Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

Mary Leader

(1948-   )

Photograph by Jackie Kerns Heigle

[used with the permission of Mary Leader]

Mary Leader was born in 1948 in Pawnee, Oklahoma and is a former Assistant Attorney General of Oklahoma. She provided us with the following biographical sketch:

I began writing poems in the midst of a career as a lawyer, first as Assistant Oklahoma Attorney General and later as Referee for the Oklahoma Supreme Court. As my dedication to poetry grew, I earned my M.F.A. at the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College while still working full-time as a lawyer. I then managed to switch from law to teaching as my way of making a living. Initially, I did this teaching while obtaining a Ph.D. in Literature from Brandeis University, where I concentrated on British and American poetry and poetics across periods, culminating in my dissertation, "Legible Ashes: Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead. Other teaching experience has included three years at Emory University as a fellow in creative writing and then as a lecturer in literature and law, and a year at Louisiana State University as a visiting assistant professor. I am currently in my third year as an assistant professor at the University of Memphis. In
addition, I have taught the past three years in the Warren Wilson Program.

Some of my poems—for instance "Probate" in Red Signature—came out of the practice of law. And now, one of my academic specialties is the interdisciplinary field of Literature and Law. The point there is not just to read literary works that depict lawyers and law courts, but rather to consider more deeply how legal texts partake of literary traditions and, conversely, how literary texts can be read in light of such legal concepts as precedent, authority, decision-making, representation, and evidence. These are all concepts I explored in my dissertation as well. Rukeyser's sequence took as its subject a large lawsuit that arose in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in the 1930s out of bad working conditions in connection with the driving of the three-mile tunnel for the purpose of diverting the waters of the New River for hydroelectric power.

My first book of poems, Red Signature, won the 1996 National Poetry Series and was published by Graywolf Press in 1997. Red Signature led to readings (including the 92nd Street Y), was featured on National Public Radio (“Weekend Edition” and Garrison Keillor’s “Writers’ Almanac”), went into a second printing, and garnered favorable critical notice such as this excerpt from The New Yorker:

These poems resemble pieces of fine prairie architecture: they’re eclectic, practical, and capable of large vernacular gestures. . . . Leader owes some of her intimacy with the American sublime to Dr. Williams but much more to her own quite remarkable sensibility, which is one of the most self possessed in contemporary poetry.
"Now my new book, The Penultimate Suitor, though prairieless, has been chosen for the Iowa Poetry Prize . . . . The Penultimate Suitor has just been well reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and I have new poems forthcoming in American Poetry Review and Southern Review."

[Source: Personal Communication with Mary Leader] [Book Review of The Penultimate Suitor]

The New York Times "Poetry in Brief" reviewer, Micahel Hainey, calls The Penultimate Suitor, an "ambitious and inventive collection [in which Leader] exposes some of her deepest emotions and lays bare her most personal reflections." [New York Times Book Review, August 19, 2001, p. 17, c.3]

Leader is currently a professor of English at Purdue University. She obtained her B.A. from the University of Oklahoma in 1975, her J.D. from Oklahoma in 1980, her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 1991, and her Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 2000. She teaches poetry courses and women and literature.

Faculty Profile
Purdue University


"Linen Repeatedly Folded"


"Sequence As Opposed to Series"
American Poetry Review

"Girl at Sewing Machine"

"For the Love of Gerald Finzi"


Three Poems