Cristina Deptula interviews Mary Mackey, poet and author of the recent collection Travelers With No Ticket Home:
CRISTINA: I noticed that in the middle section some of the poems spoke to or addressed a character known as ‘Solange’, such as the environmentalist piece when she encouraged the river to break the dam. Please tell us more about her. Who is she, where did she come from and why did you decide to incorporate her as a character?
MARY: Solange is a mysterious, ambiguous character who appears in a number of my poems. I never consciously decided to incorporate Solange into my work. She just appeared spontaneously when I was writing the poem ”Sugar Zone.” “Sugar Zone” was published in my previous collection of poetry which is also called Sugar Zone. So, as you can see, the appearance of Solange was a very important event for me creatively. Solange takes on different roles at different times: she may be an incarnation of the force of nature, a priestess, a goddess, a shaman, an ex-lover, or even the wilder side of Mary Mackey. I’ve deliberately avoided pinning her down so that she can move fluidly from one poem to another. In the poem “Solange Encourages A River To Destroy A Damn,” which you mention, Solange is dressed in the garb of a priestess of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé and is speaking to the river as a shaman/goddess.
CRISTINA: Appreciated your romantic selections, “The Kama Sutra of Kindness.” Please share more about the title and word choice there…how did you choose to combine references to physical and emotional passion with the concept of kindness? (I love this, btw…sometimes people get so swept away in attraction that they forget the basics, such as being polite and considerate).
MARY: You can find any number of books that will tell you how to have sex, but few that speak about physical passion and tenderness. I believe real love combines both Eros (erotic love) and Agape (spiritual love). One of the most famous instruction books for erotic love is The Kama Sutra, which lists a variety of physical positions. The Kama Sutra also speaks about other aspects of relationships, but almost no one knows this. Some years ago, I decided that The Kama Sutra needed a companion volume entitled The Kama Sutra of Kindness. Kindness, tenderness, devotion, commitment: I believe all of these are as important to sexual and emotional happiness as any of the 64 positions in original The Kama Sutra. So far, I have come up with seven poems which express seven of the positions of kindness. All of these are collected in Travelers With No Ticket Home. I plan to write more Kama Sutra of Kindness poems.
CRISTINA: From reading these pieces, I got an impression of Brazil that was passionate and colorful, yet also scary/violent from people and wild animals and disease/poverty. Would you say that impression was accurate? Do you think the place is getting better to live, or harder due to income inequality?
MARY: Brazil is a stunningly beautiful country filled with warm, friendly, hospitable people. At the same time it is a scary place filled with poverty, disease, and violence. This basic contradiction is what makes it so interesting to write about. I’ve been going to Brazil with my husband for the past 25 years. I guarantee that if you spend any time in Brazil, you will want to stay and at the same time want to catch the next plane home. The good news is that poverty is on the wane and peoples’ lives are improving. For example, between 2000 and now 35 million Brazilians have escaped from poverty. In the last 10 years childhood malnutrition has been slashed by 61%. Brazil still has a long way to go, but that’s impressive by any standards.
CRISTINA: I have heard people who have visited Latin American countries discuss how the people seem more able to balance the past and present. That they are able to incorporate modernity and technology into their lives without feeling the need to discard traditional cultural practices, and can stay close to the land while participating in the modern economy. Basically that different values and ways of life can coexist, there isn’t such a dichotomy. Would you say that is true? I thought of that when you illustrated modern favelas and also touched on shaman type practices and ayahuasca.
MARY: I think almost all of us would like to believe that there are parts of the world where people are able to incorporate modernity and technology into their lives without feeling the need to discard traditional cultural practices, but I’ve never been anywhere, including Brazil, where this appears to be true. Brazil was actually one of the places where this mistaken idealization of indigenous people began. It’s called the Myth of the Noble Savage, and can be traced back in part to the French author Michele de Montaigne, whom I also mention in Travelers With No Ticket Home.
Like people all over the world, Brazilians are losing traditional cultural practices and being uprooted from their land by corporate farming (agribiz)—not to mention losing great swaths of the Amazonian rainforest to fire, logging, and mining.
CRISTINA: Why and how did you decide to incorporate mentions of Elizabeth Bishop’s work into this collection of poetry? What’s the connection there?
MARY: Elizabeth Bishop is a famous American poet. By famous, I mean that as well as writing brilliant poetry, she was Poet Laureate of the United State and winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. In 1951 she arrived in Brazil intending to spend two weeks. Instead she spent fifteen years. I deeply admire Bishop’s work and feel a close connection to her. Like me, Bishop loved Brazil and, like me, she wrote many poems about it. In 2010, I made a pilgrimage to Ouro Preto, Bishop’s adopted Brazilian hometown. In 2012, I lived for four months in an apartment in Rio that overlooked a park designed by Bishop’s Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares. I make reference to Bishop by name in several of my poems, but she is in the background of many more as an influence and an inspiration. A review of Sugar Zone, published in the Huffington Post, compared me to Bishop. I can’t imagine a greater honor for a serious poet.
CRISTINA: I see mentions of fado music and Carnival in various pieces. Would you say the musical traditions of the country enhanced your work? Are any of these pieces influenced by Brazilian music?
MARY: The music of Brazil is a major influence on my work, particularly rhythms of samba and the drumming associated with the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. Candomblé drumming is designed to induce visionary, spiritual, and mystical trance states. In my poems there are frequently visionary and mystical elements: paths that lead into other worlds, dream-like hallucinations. In other words, I frequently try to create the same effect for the reader that Brazilian music creates for the listener.
Poems in Travelers With No Ticket Home that are most strongly influenced by Brazilian music include: “After Carnival,” “Corcovado,” “The City of Apocalyptic Visions,” “Defective Instructions For Becoming a Shaman,” and “The Martyrdom of Carmen Miranda.”
CRISTINA: Why is the collection entitled ‘Travelers with No Ticket Home?’ Seems to be a commentary on the human condition…or are you making a specific comment about that culture and area? Although you have another poem with that title, I thought of that while I was reading the last piece about Carmen Miranda, as she had traveled out of her homeland and couldn’t ever truly find her way back, culturally.
You’re right. The title of this collection is more than a reference to tourists who feel lost in the chaos, beauty, and unpredictability of Brazil. It’s a comment on the human condition. I selected the title Travelers With No Ticket Home carefully because I wanted a title that could hold multiple meanings. For example, we are all travelers with no ticket home to our childhoods. Refugees who flee to foreign lands often have no ticket back to the place they came from. When we live or travel abroad for extended periods, we sometimes feel like strangers when we return to our native land. The dead are the ultimate travelers with no ticket home. And then there is climate change. Thanks to it, we are all traveling into a new reality with no way to get back, so in some ways all of humanity is becoming a traveler with no ticket home.
Link to Purchase Mary Mackey’s Travelers With No Ticket Home
Paper: $15 E-book: $2.99
Bio of Mary Mackey:
Mary Mackey is the author of seven collections of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and Travelers With No Ticket Homejust published by Marsh Hawk Press. She has also written twelve novels, one of which made the New York Times Bestseller List.
To learn more about her and read her popular Blog Interview series The People Who Make Books Happen, you are invited to visit her website at http://marymackey.com/