Amid bindweed and migrating hummingbirds, Mary Cisper lives with her husband in northern New Mexico. In 2017 Trio House Press published her first collection, Dark Tussock Moth, winner of the 2016 Trio Award. Her poems and reviews have been published in various journals including Denver Quarterly, ZYZZYVA, Lana Turner, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Terrain, Water-Stone Review, Newfound, FIELD, 1110, Omniverse, and Fourteen Hills. She recently completed her MFA in Poetry at Saint Mary's College of California. A sometime chemist, Mary was once on intimate terms with ion trap mass spectrometers in search of ultra-low detection limits. Her admiration for the artist and naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian, was sparked by Google’s April 2, 2013 doodle celebrating Maria’s 366th birthday.
Maddie Pospisil: In June of this year, you probably already know this, there was a conference in Amsterdam dedicated to Maria Sibylla Merian—
Mary Cisper: I did not know that!
MP: It was to bring together new research about her and her research, her art, and this year is the 300th anniversary of her death. To me, it's pretty amazing that centuries after this very complex woman was alive, there was an entire conference dedicated to her. So, I have a two-pronged question for you. First, if the laws of the universe stopped being laws, and you could meet Maria, what would you want to talk to her about?
MC: You know, I've read as much as I can find about her, and all the sources say we know so little about her personal life. One thing I'd want to know is how she decided to fund her own voyage and go to the New World to study insects and plants there. I'd want to understand where she came up with this reserve of great risk-taking, right? She divorced her husband, you know? She was an amazing icon and I'd want to know how she managed to withstand social and cultural pressures and make her own life. That's one thing—I'd just be curious about everything, because I'm so fascinated by her.
MP: My second part of the question is if you had been in Amsterdam, what would you have wanted to tell a room of mostly scientists about Maria? Because you engaged with a different side of her than just the scientist side.
MC: Well, what engages me so much about her is that she engaged art and science. I'd want to talk about her compositions, her paintings, the aesthetic points of her visual art. That might be a fun thing to focus on, as opposed to “Yeah, she was this great observer and naturalist.” Let's just talk about aesthetic issues. Have you looked at her work? That's how I first learned about her—through her art.
MP: I came across one [of her compositions] of a tarantula eating a hummingbird—I love that piece! It's so cool, and there was a little blurb on it that was like, can you imagine a woman drawing this in the late 1600s? This really gory image?
MC: She got a lot of flak for that. There was a lot of denial—people said she made that up. And that was later refuted. There was resistance because other naturalists hadn't observed it and so they were "Oh, she didn't know what she was talking about." You can always speculate about what caused that, but whatever. Could be endless.
MP: Building off Maria being an artist and a scientist—you had a career in science, and now you're a poet. And Dark Tussock Moth is both field notes and poetry and everything in between and both at once. What draws you to this cross-genre space? What keeps you there?
MC: One of my mentors said, "How much can you include in a poem?" And I feel I can include as much as I want. That's kind of my guideline. What can I include? Why do I need to exclude something? Can I make this more layered? It's the desire to reflect my vision of the world—you know, the world is so complex and complicated—what can we bring that reflects that?
MP: Throughout Dark Tussock Moth “Field Notes” are interspersed. In the first of the “Field Notes,” you say “Learning that light might be coming from stars no longer in existence amazed me. I wanted to be an astronomer.” Then, in a later “Field Notes”, the lines “Maybe wondering about stars assuaged family chaos. A Vedic astrologer told me, we, all of us, had perished together centuries back in a fire. My inner theater expanded then, never mind belief.” Then, even later, “I didn’t become an astronomer.” Your collection is a metamorphosis in many ways—astronomy just one example of such. How did you conceptualize the order and evolution of this collection? Did Maria have any influence on that process?
MC: I don't know that Maria had something to do with it. I feel, in some ways, ordering the poems was not a rational process. It was a poetic process. Based on feeling. Have you ever put pages on the floor? "Oh, how should I put these in order?" That's kind of how I did it. And it was based on the moment. It wasn't rational or scientific.
MP: I just love the process of making a book—how do you decide?
MC: It's this great mystery, isn't it? And I put other manuscripts together before, but I'd say it's the look of the universe. It's poetry.
