Mary Imo-Stike Interview, with Davon Loeb
In regards to occupation, your narrator defies gender stereotypes, for example, a woman rail worker and construction plumber. How do you think your experiences in non-traditional jobs has inspired the stories you decide to tell?
Well, those experiences transformed me, opened my eyes to perspectives that were foreign to me. I became a new person, with a new language, new empathies and a confidence that surprised me. I also grew in understanding of how mechanical things work. The stories I need to tell are rich with the universality of human experience, especially our interaction with each other, with our systems and with nature.
In your poem, “Far from Home”, how important is it for you to represent your family’s history while narrating your own? Furthermore, in what ways does your heritage establish itself in your work?
I am never far from my family’s history, so I embrace the fact that as I tell my story I am continuing our oral tradition. My exposure to poetry in my 60s deepened my connection to my native heritage, due especially to my study of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo. Much of my inspiration, what I call “the poetic opening” happens when I am firmly aware of my place in the natural world. I believe I am standing on my ancestors’ shoulders, and that knowledge makes poetic ties to my heritage exciting and of supreme importance.
Whether it's geographic or structural, place seems to play an important role in your poems, like the factory in, "Poem Inspired by James Wright’s Fear of Working in the Glass Plant" and the town in, "Far from Home". If pinpointing place, where would you set these poems, and how does place affect your writing?
In “Poem Inspired by James Wright’s Fear of Working in the Glass Plant”, the geographic setting of the mining and industrial area of West Virginia is of utmost importance because it is adjacent to the home-place of poet James Wright. When I read of his “fear” of being stuck as an employee in an industrial setting, I felt an immediate connection to him and my poem was the result.
In “Far from Home”, the geography is not as important, but the placement of the narrator in a neighborhood of ostentatious wealth allowed her to feel the emptiness that is a generational result of the assimilation of her native grandmother.
I feel that my sense of place is integrally rooted in my core. It is set within me and carried with me. Geographic and structural details stimulate and inspire my expression, they prompt me to write.
Poem Inspired by James Wright’s Fear of Working in the Glass Plant
I was in your factory,
not glass but chemicals,
the steam plant, midnight shift.
I close my eyes and see black rail cars
awash in the weak light
like massive open caskets full of coal
pulled under the boiler house
with their lush cargo offered up
to the curling licks of hungry fire
the bulging pipes carried steam
rushing at the pressure of 600 pounds
from boilers to generators
and out to various headers -
every other location in the factory
depended on the steam we made.
I came here because I could
after a short career laying track
and ten years plumbing in Colorado,
this was the best job in the valley
pay-wise. Everyone said if you got on at Carbide
You were set. For life.
I doubted I would live that long.
I loved the work itself, the dimension and force of it,
burning carbon from deep in the ground to boil water
from the ancient river,
then containing the resulting power to create sophisticated products,
coatings, gums, surfactants…
The work gave me satisfaction and physical ails
along with a growing bank account
but my separation and loneliness grew.
Many nights I slipped into the locker room between my rounds
with a paperback book shoved down the front of my coveralls
I lay flat on the long wood bench
between the rows of lockers,
finding comfort in the words.
Escaping the heat, outside on the catwalk,
above the Great Kanawha River,
I sat behind the shadows of the smokestacks
in the blessed midnight air.
The sparse lighting of the grated walkways
clinging to the outside of the building
looked like starlight
each globe shaded with a covering of coal dust,
like my sweaty face and arms.
Walking home at six am,
across the Patrick Street bridge
I looked back
to imagine a sudden inferno uncontained
swallowing it all up,
setting me free.
Yeah, some mornings, James,
I burned it all down.
Far from Home
I know the light this evening
blue-gray, a rainy egg-wash
muting the September dusk.
I sit in my truck
waiting out a rain storm,
with a load of tools and blueprints.
I observed my crew repair a gas line,
I am the Compliance Officer,
the deliverer of the regulations
that direct our workday.
I share them with the men
with the backhoe and picks and shovels
and knowledge of how to deftly expose
the pressurized lines that sometimes hide
beneath several feet of West Virginia clay.
They’ve finished but I sit and stare
at the dwellings, the outcrop of wealth
in this suburb where houses are too big,
massive brick showplaces with complicated rooflines
and multiple bedrooms.
I see my Grandmother
from years before this,
in another quiet brick abode, in another city, another state,
taking an umbrella from the master as he enters
and placing it open to dry on the patio
covered with ivy and lilacs.
Quickly, she passes to the kitchen
to help her cousin Helen serve soup
to the children at their table.
I see her in deft anticipation
of their need before they want it,
her quiet skill of nonintrusion.
Now I imagine what the silence would be like
upstairs inside those extra bedrooms.
Even at this distance
I feel the solid, hollow vacuum.
What Grandma surely felt,
in a strange huge house miles from the familiarity
of her father’s close, simple home on the reservation.
Out here on the street,
generations away from her quiet step
through rich people’s homes,
I, too, am here when they call me,
here to serve with a skillful response
that renders me invisible.
Her loneliness swallows me whole.
Patty Kuhn, who had polio, in my first grade class
wore braces on both legs
half-crutches with clamps holding her forearms,
enabling her to scuttle
across the oakwood classroom floor.
Her left hand, two fingers fused together,
a crooked, misshaped nail on her index finger.
We lined up one day two by two
on the way to the auditorium,
Patty assigned as my partner.
Standing in the hallway
and told to hold our partner’s hand,
she reached out with a smile.
I hesitated, staring at her hand with the deformed fingers.
“Don’t be afraid”, Patty said, “it won’t hurt you”.
My cheeks burned.
I wanted to have a different partner,
hold hands with another girl, any other girl,
even Carol Mason, who everyone said had cooties.
I knew then I could not hide.
She saw what I was
with all my fears.
She was the girl in the iron lung,
who learned to write
with her pencil in her mouth,
the dirty, skinny waif with full moon eyes
behind the barbed wire fence in the concentration camps
we saw on TV;
the sick and starving child on the poster
of the Maryknoll missionaries in China.
She was all of them
who Mom said I was so lucky not to be.
And Iron Patty knew it,
she knew me.
The Man in the Theater
Is a stranger in his seventies, sitting on my left,
who I imagine is from a Western state,
someplace with a wide middle and big sky,
a windy place where topsoil is only borrowed
then passed on to the next county,
more suitable for ranching than farming.
The sleeve of his broad cloth shirt,
unbuttoned two from the collar
makes up the spare boundary between our arms
on our shared armrest.
The baggy drape of his khaki pants
keeps him at an appropriate space
from my bare crossed legs.
Even in silence, he exudes a steadfastness
tightly woven with gloom,
as if the wide and hungry thighs of his plain terrain
gave birth to the tedium he is doomed to carry.
I want to crawl into his skin
and try him on.
Break him open,
give him joy.