INTERVIEW WITH NANCY MITCHELL
Photo: Rick Maloof
Nancy Mitchell is the author of The Near Surround (2002) and her poems have appeared in
Agni, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, Great River Review, and are anthologized in Last Call by Sarabande Books.
She has received an Artist in the Schools grant for Virginia, and residency fellowships from the Virginia Center for the
Creative Arts in Amherst, Virginia, Auvillar, France, and a Four Way Books fellow-residency at the Fine Arts Work Center
in Provincetown, MA. Mitchell teaches Creative Writing Courses in the English Department at Salisbury University, Maryland,
and has taught in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. She resides in Salisbury, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, with her
husband John Ebert, a filmmaker.
When did you start writing?
Story telling was part of the tradition I grew up in; I was born into a large southern family of eight. We followed my
father's career in oil to many interesting places, including Egypt, so we didn't grow up in the south around our extended
family, but they loomed in mythic proportions in our canon of family stories. My siblings, all of whom have returned to
the south to live are doing a great job maintaining and perpetuating our family's dramatic saga.
As a child, I had a lot of curiosity and imagination, much to the annoyance of my parents and siblings. Early on,
I expressed myself by writing plays and arm twisting my sister, younger brothers and the neighborhood kids into
starring in them-we'd use the front porch as the stage, and I'd bug my mother until she agreed to let us drag the
dining room chairs out into the lawn for the audience of parents shanghaied into attending-a pregnant mom got the
best chair. For costumes, I would exhume my mother's cocktail dresses from a mothballed cedar chest-a very elegant
cast-I cannot remember anything about these brilliant plays except that somehow, someone inevitably, very suddenly
died, and there had to be a white sheet handy to pull over the immediately deceased. In elementary school, sometimes
teachers would read my writing assignments to the class as examples of good writing-I spent a lot of time staring out
the window, so I wasn't very good student in other subjects-was especially abysmal in math- and it was great to get
some attention for doing something well.
When did you know you wanted to write seriously?
Again, in elementary school, one teacher actually wiped a tear away as she read a ridiculously sentimental story I wrote
about an old man begging on a street corner on Christmas Eve while the fur-clad rich passed obliviously by him-I remember
being stunned and deeply gratified to discover I could move someone with writing.
So, inevitably, I became an English major in college, and wrote acceptable and somewhat entertaining, but not exceptional
fiction in Creative Writing Classes. I married early, and raised three great little kids in the decade of my twenties. I
was thrilled to have kids and was totally involved and nourished by that world, and whatever need I had to write was kept at
bay by keeping a notebook/journal. The kids got bigger and the marriage got smaller, and one day I became a single parent
with three teenagers, and a full time and two part-time teaching jobs. It was a rough patch, but one of the gifts of those
days was that I met and became involved with the wonderful poet Michael Burkard, who shone a light on poetry so I experienced
it in a way I never had before. It would be years before I would start writing poems in earnest, but when I did, I went to
Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers, and have been writing ever since.
What was the experience at Warren Wilson for your MFA like?
It was great- I still refer to the classes on craft in my own teaching. To be in such close proximity to a faculty of great
writers, and among serious writing students on a daily basis during residencies was amazing for me. The support from faculty
was generous, and the camaraderie among the students was sustaining and fun. The friends I made there are among my dearest.
Talk about your book The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002).
The title of The Near Surround refers to a physics term, which loosely means all that is intuitively palpable to us,
which we can feel, but not necessarily perceive with our five senses. I was intrigued with "presences" of people, places that
at times felt more immediate than what was tangibly present, and I examined if it was my own longing which kept them so present.
When I read the lines from Rilke "what seems most far from you is most your own", I understood completely what he meant.
The poems in The Near Surround concerned themselves with presences within absences…there is intentionally a lot of white
space in the book.
Cervena Barva Press just published your full-length collection, Grief Hut. Please talk about your new book.
During the time I was writing many of the poems which are in Grief Hut, I was still grieving my parent's death-they died
within five weeks of each other-and the loss of a dear friend, Debbie Gichner. Our oldest son had come out to us about
his long-standing struggle with substance abuse, from which he nearly died, and a very dear friend had been diagnosed with
breast cancer. I had written some poems on the loss of Debbie and my mother which were published in The Near Surround, but
I still felt very heavy, full, encumbered, if you will, with grief-I seemed to move through life so slowly, write slowly, and
the typical avenues of dealing with grief weren't doing the job. In a phone conversation with a friend who was having a
similar experience, I joked that it would be great if there were grief huts, like birth huts in primitive cultures, situated
along secluded beaches where women could go away to birth to their grief assisted by mid-wives. I started thinking about that
idea, could actually envision it, and wrote a poem about it, which is the title poem. What the women actually gave birth to is
the articulation of their grief, "the knot, rising from their throats." The book itself then became the grief hut for the poems
about the big, obvious losses, and later as those were cleared out, other smaller losses and disappointments rose to the
surface-a protracted labor! I am a true believer about the healing power of transforming emotions out of the body via
physical expression-writing, painting, dancing, whatever. Grief has to be some way articulated in order for one to be well.
