Today I interview the wonderful Mary Mullen, poet and memoirist. Mary was born in Anchorage, and raised on her parent’s homestead in Soldotna, Alaska. She moved to Ballinderreen, Co. Galway, Ireland in 1996, where she still lives with her daughter Lily, a sparkly Galway girl who was born with Down syndrome. Her debut poetry collection, Zephyr, was published by Salmon in 2010. Mary’s poems and non-fiction work have been published in The Stinging Fly, Crannóg, Landing Places: An Anthology of Irish Immigrant Poets, and Anchorage Daily News among many places. She holds an MA in Writing from the National University of Ireland, Galway. A savant of memoir, she taught memoir writing at Galway Arts Centre, and now tutors writers privately.
A big welcome to Women Rule Writer, Mary, to celebrate the publication of your début poetry collection Zephyr by Salmon. It’s always great to host women writers here and it’s lovely to have one of the members of my Peer Group today.
The title of the book, Zephyr, appears in the poem ‘August Lament’. Can you tell us why you chose this as the title of the book?
Like all writers, I collect words. I first heard the word zephyr a few years ago when a friend told an animated story about her father driving their family around Cork in a 1950's Ford Zephyr, and I loved the word zephyr, which means a 'warm gentle breeze'.
I wanted the title to be a line from the poem called The Sarah M, Named after his Mother: 'Before Life Becomes Ordinary', but that was nixed by a friend who emphatically pointed out that there was nothing ordinary about my book. Selecting a title for my collection, which took four years to write, was a very last minute decision.
I am very curious about what readers think of the title. I think Zephyr suits my collection which, despite some darkness in it, also possesses humour about childhood and motherhood and Down syndrome. Zephyr, the God of Westerly winds, is the only God I've ever heard of who was known for his gentleness. The rest of them are always clattering and clashing around.
Collections of poetry change as they become what they are. In this collection, the title changed until it could be changed no more.
You are from Alaska but you have made your home in Ireland for the last 14 years. Do you consider yourself an Irish writer or an Alaskan writer? Or does that kind of labelling matter to you?
I'm Irish by genes and Alaskan by birth. I am a writer who has profoundly experienced two exotic places. Lucky me! But I do envy people who have the security of having stayed in one place their whole lives.
Fortunately, writers belong to the world, and the craft of writing is respected universally. I've read a few Irish writers who are a bit full of themselves and try to sail on and promote themselves based on their place of birth, but history will not be very kind to them. Place features greatly in Zephyr, and I trust that the poems go to a larger more universal place than either Ireland or Alaska.
I had the good fortune of meeting Kay Ryan, 16th Poet Laureate, in Homer, Alaska, last week. She was staying with friends at my sister's vacation rental. We shared a few meals together and she read a few poems at the end of my reading there. (I'm still a bit googly-eyed at my immense good fortune.) She thought my poems indicated that I had 'picked up a lot of the Irish.' When Michael D. Higgins read my poems he thought they were 'very American'. Both comments sit well with me. I'm an outsider, a place in which I am comfortable. Most days.
The book reflects your two homes beautifully – there are beluga whale pods and snow and salmon aplenty; there are Irish funerals and Burren blackberries. Among all that, though, is a sense of homesickness and longing for your original home. How has being an exile influenced your writing?
Looking at Alaska from a great distance away has given me some clearer vision, especially about childhood memories. I'm in Alaska as you interview me and had forgotten some important things; smells for instance...the seeds from the cottonwood trees are blowing around like unenthused snow right now. They smell fresh and earthy in a shampoo kind of way. My mother and I spent the day pressure-cooking salmon in pint jars, so her house smells like dozens of dirty sea-soaked socks.
Alaska is a strange and wonderful place, it looms large in the hearts of locals and tourists alike. Remember your most pleasurable kiss? Alaska is a bit like that, massive and memorable. Hense the homesickness and longing in my writing.
