Mary Pacifico Curtis and Sybil Baker In Conversation

MPC: I so enjoyed reading your latest book Apparitions which artfully combines travel narrative with a plot that is at times disturbing, funny and a mystery.  Cyprus, where it is set, is a somewhat off the beaten track location, and the descriptions make it clear that you have been there. I’m wondering how much place inspired story and how much story picks its place. How does that all come together in your writing?

SLB: Thanks Mary for your kind words! My brother has been married to a Turkish woman for more than 27 years, and both are professors at a university near Ankara. I’ve been fortunate to visit them over those years and traveled around Turkey with them. Their university has a satellite campus in Northern Cyprus, and I decided that it would be a wonderful place to explore during my sabbatical in 2015. I was offered a visiting professorship for that semester, and spent about six months there, traveling and

learning about the region. Fortuitously, there was a conference in Nicosia the next year, and I was able to return and travel more of the EU Cyprus side.

To your other question, place informs my fiction and nonfiction. My earlier work reflects my time living in South Korea (I lived there for 12 years) and my more recent work grapples with issues I face as a white woman whose ancestors were enslavers in the American South.

Similarly I was struck by the variety of settings in your Hawk’s Cry, which I found to be delightfully thoughtful and expansive, which include Haiti, Chili, and Sendai in the first part, for example. But it’s not the geographic locations that inform these poems, but also churches, sanctuaries, homes, a convertible, and nature shape the conversations the poems have with the reader and with each other. I love how these poems pay such careful attention to setting, in all of its forms. How do you think about setting in regard to your poems?

MPC: The simple answer is that I do not specifically think about setting when writing because of the subjects I cover, many are poems about things that happened in a certain place and the place defines how they happened with a certain set of tactile characteristics that I have experienced or imagined as part of creating the poem.  Setting can become a character like any other with personality, predilections, and capacity to create joy or disappointment. Setting can be a powerful predictor of the storyline, too.  I travel hungry for the detail of a place, observant of how it lands in my heart. I think that’s how I do think about setting.

Your story is on many levels one of betrayal. I’m wondering if this was something you schemed out early in writing, or if there were moments when your characters revealed something unexpected to you that changed and informed the shape of what you thought you were writing toward?

SLB: That’s such an interesting question! This very short novel underwent the most radical revisions of anything I’ve worked on. In earlier versions the relationships were different, certain characters were dead, and motivations changed. The story just wasn’t working on many levels in these drafts, and I had to radically “re” vision the manuscript. That said, two things were always the same, one the setting (Northern Cyprus) and the betrayal connected to Simone’s marriage to Guy. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to explore a “guru” type, and the long-term ramifications of a betrayal. But the rest changed a lot. Connected to that, I’m curious about the genesis of your poems and how they formed this collection. I feel like these poems cover a lot of ground in terms of breadth and depth. Can you comment on how this collection came together? How did you decide to divide it into sections, for example?

MPC: The poems in this collection are drawn from a lot of writing over the period of a decade. The earliest version of this book began as a full length volume from my MFA work.  As I wrote more and revised more, I settled on a working title of What The Walls Heard, to explore unspoken moments of humans committing misdeeds against one another that ripple into macro scale conflicts and suffering.  That title hung around for a few years as I added poems and re-edited once again. Two things I can say have been consistent: the book has always been divided into sections and the vision remained constant. As I continued generating new work and re-sorting the order and content, it became clear that I was writing about something more far-reaching than I had started out with. Some of that is because my newer writing began to surmise what we’re doing to our planet as well as what we do to each other across borders. In the meantime, the editing continued to refine the voice of the ultimate book.  For example, the poem “Shepherd, Shepherd, Where Are You” began life as a sprawling Whitman-esque landscape drawn from snippets of earlier poems. As you can see, it was published (originally by Narrative Magazine) as a sparse despair.

