A Conversation with Melinda Mueller
Author Melinda Mueller talks botany, collaboration, research, discovery, and her latest collection of poetry, ‘Mary’s Dust.’
Leah Angstman: I’m sitting down today with poet, botanist, and researcher, Melinda Mueller, whose latest collection of poetry, Mary’s Dust, is available now from Entre Ríos Books. I’m thrilled to welcome Ms. Mueller, and to have her begin by explaining — for those who are unfamiliar with Mary’s Dust — the book, music, and concept in her own words, and her relationship to the source material.
Melinda Mueller: Mary’s Dust is a collection of 30 poems about historical women named “Mary” — some famous, some obscure — arranged chronologically from the iconic “Mary, Mother of Jesus” through the centuries since, ending with a Zambian woman who died just a few years ago.
The music, commissioned by publisher Knox Gardner, was composed and performed by cellist Lori Goldston, in response to several of the poems. Lori and I had a long meeting in which we talked about the book, after which she composed her beautiful music. Knox Gardner’s “publishing philosophy,” bless him, includes a desire to make collaboration and synergy possible among the various arts, in each of the books he publishes.
I’d also like to note the cover and end-pages art of Karen Lamotte. I first saw her glass sculptures in an exhibit called “Absence Adorned” just as I was starting to work on this book. When I saw them, I thought, “That’s exactly what I want this book to do, in words!” I had the wishful but far-fetched idea then that it would be fantastic to have an image of her work on the cover of my book. I am over-the-moon thrilled that Knox made that happen.
When you embarked on compiling all these Marys, what was your main goal for the book, and do you think you achieved what you set out to do?
I wanted to explore the “Everywoman” of Western culture, and to represent their lives and voices using different poetic forms. For those women in the book who are famous, I wanted to capture them in a different light than the usual (Marie Curie is first presented in “her” poem as a child, for instance, and Marie Antoinette as a prisoner referred to by only a number). For the obscure women, I hoped to give some voice to their voicelessness.
Whether I achieved my goals must really be left to readers to decide. For myself, the project was enormously satisfying: I learned about many remarkable women in the process.
Where did you get the idea? What was the catalyst that made you feel compelled to explore all these Marys?
I had just finished a book (What the Ice Gets) about an Antarctic expedition of the early 20th century — and it was all about men, necessarily. I loved researching and writing that book, and wanted a similar project — but this time, about women. I had long wanted to write about one of my personal heroes, the Victorian-era explorer Mary Kingsley. However, I did not think a collection of poems entirely about her was the direction I wanted. At some point, mulling this over, the idea of a book about women named Mary occurred to me. Mary and its variant names are so common in the Western world that this allowed me to explore many historical periods, many circumstances in which women have found themselves, and many personalities.
Did you feel anything for any of the Marys more than others? Did any of them surprise, fascinate, or stick with you?
First of all, there were plenty of historical Marys (They are legion!) for whom, when I researched them, I could not find an “in” — a feeling for them that I could use to create a poem. Those Marys, fascinating though most of them are, are not in the book.
For the Marys who are in the book: Many I admire — “Stagecoach Mary” for her unconquerable spirit; Mary Kingsley for her audacious courage (She is on my short list of “people no longer living with whom I wish I could have dinner and a long conversation”); all the women in “Covert Acts,” who dared to act outside “permissible” boundaries for women. I found all the women in the book compelling — enterprising, brave, heartbreaking, occasionally hilarious.
Where did you find the sources for all these Marys? Which sources did you mine, and how did you choose where to turn? Did you select the Mary before you had the actual source material, based on previous knowledge of certain women in history, or did you find the majority of them through the source material without prior knowledge?
You can’t exactly do a Google search for “women named Mary,” can you? The famous ones were easy; I relied on the Internet and on books (Blessings be upon public libraries). Finding the obscure women was harder; I called on a considerable network of friends who knew about the project to suggest women they knew about. Every time I was in a bookstore, I browsed for Marys (I found Stagecoach Mary in a National Park bookstore, in a book about “unknown women of the West”). I did some specific Google searches (e.g. “woman who fought in the Civil War disguised as men”). Writing the book took about 10 years of research, writing, and revising.
