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The Metaworker Podcast | 009 Ruins by Mary Paulson

Episode Description:

In this episode, Matthew, Marina, and Elena talk with Mary Paulson about her poem, Ruins. We talk about writing poetry to express deep emotions, writing and rewriting with help from community, and Mary’s own personal journey toward writing this version of this poem.

Referenced in this Episode: 

Ruins by Mary Paulson on The Metaworker website

Tenderness by Mary Paulson on The Metaworker website

Paint the Window Open by Mary Paulson, a new collection of poems

Donkey Gospel by Tony Hoagland, collection of poems recommended by Mary

What Do Women Want by Kim Addonizio, poet recommended by Mary

Author Bio:

Mary Paulson currently lives and works in Naples, FL. Her poems have appeared in Slow Trains, Mainstreet Rag, Painted Bride Quarterly, Nerve Cowboy, Arkana, Thimble Lit Magazine, and Tipton Poetry Journal. Her chapbook, Paint the Window Open, has recently been accepted for publication by Kelsay Publishing.

Episode Transcript:

Matthew Maichen (00:00:00):
Hello, my name is Matthew Maichen.

Marina Shugrue (00:00:03):
Hi, I’m Marina Shugrue.

Elena L. Perez (00:00:05):
I’m Elena Perez, the managing editor,

Matthew Maichen (00:00:08):
And we are here with Mary Paulson who is sharing with us her poem, “Ruins”.

Mary Paulson (00:00:18):
Thank you for having me. I’ll read the poem. Ruins: “This large body splayed on the unmade bed, useless except for the right arm, bending at its elbow to bring a Marlboro to my lips. A prolonged expedition it seems for the message SMOKE to travel to the brain, catalyze the arm before I can take my drag. My introspections are sticky, corrosive as fly paper, keeping me here pasted, flat-backed to this narrow bed. I blame the movie posters tacked to the walls, B-star buxom Brunette leaning out of her halter top, across the hood of a muscle car. She’s neon, she’s silver rims, glinting in the dark, she’s living so much better than me—Smoke rises from my chest as if from a burning city.”

Matthew Maichen (00:01:18):
Thank you so much. The first thing that I just wanna throw out there for everyone who potentially just heard that, is that if you look on the actual site, the visual layout of the poem is actually very interesting. It’s one of those ones where I made sure, when I posted it, to get the spacing exactly right because it is very purposeful. I think that there’s a lot of interesting things going on with that and I’m really curious. When it comes to the spacing, what do we think? Just ourselves, without talking to Mary, what do we think the purpose of that spacing is? Those indentations and the way that it’s organized like that?

Elena L. Perez (00:02:12):
Well, I really loved it because it kind of reinforces the same mood that the text is talking about. The narrator is, it says, splayed out on the bed and it’s kind of almost lazy…but it’s both lazy, but kind of just, um, what is the word I’m trying to say? Uh…

Multiple (00:02:35):

Elena L. Perez (00:02:37):
Resigned. That’s a good word, yes.

All (00:02:39):

Elena L. Perez (00:02:40):
Resigned, just to what is happening in her life, I guess?

Matthew Maichen (00:02:45):
Yeah, just lying there in resignation, which is great. Yeah. I find it really interesting ’cause you’ve got the indentations and then also the word smoke, when you go further down, is in all caps. There’s this…I think that it’s intentionally drawn…attention is supposed to be drawn to it. I also think that a lot of the spacing…I was looking at this in old plays, too. They tend to be indented like that when you’re supposed to get this idea of a really fast back and forth in the lines between characters and I almost feel like there’s something about that to this poem, too. When it leaps forward like that, even though it’s a different line, you’re supposed to feel a progression, a very strong sense of progression from one idea to the other and it’s supposed to help you read. But what else is really interesting about that is there is that progression, but then it goes back. I know it’s very hard for me to visually lay this out when I’m describing it, but what I mean is you will get a line that isn’t as far indented across the page as the previous line. I feel like it’s purposely slowing down the pacing of how you read it. It affects the way that it is being read. It affects the way that you’re consuming it, inevitably, because of the way your eyes have to move to read it.

Elena L. Perez (00:04:33):
You mentioned smoke and it kind of looks like that, right? The whole poem.

Marina Shugrue (00:04:40):
Yeah, it kinda looks like a little trail of smoke leading, ’cause it gets big and small and all that stuff. If you kind of put yourself away from the poem a little bit and look at it from a wider angle, it’s almost impressionist in that way. Where it’s, like, up close, you can see the little details or things are fuzzy, but far away. It’s like,’ oh yeah, that’s a picture’.

Matthew Maichen (00:05:07):
Hmm. Yeah, I didn’t even notice that. Yeah. It looks like an almost cliche smoke image from far away when I lean back in my chair.

Elena L. Perez (00:05:16):
That’s why I guess I kind of had the image or the feeling of laziness because smoke, you know…and then especially because the narrator is smoking a cigarette, you know? It can be compared to the smoke of a cigarette and the laziness of a smoke going up from that.

Marina Shugrue (00:05:34):
Yeah, it’s curling. I thought the all cap SMOKE was like the hint, too.

All (00:05:38):

Elena L. Perez (00:05:41):
That’s true.

Marina Shugrue (00:05:41):
Oh, yeah, that’s what it is. Like, ‘this is it guys’.

All (00:05:43):

Elena L. Perez (00:05:45):
And I also like the shape because, Matthew, you were saying about how it’s kind of slowing you down to read the different ideas that are coming and going, and that kind of reflects what’s going on in the narrator’s mind. She’s having a conversation, like you were saying, but with herself in her mind. It’s going back and forth, like, you know, ‘it’s okay’. And then ‘now it’s not’, and ‘I’m fine’, but ‘I wish I was like these movie stars’. And it just keeps going back and forth like that. So, I think that’s another really cool thing that the format is doing for the poem.

Matthew Maichen (00:06:28):
So, that’s a really natural segue into something I wanted to talk about, but I also simultaneously feel like I’m the least qualified person here to talk about, which is that I feel like so much of what this is about gravitates around the movie posters and the buxom brunette character. The comparison. I feel like there is an element of, I don’t know, what I would call, I guess, the female gaze here. Of looking at other women and feeling that, I don’t know, something. Someone who is more qualified, please. I got it from the poem, right, but I don’t have the firsthand experience, admittedly.

