Festival Feature: Mary K. Stillwell

Festival Feature: Nebraska Poet Stillwell Looking Forward to Festival


Featured Book: The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser and Maps & Destinations (poetry)

1. Have you ever presented at the South Dakota Festival of Books before? If so, tell us your favorite memory. If not, tell us what you are expecting and why you signed on.

This will be my first South Dakota Festival of Books and I’m so looking forward to attending! I’ve been aware of it for years, but teaching schedules and my own poor planning have prevented me from heading north. I’m expecting to have a good time meeting writers and listening to their work. Plus I have several friends (also writers) who I am looking forward to catching up with!
Earlier this year I was messaging with Patrick Hicks about his wonderful new collection Adoptable and our children. His son is 5 and mine are in their twenties and yet many of the experiences he writes about so resonate with me! He asked me if I was coming up to the Festival and that got the ball rolling. Thanks Patrick!

2. What is the earliest memory you have of books and/or reading?

My mom read every night in bed when I was a kid and I’d sit beside her reading my comic books that she’d bring home from the drugstore where she worked. I had to be careful turning the pages, so she could take them back still looking brand new in the morning. Mom had taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Cherry County, Neb., and before I began to read, she recited many nursery rhymes.
A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.
comes to mind because it’s now. And her favorite poems: “How do you like to go up in a swing, / Up in the air so blue? / Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing / Ever a child can do!” and ”I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, / And what can be the use of him is more than I can see” from “The Swing” and “The Shadow,” both by Robert Louis Stevenson, that I’ve passed along to my own children. I realize just now how I associate poetry with relationship, with love.

3. Who is your favorite author and why?

Oh, wow, where to begin? Virginia Woolf for so many reasons, the way she writes about abstractions with such clear every-day phenomenology. The Waves is a favorite of mine, in part, to be honest, because my husband and I read it aloud many years ago on Fire Island on our honeymoon. To the Lighthouse, which we also read aloud together, several times. And Mrs. Dalloway, which I’ve taught (often with The Hours). Poetry favorites include Rilke’s New Poems, Emerson’s Late Wife, which has a lot to teach about collection making, as does Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, where the historical core of the collection vertebrates like a rock thrown in a pond throughout the more personal poems, Plath still gets me writing, and of course Ted Kooser’s work, especially Weather Central, when I became a first-class fan.

4. If you have to give one piece of succinct advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

Read and fall in love with revision as a way of getting what you want to express “just so.”

5. Tell us one fact about yourself that nobody knows.

I don’t know either.

6. What was the greatest moment of your literary career?

When Moving to Malibu was accepted for publication by Sandhills Press as part of their Plains Writers’ Series. As a young writer, having poems accepted by The Paris Review and receiving a fan letter from Michael Benedikt; I still get a little high remembering.

7. Describe the feeling you had when you first held a finished, published copy of a book you had written.

Awe. As awesome as visiting Stonehenge.

8. What is the best movie adaptation of a book you have ever seen? The worst?

I try my best not to compare books and the moves adapted from them but look at the movie on its own merits. That said, I’ve seen at least three versions of The Scarlet Letter that have sent me reeling.

9. Write a haiku that describes you as a writer.

This bright cool morning
a gray dove pecks at her seeds
searching for the moon.

10. What is the strangest question you have ever been asked related to your career as an author or your writings?

An editor at Scribners’ once asked me if I knew fellow Nebraskan Dorothy Lynch.

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