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INTERVIEW WITH MARY BONINA

Write a bio about yourself.

Mary Bonina

I grew up in a very circumscribed universe. It was Catholic parish in a working class city and I went to St. Peter's, our neighborhood school, for twelve years. I probably spent more hours of my childhood in Church or school (which was a lot like Church) than doing anything else. Having an active fantasy life was an antidote to that rigidity. So I read voraciously, taking armfuls of books out of the public library and raiding my grandmother's bookcase. The rest of the time I would dream (because I didn't live the kind of life my son does now - I had to imagine so as not to be bored since I didn't have an offering of lessons, sports, and activities), and what I imagined was not riches or other material goods, but rather doing great things, having a far-reaching influence on the world. I had a fantasy life in which I had delusions of future grandeur! The thing I remember wanting to be my whole childhood practically was a famous singer. I did have a good singing voice and received some excellent training from the nuns, had solos in concerts even. But I never sang after high school. I guess I replaced singing liturgical music and songs from American musical theater with reading and writing poetry and especially listening and dancing to rock and roll. It was a good leap. I don't know how I believed I could escape the life that everyone I knew expected to continue living, how I dreamed I would do things no one else in my family ever considered. Both of my sisters and my brother still live in the greater Worcester area, although they have all left the old neighborhood. I suppose my aunt Margaret, who had wanted a different kind of life herself passed it on to me. We were very close. She had a beautiful voice and sang in the choir and at the Cathedral she presented solos for masses and weddings. And I think I remember her telling me that she was encouraged to take a scholarship at the New England Conservatory and that her father - this is my aunt on my mother's side, her sister -- didn't want a daughter of his parading herself on stage. He was very Victorian. I probably saw him out of his three piece suit with pocket watch only a few times in my childhood. Even at the beach he'd be dressed that way.

Other than my father, who served as a major role model for me, my aunt, as I think of it now, was probably the major driving force behind my dreams, someone who helped me see that there were other possibilities for a life, someone who recognized that I had something to offer creatively and intellectually. My grandfather was the one who introduced me to the symphony and to visual art, taking me to concerts and museums.

Still, Some days I am very amazed that I live in Cambridge. It is truly such a long way from Worcester, even though it is just under an hour drive down the Mass Pike. I remember once an old friend of mine who lives in Washington, recognized that I shared a zip code with Harvard and mentioned it to me. I guess I hadn't ever thought too much about where I live now, before that. So it was getting an education and recognizing early on that I had a passion for reading and writing that got me here. That, and also being willing to take risks, to put myself in situations that aren't always comfortable or safe. An artist, of course - especially a poet --must be willing to take risks and to accept that life will probably not be financially comfortable.

If you asked me what most made me who I am I guess I would say that in my family, the fact that each of my parents' families were from a different European culture - both though, were from islands, which I find very interesting -one family from Ireland and the other from Sicily. That probably has something to do with my love of the ocean. I can't ever imagine living too far away from it for very long. In addition to being from different ethnic groups, my parents also came from different classes - my father, solidly working class -- and in my mother's there were many middle class professionals. That had to have had an enormous influence on my personality. In my mother's family there was a prominent doctor, an obstetrician who was a graduate of Harvard and who delivered a good number of the babies born to Irish families in Worcester, in the years he was practicing medicine there. There were also, priests, nuns, attorneys, nurses, teachers in my mother's family. Many in my father's family never even finished high school. My father himself did not because he was already beginning to lose his sight by then. He was a very brilliant man though and self-educated. He never stopped learning, craving knowledge. So I see both sides of things, but my heart is truly with the underdog. The seed of that passion comes from seeing my father's struggle as a man who was losing his sight and yet absolutely intent on proving he could be a success against all odds - I mean, really, the deck was stacked against him already, even before he began to lose his sight. And my passion for the little person, the poor and those just squeaking by, victims of all sorts of prejudices and discrimination, was nurtured and given credibility in the political activism of the sixties and seventies.

Describe the room you write in.

I write wherever I can. When I am working at home, I write in a very messy, closet-sized study which I share with my husband who is also a poet and editor, in addition to being a university professor. So you can imagine the amount of paper we produce and surely you would expect that we have more books than we have room to house. I did write my memoir mainly in that little study one very hot summer, but I find now that it is inhibiting to me to write there. When I work at home now I will sometimes sit at the pine table in the dining room. I like having light and a clear space.

