An Interview with Mary Imo-Stike

Mary Imo-Stike and I met at the Winter residency of 2012-13 at West Virginia Wesleyan College. I recall moving in to the dorms that winter and looking around me with the apprehension of a sixth grader on the first day of school and realizing there were other women closer to my age. I once had the pleasure of introducing Mary before she read her meaningful words, and I mispronounced her name. With her recent publication, it is safe to say there will be no further errors in pronouncing her name, as hers is a name that will always be remembered.

I have recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mary, and her bio states that she identifies as an American Indian and a feminist. She worked "non-traditional" jobs as a rail worker, construction plumber, boiler operator and gas line inspector. Now retired from work-life, she obtained an MFA in Poetry from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2015 and is currently the poetry co-editor of HeartWood Literary Magazine. Her work has been published in Antietam Review, Phoebe, The Pikeville Review, Young Ravens Literary Review, Driftwood Press, Appalachian Heritage and Cactus Heart. Her latest publication is the recently-released poetry collection, In and Out of the Horse Latitudes (Finishing Line Press).

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I’ve just read “The Hit Songs of 1953,” which was published by The Young Ravens Literary Review, and I was so touched by the memories of the speaker’s mother. My memories did just what they were supposed to and drifted back to my own mother hanging clothes or making beds. The final stanza of your poem touched me, especially, and brought memories of vases with fragrant lilacs cut from the bush by the fence and of clothing flapping in the breeze. You write that “she passed her star to my eye,/the eye she shaped to see the world” (lines 24-25).  How would you describe the eye you shape to see the world?

I like the way you phrased this question, Dee, because it assumes we take on our own mother role as we age, and that nurturing the self with love continues, which I do believe. The eye I try to shape for myself is the “poet’s eye,” meaning I look for the details, the smallest pieces that tell the story. I’m constantly trying to train myself to honor and celebrate those details, look past the obvious to kernels of truth that seem ordinary but can surprise us in their extraordinary-ness.

Diane Gilliam wrote the following blurb for your book that has just been released:

In and Out of the Horse Latitudes is a work of generational witness, a testimony to both the light and dark sides of a life of work. These poems move from “the beautiful plane geometry of clean / new lines, perfectly hung, coaxed / aside if needed and aligned plumb,” to the deep loneliness of “jobs that take all of me / out of me” and work which, skillfully done, “renders me invisible.” But Mary Imo-Stike brings forward those whose lives are spent lives grounding our world and honors their ache and endurance in both body and soul.

You know that ache of body and soul, and you’ve held jobs that you’ve called “untraditional” for women. The blurb from Finishing Line Press states that your work observes “the hardships of blue collar Americans, all the while vigilantly preserving the integrity of the individuals who fall under their scrutiny.” What piece from your work do you feel best identifies with the blue collar American, and how do you feel your experience in industry has affected your poetry?

The work I have done has affected every aspect of my life, has transformed me: how I walk, the way I talk, my relationships, how I carry my body, how I lift heavy loads and problem solve. My first blue collar job was as a track laborer on the railroad at age 28, and every choice I have made in the last 40 years has hinged upon that experience.

I have some pieces that I sometimes refer to as my “industrial poems,” but actually, I cannot separate my “blue collar experiences” from the entire package of my life and work. So, my occupations have given me a broader world to write from and a courage to test myself and reach for more.

Mary Carroll-Hackett, your mentor, wrote:

For Imo-Stike, home is both the search and the landing. Home is that which we fashion ourselves, foundations we create by honoring the bones of our ancestors, even as we carve our own trails away from them, lit with the shining fragments, nuts, washers, wire, that we gather from even our lives’ darkest moments. Imo-Stike writes: “There are words that have magic sown into their fibers/that when uttered into sound,/spoken, set free to travel in the sea of air,/release the enchantment.”

I love these words that Mary Carroll-Hackett quotes from one of your poems, though I don’t know which poem the quote comes from (I can’t wait to get my copy). Can you respond to those words of having “magic sown into their fibers” in relation to your Native-American heritage? In what ways do words hold magic for you?

I believe that magic is part of our everyday life; it is always with us, and allowing ourselves to recognize it can become a habit. Native cultures don’t view magic as out of the ordinary. The magical is commonplace and normal. Ordinary occurrences precede my work; they are the seeds of my poems.

The role of the poet is to tell the story that is life. The telling of life with words, crafting words to tell our story in poetry, has helped me to realize that each word is special, each has the power to cut or heal. The poet must choose them carefully before stringing them together.

Thanks to Mary for answering my questions and contributing to the WVWC MFA Blog. You can get a copy of Mary Imo-Stike's latest chapbook at Finishing Line Press by clicking on her picture below: