“She was born with the gift of being able to see sharply into the belly of the earth, and with that ability comes the responsibility to speak of what she sees, no matter the difficult truth of it. Her voice is startling in its resonance and depth. She loves the complexity of language and will carry a word in her mouth, tasting it for hours.”Joy Harjo
Sometimes the universe brings someone into your life who you didn’t know you needed, but once they are planted into your life, you are so grateful for the delicate flowers and strong branches they bring. Mary Silwance is one of those people for me.
We met about three years ago in a situation devoid of much creativity, but we quickly realized our mutual love of words outside the confines of our daily interactions. Though I cannot remember how we stumbled upon this information, I have admired her artistic endeavors ever since. I am fortunate to experience her word play in person at poetry readings and my mind has been expanded through her thought-provoking essays.
Her writing is beautiful, so of course I wanted to know more about how she knew she wanted to write. She responded:
“Although I’ve journaled since I can remember, knowing I want to write is a lifelong slow-motion moment. I grew up in a family of doctors whose friends and family were also in the medical field. The arts were not valued as something to aspire to, but a novelty to be enjoyed. So, I wrote on the down-low most of my life and felt as valued as a court jester – clever and amusing but not taken seriously. Most importantly though, I didn’t take seriously my own aspiration and passion for the written word. If there was a defining moment, it was in my mid-40’s when I trained capoeira. The instructor had been training for about a decade or more. I was about 1.5 years in and observed her pursuing, evolving, and blooming in her passion. I was lousy at capoeira and would never be a good capoeirista because I wasn’t passionate or interested enough in it. But if I trained in writing as she trained in capoeira then someday I could be a decent writer.”
So, now that she has dedicated herself to the written word, I asked her what her ideal writing day looks like. Her response:
“An ideal writing day would be one in which I complete one damn thing on my writing aspiration list which is miles long. I had answered the question at first with all these externalities of what the day would look like, almost down to the barometric pressure. Honestly, none of that matters. An ideal writing day is one in which I honor my commitment to myself. And an ideal-er day would be one which I tend myself with TLC and grace when I don’t.”
“An ideal writing day is one in which I honor my commitment to myself.”
Everything I have read of Mary’s always feels so important. The subjects she chooses to write about are vital to the human condition and to our environmental health. And whether you agree with the points she makes or not, she will make you think deeper and in new ways. This post on her blog, Tonic Wild, is a perfect example. I asked her how she decides what she writes about. Her response:
“Poetry is like pollen – it dusts everywhere and everything. So, in a sense you could say poetry chooses me. From my daughter’s laugh to the red bud blooming or the way my 85-year-old dad stretches his neck and opens his mouth like a baby bird to eat. But I’m not aware if I’m intentionally choosing to write something. I’ll be drawn to an image, song, scent, feeling, experience, or news story and want to dive in it. Like Julia Cameron [the author of The Artist’s Way] says, “the creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” In my environmental writing, I find myself striving to make connections that aren’t being made in mainstream environmental writing: connections between supremacy and the environmental agenda of the global north. In that sense I’m intentionally choosing to address a particular subject in a particular way.”
As a fellow writer and reader of The Artist’s Way, I wanted to know Mary’s writing process. Her response to my question:
“I’m a morning person so I try to wake up before my daughters so I can have a few hours to myself in the morning. I do my morning pages and often ideas will surface from that. But sometimes when I go to actually flesh out those ideas, if I find that I’m stuck, I make myself do a 10 minute free write which always unsticks me. When I am immersed in a blog post or poem, I usually meditate on it for days. It’s on the back burner of my brain on simmer until it’s ‘complete.’ I’m in a couple of critique groups and have found that after they critique something, I have to leave it alone for a long time before I can internalize their suggestions enough to put them to good use. I need a lot of movement to write so I often write or am on simmer while gardening or walking or running. In those situations, I record ideas on my phone if they arise. I need physical movement and mental stillness. I have a fiction novel on the super way back burner that I add ideas to as they arise. I’ve been at the woolgathering stage with it for about two years and I am loving this process because I know my skill set isn’t there yet to execute the idea but I can still gather the material for when I’m a better writer. In terms of revision, I am never finished. I tinker endlessly with my poems and essays. Not necessarily because I can see how to improve a piece, but because I like seeing how other ways of presenting it or framing it would work. Who’s to say which way is better. That’s actually something I love about writing. It’s like an endless puzzle I’ll never solve and that’s what makes it gratifying.”
