An Interview With Mary Cresswell


Mary Cresswell is a Wellington poet who lives on the Kapiti Coast. She came to New Zealand from Los Angeles in 1970, after having lived in various parts of the US, in Germany, and in Japan. She graduated from Stanford University in California with a degree in history and English literature. She is retired from freelance work (science editor and proofreader) and has spent at least one lifetime in the Wellington workplace.

Her first book appearance was with Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Macpherson, and Kerry Hines, co-authors of Millionaire’s Shortbread (University of Otago Press, 2003). This book is illustrated with collages by Brendan O’Brien, has an afterword by Greg O’Brien, and introduced these four poets to the Wellington scene.

Nearest & Dearest, Mary’s collection of her parody and satiric verse, was published in 2009 by Steele Roberts and is illustrated with cartoons by Nikki Slade Robinson. At that time I interviewed her for the first time.

This is a first for me, Mary – a re-interview, and it indicates that you’ve had success in getting two books published in relatively close succession. Before we get onto your new poetry collection, Trace Fossils, how did things go with your 2009 collection, Nearest & Dearest? Collections of light poetry are still quite rare in New Zealand – do you think that this affected the critical and popular reception of Nearest & Dearest, for either good or ill?

There was no critical notice in NZ, which didn’t surprise me. In the US, I got a very good notice in the well-established print journal Light Quarterly, but the US has a lot of humour written by women – not just Dorothy Parker years ago but many women today. I fondly remember Hen’s Teeth, Crow Station, and lots of good women stand-up comics, but NZ seems to me to have handed written satire and parody over to the boys. (If anyone can tell me otherwise, please get in touch!!)

The publisher and I sold just under 150 copies between us. Most of my sales, many of them multiple copies, were to groups of women who would never browse poetry shelves but who were pleasantly astonished that reading poems could be fun. … On the other hand, I was surprised by a number of people who were nonplussed (embarrassed?) by the contents, didn’t know what to say. Perhaps they had no experience of responding to satire or to sarky women fronting up in print.

Trace Fossils was first runner-up for the Kathleen Grattan Awards in 2009, judged by Fleur Adcock – a notable achievement! Is the published version of the manuscript the same as that submitted for the Kathleen Grattan Awards, or has it changed since then?

It’s exactly the same. The manuscript wandered around some years before that. One reason I am so very glad to see it in print now is that I am starting to have trouble recognising the author – and I’m extremely happy to be on the receiving end of Steele Roberts’ very attractive design and presentation.

Trace Fossils is divided into four sections of roughly equal length. What is the significance of these four sections within the collection? Were most of the poems written with an eye to this particular collection, or did the shape of the collection derive from the type of poems that you had been writing?

The section names are intended to be vaguely geological and to suggest eras, different from each other and long in time. Trace fossils themselves may or may not represent anything, and they are a geological construct, a fascinating one (they also have a very funny classification system – take a look). In the introduction, I nominate trace fossils as a metaphor for our memories of loss and our ways of observing loss.

The poems themselves were written at various times and in various forms: counted syllables, sonnets, prose poems, ghazals, concrete poems, ovillejo, accentual poems, free verse in a variety of lengths and shapes. I assembled them more with an eye to connection than to form; they were none of them written with a particular book in mind.

I spent some time recently talking with a fellow poet about the marketing and distribution of poetry collections – that is, letting people know about new poetry collections, and getting poetry collections to places, whether physical or virtual, that people can buy the books if they wish. I imagine the poets reading this interview, at least, would love to know whether you have any innovative ideas on either of those topics!

I wish. Virtual: I have no clue. Finding more about this side of things is my next project. Physical: The books I have sold were sold by word of mouth – people rang me. Local museums, educational groups and art galleries are sometimes prepared to handle books by local authors, especially if the books can be tied in with current shows, if you do the record-keeping and paperwork, and if you are prepared to donate some of your profit to the organisation. (And if you accept it as a one-off, not a continuing relationship.) I suspect special-interest groups, like writing classes, might be worth trying if you’re prepared to give a reading. I expect any reading is a place to sell books.

Do you have any poetry readings planned around the publication of Trace Fossils – and if so, where can people hear you read?

No, no readings. As you know, there are poets who perform with panache and poets who potter on paper. There is a lot of overlap, I’m glad to say, but I generally prefer not to do solo readings. The main reason for this is that a lot of my poetry is based on word play (both visual and syntactic) and shifts of register. I think that much of this goes west when people hear the poems read out loud and only once. I write page poetry that is to be looked at and re-read. I wish I could bounce and rap, but I can’t.

If you don’t mind me asking, what projects are you working on now?

No, I don’t mind, but there’s nothing all that coherent. It’s been years since I finished the poems included in Trace Fossils, and I have shifted more and more to formal patterns, particularly ghazals (at the moment) but also other repeating structures. I enjoy working in accentual (as opposed to accentual-syllabic) forms. Somewhere down the line I would like to end up with a book built on a skeleton of ghazals but fleshed out with a variety of other poems. I’m still writing light verse and publishing it in the US and the UK, but as always this is a separate department. My main immediate project will be trying to get my head around what might be useful in the world of e-publishing.

Book Availability

Trace Fossils can be ordered from the publisher, Steele Roberts, and is available at independent bookshops.

Nearest & Dearest can also be ordered from Steele Roberts.

Sample Poem

I published Mary’s poem “The Sound Of Now” as my Tuesday Poem this week – check it out!

An Interview with Mary Cresswell

This is the first of three interviews I will be running over the next few weeks with New Zealand poets whose first solo books of poetry are being launched on or near Montana Poetry Day on Friday 24 July.

