In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Mary Jo Thompson

by | Oct 16, 2018

1. Tell us about your poem in Volume 20. How did it come to be?

I dread that day each fall when all color fades to phantom. I wrote this poem with Keats’ ode “To Autumn” as a reference point, but instead of earnestly reveling in fall’s beauty, I decided to approach the dying of the green and gold with gallows humor.

2.  What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?

I wasn’t young. I was teaching fifth grade. I joined my students in writing exercises that our poet-in-residence brought each week. As he unveiled the ways he practiced writing and reading, I felt emboldened to write poems for the first time, believing I might actually be able to make some. For years more I lacked confidence–was I an authentic writer or a teacher who dabbled? Eventually, a short but scary illness shocked me into acting—what was I waiting for? I took a series of writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis studying with poets Robert Hedin, John Reinhard, Janet Holmes, John Minczeski, and Deborah Keenan. They helped me decide that I was a writer with a growing hunger for formal training. I joined a writing group and a dozen years later enrolled in the MFA Program for Writing at Warren Wilson. I graduated on my sixtieth birthday. My first book, Stunt Heart, was published eight years later in 2017. For me becoming a writer has been a long, slow evolution.

3.  How has writing shaped your life?

I honor my urge to make things. I pay more attention moment to moment and spend more time wondering. Always a reader, I now read like a writer. I ask not only what poems and other creative work mean, but also how they mean. My community has become more and more a community of people with similar impulses.

4.  What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?

Wow. So many. Most recently, I’ve been blown away by poets Danez Smith, Jenny Johnson, and Lucia Perillo. Before that, a few of many seminal poets for me have been Ellen Bryant Voigt, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Jack Gilbert, and Li Young Lee. I’ve been reading mostly prose lately as I’m feeling a little lost about narrative impulses in my poems. I’m mad for essayist Rebecca Solnit and memoirist Mary Karr.

5.  What projects or pieces are you working on right now?

For a couple of years I’ve been accruing a body of poems and prose loosely responding to the idea of marriage as a daughter’s act of escape from the father’s authority. It sets the archetypal tale “The Handless Maiden” against my life and the lives of my 17th century French ancestors. I’m listening hard to hear what’s inside of these particular grandmothers’ humming silences. Almost all of them were surplus daughters from poor families who received a dowry from King Louis XIV to migrate to this continent if they agreed to marry a trapper, trader, farmer, or soldier once they arrived. The lack of white females in the New France colony had the French court in a panic—how could France populate the land with French speaking citizens? I’m curious if these women sent overseas by fathers and patriarchs married against their will? Did the harsh life of the colony improve on what had been dire prospects at home or did it compound the difficulty of their lives? When marriage looks like an escape, is it? I suspect that these women live in me the way dinosaurs live in birds.

Visit Mary Jo’s website here, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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