Chatting with Mary Soon Lee
Mary offers invaluable insight on how poetry collections are born, the beauty that can be found in mathematics, elements, and the stars, along with the coveted process of obtaining and working with an agent.
Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but has lived in Pittsburgh for thirty years. She is a Grand Master of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association and a three-time winner of both the AnLab Readers’ Award and the Rhysling Award. Her work has appeared in Science, American Scholar, Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, Strange Horizons and Uncanny Magazine. Her latest books are from opposite shores of the poetry ocean: "How to Navigate Our Universe," containing 128 astronomy poems, and "The Sign of the Dragon," novel-length epic fantasy, winner of the Elgin Award. She hides her online presence with a cryptically named website (marysoonlee.com) and an equally cryptic Twitter account (@MarySoonLee).
Mary is also the author of the poems “Detritus” and “Downlift” from Radon issue 5.
What is your reaction to possessing a Wikipedia page along with pre-created Google search profile page for anyone who searches your name?
I’m glad to be a grain of sand in Wikipedia’s vast beach of information! Wikipedia is one of my favorite places on the internet, a marvelous collaborative trove of knowledge. I assumed Google generated its search page automatically, but maybe not?
On September 12th you released your astronomy poetry book, How to Navigate Our Universe. Tell us about it and if you feel it is your best performing collection yet.
How to Navigate Our Universe is a collection of astronomy poems, most of them framed as How-To pieces: How to Decorate the Moon, How to Blush Like Betelgeuse, How to Fathom a Light-Year. The poems are by turns whimsical, humorous, snarky, serious. The book begins with the solar system, then moves on to our interstellar neighborhood, the Milky Way, then on to matters such as black holes and dark energy, before the last major section on pioneers both human (Galileo, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Stephen Hawking, et al) and non-human (Voyager, New Horizons, Ranger, Pioneer). At the end, there’s a short section of poems that don’t conform to the How-To format.
When I wrote the first poem, I was following a prompt from The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. This led me to write a very short poem:
How to Be a Star (First published in Uppagus)
Gravitationally collapse a nebula.
Fuse hydrogen into helium.
If desired, explode.
At the time, I thought that was the end of that. But over the next few years, I kept adding to the sequence. The broader origins of the book extend quite far back. When I was a child, I read a great deal of science fiction and wanted to be an astronaut, and I have had a lifelong interest in space.
In terms of sales, I doubt it will catch up with Elemental Haiku (my haiku for the elements of the periodic table), which has sold thousands of copies. I’d love to be proved wrong and for How to Navigate Our Universe to become a bestseller, but that seems overly optimistic.
As a holder of an MA in Mathematics, do you agree with the common poet refrain that "all numbers are beautiful"?
I wouldn’t say that all numbers are beautiful, but I love the qualities of numbers: integers, rational and irrational numbers, negative numbers, prime numbers, imaginary numbers, the different sizes of infinity. I love the simple, beautiful proofs that there exist irrational and transcendental numbers and an infinity of prime numbers.
Do you approach the craft of writing and the business of publishing any differently now than you did when you began publishing in the early 90s?
When I began, I read books on writing in a deliberate effort to learn how to tell a story. I still read books on writing, but in a less systematic way. (One favorite that I read recently is Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual, which I found wonderful.) Learning the craft is an unending process. I’m regularly humbled by reading pieces that are beyond my own skill.
As far as the business side goes, publishing has entered the electronic age. When I started out, all my submissions were printed on paper and entrusted to the postal service; all my publications were likewise in physical books and magazines. Nowadays, most submissions and many magazines are online. Some authors—not me!—navigate the world of social media to great effect. I’ve also grown more aware of the importance of contract language. For instance, I look for reversion clauses so that the rights to a story/poem will return to me if the piece languishes unpublished for years. I have some old pieces that I think are forever stranded because of the lack of a reversion clause.
Which excites you more—sitting down to craft a collection or an individual poem?
Individual poems. I’m daunted by lengthy projects. I happen into them, almost by chance. The one novel-length work that I’ve written (The Sign of the Dragon) started out as a standalone poem of about 60 lines. When I returned and added to the story, it stealthily grew, poem by poem. I only belatedly realized that I was undertaking something Properly Long.
A poet represented by an agent is often considered rare, especially for poets in the speculative poetry scene. What has been your experience with Lisa Rodgers at JABberwocky?
I feel exceptionally fortunate to be represented by Lisa Rodgers. She’s helped me with contracts and given excellent suggestions on the direction of longer projects. She sold the aforementioned Elemental Haiku to Ten Speed Press, leading to far greater sales than is usual for a poetry book. This feat was all the more impressive since Lisa had only the reprint rights to sell, the haiku having first been published in Science. Early in the pandemic, I urgently wanted to publish my epic-fantasy-told-in-poems, The Sign of the Dragon, and JABberwocky Literary Agency released an ebook edition shepherded by Lisa.
