Monday, November 30, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Mary Hickman

Mary Hickman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she received an Iowa Arts Fellowship. Her poems have been published in Boston Review, Colorado Review, jubilat, the PEN American Poetry Series, and elsewhere. She is the author of This Is the Homeland (Ahsahta Press, 2015) and teaches creative writing at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

It has been really wonderful to be able to give the book to the poets I most admire and whose work directly inspired the poems. There is a poem in the book that I wrote in response to a poem by the German poet Anja Utler after I had come across her poem online and been floored by it. A few years later I got to meet Anja, to give a reading with her, and I even managed to convince her to blurb the book! She is also translating a section into German. I’ve been able to participate in these kinds of exchanges much more now that I have the physical object of the book to trade and give.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My father is a poet. He doesn’t publish but he did once take a class with Bill Knott when he was still St. Jerome. When I was a child, maybe six or seven, he worked nights and I didn’t get to see him much. But he left little poems for me on post-it notes that I found when I woke. And I began to leave him poems in return. Poetry has always been an act of correspondence for me and comes out of a desire for connection.

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?
So far it seems that I’ll write a lot of material quickly in a burst and then revise it for a decade. It’s a slow process for sure.

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?
I’m never working on a book from the beginning. I’m mostly just writing a lot of terrible stuff and cursing the muses for deserting me. Then something clicks—I’m there, it’s happening. I don’t know how I got there but I’m there, I’m on the vein. Which of course makes it feel like it will never happen again. The idea of having a larger project really appeals to me but it just isn’t how it has happened so far. Poetry continues to feel like magic. Maddening, maddening magic.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like hearing poems out loud—mine and others—and being in a room of people with a shared investment in the revelatory work of poetry is usually pretty great. Most of the readings I’ve attended in the last decade have been at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa. If you haven’t been, you’ve got to go! Even Obama has been to PL.

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?
I continue to write about injury, loss, and recovery in terms of the relationship between time and material, the endless involutions of representation in art, and what might be said of possession or resurrection in our passing, material world. As the painter Jenny Saville says, “I paint flesh because I’m human.”

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’ll defer here to a quote that sums up the ethos of the International Writing Program, a place where I have had the good fortune to meet fierce, brilliant writers from all over the world: “Only connect.”

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential! Homeland benefitted immensely from the keen editorial eye of Janet Holmes. And many of the very best edits and even the title came from the generous efforts of Eleni Sikelianos. The book would not be what it is without the work of many amazing “outside editors.” 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was first entering my MFA program, a good friend advised me to try to hypnotize myself into not thinking about status, career, publishing, etc., and instead to hold onto the mysterious thing that makes me write—to pay attention to that. She said that if I did get freaked out and stop writing, not to worry, to just talk poetry and read read read and think and I’d write again. This advice has made a huge difference in my life.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’m in the middle of writing my dissertation right now and it is difficult! But there is also some comfort in having an outline and following it. And when I can synthesize a pool of ideas and nail an argument, it’s a little like getting a line just right.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Anyone who knows me knows I am always searching for the perfect routine. The only constant so far has been coffee.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Interviews. Pretty often I’m reading a book of artist’s interviews. David Sylvester’s book of interviews with Francis Bacon is very good. And I just started reading Talking in Tranquility: Interviews with Ted Berrigan (O Books, 1991).

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pine trees.

14 - 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?
Visual art and dance.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m very Spicer-focused right now as I’m writing about his fantastic first editions. He’s always a major influence and touchstone for me.

“Going into hell so many times tears it/ Which explains poetry.”

“Tell everyone to have guts/ Do it yourself / Have guts until the guts / Come through the margins / Clear and pure / Like love is.”

I’m also reading Cole Swensen’s beautiful new book Landscapes on a Train. Her ear is flawless!

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finally become really fluent in Mandarin.

17 - 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?
I am tempted to say surfer. But really I do think I would make a decent therapist.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I did try something else (medicine), it made me write even more!

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I mentioned her before but I’ll emphasize her amazingness here. engulf--enkindle by Anja Utler, trans. Kurt Beals (Burning Deck).

A sample (from “counter position: an interweavement in nine parts”)
– perceive: furrow –


just at the opencuts: set free
to stand, sense, to drift now am: pitching to you through the: fissures hear – you speak of
waste heaps, of scree of: implanting, the
windrose, -wheel speak of: rotating, glistening
rotor blade you say – it: pitches, now, pitch, as a veined arm, a wing plows: its back, engraves furrows through earth-smoke through dead nettle fields
and at last: on the shoulder blade dulls down
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve been finishing up edits for my second book, which will be out in 2017, and have been working on some more landscape-driven poems. I spent last year driving back and forth between Iowa and Nebraska and all that road and space has begun to enter my work in a prominent way.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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