Thursday, February 9, 2012

Real Toads Interview with Mary Ann Potter

Well, Kerry reached through cyber space and asked if I could host an interview and I knew exactly who I wanted to interview.  I was delighted to delve deeper into Mary Ann Potter’s fascinating blog From the Starcatcher.  Her recent use of the word “Augery” in a poem, her photos of “Old Salem, NC”, and the clip from “Fried Green Tomatoes” really captured my attention this past week and I am excited to get this chance to get to know her better.  
Margaret:  I see that you are a relatively new blogger with only five months under your belt.  Has blogging been what you expected?  How did you come up with your intriguing blog title, “From the Starcatcher”?
Mary Ann:  I never really expected anything out of blogging except for creating a visually appealing place for some of my ideas and work.  I've tried a couple of different blog types over the last few years; it wasn't until quite recently that I found formats I could use.  I had a wonderful time choosing backgrounds and headers, too!    I have made a couple of happy discoveries about blogging, though - some folks have giveaways!  I've won a digital book, a "real and regular" book, and a gift certificate.  One of the art sites that I frequent has featured my work, so that's pretty cool.  The best (and happiest!) discovery is that there are so many like-minded folks out there who are simply fun to know out there in cyberspace.  I get so much inspiration from seeing the creativity and talent that's out there.
When I was a sophomore in college, the "boy-of-the-moment" once asked me about the stars.  I said something about catching stars, and the idea stuck.  (The boy didn't!)  Now I use the name to refer to bright moments, little remembrances, things that need to be expressed on paper.  Not everything is a lovely, romantic memory, but I consider all my experiences add up to who I am, and I still catch those "stars" in my writing. 
Margaret:  I find your poetry deliciously expressive.  I suppose being an English teacher for 37 years helps tremendously (I’m always struggling over punctuation, spelling, and appropriate use of words!)   How long have you been writing poetry and what style of poetry is your favorite ?
Mary Ann: I wrote a few things while I was still teaching high school English, but retirement has given me lots more time.  It generally doesn't take me long to write a poem once I have the inspiration and the first line in my head. 
What style of poetry is my favorite?  I have a collection of prose writings that work nicely into poems, but I've found here on "Real Toads" that different form poems are just as nice.  When I was in high school, I especially loved Amy Lowell and Alfred Noyes - so image-rich and so emotionally charged.  When I was teaching, I especially liked the poetry from the Harlem Renaissance.

Margaret:  You retired 6 yeas ago.  Where did you live before you became a “transplanted Yankee”?  You mention this in your first blog post of October 14, 2011 and have a very funny list of “facts” of how women should behave when living in the American South”.  This post introduced your readers to "The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature” Can you tell us a little bit about it here?
Mary Ann: I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the oldest of two children.  My mother was teacher; my father was a bacteriologist.  I graduated from Michigan State University in 1967, married my dear husband Vic in the summer of 1968, and had our son in 1972.  I took just one year maternity leave and then returned to teaching. 

What about the Dead Mule School?  Wasn't it William Faulkner who said that it's not really Southern writing unless there's a dead mule in there somewhere?  That's the premise upon which The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature is based.  We're quirky.  We have pride in our Southern-ness that includes our ancestry, our food, our superstitions, our accents.  It's all very tongue-in-cheek, but it's seriously Southern.  If you've seen the movie "Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood" or "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," you've seen some of it.  I fell in love with Southern writing while I was still teaching.  My contribution to the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature is just four poems, but I am just as proud of my Southern legitimacy statement.

