Michael David Blanchard interviews Mary Gilliland  

This is an excerpt of an interview conducted by Michael David Blanchard, editor of Slant, a journal of poetry produced by the University of Central Arkansas. This excerpt appears here with the specific permission of Blanchard, also a poet and an adjunct professor at UCA.

Mary Gilliland’s newest book of poetry is The Devil’s Fools, reviewed at Southern Literary Review by Marina Brown. Gilliland has also published widely in other print and online literary journals and most recently anthologized in Rumors Secrets & Lies: Poems about Pregnancy, Abortion, & Choice; Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in Contemporary Poetry and Prose; and Nuclear Impact: Broken Atoms In Our Hands. She is a past recipient of the Stanley Kunitz Fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and a Council on the Arts Faculty Grant from Cornell University, where she created and taught seminars such as “Ecosystems & Ego Systems” and “America Dreaming.” Her latest collection, The Devil’s Fools won the Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry Award.

Michael Blanchard

MB: Mary, thanks for carving time out of your schedule to visit with me. I want to begin by congratulating you on the release late last year of your newest collection of poems, The Devil’s Fools, by Codhill Press and for earlier receiving the Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry Award for the manuscript prior to its publication. On what basis was The Devil’s Fools selected for that honor?

Mary Gilliland

MG: Michael, I am thrilled to be engaging in this conversation with you. I directed your first question to James Sherwood, my publisher at Codhill Press, and feel both humble and proud by his response:

The Devil’s Fools was chosen as the winner out of a field of over 250 submissions because it was a superb collection of poems that, in important ways, hews close to Codhill’s mission to “aid the serious seeker,” and “To serve our memory of what is truly important: that the writer should be a guide.” Moreover, whatever rubrics or heuristics one might use for evaluation tend to crumble when applied to poetry. It’s fine to consider whether individual poems are “good,” (artful? technically proficient? well-constructed? meaningful? complex? multi-layered?) or if a collection is well-organized, if it coheres—but how does one measure transcendence? At the end of the day, the criteria distill down to a gestalt—what the reviewer feels. Emily Dickinson is instructive, here. She once wrote in a letter, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Similarly, an internal lodestone pulls me in a direction, and I listen. Here, the lusciousness of the language, the mythic scope, and the attention to the natural world all contribute to the overall feeling of the work and allowed it to rise above. 

MB: And was it at Cornell [University] that you met the poet Peter Fortunato [Mary Gilliland’s husband]?

MG: The circle comes round here: a mutual friend introduced us at a poetry reading Ken was giving in that cappuccino coffeehouse! And the rest is history. A lifetime relationship is a challenging and rewarding spiritual practice.

MB: And after you graduated from Cornell, you and Peter moved south to North Carolina. What was that experience like for you?

MG: That young couple began to learn who we were when we moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where Peter was the Randall Jarrell Fellow in the MFA program at UNC-G. The art department was a small graduate program then and hired me as the model. Professor Peter Agostini flew down each week from New York City. I worked the same classes all year. Modeling helped grow my rudimentary meditation skills: my first assignment was the four-hour sculpture class. The second year, Peter occasionally joined me on the stand. We had fun with the artists. Martha Dunigan, who helped found Artworks Gallery and taught at the North Carolina School for the Arts in Winston-Salem for many years, did her Master’s thesis on my back, in woodblock prints and sculptures. The kiln was in the sculpture studio. We still have small statues of ourselves weathering in our garden. My chapbook The Ruined Walled Castle Garden has a poem about a model who takes up the brush and becomes a successful artist.

MB: For a nature lover such as yourself, North Carolina must have been like heaven.

MG: Oh, the flora! The summer after I graduated, I started identifying plants on my walks. Greensboro was a new world! The glory of magnolia and jasmine blossoms is matched only by their scent! North Carolina has more varieties of plants than any other state in the lower 48. With a copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus in hand, I learned to forage for the edibles: purslane, chickweed, walnuts. Then kudzu arrived, began to prosper, teaching me about invasives, which have increased there and everywhere — the ecosystem is constantly learning to rebalance.

MB: And were you doing much writing of your own during that period?

MG: My very first published poem was in the Greensboro Review. We met Teo Savery and Alan Brilliant when they moved with Unicorn Press to Greensboro. The literary life was of course alive with readings. And a campus librarian must have shared our interests; acquisitions included a steady stream of newly translated Asian Buddhist works, especially Japanese Zen. I remember the thrill of finding Hakuin and Dogen on the new book shelves.

Some of our friends chose to rent in the country, where you could find a place with a cold-water kitchen sink and an outhouse. You might say that crucial period of time created the people who were ready for an invitation that came our way the following year.

MB: And that invitation led to one of the chapters of your life that I find most intriguing — the period you spent living and studying with Gary Snyder in California. How did that experience come about?

MG: Yes, a year and a half in the Sierra foothills, with a break to earn money shingling houses in Sausalito. We shared an address with Gary and his family: Kitkitdizze on Allegheny Star Route. At a wild party after he gave a poetry reading in Chapel Hill, Gary and I did a lot of dancing. He invited Peter and me to drive across the country in our Volkswagen bus in order to live with his family at Kitkitdizze, sit zazen in the morning, and be free day labor for the creation of Oak Tree School in North San Juan. This was a five-building project that residents in the backwoods, many of whom were still constructing their own homes, had secured by underbidding the Teamsters.

I’d been devoted to Gary’s poetry since high school, had introduced Peter to it in college, and we’d been practicing Buddhism and trying to learn carpentry. So this was a good fit all around, inspiration that lasted a lifetime. Gary suggested I study English itself, the origins and the development of the language — which was also a good fit because in college I’d all but majored in Anglo-Saxon; reading Otto Jesperson and other linguists and historians of language was a natural next step. Gary Snyder also introduced me to HD, and I cannot say enough for her accomplishment and inspiration, particularly her book-length works about World War II and the Trojan War. Even as a small child dreaming over anthologies of verse, I perceived poetry as not only representing the world but also changing it.

Apprenticeship with Gary Snyder was partly about poetry but mostly about life: backwoods off-grid skills, studies of the great Dharma texts, trail-finding and maintaining with other households, taking communal Sunday saunas at KKD, building a community and its structures under the majestic Ponderosa Pines. Late one afternoon resting at our campsite, Peter and I heard musical silvery voices. We followed them into the woods; they were always the same distance away. Gary’s response around the fire pit that night was “Next time, try to hear the fairies’ words.”

You can follow Mary Gilliland on her website www.marygilliland.com and you can find out more about her award-winning new collection, The Devil’s Fools, at https://sunypress.edu/Books/T/The-Devil-s-Fools.



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