A Conversation between Mary Pacifico Curtis and Tiffany Troy

Orange over an opaque lake: A Conversation between Mary Pacifico Curtis and Tiffany Troy

Mary Pacifico Curtis is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, seasoned branding and PR professional, and author of poetry and non-fiction. Published work includes her recent memoir, Understanding Moonseed (BlazeVOX [books]), two poetry chapbooks, Between Rooms and The White Tree Quartet and numerous pickups in literary magazines and anthologies. Hawk’s Cry is her first full-length poetry collection.

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and the chapbook When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), as well as co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.

Hawk’s Cry by Mary Pacifco Curtis and Dominus by Tiffany Troy are episodic lyric poems that find beauty in the turn of the “pressed, pleated and fine” congregate towards empathy.

Tiffany Troy: Talk to me about the opening poem, “One by One.” I am curious about how the “cry” of “the one who feels age take hold” among the supplicants mirrors the title of Hawk’s Cry. How do you feel this first poem sets up for the rest of the collection?

Mary Curtis: The world of the book is one where small misdeeds ripple into misdeeds on a macro scale, one by one. It is the condition of mere mortals who often cry out against both the inevitable and consequences of their making. There is bitter irony that the “pressed, pleated and fine” congregate around the ultimate human sacrifice memorialized in a church.

Dominus is rife with references to Ilium and the characters of its mythology, which ties neatly with the name of the book’s author. Before I ask you about the other characters that run throughout, I’d love to hear your comments about this. Specifically, should the reader interpret this as yet another dimension to the world you are setting up in the poems? 

TT: You are spot on in saying that it’s another dimension in the world of Dominus. In translating my experience, I feel what is least translatable are the names of things, as the names themselves are laden with meaning. For example, Troy is that Homeric city of Hector that has fallen, and it is my last name. I am interested in how descendants from the city of Troy in the character of Aeneas shift the paradigm of fate in a way that isn’t dissimilar to the immigrant experience, in making a name for oneself in a terra nova. In some ways, it is about the will of mere mortals, as you eloquently put it, in trying to define or defy fate, as the world becomes increasingly less obviously benign.

Can we turn to your process of writing this collection–and specifically a poetry collection frequently touching upon natural catastrophe and war? I was fascinated by “Meditation on Kintsukuroi” and by the line: “precious metals as glue, / transformed, to be endowed anew.” Is that your take of what poetry writing is or can be?

MC: As sometimes happens, that poem began as a discovery of the art form, process, and creations of Kintsukuroi. In a way it’s an ekphrastic poem that revealed itself to be something else entirely. It’s a small poem that I hoped would do a big job, namely posit a path to resolving the personal and global “brokenness” that is the concern of many of the poems.  As if by fixing what is broken, we can create a new thing of beauty. Very idealistic I would say and perhaps if I’d considered that, I wouldn’t have been so willing to include the poem. But as I said, it revealed itself and yes, writing poetry can be as redemptive.

You mention the immigrant experience and though not an immigrant, I had a more visceral understanding of how it might feel through some of your craft choices. For example, inclusion of Chinese language which reminds the reader that they are that step removed from the writer’s mind. With your wonderful cast of characters who appear throughout and are sometimes given two roles like the kind Friend who is also the cold Doctor in “A Thank You Card,” I started to feel like I was in a hall of  mirrors seeing a thing or character differently everywhere I looked. But then, harkening back to my first question, I wondered if these characters can be looked at as dimensions of you, the beings carried within the Trojan horse?

TT: Mary, I am grateful for that interpretation, and your very kind words about the reader being one step removed from the writer’s mind. The characters in Dominus are definitely filtered through my voice and experience, and there are characters that I would identify more closely with, such as the speaker. I see other characters as distinct from me, with multifaceted desires that may or may not be fulfilled. It recalls the Chinese proverb: “The pathetic one has their loathsome side.” For instance, the duality in the villainous Friend in “Thank You Card” is pathetic, evokes sympathy and loathing in tandem, for being that cog of a system that seeks to churn people down, as symbols rather than as humans.

How do you consider your poetry within the tradition of poetry of witness? Your poems frequently revolve around catastrophes like of death row inmates and of survivors of tsunamis, for instance. How do they connect or relate to your more personal poems which feature the “I” as a character as well as the speaker?

