Lisa Wells interviews Mary Hickman

HickmanMary Hickman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she received an Iowa Arts Fellowship. Her poems have been published in Boston Review, Colorado Review, jubilat, PEN American Poetry Series, and elsewhere. Her first book, This Is the Homeland, will be published by Ahsahta Press in May 2015.

Wells bio pic for omniverseLisa Wells is from Portland, Oregon. She’s the author of a book of essays, Yeah. No. Totally. (2011) and a chapbook, BEAST (2012). Her work appears in The Believer, Best New Poets, Denver Quarterly, Third Coast, The Iowa Review and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Iowa City.

A new poem by Mary Hickman follows the interview.

LW: How long were you working on this manuscript?

MH: Over 10 years. I started it when I was working in heart surgery so, around 2003.

LW: Tell me about working in heart surgery, where were you and what was that all about?

MH: I was living in Idaho and I was pre-med. I decided that it would be the best way to get some experience to put on my resume. So I trained to assist with open-heart surgeries as a surgical tech. And I did that for about three years.

You see in the movies where the surgeon says ‘scalpel’ and puts out his hand, and then a disembodied hand floats across and gives him the scalpel? I was the hand with the scalpel. And so I would help retract things and suction things and little things like that. One of my jobs was to hold the heart over while the surgeon worked on the back side.

LW: On the back side of the heart?

MH: Yeah. I would have to stay very still for very long amounts of time with my hand on the heart.

LW: Did you have tricks for maintaining stillness?

MH: I’d repeat, “don’t sneeze, don’t sneeze!” No sudden jerking motions…


LW: Holy shit. Did that make its way into the book?

MH: There are actually a couple of series that I wrote while I was working in open-heart surgery and one of them is pretty directly about that; about the body, fragility and how mechanical surgery itself becomes; so that it doesn’t feel like a human that you’re dealing with anymore, more like a series of tubes and systems, and you know… Everything is draped off except for the chest cavity and so that’s—so the human becomes just this little weird 8-inch—

LW: Box.

MH: Box.

LW: Wait, which poem is it that you’re referencing?

MH: That one’s “Territory.” It says, “Which box is this.” That’s one of the lines.

LW: Right, and, “This is the way to the steel table.” It’s where the book’s title comes from.

MH: Yeah. The poem was written before the show Homeland, and now I feel like the title is kind of strangely about surveillance and security in a way that fits in some ways and maybe doesn’t in others.

LW: It’s strange, the effect of a lot of these poems. I had this feeling like, on the one hand, the body is beautifully vulnerable, but also repulsive, something to be torqued and manipulated—I mean, it definitely seems the central material, or ‘the territory.’

MH: A painter who I love, Jenny Saville, she’s a British painter, one of the YBA painters. When she was in art school, very young, she painted these giant nudes, and they’re her own body but grotesque in scale, extremely fleshy and repulsive. She talks about flesh being beautiful and repulsive and all things. The way she works with flesh in paint, or even paint as flesh—a lot of places in the book are attempting that kind of sensation.

There’s a series in the book that was originally titled “How to be healthy and heal,” it’s a bunch of yoga inspired poems that are sort of contorting and in some ways dismembering and distorting. Bodies become insect bodies and then become human bodies again, and things are always being pushed around, bodies are being pushed into new shapes and forced to do different things. But there’s never really any healing that is achieved, it’s much more about the encounter.

LW: Right. That makes me think about the Mary character in the book. She’s subject to these, um, to this manipulation, but she’s also the one doing the manipulation. In the end of the book she’s in a garden where there’s sort of this Frankenstein laboratory, she’s producing bodies, so… I don’t know, are you Mary? That’s probably an annoying question.

MH: What I think is interesting about that question is it conflates two series in the book. In the Joseph and Mary series, the character Mary, obviously she’s the biblical character and also me. Of course, the Joseph character is also me, the writer.

