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Mary Mackey

Mary Mackey is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen novels including The Village of Bones, and eight collections of poetry including The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, winner of the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for the Best Book Published by a Small Press.


Winner of the 2019 Eric Hoffer Prize for the Best Book Published by a Small Press. In THE JAGUARS THAT PROWL OUR DREAMS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1974 to 2018, Mary Mackey writes of life, death, love, and passion with intensity and grace. Her poems are hugely imaginative and multi-layered. Part One contains forty-eight new poems including twenty-one set in Western Kentucky from 1742 to 1975; and twenty-six unified by an exploration of the tropical jungle outside and within us, plus a surreal and sometimes hallucinatory appreciation of the visionary power of fever. Part Two offers the reader seventy-eight poems drawn from Mackey's seven previous collections including SUGAR ZONE, winner of the 2012 Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence.

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The Jaguars that Prowl Our Dreams

The Jaguars that Prowl Our Dreams: Interview with Poet and Novelist Mary Mackey


New York Times best-selling author Mary Mackey became a poet by running high fevers, tramping through tropical jungles, dodging machine gun fire, being caught in volcanic eruptions, swarmed by army ants, stalked by vampire bats, threatened by poisonous snakes, making catastrophic decisions with regard to men, and reading.

Here is my interview with her, focused on her decades of writing, particularly her latest poetry collection The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams.

How were you able to write in such a dream state, with such a flow of superimposed dreamlike images, completely sober? How do you get into the state of mind that prepares you to write this sort of poetry? 

In the mid 1970’s, I decided that I needed some way to access my unconscious that did not involve drugs or alcohol (none of which I use) or exceptionally high fevers. Running a fever of near 107 degrees is too high a price to pay for anything, much less poetry. I knew there had to be a better way, and gradually I found it.

After exploring various possibilities, I put together a method which permits me to go deeply into my unconscious, access the nonverbal parts of my mind, and come up with images, metaphors, plots, ideas, and other materials. Put in simple terms, I stand on the threshold between dreaming and waking. This is very much like the state we are in in when we first wake up in the morning. Usually we forget our dreams almost immediately. I have figured out a way to remember unconscious material long enough to go to my computer or one of my notebooks and write it down.

To what extent are the places you visited still wild? How do the people in Costa Rica, Brazil and everywhere else you visited feel about economic development and ecological conservation? Is it possible to accomplish both goals? 

Although Costa Rica has one of the best national park systems in Latin America, much of the rainforest that I lived in when I was in my twenties has been cut down. I was told a few years ago that 90% of what I saw in the late 1960’s no longer exists. I don’t know if this is true and I haven’t gone back to look because it would be too heart-breaking.

As for Brazil, the Amazon is still vast. When you fly to Rio from the US, you fly over it for four hours. In 2004, my husband and I went up the Amazon starting at Manaus on a boat usually used to carry botanists and other scientists into the jungle. We traveled 2000 miles in all and saw only 3 small villages and two towns, neither of which had populations over 14,000. There was nothing else except jungle and water and sky. Unfortunately, all of that is now changing at a terrifyingly rapid pace. The new President of Brazil has opened formerly protected parts of the amazon to logging and mineral extraction. I have no idea how much of that vast, species-rich jungle will survive, but I think we should all be alarmed by its destruction.

As for how the people of Brazil feel about economic development and ecological conservation, I’m not equipped to say. Personally I feel that it is possible to feed the world’s population and protect biodiversity at the same time. A new book entitled Nature’s Matrix describes this positive scenario better than I ever could. I recommend checking it out.

How do you decide which poems should go in each book? Do you just write poems until you have enough for a book, or do you link them together by themes? 

Arranging the poems in a collection is an important process. My poems naturally fall into groups. I write until I have more than enough for a collection. Then I cull out all but the best poems and put them into their groups. When I started selecting the poems for The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, I came up with 248 poems. Clearly that was far too many, so I went back and selected the best of the best. Jaguars now contains 132 poems, each­ selected with a great deal of thought about how it fits the whole.

I believe that my attention to arrangement was one of the reasons Jaguars won a 2018 Women’s Spirituality Book Award and the 2019 Erich Hoffer Award for the Best Book Published by a Small Press.

How would you describe the main themes of your collection? 

If I could simply describe the themes of Jaguars, I wouldn’t have needed to write the poems. Good poetry exists in a realm beyond logical prose description. It’s evocative, touching the mind and the emotions and the human unconscious all at the same time. So let me answer this question by asking a question in return: The title of my recent collection is The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams. The jaguar is the jungle’s top predator. When the shamans of the upper Amazon do their vision quests with Ayahuasca, they believe that they become jaguars prowling through the dream world. But we aren’t shamans from the upper Amazon (at least most of us probably aren’t). So let me ask you: what jaguars prowl your dreams?

How do you reconcile celebrating all of nature, all its wild ferocity and predation and death, and then celebrating kindness? 

That’s the great question, the one religious leaders and philosophers have tried to answer for thousands of years. It’s the question William Blake asks in his poem “The Tyger.” I can’t answer it. I’m a poet, not a philosopher. As poet, my duty is to bear witness to what is, not what might be. Wild ferocity, predation, death, kindness, love, beauty, tenderness, anger, greed, generosity, timid grass-eating deer and stalking jaguars all exist; and I see myself as describing, celebrating, and in some sense preserving them, for future generations in all their contradictory complexity.

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