Jan Bowman

Entry 242 – Margaret Mackinnon on Poetry’s Connections Between Obscurity & Mystery

Margaret Mackinnon, winner of the Library of Virginia 2014 Poetry Award and winner of 2011 GERALD CABLE BOOK AWARD for THE INVENTED CHILD, talks with Jan Bowman about connecting the lines between the obscure and the mysterious.  41tCNxHp2dL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

“In THE INVENTED CHILD, Margaret Mackinnon can say of a tiny child’s appearance in a fairy tale ‘the air shimmers as this miracle unfurls’ and be speaking also of the way her poems appear on the page. Whether in celebration or grief, she presents poem after poem alert to history and family—poems that unfold with equal felicity to the heart’s ‘infinite and intricate discernments’ and the lucidity of a mind alive to the world’s stories.”— Gregory Orr

Jan:     First, let me say thank for taking the time for this interview. Second I want to tell you how much I love your poetry. You have said, “If I have a goal for my poetry, it is to explore that point of connection between what is clear and observable and what is infinitely obscure and mysterious.” I was reminded that Louise Gluck said that a poet must be surprised by what the mind is capable of unveiling. What most surprises you about what your mind unveils? Tell me more about this process.

images-1Margaret:   At a reading I did last year, someone in the audience commented that I seemed to emphasize a “sense of balance” in my work. At first, I was surprised by the comment, but then, I thought the speaker understood something I hadn’t realized. I do think I am constantly searching for that balance between “the clear and observable” and the “infinitely obscure and mysterious.” Poems to me are always acts of faith, or acts of meaning and imagination. Wallace Stevens, among the poets I love most, writes, “We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole.” I think I am most interested in creating art (in my own small way) that meets at that intersection of obscurity and wholeness, which is where I think faith resides.

I do try to write out of a sense that art and faith, as acts of imagination, always intersect. I am the daughter of a Presbyterian minister—and I was a religion and art history major in college—and I view my poems as ways of thinking about what it means to be a person of imagination, observation, conscience, and history.

Jan:     I am thinking now about your poem about Marianne Moore, At the Rosenbach Library: Afternoons in the Archives. You have said, “The poems I have worked on in recent years often feel like little research projects.” Where do you begin? And where do you end? With the poem’s imagery or the idea that you are exploring?

Margaret:     Like many people who teach, I was someone who always loved school. As much as I love books that reflect years of research—I am a huge fan of literary biographies—I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t a “scholar” in the contemporary sense. However, I do love approaching a poem as an opportunity to integrate history, theory, observation, and reflection. Perhaps a bit like someone writing a novel set within a specific historical context, I do a lot of reading before I actually start a poem.

The poem on Moore came out of the great affection I have for her as a person and as a writer; I had also learned that it was possible to read in the archives on Moore at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia without having any recognized academic credentials, so I spent several wonderful days reading Moore’s letters, looking at her notebooks, and marveling over postcards and notes from people like Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop.

Though Moore was not a mother, she was closely bound to her own mother; she also had what I would call a very maternal connection to several younger women, including Bishop. I set out with the vague idea of looking at the idea of “maternal love” in Moore’s work—and what I found resonated deeply with me. What came out of this experience is one of my most personal poems—both as a mother and as a daughter—so even if it’s not a poem that speaks to a wide audience, I am very glad I wrote it.

Jan:     Tell me a bit about Meditation on Three Landscapes?

Margaret:   Perhaps because I teach Emerson and Thoreau in my working life, I have thought a lot about how nature can offer us a transformative experience, one that connects equally to both loss and redemption. This is the idea I wanted to explore in this poem. There are three actual landscapes in the poem: the Lake Tahoe area of California (which I experienced at the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference), Vermont (with a reference to an artist at the Vermont Studio Center, where I had a fellowship), and northern New Mexico (where we had rented a house). To speak quite honestly, this was my attempt to reflect on the losses I had experienced as a woman—in terms of pregnancy losses—and equally, the resurrections I know in my life—and have found reflected in my amazing daughter, my fortunate marriage, and many loved landscapes.