I have just recently been invited to join the Writers Room of Boston and whenever time allows, I take the train into the City and go there to work for three or more hour stretches. It's a medium sized room that looks out onto State Street in the financial district. There are large windows and wonderful old buildings outside the windows. And there is quiet. No one speaks even when we pass each other. One exchanges only a nod or a smile, so as not to disturb the creative process. It's something like a church.

I have worked in church, too. When I was in graduate school and working on my MFA thesis of stories, I had a government job that was very demanding and I would escape at lunchtime whenever I could to write for a half hour, an hour, whatever I could steal. Sometimes, I went to the chapel at St. Anthony's shrine at Downtown Crossing. It's a place where people go to pray, to light candles when they have some special intention for which they are seeking divine intervention. It is a place of faith and although I am no longer a Catholic, there was always something so inspiring to me about trying to write in a place like that. The Writers Room gives me that same feeling. It is a place of faith.

Talk about your experience being one of the editors for THE LITTLE APPLE (TLA) in Worcester, Massachusetts. TLA published poetry, fiction, and articles. Many of the articles dealt with social issues in the city of Worcester. Talk about how decisions were made on what to publish. Talk about the others who were involved with the magazine also. How many years was the magazine in existence?

My first "serious" experience in creative writing, editing, and publishing was as an editor of The Little Apple (TLA) magazine in Worcester. The magazine could be described as having a community and cultural focus, since it included in addition to poetry, fiction, and information about arts organizations and events, many articles related to progressive causes - labor, community organizing efforts, human rights and social justice issues - and the perspective was both historical and contemporary, far-reaching and local. So, for example, in the same issue you could find articles about the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti and a companion piece featuring residents of Milford, Massachusetts recalling Nicholas Sacco who lived and worked in the town. In that issue there is an article "Resistance in Nazi Occupied Poland in 1943." Another article called "The Politics of Where You Live,"was written by an architectural historian and it outlined the restoration of housing in one of the city's neighborhoods. There is also in that same issue an editorial called "Why Seabrook," about the reasons for the non-violent occupation of the site that would become the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire, an act of civil disobedience in which a group of dedicated anti-nuclear activists from Worcester (I was proud to be among them!) participated. There is also an original piece of folk/blues music, a short piece of fiction by John Dufresne (one of his early stories) and lots and lots of poems. So that's a pretty typical issue.

It's important to consider this publishing venture in the context of its time. It was the 70s, and there was a very different atmosphere in this country. There was still the enthusiasm of the late sixties that gave people in my generation the idea that we could affect change on a personal and political scale. TLA was informed by a sense of community, a desire to record what was going on in our city and beyond, and to consider people, events and organizations in the larger context. We wanted to promote art in our community. And we wanted a vehicle for the publication of our own writing. We were very young then - in our early twenties, most of us -so we were dreamers and felt that youthful idealism as well as the influence of the climate of social change. We weren't really naďve though. We hadn't lived sheltered lives necessarily, had had our share of difficulties growing up. And of course John (Dufresne) was working with city kids in crisis. As John wrote in his intro to the first issue, we were "stimulated by the experience of living and struggling in Worcester."

John Dufresne began the magazine at New Directions, which was a storefront drop-in center program operated by the Crisis Center. Dufresne ran the place, providing counseling and projects to keep those who came by the place occupied and out of trouble. At the time there was another Worcester alternative publication called the Worcester People's Press, a newspaper. I was on the staff of that paper. After the first issue of TLA, some of the New Directions people lost interest and Dufresne wanted to keep it going. The paper I was writing for was floundering, so we pooled our resources and merged. That's how I recall it happening anyway. That's how I got involved with John and The Little Apple.

John Dufresne has been the most successful of all the writers who were involved in TLA. ((His most recent paperback release is the story collection, JOHNNY TOO BAD. He's also published one other collection of stories and the novels LOUISIANNA POWER AND LIGHT, DEEP IN THE SHADE OF PARADISE, AND LOVE WARPS THE MIND A LITTLE -in addition to THE LIE THAT TELLS THE TRUTH, a great book about fiction-writing. All published by W.W. Norton.). Mary Fell's book, THE PERISISTANCE OF MEMORY, was selected for the National Poetry Series and published by Random House. She was the poetry editor of TLA. She now lives in Indiana. Alan Lavine, also an editor, is now writing books about making money and I think he's making money. So we were the editors and had help from lots of others in what John wrote was our "collectively managed experiment in community based literature." We all did a little of everything. Remember this was being published before people began to use computers for this kind of thing. We did layout by hand at the print shop. We organized rock and roll parties at the American Legion Post and friends of ours who had a band played - Donny Bullens (whose fabulous photographs we also published) and his COYOTES. What we charged people at the door pretty much supported the magazine, along with a few ads we sold to our friends or to establishments we frequented. We were awful at selling ads. I used to cry when business people said "No" to me. (In fact, I still do.)

