Monday, November 26, 2018

Q & A with Amy Hale Auker, Author of Ordinary Skin: Essays from Willow Springs

By C.M. Mayo

This year, with some exceptions, the post for the fourth Monday of the month is dedicated to a Q & A with a fellow writer.  This is the last Q & A for 2018; look for the series to resume on the fourth Monday in January 2019. 

Amy Hale Auker
I had the pleasure of meeting Amy Hale Auker and of hearing her read from her work back in 2016 at the Women Writing the West conference in Santa Fe. She's the author of several works of poetry, fiction and essay, including Rightful Place, the 2012 WILLA winner for creative nonfiction and Foreword Reviews Book of the Year for essays. Her latest collection, Ordinary Skin: Essays from Willow Springs, is a treat for anyone who relishes fine creative nonfiction-- and it's a vivid and moving look at a life lived close to the land, on a working ranch in Arizona.


As those of you who follow my blog well know, my work to date has focused on Mexico, but for a while now I've been at work on a book about Far West Texas, and this had led me to read widely and closely about the West. It has a grand if sometimes underappreciated literary tradition, so if you're not familiar with it, take special note of Amy Hale Auker, and of her reading recommendations here. You will be richly rewarded.

From the catalog copy for Ordinary Skin:

Touching on faith and body image and belonging, these essays explore our role in deciding what is favorable or unfavorable, as well as where we someday want to dwell, and who came before us. In that touching, they feel their way with observations about current affairs, drought, mystery, and the hard decisions that face us all as we continue to move toward more questions with fewer answers. This exploration is informed and softened by hummingbirds, Gila monsters, bats, foxes, bears, wildflowers, and hidden seep springs where life goes on whether we are there to see it or not. It is about work in a wild and wilderness environment. In the end, even as life changes drastically around us, we are better off for knowing that the ugly mud bug turns into a jewel-toned dragonfly.

Visit Amy Hale Auker's website 

by Amy Hale Auker
Texas Tech University Press, 2018
Seminary Coop
C.M. MAYO: How might you describe the ideal reader for the essays in Ordinary Skin?

AMY HALE AUKER: Ordinary Skin is a book for anyone who loves language and story and first person narrative, who craves an intimate look at the natural world and the land, who recognizes the value of hard work and sweat with a pause, or many pauses, for falling in love with life, over and over again. While I think that women will find the deeper messages of the instinctual feminine, it is also a refresher course for men on why they love our Mother Earth.

C.M. MAYO: If a reader were to read only one essay in your collection, which would you recommend and why?

AMY HALE AUKER:"Using Tools Backward." That essay reflects our sense of place and those who came before, paving the way, and who we are as we stand in these places.

C. M. MAYO: You have been a longtime participant in cowboy poetry festivals, including the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas. My impression is that while cowboy poetry, fiction and song are beloved to many in the western US and Canada and elesewhere, they are also considered exotic, and alas, something to even disdain, by many in the literary communities in urban areas of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Your writing seems to me to fall squarely in both camps-- cowboy and what I would call (for lack of a better term) literary. Can you offer your thoughts about this? And perhaps comment on what people who read literary prose but who are unfamiliar with cowboy poetry (and cowboy culture generally) might look for and reconsider?

AMY HALE  AUKER: I have to admit to having run with this question directly to my editor and dear friend, Andy Wilkinson, who is often a clearer thinker and better communicator about labels and definitions than I am. I tend to simply write what I write and bang my head against category later. Wilkinson responded to my query in this way:

"The only way out is to question ... artificial categorization. Stevens didn’t write 'insurance executive' poetry, Williams didn’t write 'pediatrics' poetry, Frost didn’t write 'farmer' poetry, etc. Poets write poetry, and though their poems may be about a kind of life, the poets are neither the subjects nor the classifications."

I agree with Editor Dearest, but would also add that it is not my job to ask any reader to look more closely at any culture. It is my responsibility to simply do my job and step back (my clumsy paraphrase of Lao Tzu). This question looks too closely, in my opinion, at genre, marries me, as a writer/poet, too closely to a day job, a skill set, a means to earn a paycheck. Of course, my work in the natural world, with animals, growing food, informs my writing, my creative process, as did Frost's... as does Wendell Berry's. And yes, there are stereotypes out there, always, surrounding any profession or region that has been grossly, and often erroneously, romanticized to the point of becoming myth rather than reality. But an astute reader and listener will be quick to see where the stereotype breaks down and were reality shines through.

