Mary Dezember | Interview

Kenneth P. Gurney. What got you started into poetry? What age?

Mary Dezember. The preface of my first book of poetry, Earth-Marked Like You, published by Sunstone Press, states it best. I quote from it as follows:

“Suddenly, I began writing poetry.
I would go to sleep at night as a wife, mother and aspiring novelist, then would wake during the night—3:30 or 4 a.m. usually—my soul erupting in song. My soul, something I thought would make her appearance when I died, began a journey—the journey—ahead of the rest of me. My logic, my body, my life was being dragged along by the sheer force of her determination to live freely, uncontained, and the energy of her being was expressed as poetry.” [I would now refer to my soul as someone, not “something.”]

This was in 1993. I was 37 years old.

Not too long ago, I did discover in some old papers that I had written some poetry in college. I had forgotten I had even tried writing poetry. Then I started recalling that a professor had been brutally critical of it, so I thought I was no good as a poet, and I stopped writing. I had buried those memories. However, of that non-poetic time of my time, I do remember loving to read Song of Solomon (Old Testament) and “Song of Myself” (Whitman) and poems by Sappho (Willis Barnstone translations). Besides those poems, I remember that I thought poetry was arcane, that it had to end rhyme, and that I just didn’t like it very much. 1993 and my soul’s resurrection changed all of that. I love poetry. Love it, love it, love it.

KPG. What is your favorite breakfast?

MD. Coffee, protein drink, maybe almond bread toast, coffee.

KPG. How much influence does your university degree(s) have on your writing of poetry and how?

MD. Because my poetry is soul song, there is not direct influence from my college degrees in my writing of it. In fact, when I began writing poetry at age 37, I placed no expectations on myself about what form it should take or how or what I should express and create. However, with that said, I must add that I have been a writer my entire life, and my education and degrees have strengthened my overall writing ability. Further, my education has contributed to my life in poetry through strong focus and training in research, critical thinking, and a broad as well as in-depth study of poetry and its analysis. Thus, I write my poetry freely and openly, then I edit with a honed critical eye. As an added bonus, my degrees are credentials for me to teach college, which I do. I teach creative writing, literature and art history. Thus, I get to live in poetry and literature in my career. I am mindful of encouraging—never discouraging—my students’ creative abilities and of fostering their analytic and critical skills.

KPG. Is there any other endeavor that you are passionate about outside of poetry? How does it enrich you?

MD. I’m also passionate about novel writing and short fiction writing. More than enriching me, doing this writing is me.

KPG. Tell us about your favorite (or one of your favorite) poetry experience.

MD. The book launches of both of my poetry books are my favorite poetry experiences. Those who attend are so appreciative. They have taken time from other things they could be doing to share in my joy and to support freedom of creative expression and critical thinking.

Another event that is a favorite happened while I was in grad school. A poet friend and I drove 4 hours from Bloomington, Indiana to St. Louis, Missouri to hear James Merrill read, November 19, 1994. His reading began at 8 p.m. After his reading, we drove back to Bloomington, getting home probably around 3 or 4 a.m. So that is a story itself. However, what I recall most is that after Merrill’s reading, when I asked him to sign my book, he looked straight into my eyes, and I felt communication. He really didn’t say anything in particular to me, but there was something he said to me through his eyes. That might have been his last public reading. He passed away 3 months later.

And, my very first public reading of my poetry in the early 90s in a coffee house in Bloomington, Indiana is a favorite. I was so impressed by the other poets reading, and I was scared. Scared. I didn’t think I could do it. But, I did. And, it was exhilarating! Afterward, I was hooked on the performance of poetry. I even did Performance Studies as a Ph.D. minor. But feeling timid and even fearful about performing my poetry still exists, every time I do a reading.

However, all poetry experiences are my favorite.

KPG. Do you have a connection to the American Civil War? Relative who served? Visited a battlefield and have a story?

MD. Well, actually, I am writing a novel that takes place as the Civil War brews and erupts. It can be summarized as Gone With the Wind meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

KPG. If you could wave a magic wand and place a poetry book into every high school english classroom as required reading, which one would it be and why?

MD. A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, the Louise Varèse translation (and only that translation).

And please, KPG, one more: Leaves of Grass, original 1855 version, by Walt Whitman.

These two, in my opinion, are incomparable in searching for and explaining our lives and our need for individualism, connection, charity and love. Both are highly spiritual, while questioning the effects of modernity and hegemony. They work together to create a full picture of longing, of seeking the humane and the spiritual, and, of acceptance.

dezemberselfie
Mary Dezember selfie

KPG. Where was your last selfie taken? With anyone?

MD. At my home. It is of just my self-ie. I used a cropped version of it for my author photo on Still Howling. My son said I shouldn’t use a selfie for an author photo, so I cropped it to not look so much like a selfie. He approved of the cropped version for the book. I just didn’t have time (in order to get the book published in time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to get a professional photo taken or to have someone else take a good photo of me.

KPG. Recommend a poetry (or literary) website that you frequent.

MD. poetryaboutart.com This is my website. I am still working on it (therefore, I am “frequenting” it) and will launch it in 2017.

I do recommend others to frequent it as soon as I get it out there.

KPG. What is your favorite National Park? Why?

