Thursday, July 12, 2007

Poet Michael Mack Brings His Art to Mental Illness

Poet Michael Mack Brings His Art to Mental Illness

Doug Holder

In many cases it is said that “great pain brings great art.” In the case of local poet Michael Mack it has a brought a performance piece “Hearing Voices: Speaking In Tongues” that deals with Mack’s experience of growing up with a schizophrenic mother. Mack’s evocative and heart wrenching performance piece engages his genius for words and dramatic
portrayal in dealing with a very tragic disease. He has also penned a poetry collection “Homework” that deals with his less-than-ideal childhood.

Michael Mack served in the Air Force, and later worked a number of factory and general labor jobs before going back to school and completing a degree in Creative Writing from MIT. His poems have appeared in such journals as: “Beliot Poetry Journal,” “The Cumberland Poetry Journal,” as well as being aired on NPR. He has received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and other organizations. Mack has performed at New York City’s Midtown International Theatre Festival, Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and the Austin International Poetry Festival. Mack regularly presents his one man play “Hearing Voices…” for consumers and providers of mental health services and for faculty and students of Harvard Medical School.

Doug Holder: Do you think your mother’s mental illness was responsible for you becoming a poet?

Michael Mack: I think I would headed somewhere in an artistic direction eventually. But it clearly gives me material to work with. It was certainly the first larger issue that I was writing about. It was compelling for me to delve into it and find some kind of creative expression.

DH: You are not schizophrenic yourself. How were you able to create this psychotic environment on stage?

MM: I think that was one of the gifts my mother gave me. A sense of her interior world both by her talking about it and seeing her experience it. I could have sufficient empathy to understand her experience without going through the grueling life of a mentally ill person.

DH: Do you feel artists are affected to a higher degree by mental illness in comparison to the general public?

MM: Yes. I believe there is a book out by a psychotherapist Kay Redfield Jameson “Touched With Fire.” Redfield, who is herself afflicted with a Bipolar Disorder, explores the relationship between mental illness and the arts. In this book she looked at the relationship between mental illness and poets. She found there is a higher percentage of poets than other artist who suffer from mental illness.

DH: You studied with Maxine Kumin, the celebrated Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, when you were at MIT. Can you talk about this experience?

MM: She saw something in me that I wasn’t able to see yet. Her’s was the third poetry class that I ever had and she gave me a tremendous amount of encouragement. She saw something in my writing that was worth tapping into, worth pursuing. She saw it as rich terrain, and saw the possibility of me doing something with it. She took me under her wing and we developed a friendship. Sometimes I would go to her farm in New Hampshire and help her out with farm work. I think of her as a mentor. She gave me guidance where and when I needed it.

DH: I have run poetry groups for psychiatric patients for years now. I found the reaction to it often positive and sometimes visceral. And when you perform in state hospitals what ha been your experience?

MM: My experience I am pleased to say has been tremendously positive. I have presented in a number of state hospital settings, and as you know in these setting folks have been there for a long time. I was really concerned about presenting this work. It is so close to home for them. I was pleased to see the response was positive because it gives voice to their experience.
Before I was to do a show at two hospitals recently I was told that the patients were up and down and easily distracted. But this wasn’t true when I presented this work. It must have been rewarding them to have their experience reflected back to them.

I present the material in a very loving way. I am very respectful of my mother’s life. I think my mother and father acted heroically in the context of their lives. Neither of them ended up with the life they envisioned for themselves. My father stuck by my mother for longer than most would.

DH: Did you resent the childhood that you were given?

MM: When I first wrote about these years ago I experienced a lot of anger. I was angry that I was cheated out of a childhood. But the more I explored the experience I realized that they had a heck of job. All things considered they pulled it together remarkably. It was through the writing of this work I understood both my parents in a much deeper way.

DH: Were you influenced by Plath and Sexton’s poetry?

MM: Plath was really my first love. She was the poet I responded to most. Partly because of the experience she was writing about. But also I found a tremendous amount of energy in her writing. I was drawn to both of these poets.

DH: In your poetry collection: “Homework” you write in the poem “Tardive Dyskinesia” about the involuntary movements of your mother caused by psychiatric medications:

“On the twigs of her wrists, my mother’s hands
bobolink, titmouse, linnet, finch

Flutter in her lap, peck her blouse’s buttons
Wagtail, waxwing, solitaire, brambling

Curl into nests, shivering fists

rose finch, siskin, tanager…”

This is almost like a beautifully choreographed dance with mental illness. Do you much unexpected beauty here?

MM: In a word yes. I think one of the things about my mother’s mental illness that she had insights and a wonderful use of language. It gave me a chance to appreciate the beautiful and surprising ways she used it. The words I used in the poem you mentioned were names of birds. I thought there was something bird-like in her tremors from Tardive Dyskinesia.

Doug Holder

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