MC: Quite a few of these are in the poetry of witness tradition as you suggest. I do love the likes of Muriel Rukeyser and Carolyn Forche. However unlike Forche who lived in the thick of the events she depicts, my witnessing is from the safe distance of (relatively) peaceful shores and my comfortable life. Nonetheless, these are events that call upon my empathy and my heart. In some cases, that empathy has led me to the persona poem where I can step closer to the experience through imagining the thoughts of another being. Ultimately, I confess to bending the genres back to my concerns in this collection – namely the brokenness that we perpetuate on micro and macro levels. The unkindness that humans inflict on one another is then inflicted across borders, within and between nations, and on the earth. 

I have to ask about the first poem in the book, “Shalom Moon.” I probably read it a dozen times over thinking ‘I wish I understood this better” because I was so drawn to its wistfulness, beauty and lyricism in two dimensions of language and evoking the famous “Moon River” song. “What is this poet up to with this tenderness before I enter a dizzying hall of mirrors?” I asked myself as I got deeper into the book. “Shalom Moon” seems to foreshadow the arc of the book, promising the tenderness that surfaces in the latter part. What were your thoughts in the decision to choose that beautiful poem as your starting point?

TT: I agree so much with what you said about tradition and about the importance of empathy through a shared brokenness, even while acknowledging our own safety and privilege.

Thank you too for asking about “Shalom Moon.” I would like to imagine that “Shalom Moon” is the behind-the-scenes lullaby sung by Mama at the end scene of “Plus Ultra.” Even prior to the reader’s encounter of the wall of mirrors in the double-bind maze of “Pretext,” which the speaker is walking out from, we begin with something more fundamental. We begin at the core of the speaker, in childhood. In that childhood, things blend together like the slip in understanding in “The Catcher in the Rye,” where dreams of longing manifests itself in the hello/ goodbye double meaning of the word “Shalom.” In an episodic adventure-oriented poetry collection like Dominus, I wanted the frame to be one of that kind of mellow timbre as in the “Moon River,” by a songwriter I deeply admire, Yip Harburg. Paying homage to that musical tradition allows for a new layer through which to understand Dominus.

I would like to touch a moment about structure, and specifically about the transition and themes across the three sections of Hawk’s Cry. In particular, I am struck by the beauty after the poetry of witness predominantly featured in the earlier sections in the third section, “as music brings / morning and the day / awakens / flesh.” To me, that feels similar to “Shalom Moon” in its tenderness and vibrancy. Do you similarly see transitions across Hawk’s Cry’s three sections?

MC: I love your descriptor “episodic adventure-oriented poetry,” and will borrow some of that by describing my book as episodic witness-oriented poetry. I think of the first section as defining ‘the problem’ i.e. what this world looks like over different events pointing to the larger-scale brokenness. The second section gets at brokenness on a personal scale: the micro-acts and injustices that ripple out from the individual. The second section has a nostalgic undertone which (hopefully) suggests how we fall in love with our condition (even though it may damage us), because good or bad, our experiences are all we have to hold onto. I tend to think of the third section as redemptions, most of them taken from my own life. There are other arcs to this book but I think that one is overarching and best answers your question.

At times I chuckled when reading Dominus. I so admire the muscularity and playfulness of some of your titles: “Hymn to My Fair Lady Boss,” “Wedding-Bound Million-Dollar Dream,” “Notes on the word ‘impossible,’” “A Twinkie’s Love Song,” and “An Elegy for the Foolish and Undignified” stand out. Of course the poems contain your concerns with an oppressive social structures that contain bloody trials, subservience, body and other shaming, and people/things that aren’t what they seem. These titles like guideposts tell us where we’re going according to the mind, personality and even ethnicity of the narrator. What were your thoughts when assigning these and other titles?

