inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #76 of 150: Hoping to be a goddess, but settling for guru (paris) Tue 21 Nov 06 09:05
    

Yes, that struck me, as well.  I'm about as unpoetic as one could be, but 
your description of clicking with geometry and turning it into poetry 
works for me (maybe because geometry was the only math I truly enjoyed?).
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #77 of 150: Hoobla (jclinton) Tue 21 Nov 06 12:16
    
I promised Rubi that I would engage here much earlier, but I've been
lost in an impenetrable forest. Like all labyrinthine structures, it
was, of course, of my own creation.

I very much enjoyed reading Breaking the Fever, and the discussion has
been rich and enlightening. Lately I've been annoying people by
quoting Galileo with some frequency, and I can't resist following this
geometric conversation by doing it again. This is widely misquoted, but
what he said was:

"Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands
continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless
one first learns to comprehend the language in which is its written. It
is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are
triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is
humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these one
is wandering in a dark labyrinth."

So, I'll go with, "Beauty is truth, truth is poetry, and poetry is
geometry," as my formulation for the day.

Jumping from geometry to physics, I have been struck by the way many
of your poems are grounded.

In the title poem, for example, the arc runs from the rationally
descriptive to the fevered imagination, then returns to mother, stuffed
animals, crib and foolishness. A similar arc is followed in "My
Methodist Grandmother Said," Several poems end on very concrete
notes--cars, beneath/the bow, gunpowder/and string, tall grass, stumps.

It is almost as if, having captured lightning and played with it, you
are intentionally willing it into the earth.

Emmylou Harris once said that the great lesson Gram Parson taught her
about singing was that she didn't always have to go for the high note
at the end of the song. He said that sometimes, it was more effective
to take it down instead of up.

John Ashbery has said that he likes to "slip out before the last
verse," to intentionally remove himself from the poem before the reader
has a chance to fix him there. Personally, I am a little too inclined
to be still shouting at the end, maybe exhorting the band to play one
more chorus.

In my reading of your poems, I found thw grounding to be very
effective, and I'm very interested in your thoughts about it. 
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #78 of 150: asparagus before librarians (katecat) Tue 21 Nov 06 12:51
    
(thanks so much for the recommendations--I will track one down! and I love
jclinton's post)
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #79 of 150: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Tue 21 Nov 06 13:27
    
I hadn't noticed what jclinton points out, but jclinton is quite
right.  Does living with scientists (you've lived with several, I
think) affect your poetry, or are you just drawn to scientists?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #80 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 21 Nov 06 17:39
    

What great questions. First let me reply to the query about revisions.
Although the origin of most of my poems is an explosion in the brain, what
comes from that explosion only forms a complete poem on very rare occasions.
Usually I revise, revise, revise, and revise again. I have no idea how many
revisions I put my poems  through, but I am sure each poem in "Breaking the
Fever" has been rewritten at least 20 times. I can never type out one of my
poems (or even reread one) without wanting to revise it. I believe the best
poetry strikes a balance between inspiration and craft. Craft is what I
taught myself by reading poetry in various languages, getting a B.A. in
English Literature and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, and working over
my own poems until they satisfied me in a rational (as well as emotional)
sense. Craft is also what I teach in my creative writing classes (you can't
really teach inspiration, but you can teach people how to make their poems
better). I follow the same principles in my novels. I write and rewrite.
Nothing is too small: no comma, no period, nothing. I revised my first
published novel, "McCarthy's List", twelve times, typing all 365 pages on an
electric typewriter twelve times (or perhaps more, since I often retyped
single pages until they were satisfactory). I wasn't really a writer until I
learned the pleasures of revision.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #81 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Tue 21 Nov 06 19:14
    
And I ask again. How do you know when to stop?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #82 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 21 Nov 06 21:32
    

I stop when I feel all the elements of the poem are working together in a
coordinated whole. But then, if I have to type the poem out, I tend to start
again, playing with line breaks, altering minor details. I suppose the only
things that stops me from continuing to write a poem is getting it
published. Publication freezes it.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #83 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 21 Nov 06 21:55
    

