Thursday, January 14, 2016

Howls and Fairies. A Conversation with Mary McMyne

Mary McMyne is a poet whose work I first came across through my membership with the Science Fiction Poetry Association. I've found her to be a delightful and exacting talent with a vivid sense of imagination and verse. She recently won the Science Fiction Poetry Association's 2015 Elgin Award for her chapbook Wolf Skin, from Dancing Girl Press. Like any excellent collection, Wolf Skin begins with a seemingly familiar premise, and the adventure is where it goes from there. It's a brief work, but it leaves you hungry for more.

Her roots begin in south Louisiana, in what she describes as "a plain white house at the edge of a deep dark wood." Her writing includes both short stories and poetry, with a focus on fiction. She studied literature and creative writing at Louisiana State University, and received an MFA from New York University. She has received several distinctions for her work including the Faulkner Prize for a Novel-in-Progress and the Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award

She lives in Sault Sainte Marie, in northern Michigan, and is presently an assistant professor and co-editor of Border Crossing at Lake Superior State University, she teaches courses in English and creative writing. Having grown up in southern Michigan, I was interested to see how she found inspiration there, particularly in the Upper Peninsula. She is also the poetry editor for Faerie Magazine.

Mary McMyne has been very prolific over the years, with interviews, reviews, fiction and poetry appearing in the Los Angeles Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Word Riot, Pedestal Magazine, New Delta Review, New Myths, Apex Magazine, American Book Review and the anthologies The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works and The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss,  just to name a few. You can visit her online at

Do you mind telling us when you first developed an interest in poetry? How would you describe your access to poetry growing up?

I was filling spiral-bound notebooks with handwritten novels and poems from the time I was about eight or nine. I still remember an epic poem I tried to write about St. George and the Dragon at that age on a road trip: sitting in the back seat of our small car with my little brother and sister, asking my mother for help with rhyming words as the trees whizzed by outside. I was a musical kid, who played and wrote songs on the piano, and I was fascinated by the sounds and rhythms of words. I kept writing all the way through middle school and high school, taking creative writing classes and entering contests (in eleventh grade, I won a prize for a poem I wrote about a comet). I was very lucky to have encouraging parents. Our house was full of books. They both read voraciously, and my mother took us to the library weekly. She was a kindergarten teacher who read to us every night and wanted to write children's books. My father was a once-aspiring writer who worked as a technical salesman. (I didn't know this about him until not long before he died, but apparently, he burned everything he'd ever written in his 20s and never wrote again.) He subscribed to Fantasy & Science Fiction, Science, Nature, and National Geographic. They introduced me to Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. By the time I was nine or so, my bedroom shelves were stacked with books: classic poetry collections, dictionaries and encyclopedias and novel series. Gold-edged, leatherbound editions of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales (which are very lyrically written), Greek myths, the Brothers Grimm, and Alice in Wonderland ("Jabberwocky" was my favorite poem for years as a kid). There wasn't a particular focus on poetry, but they made sure I had access to literature in general.

We often hear about how writers get started, but what keeps you going these days, as a poet?

I'll be honest. I write poetry when I'm inspired to do so. When I'm working on a longer project, I agree with so many other writers who advise that you've got to sit down and do the work even when you don't feel like it. I'm working on a novel, right now, and for that project, because I'm in it for the long haul, I schedule out my time. I block it off on my calendar and show up to do the work. I force myself to sit down and invite the muse, to cultivate inspiration through contemplation. But I never start a project unless I am on fire to write it, and each poem is a project of its own for me, even if it's part of a longer manuscript. Nabokov was talking about prose when he described inspiration, but I can think of no better explanation as to what keeps me going as a poet. I overhear a phrase spoken aloud, see or read something that disturbs or elates me, and I know immediately from my emotional reaction--a heightened sense of awareness, a psychological sort of tingling--that I am going to write a poem about it. "A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack, is something the artist learns to perceive very early in life," Nabokov wrote. "This feeling of tickly well-being branches through [the artist] like the red and the blue in the picture of a skinned man under Circulation... It expands, glows, and subsides without revealing its secret." When I feel that way, I stop whatever I am doing and write. If I'm in the car, I turn on the sound recorder on my phone and dictate orally. And so a poem is born. Development and revision follow over the next few weeks or months. The poem calls me back, over and over, until it has revealed its secret.