Marina Shugrue (00:07:23):
Yeah, for sure. Well, I think it kind of goes a little bit back to what Elena was saying, as well, of the poem being a conversation. I almost feel like there is a conversation between the narrator and this movie poster, too. It’s not just introspective, or maybe it is introspective, but it’s also catalyzed by the presence of this poster in the room. I love that line of ‘she’s living so much better than me’. I think that somehow kind of wraps it all up for me. That feels like the thesis of this poem. That line stands out so much to me and is so powerful, but then you look at ‘oh, she’s living so much better than me’, but she’s still…she’s not even a movie star, she’s just a B- star [laughs] character. She’s not A-list or anything like that. Whoever this woman in the poster is, we don’t necessarily know, is she really living so much better than me? And maybe that’s also—full disclosure, I live in Los Angeles, maybe that’s an idea informed by where I live, as well. Of like, ‘I don’t really think they are, necessarily’. But the idea that there’s something to attain that the narrator doesn’t have and that the narrator finds that in the poster is really interesting to me.

Elena L. Perez (00:08:56):
I feel like, in a way, it could be compared to social media, right? Because…

Marina Shugrue (00:09:01):

Elena L. Perez (00:09:01):
…in other years, previous years, there was no social media. So, that’s kind of the way that people compared themselves to others is through movie posters or, you know, TV ads or magazine [and] newspaper ads. Now we do that same thing with social media. We see, you know, the picture-perfect…

Marina Shugrue (00:09:23):
[inaudible] image. Yeah.

Elena L. Perez (00:09:24):
[laughs] …images, especially women—women and girls—are portrayed. ‘Oh, you need a big butt or, you know, big boobs or, you know, you need curves’.

Marina Shugrue (00:09:34):
Or the makeup and…

Elena L. Perez (00:09:36):
Yeah. [aughs]

Marina Shugrue (00:09:39):
Yeah, I like that you said that.

Matthew Maichen (00:09:42):
I think that it’s really interesting you mentioned that it is a B-star and I think that it adds to the…’cause the name of the piece is “Ruins”, by the way, and it adds to the sense of degradation. Even in her fantasies, she is not looking at something perfect. She is looking at something that is okay. And it it’s like, when we read this poem, we’re in a universe in which everything is either really kind of trashy and rotting or okay at best. It just really immerses you in that atmosphere in addition to everything else.

Elena L. Perez (00:10:35):
But it’s hiding that, right? At the end it says: “smoke rises from my chest as if from a burning city”. So, she has this picture-perfect image—and this movie poster is this perfect image—but the reality is that these images are hiding this burning city or these ‘ruins’, as the poem is named. So, yeah, that juxtaposition between the image and then the reality is really well done in this poem.

Matthew Maichen (00:11:11):
Yeah, and I feel like, as we speak about being resigned, the attitude that I get here is that the speaker has kind of fully resigned herself to never meeting that image or never being that image. Yet, at the same time, there is some bitterness toward it. It’s like she has given up on ever being that and yet she’s still somewhat bitter about it.

Elena L. Perez (00:11:44):
Like the…I was just looking at the lines. “My inspections are sticky, corrosive as flypaper, keeping me here pasted, flat-backed to this narrow bed”. That speaks to that, right? She’s, you know, like a fly stuck on this flypaper where she doesn’t wanna be.

Marina Shugrue (00:12:02):
Literally trapped.

Elena L. Perez (00:12:03):
[laughs] Yeah. And I like the evocative word choice here, because you can really feel what you were talking about, Matthew, the stuck feeling and the resentment at the same time. The words are just really evocative of that, of her mental state.

Matthew Maichen (00:12:21):
Yeah. I just feel, ultimately, that what really made the difference here for me was that sense of atmosphere. I see this woman smoking and just bitter. I feel like I know who she is from just this small portion of lines about her. It’s almost like poetry that is really good at characterization, oddly enough, and it’s really good at characterizing both the setting and the person in it and creating an atmosphere and the person being inextricably a part of that atmosphere. And it does all of that while still playing with form. A lot of poetry that plays with form, admittedly, is a little bit hard to understand because it sometimes uses the form instead of the language, but here I think what we see is really strong language and also a really interesting form both working together to create something very evocative.

Marina Shugrue (00:13:47):
Yeah. Something that struck me when I was rereading this was sort of the economy of in it. It’s not a particularly long poem, but each word choice is so specific and used so well that it really makes every moment stick out. There truly isn’t like a weak moment in this poem. Every line kind of really hits you, you know? There’s something interesting going on, there’s a new image to look at. You can visualize it perfectly, both the internal and the external struggles of this narrator. Yeah, Matthew, to your point, I think it’s a rare kind of perfect cohesion of form and economic language really working together.

Matthew Maichen (00:14:37):
I do wanna just take an opportunity to jump in on what you said, because a lot of these discussions are for prospective submitters. In a lot of our poetry discussions as editors, it is so common that we get this poem where we look at it and we’re like, ‘oh man, 99% of it is so good, but there’s this one line that just isn’t as good as the others’. And we will reject the piece because, in a poem, that one bad line will matter. Case in point, this poem has no bad lines. Every single line here is a statement and makes a point and progresses our understanding of the message that it is trying to get across. And that, I mean, that matters.

Elena L. Perez (00:15:32):
Like you were saying too, Matthew, I like that this is not super elevated language. It’s just everyday regular language, but it’s put together in a way that’s very poignant.

Marina Shugrue (00:15:49):
Still very evocative too, I think.

Elena L. Perez (00:15:51):

Matthew Maichen (00:15:54):
It fits the story that the poem is telling for it to not be elevated language because…

Elena L. Perez (00:16:02):

Matthew Maichen (00:16:02):
Yeah. There is a sense of having far less dignity than the societal expectation. What we expect, I guess, particularly of a woman. That sense of, you know, in the dark, alone. So, the lack of elevated language fits there. Anway, unless there is anything else to say, I’d like to hear from Mary.

