Writer Margaret S. Mullins divides her time between rural Maryland and downtown Baltimore. Her work has appeared in Alehouse, Loch Raven Review, Creekwalker, Magnapoets, New Verse News, The Sun, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Sugar Mule, OVS and others. She is a Pushcart nominee, editor of Manorborn 2009: The Water Issue (Abecedarian Press) and author of Family Constellation (Finishing Line Press, 2012.) Her poetry has appeared on Writer’s Almanac and been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR.
In this interview with Editor Dariel Suarez, Margaret talks about her awe and anger at the world, about people, and about the lovely amalgam of disparate biological and cultural heritages that is her granddaughter Eeva. She also has some advice for aspiring poets who are looking to get serious about their work.
DS: Your work deals with different social and cultural issues or questions. What draws you to these themes?
MM: People are interesting. How and where they grew up, the baggage they haul around, choices they make, what work they do, their communities, the forces that shape them. Much of that is driven by cultural trappings and the economic, political and educational opportunities or restrictions imposed upon them. Holocaust survivors, undocumented immigrants, corrupt politicians, the homeless. Seven+ billion subjects for observation and poems!
DS: How has your background influenced your poetry. How does it differ from some of the characters and people that you explore in your work?
MM: I was raised in small-town Minnesota on a hill between two lakes, with loving parents, two sisters, cats and dogs, swimming, skating, good schools--and no clue that the whole world didn’t live like I did. Working with the Peace Corps in Bolivia, studying international public health, living in DC and Baltimore, and reading the paper changed that. Surrounded by racism, inequality of income, xenophobia, unresponsive and/or repressive government policy and environmental degradation, I also see the nobility that bubbles up through that despite the odds. And since I am not an organizer or activist, I write.
DS: Who would you say are your main influences as a writer?
There are writers I deeply admire whose work always triggers me to think ‘I wanna write just like that.’ They include Carolyn Forche’s stunning political poems, Wislawa Szymborska’s light touch with devastating subject matter, David Chorlton’s ever-insightful writing about the environment, Li Young Lee’s heartbreakingly beautiful sense of his ancestry, Billy Collins’ playfulness, Baltimore’s own Lucille Clifton’s frank and feminist poems, Joyce Sutphen’s poems that capture the added dimension and poignancy of everyday life, and on and on. Probably the inspiration for individual poems that I write comes mostly from combined awe and/or anger at the world I live in.
DS: Could you share some details as to how the poems featured in Middle Gray, "Boots" and Eeva," came about?
MM: “Boots” is a simple observational poem of undocumented immigrants waiting for day labor and their lives that result from the fear, unfairly low pay, and difficulty of cultural disruption from their countries and families. They and we all live in a country that pays lip service to its proud heritage of welcoming immigrants at the same time that present-day immigrants, looking to improve their lives and those of their families here and abroad, are made to feel unwelcome.
“Eeva” came about because I had made a patchwork quilt for my first granddaughter. It became abundantly clear that I am not a skilled seamstress, so when Elisa Eeva was born a year later, and I wanted to honor her birth but not repeat the bloody fingers of the quilt caper, I wrote my first poem. Our daughter (her mother) was adopted from El Salvador and married a Finnish man she met while studying abroad, so their Eeva is a lovely amalgam of the disparate biological and cultural heritages described in the poem.
DS: How was the experience of having your poetry read by Garrison Keillor on NPR?
MM: Very, very cool. I grew up on Minnesota hotdish not far from Lake Woebegone, where all the children, like Eeva, are above average.
DS: How important do you think it is for young people in the United States to read poetry nowadays?
MM: As long as kids are reading--comics, sci-fi, series books--it matters not how early or what they read. They will, sooner or later, discover that Shel Silverstein and Pablo Neruda are the heroes and that they can see the world in a whole different light.
DS: What advice would you give to aspiring poets who are starting to get serious about their work and putting together their first book?
MM: Learn about form, diction, line breaks, sounds, rhyme, meter, tone, and all the other fascinating elements of poetry, then use/change/discard what you want to write better poems. I found university poetry writing classes very valuable at the beginning and continue to take workshops when I can. I feel strongly that having a few trusted people to read and critique poems is critical to the writing and revision process—find someone who is a skilled poet, honest, considerate, fun to spend long hours with, and likes vegetable korma. The submission and rejection process and getting a book together can be tedious, even soul-crushing, so find a writing partner who is a least 50% psychotherapist.
DS: What are you currently working on, and where can readers find more of your poetry?
MM: I am currently revising a novel that I wrote as a NaNoWriMo exercise a few years ago. Because of the manic writing of 50,000 words in one month, it is a Sisyphean editing task which I have put off so that I could stare out the window at bluejays splashing around in the birdbath.
Every day I write a short “musing” about something I’m thinking about, a sort of journal, sometimes about the natural world, sometimes about washing dishes, sometimes a rant about what is going on in the world or nation, often about my four grandchildren who are a constant source of comedy and poetic inspiration, sometimes about plotting the demise of the damned groundhogs who make their home under the shed. Sometimes full poems will emerge from these jottings, sometimes not. At the end of the year I put the musings together, choose a photo from the year for front and back, get the grandkids to add illustrations, and have a couple dozen printed at Staples for family and close friends.
In addition to poems published in journals (Google for links), I have a chapbook of poems, Family Constellation (Finishing Line Press.) I also edited an anthology of water poems and photographs; Manorborn: The Water Issue (Abecedarian Press,) which was actually a far more satisfying experience than the chapbook. I loved the editing process, however OCD it was, and the community of contributors that grew from it.