Which poem of yours do you usually recommend to someone who wants to read your work for the first time?

If they like fairy tales, "Wolf Skin" (the title poem of my chapbook, which first appeared in Los Angeles Review). If they like science poetry, "Irene Joliot Curie" (a poem of mine which first appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly).

When you're writing speculative poetry what's been your general line of thinking when determining the balance between the realistic and the fantastic?

I tend to be more absorbed by projects that explore some element of the unreal—whether that be myth, fantasy or science fiction, folklore, the supernatural, or simply intense subjectivity—but I'm dissatisfied with work that doesn't engage enough with reality. There are two types of poems in my chapbook, Wolf Skin: realistic poems about a modern woman whose mother told her dark fairy tales as a child, and fantastic poems about the versions of those tales she re-imagines as an adult. The realistic poems bookend the fantastic ones: the beginning of the collection explores the woman’s adult life after her mother dies; the middle poems follow her into the unreal to reexamine her childhood mythos; and the final poems follow her back into the real world with her worldview and sense of self transformed. I played with a draft of the chapbook that included only fantastic poems, but was ultimately dissatisfied with it because it retold the tales without fully examining the role they play in our lives. An important function of speculative poetry, I think, is to use the unreal as a sort of mirror in which we can better see ourselves. Many of the fantastic poems in Wolf Skin imagine realistic motivations for fantastic villains or flat female characters, in order to interrogate the explanations we’ve accepted for those characters’ actions—too easily—all our lives.

What served as the impetus for Wolf Skin as a manuscript?

I moved to Sault Ste. Marie, a remote town in Upper Peninsula Michigan, when my daughter was nine months old to take a professorship at Lake Superior State University. When we drove over the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula with all of our things, it felt like I was entering another world. I was enchanted by the way the trees loomed over I-75, how wild and remote and empty everything seemed. At night, I read fairy tales to my daughter, the way my mother had read them to me, and I started to wonder how they changed over time as they were written down, what ancient oral versions of the tales might now be lost to history. After I put my daughter to bed, I would research the way the tale I’d read to her that night had changed over time, and how the various versions intersected with history. This research would often inspire a poem, though it was also feeding the historical fairy tale novel I was (and still am) working on. For instance, the last two lines in my poem, “Old Woman Gothel,” were originally the opening for a section of an early novel draft. It’s difficult for me to talk about one project without the other because they’re interconnected; the poems in Wolf Skin and my novel-in-progress were born out of the same impulse.

How many poems did it take before you felt that you were on to a whole text?

I had written about eight or nine poems before it occurred to me I might have a chapbook on my hands. My friend and colleague, the poet Julie Brooks Barbour – who was wonderful about encouraging me to write poetry when I first moved to Sault Ste. Marie – kept telling me I was writing a chapbook, but I didn’t believe her until I began to see connections between the realistic and fantastic poems. After that, I started trying to imagine how each poem would fit into the structure of the whole as I wrote it, and the story that connects all of the poems began to take shape.

There are numerous well-known fairy tale characters who make their appearance in Wolf Skin. Who was the most difficult for you to approach through a poetic lens?

The bulk of the poems in Wolf Skin are persona poems, written from the perspectives of fairy tale characters who were glossed over or marginalized in the popular tales, so the key to getting each of them to work was usually knowing what each speaker wanted to say and why. Once I understood the answers to those questions for a given poem, it would come out fairly easily in its speaker’s voice, and polishing it was simply a question of editing. The characters I struggled with most were those whose motivations for speaking weren’t as clear to me, like the prince from Rapunzel and the woodcutter from Red Riding Hood. It was difficult for me to figure out why these characters would be moved to speak at all, because they are already represented as heroes in the traditional tales. This meant that these characters didn’t quite end up getting a voice the way other characters do. In "Wolf Skin,” for example, the speaker isn’t the woodcutter from Red Riding Hood at all, but another speaker addressing him with irony.