Jan:     I loved this collection and many of poems about your parents resonate with me still. Which among those was the most difficult to discover?

Margaret:   All of these poems were a challenge. I wanted to honor my parents’ stories, but I also wanted to think honestly about what those stories meant to me. Alice Munro’s complex stories on her relationship with her mother helped set me on the path toward writing these poems. Greg Orr’s encouragement also helped. “For My Father, Buried under Other Trees” is a poem I am proud of because I think I did honor the complex tragedy of my father’s childhood—and to the way he needed to remember this story. With my mother, I struggled with deciding whether I could write her story in “My Mother’s Photographs,” which is about learning, after my mother’s death, that she had had an affair during my teenage years. In both cases, writing the poems became an exercise in stepping back and thinking about how rich my parents’ lives were, apart from their connection to me.

Jan:     Which of your current poems in The Invented Child (2013) are among your favorites to read before an audience? And I wondered how do you select particular poems to read aloud?

Margaret:   Not that I do so many, but readings used to be events I dreaded. However, I think they’ve now become opportunities that feel like the best moments in my classroom: a chance to talk about my enthusiasms and to share my observations. When I go to an intimate concert, I enjoy having the performer talk about what he or she is playing; in the same way, I like reading poems that have a bit of a back story. “The Invented Child,” which is based on my reading of Justin Kaplan’s biography of Walt Whitman, is a favorite poem to share at readings for these reasons.

Jan:     Who are among your favorite contemporary poets?

Margaret:   I have so many! And I’m a great believer in loving a poet for one magnificent poem—or even one magnificent line. Deborah Digges is a writer whose work I’ve studied to learn how she can follow a line of connection that unites in an unexpected way; her poems “Laws of Falling Bodies” and “Ancestral Lights” are what I would consider close to perfect. Like many people who write, I keep a notebook. Along with my own thoughts, I also collect specific poems I admire for the writer’s ambition and sense of craft. Among the poems I’m currently reading for ideas and inspiration are “Giving and Getting” by Tony Hoagland, “Still-Life With Turkey” by Diane Seuss, and a wonderful poem by Ron Smith called “The Beauty in the Trees.”

Jan:     So what are you working on now and what is your next writing project?

Margaret:   I’m currently working on several poems that came out of a trip my husband and I took to Scotland last summer. My father’s family came from the Isle of Skye in Scotland and then settled in eastern North Carolina (which is hot and humid and nothing like the Highlands) in the late 18th century. Though none of them ever saw Scotland, they had a strong sense of pride in their roots. I’m hoping these new poems will be a way of digging deeper into my family’s past—and also a way to celebrate a country and a landscape that enchanted me.

Jan:     What is the best writing advice that helped you most in your writing?

Margaret:   I’ve been fortunate to take several summer classes with poet Gregory Orr, and some of his ideas have become central to what I want to do with my writing. In Poetry As Survival, he states, “The essential point is that for a poem to move us it must bring us near our own threshold.” For me, this idea of “threshold” is as true for the writer as for the reader. I think of this as taking the poem—its emotions, its subject matter, its rhetorical choices—to the point where it begins to feel a bit risky, and therefore most rewarding. Of course, I’ve realized that we all have different thresholds, so what might seem risky to me would be quite tame to a writer like Sharon Olds. But Greg’s theory has encouraged me to push what I think I can do in a poem. And in a similar vein, in a wonderfully rewarding class at the Tinker Mountain workshop, Thorpe Moeckel (who was Greg Orr’s student) told us all to risk trying those things everyone in a workshop might tell us we “can’t do.”