Marina Shugrue (00:16:34):
Yeah, let’s open the floor. [laughs]

Matthew Maichen (00:16:37):
All right. Mary, so the first question we always ask is, how does it feel to hear us talk about this and take things away from it? Are there things that we take away from it that you wouldn’t expect, that surprise you? Or are there things that are what you were going for? What do you think about that?

Mary Paulson (00:17:02):
Yeah, that’s what I was just thinking. It’s fascinating to hear somebody else kind of unpack it, you know, other people unpack it the way that you have. You’re pretty right-on in terms of, you know, what I was thinking. So, the whole poem is…for me, it’s about essentially a kind of disassociation, you know? The speaker’s disassociation from herself, from the world around her and this apathy, like you said, this laziness, this apathy that comes with it and the contrast between this technicolor movie photo and the way she feels, which is really dead inside. Frozen, pasted to the back of this bed, unable to participate in life, you know? So, yeah, I mean, you nailed it. It was interesting when you said bitterness, I, myself, didn’t notice the bitterness until I see the line, “I blame the movie posters tacked to the walls”. I mean, that is bitterness, you know? She is comparing herself and coming out less-than, significantly less-than. And it is interesting what you said about the degradation, which is not something that originally would’ve come to my mind or that I thought about when I was writing it, but yes, of course there’s a sense of degradation. Of just being so less-than. You’re right that the movie star is B-star, you know, so not even a high aspirational bar. But even that is more alive. That poster, just the poster itself, the woman in the poster, in this fake moment is much more alive than the speaker is. So, it was really fascinating to hear that. And you were right about the…so originally… So, I’ve been working on this poem for, I dunno, twenty years. Literally. I take a long time when I’m working on poems. I’ll go back to them again and again. If I can’t get anywhere, I just leave them and then I come back to them again and again. This one was another page longer. I had somebody look at it who told me to cut a lot of things, which is helpful. I do not like to have a lot of extra wordiness, ’cause I do think that with a poem, like you said, every word, every image, counts. You’re building something, right? I’m very gratified to see that this structure and the content seemed to work together well for the reader. That means something to me. I did not originally have it this way. I had it all left aligned. I had it more in a narrow column. Then when I thought of about—yes, it’s the tendril of smoke, essentially, what’s happening. It is fascinating to hear you guys talk about it. I mean, I’m so gratified that so much came across and it’s flattering. [laughs]

Marina Shugrue (00:20:25):
Good. Yeah.

Mary Paulson (00:20:26):
But, you know, I worked on the poem for a really long time, so…

Marina Shugrue (00:20:30):
Twenty years. Wow.

Matthew Maichen (00:20:32):

Marina Shugrue (00:20:32):
That’s amazing.

Matthew Maichen (00:20:34):
Oh my gosh. So, wait you…that blows me away. I need to ask that again? What do you think that helps you do, when you’re willing to like let a poem kind of, I guess, gestate? I don’t know. That’s the word that jumped into my mind. But when you’re willing to spend twenty years on a poem, how does that help you to get it right, I guess?

Mary Paulson (00:21:02):
It’s interesting because of course I don’t expect to spend twenty years on a poem. I write something and of course I want it to be done, you know what I mean? I wanna have the finished product ’cause I’m working on something, but sometimes I just know that it’s not there yet. I try, and I have in the past messed myself up by…you can beat a dead horse, essentially, you know? Where you work so much until you’ve really ruined it, you know? So, what I do is I keep every version of every poem I’ve ever written. Every notebook where I scribble things in. I mean everything. And I use these to pull out words that I like or phrases that I like that might be totally mismatched or come from different poems that I’ve written that also haven’t quite worked out. But of course I don’t expect it. But every time I came back to this poem, I knew I had something, I just couldn’t put it together. I couldn’t complete it. It helped a lot when I had a friend look and really do a hard edit. What I do is I take classes. I continue to take workshops and classes and that keeps me getting feedback because, especially when you’ve first written it, you’re very close to it and you can really get married to it, you know? The parts that I cut were things that I really liked but they just didn’t work. They didn’t move the poem forward, as you said. But I can get very married to, really committed to pieces. To things that don’t necessarily aid in the poem, so it helps to have an outsider look and say, ‘you know what? I think you can cut this. I think you can cut that’. Writing poetry, it’s a solitary…it’s a lonely [laughs]…it’s a solitary process, but you’re writing it because you’re trying to communicate something. It’s you really…in my opinion…for myself, I can’t do it in a vacuum. I need the feedback. I need to…I know what I’m trying to say [but] is that coming across? What’s incredible for me during this interview, is that it looks like it did. [laughs] I’m thrilled ’cause I rarely get that kind of feedback from other people except in my workshop. So, it’s tremendous. But yeah, I have, like I said, every copy of everything I’ve ever written and I have lots of poems that have been sitting there and sitting there and then something will happen. I will be driving in the car, I will be lying in bed, and all of a sudden know how to finish them. It’s an incredible feeling, you know?

Marina Shugrue (00:24:01):
I love that.

Elena L. Perez (00:24:02):
That’s mazing. I’m so glad you sent it to us. Thank you.

Marina Shugrue (00:24:05):
Yeah. Thank you. Also, I love that. You’re still going to workshops and seeking feedback and stuff like that. I think we have conversations all the time where we’ll get pieces that are almost there and we’re just like, ‘oh, you just need that person who can help you kill your darlings a little bit’, you know? And it’s like, ‘oh yeah, you almost have it. You’re so close and if you just make some tweaks, you’ll have it’. And I love that you said that we don’t work in a vacuum, either. That’s such the weird thing about writing, right? Is that we do it completely alone, but we also can’t do it alone at all. That little catch 22.