I would like to add that the elitist view of literature and life is what furthers the divide in this nation. That the only writing worthy of consideration can't come from the pen of someone who grows food, who works as a peasant, who has shit on their boots, who works with their hands. This us vs them view of art, literature, and philosophy is dangerous and furthers our separateness.

C.M. MAYO: Speaking of shit, my own favorite writer on that topic is Gene Logsdon, who called himself "The Contrary Farmer," and who wrote a book I highly recommend-- it's informative, beautifully written, and hilarious-- with the title, Holy Shit.

For someone who appreciates good writing but is unfamiliar with writing about rural life / farming / ranching, apart from your works, what might be a few reading suggestions?

AMY HALE AUKER: I just added Logsdon to my list of things to read! Thank you.

Seminary Coop
I hope you will consider all of Wendell Berry's work... poetry, prose, essay.... all of it. I highly recommend The Unsettling of Americaessays surrounding the "green revolution" and the industrialization of agriculture.

Some other authors include James Galvin (Fencing the Sky), Verlyn Klinkenborg (The Rural Life), and Merrill Gilfillan (Magpie Rising).

McMurtry addresses this question you and I are tossing around in his excellent foreword to Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West.

Teresa Jordan wrote a gorgeous memoir, "Ride the White Horse Home."

These are just a few, but if you really want to the peak of the pile, read The Unsettling of America. Berry is brilliant. 

C.M. MAYO: Can you talk about which writers have been the most important influences for your writing-- and which ones you are reading now?

AMY HALE AUKER: My influences are eclectic and many... but I tribute the poetry and songwriting of Andy Wilkinson as an influence to write any and everything that burns brightly in me. I tribute Merrill Gilfillan, Jeanette Winterson, E. B. White, Verylyn Klinkenborg, Barbara Kingsolver, and Edward Abbey with influencing my first person narrative. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Natalie Goldbberg, Ann Lamott, and Julia Cameron are on my "forever shelf." Recently I started reading Pema Chodron. I read a lot of fiction when I am writing nonfiction. So, right now I am reading novels. By my elbow is News of the World by Paulette Jiles. I love how she writes literary fiction in a western setting, breaking out of genre.

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, social media, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share?

AMY HALE AUKER:  I view my time as a pie chart. It is important to give of my creative energy consciously. However, my journey has also led me to consider all of the roles in my life as part of who I am as a creative being... author, cowboy, grandmother, gardner, cook, poet, performer, speaker. So, it has been fun to see how very creative I can be on my social media platforms, in particular Instagram. People point their cameras at things they love, so it is a glimpse at their hearts. That said, the most important thing I can do is to go to cow camp where I am unplugged and write in longhand on the unlined page. Or put a 38 pound pack on my back and walk off in the wilderness, solo except for the dog. And I do. When I am home, it takes discipline to turn it all off. But that is what we all should do, for more of the day rather than less.

C.M. MAYO: Another question apropos of the digital revolution. At what point, if any, were you working on paper? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic? 

AMY HALE AUKER:  I write three pages of longhand every single morning a la Julia Cameron. It is my discipline and my practice and it serves me well. Even if I don't get to write the rest of the day, I know I showed up at the page Even if it reads like a "to do" list, I know I was present to my creative fire. I wrote most of "The Story Is the Thing" in longhand on yellow legal pad because a character in the book wrote in the same manner. What startled me was the dramatic and interesting process of transfering my handwriting to the screen. There was a magic there that I have not forgotten and crave to duplicate. So I am grateful that there are so many tools available to us... from uniball pens on blank journal pages to speaking into our phones while we drive to Schrivener (which baffles me) to Word where I can hurry up and get it all down. There is a freedom in having multiple ways to approach art in any medium.

Women Writing the West

C. M. MAYO: Can you talk about how and why you joined Women Writing the West?

AMY HALE AUKER: I joined Women Writing the West because my publisher, Texas Tech University Press, told me to. It has been an honor to be part of that group of highly talented people.

[C.M.M. post-interview note: Women Writing the West is open to writers (both women and men) living in and/or writing about the West, in any genre. I've been a member for several years now, and highly recommend it.]

C. M. MAYO: What's next for you as a writer? 

AMY HALE AUKER: So many things.... I am working on both a very weird collection of short short pieces that are a mixed bag of fiction and nonfiction and meditations as well as what may very well end up being a new collection of essays. However, I don't believe artists should discuss what they are working on at the time in much detail. It is too easy to talk about our process rather than dig deep and stay in it.... all the way to completion... if there is such a thing.