And, y'all, here are those Southern "facts":

1.  You absolutely MUST learn a Southern accent right away.  I resumed my high school teaching career when we moved here, and I had to be understood.  I pronounced a vocabulary word and saw quizzical looks on the kids' faces.  When I repeated it with a then unaccustomed accent, they understood it.  Really.
2.  If you have the proverbial skeletons in the closet, say an odd relative or two, take them out and shake off the dust once in awhile.  Wear your heritage like a badge of honor.  
3.  When you're waiting in line at the grocery store, the movies, almost anywhere, it's expected that you strike up a friendly conversation.  It's a slight exaggeration to say that you end up knowing the life stories of the folks you meet this way but not much.
4.  Learn what the history books won't tell you about The War of Northern Aggression. (Political correctness is unnecessary!) 
5.  Ladies, be sure to wear pearls.  You can sometimes identify graduates of some women's colleges this way.
6.  Gentlemen, own and occasionally wear at least one bow tie.
7. Remember that it's not the heat, it's the humidity. Horses sweat, men perspire, and women glow.

Margaret:  I found your prose-like poem Music from the Rail - A Memory rather intriguing.  You mentioned you have a series of writings concerning this old Shinnecock Lighthouse.  Why this fascination with this particular place, are the other writings posted on your blog (I didn’t see any labels at the bottom of  your post), and is there a real possibility of a book?

Mary Ann:  I have a few lighthouse books, and one of my favorites has stories and old photos of lost lighthouses.  The story of the Shinnecock Light became the foundation for some of my fiction.  I've read quite a bit about lighthouse keepers as well, and I frequently use their histories for inspiration.  I like digging behind and around a character.  These keepers were brave souls who were hired to do difficult, tedious, and often boring work.  Part of the inspiration for my Shinnecock writings comes from folks I met years ago.  Although they had no real connection to that lighthouse, or to any other lighthouse for that matter, there were elements of their characters that I admired.  Most of the people in my prose works are based on real people, but I doubt they'd ever recognize themselves!  There's still a book inside me.  I just haven't gotten beyond the prose sketches yet.
"Music from the Rail: a Memory"
by Mary Ann Potter

     I used to play the cello.  It was too awkward to carry up and down the narrow staircase, so I kept it propped against the topmost wall, safely encased, kept by yellow lamp at night and blue ocean by day.

     Deep as the undercurrent and dense as the clouds, music vibrated inside the instrument, inside me.  Sometimes I played with a delicate touch, pressureless and precise, and other times I strode over the strings strongly with the bow.  The cello's supremacy allowed such ease and interpretation.

     The day the lighthouse closed ("decommissioned," the paperwork said), I spent the morning at the rail.  Perhaps if I played strongly enough, the music would soak into the clouds, drop into the ocean, and roll endlessly on shore in a continual, watery concert.  Instead its notes fell by degrees in small, dissolving bits.  I suppose the packet boat's captain heard the sharp-sawn chords as he approached the lighthouse.  My hands flinched ---even at high tide I could see treachery from the tower.

     Deescending, I ran my hand over the cool-tiled walls, taking care to steer the cello case ahead of me, but it bumped a few times.  The strings vibrated in surprisingly dissonant chords, little protests of their own.

     I didn't say much on the short sail up the coast.  Remaining resident ghosts in the old tower watched from a distance their former keeper, enclosed in a watery mist, instrument and player melded together beyond their limited view.  "We'll play you home," they said.

For another beautiful poem, Aubade "The Writer and Lime Rock", about Ida Lewis, a woman credited for being the most famous light keeper in American history, click HERE.

Margaret:  I am fascinated by barns and old homes.  Are lighthouses your favorite topic?  

Mary Ann:  Yes, but I don't get to the Outer Banks regularly.   I love taking pictures of abandoned farmhouses, old barns, old neighborhoods.  We live in a primarily rural county, and I always have a camera with me when we drive around here.  I try to capture the beauty, the history, and the memory of old places.  It makes me sad to see them abandoned.  In our quest for the new and improved, we tend to ignore the tried and true.

Margaret:  I see some very intriguing photography on your blog.  One post in particular caught my attention, “Silver”.  This post had it all for me, prose like poetry that sinks in to one’s soul, an obvious understanding of nature, and your own stunning photography!   Do you spend a lot of time outside, with your camera?  And does your photography reflect your poetry or your Poetry reflect your Photography.  I guess what I mean is, which usually comes first?