Mary Paulson (00:24:44):
And it is about…for me anyway, it is about communication. I have these images or these feelings and, I don’t know, for whatever reason I feel the need to analyze them and poetry is how I do that. The other interesting thing about poetry to me, I mean—God, I could talk about poetry forever. It’s like magic to me, you know, when things come up and finish…they seem to finish themselves. I look at this and I’m, like, ‘I can’t believe I wrote that’. You know? I mean, what happens to me with poems is when I go back and I look at them, they are telling me the truth about how I was feeling at the time. Engaged in my late twenties—and it didn’t work out—I wrote something down while I was…while we were…everything was fine. There was a couple of lines that said, ‘let me tell you the truest thing that I know about today. You’re not the one’. I wrote that halfway through the relationship. Everything was fine and it ended, you know? So, it’s like my subconscious, it tells me things before I’m able to process it.

Marina Shugrue (00:25:51):

Mary Paulson (00:25:51):
So, it is like magic to me. I’m okay with…let’s say I’ve learned to let something sit, you know? Also, my poetic voice, my writer’s voice, has changed. [It] changes over the years. Right now, I’m doing a lot more internal rhyme stuff, which I was never a rhymer, you know? Stuff that has more like an edge of humor, which is just coming out of me, and it’s just a new phase that I’m in. So, you know, you take an old piece and then you bring this kind of new interpretation of it and then maybe you have something. And sometimes you don’t, sometimes it’s just—whatever—it’s never gonna work.

Elena L. Perez (00:26:39):
Yeah. I wanted to mention, because I liked what you said about keeping all your old versions of your poems and then kind of taking something that works from this version and from that version. I like that because it’s kind of like you were saying. It creates a snapshot of who you were at that moment in time that you wrote that particular version. So, by doing that and bringing a piece from each version, it’s kind of creating its own layers within the final piece without almost intending to. But it does. And so I think that’s really cool.

Matthew Maichen (00:27:20):
Hmm. Yeah. And I think that you hit on something there, because I know a lot of people—myself included—who, when we are going through something we just write and it tends to come out as poetry and a poem a day ends up getting churned out, you know? Just poem after poem after poem because we’re processing something. And that makes me wonder if you go back to all of those poems from that moment, from that time of your life, if they’re all really one poem. If you take all of that and you turn it into something that is singular and that really captures that experience.

Marina Shugrue (00:28:12):
Almost like a memoir. [laughs].

Matthew Maichen (00:28:14):
Yeah. We all accept that those kinds of poems that we write right after something bad happens to us—after a breakup, after someone we love dies—we all accept that those are messy and we’re writing them to process something. But I think if you’re willing to go and look at all of those poems and synthesize them. Yeah. I see the power in that.

Mary Paulson (00:28:39):
Right. Well, there’s an arc, right? You see an arc, a process. So, yes, you’re not wrong in terms of that. It is kind of all one poem, you know? It’s all different pieces of who you are or…you know, it’s funny because I had some discussions in my workshops about whether or not you could consider poetry nonfiction. Did you have to be truthful? Somebody in a workshop was saying, ‘well, this didn’t actually happen this way’. And I was kind of like, ‘so, you know, poetry is not for me. Not nonfiction’. What’s amazing about poetry—and in the end, why I write poetry, why I read poetry, why it speaks to me—is because I find truth in it. Truth in a way that, I don’t know, It’s like if you hear a comedian say something that’s controversial but also true and they get to you through humor and you can kind of accept it and bring it in because it’s funny. And you’re like, ‘oh God, that’s right’. it’s kind of the same thing with poetry, you know? It comes at you in a different kind of way and then all of a sudden it’s like…I don’t know how to explain. For me, I read a poem and then I feel it bloom inside me. And I’m like, ‘oh my, that’s so true’. That’s what I’m trying to write as well. And it’s not necessarily conscious. I don’t know necessarily consciously what’s true or what’s not true, but I know when I feel it, you know? But I never intended to be a poet. I write the poetry despite myself. I’ve always been a big reader since I was a child. It was how I escaped and I love words and they’re interesting to me. So, I started writing before I started reading poetry. And then I remember when I got into poetry in college and then I graduated and my dad said, ‘what you wanna do’? And I said, I wanna write. And he told me that the highest paid poet made a dollar a line or something like that. So, I was like, ‘well’ [laughs] So, I went into technology and software design and as I was doing that, I found that I couldn’t…not couldn’t. I just didn’t stop writing. I kept writing. I kept writing. I kept writing. And I didn’t like telling…even now, it’s hard for me to say that I’m a poet ’cause it feels pretentious, you know, but ‘m getting more comfortable with it. I would say I’m a writer and stuff, you know what I mean?

Elena L. Perez (00:31:17):
Poetry is kind of…it does have that connotation, I guess, of pretentiousness. So, I guess when I made that comment earlier about how I like that this language is not elevated, that’s what I was thinking of, was that it’s not a pretentious poem at all, like generally the idea of poetry is. I like, too, what you were saying about how poetry is not nonfiction because that’s so true. Even if it’s not exactly what happened, you’re still conveying the feeling of what happened, which is, or can be, nonfiction. That is what makes poetry so—as you said earlier—so magical, is that it can bring all sorts of genres into one cohesive little poem. [laughs]

Matthew Maichen (00:32:05):
It’s nonfiction exclusively from my own perspective.

Elena L. Perez (00:32:08):
Very true.

Matthew Maichen (00:32:08):
The writer of the poem. [laughs]

Marina Shugrue (00:32:09):
Yeah, I was almost thinking, too. With poems, of course they don’t have to be true and God knows we’ve published a million poems that have nothing to do with anything that’s happened in real life. But what they are is honest. The poem doesn’t have to be true at all, but it has to be evocative in some way that feels real and important and maybe philosophical [laughs] or something like that. I think that’s…and maybe that’s also where we get that idea of poetry as pretension in little way. [laughs]

Mary Paulson (00:32:47):
Right. Well, and that’s some…I don’t know where the pretentious image of poetry came from, exactly, or why it still has that connotation to it because I don’t find poetry pretentious at all. I find it…you know? It’s just that I think people don’t know how to read it. When they’re presented with a poem, they don’t know what to do or whatever. And that’s also why this experience talking to you about my poem is so fascinating because I don’t really show my poems to people.

Marina Shugrue (00:33:25):
You should.