One of your earliest published poems was "Ghost Story," in the New Delta Review in 2010. What inspired this poem?

“Ghost Story” is a long persona poem, written in prose, from the perspective of a fictional girl who grew up in the Ninth Ward before Hurricane Katrina hit. Her story is that she moved to Baton Rouge with her mother as a teenager and lost her grandmother and childhood home in the storm. I was living in New York City in 2005 when Katrina hit, but I was visiting a childhood friend in New Orleans on the one-year-anniversary of the hurricane. My friend, who had only recently moved back to the city after staying with friends in Texas, took me to the Ninth Ward. It was heartbreaking and surreal to see what had become of the neighborhood. There were sofas hanging upside down in the bars of porches, cracked foundations of churches without roofs, the rusting remnants of overturned cars. I took photographs, because the landscape was so surreal and horrifying. Over the years, I kept thinking about it. One weekend, after I moved back to south Louisiana to take a teaching job, I heard the girl’s voice in my head and wrote the poem very quickly. The piece is called “Ghost Story” because the speaker visits the Ninth Ward after the storm and sees the ghost of herself as a child, her grandmother, the neighborhood, everything that is now gone, superimposed over the landscape.

Do you feel there's anything about life in Michigan that's conducive to a literary mindset, particularly in the Upper Peninsula?

Long, cold winters. Deep, dark woods. My wonderful job, teaching in an English department with other creative writers. My basement writing studio.

What's been an unexpectedly useful skill for you as a poet?

My graduate studies focused on the craft of writing literature, not the business of marketing it, but I was a professional business and technical writer for a few years before I began teaching writing. It was useful, once I had a chapbook to promote, to be able to draw from that experience.

How did you get involved with Faerie Magazine? Do you have any tips for emerging poets to avoid faerie clichés these days?

About ten years ago, I was introduced to its current editor-in-chief, Carolyn Turgeon, by my dear writer friend, Ronlyn Domingue, because Carolyn and I share a deep love of myths and fairy tales. We’ve corresponded and read one another’s work ever since. Not long after Carolyn took over as editor-in-chief at Faerie, she asked if I would be able to contribute a poem from what was then my poetry chapbook-in-progress. I sent her “Rapunzel Tucks the Twins into Bed,” and she printed it. After Wolf Skin came out, she asked me if I had anything else, and I sent her a series about Snow White and Rose Red I’d been working on for my eventual full-length collection. She published five Snow White and Rose Red poems in a beautiful spread, and I fell in love with the possibilities of surreal photography and poetry presented together. When Carolyn asked if I would like to start editing poetry for Faerie, I immediately said yes. I’m excited about the role I get to play at Faerie in bringing poetry to a larger audience.

I’m not sure I have any magical tips for avoiding fairy tale clichés, but there seem to me to be at least two aspects to this. The first aspect is linguistic: emerging poets should obviously strive for inventive and beautiful turns of phrase, precise and surprising diction, startling line breaks, and an interesting voice. All of these elements work together to make the texture of a poem feel fresh and new. The second aspect is ideological: emerging poets should also strive to avoid a clichéd approach. It’s not enough to convert an existing fairy tale or trope into inventive poetic language. It’s also important to think about how a poem builds somehow on the traditional tale or trope and/or subverts it. It seems to me that the best fairy tale poetry strikes a balance between the strange and familiar. Two poems we recently accepted for the summer 2016 issue illustrate this concept: John W. Sexton’s “The Man with the Ladder of Loneliness” is an inventive, original fabulist poem that manages at the same time to seem familiar and resonant, and E. Kristin Anderson’s “Selkie” updates an old myth in an inventive way (in this poem, the titular creature carries lip gloss and a driver’s license). Readers can check both of those poems out in the summer issue by signing up for a subscription.

Do you prefer coffee or tea?

Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon. I am incorrigibly addicted to caffeine.

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