Prose Poems, Broken Honey Bottles, Eerie Distances, and Partial Genius: An Interview

I am grateful to Elizabeth Tussey for her insightful questions about Partial Genius and writing prose poems. Here’s our conversation, which starts with the beginnings of the book and culminates with some revelations about hauntings and the presence of the author in the poems.

ET: Can you describe the genesis of this collection? Did you envision a narrative arc and write the poems to fit a larger picture, or did the poems create the arc organically?

MB: Thank you for asking about the start of this manuscript, Liz. I’m not sure that I set out to write a collection of prose poems, but I am a bit of a collector, and once I realized how versatile the multi-stanzagraph form was, I kept writing these poems. Some people accumulate stamps or bottle caps or interesting rocks, and you could say that I have a similar tendency when approaching different kinds of poems. The smaller poems might be sea glass, and these prose poems could be vintage scarves with trippy patterns on them.

It wasn’t until I had ten or so of these poems that I began entertaining the idea of a collection. The first poems I wrote in the series were named after cathedrals in France, so that theme was one that was both conscious and subconscious in terms of how it connected to my time as a student of modern languages.

ET: How did the experience of sequencing these poems differ from your past collections?

MB: Writing a substantial number of long poems was a stylistic departure for me. At times I’ve felt reluctant to “go big” and to take up a lot of space, even if I resist this reluctance with my awareness of it, and my sequencing of the collection has something to do with providing different types of relief for the reader. Looking back, I can see that certain pairings of poems represented an apology for going on so long, or buffering of more serious poems with humorous ones. There’s definitely a narrative arc in the book, but one based more on reaction to epiphanies rather than chronology.

ET: The two poems published in Waxwing appear to take place in the same ‘universe’ so to speak. To piggy-back off of my first question: which came first – the environment where these poems play out, the time in which they play out, or did another factor drive the setting(s)?

MB: This is such a fantastic question, and I can assure readers that the entire book exists in the universe seen in poems like “History Town” and “Fantasy Sports,” which were both originally published in Waxwing. Maybe it’s because my family moved a lot when I was growing up, but I’ve taken to viewing places with an outsider’s view and hunger for the absurd. For example, “History Town” was loosely based on a quaint Michigan city brimming with antique stores. I wondered what would happen if that industry was taken to an extreme, and made a compulsory part of life in the town.

I confess to you that probably a third of my poetry is inspired by encounters with used or antique items, and I do not mean this in a picturesque way (I discovered a lovely vintage thimble and smiled like an enchanted rose garden, etc). Especially as an adolescent, antique stores filled me with a thousand unsettling spirits and a lot of accompanying noise, much like the feeling a poem makes when it’s stirring.

The prose poem form is one where I find myself more comfortable providing cultural critiques. Maybe it’s the quick momentum from sentence to sentence that enables my sass. Whatever it is, the environment is one that existed prior to Partial Genius, and it may make an appearance again in my future work.  

ET: I noticed an eerie distance between the narrator’s voice and the other characters who appear in these poems, as well as the events described by the narrator. This distance filled me with a sense of dread, as if the narrator is about to deliver bad news. It’s a wonderfully subtle and nuanced effect and I’d be interested in the development of this voice. Did you experiment with different narrative styles?

MB: I’m so glad that you picked up on this element of the book. In order to blur some real life characters I have taken a step back from them and allowed them to mix with archetypes and other kinds of fictional attributes. Additionally, in growing older I have become less shy about my tendency to be reading the signs of everything. For example, if a glass jar of honey crashes down from a shelf in the grocery store, I wonder what the universe is trying to tell me. When you’re describing, “a sense of dread as if the narrator is about to deliver bad news,” perhaps you’re spotting me as a presence in the poems.

Some of the poems in Partial Genius are more lyrical than others, and I certainly have poems on either side of the funny-to-serious scale, but all of these are authentic to my voice. If I were telling my students a story about hanging out in a plaza with a broken faux-baroque fountain and talking to an intoxicated (but not intoxicating) stranger there, it would sound a lot like a poem from the book.

ET: In writing prose poems, I’ve always felt pressure to provide a clean resolution to the narrative even when the content of the poems do not necessarily lead to an organic resolution. Did you feel this type of pressure as you wrote these poems, and if so, how did you address it?

MB: So much of my poetry is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical that I like to leave an open-endedness for whatever I have to say next. However, I do feel that on the individual poem level there’s a lot of pressure to nail the landing, so to speak, especially with prose poems. Many poems in Partial Genius have had their endings shuffled and re-shuffled.

One good thing about writing an entire collection of prose poems is being able to create a resolution in stages or steps. This entire book is about resolution, in a way, taking a critical eye to the idea of nostalgia and chuckling at the ghosts of some prior selves.

~*~

Elizabeth Tussey is a writer, genealogist, and full-time Appalachian Granny Woman from Columbiana County, Ohio. She is a graduate of the NEOMFA Consortium and her work has appeared in Postcolonial Text, Silenced Press, and Barn Owl Review. Elizabeth is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Appalachian Punkabilly: An Oral History of Straight-Edge, Zinesters, and Rock Halls in the Holler and is currently writing a non-fiction novel titled, A Compendium of American Ghosts. You can read her work and follow her research adventures here: Instagram.com/ehtussey.  