Mary Paulson (00:33:26):
‘Cause I feel like I’m forcing something on…

Matthew Maichen (00:33:28):

Mary Paulson (00:33:29):
So, I don’t really show it except to people who express interest. You know, I have a few friends that express… Sometimes I’m like, ‘okay, you have to read it’. But that’s pretty rare. And that’s why I do the workshops because those people, I’m giving them feedback, they’re giving me feedback. It’s a learning process and I need that. I need it to keep me… I’m super ADD [laughs], you know? I need deadlines. Otherwise I will lie on my bed forever. [laughs] So to speak?

All (00:34:02):

Elena L. Perez (00:34:05):
I had a question about that, actually, because you did mention that you showed this poem to a friend and I was wondering if you have many friends like that or if it just is exclusively the workshops that you go to. How you cultivate…I guess, for our listeners who maybe are writers, how do you cultivate that community of people who you feel comfortable showing your work to?

Mary Paulson (00:34:30):
Yeah, that’s actually a huge challenge. For me, I didn’t get an MFA. I kept wanting to, I kept writing the essay and never being able to write the essay. So, in my mind…for decades, I’ve been writing an essay to get into an MFA program and never been able to write the essay, which to me determined that I shouldn’t go to an MFA program. But it is hard when you’re outside of academia, it is a struggle to—for me anyway—it is a struggle to have a community of people. Which is I’ve essentially been taking classes pretty much since college. I mean, there was a period of time when I was really slammed. I was working in New York. I was working thirteen-hour days in software. Crazy, crazy hours. Of course, life is life on top of that, but that’s how I created my community. I mean, I have some friends who are kind and willing to look. And I have, right now, a boyfriend who thinks I’m brilliant, which is awesome. [laughs] So, he always wants to read something. So, that’s cool. But for the most part, yeah, this friend, it was a person that I had done a class with. I was able to work with him individually for a little while after and he was … in fact, I keep thinking about being able to get back to him ’cause he was an amazing editor. He really was. And you kind of need that, you know? But it is hard to build a community. I used to live in New York city and then four years ago I moved down here to Florida and I love it. I love the sunshine. I love the warmth. I can see dolphins from my balcony. It’s awesome.

Elena L. Perez (00:36:19):
That’s amazing.

Mary Paulson (00:36:20):
Yeah, but it doesn’t have the kind of vibrancy, you know? I’m not in Miami, right, so it doesn’t have the vibrancy of the city. It is a challenge. It’s still a challenge for me now. I mean, I just published a chapbook…

Elena L. Perez (00:36:33):

Mary Paulson (00:36:33):
…super excited. Yeah. It’s on Amazon. I’m happy. It’s called “Paint the Window Open”. I’m super gratified by the…I mean, I’ve gotten an incredible response, but I’m supposed to promote myself. I have no idea. I mean, it’s so funny that they ask a poet, who’s a natural introvert, usually, to promote themselves. I don’t know how to do that.

Elena L. Perez (00:36:58):
Well, you can promote yourself on here. Tell us about your chapbook. Congratuations.

Matthew Maichen (00:37:00):
Yeah, this is promotion, right? What’s happening right now.

Mary Paulson (00:37:04):
I guess so, I guess so.

Marina Shugrue (00:37:05):
We’ll make sure we link this, too. Yeah.

Mary Paulson (00:37:09):
It’s called “Paint the Window Open”. It’s published by Kelsay publishing and it’s on their website. It’s also on Amazon and I’m so happy about it. So, now I’m working on my first full-length book. I’m have more than…trying to get together…I think I wanna have seventy poems that I can play with [to] put together a full thing. I’m at thirty-eight. So. Getting there.

Matthew Maichen (00:37:37):
So this…okay. So, we’ve finally gotten to the point where we actually kind of reveal that you are very humble. When you talk about your own achievements with poetry, if you look at the bio you submitted, you’re actually quite widely published as a poet. So, you say like, ‘oh, man, I don’t even think of myself as a poet’ and yet your work is featured in a lot of places. I’m going somewhere with this. I’m not just making you blush. I wanna say, do you have, other than the workshops, other than what you’ve already said, for poets who want to be as widely published as you are, do you have any other pieces of advice?

Mary Paulson (00:38:30):
Yeah. Um, so what I did was well, okay. So, the first thing I would say is to be a poet or I think to be an artist in general, any kind of thing, is to be in a state of constant frustration because nothing is ever finished, right? Even this poem which is at probably its highest level it’s ever been and therefore able to be published, is maybe not finished, you know? I’ll find things with it that I don’t like or things I wanna add to it. So, you have to kind of, I think that you get to a poem to a point where it’s good enough. If you are a total perfectionist, you will never, ever send anything out. And then it’s about having guts, you know, and finding kind of…I read a book called “The Poets Guide” or something way back in my early twenties and it basically told me how to write a cover letter and how to submit. At first I was researching every place that I sent stuff out, but it takes a lot of time to do that, so sometimes I do that, sometimes I don’t. But you have to have the courage just to get it to a point that you think, ‘okay, this is good enough for the time being’. And you have to have enough confidence in yourself to say, ‘I’m gonna try’. I have written individual poems since I was…you know, I started publishing in my, I think, early twenties. Individual poems here and there. And, like I said, I didn’t have a lot of time to do it and I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I was lucky to have some things accepted. Over the years I did do that periodically, but it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to leave the crazy work world that I was in and that I was like, ‘alright, I’m gonna try to do this. I’m gonna try to really write’. Just felt like, ‘okay, I’m at the age’. I was at a turning point in my life. And I was like, ‘I have to try and see what I can do’. If I fail, I fail, you know? But, for myself, I had to seek workshops [and] classes to keep my mind engaged. Revision is a huge part of life for me. So, what happens to me is when I write, the guts of it come out on paper. I write with a pen and paper in notebooks, and I’ll just have words flowing through my head, or I have an idea or some kind of feeling, and I will start writing. Just thinking, ‘I’m just gonna write down this one word’. Next thing I know, it’s been three hours and I’ve written pages and pages. Then I just leave that and then I’ll come back to those notebooks and then I transcribe it onto the computer. That’s when I start moving things around. It’s like a collage, you know, where I’m taking bits and pieces and some really fun, interesting things happen as a result. Sometimes I can’t read my handwriting, so I completely come up with a different, unexpected word [and] I’m, like, ‘that’s kind cool’. So, I think you have to…I think to be successful, you have to enjoy it. You have to want to do that work—playing with words, that constant revision. You have to kind of be comfortable with the state of frustration and you have to try, you know? You have to let it be read. You cannot be a total perfectionist, otherwise you will never let anything go.