There’s no Mary in the William poems, but there is an intense proprietary “I” that is the maker and the artist who wants the encounter… all of the longing and even—if relapse could be the word—the longing for the relationship to work in that first series (the Joseph and Mary series) and its collapse and relapse back into loneliness and despair. It starts the engine of desire up again when you enter the William poems, because they’re all about encounter, relationship, intimacy, and yes Frankenstein.

I was reading about the Golem, the Jewish folk hero, the man made from clay who comes to life and saves the people. I was also reading Frankenstein right when I began to write those. A friend had given me this amazing beautiful old book called The Complete Garden Encyclopedia. I think all of those combined to make a sort of witches brew. I was also newly in love. I had just started dating the man who was to become my husband, and I’d just gotten out of a relationship that ended in complete failure…

The struggle in the William poems with the character that is the “I” or speaker—there’s this desire to force the other into becoming the being that will save her, the being that is fully capable of not only connection but the kind of union that goes beyond that… the maker becomes remade in the image of the made.

LW: Yes. It feels to me that she’s vacillating between this covetous stance—William is so beautiful—but also, she disdains him.

MH: Some contempt out of that, but contempt for the way in which the other will never be able to fully meet her needs. I think it might be something as simple as that, maybe something as complicated as that. What is intimacy?

LW: What are your thoughts on the way the book hangs together? Its themes. I know that’s sometimes hard to articulate.

MH: I wrote one series per year for about a decade, so the themes do seem to follow one another. Because they follow my obsessions. Starting out in heart surgery and being really interested in the body and what it is to lose the feeling of the other as human, instead becoming pure mechanics, pure body, then moving forward into relationships and trying to find out what it is to really know another. What is it to be a self without dissolving into the other.

One of the very last series in the book, “Remembering Animals,” I wrote after my brother in law’s suicide. It’s a series that thinks about shame and guilt, and it thinks about redemption. Can we be redeemed?

I was reading Akira Lippit’s book Electric Animal, and had been reading Derrida’s Ecce Animot. And I was thinking… Derrida’s thinking about the human encounter and the encounter with the animal—he was thinking about it in terms of ethics, the ethical encounter. Akira Lippit is thinking in terms of the animal becoming media image, the animal having disappeared from its own animalness, and instead becoming totem in ways, digital totem. So all of that combined to think about ‘what is the body,’ and ‘what is the body once spirit is gone’. And so I continued asking poetry those questions and hoping that poetry would give me the answers.

LW: What are the questions?

MH: Can we have something beyond the sad mechanics of the surgery room? The monotonous routine feeling of life and the body becoming, I don’t know, physical manifestations that don’t have charge or seem to lose a certain charge in their monotony and redundancy. What is that charge? What is spirit? How do we heal spirit if it’s broken? How do we have encounters with others that retain spirit and don’t just devolve into a kind of attempt to meet our own needs?

LW: Objectification.

MH: Yeah. Objectification.

LW: That reminds me. I’m guessing this was a choice by the designer, but the first two pages open with an excerpt from the book in large type, “I’M HERE TO FIND OUT / HOW TO LEAVE WITH THE SELF” I think it’s so striking. Can you talk a little bit about how that frames the work?

MH: That was my brilliant editor Janet Holmes who suggested that. It’s from a series named “The Pool.” It’s much quieter than some of the other series. It pulls back to be the lens of the camera and asks this question, through the mediated image, how do we come through, come across, experience our world and so much of it in this mediated way and still leave with the self? It becomes one of the major questions in the book because there is an intensity or intention, both I think, in the language, in how much sound is foregrounded throughout the book, how much sound is relied upon for hinges and hitches, all the different gaps and bumps and hops that are happening across lines or within lines. It has to do with the language wanting to draw attention to itself, so it’s not a simple—one could say naïve—act of pure communication but one that’s aware of its own acrobatics.

LW: You talk about sound becoming hinges or hitches, those places in the book provide moments of exuberant pleasure –I mean, it’s a serious book, but fun, too.

MH: There are one or two dirty jokes.

LW: There are great dirty jokes.

MH: I don’t know if my Mom got those when she read it.

