Tag Archives: Mary Alexandra Agner

Intermittent Visitors: Mary Alexandra Agner

  Mary Alexandra Agner is the author of the poetry collections The Scientific Method (Parallel Press, 2011) and The Doors of the Body (Mayapple Press, 2009), as well as Olivia & the Experiments, short stories funded by her Kickstarter backers to subvert scientist stereotypes with LEGO fanfic.

Her work has appeared in Astropoetica, Eye to the Telescope, Goblin Fruit, inkscrawl, poemeleon, Stone Telling, Strange Horizons and other magazines too numerous to name (a complete list is here).

Her advanced degrees include Earth & planetary science and creative writing. She is a freelance science writer working with Under the Microscope, Argonne National Laboratory, and other markets.

1. What is your writing process?

Idea descends, put words on paper, revise until better.

Getting ideas does really feel like walking through a mess of insects while I’m in web mode: they just come from the air. I usually can’t start on one until I have a phrase or a voice saying something; it’s always the sound of the words that gives me the energy to break into writing.

It takes a lot of practice to keep writing once the voice or sound have spun themselves out, but if I know that the piece isn’t done, I just switch into writing down what *should* be going on, questions if I’ve got nothing else. And when I say a lot of practice, I mean years of it. This is the disheartening part because it’s like the Muse, should you believe in her, has glanced out the window, taking her gaze off of me, training wheels all gone, and wouldn’t it be easier just to fall off?

I rely entirely on my ear to tell me when a piece has been sufficiently revised: I read and re-read listening for unpleasant jangles. And then re-fashion the sound of the jangles.


2. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your most recent book?

Olivia & the Experiments has two sources, a personal one and a public one.

I was intrigued by the new LEGO line of blocks “for girls” because one of the characters has an inventor’s workshop and I desperately wanted her to be the kind of girl who did real science with it while wearing pastels and hair ribbons.

The public source are my Kickstarter backers, who funded me to write four stories about Olivia doing real science showcasing that many traits typically considered feminine are a strength in science, such as communication and collaboration.

Additionally, the backers dictated the science in the stories as well as who made cameo appearances. Olivia has a run-in with an NMRI machine, gets up close and personal with an onion nuclear membrane, resurrects Dorothy Hodgkin’s Nobel-prize winning work, and solves a puzzle with a only a telescope and clear seeing.


3. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I have learned the hard way that “no surprise in the writer no surprise in the reader” is true. I often think of interesting things to say but I have found that while they may feel like conclusions, I need to write *from* them into I know-not-what. Into the surprise. Writing clarifies things for the writer—not necessarily the things it communicates to the reader!—but the writer must learn from that act, not just regurgitate.


This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Conspiracy of Leaves

For day one of Back to the Future, I interviewed Wendy Babiak, the author of Conspiracy of Leaves (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s). Her poetry has also appeared in a wide variety of periodicals, including:

Readers can see some of the birth of your forthcoming Wonder Woman sonnets at Poets & Writers Speakeasy. Tell us about that project.

It actually started over a year ago, during April (National Poetry Month), on Facebook. I was writing a poem a day and posting them as notes. Being spring, I was also doing too much gardening, etc., and I had posted a status update that listed some of what I was up to. Robyn Nelson, a longtime online friend carried over to FB from a women’s forum elsewhere, called me Wonder Woman, chiding me in the nicest possible way for taking on too much. (I have Fibromyalgia, so when I push myself too hard I sometimes end up incapacitated for a day or two.) Which sparked the first poem. Then, over the next couple of weeks, for a number of status updates, Robyn would respond with another Wonder Woman comment, and I’d respond to that with another poem. Eventually they began to take on their own life, and now there’s a full narrative arc. I’ve got a few more sonnets to write to complete the sequence (I expect I’ll have around twenty all told), and then I’m going to write a long narrative poem mixing sections of blank verse and Rime Royale, charting her progress in her search for self and meaning after leaving the Justice League: “Wandering, Wonder Woman Wonders What Makes Home.” Having lost her powers for letting herself be tied with her own lasso of truth, she’s going to be traveling by bike.

I’m enjoying the juxtaposition of pop culture material with traditional form. They are, in effect, me laughing at myself for the earnestness of Conspiracy of Leaves, with which, as I’ve said, I’m hoping to save humanity from itself and its destructive tendencies. A project that is, as we all know, pretty laughable. But being the kind of writer I am, I can’t help but infuse them with social commentary, in this case, commentary with a feminist perspective.

Five of the sonnets are being published starting August 31 at No Tell Motel. And very soon I’m being filmed reading them for a documentary in the making, The History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman. (You can see the trailer here.)

Favourite poem?

Robinson Jeffers’s “Flight of Swans.” Thanks for asking, because you made me get up and read it again. Before I discovered that poem, it was either Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” or Bishop’s “The Fish.” I have a strange relationship with Jeffers. I had never heard of him until someone online said I sounded like him. Then I went digging him up, and found a kindred spirit. With whom I quarrel endlessly, while simultaneously commiserating.

What are you reading right now?

I’m re-reading Amy King’s Slaves to Do These Things in preparation for writing a review. I’m also reading Marge Piercy’s The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing, Philip Whalen’s The Collected Poems, H.D.’s Helen in Egypt (out loud to my husband) and two books of non-fiction. The first: Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. I’m an agnostic (I believe that certainty about the unknowable is a large part of humanity’s problem), but she makes a point cogently that the symbol of God functions, and therefore it’s necessary to speak about God in a way that serves all of humanity. The second: Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, which should be required reading for anyone who votes.