Elena L. Perez (00:41:48):
That’s great. I think so many of us are perfectionists.

Matthew Maichen (00:41:51):
I think what I’m hearing here, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but when we look at you from the outside, I think we see that you are widely published and you have this chapbook coming, but I think what’s going on is you see all of the occasional rejections and all of the pieces that still need to be worked on. That’s the perspective you’re coming from. I wanna say you should feel proud of what you have accomplished regardless of all the stuff sitting on your hard drive, regardless of the fact that it feels like you’re constantly working. There’s a lot of things that you’ve managed to do already and that’s why you’re here. So, congratulations on that, honestly.

Mary Paulson (00:42:43):
Thank you. That means a lot. You know, it’s…I don’t know what it is but, you know, it doesn’t really feel real sometimes. I get a lot of rejections and that’s because I’m willing to send out a lot of work. That takes a lot of time. Each cover letter, I tailor it to some extent. I do pick and choose, I don’t just randomly send stuff out. I do pick and choose where I wanna send my stuff and it takes a lot of time. So, for me, I feel like I’m just getting my feet underneath me, having some of these publications. I wanna write everything, you know? I mean, I’m not a fiction writer, I don’t think. That doesn’t come naturally to me, but I love essays. I love non-fiction and I love reading fiction, but it’s just not my thing to write. To me, I’m just at the very, very beginning and excited, but also frightened as I I’ve been getting all these—especially in the last few months, I’ve gotten a whole lot of acceptances—and I’m a little nervous, like I’m gonna jinx it. You know, if I’m too happy about it, if I feel too good about it, somehow I’m gonna jinx it. Because poetry is subjective. It’s so much…I mean, you guys are the judges, right, so you know it depends on what you need in that particular publication. I’ve worked in publishing. Early on, I started out my career at PC magazine, which is how I got into technology, but, you know, what are their needs for that particular issue? What else is being sent in? What are you being compared to? Who’s reading it, who’s editing it, who’s making the choices? It’s so subjective. So, I live in a kind of constant state of fear. [laughs] There’s so much that…I love talking about poetry, I would love to teach. I mean, there’s…

Elena L. Perez (00:44:38):
…so many possibilities. Yeah. Just let it wash over you, let all those successes wash over you. Enjoy it. You’re doing great.

Mary Paulson (00:44:44):
But I’m afraid to get complacent. You know what I mean? That’s also the other thing, you know? You wanna…

All (00:44:51):

Mary Paulson (00:44:51):
But I really appreciate that. This is the first second that I think I’ve actually felt successful, so…[laughs]

Matthew Maichen (00:45:01):
Well, you deserve to. I also wanna ask you, ’cause you mentioned that you look for… you do scout for where you want to be published. Sometimes. Sometimes you don’t. It’s okay if you give us a totally honest answer here, then. What drew you to The Metaworker and submitting to us?

Mary Paulson (00:45:28):
You’re gonna laugh at me. It was the name.

Matthew Maichen (00:45:30):

Elena L. Perez (00:45:30):

Mary Paulson (00:45:31):
It was the name, The Metaworker. I was, like, ‘that’s cool. I wanna be part of that’.

Marina Shugrue (00:45:35):
Matthew chose the name, so…

All (00:45:36):

Matthew Maichen (00:45:37):
Oh, okay. Do you want me to tell you the story of the name, then?

Mary Paulson (00:45:41):
I do.

Matthew Maichen (00:45:42):
So we were…okay, this is a story for everyone listening, too. So, we were all meeting up. We were all alumni of Chapman university and I drove up to Orange County ’cause I was living back in San Diego after graduating. We all drove up to meet together and I just randomly brought along this friend who is not affiliated with the literary magazine at all. In any way. He was just there with me and we were talking and we were just going back and forth and some people are saying, ‘I really want something that’s gonna change how we define stories and art and, you know, I want something that’s gonna be really meta and something that means a lot of work. And so my friend just blurts out ‘The Metaworker’ and I’m like, ‘I really like that’. We were all like, ‘yeah, I like that. We could an icon that’s a hammer and a pen’. It was this guy who wasn’t even originally supposed to be there. I love him. He’s one of my best friends, but…[laughs]

Elena L. Perez (00:47:02):
Yeah, we owe him a lot. [laughs]

Mary Paulson (00:47:07):
I’m glad you said that. I mean, to me, that’s a perfect example of how writing happens and how poetry happens. You know, all of a sudden. God, all this stuff floating around me. Ideas and thoughts, and then there’s the news, and then there’s my friends, and there’s my life, and all these things and, you know, something somebody says. Of course, I’m always listening to what people are saying. I’m just pulling these things outta the air around me when I’m trying to sit down to write and then I can make something out of them. But that’s exactly what happened, right? You had somebody with you who…you were in discussion and somebody said something. Another example of why you need community. You need to hear from other people and other voices, because you had an idea, you knew what you wanted. You knew the idea you wanted and you just needed to kind of hash it out. And then you got your name, which is a great name. It drew me immediately, you know? Since then, I’ve obviously looked through [it], listened to the recordings, paid attention to the poems and stuff. It’s drawn me in. That’s how it happens. That’s the magic of it. I keep going back to that word magic ’cause it just feels…it just seems to come outta the air, you know, and the fact that it collects itself into something that tells the truth. Yeah. I’m overwhelmingly impassioned about this. [laughs]

Matthew Maichen (00:48:32):
Thank you.

Elena L. Perez (00:48:33):
Well, like I said before, we really appreciate you sending your poem to us and we’re so glad to be able to publish you ’cause you’re an amazing writer. So, thank you.

