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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

You asked, no. 6: myth and beginning

Mary Boxley Bullington, "The King and the Fool"
Yes, this was made in response to some poems
from The Book of the Red King.
Private collection, New York.
Bullington-Youmans interview party, continued. In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other. This is Mary's second question for me, which I put first to be contrary in honor of "Mary, Mary, quite contrary." 


Bullington: One of the things I see that unifies your novels, including your "youth" novels and your poetry collections, is their creation of worlds informed by very personal myths and those acquired through a lifetime of reading. Greek myths, medieval alchemy, heroic poetry and family history all figure into the mix. Choose two or three of your works in different genres that you think exemplify this quality, and tell us a little about how you began writing them. What similarities do you see in this process?

Youmans: You know, Mary, that's a big fat festering thesis. You've got a lot (a vat, a cistern, a rocket-hold) of nerve! I wouldn't even try if anybody else asked me such a thing.

How you began writing them. I'll be flip and start with Thaliad because I started writing that one in my sleep and woke up with it in my head. I have no idea why the story slithered into my brain, complete with a frame-story justification of why an epic needed to be written in a post-epics world. (And yes, I have written other things in my sleep, and worked out directions to go in books in dreams. It's a delicious sensation. But perhaps I have dreamed much better books and forgotten them, as I seldom recall my dreams. Who can say? Perhaps on some shelf in an alternate universe, those books are waiting to be read.)

My favorite sensation in writing is when first drafts come as a kind of torrent, so that I feel washed away and lost in something larger than me. And I have had times like that, particularly in writing poetry. The Book of the Red King arrived in a great waterfall in the fall of 2010, though I'm still tinkering with it and arranging the poems in different orders. Again, I'm not quite sure where the poems came from. I just started writing them at such a great pace that it was clear almost immediately that it was going to be a long work. I'm not the only person to write of kings and fools; they're a part of our traditional furniture, brought over from the old world. But why these two are planted somewhere in the multiverse that is not quite our own world (though similar in many ways), and why they know about us (as is clear in several poems), I do not begin to know. Why do I feel so kindred to the Fool? Why should I embody so much of myself in a man? Why is the King so unpinned in his meaning, so that at one moment he is clearly a man, grieved by a loss, and at another something much larger?

Well, in those two cases, I would say that I paradoxically knew exactly what I was doing yet had no idea where the poems came from or why they started up when they did.

Perhaps I'll be more practical if I talk about fiction. A story like Catherwood came about because I was spending a single year in Cooperstown (little knowing that I would return for many more) and fell in love with snow at twilight and the landscape and the whole James Fenimore Cooper worship in the place. It was a little homage to the region and snow and local history. Glimmerglass has a kind of parallel--that is, after living there longer, I wanted to write something that would capture something of the fantastic that colors the place. Cooperstown is a tiny village in a setting of lake and hills and forests, but it has such strange features--mansion ruins, a castle in the lake (technically, on Point Judith, but it appears to be in the lake from the window in my writing room), a Norman tower in the woods, a mix-up between fiction and the common world with all the Cooper names and places, a sunken island, a stack of social layers that seems positively un-American, the infestation of ghosts throughout the village, the Cardiff giant, the faux village (historic buildings, artificial placement) of The Farmer's Museum, and more. Perhaps I began dreaming that one after a visit to the magical little gatehouse not far from The Fenimore Museum.

And in a way, something like A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage isn't all that different--two Georgia places are in my head so strongly that I can't get away from them. The sharecropped farm where my paternal grandparents lived is one, and clearly holds a kind of mythic resonance for me. In my thoughts, it's shared out in emblematic places and images--the dug well with its cool and ferns in the midst of hot, dry earth, the dark piney woods with its bubbling cauldron for making turpentine, the poison applied to fields of blooming tobacco, the dangerous crossing where the sows lay flopped with their young, or the stream with plum that I reached by following close behind my grandmother, a cudgel against snakes in her hands. The farm near Lexsy maintains a kind of formal quality in my mind, rather like a medieval hortus conclusus. To contemplate family history--my grandfather's two mixed-race half-brothers, say, or my great-grandfather the bridge builder, with his 22 legitimate children and at least the two more--within that landscape is to feel story rise up to fill some of the gaps. (Much about that landscape of heat and dust and endlessness and something of rural Southern character transferred itself to the Texas landscape in my new book, Maze of Blood.) Again, the Orphanage was one of those works that begins as an outpouring, as the first two chapters were written in a pell-mell rush. Did I know what would had happened to Otto? I had a growing sense of his fate as I began, but more importantly, the place and the flimsy house and porch were like a shadow on my mind. After the first two chapters, I had the problem of writing the rest of the book. Because nights aren't long enough to write a novel in one big rush!

It probably doesn't matter how a writer works--more that she does work, and that she makes art that is true to her own mode and her own mind. But I can't claim to be one of those writers who is analytical and planned-out in beginning a work. (Nor do I design my reading based on what I wish to write.) Instead, I seem to be--without a lot of conscious effort, but out of whatever comes to me in the shape of scene and event and memory--waiting on a kind of richness, that when it attains fullness, spills over into a poem or story.

I'm not sure that I haven't avoided answering your question on how I begin, and how my ways of beginning are similar. Perhaps it is meant to be mystery.


  1. Interesting aside you make in this very full answer--and I think you did answer the question: "(Nor do I design my reading based on what I wish to write.)" T think that after a while(and we are both 62 years old!), the reading and looking and living an artist has done over a lifetime bubble up as needed in our art. I seldom know what kind of line is going to extrude itself from my hand, or what kind of face is going to appear on the paper. But memory can be very providential--and surprising. Old New Yorker cartoons from the 50s and 60s meet with Roman centurions and Breck girls with soft, shimmering hair. Medieval writers had an interesting metaphor for this kind of creative scavenging and retrieval: Like bees we gather rich pollens from the far-flung meadows and little flowers of books and bring them back to the hive where they become a single honey.

    1. I usually stick to sourwood honey, but I swapped books one time for three kinds of honey. The one that was a mix of many deep South flowers was said to be, at times, intoxicating....

  2. Just wanted to pop in and say how much I'm enjoying this. Aspiring artists and writers need to see more of this so they learn that there's no one set of habits that fosters creation—and that the best interviews are conversations between peers.

    1. Oh, thanks, Jeff--lovely comment! I do see a lot of rather repetitive and rigid advice out there in the e-aether.

  3. Place seems to be central to your work Marly, and I'm happy to see that you affirm this in your answer.
    Mary, what a fabulous, multi-pronged question! You are a wonderful interviewer.

    1. It's true, though many other things are "central" as well. So when a great man things are central, what does central mean?

      Yes, she let me have it with that one!

  4. A brilliantly crafted, and answered question.
    When reading your work, Marly, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the variety of influences (place, history, mythology, religion, etc.) that gets woven into your poetry and novels. It can feel like diving joyously into 'life'. Naturally, I enjoyed your answer to this very 'seeing' question.

    Would it be possible, when this series of interview questions is completed here, to present them somewhere as a single document?

    1. Thanks, Paul--it was a good question! And maybe we should do that, if there's any interest. Well. There's yours!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.