Faculty Spotlight: Mary Harpin

As part of our Story of a Book video series, we recently checked in with Mary Harpin, a Community Engagement instructor here at Lighthouse and poet whose debut collection was recently published ("This book shines with intelligence and a particular kind of wisdom.”). 

First, congrats on the new collection of poems! How would you describe the journey of writing Shadowrise? And, how do you usually celebrate writerly success?

Thank you! The journey of writing Shadowrise was a winding road that included a cross-country move, the birth of two children and job changes. Most of the poems were written or heavily revised in the last few years, not coincidentally after my youngest child started kindergarten. Some early drafts of poems were written many years ago.

Celebrating writerly success usually involves some cheering, hugs, and sometimes a treat. I make sure to involve my kids; I want them to see the full spectrum of the creative process, especially the fun parts. When the book came out, my family celebrated with a bunch of close friends. No pressure to read or perform, it was just a big party with people who've heard me talk about the book, seen me write, struggle and meet milestones along the way.

Can you tell us a bit about Shadowrise? What might surprise readers? What surprised you while writing the poems?

There's definitely a theme of mortality and the cycle of life in the book, which is part of the reason the first poem is about reincarnation. It juxtaposes everyday moments from domestic life, say, a child picking flowers, against the series of interruptive catastrophes that hit close to home, like the Aurora shooting which happened just a couple miles from my house and a few weeks after I'd taken my daughter to see a movie there.

What surprised me in writing the book, and may surprise readers, is the wide variety of styles and forms I became interested in. One poem might be a clear, plain-spoken narrative, for example, and the next an abstract, more symbolic poem. You can't entirely know what to expect from one poem to the next.

Breakthroughs, obstacles, light bulbs, rages of writing the book? 

Although I'd never call it an obstacle, learning how to be a working writer with two small children takes a whole new level of creative determination. I also have a consulting job as a content developer for medical device companies, which  had irregular hours. Having any sort of set writing schedule was nearly impossible.

There is, of course, the inner push/pull of parental guilt for taking some already-limited time away from kids to write, and there's the literal push/pull of interruptions when your children physically need you. Once I remember putting my daughter in a doorway bouncer to hang out while I was writing and I felt terrible about it for the whole 30 seconds it lasted. That's what trying to write with babies can be like: 30 second intervals of writing attempts that end in inner turmoil.

I was very lucky to eventually find a loving, affordable neighbor to watch my girls. I re-organized my time with my husband's schedule. I'm very lucky to have these options; many people don't. We as a society, especially women and creatives, deserve better options for childcare, better funding for artists, and cultural permission to call creative writing a worthwhile pursuit.

So I dealt with the very common frustration of having the drive to write but not always the time or resources. And because poetry books like mine aren't chronological or linear, when the time came to put the poems into manuscript order, I struggled with how to organize it and where to put breaks. There was one point in the process where something was bothering me about the collection but I couldn't put my finger on it, and realized that a whole chunk of poems just weren't working in this manuscript and needed to go. It's always tough when you realize you're further from the finish line than you thought, but replacing those poems was the right thing to do.

Where’s your favorite place to write? Is that where most of your writing takes place?

The very early versions of the oldest poems in the book were written in Nina's Cafe in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is just the most charming, coziest, creatively inspiring little spot a writer could wish for. If I could teleport myself, I'd write there every week. In Denver, I make the rounds between some great neighborhood spots like SoJourners Coffee in Virginia Village and Thrive, a shared office space in Cherry Creek. But most of my poems are written on top of my bed. I spread out a bunch of books, read, then write.

As a Denverite, are there ways (explicit or implicit) that Denver/Colorado show up in your poems?

Absolutely. The title poem, Little Planet Shadowrise, was written on a camping trip near Aspen. A Lament to the Buddha Whose Calling was Clear was written about a trip to the Denver Art Museum. Animals Invited to the Jubilee is about the Aurora theater shooting and Gold King is about the Gold King Mine spill a few years ago. Enough Arms to Gather Them takes its title from a Nikki Beer poem, a great Denver poet.

Once at the Aspen Writers Festival I had a Very Famous Poet tell me that I should stick to poems about everyday things, like the slant of light on an aspen tree, if I wanted people to read my work. He said poems about injustices and current events and political upheaval have no shelf life. No way was I going to take that advice. When acts of neglect lead to an environmental disaster like the Gold King Mine spill did, and our politicians get on TV and tell us it's all fine when at that very moment Colorado farmers' fields are  being flooded with toxins, I'm not going to worry about the "shelf life" of a book. I'm going to write what needs to be written. My aim, really, is to do both of those things: Write about day-to-day observations as well as the heartbreaking events that our city, state and country go through.

