Enclosing the Memory: An Interview with Mary McLaughlin Slechta

It's Animal but Merciful contributor Mary McLaughlin Slechta chats with George Wallace

Mary McLaughlin Slechta's poetry has appeared in you say. say. and hell strung and crooked (Uphook Press), Stone Canoe, Phati'tude, and Pluck! She is the author of the poetry collection Wreckage on Watery Moon (Foothills Publishing, 2005), two chapbooks, and is an associate editor with The Comstock Review. Mary lives in Syracuse, NY.


GWFM: Is the poetry of "the personal" and the poetry "of witness" living an uneasy truce inside you, or are they at war with each other?

MMS: Maybe it's the fiction writer in me but I blur the lines constantly between poetry of "the personal" and "poetry of witness." A personal history may inspire the poem but my experiences as a teacher, member of a neighborhood/community, and avid newspaper reader spill into the imagery. The breakthrough moment for me comes when I let go of a specific moment in time and tap into the wider human experience. It's not a war at all but a wonderful awareness of our common humanity. And not easy to achieve, I might add, because my mother's generation—part of the African-American migration north in the 1930's—repeats specific families stories incessantly in order for us to remember them, carry them forward. Because of her young age at the time and the trauma surrounding the move, the details are fuzzy and dreamlike, indecipherable on some level. Like those characters in the Matrix movies, I'm always alert to changes in the stories. Things get interesting again.

Being African-American/Jamaican-American doesn't fully define my identity as an individual and as a writer. I think there are tremendous stories and experiences and feelings that are specific to that context, but by immersing myself completely in the "personal"—a process that often feels more like meditation and can literally take years—I hope to transcend the "personal'. A Slavic husband with a keen appreciation for the history of oppression and the inclination to remind me, keeps my "personal" ranting in check (bad pun). My mother even has a story for him. In her northern elementary school during the thirties, prejudiced teachers treated the Slavic children worse than the black children. I'm proud she recognized their common enemy and felt protective of the most vulnerable.

GWFM: A lot of your poetry available online springboard from family stories. Multi-generationally. In "Driving Lesson" you address a son who is "at war" with his brother, and urge him to "kill anything that comes between you and coming home." In "Buried Bones" you recall your father's "polite refusal" of an invitation for you and your family to eat at a friend's house.

MMS: Both poems you mention come from the book I basically wrote during the eight and a half years my father was in a nursing home. We expanded home to include his room in that nursing home and for a long time the staff there were as real and immediate to me as co-workers and neighbors. I see now that I didn't so much slow down my writing, but began to write like I was doing fine needle work: stitching round and round, including as many details as the line could possible hold. Holding on really. As I read the proofs for Wreckage on a Watery Moon, I realized I was rocking back and forth in grief. The book came out a little while after my father died and it was bittersweet. No book or poem can replace what we love, but I'm so grateful that a lot was gathered in those poems—emotional memories—that would have otherwise been lost.

When I get stuck writing, it's usually from trying too hard or trying to be clever. I take a break and remind myself to be honest and that generally gets me unstuck. I've written some confessional stuff and family secret sort of things but I don't lose sleep over it. First, by the time the "story" is out, it's gone through so many transformations that most people wouldn't recognize themselves. Second, I don't write with the intention of hurting anyone. I live with the understanding that I haven't figured everything out, contradict myself, don't live up to my own words, have imperfect relationships with other people, imperfect parents and we've all done terrible things. We're human. I'm going to write about that.

I've read for audiences where someone has wondered if my parents were dead. Apparently, if they weren't, the poem would have killed them. I felt a little badly about disparaging Father Simon LeMoyne in a poem after having a great experience at LeMoyne College but feeling badly is a small cost for the truth. The only topic I have trouble writing about is sex, and anything bordering on erotic. Apparently, the Puritans left something in the drinking water.

GWFM: Your sister, Rita Kelley, illustrated your book The Boy's Nightmare and Other Poems. In your fiction piece "Dumplings" you describe a sister eating your parents' food "like an indiscriminate tourist"—even your father's dumplings, which "rap like a brick against a counter top." Same sister?

MMS: Funny you put these two works together. I haven't admitted it before since my other sisters would maybe beat me up, but my sister Rita was/is The Beautiful One. As a child I suppose I was jealous, but she also despised me for supplanting her position as The Baby. Years later, when she first began to do her art seriously, she drew a horrendous sketch of me, something monstrous and threatening that of course I've kept somewhere. It's probably accurate in terms of sibling rivalry. Fortunately, as we've aged together and realize we're looking, in part, at a shared universe of family history and cultural history, our interpretations of "the other" have become less caricatures and more humane. So it's true: sibling rivalry teaches us how to behave in the real world.

GWFM: Let's turn to where you live and where you came from.

MMS: I grew up 250 miles east of Syracuse in rural Connecticut and back in 1980 thought I'd study English Lit at Syracuse University a couple years and then return. Instead my husband and I found Syracuse was convenient for traveling around the northeast and Canada, had lots of green spaces and an interesting diversity. In the thirty plus years we've been here that diversity has increased because Syracuse is a refugee resettlement city.

I also began teaching English as a Second Language instead of writing poetry and fiction full-time  Not a hopeless situation. Being an outsider among other outsiders to a place and slowly coming to know its history, its direct connection to migrations happening around the world, and then to understand my part—all our separate parts--in the changing history has become an enormous theme in my writing.

Being here has taught me lessons about the mood and motion of the world—to absolutely despise war!--and to look back more objectively at the place I left behind. I'm humbled, something no university on a hill can begin to teach.

GWFM: What does the word indigenous mean to you?