I laugh at some of what went on putting the magazine out. I mean, it doesn't have an overall design sense - every issue was different looking -we were experimenting, seeing what we could do. And some of what we did was very accomplished. We had so much passion for what we were doing. And we had fun doing it. I guess it is kind of amazing when I think of what we did back then, being so young. Between 1976 and 1982 we published sixteen issues on a frayed shoestring budget. I mean we had interviews with the jazz drummer Max Roach and the anthropologist, Margaret Mead.

In keeping with social change, you were one of the founders of Abby's House. Please talk about this.

Annette Rafferty, a former nun, is the founder of Abby's House in Worcester. She deserves enormous credit for what she has accomplished. Abby's celebrated its 30th Anniversary this past March. Abby's House (the Abby Kelley Foster House) began as a shelter and now has in addition to the shelter more than seventy permanent units for individuals and several apartments for women and their families. I think of Annette Rafferty as the Kip Tiernan (founder of Rosie's Place, Boston) of Worcester. I was only one of many --primarily women -who were brought together at that time by Annette to discuss and plan for the emergency housing needs of mainly poor and low-women and their children. The organization now does so much more than emergency housing, enabling women to make life changes with an incredible support system. Annette Rafferty chronicled the story of Abby's House in a book she published about the history of Abby's (WEARING SMOOTH THE PATH - "25 Years At Abby's House, 1976-2001 -An Unfinished Memoir," published by Ambassador Books) In that book she credits me as a "founding committee member." I had been a VISTA worker - for those who aren't familiar with this, it was kind of a domestic Peace Corps. I worked doing community organizing around housing issues for poor and low -income people. I was on many committees in the poorer neighborhoods of the city --and a feminist - so it made sense to me to do what I could in those early days when Abby's was being conceived. I went to meetings and I volunteered a little bit at the shelter. So many other people though, have done so much more than what I ever did, to make Abby's what it is today.

You write poetry and fiction. Do you favor one over the other? Do you write every day?

Ah, on to talking about writing. Yes, I write poetry and I try to write fiction.

I remember that when I was in graduate school and concentrating on fiction writing rather than poetry, I was having a difficult time with the structure of a short story. Our thesis as fiction writers was to be a collection -5 or 6 - short stories. Two wonderful fiction writers were my mentors: David Huddle and Mary Elsie Robertson. When I expressed my frustration with the short story form to Mary Elsie and she saw how I struggled to get the stories done, I remember she told me that she thought I'd do my best work in the novel. I do have the long breath! People who know me would attest to this, but believe it or not I was once very shy and inhibited and fearful about expressing myself. I think that is one reason I turned to writing. It was easier for me than talking was.

I enjoy creating characters and writing scenes and dialogue. I still struggle with structure in fiction. It's funny isn't it, that you can understand a story and take it apart, analyze it, but still have trouble creating your own story. It's a testament to the fact that the creative process is entirely different in each one. Criticism requires another part of the brain. What is it that Eudora Welty said? She was, I believe, joking in an interview she gave with Reynolds Price, and she said, "I think of writing stories as going south, and writing essays as going north."

As a writer, when I began in seriousness, it was poetry that grabbed me. When I was a college student, I read over and over again, Denise Levertov's book, RELEARNING THE ALPHABET. You can imagine how amazing it was to me a few years later, to be chosen to study with her in a class called "Master Poets/Apprentice Poets," an NEA grant-funded funded program conceived by the Worcester County Poetry Association. And even today, I think I would mainly define myself as a poet.

However, I do remember making a conscious decision as a graduate student in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson, to study fiction writing. I had, thinking it was required, submitted an application with a writing sample in both fiction and poetry. I simply read the application wrong, thinking I needed to submit in both genres rather than to choose one. When I arrived on campus, I remember being told by Ellen Bryant Voigt that I needed to choose. I also remember telling a group of new students and faculty in a round robin, that I'd chosen to study the fiction writing process because I felt I had too many stories to tell and that poetry could not hold them all.

My poetry as a whole might be characterized as narrative. No surprise there. Of late, I have however, been tending toward the more lyrical and going for more of a sense of duende and taking more risks with form.

