Featured Faces: Mary Ann Samyn
Author photo by Brian Balletine
Interview by Gina Myers

Mary Ann Samyn is the author of several collections of poetry—most recently Beauty Breaks In (New Issues, 2009) and The Boom of a Small Cannon (Dancing Girl Press, 2010). Her work received the James Wright Poetry Award from Mid-American Review, the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Pushcart Prize. She currently teaches in the MFA program at West Virginia University. Samyn recently took the time to answer some questions via e-mail.

Gina Myers: How did you first become interested in poetry? When did you begin writing?

Mary Ann Samyn: My oldest sister read Emily Dickinson poems to me when I was young (5, 6, 7, 8), so poetry always seemed "normal" to me...and of course I associated writing with her...so that made it "special," too. I remember writing when I was in grade school, but it was mostly fiction. Mystery stories. I was, and am, a big Nancy Drew fan.

GM: Who are your favorite writers to read?

MS: Among poets, my current go-to writers are Brenda Hillman, Donald Revell, William Olsen, Charles Wright, Laura Jensen, Christine Garren, Jorie Graham. But I actually don't read only (or even that much, right now) poetry. I like to read a lot of other things: kids' books (I'm into the Moomintroll series right now—ever heard of them? Finnish...), spiritual stuff, books about art, artists' journals, books about Michigan's history/geography.

GM: Who or what would you say influences your writing?

MS: I would say everything gets into my writing. I write every day—and in a daily kind of way. Meaning, if it happens in my day, it's likely to make its way into a poem. I think and feel through poetry. I figure things out by writing—I believe poems begin with questions, not answers—and so the regular stuff of my life is my biggest influence.

GM: How long have you been teaching writing? What is your philosophy on teaching creative writing?

MS: I've been teaching since 1992, which seems like a long time ago. I taught comp and some lit at first. First taught creative writing in 1995, at the University of Virginia where I got my MFA. Poetry workshop is pretty much all I teach now, at the undergrad and MFA levels, at West Virginia University where I'm an Associate Professor in the English department. My philosophy is kind of what I said earlier: writing is the most special thing... and it's not special at all. So, just pay attention. To yourself. To the world around you. To your questions. Begin from there. When I teach at conferences, I want people to leave really excited about the hard work of writing. About the chance to pay attention and see where that leads.

GM: How do you balance teaching writing with finding time and energy to put towards your own creative work?

MS: More and more, I think of everything as writing. I really don't differentiate much. Walking the dogs is writing. Making dinner is writing. Talking with students is writing. The opportunities for paying attention are pretty much endless. Since I get my material from there, I'm always with my material, always (trying at least) to pay attention, to note my own "huh?" moments, my questions, my little sadnesses or sudden happy moments. The poems are right there.

GM: Correct me if I am wrong here, but I seem to remember that you also do other types of creative work—visual art? Do you still do that? And if so, can you talk about how that work is similar to or different from the work you do with writing? Does one art influence the other?

MS: I have done some visual art—usually Joseph Cornell-like boxes or other such small installations. I don't do too much of that right now—mostly b/c, like I said, the poems are just about everywhere for me, so I don't need the kick-start or whatever that doing art sometimes provided.

GM: What are you currently working on?

MS: I'm writing a lot, and have been, steadily, since last August or so. So, I guess I could say I'm working on a book. But I don't quite think of it as that. Or not yet. I had a book come out last November and then a chapbook in February, so book manuscripts are a little on the back burner at the moment. But I have a lot of poems. And they're different (I think/hope). I'm interested in being as brave and clear as possible. I always have been, but that changes as I change. Thank goodness! I've always liked progress.

GM: What advice do you have for young writers who wish to pursue poetry?

MS: The usual advice is good: read a lot, write a lot—to which I'd add: care a lot. By which I mean: whatever you care about, whatever interests you: that's the necessary material for poetry. That's also your best method. I'm speaking metaphorically here. Instructions abound. Whatever you pay attention to will show you what you should write about and how. Poetry is not mysterious. Or, rather, it's as mysterious as you are. In other words, it's totally available, if you pay attention.

Mary Ann Samyn will be reading on Friday, June 25 with William Allegrezza and Garin Cycholl in Court Street Gallery's Last Friday Series. Court Street Gallery is located at 414 Court Street (Second Floor) in Old Town Saginaw. The event starts at 7 pm and costs $3 to enter.

© Gina Myers, 2010