Matthew Maichen (00:48:43):
I do also wanna say as long as we’re talking about her amazing writing, we focussed this discussion originally on “Ruins” before we got onto writing in general, but we do have another piece by Mary Paulson published called “Tenderness”. We’re not gonna talk about that here because—man, we are going, just talking about writing in general, but look up “Tenderness”, as well, if you can. It is quite a good poem. Obviously, ’cause we published it, we think it’s great. That and “Ruins” by Mary Paulson are on our site. Anyway, I was gonna say, I wanted to go back to “Ruins” a little bit ’cause we got so…we were talking about poetry in general for so long. I’m curious about the visual comparison between this speaker and the movie star, the B-list movie star. I’m curious what your experience is with that in your life. Where that came from, where your inspiration for this piece came from. The emotions in it, ’cause it has such a strong emotional vibe. If you’re comfortable talking about that.

Mary Paulson (00:50:13):
Yeah, I’d love to. Those are all super good questions. I think that, growing up, I really struggled with identity. I had rules—a strict family, you know? What was expected of me… Unfortunately those rules changed a lot, so I always felt kind of off, like I was doing the wrong thing. Didn’t matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it. And I really struggled to kind of find out, who am I, what am I? I did a lot of escape into fantasy and, obviously, a little girl fantasy is to be a heroine. Also, somehow I got the sense that it was good to be this tragic dramatic figure. You know, somehow the more tragic you were, the more people wanted to save you. That there was this combination between tragedy and beauty that was important and I spent a good part of my…well, all of my early life, trying to figure out, like, ‘okay, am I supposed to look like her’? ‘Am I supposed to look like her’? ‘Am I supposed to do this’? ‘What am I supposed to do’? All I really wanted to do was find whatever the combination—the right combination—was. Where I could feel comfortable in my skin and safe. Of course, I wanted to be liked and loved by everybody. You know what I mean? So, I was a real…I struggled with that a lot. At some point [laughs] you burn out on that, you know? I became depressed. I grew up with depression. My mother was severely depressed when I was growing up. So, it was just naturally kind of in me. I’m naturally low energy. I tend to go to the dark side much easier than I should. But, the idea was here that was…[a] kind of sense of depression and exhaustion and being so disconnected from the world, you know? In my efforts to be part of it, I just was lost. I felt lost. That’s kind of where this poem comes from. At the time, I had a big “Drugstore Cowboy” movie poster up in my room. [laughs] Kelly Lynch and…uh, God, what’s his name? I just met him. He’s so awesome. He’s so hot, too. I forget his name.

All (00:52:38):

Mary Paulson (00:52:38):
Anyway, great movie, “Drugstore Cowboy”. [laughs] But I had that poster up on my wall, and there was just this sense of comparison. Of this fantasy, of this technicolor person while me—or the speaker in the poem—is crumbling, is already a dying thing, you know? Has no structure, has no bones, has no sense, and is just kind of burning away and evaporating into smoke. So, that’s kind of where the idea came from. It’s really a poem about dissociation. Someone who’s dissociated or struggles with finding out who they are, who they wanna be, is really in this state of…kind of a flux. You know, you have no real form, yet. That was kind of what it felt like. That sense of the smoke is kind of being formless and instead of forming something out of that, the speaker in the poem is kind of resigned, like you said. There’s an apathy to that of, like, ‘not me, I’m not alive, I’m not really participating in life’. That was where the idea came from. The capitalization of smoke in the poem was that it’s a command. Like, I need to be commanded…the speaker needs to be commanded to function, right? And that’s the only function that they’re capable of doing at that moment. Smoke and kind of burn away, you know? So, it’s not a happy poem [laughs].

Elena L. Perez (00:54:21):
Yeah. No.

Mary Paulson (00:54:21):
But it’s very relevant to how I was feeling at the time, you know?

Matthew Maichen (00:54:28):
As I do my third pass, fourth pass through it, I see the aura of depression hanging over it. And that is something that, in my own life, I’ve been close to so many people who suffer from that and I see it here. Almost like the low energy longing, you know, of like, ‘I want this, but there’s zero hope of ever having it so, like,—eh’. It kind of drips off of this page.

Elena L. Perez (00:55:07):
It’s like a slow burn.

Matthew Maichen (00:55:09):
Yeah. I find it really fascinating, what you said about the connection between tragedy and beauty, being sad and being beautiful. Those two things connected. It almost sounds like an inversion of the starving artist thing, you know, where you have to be miserable to create good art. You have to be miserable to be beautiful. I don’t know. I think about that. The key thing about the cliche ‘damsel in distress’ is she’s in distress and she can’t save herself and that’s probably who that character was on that poster.

Mary Paulson (00:55:49):
I mean, I think the idea is…I think, coming from the poem, there’s an exhaustion from the speaker of trying so hard and making all this effort, and then, you know, maybe if they just let themselves fall apart, somebody will come and scoop [them] up and save them. Some of that, you know, [is] in there. Obviously, that comes from my…you know, as a child, I always think of my mother as beautiful. We think of our mothers as beautiful. My mother was beautiful, but she was sad. She was really sad and she struggled and, you know…she died, but she was amazing. She also worked her way out of it. But, there’s also that kind of poignancy when you put tragedy and beauty together. And also beautiful things come out of tragedy. When I think of my mother’s illness, she was so…to me, of course, she was perfect, right? I was a child, I was six or something. So, she was perfect. She was like this perfect piece of glass. And then she shattered into a million pieces. My experience with her is that she took those pieces and she pasted them together the best she could and then she had this incredible kind of mosaic that was her. So, out of tragedy, out of these efforts, generally comes incredible new beauty that could not even have been imagined before. I think I’m going off topic, but that’s kind of what I think about when I think about tragedy and beauty, you know?

Matthew Maichen (00:57:25):
That is not at all off topic. That is…that was…thank you so much…

Marina Shugrue (00:57:28):
That was beautiful.

Elena L. Perez (00:57:28):

Matthew Maichen (00:57:28):
…for being willing to share that with us. We were really humbled by your willingness to share that here.

Elena L. Perez (00:57:39):
Yeah. That’s something that intrigues me as well. That juxtaposition of, like you were mentioning, of the tragedy and the beauty. It is tragic, but at the same time, it can be hopeful. Like you were saying, it’s having the new reality come out of that. It’s not a fairytale ending, but it’s still a hopeful ending, and that’s…yeah, that’s intriguing to me, as well.