What made you branch out from the standard ‘Mary’ to include other variants of the name, such as Marie, Mariyah, and Marianne?
Two reasons: One was that I knew of some women I very much wanted to include (such as Marie Curie), who had such names. A second was that this allowed me to include a wider range of women (geographically, historically, and culturally).
Alongside the print edition, you have a music and audio version available on the book’s website. What do you feel is gained from the music? What is lost if someone doesn’t listen to it? Can you tell me how you came up with the idea to collaborate with musician Lori Goldston?
The collaboration was suggested by Knox, who seems to know every musician in the Seattle area. When I heard Lori’s music, I was smitten. She and I have performed together, with her playing a piece and then me reading the poem she was responding to. As I listen, I am struck by how wonderfully her music expresses the “Mary” I sought to capture in words. I find that the music adds depth and insight to the poems.
The rest of the included audio is me reading many of the poems. I have always believed that poetry is meant to be heard, and that a greater understanding of a poem comes from hearing it read.
Your love of botany comes through on these pages. Can you briefly explain its influence or relationship to you? What role does that play in your poetry?
I majored in botany as an undergraduate in college, and have been captivated by plants since childhood — I spent many hours exploring the Ponderosa pine woodlands near my family’s home. My 2nd grade teacher had us all plant a radish seed in a little cup of soil, and when its first heart-shaped leaves appeared, I experienced this as a miracle. I now work as a high school biology teacher. Science has always offered me a means to see the world in more precise detail, and so is inextricably twined with my work as a writer.
I found myself looking for famous Marys in your pages while I was reading through the book. (Mary Todd Lincoln springs to mind as an omission I thought might be there.) Have you found any Marys since publication whom you’ve missed and wish you’d included? How did you decide whom to keep and whom to omit? What were the criteria for one fascinating woman over another?
As I told friends who were sending me potential “Marys:” one rule is, they have to be dead — otherwise, the project stretched into infinity. I have tried not to notice “new Marys” that I missed, because I know I will regret their absence. There were also a number of historical women NOT named Mary, about whom I had mixed feelings (On the one hand — thank goodness I don’t need to research yet another Mary, and on the other hand, “sure wish this amazing person was named Mary, so I could include her” — some of the early women aviators come to mind).
As I remarked before, there were lots of “obvious” Marys to include — Mary Todd Lincoln, Mary Queen of Scots — who are not in the book. Sometimes this was because I could not figure out a way “in” to express them in a poem. Sometimes this was because I already had a “Mary” of the same era or “feel.”
Did you look for the story to tell the Marys, or for the Marys to tell the story?
Both. There were Marys I knew about and was determined to include, and there were ideas or historical periods I wished to convey, for which I had to seek out a suitable Mary.
When you meet a Mary on the street now, what do you think? What’s your first thought?
A Mary I meet on the street does not fit the “she must be dead” rule! — but more broadly, in answer to your question: Writing this book gave me insights about the lives of women through Western history, as well as some new personal heroes (Mary Wortley Montagu was badass!).
MELINDA MUELLER was born in Helena, Montana. She earned a degree in Botany at the University of Washington and a master’s degree in Biology at Central Washington University. Mueller’s most recent poetry collection, Mary’s Dust, was published by Entre Ríos Books in 2018. The After was released by Entre Ríos in October, 2017. What the Ice Gets: Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, 1914–1916 (2000, Van West & Company) received a 2001 Washington State Book Award and the American Library Notable Books Award for Poetry in 2002. Melinda is on the science faculty at Seattle Academy of Arts & Sciences. You can find more about her on her website.
LEAH ANGSTMAN is a historian and transplanted Midwesterner, unsure of what feels like home anymore. She is the recent winner of the Loudoun Library Foundation Poetry Award and Nantucket Directory Poetry Award and was a placed finalist in the Cowles Poetry Book Prize, Able Muse Book Award, and Bevel Summers Prize for Short Fiction. She serves as Editor-in-Chief for Alternating Current Press and a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, Electric Literature, Slice Magazine, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. You can find her at leahangstman.com.