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> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Ms. Mayo: Fascinating interview with Amy Hale Auker. I have two of her essay collections: Ordinary Skin and Rightful Place. Her word choices are poetic; her thoughts on ranch life are inspiring. Thank you for asking inciteful questions—they are challenging but she is up to the task. Judith Grout

Thanks for your interview of Amy Hale Auker. I have read both her essays and her fiction and admire both, and heard her poetry at one of the WWW conferences (perhaps Tucson?). Your questions and her answers were thoughtful and interesting. I appreciated your delving into her thought processes and comments on poetry and essays. I loved both of your recommendations for books! 
Julie Weston

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Q & A with Mary Mackey on THE JAGUARS THAT PROWL OUR DREAMS, Bearing Witness, and Women Writers' Archives

By C.M. Mayo

This year, 2018, I have been aiming to post a Q & A with a fellow writer, poet and/or translator on the fourth Monday of the month. This usually happens! This month however I am posting two Q & As-- this third Monday, and another for the fourth. 


Mary Mackey's
The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams
Marsh Hawk Press, 2018
Small Press Distribution
The Internet invites us be everywhere allwhen, so it seems, but in ye olde 3D meatspace, I have a habit of attempting to be in three places at the same time. (I leave all other impossible things for before breakfast!) One of those places is California, because that's where my mother was living, and in recent years I flew out there from Mexico City to see her more times than I can count. Initially, when I realized I needed to go more often, I imagined that I could attend literary gatherings while in California, so I joined the San Francisco chapter of the Women's National Book Association, an organization I warmly supported in the years I was living in Washington DC.  Alas --(those with elderly parents will smile sadly with understanding)-- I never could make it to a meeting. But I did read the SF WNBA newsletters and announcements, including news of Mary Mackey's books. Her latest, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, a collection of her poetry from 1974 - 2018, promises to be an especially rich read.

Mary Mackey is the author of a multitude of award-winning poetry collections, novels and more. Read about her distinguished career, and the unusual and highly original nature of her works, here. Though we have yet to meet in California, here we are, at least, on the same page in cyberspace: via email, Mary Mackey graciously answered several of my questions about her work. May you, dear extra curious and adventurous writerly reader, find her answers as fascinating and inspiring as I did.

Here's the catalogue copy for her latest, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams:

Mary Mackey writes of life, death, love, and passion with intensity and grace. Her poems are hugely imaginative and multi-layered. Part One contains forty-eight new poems including twenty-one set in Western Kentucky from 1742 to 1975; and twenty-six unified by an exploration of the tropical jungle outside and within us, plus a surreal and sometimes hallucinatory appreciation of the visionary power of fever. Part Two offers the reader seventy-eight poems drawn from Mackey's seven previous collections including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. 
"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."—Maxine Hong Kingston 
"Always Mackey's eye is drawn to the marginalized, the poor, the outcast, the trivialized. [In] THE JAGUARS THAT PROWL OUR DREAMS, she has created an oeuvre, wilder, more open to change with each passing year. Hers is a monumental achievement."—D. Nurkse

Read a selection of her poems, including "The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams," on her website.

C.M. MAYO: How might you describe the ideal reader for The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams?

MARY MACKEY: As Maxine Hong Kingston observed, my poetry has “extraordinary range.” I write for readers who love the mystical, visionary poetry of  Mirabai, Blake, Pablo Neruda, and Saint John of the the Cross; for readers who want to step into the heart of our disappearing tropical jungles; for women struggling against sexual harassment. My ideal reader hates to be preached to and doesn’t like poems that are obscure—academic poems that read like puzzles. Instead, my ideal reader loves beautiful, well-crafted, complex, profound poetry that can be understood on many levels. My ideal reader also likes to laugh because some of my poems are very funny.

C.M.MAYO: What was the most important challenge for you in selecting poems from your now very substantial ouevre?

MARY MACKEY: When I started selecting, I came up with 280 poems which, when combined with the 48 new poems in Jaguars, would have resulted in a book the size of a cinder block. No poet writes 280 great poems, so I started culling. I ended up with 78 of my very best poems. Not one has a line I don’t like; not one is a second choice. Another challenge was to make sure the poems I picked had stood the test of time, since some were written as early as 1974. Some didn’t, but to my amazement several I wrote in the early seventies as part of the Second Wave women’s movement read as if they had been written today.

C.M. MAYO: In the process of selecting the poems, did you see your development as a poet in a new light? Are your poems very different now, and if so, how?

