Piercing You Softly: An Interview With Mary-Kim Arnold

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“My mother is in love again. …The men don’t last long. A few weeks and they are gone. My mother moves through them easily, but for each, for a time, she is bright like the glow of the sun.” Then, Quickly, Swarm

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Mary-Kim Arnold’s work is luminous, bright. Dreamy, melancholy, and piercing, it swells inside you and haunts with its language and imagery. She takes love, grief, memory, leaving, losing and pins them to your bare skin with deft fingers. She is the hurt that you seek out, like a sad song you play on repeat even as you cry. She is the hurt you want to hold onto, that old photo or letter you can’t bear to throw out.

“Are you sure that you cannot love me back? Are you sure that none of this helps?” she writes (Empire Falls, Wigleaf), and the only thing I’m sure of is that I want more. I think you will too.

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You are seven years old and making a time capsule for your self to open today. What do you put in it? What would you put in a time capsule now for your seven-year-old self to discover back then?

At seven: Ballet slippers. A die-cast yellow school bus that (inexplicably) I often took to bed with me. My favorite outfit at the time, which was a red-and-black-striped polyester shirt and matching red pants. My red rain boots. My 5-year diary with the tiny gold key. My stuffed Snoopy.

Now: My rhinestone hairclip. A set of pink soft-bound Moleskine notebooks. (I think 7-year-old me would be giddy with delight). Korean Mulberry paper. The Handsome Furs’ Plague Park.

You’ve written before about being “reckless in imagination.” Can you talk about what this means to you in life and in your writing?

Well I like the phrase but I no longer remember what I meant when I wrote it. I am guessing it has something to do with allowing yourself all kinds of liberties in fantasy that you could never take in your actual life. Making the irresponsible choices. Taking inadvisable risks. That an active fantasy life may be necessary for the creative process? Or if not absolutely necessary then at least useful?

You write fiction and poetry and essays and reviews, and you also play in a band. How do those things relate to and influence each other, and how are they different for you?

I think of my creative practice less in terms of individual activities (and what they might produce) and more as a way of living. The practice of attention, of focus; the practice of resistance against complacency.

My daily life is crowded with a hundred little demanding tasks that destabilize, that pull me off-center. My creative practices are grounding. They provide solitude, attention, stillness.

Playing music is satisfying in that it requires me to be completely in the moment. If my mind wanders, I’m lost. I need to be focused on keeping time, and on the small movement of my fingers. Song composition requires internalizing patterns of repetition. I think this has had some effect on the way I think about stanzas in poetry, and paragraphs in prose.

As for the different genres, I should say that I don’t find genre distinctions particularly interesting or useful to me. Finding the form and shape that a piece will take is part of the work. That having been said, I don’t think I will ever be able to write a plot-driven novel, for example. I recognize that I don’t have the skill set required to sustain that kind of work. I am trying to come to terms with my (rather significant) limitations.

If you could only write about one subject what would you choose?

Ill-fated love.

What five words would you choose to describe your writing? Your personality? Your music?

Writing: lyrical, fragmented, bruised, sensuous, longing

Personality: sulky, affectionate, impulsive, ardent, mercurial

Music: fuzzed, moody, loud, jangly, melancholy

Take your earliest childhood memory and turn it into a writing prompt.

My earliest childhood memory is a fleeting image of the dusty backyard of a house in the Korean countryside, walking along a chain-link fence and throwing seeds to wild turkeys. I don’t know whether this is an actual memory or if I have imagined it.

Prompt: You find yourself in a place that is familiar, but you can’t remember why. It is as if you have known this place in a dream. You encounter someone from your past there. Write your interaction. Make it so that one of you leaves.

One of your new pieces for Atticus Review is called “Some Information About Twenty-Three Years of Existence” — can you list twenty-three of your obsessions from childhood through today?

1.     Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett
2.     Ballet dancing
3.     Harlequin romance novels
4.     Simon Le Bon in Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” video
5.     High-heeled clogs
6.     Keeping a diary
7.     Boston crème donuts
8.     Tragic love stories
9.     Red lipstick
10.   The Lover by Marguerite Duras
11.   Fountain pens
12.   Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”
13.   Kissing
14.   Tulips for sale on the sidewalk in front of the Korean markets
15.   Dumplings
16.   Baubles
17.   Boots
18.   Fancy shoes
19.   Fancy dresses
20.   Reading about torture and methods of execution
21.   Sinkholes
22.   Patterned tights
23.   Exhumation

Which of the senses has the strongest influence on your writing and why?

I think this has probably changed over the years. I guess for the moment it’s hearing. I’m very much preoccupied with rhythms, repetition, sonic texture.

If you were graffiti, what would you look like and where would you be found?

I think I might be swirls of color. Or maybe some clichés about love. On train cars. Or on bridges.

Can you describe your writing and revision process and routines?

Mostly, I write in the mornings – early, before anyone else in my house is up. I often start with a few minutes of freewrite, just to get words down.

I tend to work on a lot of different things at the same time. I get discouraged easily, and so I move from one thing to the other. I don’t really recommend that approach, but it seems like the best I can do right now. I take notes during the day when I can. I keep a file of phrases and lines and when I am not sure what to work on, I’ll look through it – try to jumpstart something that way.

I work well with deadlines and structures, so sometimes I’ll set myself little tasks, like write a new poem every day for 30 days. I occasionally use my blog for exercises, too. The blog offers this (artificial) sense of external accountability, which can be helpful.

In revising, I have to print what I am working on. I take notes on it, and then I will re-type it. The act of re-typing requires me to re-think it and I will often change things in the process. I usually read it aloud, too, to identify missteps in rhythm, awkwardness in the language, etc.

How do you get yourself out of ruts?

I’m not sure, really. I guess because I am so often working on a few different things, my challenge is not so much getting out of ruts, but rather, staying focused on one thing.

More often, I encounter the problem of feeling lost – not knowing what to do first. And when that happens, I try not to panic too much, just ride it out. At this point, I understand that writing is my life’s work, and I know that I will find my way back. Reading always helps. Anne Carson and W.G. Sebald, for example, never let me down.

If you were a stuffed animal, what would you be?

My eight-year-old son has a stuffed red panda that he has named “Panday.” Among his many compatriots, Panday is known as someone who “just hangs out,” tries to get along with all the other animals, mostly keeps to himself, but on rare occasions, gets a little feisty. I think I would be Panday.

Photo By: Kryziz Bonny




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About Author

Georgia Bellas is an editor and artist living in Somerville, Mass. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Lockjaw Magazine, Synaesthesia, Sundog Lit, Cartridge Lit, Bird’s Thumb, WhiskeyPaper, The Collapsar, and [PANK], among other journals. She is one of the poetry winners for Sundress Publications' 2014 Best of the Net anthology. You can follow her teddy bear, host of the Internet radio show “Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon,” on Twitter @MrBearStumpy. If you ever meet her, she will probably tell you about her bicycle’s movie star status.

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