Mary Beth Hines is a poet-grandmother from Massachusetts whose speech, like her poems, pays tribute to her New England home. Hines began writing in middle school but stopped shortly after college when the births of her two children and a career in public service edged out time for anything else. Now an empty nester enjoying an early retirement, Hines is writing again. She is a member of the Charles River Writing Collective (formerly the Farm Pond Writers), and her work has been featured in Slant, SWWIM, Tar River, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her first poetry collection, Winter at a Summer House, was recently published by Kelsay Books.
Hines spoke with profiles editor Brianna Avenia-Tapper about stages of life and their varied challenges and affordances, a recurrent theme in Hines’s poetry. This theme was even reflected in Hines’s physical environment during the conversation: Hines’s Zoom screen revealed her writing studio, which had once been her daughter’s room. When Hines’s daughter left home, a space opened up in which Hines could write. The room’s new purpose as a writing space was “conceived of and set up” by Hines’s husband, Steve. Along the back wall were shelves of books, and Hines sat in an ergonomic chair at a moveable desk that Steve had procured especially for her. Hines confided that the best gift Steve had given her writing self was leaving her alone. Such a simple gift, and yet so vital.
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: In your poem, “Getting Ready for a Grandchild’s Visit,” you described pulling old boxes from the attic. You wrote: “On our front steps I tear a carton open— / a jumble of frayed toe shoes, tutus, ribbons. / From inside the bin’s dark innards, silverfish / rush and reel in cold light.” In some ways, this is how your poems felt to me, as though you were unpacking boxes of memory full of tutus and silverfish. Do you write poetry to unpack boxes of memory?
Mary Beth Hines: I do. And I suppose I write poetry more often than I write fiction and nonfiction because that’s the way I think—in poetry. First, images come to me, the snippets of glorious language, or a scene, or a strange association. After I write it down and have fun with it, I put it aside for a while. When I read it again, I always ask, “What is this about? What does it mean? Is it worthy of readers’ time?” For example, in my poem, “Bluegrass Baby,” I was writing to a prompt that (among other things) asked me to use the words “my downfall.” The poem still has that line, “My downfall: his Mississippi riverboat calluses and all.” At first, the poem was about me coming of age and had private images, snippets of summer love, and temptation, but I worked to make it something bigger. Over time, I realized it was meant to be a love poem that would speak, even sing, to others. I wanted to create something that would take readers on a ride.
BAT: I loved the line in “Bluegrass Baby” that mentions how the man “fretted“ the speaker’s neck. It’s so sexy; I get this image of a man playing the writer like an upright bass. It’s very evocative of early adulthood and those first, thrilling caresses, which makes it fit nicely within the stages-of-life theme you used to organize the book. How did you arrive at that structure?
MBH: I laid out all of my published poems on the bed and tried so many different ways of organizing them. I tried arranging them alphabetically, by season. I read Ordering the Storm, which was written to help poets with structure. Eventually, I settled on the life cycle structure, and then, once I had that broader scheme, I added or subtracted poems to even out the sections. There were some political poems, for example, that didn’t really fit. I drafted some new things also, when I noticed holes in the manuscript, so creating the collection was an iterative process.
BAT: In “The Hand-Me-Down Jolly Jumper,” about a squealing babe flying through the air, you have the line “of my five lives I find this one the finest.” Was that line referring to five different stages of life?
MBH: It wasn’t, though I like the interpretation. This is a persona poem, and the speaker is the Jolly Jumper, so the five lives are the five babies who’ve all used this particular bouncer at one time or another, including my grandson. I imagined the bouncer was having as much fun as he was, or as much fun as I was, watching him squeal and shout and screech and fly, and that it felt as sad as I did to realize he’d outgrow it very soon.
BAT: I could so relate to the joy in that poem. I’m nursing my second child now, and so another line that really resonated with me was “My child . . . scrabbles till he hollows my insides out.” I read that and thought, Yes. I feel so seen. I wondered whether this was how you experienced early motherhood. Why do you think it can feel that way sometimes?
MBH: I wrote that poem, “A Cry So Close to Song,” after watching my daughter become a mother. Watching her reminded me of those days in my own life too, of course. That newborn stage is so wonderful in some ways, but it can also be difficult, heavy. There’s so much responsibility involved, and so much looming. And children take what they need from you whether or not you are ready to give it. In that line, I was imagining the child’s fingers scratching at the mother’s breast. Maybe they are still hungry, they’re not getting enough milk, or maybe their stomach hurts, but I really wanted to evoke that exhausted young mother, to pay homage to how much she is giving.