TT:  Oh thank you so much for saying that! I am big on titles and you’re also right to say that the title lets the reader know from the get go what the tone and preoccupation of the poem which is to follow. For instance, “A Twinkie’s Love Song” looks to a Hostesses-branded Twinkie (a miraculous concoction, if you ask me) as the albatross in a parallel journey as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the “Hymn to My Fair Lady Boss” calls to both the rags-to-pseudo-riches makeover in “My Fair Lady” as well as the colloquial titling of Asian female bosses, as the “lady boss,” as in the “wife of the boss.” So it’s tongue in cheek in some ways, and unveil our deeply-entrenched social values in others. Other titles like “Wedding-Bound Million-Dollar Dreams” of course poke fun at itself but also set the stage for more somber poems like “Notes on the word ‘impossible’” and archetypal poems like “The Fountain” or “The Sky.” As people, we often adopt new catch phrases, and at the time, one catch phrase I developed was “impossible.” A professor of mine saw that and asked, what if I wrote a poem reflecting that, called “Notes on the word ‘impossible’” and it became a meditation on what the speaker has learned as a baby tiger. So I would say that the titles often catch feelings from the poem, and sometimes maybe determine the poems’ fate or trajectory, and oftentimes they are in conversation with tradition and with friends because I see these poems as conversations with others and conversations with myself, or perhaps my soul.

How about you? The titles in Hawk Cry shed light upon the poetic mind at work, to its preoccupation with how the news cycles devastates with death and the moral dilemma it implicates (as in “On Death Row” to “5 Stores Above” to “Of Men Who Stayed” in the first section) and in terms of theme, like the inversion of music as sacred (as in “The Baritone in St. Barts,” “Grace Notes,” “Four Chambers Redacted” in the second section). I definitely see the episodic bearing of witness through the hawk that circles and tailgates the beginning and end of the collection, and the desire to reach an Eden “not for perfection but production / of crops untouched except by my hands.” There is a quintessentially American spirit in that statement, don’t you think?

MC:  Hmm, this thought supports my thesis that when we publish our work, we release it to be interpreted by readers through their own filters and life experience. In the process of hearing those interpretations, we learn about our own work. Never once when writing did I consider depicting myself as an American and yet I cannot deny or conceal that I am. This excerpt does occur on the micro-level and in the section that I have suggested is about redemption events. Production is an American value for sure.

Last questions from me. What are you working on next? Does the practice of law fuel your writing? What writers do you admire top of mind?  I know we’re trying to hold ourselves to a page limit so let me say that it has been an absolute pleasure to be in dialogue and I hope to see your name many times in the future.

TT: I could say much the same about your work, and I am just so grateful for this opportunity to speak with you about Hawk’s Cry. I also agree with the idea of allowing for multiple interpretations of our work once they are out in the real world. Dara Barrois/Dixon’s thesis in “Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina” comes to mind (which is, that the author is still ultimately responsible for the characters’ action). I feel both are true: that we are responsible for the characters we put out in the world, and their actions, and thus, a fidelity to life is not necessarily “art,” and also that your audience may draw from the text different motivations or timbres that the original poets cannot see.

Dominus is a real dream come true and I am on a mini book tour for it. I’m working on translating poetry from the Spanish and I’m working to feature poets and writers in my role as the managing editor of Tupelo Quarterly and book review editor at Los Angeles Review. When my family asks me about work-life balance, I laugh, because the law is my passion and life, and I truly believe (jokes aside) that it is the station through which I can better society in the way I know how, with my education and background. The lessons I learn and the questions I ask then make it into my poems. There are so many writers I admire, but I am awe struck by the works of Margo Jefferson, Aviya Kushner, Daniel Magariel, and Mai Der Vang, for their style, humor, and brilliance, which always inspires me to write more in my own voice.

How about you: what are you working on now? Does your working life inspire your writing life? And do you have any tips for budding writers and your readers in the world?

MC: My tips for would-be writers is simply to carve out time to read and write. I had a big career as founder and CEO of a Silicon Valley PR and branding firm as well as my family. It wasn’t until 2007 that I had any time to myself, so I got an MFA. My advice is do what it takes to read and write, and don’t worry about starting out late. My working life did not and does not inspire my writing,

I am putting the finishing touches on and starting to submit a second memoir which is quite different from my first memoir, Understanding Moonseed, (published by the same press as Dominus).  Behind that I am at the very earliest stages of another poetry collection.

Tiffany, it has been an absolute pleasure being in dialog with you here. We can find many poets and much writing that inspires us, but rarely do we get to chat with the author. Just think of all the authors you would like to talk to!

I admire your voice and talent. Thank you for your generosity!