Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Wellington-based poet Mary Cresswell. Mary is currently engaged in a “virtual book tour” to promote her new book Nearest and Dearest (Steele Roberts), an illustrated book of satiric poetry. On a virtual book tour, the author appears for brief interviews on a range of blogs rather than visiting different places—a much more environmentally friendly approach. Mary has already been interviewed by Tim Jones http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.com/.

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Mary lives on the Kapiti Coast, though she’s also spent time living in the US, Germany and Japan. She holds a degree in history and English literature from Stanford University in California, and works as a freelance science editor and proofreader. Her first poetry book was the joint publication Millionaire’s Shortbread (University of Otago Press, 2003) with Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Macpherson, and Kerry Hines.

Mary, you often use particular forms for your poetry. I enjoyed the sonnets in Nearest and Dearest such as “The Rake’s Wife’s Progress” and “The Office Manager Addresses her Mirror” (a wonderful parody of Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” which begins “Shall I wear the Gucci scarf today/ It’s far more lovely and more corporate” – see Tim’s blog for the full poem). You also make good use of rhyme schemes in your book. What is it about form and rhyme that appeals to you?

Early brainwashing, I expect. I had poetry recited to me long before I could read. I finished university in 1958, when modernism was still modern; the long gap between then and when I started reading (much less writing) serious poems again meant that I am ignorant of most late twentieth-century poetics. Free verse doesn’t come comfortably to me. I can start something in free verse, but I end up trying to link elements to each other: perhaps alliteration, perhaps changing words so the same/similar vowel sound wanders along through the poem, perhaps dragging a whole line down through the stanzas (“The Pass at Grasmere”).

But I don’t think I have any favourite forms that I tend to default to. I read poetry as much as I write it, and I’m always pleased to come across a new way of linking words, or to be reminded of an old way. Poetry is very much a spectator sport, I think.

I’m interested in your writing process or writing habit. Do you set aside regular time for writing? Is there a special place you go to or is it something that can happen anywhere?

I try to write something, anything, first thing in the morning but often I don’t. I read something every day, always. There are a couple of web sites I subscribe to: PoemHunter.com (generally trad) and Poetry Daily (poems.com; contemporary). Those two cover a lot of weird and wonderful territory, and I am sure there are more places. One way or another, they get me thinking.

I write in my study—on the computer—drink vast amounts of coffee. When I’m stuck, I go for a long walk, put the whole mess out of my mind, and read a thriller. It doesn’t bother me at all to put a poem aside, to forget about it.

How do you think your poetry has changed and developed over the years? What has led to those changes?

It’s only about a dozen years, but yes, there have been changes. I am more prepared to play with form and invent forms, rather than follow a set recipe, than I used to be. This is sometimes driven by the content— “Bigfoot in Love” in N&D stomps along in trochees (STOMP stomp), throws an iambic paddy (stomp STOMP) and then returns in more trochees to a predictable life as a control freak; I wanted to illustrate inflexibility. I admire the US poet laureate, Californian Kay Ryan, who is extraordinarily laconic but still incorporates an elegant variety of rhyme variations throughout her poems. Paul Muldoon and Thom Gunn are great to read, if you like form and like to watch people working with it happily … Marilyn Hacker, Marie Ponsot (both from the US), P. K. Page (Canada). Harryette Mullen (US) surfs meaning in a wonderful way. They’ve all been an education to me.

You publish widely overseas as well as in New Zealand. Have you noticed any differences in editors’ tastes? Are some poems more likely to appeal to an editor from the United States than one from New Zealand?

Yes, but I think this is partly because the US scene is so much bigger: they have space for a wide variety of editors. I would think more than twice about sending an experimental (visual or words) or satiric poem or a parody to most New Zealand journals, and my impression is that formal poetry is only beginning to come back.

And I don’t know the extent to which editorial decisions are driven by funding, how editors feel obliged to accommodate particular points of view about poetry/art/whatever in order to survive. I was terribly lucky as a science editor, in that my main job was to facilitate getting good information to people who needed it. I worried about the budget, but I didn’t have to worry about metaphysical issues.

Can you tell us about the illustrations in Nearest and Dearest?

The illustrations were done by prize-winning freelance illustrator Nikki Slade Robinson, who was suggested by Roger Steele and worked directly from the text of the poems. I love what she’s done: when I have finished writing a poem, I tend to think well, that’s finished and then send it to a journal, but Nikki has drawn out and then illustrated a personality from the various poems. And this was always more than I had seen in the poems, an additional dimension.

Nikki has been an illustrator since 1989 and has illustrated many children’s books, as well as illustrating for the corporate, public and advertising sectors. She’s also illustrated books by poet Glenn Colquhoun. 2009 saw the release of her first book as an author: children’s book That’s not Junk! published by Penguin.

To find out more about Nikki’s work you can visit her website www.penandink.co.nz

Finally, do you have good acceptance/ rejection stories you’d like to share?

Actually, I don’t. I usually send editors a choice of poems, rather than putting all my hopes into one. When an editor rejects the lot, I usually feel, oh, well, I’m just not their cup of tea and start thinking of somewhere else. There’s the occasional editor who speaks for the universe when turning me down, tells me loud and clear that Olympus simply isn’t hiring tea-ladies. That’s really offensive, and I try to go for a very long walk on the beach when that happens. A few editors will tell me why my work doesn’t suit, and that is welcome, a rare event. … Acceptances I can live with!

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I can recommend Nearest & Dearest as a fine antidote to the recession. You can order copies here: http://www.steeleroberts.co.nz/

or here: http://www.fishpond.co.nz/

and read more about Mary here:

http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/Writers/Profiles/Cresswell,%20Mary