All the Right Things: A Conversation with Mary Kovaleski Byrnes

 Mary Kovaleski Byrnes, author of So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, 2018).
Mary Kovaleski Byrnes, author of So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, 2018). 

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes is the author of So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, May 2018). She teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, and is the co-founder of the EmersonWRITES program, a free creative writing program for Boston Public School students. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Salamander, the Four Way Review, the Best of Kore Press, Best of the Net, and elsewhere. She served as Poetry Editor for Redivider and has been a poetry reader for Ploughshares since 2009.

Amanda Hodes: One of the main forces in So Long the Sky is Centralia, a Pennsylvania town that was essentially condemned due to an underground coal mine fire. No matter how far the poems seem to travel—from Paris to Russia to Santa Cruz—Centralia and its heat always seem to be swelling right beneath the surface. Could you discuss your relationship with the town and how that led to So Long the Sky?

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes: First, thanks for asking such a great opening question, as I think talking about my relationship to Centralia (and other places in the book) gets at some of the questions that arise when writing about place, or having place play such a central role in your work, as it has consistently in mine. I grew up in Lititz, Pennsylvania, which is in Lancaster County, about a 90-minute drive from the Coal Region of Pennsylvania where Centralia is. My parents grew up in towns in the Coal Region, and my grandmother and a good deal of my extended family still live there. I’ve spent so much time in this part of Pennsylvania, both during my formative years and now, when I travel home to visit everyone; it feels like a second home to me in many ways, but at the same time, I am and have always been a bit of an outsider, in that I didn’t grow up there. When visiting the Coal Region, we’d often pass by Centralia, or visit when we had nothing else to do, and it loomed in an almost mythical way in the background of my understanding of this entire place—it was the town that had the forever-burning coal fire underneath, and when you tell people from outside Pennsylvania about this, they don’t even believe it exists. It was unreal to me, too, as a child, that an entire town could be condemned and then become a ghost town, and then be torn down almost completely (there are actually still a few people living in this town).

As a writer, I needed to research and understand how this could happen to a place, and I’ve thought a lot about what that might mean to the people who grew up there; what kind of impact does it have on your identity if the place you called home literally no longer exists? What happens to people when they have to leave their hometowns/countries out of necessity? What happens to their identities, their language, their family? These are central questions in the book and in our world right now, where more people are experiencing displacement than in any period in modern history. Having your hometown destroyed by a mine fire, so that you can never go back, is dramatic, but in some ways, I think it offers some apt metaphors for the kinds of reforging of identities that people experience when their tethers to home are severed.

Additionally, I began to think a lot about the Coal Region and Centralia in particular when I got a job with a J-1 visa sponsor, which allowed me to travel to many of the countries in Eastern Europe, like Poland and Ukraine, where my ancestors originally came from. These ancestors left their homes fleeing economic collapse and abject poverty and ended up coal mining in the mountains of Pennsylvania. A few generations later, with the coal industry gone, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren now live in a place that doesn’t provide enough economic opportunities, and many have migrated to other parts of the U.S. There was this interesting cyclical thing happening, with multi-generational young people traveling and search of something, and these seemingly disparate parts of the world were way more connected than I had originally thought. I wrote about these ideas through a historical/familial lens, and through the experiences of people I met or were connected to me through shared geography, but in writing about this place I was also hoping to bear witness to and explore some of what so many people from all over the world experience when they are forced to leave home for any reason.

AH: In these poems, there’s always a strong sense of movement, both in the subject matter of immigration and in the form itself. For instance, in many of the poems, the lines of the tercets are increasingly indented, creating a pull to the right-hand side of the page that reminds me of lapping flames or even “memory’s pull,” to borrow your own line. “Triptych with Excerpt from Coal Miner’s Industrial Handbook,” too, has such a striking visual presence on the page. Could you speak to your approach to form, or form in general, when writing?

MKB: To me, form is extremely helpful in that it can do what you’re saying here, adding layers to the reader’s experience and to the visual presence of the poem on the page. I love what enjambment can do for the integrity of a line. And when I’m stuck with my writing, I often revert back to more rigid forms to help generate work; sometimes, the rigid rules of say, a villanelle, can provide enough boundaries for me to actually get something surprising out. More often than not though, I end up pushing out of rigid forms when revising, and let the language, imagery, and ideas motivate the form. For example, the lines of an already beautifully unstable tercet form can give the kind of experience that you’re describing—a pulling, a migration, etc. At times, the form pulls the reader along more quickly, or, in the case of some of the poems that are in couplets, you get a slower, more deliberate pace. I found the triptych an exciting form to work in, in that I could work on juxtaposing voices through time and space, in this case utilizing a handbook written in the 1920s for unionized immigrant miners, which was just a fascinating find in and of itself.

I think a lot about form, obviously, and could geek out on this for a while, but I will say that a lot of the poems in the book were in different forms at various stages of revision, and that can perseverate and obsess over this, like many poets do. Hopefully the forms these poems ended up in are the right ones.

AH: What led you to choose the title So Long the Sky?

MKB: I wish I could say that title, which I love, came to me in a fit of inspiration, but actually, this book had a number of clunky titles, and I never felt any of the literally dozens of titles I came up with were right. The wonderful people at Platypus found that line “so long the sky” in one of my poems, and suggested it to me as a possible title. For me, one of the biggest joys of this whole process of publishing this book has been working with the people at Platypus, and having their critical eyes on my work. And I think the title lends itself to a lot of different interpretations and speaks to many of the themes in the book, like migration, longing, memory, loss, desire, and place.

