Interviewed by: Carol Smallwood
Mary Mackey, with a B.A. from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The University of Michigan, is a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning poet. Maxine Hong Kingston noted: “Mary Mackey’s poems are powerful, beautiful, and have extraordinary range. This is the poetry of a woman who has lived richly, and felt deeply. May her concern for the planet help save it.
Smallwood: Your eighth poetry collection, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams won the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for the Best Book Published by a Small Press. What are other previous important recognitions?
In 2018 The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams and my novel The Village of Bones both won a Women’s Spirituality Book Award from The California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). In 2012 another collection of my poetry Sugar Zone won a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence, and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Awards. In 2004, I received a Foremother of Women’s Spirituality Movement Award from CIIS, and in 1985 California State University, Sacramento, gave me their Outstanding Scholarly Achievement Award,
Smallwood: The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams covers an amazingly rich, highly admired, varied and long poetry collection. How did you come up with the title?
The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams is not only the title of the collection; it’s the title of one of the poems, which first appeared in my previous collection Sugar Zone. As soon as I decided to put the poem in my new collection, I knew its title was also the perfect title for the whole thing. Jaguars have a special meaning for me. I have lived off and on in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America for many years, including the times I have spent in the Brazilian Amazon. In the jungle, jaguars are the top predators.They are beautiful, huge, and powerful. The shamans of the upper Amazon have said that when they go on vision quests, they become jaguars who prowl through the dream worlds. In my poetry, jaguars symbolize a force that connects ordinary reality with other realities, which in many ways is what poetry itself does, particularly the kind of poetry I write, which has mystical elements. Also we all have “jaguars’ that prowl our dreams: powerful, mysterious things that hunt us down.
Smallwood: Part One contains forty-eight new poems including twenty-one set in Western Kentucky from 1742 to 1975; and twenty-six explores the tropical jungle outside and within us with a quality of the surreal. Part Two offers seventy-eight poems drawn from earlier collections. Do you write other genres besides poetry?
Yes. I’ve written fourteen novels, one of which made The New York Times Bestseller List. I also write screenplays and have feature film credits. In addition, I write nonfiction essays and memoir, plus blog posts that give writing advice designed to be useful both for writers and educators.
Smallwood: When did you begin writing and what advice would you give new writers?
I began seriously writing poetry when I was eleven years old. I started writing novels after I finished my doctoral dissertation because I realized that if I could write 350 pages of literary criticism on The Darwinian Revolution and the Nineteenth Century Novel, I could probably write a full-length novel. Before that, writing a novel seemed like an impossibly long task.
The best advice I can give new writers is: 1) revise, revise, revise until you have made your work as good as possible 2) never give up. My first commercial novel McCarthy’s List was rejected by 250 publishers. I revised it twelve times (on a typewriter!) and six major publishing houses bid on it. Doubleday published it, and it even got reviewed in The New York Times.
Smallwood: Please tell readers about being in the 1970s Women’s Movement and consciousness raising:
That’s a long story—longer perhaps than any novels I’ve ever written. The short version is that women involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War movement became increasingly conscious that they were second-class citizens as far as the men in these movements were concerned. For example, if a women spoke up in a meeting, the men often did not listen to what she had to say or dismissed it out of hand. Feeling that equality should mean equality, groups of women banded together and began to try to level the playing field.
I can’t begin to describe all the things we did in this small space, but imagine living in a time when birth control was illegal in some states; when a woman couldn’t get credit without her husband’s signature; when you almost never saw a woman doctor, a woman lawyer, a woman member of Congress, a woman news anchor; a time when all the property (in most states) belonged to the husband and during a divorce a woman could lose her children; a time when LGBTQ people were persecuted and imprisoned, when African-American women were terrorized and subjected to Jim Crow Laws; a time when domestic abuse was not generally considered a crime; when there were no refuges for battered women, when rape victims were blamed for being raped because they had “asked for it.”
The women of the 1970’s Women’s Movement first met in groups to raise our own consciousness of these injustices and then went out into the world to try to change the consciousness of the American people. Right now, many of the rights we fought so hard for are under attack. I remember what the world was like for women in 1964, and I think it would be a tragedy if we went back there.
Smallwood: When I contacted you through Cristina Deptula of Snychronized Chaos: synchchaos.com, you were in Brazil. What is your connection with the area which is so evident to your writing?
My connection with Brazil stems from my lifelong connection with and interest in tropical rainforests, which have inspired my poetry and prose for decades. I first visited the part of Brazil which lies in the upper Amazon in 1971, before the forests were logged and burned and before so many species vanished. I have returned to Brazil for repeated visits since, particularly in the last twenty-eight years since my marriage to Angus Wright, whose research focused on the environment there. I was in Brazil when you first tried to contact me, because my husband and I were attending the World Environmental History Conference where he presented a paper on environmental issues.
Smallwood: What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on two things:
1. A series of prophetic poems about climate change
2. A very funny piece that I haven’t titled yet, but it keeps me smiling.