MMS: I'm a first generation American and married a political refugee who came to the United States from Czechoslovakia in 1969. Our two cultures—hyphenated cultures in flux—share a desire for roots and family but also empathy for those who have been uprooted in the process of our home-making. I continue to explore the idea of misnamed Indians through poetry and fiction. Here was my West Indian daddy clearing his hard-earned acre of land and finding arrowheads. As historians have noted, evidence of that human impulse to destroy things and then use their names, is everywhere. Back home in the country you'll find Frog Hollow Road and here in the city treeless streets called Elm and Oak and Spruce and Maple. Traveling south in the eighties, I'd shiver when I'd see place names like Indian River Road. Eventually I renamed my own road Indian River Road in order to talk about it imaginatively. The displacement of others—animal, vegetable, human—for better or worse, is a fact of life. Maybe a consequence of the Earth being round. I've sometimes wondered if flat would have had its benefits.

In some ways my small town home of the 60's and 70's was a nearly idyllic place where we kids spent entire days in the woods. We cut paths between the blueberry bushes to major landmarks like Singing River and The Pine Tree—which evolved into the Smoking Tree. A favorite activity was running along trolley car tracks, a swath of treeless land that appeared like alien crop markings in the middle of the woods. Former litterbugs, perhaps travelers on those trolleys, had dumped broken crockery and pots and clam shells everywhere. And, like kids do, we accepted the junk to be as much a part of our environment as those ubiquitous rock walls all over New England. Even more, we thought it was treasure.

Only later, when I came to Syracuse and looked homeward, I realized we'd been playing in a graveyard. As the years passed I had to admit that like the indigenous population, the Mohegans and Nipmucs, and then the Europeans, our homes and rituals too were becoming part of that graveyard, only quicker.

"Back home" was described by the census as 99.9% white and there were people in 1955 who wrote petitions to keep it that way. No big riots happened or anything. According to my mother, reasonable people in the community helped settle down the petitioners and life went on. On the small stretch of road in my neighborhood, three Jamaican-American families defied the trend of settling in the bigger cities like Hartford and New York. The fathers had come to the United States as replacement farm workers during World War II, although I doubt any of them had much actual farming experience. There was an economic incentive, but more importantly a quirkiness in all of them to be free of societal constraints back home.

One of the three married a European-American who owned land, and with time, sweat, and lots of experimentation, houses were built. In the back of our yard, beyond the vegetable and flower gardens, you could find a goat house, chicken coops, and bees around an apiary. Over-sized birdhouses were built for pigeons, whose purpose I never questioned.

Ironically, after the struggle to create and maintain our neighborhood, it's not being passed on to the next generation many of whom don't even visit. Nowadays, what remains of the outbuildings is rotting back into the earth and the gardens are overrun with native flowers and weeds. Singing River is a dried stream bed and every morning the trees seem to have stepped closer to the houses. The earth is swallowing it all back up. And it's all happened in one generation.

GWFM: Is Syracuse better?

MMS: Syracuse has slowly opened up to me as a place that was quickly changed and in some ways spoiled by human need and desire. In less than a hundred years of industrial and recreational exploitation, Onondaga Lake, sacred place of the Haudenosaunee, became one of the most polluted waterways in the world. I could only smell the pollution when I first arrived, so I suppose my nose has gotten used to it. Ten years after our arrival, when my husband and I had saved for a house, we were shocked to find absolutely no earthworms in the pebbly soil of the yard. Rainwater from the pitched roof had been allowed to constantly wash away the top soil until there wasn't any.

The human story is another precious resource. The people's history—the Iroquois Confederacy, Syracuse's passionate involvement in the Abolitionist Movement, the Underground Railroad and Women's Rights, the Syracuse Peace Council (America's oldest and still speaking out for justice)—should be shouted from city hall. But in place of pride and a spirit of hope emerging from these experiences, you'll hear cynicism or resentment or ignorance.

Forgetting the past is criminal. A safe house on the Underground Railroad is torn down to build a drugstore; the newest immigrants, soon to be our newest citizens, pay rent in some of the worst housing in the city.

GWFM: Sounds like a good place to move away from!

MMS: Yes but it's an amazing place to write. The winters are ridiculously long so there's plenty of time to write and read as well as an amazing community of writers. The environment, history, and current events all inform my writing and inspire it. And by spring, I'm ready to buy more bags of top soil and at least try to be hopeful about the machinery brought in to dredge the bottom of the lake and keep pumping out pollutants around the clock.

Climate change, evidenced by this past summer's drought, is of course a game changer but I don't think we can find solutions without maintaining hope. While many flowers didn't flourish—the stunted lilac to the scorched ground covers— the Rose-of-Sharon had a long and beautiful season. The blossoms made me realize why Steinbeck chose this name for that generous, loving character in Grapes of Wrath. Despite the self-destruction of our nest and other nests through pollution and war and the war birds we call drones, there is still something in all of us, in our Earth, that is struggling to survive.

I feel that as artists and humans we have to find personal ways to join the struggle. The idea of putting things back the way they were, in my poem "The hour of our belief," is both true and totally ironic. I believe we have to deal with what's in front of us and by doing so may regain something we've lost.

There's a saying back home that "you can't have anything for yourself"—this applies to the good as well as the bad.

In the last days of my father's life I needed to take some time from work. I tried to keep my grief away from the kids, especially since their eighth grade graduation was coming up, but I supposed my face gave me away. One of the students, from Bosnia, told me "at least you have a dad," and it broke my heart. They had lost fathers, brothers, and uncles to the mass graves of Srebrenica and here I was going home to hold an actual hand.

As a human being, first of all, and then as a writer, I enclose the memory of those men and their children in my own story.

It's Animal but Merciful front cover
It's Animal but Merciful front cover

Find Mary's poem "And Then There Were None" in our anthology It's Animal but Merciful