MARY MACKEY: I didn’t see my poetry in a new light as I went over my previous collections, and although my poems are different in content, they are not different in essence. My poetry has always had an inward and an outward stroke. That is to say, it has always been both highly personal and highly engaged with what is happening in the world. I don’t preach. I don’t tell people what to do. I think it’s the duty of a poet to bear witness to her times, and that’s what I have done for over 40 years: bear witness. Right now I am not writing for those of us who are alive in 2018. I am writing for future generations who will never see a live elephant, a tropical jungle, or a healthy coral reef. I am writing poems to tell them how beautiful our Earth was and what parts of it we are losing due to climate change.

That said, I did discover some changes in my poetry over the years. My lines grew longer, as if I were not as rushed. I married happily and so wrote fewer sad love poems. I fell in love with Portuguese and incorporated some Portuguese words in my last four collections. In 2011, I began to speak openly about the fact that I have run a number of life-threatening fevers (often near 107 degrees) and began to write poems about the visions and fever-induced hallucinations I had during these near-death experiences.

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive poet and writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, social media, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share? 

MARY MACKEY: I’ve been using computers since the early 80’s, so the Digital Revolution did not come as a surprise. It hasn’t affected my writing, but, like all writers these days, I have to spend time on social media that I would have otherwise spent writing, so I ration my online time carefully. To write poetry, to create anything, you need long periods of silence and intense concentration. You need to be able to hear your inner voice. You can’t do this if you are always checking your phone. My solution is rigorous compartmentalization. I set aside times to write and times to do social media.

When I am writing, my phone is off, my browser is closed, and I am completely and absolutely focused on my writing or on the essential daydreaming that precedes writing. When I am doing social media, I am absolutely focused on social media. The two don’t bleed over into one another. I also add a third element: time in the real world with physically present people. I write or do social media for about 5 hours a day beginning in the morning. Then I stop, turn off my computer, and see friends and family, take long walks, talk to strangers, look at the stars or watch an ant or a sparrow. In the evenings, I usually read instead of watching Netflix or something on cable, because I’ve had enough screen time for the day.

C.M. MAYO: Another question apropos of the Digital Revolution. At what point, if any, were you working on paper? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic? 

MARY MACKEY: When I started writing, paper was the only option. I still write out the first drafts of my poems in cursive in a special journal because I don’t like to have any technical interface between me and my imagination, nor any temptation to look something up in the initial moments of inspiration. I write freely without thinking about quality or organization. I let my hand and my mind wander. Then I transfer the result to my laptop and begin a rigorous process of cutting, improving, altering, editing, and crafting the final poem. I have taken a 4 page poem, written out in almost unreadable script, and transformed it into a polished, poem of three lines.

I should mention here that I am also the author of fourteen novels. Paper figures big in this part of my writing life. I wrote my first novel out in cursive in a notebook in the Scandinavian statistics section of the University of Chicago Library (a place where you could be sure no one would appear to interrupt you). I wrote the second on a manual typewriter; the third on an IBM Correcting Selectric typewriter, and the fourth on a computer so primitive it didn’t have a hard drive. I’ve used computers ever since for my subsequent ten novels, but at the end of each day, I print out all additions and changes, because I like to have hard copies of my work. I find it easier to edit hard copy, because you can see an entire page and move back and forth more easily. Also you can actually see what you’ve crossed out in case you want to change your mind. You can’t do this with deleted text. Then too, if the Internet goes down, my backups get stolen, my hard drive goes up in smoke, my passwords are compromised, the cloud is hacked, or my computer gets invaded with ransom ware, I have hard copy.

C.M. MAYO: Your papers are archived in the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library, Smith College, Northampton, MA and your website offers a "Guide to Women Writers Archives." . As a writer with an archive myself and as one who has made grateful use of many archives over the years  --and one also keenly aware of how many valuable collections of papers, alas, end up lost I am especially interested to know: How did this come about?

MARY MACKEY: It took me fifteen years to get up the courage to try to place my literary papers, because like so many women, I thought no one would want them. Imagine my surprise when I finally sent out emails and got almost immediate replies from nine universities who not only wanted my work, but offered to pay me substantial sums for my archives. I ended turning down monetary offers and donating my archives to Smith College, because they are dedicated to preserving the archives of women writers and the history of women. I’m not an alumna of Smith. I went to Harvard, but I didn’t donate my papers to Harvard because the university wouldn’t let me use Lamont, the Harvard undergraduate library, when I was a student there. In fact, until 1967, no women could enter Lamont. The guards at the door even turned away Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

After my experience with archiving, I decided to help women writers and artists archive their work. I have also helped men, but my focus has been on women, because if you tell a women about archiving, she will invariably say: “No one will want my papers. There’s no use trying.” In contrast, a man will say: “No one will want my papers, but I might as well give it a try.” I tell women that I want our history to be written on stone, not on water. I don’t archive their work for them, but I give them a packet of instructions on how to do it, encourage them to give it a try, tell them my own story of being timid and uncertain, and remind them that they can only control what goes into their archives while they are still alive. When they have successfully placed their papers, I list them on my website in my Guide To Women Writers’ Archives, congratulate them on my Facebook Page, and congratulate them again in my quarterly newsletter.

