Power, Resistance, and the Mouths of Snakes: An Interview with Mary Mackey

The Understanding between Foxes and Light contributor Mary Mackey in conversation with George Wallace

Mary Mackey is the author of six poetry collections including Sugar Zone (Marsh Hawk Press 2011)—a winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence—and thirteen best-selling novels. Immersion (Shameless Hussey Press, 1972) was the first novel published by a Second Wave feminist press. Mary’s works have been translated into twelve foreign languages. Discover more at her website and Facebook author page.

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GW: You have traveled extensively to Brazil with your husband, Angus Wright, who writes about land reform and environmental issues. You have studied Brazilian literature. And you have demonstrated an impressive ability, particularly in the poetry collection Sugar Zone, to create poems that use incantation to evoke the lyrical space that lies at the conjunction between Portuguese and English. Your poem in our anthology The Understanding Between Foxes and Light, "Solange Encourages A River To Destroy A Dam," seems to be clearly in that zone—a fierce and incantatory invoking of the Xingu, a river in Brazil, to strike out at the harnessing interference of human society with nature, with the visceral force of a holy woman smoking a cigar.

What's the back story to this poem? What are the controversies surrounding building the Belo Monte Dam? Who is Solange?

MM: The back story of this poem is that the Brazilian government is planning to build a huge dam on the Xingu River, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon. Construction of the Belo Monte Dam is already underway despite the protests of indigenous people, farmers, and riverbank dwellers who at this very moment are risking their lives to stop it. If completed, Belo Monte would be the third-largest hydroelectric project in the world and would require diverting nearly the entire flow of the Xingu through two artificial canals to the dam's powerhouse, leaving communities along a 100 km stretch of the Xingu without water, fish, or a means of river transport. In addition the Belo Monte Dam would cause irreversible harm to areas considered of extreme importance for the conservation of the rainforest and biodiversity.

Solange first appeared in the collection Sugar Zone. My poems frequently embrace ambiguity allowing them to resonate on many levels at once. Thus the answer to the question "who is Solange" is: Solange may be a shaman, a goddess, a priestess, an ex-lover, a force of nature or even a manifestation of the wilder side of Mary Mackey.

In this poem Solange talks to the Xingu River as if the Xingu were a mãe-de-santo, which is the name given to priestesses of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. Candomblé is currently practiced by some 25 million people in Brazil. When a mãe-de-santo goes into a trance by whirling to the rhythm of drums ("who is that dancer whirling and blind") the gods of Candomblé descend on her and "ride her head" allowing her to speak to her followers in the voices of the gods.

Besides calling the Xingu a powerful priestess who speaks in the voices of the gods, Solange tries to encourage the river by calling her a jagunco (a "hitman"), a jararaca ("a poisonous pit viper") and a boca da cobra  (the mouth of a snake seen just before it strikes)—all images of power and resistance.

GW: What part of your exploration of ‘humans in nature’ is politics? What part is spiritual? Personally symbolic?

MM: In my poems, I rarely make a distinction between the spiritual, the political, and the personally symbolic. Poems that are solely political can work, but they tend to be didactic; poems that are purely spiritual often lack vital connections to the living Earth which we all inhabit. Poems that use only a personal set of symbols can be quite powerful but they can also be diary-like or beautifully obscure (both of which I often enjoy, but which I don’t care to emulate). My goal is to combine the spiritual, the political, and the personal in one seamless, lyrical whole that is both intellectually interesting and emotionally moving.

GW: In practical, social, linguistic and intercultural contexts, discuss how Brazil has become your particular destination of inquiry?

MM: My husband and I have been traveling to Brazil almost every year for the last twenty-five years. I've fallen in love with the culture of Brazil, its music, and the lyrical beauty of Portuguese. Since my early twenties, I have been involved in environmental issues in a very personal, direct way. For example, during the late 60's and early 70's I lived off and on in a remote field station in the rainforests of Costa Rica, 90% of which have now been cut down despite Costa Rica's extensive national parks program. I have personally watched the gradual, unremitting destruction of the tropical rainforests. Brazil is a country where all these interests comes together. When I'm there, or when I recall my time there, my thoughts often take the forms of poems or images that will someday become poems.

GW: Your father was an ethnobotanist. You lived in ‘remote field stations in the jungles of Costa Rica’ in your 20's. You obtained a PhD in comparative literature and married a professor of Environmental Studies. You've been termed 'a feminist who changed America.'