Jim (jclinton) traces the arc of my poetry very accurately. I do bring poems
back to ground and I do it intentionally. I am a somewhat unusual
combination of mystical/poetic-rational/scientific. I wrote my doctoral
dissertation on the influence of the Darwinian revolution on the 19th
century novel with particular emphasis on the relationship between mysticism
and science. I have lived with several scientists and often seek out people
in the sciences as friends. I subscribe to "Science" and read fairly widely
in the sciences (at least for an English Prof). One of my earliest published
pieces, "The Feel of the Smell Itself, was a consideration of the way ants
perceive the world, written in poetic form but grounded in entomology and
influenced by the work of E.O. Wilson whom I knew when I was at Harvard.
Also at Harvard, I worked in the Etnobotanical Museum classifying new
additions to the collection under the supervision of Richard Evans Schultes
(whom I idolized).  I've always thought that if I hadn't been a writer, I
would have been an ethnobotanist working in the jungles of South America.
Thus in my work mysticism and scientific rationalism always exist in
tension, pulling back and forth in any given poem. The fevered imagination
shows you another world, but you can't live in that world. To live fully it
in it is to die. So the poems tend to come back to ordinary, concrete
reality, which in itself becomes a precious gift difficult to hang onto. The
veneer of everyday life is very thin. There are monsters and angels beneath,
below, and on all sides.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #84 of 150: David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Wed 22 Nov 06 09:14
    
(I'm interrupting here briefly to remind off-site readers that we
encourage them to participate in the discussion by e-mailing questions
and comments to inkwell@well.com.)
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #85 of 150: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Wed 22 Nov 06 10:35
    
Mary, thanks.  I'm another one grateful for the scientist nearby.

May I ask you about "When We Were Your Age" (the poem)?  I think it
captured a truth that isn't often mentioned about the 60s--that as
romantic as it all was, it exacted a price.  Can you say more about the
poem?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #86 of 150: Hoobla (jclinton) Wed 22 Nov 06 14:02
    
Switching tracks somewhat, Mary, I wanted to ask you about line
length. As has been previously noted here, most of the poems in Fever
have very short lines.

How do you go about making this choice? Do you choose the line length
for a specific poem, or does it choose you? What do you intend to
achieve with the short lines? Is there a relationship between line
length and the state of consciousness that you are projecting in a
particular poem?

Thanks...
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #87 of 150: Gail Williams (gail) Thu 23 Nov 06 10:05
    
I just had a chance to read this from the top and i'm only butting in
to say THANKS for being here in this interview, long term in this
community, and for your word craft, Mary.  And to our hosts,
interviewer, advance book-readers and all posters here for making this
rewarding. One more thing to be grateful to experience.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #88 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 23 Nov 06 10:31
    

Thanks, Gail.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #89 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 23 Nov 06 10:55
    

I wrote "When We Were Your Age" for a couple of young clerks at the (now
defunct) Tower Bookstore in Sacramento. I realized as I spoke to them that
all the history I had lived through and had known first-hand was being
rewritten, starting with the 50's which they thought of idyllic (remember
McCarthyism? remember the Whites Only drinking fountains in the South?). The
price people paid in the sixties for trying to change society was enormous,
and I feel that turning it into a myth trivializes it. Also it makes it
harder for people who are young now to work for social change when they have
been led to believe the sixties were one big, jolly, stoned, tie-dyed, free
love party with no serious personal consequences. I think this myth is part
of a right-wing rewriting of history that tries to depict baby boomers as
self-centered people who have never done anything useful for American
society, thus erasing the history of the Civil Rights movement, the movement
for gender equality, and the personal sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of
ordinary American citizens who exercised their constitutional right to
protest the war in Vietnam. It also erases the fact that some of the people
involved in these social movements went too far, made serious mistakes, and
even went crazy-in other words, that they were human. This is what I
attempted to capture in "When We Were Your Age." Again, as jclinton noted
earlier, I try to bring it all back to ground.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #90 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 23 Nov 06 11:11
    

As for line length: I choose the length of my lines partly for rhythm and
partly to maintain ambiguity. If you break a line in an unusual place it
becomes enjambed-that is the sense of the line runs over into the next line
forcing the reader to continue in an endless chain until he or she comes to
the end of the poem. At the same time, the line break builds up an
expectation that can be defied by the next line. This allows the poem to be
read in multiple ways and builds in surprise. For example, in the poem "L.
Tells All" the last verse is:

          (I lied, of course
           the truth was
           I'd already started to see
           a duck
           on the side)
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #91 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 23 Nov 06 11:13
    

