The Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association is a volunteer-run organization. Our prestigious awards, anthologies, and creative projects are made possible only by the generosity and dedication of those with a passion for speculative poetry and the Spec-Po community. So it is with the annual SFPA Poetry Contest, which is chaired this year by Mary McMyne.
Mary McMyne is the author of Wolf Skin (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), winner of the Elgin Chapbook Award. Her speculative poetry has appeared widely in venues like Ninth Letter, Painted Bride Quarterly, Pedestal, Phantom Drift, and Chattahoochee Review. She has been the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award, an artist’s grant from Vermont Studio Center, and the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for a Novel-in-Progress. She teaches writing and co-edits Border Crossing at Lake Superior State University. She edits poetry for Faerie Magazine.
As Contest Chair, Mary was responsible for recruiting our esteemed judge, Nikia Chaney. She is also the wizard behind the curtain, ensuring that all things Contest keep ticking. We asked Mary to indulge us with an interview.
Why did you volunteer to Chair the SFPA Poetry Contest?
When Diane Severson Mori asked if I would be interested in the position, I had just been elected chair at work, so I was reluctant to take on additional responsibilities. However, I find speculative poetry particularly exciting because of its unique power to simultaneously engage and challenge readers. My favorite poems are those that fill me with wonder, or a sense of strangeness, at the same time as they challenge me to envision alternatives. This contest serves an important function: to raise awareness about speculative poetry and the multitude of voices working in the genre. As a lifelong reader of speculative literature, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take part in that process.
Anyone can see from your bio that you are accomplished in fiction as well as poetry. Are you a poet or a storyteller first, or do you shift easily between the two? How do you balance your fiction with your poetry in your writing life?
I don’t think I’m a poet or storyteller first; I’ve always been both. There’s a box in my basement containing my elementary-school attempt at a novel about a boy who was abducted from his cardboard-box “spaceship” by actual aliens; that box also contains early attempts at political poems and essays, an epic poem about St. George and the Dragon, science poems, and short stories. Although the academic study of creative writing tends to focus on one genre at a time, I think of the genres as interrelated, with the form of each individual piece dictated by its concept. These days, I bounce back and forth between the genres quite a bit. At the moment, I’m working on both a novel and a full-length poetry manuscript. I have a strict writing schedule, but once I’m at my desk, I write whatever I feel compelled to write.
What themes do you tend to visit and revisit in your writing? Why do you think that is?
Death and religion. The end of things. The intersection of superstition and science. How we attempt to explain the unexplainable. I’ve been interested in these topics since I was little, but my interest became compulsive during the four-year period in my late teens and early twenties when I lost both my parents and my brother to unrelated illnesses and accidents.
I am also fairly obsessed with re-imagining stories from traditional folklore, classic literature, and myth. I think that obsession probably evolves out of the pivotal role stories have played in my life. The marginalization of female characters in literature really gets under my skin, and I’ve become even more interested in the problem of gender, since I had my daughter six years ago. My poetry chapbook, Wolf Skin,
evolved out of the process of reading her stories and wanting to correct them.
Your novel-in-progress won the 2013 Promise Award from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which supports working artists with children. How has parenthood influenced (or impacted) your writing career?
As a working artist, I find parenthood simultaneously challenging and inspiring. Every minute I get to spend with my daughter is a blessing, but the time I spend with her obviously detracts from the time available for my work. As a parent, I feel like I’m constantly trying to balance two competing drives: creativity and family. The Sustainable Arts Foundation
is a wonderful organization because they recognize this struggle. Their mission is to help parent artists find time to be creative. I’m constantly looking for ways to combine creativity and family: last spring, my daughter and I were both involved in the production of a local play; when we accompany my husband on a research trip this summer, we’ll be collecting miscellaneous artifacts and documents to make text-collages together.
My mother was great at this, but I feel like I’m still figuring it out: when I was in elementary school, she put on a fantasy-themed puppet show with us at the public library. I remember helping her paint the set and make the costume for the wizard. How I would love to write a puppet show and perform it with my daughter!
Who are your literary idols?
Rather than idols, could I name inspirations? Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, A. S. Byatt, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan. A poetry collection I always go back to is Anne Sexton’s Transformations.
The list of speculative poets, writing now, whose work I love would have to include Jeannine Hall Gailey, Sally Rosen Kindred, and Matthea Harvey. I’m reading and loving Claire Cameron’s novel, The Last Neanderthal,
right now. And I’m totally inspired by my friend Ronlyn Domingue’s Keeper of Tales trilogy, the last book of which, The Plague Diaries,
will be out in August!
What was the last poem you read that really blew you away?
Oh, this is a hard question. There have been so many! A fabulist poem that really stands out from last year is
Lindsay Lusby’s poem, “The Girl with Cloven Feet,
” from the Fall 2016 issue of Faerie Magazine.
The first time I read it, it
took my breath away. More recently, I’ve read two wonderful fabulist collections I highly recommend: Stacey Balkun’s chapbook, Jackalope Girl Learns to Speak (Dancing Girl Press), and Sarah Ann Winn‘s chapbook, Ever After the End Matter (Hermeneutic Chaos Press), which I had the pleasure of reading as an advance reading copy!
In addition to writing, you are co-editor for Border Crossing (Lake Superior State University) and poetry editor for Faerie Magazine. How does your editorial approach differ between the two venues?
I edit poetry for Faerie
and fiction for Border Crossing,
but I think the biggest difference in the editorial process between the two venues is organizational. With Faerie
, I read all submitted poems by myself and run the poems I love by editor-in-chief Carolyn Turgeon
, who has final say. Border Crossing
is a teaching journal intended to give undergraduate creative writers publishing experience, so it
has an editorial board made up of three co-editors — my fantastic colleagues Julie Brooks Barbour
, Jillena Rose
, and myself — as well as the small group of ambitious undergraduate students who take our publishing internship each year. Submissions that clearly fall into a single genre are considered by faculty and students who specialize in that genre, but hybrid or more experimental pieces are considered by the whole board.
Apart from this organizational difference, Faerie
has a very specific aesthetic and themed issues; for each, we look for the best fabulist, fantastic, or seasonal poetry that fits our aesthetic and works with that issue’s theme, so I am often limited in what I can accept by style or content. This results in an amazing magazine; Carolyn has done wonderful things with Faerie
since she took over as editor-in-chief! But I often find myself having to write rejections for great poems that just won’t work for us
because of style or content. Border Crossing
has no themed issues and a broad aesthetic
, so that gives us the ability to be more eclectic.
What’s the strangest thing that ever inspired you to write a poem?
A Venn diagram.
What’s one subject or genre you’ve never tried writing but might want to try?
I am pretty brave about experimenting with subjects and genres in poetry, but one thing I would like to do more of is performance writing. My composer friend, Elizabeth Skola Davis, did an amazing job of adapting my poem, “Wolf Skin” into a short song for tenor, bass, and piano. I would love to collaborate with her on something longer. There has been talk about, one day, writing a puppet opera…
When I was living in New York City for graduate school, I got to see Respighi’s puppet opera “La Bella Dormente nel Bosco” (“Sleeping Beauty in the Woods”), directed by British puppeteer Basil Twist for the Lincoln Center Festival. I’ve seen a lot of great shows, but this one remains the highlight of my theatre-going life. The Metropolitan Opera sang the score, and there were 75 puppets including an animate spindle, a cat, and gigantic jumping frogs. Twelve years later, I’m still in awe.
If you were a fairy tale character, who would you be and why?
None of the above, thank you very much. Those stories are messed up!