In the meantime, COVID was shutting down life as previously known, and I was spending a lot of time on our hillside property where we have a mating pair of red-tailed hawks. You know, they are noisy and insistent. They can be pretty brutal, but also graceful and beautiful. Given their strength and power, it’s surprising how much they cry out from the skies. A writing friend pointed out to me how the hawk was making appearances throughout the MS.  Hawk’s Cry as a title was the piece de resistance. I am grateful to other writers to see the things about our work that we sometimes do not see.

I thought the characters in Apparitions were very well-drawn though at times I wanted to shake Guy and say, “Snap out of you needy narcissist!” (I’m sure you intended that)! What led you to explore a “guru-type,” and are your characters invented from whole cloth or based on people in your life?

SLB: I love your description of your process with this manuscript. I think this deep revision really shows in the final version. I can tell that you’ve been meditating on these poems as they have a sense of someone taking a longer view of our world and the changes we notice in our lifetime. That you are able to take really big concerns (climate change) and connect them to witnessing the red-tail hawks speaks to one of the many strengths in the manuscript.

To that end, although the novel changed a lot through revision, the character of Guy did not change much. As someone who lived in South Korea for twelve years and has traveled a lot, I’ve encountered men like Guy, the white male who believes that he is destined to enlighten other people (usually attractive naive women) with his “wisdom,” which was usually a watered down version of other philosophies and religions. Guy is an exaggerated version of these men who would rather cling to their delusions then face the reality of their regular existence.

I wanted to explore why women like Simone, the main character, might be attracted to that type of person, and their own complicity in a relationship like that. Some of Simone’s past (living in Asia) is drawn from my own experience, but much of her story is fictional. Agnes was inspired by the artist Agnes Martin, although she’s not a direct representation of her. 

Your collection, on the other hand, deals with spirituality in a nuanced and complex way, which to me is the opposite of what Guy represents. In fact, your last poem is titled, “Another Moment in the Garden of Eden,” and ends with an encounter with the hawk and a question. The poem seems like a perfect place to end the collection. Could you comment on the place of spirituality in the collection and why you chose to end the collection with that poem?

MPC: I had to laugh when I read your description of the “Guy type.” My husband and I know someone who fits that description (though as an older man who has not kept himself in shape, he is now a lonely guru with only a few Facebook followers to fulfill his need for adulation).

I have a very spiritual relationship with the place where I live, where the hawk soars. Part of the reason is that over the (many years) I have lived here, the hillside landscape has always been a place of discovery, change and emergence. In this landscape (and poem) I become one with what grows and unfolds before my eyes, and I momentarily transcend my own mortality. I think of the ending as my return from that transcendence wherein I open a door for the reader. In that way, the end of the book becomes a beginning as this place is for me.

My question for you is about what I’m calling the magical realism in Apparitions. Side by side with real-world descriptions of people and places there is the “appearance” of ghosts who offer a variety of warnings. And the living Guy first first enters this story as an apparition. Were you going for that or did magical realism write itself into the plot?

SLB: The idea of ghosts or apparitions evolved over the drafts. I became interested in leaving the idea of whether the ghosts were “real” or not open as I thought more about who and what haunts us and why. The ghosts in this novel are very much connected to Simone’s loss and grief she hasn’t yet faced, but that they can be guides to her as well.

My last question for you is, can you tell me a bit about your writing process and what influences there were directly with this book. It has been lovely chatting with you! 

MPC: In a word, my writing process is eclectic. I am inspired by a wide range of things: something I see or feel, news that strikes a note of poignancy, travel, geology, animals and birds, the sky, and probably most consistently, nature. When I am struck my any of these, I try to stick to a process of inquiry within: why is this important to me and is it important in the same or different way to others. In other words, why tell this story?  From there it’s a process of revision, determining form, word choice and then what I call ‘curing’ i.e. giving the work (and me) time to breathe before revisiting and making further edits. I imagine this is pretty standard for many writers. I do not have a time of day or designated writing place. I do have lots of notes on scraps of paper. I do keep a journal bedside specifically to record early morning or late night inspirations.

Sybil, I wish you every joy with whatever you are working on now and in the future.