LW: Where to go from there? … “Do you pray Mary, do you then suddenly vigorously care?”1

MH: It’s a good question. That’s another thing going on with this book. I was raised by bible smuggling missionaries. My parents were part of a large bible smuggling ring. Maybe I actually shouldn’t say that on the Internet.

LW: We can edit it out.

MH: Maybe I won’t say where they were. So my parents were missionaries and I grew up all over Asia in these various evangelical communities but feeling like a—well they have a term for it; it’s “third culture kid.” That’s what they call you if you don’t really feel like you fit in the country you’re born in, but you don’t really feel like you fit in in the country that you’re being raised in. So you’re always feeling uncomfortable no matter what the situation is.

It breeds a desperate longing for acceptance and community, and the other part—I was constantly thinking about religious issues or even about spiritual issues. Issues of faith, what do I believe, what don’t I believe, what is it to take your entire life and make it about telling other people they should believe what you believe, which is, if you break it down, what missionaries do.

At times in my life I was very involved in religious communities, of course, because of the way I was raised. And then I think poetry took the place of religion for me. It became the place where I could ask these questions. The place where it was okay not to have the answers.

LW: You definitely feel the religion…

MH: The William figure has a kind of Christ figure wrapped in.

LW: But it doesn’t feel like it’s organizing the poems, just sort of bleeding into them.

MH: I think that’s exactly why poetry is the place to take this, and to think openly with myself, because it doesn’t have to become rigid, it never has to clearly take a side. The very nature of language as a medium means there’s going to be fluidity and change, to pin something down in language is to temporarily pin it.

LW: When this consciousness is negotiating the invention of the man, the Christ-like figure, William… It’s like she’s inventing their world by speaking it. She’s throwing it out there, and it frustrates her, the response frustrates her, and then she bends it. Or says the opposite. You know what I mean? There’s a testing of reality by saying something is true and then pushing against it.

MH: Always resistance.

LW: Yeah.

MH: That’s what interests me in the work of others. You hear Berryman echoed pretty strongly in the William series—

LW: —you do.

MH: I would call him a writer of great spirit. In both senses, spirit in his extreme buoyance that the syntax is able to hold, even within some very dark poems. And spirit in what’s always being pushed at or probed at… You know, they aren’t just acts of ego, they’re desperate acts as well, there’s a desperation of spirit behind it.

Another great ghost in the book would be Spicer. Reading Spicer as a young poet, (and I was lucky to find him pretty young, in my very early twenties,) I had a model for how to take the plain spoken and then shove it right up next to a springy, almost Hopkins-like syntax at the next instant, so you could fall into a rhythm, you could fall into a meter, but not for long. Spicer is razor sharp about this; you know he will never let himself go on tricks. He always wants to have the disruption there of the full stop, the pulling up short and casting around. His work could be seen as a series of dramatic utterances, and he himself is obsessed with intimacy, relationships, the dead, you know, the Underworld…

Yeah, formally I would say—uh, I’m trying to remember what has taught me the most formally—I think that the pairing of someone who is riding the meter like Berryman, or even thinking about Shakespeare, the ways he is twisting his sonnets… I’d pair that with Donne. I’ve spent enormous amounts of time reading and rereading the Holy Sonnets, I think I’m drawn to them because of my religious upbringing, and I’m in love with them for their metrical anomalies, the ways they force their points through sound and sense… Investigate their points would be another way to say it.

LW: I think the temptation, the glib response, is to talk in terms of high and low but it’s actually more about capaciousness, right? Like, this is a big ass room so why stay in the corner?

Well, we don’t have to talk about it in creepy po-biz terms, but why don’t you tell me a little bit about your journey to the book. You’ve been with it in some capacity for ten years. Were you sending it out?

MH: I had not been sending it out. I had not even been sending the poems in it out.

LW: How come?

MH: I think because they don’t separate neatly into single poems, you know? They are so interconnected and interdependent across the length of the book that I only occasionally did send them. The William poems were originally published in Can We Have Our Ball Back? Do you remember Can We Have Our Ball Back?

LW: Sounds familiar.