MP: A poet I admire told me recently that I should make some collages. And I read that you are collagist, and I'm curious if you find that working in collage has any effect on your poetry.
MC: Sometimes when I'm struggling with writing, I move into the visual mode. I do photographic collage, so I do it with Photoshop—and I have done paper collage, but not for a long time. If I can move back and forth, the one complements the other. And with photographic collage, it's liberating. Because I'm less attached. It's more fun. I know I have attachments to writing—"Oh, I want to write this wonderful poem!" But if I work in collage, I'm just playing. If someone advised you that, it might be fun for you to have this experience of playing with materials.
MP: Have you ever considered doing a collection that has both in it?
MC: That's interesting—someone said that to me just recently. Well maybe! I think it'd be fun. Who knows. Oh, I should say, I've made a few little movies of my poems. I put together images—some of them are still images and some are moving images—and then I'll read the poem over the images as they're moving. That's something I love doing. And I haven't done anything with them, but I really loved doing that. It's something I should explore more, because it's so much fun.
MP: This book is built around an ecologist who lived 300 years ago and is grounded in the natural world, and yet, there are mentions of meditation apps and contemporary artwork (Jeff Koon’s Michael Jackson sculpture, notably). What are you consuming these days—in terms of literature, music, and beyond?
MC: I was recently at the San Francisco MOMA. We were there to see the Walker Evans photograph exhibit, but we also ended up going to the seventh floor where they had all these sound installations. [Editor’s note: The exhibit housed on this floor is “Soundtracks,” a group exhibition that explores the role of sound in art.] This one room was dedicated to this one work, “The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson, which encompassed nine different screens of moving film, and it's hard to describe, but it was an intense, moving experience. It was so beautiful; it was an amazing experience. It was also a social experience, so people were walking around, looking at each screen. People were enraptured. It gives me chills to think about it. That was a recent aesthetic experience, which was both film and music.
I'm reading Joanne Kyger, who died recently. She had a long career as a poet, maybe not as well-known as she should be. I'm also reading The Hidden Life of Trees, about trees and their amazing qualities as social beings—I'd call them beings. I like to be reading nonfiction and I like things with a science-y bent and I like poetry. That's how I get inspiration: the associative process, what we can combine with something else. Reading is how I feed that—my mix-and-match.
MP: What advice do you have for any young writer trying to find their place in the world of artistry?
MC: This is advice I've heard a lot: "Follow your obsessions." There's something there that your soul is wanting. There's something in that search that you're needing to find out. Figure out how to play. Find the lightness—that's a rich space. Don't be afraid of exploring new things. In a workshop I was in, the poet who was leading it said, "A poet should know as much as possible about everything." I kind of think that's true. It's our task to be aware of all the things going on, and that includes science.
I look at everything as an experiment. You don't know the result. You're just one of the variables. You're in your own experiment and you get to see what happens. You're both participating and creating it and feeling the effects of it.
MP: Dark Tussock Moth has poems that are very grounded in place. You'll mention names of specific places, and just talking to you today—you lived in Kansas, did your MFA in California, and now you live in New Mexico. Those are very different places. Do you find the location you're in inspires your poetry in different ways?
MC: Totally. A lot of my poetry—well, all of it probably—is influenced by place, where I'm at. It's almost as if I can't resist the natural world, the environment. It enters. I feel very porous to where I'm at. If I lived here, I know I would be feeling the prairie and the hills and they would come into my poetry. When I was in California, usually there was morning fog. And there's all this fog in there [Dark Tussock Moth], that I know wouldn't be in there if I hadn't been in California.
MP: I should've known you'd lived in Manhattan. There's a poem in here: “Flint Hills Ligature.”
MC: That was actually just from a few years ago; we did a hike out at the tall grass prairie. It's incredible—such a lovely experience.
MP: There’s a line in that poem: "Bluestem roots descend / eight feet." And there are these amazing pictures in the Beach Museum [on the Kansas State campus] that show the Bluestem grass above, and then the roots below that are literally eight feet long. Which to me is mind-blowing—this grass that's so thin and soft and so deeply rooted in Kansas.
MC: That, and learning about how trees communicate with each other, and the world is amazing. The pleasure for me is in being amazed. Rather than being horrified. It's easy and not unnatural to be horrified by a lot of stuff, but I try to come back to the amazing part.