Mary Mackey on Writing Poetry and Fiction

Mary Mackey  is a novelist, a poet, and a teacher. We interviewed her last year in this blog upon publication of her historical novel, The Widow’s War. Mary’s new book of poems, Sugar Zone, is being published this October by Marsh Hawk Press. Her poetry has been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, and Marge Piercy to name but a few. She is the author of 13 novels and her work has been translated into twelve languages.

Mary will be giving readings  of Sugar Zone throughout the month of October in the Bay area and New York.

I thought it would be a lot of fun to talk to Mary and compare the creative experiences of writing poetry and fiction.

Andy: Mary, let’s start by talking about a poem in your new poetry collection Sugar Zone. Here it is:

The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 5


in the flame
of a single candle     entire cities
are appearing
and disappearing

my hands tremble on you
my fingers pass through you
your tongue tastes like apples
your flesh is fog

above our roof     the jealous moon
has torn a hole in the sky

Could you tell us a little bit what went  through your mind when you were composing this poem?

Mary: This is a love poem, the fifth in a series about the spiritual dimensions of passion. For thousands of years, poets have been writing about how passion can seize us, pull us out of ourselves, and unite us not only with another person but with the Divine. As I wrote this poem, I had a vision of lovers creating a moment where time stopped for so long that entire cities could appear and disappear in the flickering of a candle.

Andy: In plain English, what are you saying here?

Mary: That’s a hard question. When you put a poem into plain English, it’s no longer a poem, but let me try: I’m saying that passion combined with love is one of the paths to the Divine. I’m not the first poet to say this. Saint John of the Cross, one of the most important mystical philosophers in Christian history, wrote passionate love poems to God.

Andy: This is a gorgeous poem.  I think I had to read it out loud several times to really appreciate it. But having read your fiction, I’m a little surprised that this has come out of the same mind as the person who wrote The Widow’s War. That novel was also beautifully written but it was an adventure, a popular novel. It would make a good  big budget movie. Are you a literary schizophrenic?

Mary: No, I’m not even all that unusual. Marge Piercy, whose work I admire greatly, has been writing both novels and poetry for over 40 years. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 11. For the first 15 years of my literary career, I was known primarily as a poet. Poems and novels come out of different parts of my brain.

Andy: Other than Marge Piercy, who are some other poets you admire who also write fiction?

Mary: Thomas Hardy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Auster, are some of my other favorite poet-novelists.

Andy: Your novels have been on The New York Times bestseller list. Your last novel The Widow’s War made The San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list. All told, your novels have sold well over a million and a half copies.  So why did you choose to write the poems in Sugar Zone instead of writing another novel? Are you nuts?

Mary: Probably. No, seriously, I wrote those poems because they came to me with an urgency that told me that right now I would not be happy writing anything else. I have the great luxury of being able to write what I want when I want to write it, not because I’m rich but because I’ve always had a day job. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of biographies of authors, who were forced to write pot boilers to put food on the table. I like regular meals, so I decided to get a Ph.D., become a professor,  write whatever I wanted to write, and teach college students for a living, which I did. This was a good choice because I love teaching.  I think it’s important for writers to do something besides write. You need to get out in the world, experience life to the fullest, have a few Hemingway-like adventures.

Andy: What do you get out of poetry that you don’t get when you write a novel? Certainly not money. You’ve said that. I’m sure your agent couldn’t care less about this part of your writing life. I don’t represent poets. I have a mortgage to pay.

Mary: You’re right about the money. During my first ten years as a writer, I only got paid once for a poem: $1.75. My last book of poetry Breaking The Fever, actually made money thanks to Garrison Keillor who read three of my poems on The Writer’s Almanac, but I couldn’t retire on my poetry income unless I lived like Gandhi. What I get out of writing poetry is joy. When I write a poem, I feel elated, as if I had gotten in touch with some deep, hidden part of myself. I don’t write poems that read like a diary, but there is more of the real me in my poems than in my novels. Writing poetry is my spiritual practice, like meditation. It gets me in touch with my unconscious.

Andy: What’s the difference between writing novel and a poem? Talk about the creative process a little bit.

Mary: Writing a poem is more immediate experience. I write most of my poems out in longhand in one sitting and then start putting them through revisions.  I’ll sometimes revise a poem 20 times before I am happy with it.  Occasionally a poem will come to me without  a word that needs changing. Ideas for novels also come quickly, but the novel itself  takes a long time to write—three years of daily work all done on a computer. Writing a novel is like planning a huge convention: you need to be highly rational and well-organized; you have to work within the limits of plot and character, and you have to think about whether or not your publisher is going to be able to sell your book; because publishers, agents, and booksellers  do indeed have mortgages to pay. But with poetry, anything goes. It’s more like play than work.