MH: Oh, amazing, amazing journal. So they were published pretty early on and they—it was one of my first times ever sending anything out and the editor wrote me back pretty quickly and loved them and put them up all at once.

LW: All of them.

MH: That’s when I realized, “Ah the Internet is actually going to open up a lot of opportunities for people like me who write longer poems.” But beyond that I was just sitting with them, and thinking.

To go back to Spicer again… You know I have almost every single one of his first editions and I wrote an essay about them, about encountering these handmade intimate objects. I mean they’re handmade in some sense and mimeographed, but mimeographed by friends, with love. The last stand-alone poem that he wrote before embarking on book-length series, I think, was the Imaginary Elegies. He was responding to and interacting with the Duino Elegies. And in fact took on a similar process. I think Rilke wrote the first five walking along the cliffs in Duino, and then wrote the rest of them maybe 10 or 15 years later? The same thing happened with Spicer’s Imaginary Elegies, he wrote the first part and then years later finished them.

That kind of time and duration and coming back to it— that was the approach I took with my own adaptation, the Visionary Elegies, which are in the book. The first half were written walking along the cliffs in Duino, I was asking the muses ‘Bring me my elegies!’ Of course, it never works out so smoothly and then they were finished much later.

LW: When was this?

MH: This was 2003. Before I came to Iowa… He has those wonderful “Vancouver lectures” that Peter Gizzi recovered in The House that Jack Built. Peter’s essay in the book, it’s such a beautiful essay – he talks about the serial poem, you know, and talks about poems as rooms that you enter and move through. The poems talk to each other within the book.

So, for me the sequences came pretty evenly spaced across the length of the decade.

LW: And then simultaneously you were writing prose poems.

MH: Yes, and I blame getting an English PhD. I blame it on that because I was spending so much of my life in prose. And I was also obsessed, and actually still am, with reading transcribed artist interviews. I love the way that the artist interview sounds when it’s written out. All of the pauses and stutters and the backtracking and the kind of thought that fragments and then recurs later—

LW: Yeah.

MH: I became kind of obsessed with the way they sound and pulled that into a kind of ekphrastic, um, you know, maybe meditation on these different kinds of paintings that I’ve also been obsessed with.

LW: Are you aware of your production of it as we speak?

MH: That I’m doing it right now?

LW: That you’re the artist.

MH: Oh yeah, It’s true! It will be delightful to hear how this—

LW: —You’ve probably assimilated it

MH: Hopefully. They are so well trained in how they talk about their art. The artist statement is something I think they teach you in grad school.

LW: Mary, you sound pretty well trained.

MH: So, yeah, and then to play with the artist statement itself and the kind of ridiculous futility of our attempt to say anything at all about what we’ve made—as if we could.

LW: The artist statement where you say what you’re doing and then just completely subvert it and claim the opposite.

MH: And to be okay with those kinds of contradictions, to say it’s both things. It’s neither thing.

LW: Talk about when the book was accepted. How did that happen?

MH: So, ten years is a long time (laughter). One watches one’s peers producing and publishing and thinks ‘maybe my pace is too slow.’ But I just didn’t see it as a book, it hadn’t come together as a book. And then I took a weekend fiction workshop with the brilliant fiction writer Robert Anthony Siegel. It was a workshop in which, over the course of two days you write a short story—which I’d never—you know, I’d written one a long time ago but it was really melodramatic and ridiculous. I think someone died of cancer in it. Over the course of the weekend I wrote a story about a woman who travels to Duino and has a fight with her lover. It was, of course, thinly veiled autobiography! And it was very thrilling because you’re writing it in class, you’re reading it out loud to one another so you’re hearing everyone else’s stories develop, and the energy of creation is so, so reviving in some way. Right? Like a flattened spirit is instantly revived.

I went home, woke up the next morning and I just knew, I knew where the poems belonged, I knew what the book was, I just knew it. I finished it and sent it out and it was very exciting. I was very excited to have it accepted also.

LW: Can I just say, this line is disturbing: “why save ‘em?”2 It gives me the willies in a good way.