Mary Ann:  I'm a very outdoorsy person, but here on the farm work comes first.  My dog and I walk 3 or 4 miles every morning,though, and sometimes I have my camera with me. 

What comes first, the photo or the poem?  Almost always the photo is first.  I have hundreds of photos on my Flickr site, but only a few of them are used for poems. 

(The following is from Mary Ann Potter's blog post of December 20, 2011, the one I mention above)

During the day we sometimes wish for remote roadlessness, and we wonder if visitors even allow themselves to listen when this place speaks.  But this night we make our private way.  The wood paths are planked with the softness of pine needles, a flow of forest-words.  The punctuation of scattered fallen branches, small interruptions, is lit by moonlight strong enough to cast shadows.  We have walked here before.

     Some days, in late afternoon, we are suspended between sunset layers - blue, indigo, violet, and the surprise of orange.  Then day's end speaks, and we head home.

     Tonight, though, the way is slow and rich.  We see of secreted worth the jewelry of night as moonlight bracelets circle the trees.

                                           Under the salmon sky,
                                           pairs of ravens
                                           turning and wheeling
                                           toward night,
                                           we wait until moon-paled leaves
                                           turn silver underfoot
                                           and mark our path home.

Margaret:  Ah, yes!  I went back and looked and the photos are poetry without words!  Old barns, cemetery statuary, the Outerbanks of NC, nature.  You have a wonderful way with the camera. I see you have been on Flickr for four years.  Have you ever taken a photography classes?

Mary Ann:  Nope.  I've learned some techniques from a few of my Flickr contacts, and one of my nephews bought me a huge book to help me with my new Nikon D90.  I've picked my way through various photo editing programs like Photoshop and am now completely comfortable with them.  My father was quite a photographer; I've studied some of his work to pick up some pointers as well. 
Margaret:  I see we are practically neighbors here in North Carolina.  I live a bit more centered in the state.  You state you live one must “drive through Stem and go just a little past Shoofly” to arrive at your farm.  Well, one must drive past “Highpoint & Climax” before arriving at my door!   Do you have a dilemma when deciding whether to visit the mountains or ocean or do you strongly prefer one over the other?

Mary Ann:  I love them both!  Vic's older brother and his family live in the mountains, and we visit them frequently.  I've been to Biltmore Estate several times; that's such a special place.  The historic Outer Banks, though, is probably my favorite place.  My best beach seasons are fall and winter; I'm not one to lie around getting tan, and I don't like crowds.  The North Carolina beaches are beautifully quiet most of the year.

Margaret:  Currently, what published poet are you reading, if any?
Mary Ann:  No, and I suppose that 37 years of teaching literature might be the reason.  I am a voracious reader but don't read published poetry much.  I do have one poetry book, though, and folks who grew up in the '50's like I did might relate to its importance.  When I was ten years old in 1955, I fell in love with tv's original "Mickey Mouse Club."  I especially liked Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr.  Several years ago I found his website where I enjoyed reading his Disney memories and bought a copy of his poetry book, "The Gravity of Finity."  Much to my delight it was signed "For Mary Ann, my Mouse-ka Pal."  I still think that's pretty cool.  After all, it's never too late to have a happy childhood!
Margaret:  You mention in your “Who Am I” tab that you play the mountain dulcimer.  Have you always been interested in Folk music?  Is this something you took up after retirement and how good are you?  
Mary Ann:  I fell in love with Appalachian music and simply had to have this instrument!  I had 10 years of piano lessons when I was younger but haven't touched a piano since I was 16.  The dulcimer is easy to play - all you need is an ear for the chords and a lap on which to place it! 
Margaret:  One last question.  Do you have other blogs?

Mary Ann:  Oh, yes.  I have one dedicated to the farm and my other artistic pursuits: This Country Life There's always something going on here at Windy Hollow Farm, and I share pictures and news.  I have a few other pages there as well, clickable right under the blog header.  I share some of my mixed media pieces as well as a few of my miniature building creations. 

