Interview with Mary Buchinger

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Mary Buchinger is the author of Aerialist (Gold Wake Press, 2015; shortlisted for the May Swenson Poetry Award, the OSU Press/The Journal Wheeler Prize, and the Perugia Press Prize) and Roomful of Sparrows (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in AGNI, Booth, Border Crossing, Caesura, Cortland Review, DIAGRAM, Existere (Canada), Fifth Wednesday, New Madrid, Nimrod, PANK, SAND (Germany), Salamander, Silk Road Review, Slice Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, Versal (The Netherlands), and elsewhere; she was invited to read at the Library of Congress, received the Daniel Varoujan and the Firman Houghton Awards from the New England Poetry Club, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from rural Michigan, Buchinger served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador and holds a doctorate in Applied Linguistics from Boston University; she is Associate Professor of English and Communication Studies at MCPHS University in Boston, Massachusetts. Several of her poems appeared in issue 1.2 of The 3288 Review.

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3288 Review: How and when did you start writing? Was there a specific event or moment which sparked your interest in the written word?

Mary Buchinger: The first time print held meaning for me was reading The Fire Cat by Esther Averill (author and illustrator—I love the drawings!). The main character is a cat, Pickles, who has big paws and gets into trouble until Mrs. Goodkind adopts him and realizes that he needs to do big things with his big paws. She takes him to the Fire House where, with persistence and determination, he learns to slide down the fire pole, and also becomes a brave rescuer of cats caught in trees—the same little cats he used to bully around. The idea that Pickles was not inherently naughty but only needed the right circumstances in order for him to truly shine was important to me—still is. I read this book on the living room couch with my mother, who’d wait for me to say “Pickles” whenever his name appeared, so I would scan the text and be ready for my turn to ‘read.’ The intimacy with my mother, whom I shared with five older siblings, the fantastic art—including a drawing from Pickle’s perspective of climbing up a tall ladder with a proud Mrs. Goodkind waving from far below, the protagonist (growing up on a farm, cats were among my dearest companions), and the idea of someone who is acting badly being truly good at heart—all colluded to make me fall in love with words and reading and books. Writing for me was learned hand in glove with reading. My older brothers all worked on their homework at the kitchen table and I did too, long before I entered kindergarten.

3288 Review: Can you tell us something about the collection from which your poems in issue 1.2 are drawn? What drew you to the epic of Gilgamesh as a focus for these poems?

Mary Buchinger: A friend, Adnan Onart (poet, philosopher, photographer), re-introduced me to the epic of Gilgamesh a couple years ago. The first time I’d run across it, I was working in a university writing center and tutoring students who’d been assigned it in a humanities course. I’d read it quickly to become familiar with the text and it didn’t really make an impression on me. But, after talking with Adnan and re-reading it, I found so many relevant themes, it became clear to me that this, the oldest known literary text, has endured because it continues to be relevant. The poetry I’ve written in relation to the epic, takes the point of view of Lady Wildcow Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh. It seems to me the story of Gilgamesh’s adventures and misadventures gains a profoundly human dimension when viewed through her lens. She deals with complaints from the townspeople about his behavior, interprets his dreams, intercedes with the gods on his behalf, tries to dissuade him from venturing off, helps him grieve his friend’s death as well as accept his own limits and mortality. I’m also interested in the complicated relationships among the gods, the humans, and the sacred Cedar Forest which ultimately gets destroyed. The epic has a contested conclusion, which to me seems absolutely appropriate, if not inevitable. The most pleasing ending leaves us with a wiser, if sadder, Gilgamesh, who, as at the opening of the epic, surveys his city, his well-maintained protective wall, and finds it worthy and good.

3288 Review: With the Lady Wildcow poems, did you set out with the intent of creating a full collection? Are you creating a narrative, or are the poems meant to be a more general exploration of the Epic?

Mary Buchinger: I never know where a creative impulse will take me or how long it will sustain itself. It’s a bit like canoeing down an unfamiliar river—caught in a current and ready for rapids or a slow still stretch, I try to remain open and curious about whatever appears around the bend.  The Lady Wildcow poems more or less follow the narrative of the Epic but dwell on particular episodes and expand on some of the implied or hinted at relationships and experiences. I think of my collection as a companion piece to the Epic—Gilgamesh’s Adventures as told by his Mother.

3288 Review: In your poetry collection Aerialist, many of the poems–”Forgetting”, “Earrings I Never Wear”, “Pieta”, among others–reference artists and works of art. Some, for instance “Dead Seal at State Beach” and “Magnificat”, lean toward the ekphrastic. What is your background in art? And beyond inspiration for specific poems, how do you feel it has influenced you as a poet?

Mary Buchinger: For a hot minute as an undergrad, I was an art major. In that semester, I was fortunate to have an art history class with Wolfram Niessen, a sculptor, who taught me about the distinction between observation and interpretation—the idea that we see lines and shapes and varieties of light, which we then translate into objects. Art and writing are both about paying deep attention. In both pursuits, one must move with awareness between observation and interpretation. And the gift artists and poets have to offer is a realization of alternative versions of a shared world.