Conspiracy of Leaves doesn’t shy away from political topics (I’m thinking especially of poems like, “Sort(ing) of Sonnet” and “Lessons From European History and TV Applied To Current Events While Washing the Dishes”). What sort of response has your political poetry gotten?

Directly, none at all. In other words, no one has sent me any notes about it or anything. But there was a blogger online for a while who said he wanted to rape and kill me. Happily, his blog has been taken down (my husband Googles my name once in a while, and yesterday he was glad to be able to report that the blog of said person no longer appears). I’m opting to hope that means he’s been put away in an asylum or prison somewhere, but it’s probably just Google finally getting around to noticing that it was hate speech.

In terms of the not-very-poetical business side of things, how did your book come about and is there anything you learned from the publishing process that you’d like to share with other poets?

Well, I’d sent it out to a couple of contests with no success, and to a big-name poetry press, also with no success. All the while editing it with a focus on a sort of thematic narrative arc, culling twenty years worth of poetry. I decided that the focus of my first book should be ending war, even though the environment is my larger concern. I figured that if we don’t stop fighting wars we’ll NEVER be able to fix our relationship with the natural world. War is really bad for ecosystems. Nobody has to file an environmental impact statement before dropping a bomb or torching an oil well.

So when it was in its final state, I decided to see if I couldn’t find a press that shared the kind of concerns I have, realizing that political poetry was going to be a hard sell in the mainstream market. I found Plain View Press by searching for “social justice poetry press” or some such thing, and their front page contained this verbiage: Despite evidence that relentless violence has taken root worldwide, there is hope and there are artists to show the human face of it. That sold me on the press. So I contacted their editor, Susan Bright (who, it turns out, started Plain View decades ago as a feminist press, and then realized later that feminism is part of a larger issue, social justice, and therefore widened her scope), sent her a sample, which she liked, then the whole thing at her request; she approved. Plain View is a co-op, so I had to pay my own production and printing costs, but she keeps them low. I did the math and realized that if I went the contest route I’d probably end up spending at least as much as I did on contest fees, and with no guarantee that I’d ever find a judge who approved of my content. And I had a lot of control in terms of cover art, etc., which I wouldn’t have with a contest. (The cover comes from a painting of an old college friend of mine, Esther Fuldauer.) I also contacted my old mentor, Peter Meinke, and asked him if he knew about Plain View, and what his thoughts were. He said that they were a high-minded group with a good rep and that considering my tendencies (to not put a lot of effort into getting published), he thought it was an excellent fit.

To poets hoping to get published I’d say consider all options; don’t listen to people who will try to convince you there’s only one route. And have patience. And write what you want/need to write, not what you think will get published.

How has your poetry changed since you started writing?

I’ve begun to focus more on rhythm. We studied prosody in school, but very superficially, and while I think I write with a lot of natural rhythm, it’s been really something to hone that consciously. I’ve been a political poet for a very long time, but I’d say that’s probably gotten to be a stronger tendency, as my awareness of the world has increased, and as the world has continued to increase its pace on its path to turning the planet into a smoking cinder.

What does the future hold?

My tongue-in-cheek answer is that your guess is as good as mine. While I tend toward the vatic in my poems, I don’t actually imagine that I can prophesy with any accuracy. I certainly hope we get our collective head out of our butt in time to retain at least some semblance of the planet on which we evolved.

But I know you really mean regarding my writing. My next collection is going to focus more directly on our relationship with the natural world. I’ve got probably 75% of the poems already. I’m not sure which I’ll finish first, that or the Wonder Woman sequence. I’m also working on a longpoem, the beginning of which is up at my blog What I Meant to Say, titled “God Speaks Again, Because Even Though She Loves Us and All, She’s Pretty Fucking Pissed: I Mean, DANG,” the beginning of which I wrote in a sort of trance state, and to which I’m going to be adding post-scripts until I feel like the end is near (of my life, that is). Which I’m hoping will be at least a few decades off. And fiction. I actually wrote my senior thesis as a group of short stories (five of my own and two translations of an early feminist Spanish writer, Emilia Pardo Bazán). I’ve never really tried to get any of them published, but I think I’ll start, because I’ve got two novels in progress. While poetry is definitely my true calling, fiction has a certain appeal, not least of which is the fact that more people read it. (There’s also the spaciousness that prose affords after the voluntary strictures of poetry.) I’m also working on a book of essays entitled Pragtopia: Meditations on a New Geo-Political Paradigm. Because boy do we ever need one.

See the rest of the week:
27 July: Jeannine hosts Christine
28 July: Wendy hosts Mary
29 July: Mary hosts Jeannine
30 July: Christine hosts me


The 2009 Rhysling Awards are now open to nominations from SFPA members. My eligible poems (all for the short poem category) this year are:

I’m fond of these poems, and I hope people will check them out who missed them the first time, but honestly I don’t think any of them are award-worthy. I would suggest people instead consider these two poems which both really struck me this year:

  • Hill and Pail.” Mary Alexandra Agner. Strange Horizons.
  • Phrenology.” Elizabeth Bradfield. Ploughshares.