Checking In: With Mary Lee Bragg

Who’s this Mary Lee Bragg?

She grew up in Calgary, but has lived in Ottawa for most of her life. Only part of her time here involved working for the government.

Mary Lee Bragg published the novel Shooting Angels in 2004, and has had poetry and short fiction in literary magazines and ezines in Canada and the United States. Her poetry chapbook Winter Music won the Tree Chapbook contest in 2013. Her first full collection of poetry, The Landscape That Isn’t There, was short-listed for the Archibald Lampman poetry award in 2019.

PP: So, Mary Lee, what’s lit you up in lit lately?

MLB: What have I read lately? Last year I read Emma Donoghue’s “The Pull of the Stars”. When I got to the end, I turned to the beginning and read the book through again. I often re-read books, but rarely do it immediately. In this case, I felt so drawn into a fictional world that I just couldn’t leave it. My feeling for this book may be because I read it during pandemic lockdown. The Pull of the Stars is about a nurse in a maternity hospital in Dublin in 1918, coping with the influenza epidemic and the aftershocks of the Easter Rebellion. I think I’m in love with Nurse Power.

PP: What’s life’s focus there, literary or otherwise?

MLB: I read a lot, mostly fiction, but also history and poetry. I spent many years on big writing projects, but now I’m trying to be more open and spontaneous, which means working in shorter forms. My poetry seems to be heading to creative non-fiction.

PP: What’s underway now?

MLB: A chaotic manuscript that doesn’t have a focus or theme, but which I am trying to justify by calling it open and spontaneous.

PP: Hah, I misread that as opera, not open. (Perhaps a new direction?)

Any links you could drop?

MLB: Facebook is where I hang out. When I googled myself I found that the Tree Reading Series has an archive of me reading, both as a featured reader and in open sets over the years.

The Google results were interesting: I had to get to page two before I hit the wedding of Mary Friend and Lee Hunter. The first page and a half were all me, and almost all about The Landscape That Isn’t There.

PP: My top hit for you is your reading from your book on the Eh Poetry Podcast. And for your book at GoodReads where it has a 4.5 star out of 5.

MLB: The centre of Landscape is the section titled “Problems of the Heart,” containing a series of poems that I wrote while I was diagnosed, treated, and operated on for congestive heart failure.

The Landscape That Isn’t There by Mary Lee Bragg (Aeolus House, 2019)

It’s certain that without open heart surgery in December 2017 I would not have lived past January 2018. So, every day and year since then has been overtime for me — I feel like I’m no longer playing the game in regular season any more. At the same time, I feel as if the events of the past few years — political chaos and war nested within a pandemic nested within climate change — make my experience irrelevant to everyone except me. Earth-shattering as it was to go to the edge of the abyss, put my toes over and look down, most people have bigger things on their minds. I feel I need to work hard to say anything useful to people who live in this world now.

So far the best I’ve come up with is: There is no reason for existence, but there are compensations. For me music and literature are two of the big compensations.

PP: That is an astute way to put it.

MLB: About music: I started taking music lessons ten years ago, to catch up to where I was as a teenager. Now I play every day (I must confess, I don’t write every day.) In March 2020 at the beginning of the first lockdown, I was learning the Gnossiennes by Eric Satie. I undertook to play the first five Gnossiennes every day that the pandemic lasted. I liked the dreamy, aimless music — what Satie called “musique d’ammeublement” — and thought it would be a suitable daily meditation for a few months of monkish contemplation. I kept it up for two years, and still play the Gnossiennes when I want to relax. My husband claims to like to hear me play.

PP: Wow, 5 in a day is a lot of playing. My husband also likes to play those Satie pieces on the piano. They are beautiful pieces.

Thanks for your time. May your music and your literature be amply rewarding for these next 10 years of Covid-life.