Mary Cresswell is a Wellington poet who lives on the Kapiti Coast. She came to New Zealand from Los Angeles in 1970, after having lived in various parts of the US, in Germany, and in Japan. She graduated from Stanford University in California with a degree in history and English literature. She is a freelance science editor and proofreader and has spent at least one lifetime in the Wellington workplace.

Her first book appearance was with Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Macpherson, and Kerry Hines as co-authors of Millionaire’s Shortbread, published by the University of Otago Press in 2003. This book is illustrated with collages by Brendan O’Brien, has an afterword by Greg O’Brien, and introduced these four poets to the Wellington scene.

Mary, your first solo book of poetry, Nearest & Dearest (Steele Roberts, 2009, NZ RRP $19.95, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson) is a book of humorous poetry, which is a side of your work I’ve not seen before. Have you always written humorous poetry alongside your serious poetry, or has that been a recent development?

The opposite, actually. I stopped writing serious poetry when I was about 17 and only took it up again the year I turned 60. All the years I didn’t write serious poetry, I’ve frequently come up with silly stuff for friends, for occasions in the office, or for family. That’s been a constant. I just wish I’d kept copies!

How did you become involved in writing poetry? Which poets have been most influential on your writing?

I was raised in a family where capping verses (usually limericks) was a standard indoor sport, so I have emitted poetry as long as I remember. Important poets? My sense of rhythm owes a lot to Anon. and to Cole Porter. My parents lived on folk songs and cabaret songs, hence my need for accentual (rather than accentual-syllabic or free) verse. Individual poets: Lewis Carroll, Auden, Eliot, Poe, Dorothy Parker, Donne, Walter Scott, Byron, Longfellow, Ogden Nash, Sidney Lanier… for starters. These days I’m reading Kay Ryan, Marie Ponsot, Robert Alter’s new translation of the Book of Psalms, among others.

“Humour” and “playfulness” are not words often used to characterise the literary scene in New Zealand. Indeed, there seems to be a view here that purse-lipped seriousness is the only acceptable literary stance. Have you run foul of such attitudes, or is this just me being paranoid?

I think “literary” is the operative word here, and no, you’re not paranoid. But this isn’t poetry’s fault: A lot of people last thought seriously about poetry in the fifth form and settle for genteel obeisance to Beauty and Nature when they think of it at all; light verse is for greeting cards, and they can’t imagine a serious message coming via humour. — And there’s also literary fashion. Humour is difficult in personal-experience poetry written in free verse, with no formal aspect. In New Zealand, we have to go back a generation to, say, Denis Glover to find a top poet writing humour, especially black humour, with a sting in it. Was Glover ever considered literary? I don’t know; I wonder if his contemporaries kept him in a category of his own.

Not many Americans write poems that feature cricket, such as “Willow Green Willow” in Nearest & Dearest. Do you now feel thoroughly ‘acclimatised’, if I may use the term, as a New Zealand poet?

After forty years in New Zealand, I’m about as acclimatised as I’ll ever be. I switched to correct [sic] spelling early on, though my spoken accent will never change much. I’m not sure, though, if any poet can or should aim for the mainstream. I know that both Americans and Kiwis think I don’t really belong, and the discomfort that comes from this seems to keep my satiric side alive and healthy.

Several of the poems that I most enjoyed in Nearest & Dearest are parodies of or based on other poems, several from the Victorian era. I know I like reading these – what attracts you to writing them?

They’re easiest to get started. Many of them (like the office manager’s Shakespeare sonnet (see below) or playing games with Wordsworth in the ‘Pass at Grasmere’) are based on poetry I read years ago, and they’re part of my sensibility in a way more recent poems aren’t. So a phrase—a few lines—perhaps a rhyme for ‘schadenfreude’— will pop into my mind by surprise; then I spend hours and hours trying to polish a humorous poem that also is a credit to the original.

Your poem “Metastasis” appears in Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, and you work as an editor of science publications. How much of an influence has science had on your poetry? Would you describe yourself as a “science poet”?

Not a “science poet” in that I rarely take scientific principles into account; “Metastasis” is a bit aberrant. I take notes of and am definitely influenced by goofy-sounding phrases I run across in the course of proofreading fearsomely technical material. (Who would be a “ring-based indole”, I ask you?) The US magazine Umbrella publishes an annual light supplement, Bumbershoot. This poem: reflects a temporary passion for technical terms beginning with “Sq”.

Are copies of Nearest & Dearest available in bookshops yet? If so, where can people find it?

Absolutely. In Wellington, try Unity Books; Moby Dickens and Paper Plus in Paraparaumu; Bruce Mackenzie’s in Palmerston have it for sure. Books a’ Plenty in Tauranga. If you don’t see it on the shelf, ask for it. Supporting your local bookseller is admirable, virtuous, and a sign of high intelligence. If all else fails, the book’s available from the publisher and from Fishpond.

Finally, what’s next for Mary Cresswell as a poet?

Write more. Read more. Read more. Write more.

Watch this space.

by Mary Cresswell

Shall I wear the Gucci scarf today?
It’s far more lovely and more corporate
than what sleek young managers affect
in all the offices up and down the way.

It gives an air of strength, they always say,
classic looks for classic power dressed,
Look and feel and act as though you’re best
and the rest will follow, as the night the day.

No dangly earrings! What women call
postmenopausal zest, in other places
gives a bad impression overall.
I will notice all their airs and graces,
a quiet woman, not looking to outwit them…
I shall run the show before they know what hit them.

This interview is the first stop in Mary’s “virtual book tour” for Nearest & Dearest. The next stop is on Janis Freegard’s blog.