C.M. MAYO: What's next for you as a poet and as a writer?

MARY MACKEY: Right now I’m working on a plot outline for the final book in a series of novels about the Goddess-worshiping peoples of Neolithic Europe and their struggle to fight off Sky-worshiping, patriarchal invaders from the steppes. These novels are based on the research of archaeologist and UCLA Professor Marija Gimbutas who helped me with the first two novels in the series.

I’m also working on a series of visionary poems with the working title “Cassandra.” I think Cassandra is the perfect spokeswoman for our era. She saw the future, but when she tried to warn people that disaster was coming, no one believed her.

>> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Poetic Alliteration

By C.M. Mayo
Read this article on my Resources for Writers: Craft webpage here.

As of this year the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my writing workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing. 


Poetic alliteration is one of the many techniques you can use to make your writing more vivid and powerful. The definiton of alliteration: "The occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words."


From (of all things) a movie review by Desson Howe in the Washington Post:
"There he is, in all his glory, Brad Pitt, that beautiful, chiseled chunk of celebrity manhood. You want him? Go see Fight Club. You want action, muscle, and atmosphere? You want boys bashing boys in bloody, living color? Fight Club is your flick, dude." 

To start with, we have "chiseled chunk" -- ch and then ch

In the fourth sentence we have "action, muscle, and atmosphere"-- ah and ah

Then "boys bashing boys in bloody, living color"-- b, b, b, and b

Then "Fight Club is your flick, dude" -- f and f

The point: the sound of the words-- alliteration-- reinforces the meaning.

Here are some more examples:

"...hold on with a bull-dog grip and chew and choke as much as possible"-- Letter, President Lincoln to General Grant
"When somebody threatens me, he says, I usually tell them to pack a picnic and stand in line." -- Mikey Weinstein quoted in Marching As to War by Alan Cooperman
"A competitor once described [mining engineer Frank Holmes] as 'a man of considerable personal charm, with a bluff, breezy, blustering, buccaneering way about him' -- Daniel Yergin,  The Prize
"Small heart had Harriet for visiting" -- Jane Austen, Emma

As I cannot repeat often enough, as a writer, your best teachers are the books you have already read and truly loved-- the books that made you want to write your own. (These books or may not get the Seal of Approval from your English professor-- but never mind. Some academics may be artists, and some artists academics, but in general they are creatures as different from one another as a coyote and a horse.)

To repeat: As a writer, your best teachers are the books you have already read and truly loved. Pull one of those beloved books off your bookshelf, have a read-through, see where and how the author uses alliteration. Or not?

Once you recognize a technique you can often spot it in, say, a newspaper article, a biography, or an advertisement. More about reading as a writer here.

Help yourself to more resources for writers on my Resources for Writers page.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Jane Austen's EMMA: A Few Reactions

EMMA by Jane Austen
By C.M. Mayo

I have just finished reading Jane Austen's masterpiece, Emma. A few reactions:

The Ur-soap opera. Esque. Deceptively simple-- it's a symphony of complexity. A sophisticated and cement-sturdy narrative structure. Our master of suspense fiction!

Emma is understandably popular for so many readers, and yet understandably unappealing for so many others. Have you read it, and did you like it?-- a litmus test for so many things... that correlate with other things...

Above all, and astonishingly, Emma manages to be poetic and vivid with only the barest of barebones descriptions. Flaubert's Madame Bovary it is not.

Austen treats both her characters, even the deeply foolish ones, and her readers with charm and diginity-- a dignity rarely seen in fiction (and especially these days). Austen has the sight of a goddess, and a heart as big as England-- England of the early 19th century, that is.

I appreciated Emma as I did Pride and Prejudice. The latter I read in highschool. For years I could not fathom why I had been obliged to read all that nattering about who was going to marry whom. When I read P & P in my thirties, however, I saw it with different eyes. Call me an Austenite.

PS USD 32,500 will get you a 1816 first edition. There were 2,000 copies paid for, ahem, by the author.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.