds so glamorous, doesn’t it? I worked as a model in New York for a summer when I was about 14, and the toilet seat was my first job. They had hammered a nail into the foamy seat of a toilet and I was supposed to place my index finger over the nail to show how cushy it was. I got paid some ridiculous amount for a milli-second of work, and I thought “How is it possible that people live like this?” There were other, even more glamorous jobs. Japanese eyewear. Fishnet hose. But I wasn’t very happy in New York, so when fall came, I went back home. I probably should have held out for the big bucks, though. Who knows, if I stuck it out, I could be modeling whole septic tanks by now.
Me:And speaking of toilet seats: It seems to me that people who don't read much poetry stereotype it as being about only love or pain. Yet you have a poem in here that Sam Riddleburger posted a few weeks ago about … farts.
Mary: Yep. That’s what happens when you let a girl from Southwest Virginia write poems.
Me:I'm from the school who believes that everything is autobiographical, even if it's fictional. You have a number of poems that seem, at least from my reading, to be about real people, such as family members. So my questions is: are they real people, or characters? And if they're real, than how do people, such as your family members, react to your poems?
Mary:A lot of the details are made-up, and I steal other people’s stories and pass them off as my own. Or as my brother’s, for that matter. (You should watch what you say around me; it might end up in a poem.) But yeah, a good bit of the stuff in A Theory of Everything is at least partially true. At least true as I see it. In some twisted universe kind of way. I used to write “persona” poems and la-la-la, but since having kids, I just didn’t have time for that. I mean, why bother?
Of course, now that I’ve made that big statement, I should say that about 95% of the poetry I’ve written since A Theory of Everything is totally imaginative. Nothing about it at all is real. I mean, it’s hardly even from the human perspective. Seriously out there. Oh well.
As for family members, I just try not to talk with them about the poems. If there’s something that’s excessively revealing about a named friend or family member in a poem, sometimes I’ll check it out with that person before I try to publish the poem. But for the most part, brer fox, she lay low.
Me:Does it take a certain amount of bravery to do that?
Mary: Bravery, no. Stupidity, probably so.
Me:I love Your Sister the Buddhist, who is mentioned in a couple of poems here.
Mary: Me too. She’s a real sweetheart. It cracks me up, though, to keep labeling her “My Sister the Buddhist.” It’s such a wiseacre little-sister thing to do.
Me:Likewise, the daily news seems to play a role. (As a journalist I am fortified by this.)
Mary: I hadn’t really thought of the connection with the daily news and this book, but you just made me remember: one of the very first poems I ever got published years and years ago was called “6:00 News.” I have no clue what it was about (I suppose the 6:00 news?) but I must be secretly obsessed with the news. I think it has something to do with having these intimate details from the lives of people you don’t even really know.
Me:Will the demise of newspapers (which I see too much evidence of, but which I hope will still somehow be avoidable) have an effect on your writing?
Me:I know you do other kinds of writing. How do you decide what idea will become poem, what will become an essay, what will become a novel for teens?
Mary: The poems have everything to do with language. Sometimes when the idea in the poem is bigger than the language, it will turn into an essay. Ideas for teen novels only come to me when I’m in church about to take communion. It’s some kind of rule.
** Editors note: Mary is currently working on two such novels.
Me:Some of your poems can be quite disturbing, yet you come across as calm, well-adjusted, and, of course, funny. Is there a side we're missing?
Mary: Last year, when I asked my daughter why she was so well-behaved at school and so difficult at home, she wailed, “Where am I supposed to get my bad out?”
That’s pretty much how I feel about poetry. Gotta get my bad out somewhere.
Tangent Alert! Me: I'm going to take this opportunity to link to my friend Sarah Petruziello's art work. Sarah's another person who comes off as even-tempered and funny in person (because she is) but when you look at her art you get another picture entirely. Back to Mary:
Me:Do you have a favorite poem in here?
Mary: Is that a trick question? Isn’t this when King Solomon stands up and says, “She’s not the real poet, because any real poet would never let her poems be so divided!”
So, yeah, they’re all my babies. Even the bad ones.
Me:How did you decide what was a "collection?"
Mary: Hard question. Stupid answer: I tried to put things where they fit and take out what didn’t fit. That, and I had to have an even number of poems in each section.
I really try not to be compulsive, and for the most part I succeed.
Me: Can you remember the first poem you ever loved?
Mary: I remember loving e.e. cumming when I was pretty young. "anyone lived in a pretty how town" and "somewhere i have never travelled." I liked how those poems flew in the face of what I'd been taught poetry was supposed to be--which was basically those shape poems made up of adjectives in a triangle. I also remember reading from my dad's copy of Wallace Stevens a poem called "The Creations of Sound" that just blew me away. I didn't understand it, but the words had their own power, beyond understanding. It starts "If the poetry of X was music, / So that it came to him of its own, /Without understanding, out of the wall...." I mean, how can you not love something that starts like that? And this from a gal who generally doesn't care for ars poetica.
Me:Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
Mary: I probably wrote stuff before this, but the first poem I remember writing was this epic in rhymed couplets about a little girl named Amy who worked with the ants of the world to save everyone from a nuclear catastrophe of some sort. I think I was eight, and I remember working and working on that poem--I think it was called "Amy and the Ants"--but I don't think I ever actually finished it. It was just too dang big.
Me:Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or ... not?
Mary:There are so many. The old great ones are usually great for a reason. I love W.B. Yeats, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, John Donne, Shakespeare (how surprising!). Then there’s Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Wislawa Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Dorianne Laux, Li-Young Lee, Albert Goldbarth, Lee Upton, Russell Edson, Bob Hicok…. I could go on forever. But I won’t, I promise. I will however, put in a plug for some friends with books: Melanie Almeder, Adrian Blevins, Carol Guerrero-Murphy, Katherine Soniat, Adrienne Su, Cynthia Atkins and Mary Szybist are all fantastic. And thanks to amazon, they’re just a click away….
(As is Mary's book, of course!)
Thanks to Mary for her time. Thanks to you for yours!