For the bright-eyed young poets looking for representation, what advice would you give?
Do your best to research literary agents, looking for those that are open to your style of writing. At a minimum, you don’t want to offer poetry to an agent who explicitly says they won’t consider poetry. Have a specific book-length project that you present in your query letter. If you have prior publishing credits, mention a few of them. Keep trying.
What impact did Ursula K. Le Guin's novel, The Dispossessed, have on you?
I first read The Dispossessed as a child and it swept me away from the opening paragraph. I was mesmerized by Le Guin’s spare, exact, masterful prose. I loved Shevek, the physicist who is the central character. Particular scenes and moments and the masterful worldbuilding hit me with vivid force. I’ve read and re-read and re-re-read the book, including reading it aloud to family members. I still love it just as much, and I am still awed by her craft, including, in the case of The Dispossessed, how effectively she interweaves events from different times in Shevek’s life.
Do you still feel that Pittsburgh, where you moved to from Cambridge, is an underappreciated city rich in intellectual and historical enrichment?
Yes. People who’ve never been to Pittsburgh often underestimate it. For a smaller city (at least measured against London, where I grew up), it has a wealth of museums, libraries, theaters, parks, and several notable universities. There’s an excellent poetry community, which I mostly observe from the fringes but greatly appreciate. And yet, which mattered a great deal to us when we arrived, it is comparatively affordable.
What draws you to writing poems and stories typically under 2,000 words in length?
After the birth of my second child, time was in short supply. I picked projects that I could finish in a single session while my daughter was at preschool and my son at elementary school.
I still prefer to put my writing aside when I’m with my family, and I find that much easier if I’m not obsessing over an unfinished story/poem. If I can break a long project up into small pieces that also works well.
Why do you find yourself loving the first draft of a new poem more than the later parts of the writing process?
At its best, writing the first draft is like riding a wave, getting carried along by the unfolding arc of the piece. Even when a wave doesn’t appear and progress is hard, there’s still a vast sense of possibility. Revision, for me, feels more like a regular job. (Major revisions approach first drafts, because so much needs to be remade.)
You once could read and translate ancient Greek but noted you have lost a great deal of the language. Do you plan to return to learning and reading the language?
No. Currently, my language ambitions consist of trying to learn Italian on my own. If I get more time, I’d be keen to return to Latin, but my Greek days are behind me.
Do you feel that a workshop environment where the writer stays quiet while the readers offer feedback is the best format for critique you have found?
Different formats may work for others, but, yes, I like what I think of as the Clarion format (never having been to Clarion, but I believe they used it) . For the first round of critique, the author is silent while each of the other participants offers comments in turn. After that first round, the author can speak – thanking people, asking questions: Did you realize Picard was the captain? Did you like Achilles? Did you want more explanation of the faster-than-light drive?
It may also help to have someone in a moderator capacity to ensure that critiques don’t cross over into personal attack. It’s one thing to say you found a poem dull, quite another to say you think its author is a fool.
What has your reaction been to the Picard Star Trek series?
I watched season one with my family and had a most excellent time doing so. I love Patrick Stewart; I love Star Trek. However, I very rarely watch films or shows by myself. (When alone, my media of choice is books.) A couple of episodes into season two of Picard, the family stopped watching, so I didn’t see the rest. Similarly, we watched a bit of The Mandalorian, and, despite having been infatuated by Grogu and the Mandalorian, I didn’t continue watching by myself.
Do you have a favorite conference to attend between Worldcon, World Fantasy Convention, and Confluence?
That’s difficult! With Worldcon and World Fantasy Convention, travel is an obstacle. I’ve only once traveled abroad to attend a conference. When Worldcon was in Dublin, I coupled attending the conference with visiting my Irish aunt and cousins. Confluence has the huge advantage of being in Pittsburgh, which is where I live, and, though a smaller event, has a lot of programming related to written science fiction/fantasy.
That said, my single favorite event at any conference was hearing Guy Gavriel Kay read the start of his then-forthcoming novel A Brightness Long Ago at World Fantasy Convention in 2018—one of my favorite authors reading from one of my favorite books.
On August 17th, 1995, you noted that Dream Forge was your first sale to an electronic market and that you missed not holding a physical copy of the story. Has this feeling of preferring the physical persisted, or have you acquiesced to the online world?
I have accepted the rise of the online world: I submit to online markets, I appreciate the convenience of online submissions, I avail myself of Wikipedia. But, as a reader, I still prefer the printed page. In the particular case of DreamForge, they have published a succession of beautifully-produced print editions of their online content, so readers have the best of both worlds. The late, much-lamented Fireside did the same.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful questions!