Which writers/artists/foods are you really into right now?

I try to read a new book of poems by a contemporary author, usually published by a small press, every month. I just read Pauletta Hansel's Coal Town Photograph and The Farm Wife's Almanac, as well as Joy Harjo's American Sunrise and Ada Limon's Sharks in the River. I recently dug out some of my older favorites, like Robert Bly's Stealing Sugar from the Castle and Ted Kooser's Kindest regards.

We're on our fourth week of lockdown right now, so the last time I saw artwork in a gallery was the Monet exhibit at the DAM. I actually took my kid out of school in the middle of the day to see it—that was the only time I could get tickets—which felt very Ferris Bueller of us.

And as for food, we've had some time and motivation to try new things during lockdown. I cooked an Ethiopian feast for the first time last week and have a whole new appreciation for it. Persuading the owner of a small ethnic grocery store to part with a pint of her amazing Niter Kibbeh (a spiced, clarified butter) took some pleading, but it was totally worth it.

You’re a Community Engagement instructor here at Lighthouse, how has working with students influenced your writing?

The first class I worked with through the Lighthouse was a combined photography and creative writing course for local refugees, and the most recent class was with students experiencing poverty or homelessness through the Hard Times workshop. The creative brilliance, tenacity, and commitment all of these students show was inspiring.

I remember one student from a small war-torn country wrote about his experience as a clinician in a remote hospital. One day a taxi arrived with a woman in the back seat still clutching her newborn to her chest. Both mother and baby had died on the long trip to the hospital. It was just a heart wrenching story to work through, both because of the content and because the student was an English language learner. But he wanted to write about what inspired him to come to the U.S. as a refugee; he was enrolled in nursing school full-time so he could go back to his country to help make a difference.

Whether Lighthouse students are in a community engagement program or not, they dig deep when they write. They're alchemists in the classroom turning their life experiences into gold, all while running their busy, often complicated lives.

Any highlights of the book’s release (or exciting events to come)?

When the first boxes of books arrived at my house, I waited until everyone was home to open them. I especially wanted my two daughters to be there for that moment--to see something I'd been working so hard on arrive as a real, tangible book.

The uber talented Hillary Leftwich invited me to read in Denver's At the Inkwell reading series. She hosted me along with Abby Chabitnoy and Ellie Swensson at the Bookbar in January, which was a blast.

Shadowrise had actually launched a couple months before the Bookbar event, but not many places host readings around the holidays and I was ready to celebrate, so my husband and I threw a launch party at Rising Sun Distillery for our family and friends. That party allowed me to share the book with people who might not regularly read poetry. We had our statistician friends there, some doctors and nurses, some computer programmers, teachers, people in finance, multiple coaches from my gym. My tax accountant and dear friend probably bought the most books--maybe even more than my own mom--to put in his client holiday gift baskets. When you're in an industry that's generally isolating and involves a slew of rejection letters, throwing a party when you reach a milestone--even a virtual one, if you have to, is the way to go.

I had planned to travel throughout the midwest over the summer to read in Minneapolis (where I lived before Denver) and throughout Wisconsin and Indiana, where I'm from. But we're on lockdown now, and even if lockdown is lifted, I don't know how much traveling we'll do. I'll definitely wait to encourage people to gather at events until we're well past the threat of the virus.

In the meantime, I'm recording an interview with Lighthouse soon, and that will be posted on your YouTube channel and social media in the next couple months.

If all goes well, this fall I'll be starting a creative writing drop-in course at the Botanic Gardens in Denver. In each class we'll go to a different part of the gardens, talk about the flora, fauna and design of that area, read some nature poems, go out and write and share at the end. It's a new offering for the Lighthouse that we hope will work like the drop-in classes at the art museum do now. And if we can't get out into the community, I hope we can find a way to create an online nature writing course. All you need is a pen, paper and to be able to step outside.


Mary Harpin teaches in Lighthouse’s community engagement program. She’s a poet, a medium and consultant for global Fortune 500 companies. You can find her work in Terrain, Fourteen Hills, Tinderbox, and others. Shadowrise is her first full-length collection of poems. Mary lives in Denver with her family.