Mary gave me the encouragement I needed to stand in front of people and share my poetry. Since Mary was there for my first reading, I wanted to hear about hers.
“The first time I read was at Fourth Monday at the Writers’ Place with host Sharon Eiker. She’s been hosting that open mic for decades, I think. It was such an encouraging atmosphere. She creates a safe, affirming space for poets of all abilities and experience to share their work. I was super nervous and shared two poems with my heart racing before, during and after. It is an Open Mic community that I return to whenever I can.”
She went on to tell me about how she prepared for her first reading as a featured poet.
“A couple of years later, through Sharon, I was the featured poet at the Uptown Arts bar one night. I prepared so much for that event. I memorized my poems, recorded myself, worked on timing and sequencing, came up with a narrative thread and theme to hold it all together and practiced while driving to and from work for weeks. And I knocked it out of the park. I’m not bragging or gloating. I say that because I earned it. One, I attend a lot of open mics and pay attention to what works and resonates with audiences. Two, I attended an instructive poetry workshop by Lisa Allen where she detailed how to give a good reading. I followed her advice.”
I asked Mary what she does in her free time. She is fully dedicated to writing and explained why she is cutting out some of activities she used to do.
“This question comes at a time of transition. Heretofore, I would have said, I grow food, make bread, can veggies, read, dance, take super long walks and hikes, listen to Democracy Now, watch documentaries, play games, roll down hills. However. Since I began making writing a priority, I have become aware of the amount of time & energy each of these takes. In fact, as I get to know myself as a writer, some things aren’t as enjoyable anymore because I see them as taking away from my priority, writing. So which activities will replenish me and serve the muse? What is actually a time suck that I’ll need to recover from? I’m learning as I go.”
Finally, I asked her what keeps her motivated. Her response is poetic in itself.
“Life is the fluttering bird between my hands. I want to know it, comfort it, understand it, then release it. I know who I am, who I was, who I want to be, what I think, what I feel, what I know, through my pen on paper. It is how I learn to visualize myself, my perspective, in a world, in a religion, in a culture, in a family, in relationships, in vocations that have an agenda and definition for me that is not my own. Through writing I understand myself, the world, and make connections between seemingly disparate things.”
In addition to her poetry readings, she also facilitates workshops addressing the planetary plight through a spiritual lens. “Specifically, I explore the psychological, emotional and sociological factors underscoring how we’ve come to relate to our planet and other living beings in the ways we do. These workshops are informed by my work experiences in the environmental field and the years of blogging on environmental issues.”
Life is the fluttering bird between my hands. I want to know it, comfort it, understand it, then release it.
When I asked if she had any events coming up, she told me many of them have been postponed indefinitely because of COVID-19. “Lisa Allen and I were to be the featured poets at Tom’s Speakeasy in May. I was also supposed to be part of the faculty for the New England Young Writers Conference in mid-May.” She has been interviewed on KKFI program Radio Active a couple of times recently.
Mary’s impressive bio:
Originally from Egypt, Mary Silwance lives in Kansas City. An environmental activist and speaker, award-winning poet, mother and aspiring farmer, she is amember of the Kansas City Writers Group, is active in the KC open mic scene and serves on the editorial teams of Kansas City Voices and Konza Journal. Among other publications, her work appears in Descansos, Heartland, Kingdoms of the Wild, Sequestrum, Well Versed, Rock Springs Review. Mary explores environmental issues from the intersection of spirituality and justice at Tonic Wild. She is cofounder of One Less Pipeline, focused on environmental justice. Mary is a recent recipient of the Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship for environmental non-fiction. You can hear Mary weave poetry and environmentalism here.
Thank you, Mary, not only for taking the time to answer my questions, but also for inspiring me to be a better writer – a better artist and, really, a better human being.