Thank you, MaryAnn, for letting us get to know you better.  I know I am looking forward to swinging through your archives this next week.
So, there you go Fellow Toads... my first interview.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  What amazing talent I am sharing space with here.  


Kerry O'Connor said...

I adore Mary Ann's photography (and fully intend to feature her work on a Sunday Challenge soon... Mary Ann, take note I shall be knocking on your door). I admire the way you assimilated the Southern way of life so thoroughly and lovingly - it shows an adaptable spirit.
Thank you for sharing so much of your life story with us, and a round of applause for Margaret's excellent questions. I hope you two gals meet one day in person, since you wouldn't have to go as far as I would to spend time together.

Janet Martin said...

Margaret, thank-you for this wonderfully interesting interview. Mary-Ann, thank-you for sharing, not only your talents but a little piece of why you are who you are~


Mary Ann Potter said...

Margaret, thanks so much for the links to that post that I couldn't figure out! I liked seeing your interview questions again.too! 8-)

Mary Ann Potter said...

P.S. - I just discovered that the link to my Flickr photos does not work here. In order to get to it, you can go to either of my blogs to find the "View My Photos" clickable badge on the right side of the page!

Mary Ann Potter said...

Oh, dear. I discovered that NONE of the highlighted links work in this post. To get to "This Country Life," go to "From the Starcatcher," find the little clickable badge that says, "Pedal on over to my other blog..." and that ought to get you right to it. Yikes. Each blog contains those clickable badges so that you can quickly get to the other one.

Kay L. Davies said...

This is my favorite Toads interview so far. Margaret really researched Mary Ann's work, and Mary Ann responded in kind, to make this an interview-at-depth rather than a Q&A session.
I also admire how Mary Ann made the transition from Yankee to southerner, deliberately taking on the accent and pearls, and diving into The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. I've lived in Alberta for 11 years now but am still a British Columbian.
Thanks for a great read, both of you.

Kerry O'Connor said...

Mary Ann, I'll see if I can redo those links.

Kerry O'Connor said...

I've checked and redone all the links, folks. The problem also arises when the link and font colours are the same - the link kind of disappears, so I've changed text colour here and there to help make them more visible.

Mary Ann Potter said...

Oh, thanks so much, Kerry!

Fireblossom said...

I guess I can't be Southern cos I never, ever, wear pearls. :-P

The photographs are amazing. Thanks for the interview, you two!

Margaret said... will do me in... I can't imagine what happened with the links as I know how to link. Oh well, thanks for coming to my rescue, Kerry! Mary Ann Potter was a very easy interview for me to do because I think we have a lot of the same interests and now I am just dying to get the eastern coast of my state of NC before the tourists start packing in during Spring Break! Thanks for the kind comments.

Mary said...

Great interview with Mary Ann Potter, Margaret. I really enjoy her poetry; so it was SO nice to learn more about her!

Scarlet said...

Lovely interview Margaret.

Thanks for the lovely poems and pictures Mary Ann. You are very talented and it was interesting to learn that your part of the world.

Maude Lynn said...

Absolutely fabulous interview!

Sherry Blue Sky said...

GREAT job, Margaret! I was so pleased to learn more about the very interesting and talented Mary Ann Potter. Mary Ann,your writing rocks, and your photos are so wonderful. AND you are living on a dream farm:) I so enjoyed this! Thanks to both of you talented people!

Susie Clevenger said...

Great interview Margaret and Mary Ann...It means so much to know more about the person. I feel more like I have sat down with a friend. Beautiful pictures. I have lots of photographs I have taken and thought about doing a photo blog, but for now that is just one more chore I can't take on...

Ella said...

Mary Ann, I loved getting to know about you! I'm a Yankee transplanted in the south ;D I so enjoyed your guidelines. My favorite time of year to go to the Outer Banks is Fall n' Winter, when I can capture reflections of my youth.
Your words inspire so many wonderful memories and your photos are insightful, calm and instill peace we all long for!