Mary Paulson (00:58:05):
Yeah. I think there’s..I mean, yes, I would totally agree. And even with struggling with depression myself, you know, there’s always this…if you can hold onto this hope, right? So, beautiful things come out of terrible things. Also, whoever I could have imagined myself to be when I was trying to find an identity, I would never have guessed it would be this. But I’m okay with it and I’m happy with it for the most part. I mean, I have my moments, but that’s part of growing up as well. Also having the experience of things falling apart and then growing out of them, that’s one of the things about getting older. Again and again, things fall apart and you realize that you’re gonna survive that, and that something new will come out of it. If you can just hold on [to] what you can’t see and just have some faith that the last time you fell apart, you did manage to put the pieces back together again. Proobably you’ll be able to do it again this time. And now I really am going off topic, but [laughs].

All (00:59:17):

Matthew Maichen (00:59:17):
No, no. No, you are not because you’re right that this is not exactly a happy poem. I appreciate you bringing us back to that hope, because it is true. One of the things that happens with depression is that sense of hopelessness. It is hard to believe that things will come back together. It’s hard to believe that things will be okay afterward. But the truth is, they will be. The truth is, you can. It will alter your mind to make you think that, to make you not believe that, when in fact…You know, as you get older, as you said, things can come back together. In this poem, we don’t necessarily see that. We don’t necessarily see things coming together, but that’s because it’s a poem. It captures a moment. And in reality in life, things do come back together.

Elena L. Perez (01:00:22):
But the stage is set in this poem, right, because at the end, you’re left with the image of the burning city. You can either see that as, you know, a tragedy, which of course it is. But as you were saying, Mary, something new can come from that, can come from those ashes. As they say, the Phoenix comes from the ashes or whatever and that’s more cheesy [laughs] than your way of putting it in the poem, but basically that’s that hope, right? Of seeing the burning city in two different ways. As…yeah…hope.

Mary Paulson (01:00:58):
Right. I mean, nothing is ever completely destroyed, you know? I’m half Greek, so I spent a lot of time in Greece and I love it. But it’s a place where there’s ruins everywhere. And everytime they go to build a new building, they end up, essentially, excavating and finding something underneath it. It’s civilizations built on top up and on top and on top and this happens a lot in Europe. I know in Greece and southern Europe. But that’s what it is, you know, there’s something new [that] has been built on something old, and that’s what it is. It’s funny because that’s why it’s so hard. I was thinking about just now those messages that were going out for a while, the public service messages to kids who were suicidal or struggling, you know? To say ‘it gets better, hang in, it gets better’ because a young person does not know that. They don’t know that they’re…’cause especially when you’re young, you’re so impulsive, right? That part of your brain isn’t developed, but when you have [the] experience of falling apart and then pulling yourself back together, sometimes that place of ruin is the best place you can be because you have no more options except to rise again.

Matthew Maichen (01:02:23):
All right. I think I actually want to end the discussion of the poem on that note, because that was a really good note. Also, we’re a ways in. I do wanna ask, you say that you are kind of keyed into, at least, ‘a’ poetry community. Is there anything that you’ve read recently that just really spoke to you and that you’d like to share with us. Kind of shout-out to.

Mary Paulson (01:02:56):
Yeah. [laughs] There’s a lot of stuff and it’s not necessarily new, it’s just stuff that’s new to me or newly discovered. There is a book by Tony Hoagland called “Donkey…I forget what it’s called, but anyway. Tony Hoagland. One of the things that’s been around and in the news and coming to attention [and] has been always in the back of my mind—although I’ve never considered myself a feminist, but I do now that I’m older— is about men and women and the communication difficulties and just the different attitudes that they bring to something. This kind of…not that I’m stereotyping, but [men] do kind of have this underlying ability to be physical or to go to the physical place of violence in a way that maybe I don’t feel so much as a woman. But anyway, he speaks to that really well. He speaks this incredible honesty about how he feels. I think that one of the lines was so great. He says something like, ‘can I say that? I wanted to punch her right in the face’. It’s a poem about the speaker hooking up with a girl and then she stops, you know, and the feeling of a guy tearing his hair out because he’s really turned on. I was so struck by it because it was so honest. It was so like, ‘what did I wanna do? I wanted to punch her in the face because she stopped me. And I was like on, on, on going’. Like I said, there’s this underlying violence to it, there was so much honesty to it. It’s not, you know, maybe not the greatest topic, but I was really shocked by it in an eye-opening kind of way.

Elena L. Perez (01:04:45):
I just wanted to say for our listeners, it’s “Donkey Gospel” by Tony Hoagland.

Mary Paulson (01:04:52):

Elena L. Perez (01:04:53):
Do you have any other recommendations?

Mary Paulson (01:04:53):
You know, that comes to the top. I love one of the teachers I work with, Kim Addonizio. She is an incredible poet. I’m blessed to be able to be part of her workshops. She, if you just wanna look…I mean, just her books. She has many books, but one of my favorite poems of hers is called “What Do Women Want?”. Definitely check that out. It’s awesome. It’s sassy and it’s smart and it’s just amazing. That’s the other thing that I can think of. There’s so much. I wish I had…I can’t think off the top of my head.

Elena L. Perez (01:05:29):
That’s alright. Those are great. I’m excited to look into both of those. Thank you. And we’ll have links for our listeners. We’ll have links on the notes section of the podcast.

Matthew Maichen (01:05:41):
So, in that case, I think we can wind down to the end. This has been quite a substantial interview, regardless. I wanna say substantial because it was long, but we also covered a lot of really good stuff. And I really appreciate you being here and being willing to talk so much and being so candid about everything you said. We really appreciate it.

Elena L. Perez (01:06:08):
Yes. Thank you so much. Yes. [laughs]

Marina Shugrue (01:06:09):
Yeah, thank you.

Mary Paulson (01:06:12):
All the best to all of you. I really enjoyed this conversation, so thank you for that.

Matthew Maichen (01:06:16):
Thank you so much and have an excellent day.

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