Mary Leader [photo credit: Margaret Ann Wadleigh] began writing poems around age forty in the midst of a career as a lawyer, working for the Oklahoma Supreme Court. She left home to earn a PhD in English and American Literature from Brandeis University, published her first book, Red Signature, and went on to teach, primarily at Purdue University in Indiana. Retired now, she has returned to Oklahoma to read and write full-time. Her British publisher is Shearsman Books. Shearsman has brought brought out three of her collections, most recently her fifth book, The Distaff Side, and will also publish her sixth book, The Wood That Will Be Used, in 2024.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, titled Red Signature, was chosen for the National Poetry Series and was published by Graywolf in 1997. I was 49, so my view of the world (jaundiced) and of myself (knowing "in my heart" that my poems were real) combined to mean I was never reliant on publication as representing any kind of meaningful judgment pro or con. On the other hand, I was penniless, and the book allowed me to get a tenure-track University teaching job. That was a big plus.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Circuitously, and late. I married at 20 and had one baby seven months later and another two years after that. As they grew up, I started taking college classes, and decided fiction was my direction. I went to law school, though, and worked as a lawyer until the kids were grown, then had my stereotypical midlife storm. I came out of that writing poems.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
To be honest, I am not systematic enough in my writing to be able to answer those questions. I notice dust on a neglected knickknack on a dusty shelf, next to a pile of paper not covered with dust but not presentable either. It's a wonder anything ever coheres, but it does, and from my language-busy brain things like poems, and ultimately the parameters of projects, emerge. Then I further mess with connecting my old writing over the years with new ideas for pushing this way or that.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Well, in saying I couldn't answer that last question, I seem to have answered this one!
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. My road not taken? an actress. I adore voices.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Again picking up from "voices" from the last question, the biggest theoretical concern I don't have, and never have had, is the prescription to "find your voice." For me, that's not the task of poetry. Utterance that comes out has to do with the intersections of imagination and memory and language and form. Voice as identity? having just one? well, that's not a process I believe in. I believe in engagement at intersections, with other minds and with weather.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I get nothing, personally, by placing the tips of my third-and-fourth fingers on the wrist of culture. I know there's a pulse there but it is so huge and so complex, I can't deal with it. Only language and the art of using it is the realm I have access to. Infinite writers, manifold roles, make up reality for me. It may or may not have a public aspect, but for me, not so much. It's abstract. It's a belonging to consciousness. Culture and consciousness overlap, I suppose, but on different levels of our times and spaces.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
At least one reader is essential. Editors doing what they do — putting out magazines and books and webpages and so on — I find pleasant to work with on those things, especially Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books. Seeing the book into print is an important job and I personally am quite keen on the book form as a thing of beauty.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Always consider — don't always do it but consider — removing first lines and last lines. Those are the two most popular places for telling a lie. Sometimes, they can be switched instead of being removed. Oh, and read poems line by line up from the bottom. That helps you, over years, get a sense for shapeliness of line. Once in a blue moon, the whole poem is better that way.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I wake up early and first thing, I stagger to my chair and boot up my laptop. I do word puzzles on the New York Times website (saving the news for afternoon or evening) and jigsaw puzzles on Lenagames.com, Lena being a Russian. This drill lets me wake up and see how my brain is doing. If it's perking, I turn to the hard stuff of composing language and editing it, almost "playing poems" as a game. If my brain is sluggish, I do corollary activities such as corresponding with someone or flipping through a book of poems or making my bed. I wish I knew another language. I'd enjoy translation as another kind of game. See, Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I'm retired, so between real writing and fooling around, there's always something to do. Attention produces inspiration. I also have fallow periods, but that is good too.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Childhood home? cigarette smoke. Where I'm from, and have returned to? Oklahoma has a dry smell of grass when it gets parched at the end of the summer, and a juicy smell when cut, come spring.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Those four richly available sources — evergreen — support me as a writer, but tangentially. They're all worth pursuing and that pursuit, however amateurish, deposits impressions and details that will pop up during composition or revision. But I also see where McFadden is coming from. A book is inconceivable unless another book exists and is known to a person who would produce one. It's a Plato thing.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
When, as a lawyer, I first took up the notion of poetry, I studied from Norton anthologies. I treated them as catalogues of designs I would like to try my hand at, drawn to form. I relished the patterns of George Herbert and shapes of May Swenson, the ventriloquism of T. S. Eliot and the documentary technique of Muriel Rukeyser. Poets close to my heart are Eleanor Ross Taylor and Gwendolyn Brooks.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Edit and write an introduction to a Selected Poems by my mother, Katharine H. Privett.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Actress. But you can't do that alone.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I did other things first, and did not have anything to do with writing (other than legal writing) until I was nearly 40. What made me write then was having a psychotherapist ask me what made me happy as a child. I burst into tears. Making art was the answer, mostly visual but also some little stories or poems or plays. I have practiced drawing as an adult, but I realized I couldn't do the work that artists do unless I made language my medium. Possibly to do with my mother being extremely verbal, with poetry as her core.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
At 75, I read and watch film mostly for entertainment. Have you seen Derry Girls on netflix? Knowing what is great in these departments is no longer very operational for me. I do serious reading, though, of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, in small pieces — as if poetry — at my Lectio Divina group. We meditate in silence, contemplate, read slowly and intensively, and finally talk about it.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am polishing my next book, titled The Wood That Will Be Used, which is due out from Shearsman on September 1, 2024. I am going through the boxes and piles of paper in an effort to make sense or an archive (whichever comes first), of literary materials from my life. And I have some nascent stories, which I am endeavoring to bring into short prose or long poetry.