BAT: The poems in this collection embody that maternal perspective, and they also look at life from the child’s eyes. I appreciate that duality because it mirrors my experience. Mothering my own children brings up so many feelings and thoughts about how I was mothered. You write about your newborn grandson, “He breathes blue water for air, dark whorl of muscle, hair.” Then you write about your mother washing your hair when you were small, “I bend my neck for Mother’s blessing . . . her pulsing soap-slicked fingers sink and knead.” How did it feel emotionally to go back and forth between perspectives in your writing? Did you draw from specific instances in your own life?
MBH: Creating this collection really made me miss my own mother. She died suddenly of a heart attack many years ago. When I was younger, we had our problems as mothers and daughters often do, but we grew much closer when I had children. She was a really good grandmother. She was such a cheerleader for me. She knew that times change. She knew that the world I was raising children in was different from the world in which she had raised her own kids. She said she was learning from me. She wasn’t critical. I try to be like her with my own daughter.
BAT: She sounds wonderful. What humility and flexibility to accept the differences in your mothering like that!
MBH: She really was wonderful. I also explored dual positions within the life cycle in individual poems. “The Wedding Dance” channels my experience as both a child and a grandmother. It was inspired by the print of the Bruegel painting of the same name, which hung in my grandmother’s kitchen and now hangs in mine. When I was small, my grandmother showed the print to me, and now I share it with my own grandchildren. That’s a connection across five generations in one painting.
The poem, “Providence,” also contains multiple points in the life cycle. It was inspired by conversations with my father, and it includes moments from his old age and childhood. There’s the line, “He promises each time, to use the chair, to call for help.” And then there’s the memory from his childhood, “the boy from Waldo street who climbed one foot, one hand against a tree.” Actually, the primary inspirations for this collection were two major life cycle events: the birth of my grandson and the death of my father, both of which happened relatively recently.
BAT: In the final section, you include the poem, “Brightview on Blueberry Hill,” in which an elderly woman in an assisted living facility ranks men on a 1-10 attractiveness scale, and the poem, “Winter at a Summer House,” in which ghosts dive and cheer, “their silvery cries soaring.” The playfulness in those poems about aging and death made me curious whether you learned anything specific about aging from writing these poems.
MBH: Writing those poems gave me the opportunity to excavate and home in on what matters most in life. Love, delight, affection, and tenderness as manifested in simple pleasures like a manicure, a song, sloe gin, or a remembered ocean swim. I think working on this section also inspired some gratitude because I wouldn’t have been able to write this 20 years ago. Caring for my father as he aged gave me access to a world I hadn’t known before. And being a grandmother gives me insight into this stage of life. It’s lovely, by the way. I love being a grandmother. As a mother, you have so little time and so much responsibility, and you’re continually worried about one thing or another. So far, for me, this is much easier!
BAT: Perhaps my favorite line in the collection is “It seems a brilliant plan, the sea.” The sea is a powerful presence in your work. The New England landscape shows up often too, with “glorious” words like “buckthorn” and “hoarfrost.” How do you see your landscape influencing your poems?
MBH: I think “place” does play a large role in my writing. New England flora and fauna recur throughout, perhaps most excessively and lavishly, in “Year-Round Beautiful.” That said, I think the ocean is the most frequently visited place in these poems. I’m a swimmer who loves to swim anywhere, but most especially in the ocean. For me, swimming is a creative act. It engages every part of the body. It calms and steadies the mind. And there’s no place like the ocean to practice this creativity. Swimming in the ocean versus a pool is like the difference between walking on a track versus in the forest. It’s almost a whole different exercise when you do it in an unlimited, wild, and unpredictable space.
Swimming is also a legacy in my family. My father and his brothers, his father, and his aunts and uncles, and those before them, were all ocean swimmers. My father taught us how to ride waves; how to duck under the most tumultuous of them; and how to get beyond surf to swim long distances. And now I’m teaching my little grandchildren to swim and to love and be safe in the water. I’m thrilled that they both seem to have fish potential. Perhaps this will be a pleasure that will carry on through their lives long after I’m gone—and maybe one winter’s day, we’ll all be ghosts at that summer house, diving in the “white winter sea.”
BAT: Hopefully, there are many years between now and then! What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works?
MBH: I have a stack of poems that have recently been published, as well as many ready for final editing. I have recently started thinking about how I might organize some of them into a manuscript. Based on what I have so far, I expect my mother will feature prominently in it. I’ve also started to write reviews for books that I particularly enjoyed as a way to give back to the writing community. It took publishing a book for me to realize how important this publicity is for an author. It seems fitting to close out this interview by saying “thank you” to you, and to the whole Literary Mama team for everything you do to champion writers!