AH: One of the (many) lines that lingered with me was “I want to apologize— / I think I’ve remembered / all the wrong things.” When you’re writing a poem like “X, 1926,” which reaches back through time and layers of cultural memory, what is the experience like for you? Does it feel like a form of remembering, and do you ever feel like you’ve “remembered all the wrong things”?

MKB: Yes. All the time. That line is one of the most important in the book for me, so I’m glad you’ve located it. As you’re noting, much of the book does reach back into time and reference family history, but most of this history was told to me in pieces, in fragmented stories, or indirectly, when I was listening to a story being told to someone else. In many ways, some of the stories told, especially by my grandparents’ generation, seem so otherworldly, even if they took place in Pennsylvania. There are stories and legends and characters—like my coal mining immigrant great-grandfather who died of black lung—who never really make it out of the shadows. In some ways, this is a question that’s been discussed at length through the genre of memoir. There’s an understanding in that genre, and in poetry that’s based in personal experience and memory, that your memories are replayed through your own consciousness and your own filter on the past. And I think if I asked my family what they’d want me to remember about them, or about this place, the Coal Region of Pennsylvania, they’d have different things to say than what ended up in the book. But it’s not a memoir, nor is it a family history, so the things that made it into the poems might seem strange or random or even mis-remembered. Additionally, I’m exploring the idea that memory is so powerful but also so selective. And when you miss a place, or feel nostalgia, memory can rewrite places and people for you in ways that might be interesting or problematic or both.

AH: One of the things that I find so powerful about your book is its ability to discuss immigration, borders, coal mining, and rural America in a way that avoids moralizing or didactics. Rather, we’re offered an intimate window into individual lives and subjectivities. Yet, it’s particularly relevant in this day and age, considering the national conversation surrounding both immigration and mining. How did this context influence—or not influence—your writing?

MKB: Well, thanks for that. It was so important to me that this book, which is political in many ways, wasn’t moralizing or objectifying. And even in answering this question I worry about this. I’ve been working on this book for a really long time, and the narrative about coal mining towns/the Rust Belt became much louder conversations in the media as the book was heading toward publication. When Trump won, I actually panicked (for a million reasons) that I needed to now re-write or reconsider the whole book. But then I looked back on the work and found that it didn’t need to change in light of Trump’s win. There’s a poem in there, that I added during revision, that discusses Trump more directly, “At the Mall with the Anthracite Queens.” It was one of the latest additions to the book, and I felt I had to try and write from a post-Trump knowledge about this place that largely supported him and believe that he will revive their towns. I was horrified by Trump’s win, and I didn’t want to write out of frustration, but rather questioning, and with a critical and honest eye, and consider how it’s possible that anger, isolation, and loss can be manipulated in some cases, into xenophobia and racism.

Simultaneously, there are a good deal of people from these places, like my 95-year-old grandmother, who loathed Trump’s message and saw right through it. So I wanted to make sure that was represented, too. My grandmother sees direct parallels between her own parents’ immigration and oppressive labor circumstances a century ago, and what today’s immigrants are experiencing. For example, her mother-in-law came here when she was seventeen with her siblings. They were all separated at the border, half of them shipped to Argentina, and they never saw each other again. As I’m writing this, as you know, there are over 2,500 children, babies and toddlers who have been separated from their parents at our border. This is so horrifying, grotesque and cruel, and a direct result of an administration who does not view the humanity of these parents and children fleeing violence and war. While my book does discuss migration and immigration, I think there are many books of poetry that have been written that more directly discuss current immigration in ways my book didn’t or couldn’t. Of course, Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied comes to mind first. Sasha Pimentel’s For Want of Water and Other Poems absolutely floored me. Dancing in Odessa, by Illya Kaminsky, was life-altering for me when I first read that over a decade ago. And I’ve been in awe of the work of Safia Elhillo, Ocean Vuong, and Eloisa Amezcua… I feel like I could keep going, but I’ll stop there, and end with my deep gratitude for the work of these and so many other poets.

AH: Is there a time, event, or feeling that made you decide to pursue poetry?

MKB: I credit my former teacher, poet Claudia Emerson, with my pursuit of poetry. In college, she urged me to try writing a poem, even though I insisted I couldn’t write poems well and that I really wanted to write fiction. But it took no time at all under her care and instruction to discover how much I loved this art form. It fit me: I grew up in a very musical family, had played piano since I was five, and had also toyed with the idea of being a visual artist. Poetry mixed all those loves together. Claudia’s encouragement and teaching allowed me to see that. She and I stayed in touch until her death in 2014, which was devastating. I so wish she were here to read my first published book.

AH: With a debut collection as stunning as this, I have to ask: is there anything else in the works for the future? Where do you see your poetry taking you next?

MKB: Having my first book in the world is wonderful, terrifying, and freeing simultaneously. When Platypus accepted the manuscript, and once the biggest revisions were made, I felt I had permission to finally stop working on So Long the Sky and get writing the next book with more intensity. So I have a manuscript in the works right now that’s really young and new, that I’m excited about it. I have two kids, ages 5 and 2, who require all of my physical and mental energy, so everything I think about is through the lens of mothering right now. In other words, it’s probably going to have even more babies in it than my first book, so there’s that. And I’m not traveling as much as I once was, so I’m finding inspiration differently for this next book. I’m still extremely interested in how the ideas of family and land can be politicized, and how language functions in this. And I’m always examining the interactions and clashes between humans and our natural world/geography, so I’m sure some equivalent of an underground coal mine fire will end up in there, too.

Amanda Hodes

Amanda Hodes is a writer and musician studying at American University in Washington, D.C. She serves as editor in chief of AmLit and has been published in Furrow Magazine, Prairie Margins, and AmLit. She was also a Folger Shakespeare Library Lannan Fellow and a 2017 Fulbright UK Summer Institute participant at the University of Sussex.

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