Currently, I’m taking a life drawing class with Gerry Hoag and learning to pay attention to lines and negative space, ratios, and relationships to verticals and horizontal planes, etc. The line I draw on the paper is merely gathering information; Hoag calls it a scout traveling along the contours of the model’s body, recording what it sees. Each of us in the room stands at our easel and gathers information; each of us rendering a significantly different set of lines—not only reflecting our respective vantage points, but also our individual marks on the paper, which Hoag says he can read like a Rorschach Blot test, as indicative of personality and character. Art reveals the self in ways we can’t anticipate or imagine.

This class, where I draw for 3 ½ hours until 10 p.m. on Thursdays after teaching a full day, and this work of scouting out lines and relationships, which I relish and look forward to all week, demands that I be awake. I have to pay attention not only to what I see, but how I am in my body, where my legs are planted in relation to my paper, how my arm moves from the socket of my shoulder—It should sway like a willow branch! insists Hoag. This full, complete immersion of self in attention is what I find required of me in both visual and verbal art. One can (and does) slip into sloppiness and write or draw on fumes, drift from primary involvement, but the art will betray that, I believe. It is the integrity, a kind of asceticism, evident in art, which a viewer or reader ultimately responds to.

Finally, as a discipline, this art of seeing and of recording observations, either visually or verbally, becomes a way of being in the world. The gathering of information is a way of life: as in a drawing, the construction lines one drops into a scene—the verticals and horizontals that we push off from—become apparent to us; we keep and integrate the ones that help us, and erase the ones that confuse us. As Hoag says, It’s the search.

3288 Review: Can you walk us through the life of one of your poems? Perhaps “Aerialist in the Subway Car” from your book. What was the process from the initial idea or experience, through having the completed version on paper?

Mary Buchinger: The poem, “Aerialist in the Subway Car,” is about an experience I had on a public transit train, the Red Line, in Cambridge, which I take almost daily. It was mid-morning in the winter in a fairly empty car, the train was moving between stops, when the young woman sitting beside me stood up from her seat and grasped the straps that dangle down from the bar above the seats—straps that passengers hold onto when there is standing-room only. She pulled on them as if testing, then slowly and with great control, began to lift her feet off the floor, extending her legs straight out in front of her across the aisle, then curling herself up into a ball, head dangling down. The train was going around the curve by Harvard Square and she swayed with the movement of the train; then after a few minutes slowly and with just as much control as she exhibited getting into this position, she unwound herself and quietly returned to her seat, studiously avoiding eye contact with anyone else on the train. Of course, everyone was staring at her, astonished. After a moment, I said thank you to her and asked if she knew either of the two aerialists I happened to be acquainted with. It turned one had been her teacher and she was a babysitter for the other’s children. The world of aerialists, it turns out, is quite small.

This transformation of an ordinary, everyday ride on the train into something so fantastic and strange reminded me of what the artist is capable of. She displayed such grace and such control but also faith in her training and in her sense of the space. That she put her entire weight into these plastic hand-straps, that she hung upside-down in this grubby metal cage barreling noisily through a black tunnel, that she was among strangers, and absolutely vulnerable to public failure—this leap up into the air, her steadiness, strength, deep-rooted balance, faith in self and in her reading of her circumstances, her audacious creativity pushing this space into holding her qua her in her terms—this to me was a parable of art and writing and disturbing the light in one’s only, peculiar-to-self way. This is why my first full-length collection is entitled Aerialist.

3288 Review: You were recently selected to be the Cambridge Poetry Ambassador. Can you tell us something about that?

Mary Buchinger: A few years ago, the Cambridge Arts Council had the idea to have a version of a city poet laureate and settled on calling the position, Poet Populist. Anyone in the city who wrote poetry could be nominated by a citizen and a committee selected nominees who then submitted materials and participated in a series of public readings; afterwards, a city-wide election was held to choose the Poet Populist. I was nominated a few years ago but not elected; the Populist program lasted several years and then was changed this year to the Poetry Ambassador program. This program consists of four Ambassadors—one for each season of the year–who plan themed readings. I was asked to submit a proposal and proposed a spring reading on the theme of Roots—celebrating cultural, linguistic, geographic, spiritual roots, which featured five Cambridge poets and a didgeridoo player. My proposal was selected and the reading was held in May at the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Site—where better to celebrate poetry? I also recently became the co-President of the New England Poetry Club, which was founded by Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, and Conrad Aiken in 1915 and sponsors the oldest reading series in the country. We hold summer events on the magnificent lawn of the Longfellow House in Cambridge, as well as conduct international poetry contests and host readings throughout the year.

3288 Review: What are you working on right now? Is any of your work scheduled for publication in the upcoming months?

Mary Buchinger: I am working on a number of different projects—some more experimental, some solidly lyrical. I was honored to be awarded a residency on Norton Island in Maine this summer and that gift of time in one of the most beautiful settings I’ve ever seen was richly productive. A couple of my poems from when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador are coming out this month—one in the Naugatuck River Review and another in Silver Birch Press. Also forthcoming are poems in Midway Journal, Wildness, and Salamander.