Mary McConnell "An Urgent Calm or A Risky Joy"

Marty McConnell
"An Urgent Calm or a Risky Joy"

an interview

Have you recently found yourself in conversation with another writer or artist?

I’m fortunate enough to live with a visual artist, and have an active circle of fellow writers, so conversations about art are a pretty regular part of my life. Last night I hosted a salon at my home where a poet visiting from Michigan–Scott Beal–led a two-hour discussion on “Poems that Raise the Dead.” Pretty much my ideal Friday night, except we didn’t have any chocolate.


How does geography or landscape influence your work? Do you need to be in a certain environment to write?

I’m definitely influenced by my environment when I write – certain kinds of locations tend to lend themselves to certain kinds of poems, so I make an effort to avoid only writing in, say, the bathtub, even though I love writing in the bath. My desk faces Logan Boulevard from the third floor, so trees and traffic and people walking dogs tend to make appearances. . . I also really like to write in bars because the energy, particularly on weekends, tends to be kind of chaotic and that disrupts my work in useful and interesting ways.


What is the poem you have always wanted to write, but have not been able to?

That’s a long list. I want to write about my grandmothers, one of whom passed years ago and one of whom is very alive at 99. They couldn’t be more different on the surface, but the more I dig down, the more commonalities they have. I have this concept of a poem describing them in the manner of Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas,” but haven’t been able to work it out. Right now, I’m working on two sets of poems, one that aims to interrogate aspects of whiteness and, by extension, the violence connected with race which can’t in good conscience be ignored or go unacknowledged by a poetry of this time, in this city. The other set is an outgrowth of my sort of morbid curiosity about the coming climate-driven apocalypse; how will we be humans in an unthinkably different environment? So both of those drivers are sending me to poems that I’m only partially capable of writing.


Describe the value of being a published poet in an increasingly digital literary landscape. What is the future of the published poem?

Well, I love books. I read plenty of online journals and listen to podcasts of poems read aloud, and go to the internet for ideas on poets whose work I want to seek out in print, but the tactile nature of print, paper, magazine, book, matters to me and informs my experience of the poems. I mean, so often poems are dealing with such ephemeral and difficult-to-grasp content–the page is a comfort, something solid from which the poem can then take flight.

That said, I realize that for my nephews and godson, growing up on iPads and computer screens, it may be different. But even they love books, paper, and such–I just wonder if for them it might be more of an equalized experience. I don’t know.


What is your biggest pet peeve about your own writing? Other writers' writing?

I suppose that my biggest pet peeve about my own writing is when it becomes redundant–which is to say, safe. And I’d extend that to other people’s writing as well. When it comes to art, I want a sense of urgency. I want it to matter, to involve risk and vulnerability. And urgency doesn’t mean volume–it can be an urgent calm, or a risky joy. But it’s tempting to stick to forms, topics, techniques that have been successful for us, have garnered praise and affirmation. I try to notice when I’m doing that, and root it out, go deeper, further, backwards, sideways. And I try to seek out the work of writers who are doing that as well.


How do you know when a poem is done?

I tend to feel that a poem is done when every part of it makes me feel something, when there are no dead spots, nowhere that numbs out. I read aloud a lot, to myself and to rooms of people, and that helps me understand where the poem trips up, isn’t enough itself, isn’t done.


If you had to give your life a title, what would it be?

I generally refer to my hypothetical future memoir by the title “Overprocessed: I Have Felt All the Feelings.” So let’s go with that.