The only time I have not been consistently writing poetry in the last thirty years (it's frightening to think of that time period having passed!) was while I writing my memoir. I have thought long and hard about why that was the case. To me, there is something at the core of memoir that is shared in the writing of poetry. The genres seem rooted in the same place - at least for me--and they share a similar process in the unearthing of feeling.

No, to answer your question finally, I don't think I favor one over the other. I would like to be known as someone who devotedly practices in both genres and hopefully becomes accomplished in both processes.

I write something every day, even if it is only notes related to some creative idea I have, or something I've been working on. Sometimes it is a journal entry, or even a long expository email to another writer. On good days, I work on one of my projects and sometimes write many pages.

Who are your favorite writers that you read over and over again?

The writers I keep going back to….hmnmm. Let's see. Poets - Levertov, of course, my first teacher of poetry writing, James Wright, Neruda, Galway Kinnell, James Tate, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Sharon Olds, and recently I've found Rebecca McLanahan and keep going to back to her wonderful poems about relationships. And of course, I love William Carlos Williams. On the fiction side there's Andre Dubus (the father), William Trevor, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri., -- oh, any I love the edginess of Junot Diaz. Those writers are all known as masters of the short story, a form I struggle with. I love the novelist Zadie Smith. Her most recent novel, ON BEAUTY, is brilliant. Richard Wright was important in my development as a writer and human being and I go back to him sometimes, too. I enjoy reading Francine Prose, who was one my teachers in graduate school. I like her travel writing as much as her novels. And a couple of the old stand-bys - Hemingway and Welty, whose stories I have read with my son. And my old compatriots, John Dufresne and Edward P. Jones, friends for decades, I keep going back to their wonderful work.

You currently are writing a memoir called MY FATHER'S EYES. Why did you decide to write a memoir?

I am not currently writing a memoir. I wrote a memoir. MY FATHER'S EYES has been finished for a few years and so far only a couple of pieces are in publication or process of publication. HANGING LOOSE will be publishing a chapter in their Fall 2006 issue. I don't intend to work any more on the manuscript until I have an editor though I hope it will someday be a published book. I need to move on, to work on my novel and on publishing some of the poems and writing new ones, so I haven't been actively looking for a publisher for the memoir very much lately.

It is a difficult time for literary memoir. I believe, from the responses I've had to readings I've given from the manuscript, that it could be a successful book. But publishers aren't much interested in the literary memoir these days. A very well-respected literary agent, wrote to me in an email, that an editor had advised her that if the literary memoir she was planning to send her for consideration wouldn't win a national prize, then not to even bothering sending it. So that's the kind of thing serious writers of memoir are up against today.

I wrote the memoir after spending almost ten years trying to use essentially the same material in an autobiographical novel. It was the late 90s and a different variety of memoir --one that didn't tell the stories of celebrities or powerful people-became very popular. These memoirs - ANGELA'S ASHES leading the parade -- were sometimes referred to as stories of the "lifestyles of the poor and ordinary" - that was a real headline in a review about memoir of that time in the Boston Globe. I show it to groups when I give workshops on writing memoir.

I was reluctant to attempt a memoir at first. I thought it the lesser cousin of fiction. I didn't think it could be art. Little did I know, I began to read some of the memoirs and saw how wrong I was. One in particular, by Cambridge writer Richard Hoffman, a friend of mine, really made the difference. His memoir, HALF THE HOUSE (originally published by Harcourt and now in paperback with a different press?) was beautifully written, poignant, and a work of art. I shared a similar family background with Richard and that, too, gave me confidence that I could write this story. Richard at the time was teaching a Master Class in writing memoir and I was awarded a couple of small professional development grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, to help with tuition. I studied with Richard for about a year and half while working on the memoir, going off on my own when I'd learned from him what I needed to complete it.

MY FATHER'S EYES tells the story of my relationship with my dad, in the context of family and community. When I was a kid, he was losing his sight from an inherited retina condition. I was the oldest and became a guide for him, helping him navigate and describing the world as his sight was diminishing. So I guess it makes sense that I became a writer, after that experience. The memoir is set against the backdrop of the 1950s and 60s in a parochial neighborhood. I think the difference between that time and our own in which we've seen the Americans With Disabilities Act and the deciphering of the human genome are made perfectly clear in the story. The childhood chapters alternate with contemporary ones detailing the week of my father's death, the "Memorial Days" chapters, which function as the lens for viewing my father's later adult life, my own, and the complicated relationship we had with each other.