MM: My father wasn't an ethnobotanist. He was a physician. However, when I attended Harvard, I had the good fortune to fall under the influence of Richard Evans Schultes, the father of modern Ethnobotany. I date my interest in the tropics of Latin America from the work I did in the Harvard Botanical Museum Economic Botany Collections under Professor Schultes's direction.

GW: The subject of your prose and poetry ranges from Neolithic culture to the American Civil War, the 60's civil rights and anti-Vietnam war era in America, to the haunts of the goddess Inanna in ancient Sumer. You've written comic novels about Los Angeles and historical novels examining earth-centered goddess-worshiping cultures invaded by patriarchal nomads. What is the common thread that integrates all that?

MM: There isn't a single common thread in my poems and novels, but rather a series of threads or themes that combine to weave different patterns. One is the theme of parallels between the past and the present; one, that of strong women overcoming adversity to take control of their lives and make a contribution to society; one, of the Earth as a sacred, living entity; one, of social and environmental justice; one, of a redefined feminism that goes beyond race, gender, and cultural definitions to view humans as a single species living on this planet among other diverse species; one, of compassion without reservation; one, of friendship and loyalty; one, of play, joy, love, and laughter.

GW: Your novels are published by Doubleday, Simon & Shuster, Bantam and Harper San Francisco, to name a few—a remarkable track record in commercial literature. Yet you remain devoted to something considerably more than a passing involvement in poetry and what it has to offer an imaginative and inquiring mind. How come?

MM:I've never felt a need to choose between writing novels and writing poetry although the process of creating the two is not the same. Novels take years to write and call more on my rational and organizational skills. I experience poetry as more immediate and more intense. Poetry is an art form that doesn't demand compromise. You can experiment, take chances, do unusual things. And then there is the fact that I love writing poetry. I take great pleasure in slowly crafting a poem, considering and reconsidering every word and every line break.

GW: Garrison Keillor reads your poems a lot. Have you met him? What do you think of his effort to get poetry to the segment of the American public he reaches? What is your perception of the possibility of serious and/or experimental literature to reach popular American audiences?

MM: I met Garrison Keillor in person several years after he started reading my poetry on The Writer’s Almanac. I have great respect for him and for his unstinting support of writers. For years he has been bringing serious poetry to popular American audiences in an unprecedented way. When he reads my poems on the air, about 2.5 million people hear them. I am not sure there will ever be a large audience for purely experimental literature, but I agree with Keillor that it's a mistake to underestimate the intelligence of the American public.

GW: What's your family relationship to Mark Twain? How cool is that? How does one make of relationships like that something more than what Kurt Vonnegut called a "granfalloon," and instead a meaningful element in the stream of your existence?

MM: I’m related to Mark Twain through the Clemens side of my father's family. He was my father's grandmother’s cousin. Supposedly we had letters from Twain before the house where they were stored was destroyed by fire. I grew up knowing about this relationship and I think it was one of the primary things that inspired me to become a writer. After all, I reasoned, if a member of my own family could write novels, maybe someday I could write them too.

By the way, Kurt Vonnegut comes from my hometown Indianapolis. I used to shop Vonnegut’s, his family's hardware store. My connection with Mark Twain, which is a blood relationship, is not the sort of imaginary association Vonnegut was speaking about in Cat’s Cradle. But if I tried to associate myself with Vonnegut as a fellow Indianapolisite and Hoosier, that would be a classic granfalloon.

GW: You're said to have grounded your comic novel about Hollywood pecking order, The Stand In, on Twain's Prince and the Pauper. But I think of other classics of the genre, from The Carpetbaggers, Barton Fink, and What Makes Sammy Run to Who Shot Roger Rabbit? Where does The Stand In fit into those and other works in the genre?

MM: Most of your examples are of films. I hope to see The Stand In made into a movie someday, but at present it only exists as a book, so it doesn't fit into the genre. It and my other comic novel Sweet Revenge don’t resemble my other works which is why I wrote both under the pen name “Kate Clemens” (“Kate” for Katharine Hepburn whom I admire; “Clemens” for Mark Twain aka Samuel Clemens). I have a playful sense of humor which I rarely express in my poems and more serious novels, so it was great fun to give it full reign.

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Find Mary’s poem ""Solange Encourages a River to Destroy a Dam" in our anthology The Understanding between Foxes and Light.

Mary will be reading at the great weather for MEDIA San FranciscoBerkeley, and Seattle events in November 2013.