Mary Biddinger is the author of six full-length poetry collections, including Small Enterprise and Partial Genius, both with Black Lawrence Press. She teaches literature and creative writing at The University of Akron and NEOMFA program, and edits the Akron Series in Poetry for The University of Akron Press. Poems have recently appeared or are coming soon in Court Green, Poetry, Tupelo Quarterly, and Waxwing, among others. Biddinger has been the recipient of three Individual Excellence Awards in poetry from the Ohio Arts Council, and received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 2015. She is currently at work on a new manuscript of small poems about ordinary things. Find her online at @marybid on Twitter or marybiddinger.com.
Erica Bernheim: Congratulations on your sixth book! You were one of the first people I know to have a book come out, and it was so exciting and is clearly only the beginning for you. How much has community influenced your work, either being a part of one or being outside of one? I’m thinking about your having been a graduate student, being an academic, editing the Akron Series in Poetry, and directing the NEOMFA, and also existing beyond the confines of these worlds and creating new communities of your own.
Mary Biddinger: Thank you so much, Erica. It’s a pleasure to talk about poetry community with someone from my beloved literary coterie of yesteryear. I still marvel at how lucky we were to hang out with so many talented Chicago poets who were also such fine humans. Academic programs sort us into cohorts, but then we get to overthrow those groups and welcome new members into our literary communities of choice.
A few years ago I discovered that I am an introvert, and that changed everything. I enjoy being part of a community of writers, but have always required substantial pep talks as motivation to connect. I feared maybe there was something wrong with me. After all, I enjoy spending time with people, and have no trouble whatsoever with teaching or doing poetry readings. Was I, like, secretly rude?
Having to start over in a new place, especially at a university where I am the sole poet in my department, was a challenge. I’ve had to become more assertive when seeking out writerly friends and community members, rather than just letting those friendships happen. I am grateful to currently be part of a small group of Cleveland-area women poets who have been workshopping for over ten years. We have coffee instead of sangria, but the poetry is still intoxicating.
EB: Most of the titles in Partial Genius are succinct, generally between two and four words, at the most. “Trouble Shirt” is one of my favorites, and that short title is such a great set-up for lines like, “It was just like a shell game, but with hands.” Do you have a process that varies from collection to collection, an idea about titles before you name the poems?
MB: Often I come up with titles before I write the poems. With “Trouble Shirt,” for example, I recalled a particular black shirt that I always seemed to be wearing when problematic events happened, such as finding myself tipsy in a recently-painted bathroom at a dive bar. Perhaps the trouble shirt was to be blamed? I jotted that down in my little notebook and eventually wrote the poem.
In several of my books I’ve written poems in a particular series, so the titles relate to that project. For example, in my chapbook Saint Monica I included Monica’s name in the titles, and in Small Enterprise I wrote a number of “Risk Management Memo” poems. The shorter titles of Partial Genius may have something to do with the larger scale of the poems themselves. I saved all the words for the body of the poem and skimped on the title.
EB: Were you the French Club President?! Your readers want to know, Mary!
MB: Erica, this thread of the book is, indeed, ripped from my true life story. Thank you for sensing the verisimilitude. Yes, I was the French Club President in my senior year of high school, but I believe my administration was fairly lackluster, apart from the time my mom brought freshly baked baguettes up to school.
I did not intentionally set out to write a book that engages with French as a theme (I mean, how bourgeois!) but once I discovered the recurring motif I kept returning to it. When I was in high school there was a push to get students of various backgrounds abroad, in an effort for us to become more “worldly.” As a French student of many years, I had grown up with a reverence for cathedrals that I had previously only seen in art books and slides projected onto a screen.
Of course, when I actually went to Paris for the first time I was far more interested in visiting discotheques and subsisting on Nutella crêpes and forging intense new friendships. Travelling to France with complete strangers was one of the first times I felt a sort of aloneness that let me listen to myself. Maybe that’s why it seeps into these poems.
In Partial Genius I also used the role of the French Club President as a way to explore how we achieve certain status within our limited spheres, but then we’re ultimately dumped into an auditorium filled with people much like ourselves, and find we are no longer as remarkable as previously thought.
EB: When I contacted you to do this interview, we were joking about how if we did it over the phone or Skype, we’d end up on endless tangents about our pets (I do wish Klaus and Leo could meet), so I wanted to ask you about animals and their presences in your poems, how you think about them as a writer, maybe even vis-à-vis the ideas of domestication and disappointment, as in “Consolation Prize,” “Most Beloved Roles,” or “Giving Up the Ghost.”
MB: Thank you so much for this question, which prompted me to return to the collection and realize that animals are everywhere in my poems. I have always been the person who picks worms off the sidewalk after a heavy rain. One of my faults is an uncontrollable compassion—I want to go out on a ledge to sing to the pigeon that looks weak, or to nurse the hawk-ravaged chipmunk back to health in my dorm room. I live with four cats and two dogs and make a conscious effort every day to prevent my pack from getting larger.