As Shakespeare advised, Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak/Whispers the o'er fraught heart and bids it break.
Grieving is a fully human, primal expression of loss, but one that our culture hurries us through, and that we somehow are
ashamed of doing-it somehow seems distasteful to demonstrate grief-it's OK to see this level of grief on the big screen, or on
stage, but in real life it is a much longer, very messy process, and we are very busy people! Somehow to grieve beyond a certain
time seems self indulgent, and we are encouraged to "get over it", but we really do not know how to do that. For some, talk
therapy works, but to me the vision of a far away hut -out of time, and context, a womb to return to in which to birth one's
grief-assisted by wise and trusted midwives was very nourishing and sustaining to me. After I finished the book, it became
obvious to me that the process of writing the poems was the labor, and my midwives were my amazing friends who took time to
read and comment on the poems and encourage me to keep writing.
You have been awarded fellowships from writers' residencies. Can you talk about your experiences there?
I've been to VCCA in Virginia and to their Moulin a Nef, in Auvillar, France and they were both wonderful in different ways.
I spent January of 2000 at VCCA in Virginia, which is out in the country and on acres of beautiful, rolling farm land; it was
winter and my parents had just died, and for the first week, I would pick up my lunch pail and walk this path to my studio-it
felt like I was a kid going off to school with lunch lovingly packed by a parent-I felt very cared for-then I would sit in my
little cocoon of a studio all day and watch snow fall and slowly pile up on telephone wires, branches, etc., I'd talk long
walks in the cold, at night, and feel safe-I was feeling fragile, sort of contagious with grief, so I wasn't as social as I
might have been otherwise. To have that privacy, space and freedom to be quiet with myself and process the preceding months
was an incredible gift. Although there was never any pressure to produce, I eventually developed a good writing routine.
Some of the composers and visual artists would welcome drop-ins to their studios, so I would stop by, and be amazed by what
others were doing-it was wonderfully interested and inspiring. In June of 2007, I went to VCCA's Moulin a Nef, which is in
the tiny medieval village of Auvillar in the gorgeous countryside of southwestern France. We fellows were welcomed and feted
by the villagers like royalty. It took a lot of discipline to go to the studio everyday; we were in the thick of authentic
village life, and there were festivals to go to, so many lovely things to see, eat, drink, and talk about and so many equally
lovely people to do all those things with!-in spite of all those wonderful distractions, I did manage to get a lot of writing
done. Both experiences were life changing, and gifts for which I'm forever grateful to VCCA. In May, I'm going to the Fine
Arts Work Center in Provincetown as a Four Way Books fellow-I'm realy looking forward to it.
Currently, you teach at Salisbury University. Talk about the classes you teach
I teach beginning Creative Writing, and advanced Writer's Craft and Poetry Workshop, as well as Modern Poetry.
What do you try to teach your students about writing?
The first task is to get them to tether abstractions to imagery and at the same
time honor and access that imagery from their own experiences. I try to show them as many examples of artists who have done
that, with as many different examples in film, visual art, music, not exclusively fiction or poetry-and I encourage them to
bring in anything else as well. After that beginning Creative Writing class, we start to look at issues of craft-how different
artists use materials, and what the result is-my syllabi are very subject to change as each class evolves in its own way.
What was your experience like teaching at the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine?
Via e-mail and land mail, I directed two thesis essay students and one manuscript student. As I have worked primarily with
undergraduates, it was a new pleasure, and an absolute joy to work with these very serious, talented MFA candidates.
Describe your favorite places to write.
At home in my second story study, which overlooks a lovely, lively 500-acre pond, or in any place with proximity to water.
However, I can really write anywhere as long as I can access a particular frame of mind.
Who are your favorite writers?
I love so many writers, that I could never even begin to name even a few-but I do know that I love the work of any writer
who will get out of the way and allow the poem to move, breathe and turn in thrilling, unexpected ways-I offer as an example
the gorgeous Pushcart winning poem, Nude Descending-by Dzvinia Orlowsky- I can't tell you how many times I've read that
poem, yet I cannot read it without wonder and a shiver.
Whom are you reading now?
This semester I'm teaching Modern Poetry; I've been having the most wonderful time revisiting Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats,
etc.-like all great poetry, its always fresh and deepens with each reading. We're reading Frost this week, and I thought,
as much as I had read and studied him, that I was beginning to get the old Yankee's number, but I most certainly am not!