At the end of the first line, the reader knows that L. has "lied" and may
assume is that the lie is that she doesn't want to be the Swan's friend.
Because there is no comma after "of course" the reader is pushed to the next
line "the truth was". By the time the reader has hit the end of that line he
or she expects to find out if indeed L. no longer wants to be the Swan's
friend, but instead the reader is propelled into the next line (because you
can't end an English sentence of this sort with the word "was"). When the
reader hits the third line, he or she gets a payoff "I'd already started to
see". The logical expectation the reader has at the end of this line is that
L. has started to see a human being-probably a man-and that the next word
will be "someone" or something of the sort. But when the reader is pushed
into the next line (once again by enjambment and line-=length) the words "a
duck" come as a surprise that is both comic and revealing because now the
reader knows that when L. said she was lying, she meant she was lying when
she said she couldn't handle interspecies love. The reader is not pushed
into the next line. Duck is a natural end to the sentence. So the last line
of the poem comes as a surprise of sorts. We think we're done, but we
aren't. The words "on the side" do two things. They are a comic surprise.
Conventionally, one sees a lover "on the side" not a duck. The line also
brings the poem to an end in two ways. It rhymes with "lied" forming one of
the few couplet-like rhythms in the poem. And the ) works as a stop sign.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #92 of 150: Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 23 Nov 06 11:14
    

I could go over every line in every poem in "Breaking the Fever" this way
and tell you why I made each decision, but as you can see it's a very
careful, labor-intensive process. In fact the thing I did most often when I
was doing the final revision before publication was to change line breaks.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #93 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Fri 24 Nov 06 16:37
    
The technical side of writing is so fascinating to me. Thank you for
that. For those reading who don't have a copy of Breaking the Fever,
here's the poem we're talking about.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #94 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Fri 24 Nov 06 16:42
    
When We WEre Your Age

We have told you
our youth
was beautiful
we said we danced
naked in the forest
and lay with one another
in the fields

we have shown you pictures
of ourselves
with our arms
around each other
hair plaited with flowers
tear gas blossoming behind us
in great white petals
and on every face
a smile
of perfect conviction

we have decorated
our houses with carved gourds
from Peru
stone jars from Greece
and every time
we dust them
we force you
to listen to us tell
you that,
when we were your age,
we put everything we owned
in a backpack
and hitched barefoot
across Brazil
slept with cannibals
lived in caves
ate holy herbs 
and learned to levitate
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #95 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Fri 24 Nov 06 16:45
    
we never mention
the nights of dysentery
and raw fear
friends who shot junk
and walked out windows
idiots who refused
to feed their babies
anything but raw broccoli
and acid

our romantic stories
contain no lice
no death
no 18-year-old soldiers
dying in the mud
no speed freaks 
in the next room
breaking furniture
and screaming that devils
are coming out of 
the kitchen faucets

in these stories
no one ever walks in on her husband
screwing a stranger
on the living room rug
and no one ever has
to be driven 
to the psych ward
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #96 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Fri 24 Nov 06 16:47
    
instead we take to the streets
like packs of jolly elves
the police beat us
but we don't care
we sing
we prevail
we dance
we make heroic speeches
about peace and civil rights
we link arms
we dance
we integrate schools
we walk on water
we stop a war
we bring a president
to his knees

the truth is:
we did all that
but we did it
bleeding
we did it
afraid
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #97 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Fri 24 Nov 06 16:54
    
There is both truth and beauty in that poem.

Before I leave the subject of whether a poem of yours changes
throughout time (for you), let me ask a related question. Does the
writing of a poem ever resolve anything in you, the writer? For
example, did the writing of this beautiful poem help you to see your
own life differently?  Do you think poems change the writer, or, come
to think of it, the reader? To conflate Dana Goia and Auden, do you
think poetry can matter? Do you think poetry can make anything happen?
Can make anything change?
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #98 of 150: Hoping to be a goddess, but settling for guru (paris) Fri 24 Nov 06 17:01
    

I adore that poem.  Every time I read it, I marvel at how the images you 
chose evoke memories of my own past, even if my own experiences are 
somewhat different.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #99 of 150: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 24 Nov 06 19:47
    
Thanks for that illuminating backstory to "When We Were Your Age."  I
can only add how crystalline with truth that poem seemed to me.
  
inkwell.vue.287 : Mary Mackey, Breaking the Fever
permalink #100 of 150: rubi (rubicon) Sat 25 Nov 06 10:21
    
Here’s little side note while we wait for Mary’s answers. Those of you
living in the Bay Area have a treat coming.  

On Monday (Nov 27), at 3:00 PST, Mary Mackey will be on KPFA talking
to Denny Smithson about these very poems from,"Breaking the Fever"
(streaming at www.kpfa.org).  And at 7:30 Monday (still Nov 27), she’ll
be at Moe's Books on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley reading with the
science fiction writer Michael Moorcock. 
  

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