Background Information

Poetry. Winner of the Library of Virginia 2014 Poetry Award. “In THE INVENTED CHILD, and 2011 winner of the GERALD CABLE BOOK AWARD,  Margaret Mackinnon can say of a tiny child’s appearance in a fairy tale ‘the air shimmers as this miracle unfurls’ and be speaking also of the way her poems appear on the page. Whether in celebration or grief, she presents poem after poem alert to history and family—poems that unfold with equal felicity to the heart’s ‘infinite and intricate discernments’ and the lucidity of a mind alive to the world’s stories.”—Gregory Orr

imagesThrough her poems, Margaret MacKinnon lets us enter the inner lives of writers and artists from other ages—figures like Mary Shelly, Grant Wood, Walt Whitman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her rich imagination creates vivid, concrete scenes in which to set her “characters,” as well as persuasive inner landscapes that make distant and stately figures recognizably and empathetically human. More than a parlor trick, her ability to dwell so fully in other times, places, and minds becomes a way of enlarging the world, and of bringing us along for the journey as she pursues the connection between, in her words, “what is clear” and “what is mysterious.” From lives we know mainly through their artistic output, she draws the ordinary worries and joys of marriage, children, financial cares, old age, and loss. Rather than making these luminary figures less, she makes our own lives deeper and richer through the possibility of connection. Her poetic language is quietly musical, with a carefully executed use of form and line and a generous delight in the five senses. She paints a vibrant natural world of sensations and phenomena that constantly attracts and draws us on, and that keeps the spiritual, intellectual, and narrative dimensions of her work continually grounded in the physical world.

You can view Margaret Mackinnon’s work in IMAGE issue 71 here.

You can read Margaret Mackinnon’s poem, “Writing on the Window” winner of Shenandoah’s (2012) Graybeal-Gower Prize at this link:  http://shenandoahliterary.org/blog/2012/01/graybeal-gowen-prize-results/

Current Projects

In “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” Wallace Stevens describes a moment when he senses “the obscurity of an order,” which, for him, becomes “light” and is “enough.” If I have a goal for my poetry, it is to explore that point of connection between what is clear and observable and what is infinitely obscure and mysterious. The poems I have worked on in recent years often feel like little research projects: they take time to construct and are often based in hours of reading. But I am also trying to write poems that themselves move in different times. My poem on Whitman, for example, came out of thinking about his “invented child” and how his experience linked to my own feelings about my daughter.

Recently, I have been working on a series of poems about my parents, both now deceased. I am also drawn to poems reflecting on writers and artists whose work has touched me in different ways: Mary Shelly, Grant Wood, and Whitman, among others. Marianne Moore, whose rigor and complexity I love, is a subject for a future poem, I hope. What interests me in looking at the lives of other people—whether well-known artists or the members of my own family—is the way the specific details of a life, of the world, can take us right up to the edge of understanding—and then leave us with a recognition of the boundlessness of all we can love and appreciate but never fully understand.


Margaret Mackinnon grew up in the South, influenced by a lush landscape and a family that emphasized a deep connection between language and meaning. Her mother wrote poetry as a young woman (and generously encouraged all her earliest literary efforts). Her father was a Presbyterian minister, so every Sunday, she watched him try to give shape to beliefs and questions through the words of sermons, prayers, and creeds.

In college, at Vassar and the University of North Carolina, Mackinnon studied art history and religion, thinking about how image and pattern intersect with what we see as significant. And then came five years in Japan, where she taught English and studied textile design in a small circle of Japanese women artists. She learned something there about the discipline of a craft, and how that kind of focus can take one into a deeper attention to the everyday world. Back in the United States, she entered the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Florida.

Margaret Mackinnon’s work has appeared in Image, Poetry, New England Review, Georgia Review, Quarterly West, RHINO, Poet Lore, Shenandoah, Southern Humanities Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and other publications. Her awards include the Richard Eberhart Poetry Prize from Florida State University, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. She teaches at a private girls’ high school and lives in Falls Church, Virginia.



coverIMG_0345Jan’s story collection, Flight Path & Other Stories published by Evening Street Press. Available online for immediate shipment.

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Winner of the Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan’s stories have been nominated for Best American Short Stories, Pushcart and Pen/O’Henry awards. Her fiction has appeared in Evening Street Review, Uncertain Promise: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Creative Nonfiction, Roanoke Review, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, and others. Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention for Short Story Awards for New Writers Jan’s stories have been finalists or short- listed for the Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, The Phoebe Fiction Contest and So-to-Speak fiction contest. She is working on a new story collection, working title, Life Boat Drills for Children. She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory, and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a regular blog on her website on the writing life and interviews writers and publishers. 

Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com