MH: I felt shame about how burnt out I was. I’m crawling out of bed at three in the morning as a full-time student for an aortic aneurism, and you know, aortic aneurisms mostly don’t end well. So you’re dragging yourself out of bed in the dead of night dead, dark of winter, and you’re off on a hopeless mission. And that feeling of why even bother? created a lot of guilt and shame for me. I wanted to see myself like a valiant heroine off to help save the patient.

LW: Thanks for not rendering that shame in flowery-contrite or abstract-intellectual terms. I think that’s what makes the line so disturbing, it pops off the page because it’s a contraction and casual. You’re not sparing yourself.

MH: I had an amazing teacher when I was working in heart surgery, who I met at a yard sale. It was pure providence. She gave me this great advice, Cathy Wagner. She was hard on me – encouraging but hard – she said, “In these poems the narrator feels so precious about herself, I don’t think you feel precious about yourself.” That liberated me. You know, after an upbringing where you’re always trying to please and to be palatable, to have the freedom to be a bit aggressive, to tell it like it is.

LW: Do you feel like your religious upbringing accentuated this Mind-Body split or Spirit-Body split?

MH: As in, if I were a Buddhist I wouldn’t think of things in such binary terms?

LW: I don’t know, I mean, you’re writing this book that’s all about making a coherent self, do you feel—not dissociated, but split?

MH: Well, the poems themselves are physical acts of language, like they become bodies, they are the body. So it takes the pressure off of me thinking about the body mind split because they’re always both at once, right? They are always thinking and enacting at the same time.

LW: As an aside, reading these poems I remembered, well, I’m an EMT—I don’t know if you know that—but I did my rotations at this ER in Fresno, and they asked me to bag a dead body for practice (respirate), you know, this guy was already dead when they brought him in. All of these residents wanted to inject the guy’s corpse with—they were trying out procedures before graduation basically. So I’m bagging him and eyes are wide open, just so obviously gone…

MH: Working heart surgery I’ve seen many people die. But the only person I knew was my grandfather. I saw the corpse and it was shocking to me how different it was from the living being.

LW: Yes.

MH: Seeing my grandfather made much more of an impression than all of the patients I saw die, because I had just met them that morning. I tried not to get very involved. I often asked the nurses if I could skip the part of going out to get the patient. Because if they died it was harder. It was harder, how little I felt… I fought with that. Absence of feeling.

LW: So, bodies all becoming different bodies, in the later poems. Maybe this is reachy but, did you like that Neutral Milk Hotel record, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea?

MH: I did own that on vinyl.

LW: Because there are things in that record that remind me of your book.

MH: No, I love Neutral Milk Hotel, I would say that’s one of my favorite bands.

LW: Especially the garden of the bodies stuff, the floral organs, floral but also machine-like. The floral pistons of the reproductive system—

MH: I love Neutral Milk Hotel for the same reasons that when I was 13 I became completely enraptured with Tori Amos. Because—and it was not for her Olympic piano humping skills, I mean those of course are a plus, but it was because she would sing these things that didn’t make a lot of sense but created sensation and made total emotional sense.

I chased her down with a shot of Sylvia Plath for similar reasons. I mean Sylvia Plath, she’s always very precise and saying something, right? She intends her utterances completely. But the images, she allows them to become—

LW: I’m not trying to usurp your biography but I was insane for Tori Amos. Obviously, I was a Sylvia Plath fan. Maybe just the cultural prescription for “alternative” girls.

MH: Yeah, maybe if you owned Doc Martens in the ’90s you were also listening to Tori Amos, and reading Sylvia Plath, and smoking clove cigarettes. Oh dear god.

But both Tori Amos and Sylvia Plath would take an image and the way that they phrased the image it became both alive and ungettable, you knew you could never own it, or consume it, and yet all it did was kind of create a desire for consumption within you because of its beauty and strangeness. I think they’re both great masters of allure.

LW: That’s interesting.

MH: They’re also honest about their own pain and I think when you’re fourteen you want to hear somebody being honest about their pain. It’s a hard age.