Plus, poets must be honest. Living in Ireland without my family and dear old friends has been conducive to examining the concepts of family. There are many things about America that are very flawed. But Americans are very good at friendship. Alaskans up the ante by adding open-heartedness to the mix. Because everyone is originally from somewhere else, the concepts of family and friendship are very expansive. I long for that wherever I am. Additionally, my mother is ninety years old. I wonder and worry about her too much. Perhaps there is a bit of guilt about living in Ireland so far away from her. All of that probably seeps into my poems. Maybe I'm a sentimental fool. Hope none of that has seeped into my poems!
No, there's not sentimenatality whatsoever, rest assured!
Your daughter Lily is central to this book – there are beautiful and moving poems about her birth; the challenges of the mother-daughter relationship; Lily’s acquisition of language. Did becoming a mother change your approach to writing, as much as it changes one’s life in general (completely!)?
Yes, having a baby changed my life completely. Tra la! I had written for many years before my daughter Lily was born.
Lily has Down syndrome.
I grieved her extra chromosome and all the complications in life that her disability would mean for both of us for a few years while at the same time being extremely smitten by her. And I gave myself to her completely. When the nurse with the Brother's of Charity came to our home to give me suggestions about what to do to bring Lily on to her fullness, we did everything, and more.
When the speech and language therapist gave us homework, we did it all, plus more and more. I was motivated by a powerful love. I was determined that she was going to be the most competent person with Down syndrome in the world, or at least in the West of Ireland. (I'm sure all parents of children who are not 'typical' developers feel and do the same.) Which of course, did not happen. She is just Lily. A twelve year old girls who is very busy being herself. Perfectly herself...moody, lovely, charming, sassy, stubborn, bright. She is a handful.
Giving so much of myself to Lily's early childhood helped me take my writing more seriously. In fact, writingthe poems for Zephyr not only gave me a big kick in the arse, they kicked me towards my own life and grounded me as a writer.
What do people who are not writers do to come to grips with something of such importance?
I have no idea, Mary. I always think writing keeps me sane throught the hard times. And I wonder how other people cope. You write both memoir and poetry. Which form is your favourite to write in? And why?
I know a ton about memoir writing. I've read hundreds of memoirs and teach memoir courses. There is great truth in the saying that good teachers often learn more than they teach. I love lively stories about resilient people. Writing personal essays comes easy to me. There are definitely a few recently published memoirs that I wish I could have gotten my hands on before they went to print. A good memoir must be snappy not sappy, important but not self-important. That's tricky. And great fun.
Poetry is very hard for me to write. I sweat over each word, each line break, each foot. I am still full of hoy about having my first book of poetry published, many thanks to Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Poetry. I am also very humbled by the experience. I am a middle-aged woman who is a baby poet trudging to toddler status. Seamus Heaney is quoted as saying that he did not 'feel' like a poet until his third volume was published. Kay Ryan did not include any poems from her first two volumes in her 'New and Selected'. This does not take any joy away from me about my debut collection.
This is a meandering way to say I'm not sure which form I like best. Poetry. Definitely my fav today. And probably will be tomorrow as well, even though there is nothing quite as lovely as reading very good non-ficiton. Ah, hell. Poetry wins. It's a love that will stick with me forever, much like Alaska, just can't shake it loose, thank God and the Goddesses.
I ask this question of all women visitors to this blog: Who are your favourite women writers and why?
Women writers that I love: Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Jacobs, Zora Neal Hurston, Carson McCuller, Emily Dickinson. Kay Ryan, the women in my writer's group, the women who write by candle-light in a war zone, Mary McCarthy, Isabel Allende, Ella Fitzgerald, the immigrant in a night class, Maya Angelou. Why? Because they are brave.
Thanks for these great answers, Mary - honest as always. Huge congrats on the publication of your first book of poetry. It’s a funny, warm, moving collection of poems and I highly recommend it to all my readers. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Alaska and I look forward to catching up in the autumn.
Buy Mary's book and read extracts here at the Salmon Poetry website.