All writers have material special to them and no matter what genre you work in, you use it. Yes, I wanted to give my father his due, to record his struggle and the kind of world in which it played out. But more than that, I am artist, a writer, and my main material is relationships, and family is, we all know, the primary one. That doesn't mean I don't write about other things or that if I write about a family it will always be my family, even if it's called fiction. That isn't true at all. Again, I'd quote Eudora Welty about the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. She says that in fiction a writer writes "out of oneself" not "of oneself." The empathy you have for your characters comes out of your own experience. Spending ten years, ten frustrating years, trying to write a novel drawing upon my family, taught me the difference. I could never get the voice or structure right. I was too invested in the real story to allow my imagination the free reign necessary in fiction writing. I hope, now that the memoir is done with, that my fiction can have a life of its own.

You have given workshops on memoir writing. What do you try to share with those who are taking your workshop?

I do give workshops on memoir. Most recently I did a couple of sessions for the Quincy Public Library. I have a talk I give about how I came to write the memoir. It details the struggle with the autobiographical novel before I was able to commit myself to writing a memoir, and it examines examples of different memoirs and takes a look at process issues. I learned a lot from reading what Patricia Hampl (author of A ROMANTIC EDUCATION and many other wonderful books) has to say about process and in the talk I analyze the examples I've chosen, applying her ideas for establishing a voice that has integrity. I discuss how memoir is different from fiction and other non-fiction, particularly autobiography. Often the people who come to the talk are interested in a workshop component because they would like to write memoirs. Most, I've found, aren't necessarily interested in publishing their stories, but rather they want to write them and pass them on, a legacy for future generations. I think that's admirable. I think that I am able to get them started with ideas and strategies for beginning and structuring that kind of thing. One point I try to get across to anyone who attends my talk or workshop is one Richard Hoffman used to make in his memoir master class and that is, that a memoir is a history, and in the case of someone like me, or any of those writers from the period in the 1990s when ordinary lives were chronicled, it is a history that probably wouldn't be otherwise recorded but which has its own significance nevertheless.

What is the strangest thing you've ever done trying to find writing material?

Live? Isn't life strange? I don't think I have to do much to find writing material. It seems to be everywhere. For me, at least, that is the way it is. Who was it said, something like… anyone who has survived childhood has enough material for the rest of her life. Maybe it was Flannery O'Connor. I'll have to look up that exact quote and its author.

Your husband, Mark Pawlak, is a writer and one of the editors of Hanging Loose Press. Do you give each other feedback on your work?

My husband is Mark Pawlak and he is poet and editor of Hanging Loose Press. He sometimes shows me his work, but often the first time I get a look at it, is when it's published somewhere. Once in a while now, I will show him something I'm working on, but not as often as I used to. When I was writing the memoir I would read him what I'd written every day. Even when he was sick of hearing from me! It kept me going. Also, since I'd left my paying job to write and he was supporting me, I think I might have also wanted him to know I was working hard nevertheless, that I was making good use of my time.

One of my favorite poems is called, "The House Is Settled" (Observing the Children's Orchestra). You wrote this while waiting for your son Gianni to finish his music lesson at Longy. Please talk about this poem.

Thank you. I have had a good response to that poem. It's actually one I have read to Mark and he loved it, thought it's one of the best poems I've ever written. I am happy about that, since it's also one of the newest, so maybe that means I'm on the right track! I wrote "The House is Settled" after years of waiting around at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, while my son had lessons and ensemble rehearsals. Longy is an absolutely wonderful place, with music of all instruments and kinds coming out its ears. I used to sit waiting for him in the lobby where there is a lovely window seat and while I read or edited something I was working on, I could hear opera coming from one room, flute in another, piano, an orchestra rehearsing in Pickman Hall. And I also would sometimes sit in on rehearsals there. The poem was written about a rehearsal I observed on a Saturday morning, of the Children's Orchestra. Saturdays at Longy during the school year are wild. The lobby is full of parents and children of all ages and the kids go rushing up and down the corridors with their instrument cases, which are sometimes bigger than they are. There is so much life. Going into Pickman to watch the orchestra was a refuge when I wanted quiet or inspiration. The director commands the students' attention and you can hear every word, every critique, every suggestion because they are all so quiet. I sat there writing down things I heard. Many of these actual comments appear in the poem So it's kind of a found poem, but not really, because later I worked with what I had seen and heard - quite a bit, in fact.

Gloria, thank you so much for your interest in my work.


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