Andy: Does the craft of writing poetry bleed over into writing novels? Do good poets make good novelists?

Mary: I like to think my novels are better written because I write poetry. I love language, I’m sensitive to the rhythm of sentences, I’m in touch with the unconscious impulses of my characters. But you also have to resist poetry when you write novels or you will spend three pages ecstatically describing a sunset, neglect the plot, mess up the pace, and bore your readers.

Andy: Mary, it seems to me that in America, poets get no respect. I remember in the Soviet Union where free expression was not permitted, poets were authentic superstars who would draw thousands of people to their readings. That doesn’t really happen  here. It doesn’t happen in the new Russia either. Does poetry thrive on adversity?

Mary: Under an oppressive dictatorship,  poetry often becomes the last stronghold of freedom of speech because dictators underestimate its power to inspire ordinary people to resist oppression. Poetry can be very dangerous.

Andy: How do poets make money as poets?

Mary: Most don’t. The most common way for a poet to survive in America is to teach. Well-known poets are paid to do poetry readings, lecture, and give workshops, mostly at colleges, universities, and at writer’s conferences.  If you write poetry, don’t give up your day job.

Andy: I can’t write a story to save my life. But my clients who write fiction never run out of stories to tell. I assume that it’s a gift from the muse and that I have not been so blessed. Is this true? Is the gift of poetry the same gift or different?

Mary: They are both the same gift expressed in different ways.

Andy: Will you ever write another novel?

Mary: I am working on one right now.  I have more ideas for novels and poems than I’ll ever be able to use in one lifetime.

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7 Responses to “Mary Mackey on Writing Poetry and Fiction”

  1. J.Luckett Says:

    Poetry and novel writing are indeed distinctive arts. Mary has definitely mastered both. Great insight into a writer’s mind.

  2. Maureen O'Leary Says:

    Ms. Mackey had a write-up in our local paper some years back. She has also mastered teaching. She is a famously sought-after and effective writing teacher. Her students love her. Thanks for an inspiring interview.

  3. Mary Mackey Says:

    Notes like the ones above are why I treasure the experience of teaching. Writing is a fairly lonely occupation. You spend a lot of time in a room looking at a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen (I mention both because I write all my poems out longhand and type all my novels on a computer). Teaching takes you into the world and puts you in an on-going dialogue with your students. Also, I’ve found that when I teach I need to figure out how to explain what I am doing when I write. Putting what I do into words that other people can understand helps me as well as helping my students.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Mary, I think about this a lot since I have become an agent. I go to a writers conferences and speak to a lot of mfa students (and faculty members). Can someone become a good writer by studying creative writing? What can you teach and what can’t be taught. Or, at the end of the day, is creative writing just a gift from the muse?

  4. Mary Mackey Says:

    Any writer can become a better by studying creative writing, but no one can give you the talent or the stamina or the persistence you need to stick to it despite the inevitable reversals and rejections.

    In my career as a teacher of creative writing, I’ve encountered many more students with talent than with the almost crazy dedication it takes to finish and polish a poem, short story, novel, or film script. You’d think it would be the other way around, but surprisingly, it isn’t. Through feedback, careful editing, and long conversations with a more established writer, a beginning writer can learn a great deal: how to write dialogue, how to structure a plot, how to cut the parts of a poem that don’t work, how to come up with ideas, how to overcome writer’s block–it’s a long list.

    The major thing a creative writing class can do for you is save you time. It took me about 10 years to really grasp how to write good dialogue. In fact my first novel, “Immersion” contains no dialogue.It was hailed as experimental–which of course it was–but part of the reason for the experiment was that that I couldn’t not yet construct dialogue that worked. In a creative writing course, I can show students how to write dialogue in one semester or less–thus saving them 9 1/2 years worth of mistakes and false starts.

    In the end, of course, no one can give you talent. That’s a gift like perfect pitch. But at the very least anyone who takes a creative writing course will find reading poems and novels more enjoyable. You may even find yourself falling in love with literature again if you aren’t in love with it already.

    This is why I believe that everyone should try to write a poem at least once. (Warning: writing poetry can become addictive.)

  5. Shor & Levin Says:

    I really love reading books. You’re so interesting! I don’t think I have read something like this before. So wonderful to find another person with some genuine thoughts on this subject. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This website is something that’s needed on the web, someone with a bit of originality!

  6. blurred vision Says:

    You’re so cool! I do not believe I’ve read through a single thing like that before. So good to discover someone with a few original thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This website is something that’s needed on the internet, someone with a little originality!

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