LW: I still want that! … They’re both so in the other world too, you know?

MH: Oh, they’re both obsessed with the underworld –

LW: Yeah being manipulated by—

MH: I should find a goth looking 14 year old and ask her.

LW: They’re probably still listening to the same shit we did.

MH: I’m still just listening to The Smiths and Built to Spill, I maybe haven’t moved on.

LW: No, I know, I’ve returned to all of it, too. It feels more honest. But I’m probably just being nostalgic.

Okay Mary, this book’s been a long time coming. Anything else you’d like to be asked?

MH: Hmm… Well, one of the things that I myself have battled is this feeling that I didn’t want to publish, or throw my hat in the ring, because I didn’t want to have to deal with the pride and fear that come with making a big gamble. The vulnerability, too. I thought I was avoiding both pride and fear and what I saw as an ego battle that everyone was engaged in, or a kind of grasping for territory… Also, it’s scary to put out a book, because you think no one will read it, which, of course, it’s poetry, so—

LW: —depending on your definition of no one.

MH: No one, as in not a single person, not even my mother. That’s the fear. That you cannot even get your mother to read it.

But now, I have a different idea of poetic communion. I want to have this object that represents 10 years of giving myself over to artistic endeavor, which is painful and full of fear, and at times can feel like a losing endeavor—I want to be able to hold that object in my hands and trade it with another poet who’s done the labor of facing their own void over and over again in their hands, and exchanging that gift we get to open one another’s imaginative worlds through the act of reading one another’s work. That’s the thing I’m most excited about.

1. From “Joseph & Mary.” back

2. From “Territory.” back


When the violence began, it was less like violence and more like parades. Students flooded the streets with bodies, horns—a hysterical mass surging forward, black and red banners pierced with holes, bodies stumbling as if hallucinating or asleep and I want to say I am unable to write this. Or I want to say that there are two Chinas and I can recover each with ease. I sometimes introduce myself as my child self or to write a bio I’d start with childhood. I was raised in China and sent to boarding school in Taiwan. But so much about past and present is absent in this. What does China have to do with this portrait, this moment? I tell myself stop looking, or look into the water; see the Medusa’s self-coupling in wet concrete. Evading house arrest, we fled. We boarded a plane headed south. It was rare to travel by plane in China then but the trains had stopped moving. Students lay across the tracks. The government ordered conductors to drive on, but the conductors said, “These are our children.” I’ve lived alone all my life, but I never became lonely. I thought I was lucky. Things happen when you’re alone. Now, what I make myself consider before the image will appear is that there are two images. When a surgeon puts his hand through a woman’s breast or I smell the burning face peel back, reveal youth, I think of it. It’s fantastic—what people think they want. I want twenty-two rooms filled with twenty-two paintings and to run room-to-room, stanching the flow of paint. There’s no work that survives and I worry that I’ve touched flesh, contaminated the space. When the secret service arrived, I had just started a home perm and tied my head in plastic. One agent searched the apartment while another forced me to sit on the floor. He refused to let me rinse my hair and it melted to brown jelly. This memory is my mother’s memory. Or it is my memory of my mother, remembering. Have I manipulated her body into the form of the body I have known? I will the body solvent. And when I look again, my appearance has changed. I have rid the curtains, the things keeping me from seeing. I have rid the things I oppose. I hate a homely atmosphere. I want to isolate the body away from interior and home. Which is its knownness. Envisioning a face still young, I see red hair splayed on the pillow, an image of a childhood that, infinite, dissolves wordlessly out of memory. Here are the plates, the etchings that happen. I can blink my eyes, turn my head slightly, and then realize I’ve turned toward precise desire, a coagulation of color, of oil. The China we left behind in Beijing is a world we could not imagine until it arrived. And here is the China I have made into memory. Cutting, layering—all the alterations I made to the first image flatten into a reflective plate. An apricot chin, the shine of a jellied cheek. Flesh is so close to paint, and grafts, melts in heat. Is she a specific person? Is she related to a specific body? We want to know. And in the photo, of course, we’ve disturbed her.