MD. Any with beautiful hiking, so I guess that is all of them! I love to hike. My son and I will be hiking down then up the Grand Canyon this April.

KPG. Do you have a dream that you work toward achieving. If so, please tell us about it.

MD. My dream is to be a full time writer. That has been my dream since I was 12. I love being a professor. Earning a Ph.D. and being a professor was once my burning passion. I achieved the degree and the position as a single parent in 2000. But I have found that I miss the time I need for writing. I like to enter the worlds I create with my characters in fiction and with my poems every day. So I am back to working to achieve my dream of age 12.

KPG. If there is a little-known poet you think everyone should read, who is that poet and which book of theirs should we seek?

MD. There is a virtually unknown poet whom I plan “release” to the literary world through research I am doing on her, so I am not mentioning her name until my work on her is published, though she has two books that should be read. But, I do recommend a poet who, while he is certainly not a little-known poet, I believe his works deserve more recognition, and, as you say, he is a poet I think “everyone should read.”

Willis Barnstone.

Here is a list of his about 60 stunning and thought-provoking books. I recommend reading any or all of them.

I was introduced to his work through his incomparable translations of Sappho when I was a Freshman in college in the 1970s. Sappho speaks to me through Barnstone’s work.

I was blown away years ago when I read China Poems. He had traveled to China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The New Covenant: The Four Gospels and Apocalypse, Newly Translated from the Greek and Informed by Semitic Sources is a fresh translation of the gospels that restores names in their original form.

The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice is masterful.

During my recent trip to Paris, in the Shakespeare and Company bookstore near Notre Dame, a young woman reading one of his books, Funny Ways of Staying Alive. She told me she was really enjoying it.

I have named just a few of his incredible works.

I was blessed to meet Willis when I was in graduate school at Indiana University. He became one of my best mentors and a friend.

Oh! And one more poet I would recommend everyone read – again, not a little-known poet at all, however. But I recommend any and all of Rilke’s work, including The Book of Hours. I enjoy the Rilke translations by Stephen Mitchell, though I am not sure whom to recommend for translations of The Book of Hours. Willis Barnstone has translated Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.

KPG. If you could be present at any moment in history as a safe observer or unsafe participant, what event would you visit and why?

MD. I am interested in almost any time of history. I do wish I could see what a place was once really like, instead of what my imagination creates or what Hollywood portrays.

I like to write historical fiction, in part so that I can “travel” back to that time. It does take an enormous amount of research to try to be authentic in its representation, to “time travel.”

I am fascinated when I visit a place that has been mostly untouched over time. I have traveled to Rimbaud’s hometown of Charleville three times. I was there this November (2016) for a 4-day visit. It is thrilling being there, as parts of it are not much different than when Arthur lived there. As Rimbaud had done when a young teenager, I walked over the Meuse River to Mézières to where his friend, Ernest Delahaye lived. I rambled through the wooded area along the Muese where they discussed ideas. On all three of my visits, I have spent time in his home facing the Muese in Charleville, sitting in his bedroom, where he lived during the time of writing A Season in Hell when he wasn’t at the family farm in Roche. And of course, I have walked throughout Charleville.

In particular, I would like to visit the home in Paris of Verlaine’s mother-in-law to read Rimbaud’s manuscript “Le Chasse Spirituelle.” It is lost and thought to have been burned by Verlaine’s wife. Apparently Verlaine had considered it Rimbaud’s “greatest work.” That is saying something quite notable about the poems; regardless of Verlaine’s comment, they were written by Rimbaud, and all of his poems are extraordinary and, in my opinion, masterpieces and his greatest works. The tragedy of this work being lost forever—we will never know what the poems said and how he said it—causes an ache in my chest. Verlaine’s wife also burned several letters between Rimbaud and Verlaine that were written during the height of Rimbaud’s poetic fervor and were probably filled with his poetic philosophies. I’d like to read those letters, too. I’d like to save his poetry and letters from being burned. I’d like to save and bring “Le Chasse Spirituelle” to the world. I would also want to be with him when he was reciting visions to his sister before his death in 1891 and to record in writing those final visions of his and bring those to the world.

KPG. What reoccurring themes have you noticed in your poetry over the years? Is there a point of personal experience you revisit often?

MD. The poetry of my first book, Earth-Marked Like You, recognizes the body as a temporal and spatial version of the soul. I believe our passion as human beings is to transcend our ordinary lives, to feel the excitement of the life force: often we use our physicality, our bodies, to do this. Ultimately, the poetry in my first book is one person’s heart quest for the integration of human intellect, physicality and spirituality.

My second book of poetry, Still Howling, explores the importance of creative expression and of finding a voice in hurtful or oppressive situations and to question hegemony. It is about the importance of creative expression and also creative expression against oppression. The realization of the book is that the embracing of life happens through the alchemy of forgiveness.

KPG. What is poetry to you?

MD. My poetry is a soul song, and further, a soul event. This means that for me, and I hope for others, the poem works as a catalyst for transformation, healing and connection with others, even if it is only a suggestion or a “nudge” in that direction. But, it works this way not by being didactic. Rather, by being musical and speaking to the soul of the reader or listener. My own experience of my poetry is that my soul is speaking to me. The poetry I enjoy best written by others is poetry that is a soul event.

KPG. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate or no chocolate?

MD. Dark chocolate, yum.

 

 

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