My poems reflect a sincere desire to protect the vulnerable from forces of corrupt power. They also want to defy the definition of what is wild, and what is tame. Sometimes I am sitting in a boring academic meeting and I look out the window and see a squirrel in the scruff of a pine tree and feel like that’s where I actually belong. Squirrels have never been asked to use Microsoft Excel. I write about animals out of care and solidarity with them, and perhaps also out of a bit of jealousy.
EB: It seems to me that your prose poems do deliberately break with conventional form, while often indulging in layers of precise, evocative nostalgia of a specific time, from Go Ask Alice to Tab, and from Black Sabbath to Esprit. And in the background of so many of the poems, there’s a definite sense of veiled violence, both in terms of being hidden and of confrontations, Catholic schools, and secular lives. In considering the roles of form and nostalgia in this new collection—is there, for you, a connection between these two?
MB: Prose poems come from a different place for me, creatively. I initially wanted to be a fiction writer but chose poetry because it was less expensive to make the workshop copies at Kinko’s. I aspire to someday write bigger short stories, but in the meantime the prose poem is a form where I can be more than one thing at a time.
With prose poems it’s easier to pack a bounty of artifacts within their confines. In my role as a professor I often find myself having to tell people about what the 1980s and ‘90s were like. Occasionally there’s a fellow Gen Xer in the crowd who can attest to the fact that we did speak on phones connected to walls and flag down taxis on the street. Sometimes I feel like an ambassador for a bygone time, but I know that certain readers will connect directly, especially regarding the bits of ‘80s/‘90s goth culture that I find myself writing about more and more recently.
I appreciate your phrase “veiled violence” in regard to this book, and it is a constant presence in my poems from various projects. The poems of Partial Genius are about people trying to rebel against the system that was designed to confine and diminish them. If I have to fight that battle, I would prefer to do so with a cold can of Tab cola in hand.
EB: Can you say something about how you arranged this book, the trajectory you had in mind and how you developed it?
MB: I wanted this book to operate with more of an emotional arc than a chronological one, but ultimately a chronology settled in. Maybe the book begins with innocence and ends with experience, but when working with frequent flashbacks there’s rarely a steady now. My favorite books are ones where individual poems make sparks with their neighbors, and that is something I tried to do here. For the reader’s comfort, I structured the book in a way where the larger poems have some buffer around them, since prose poem collections can feel dense or relentless.
Partial Genius is one of those books that walks the line between wistful and humorous, so the structure is aimed at finessing some of those currents of emotion.
EB: How do you coordinate the needs of the Akron Series with your own work as a writer, and with staying incredibly active in the poetry community, as you always have? What are some surprises you’ve had (as an editor or poet), or things you’ve learned along the way and as you move forward?
MB: I am so much more comfortable helping other people with their poems and books than I am handling and promoting my own. If an opportunity gives me the chance to assist others, my energy is boundless, but when it comes to my own work I have become increasingly self-conscious over the years.
One surprise is how readily I’ve put “professor and editor” first, with “writer” trailing behind. I keep trying to correct it. That said, in terms of what I am writing about, I have become much more adventurous. Being an editor and a thesis director has made me more aware of what I like to see in a book, even if what I like to see is quite weird and unsettling.
EB: One of your speakers describes education as “the last luxury…before peeling off
your shirt and captaining a boat to the edge of the world” (“Apology Tour”). What role(s) do you think a formal education can play for aspiring poets? How does teaching inform your poetry, if it does?
MB: The best part of poetry education, in my opinion, is to be exposed to new voices that we may not otherwise have access to as readers. My role as a faculty member and editor is to advocate for poets in general, and certain poets in particular, when it comes to connecting readers with the poems they need.
I also help students understand that ordinary experience can be an inspiration for current and future work. I mention how I learned as much from my various jobs—nursing home dietary aide, library moving crew member, college town barista, and switchboard operator—as I did from several degree-granting programs.
Both my teaching and my departmental administrative work seep into my poetry. I was especially chagrined by the prospect of having to devise an assessment plan for creative writing, and latched on to the idea of “observable outcomes” and other bits of language associated with this process. In an effort to push back, I worked these into my poems, as I do with a variety of things that annoy me.
EB: Are there any collections you’re particularly excited about coming soon from the University of Akron Press? And do you have any new projects of your own? Do you think you might ever publish another book of collaborations, like The Czar, or another collection of craft essays?
MB: I am super excited about all of our forthcoming collections in the Akron Series in Poetry, but just spent a few weeks in a close reading and edit of A Brief History of Fruit by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, winner of the 2018 Akron Poetry Prize competition as selected by Diane Seuss. You know a book is remarkable when you alternately have to keep jumping up to share its poems with friends and to grab fresh tissues to dry your tears, and this book has all that.
In terms of my own projects, I am currently working on a book of small poems about ordinary things, as well as another prose poem collection that chronicles the adventures of a pair of graduate school roommates in the late 1990s. Beyond that, I’m not sure what is on the horizon, but it will likely include a pink terrycloth tube top, “This Corrosion” by Sisters of Mercy, and a box of melted Sno-Caps.