Mary Biddinger is the author of five full-length poetry collections, including Small Enterprise and The Czar. Her sixth book, Partial Genius, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in August 2019. 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 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.

Partial Genius, full update.

I’m thrilled to share the link to my poem “Book of Disclosures,” which is in the June issue of Poetry. Thanks to all of the friends who have shared and retweeted it!

I am also so grateful to Erica Bernheim and The Adroit Journal for this interview about Partial Genius (and French club presidencies, and various animals, and goth nostalgia). Here’s a snippet:

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.

Partial Genius now has its own page here on my website. It’s starting to feel very real now.

June update: poem in POETRY, interview at ADROIT.

Must read: THE MIRACLES by Amy Lemmon

Amy Lemmon’s third book is a stunner and you need it.

If you have never felt like a book was your new best friend then you, dear reader, are missing out. Maybe you just haven’t encountered Amy Lemmon’s poetry yet, and the remedy is to get a copy of her third collection, The Miracles, as soon as possible.

In this book, Lemmon topples barriers between the speaker of the poem and the reader, writing honestly about desire and mortality and the ordinary things that help us go on. It’s rare to encounter such candor paired with an intense music that pervades every line, and Lemmon’s use of form turns up the volume in poems such as “Supermooning,” with lines like, “We craned to see the unctuous supermoon // In separate states, in separate cloudstruck scenes.”

The cover of The Miracles is nothing short of remarkable in itself. I love how the image calls to mind a stained glass window and acknowledges that the most fascinating part of a work of art may actually be its far edges and illuminated recesses, the stars that glow back at us as we gaze up in wonder.

–Mary Biddinger

The Miracles
Amy Lemmon
C&R Press | May 2019
Price: $16.00 | 82 pages
ISBN 978-1-949540-00-0

Partial Genius: cover & first blurb

I’m so excited to share the cover of my forthcoming prose poetry collection, Partial Genius, as well as the first blurb, which was written by my poetry hero Heather Derr-Smith. Thank you so much for your support!

I love this book so much. A work of meticulous craft and profound originality, Mary Biddinger’s newest collection of prose poems is one of the best books I’ve read on our historical moment and the decades that led to it. PARTIAL GENIUS reads like a dossier of the psychological landscape of late capitalist America and the end of empire. In the tradition of John Ashbery, but wholly original in her own vision and voice, Biddinger draws from a deep well of poetic intellect and wit to illuminate the existential threats and imaginative possibilities of our collective self-destruction. In “The Subject Pool” the speaker watches a man tattoo AU COURANT around her thigh. The tattoo artist has no idea. Every poem is chock-full of revelations in every detail. Reading this book felt like sitting by the fire in some secret location with a double agent, smoking her pipe telling tales of all that went down right in front of our collective faces, while we were all driven to distraction by outrage. To paraphrase Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, She’s got it all in this book.  –Heather Derr-Smith

New year, new poems

A glimpse of 2019 so far.

A new year always feels fresh, and I’m entering this one with a lot of goals. There’s a new poetry collection in the works, and I’ll be teaching two of my favorite classes, both at the undergrad level (advanced poetry writing and writers on writing). This will also be my last semester of a six-year gig as assistant chair and undergraduate advisor in my department, which means that starting in the fall I’ll teach more, spend less time in office hours, and hang out at the Press instead of the advising office. I am looking forward to this, though have a lot of book management to attend to in the meantime (moving them from one office to the next).

This is also the year of Partial Genius, my new collection of prose poems, which is due out in August from Black Lawrence Press. Stay tuned for updates on that, including cover and blurbs in the near future.

That’s a wrap.

The fall 2018 semester had its highs and lows, like all semesters, but there were so many fierce poems and that is what I’ll remember going forward. In 2019 I’m making some changes that will enable me to be more of a writer again, less of a spreadsheet-navigator and email-wrangler, and though it will take some maneuvering I’m thrilled to be following this trajectory.

In addition to finishing a new collection of poems, in the new year I’ll be starting work on a teaching book of prompts. I’m imagining this to be ideal both for classrooms and for independent writers of all levels who might want a new door into poetry. It will be fairly small, handsome, and inexpensive. It will also include some writerly self-care advice; I teach a class that addresses this subject and would like it to be part of the book. More information on the project soon.

Finally, thanks to all of the readers and fellow writers and friends who have made this past year overwhelmingly okay. I’m setting serious goals for the new year. Best wishes to you and your goals, too.

Charleston gratitude

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A million thanks to the College of Charleston MFA program and Crazyhorse literary journal for the lovely visit. We had a robust turnout for my poetry reading, as well as for the talk that I did regarding first books of poetry and publishing. What a gorgeous place to visit, too!

Now we’re heading into the final weeks of the semester, but the warm weather and delightful company surely did some good. Before we know it, we’ll be planning for AWP Portland, though I have a few student poems that need annotating before that happens.

 

Crazyhorse Reading Series & THEY SAID event recap

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The release party and reading for the THEY SAID anthology was an absolute delight. Much gratitude to Juliet Cook, Diane Kendig, Black Lawrence Press, and Visible Voice Books for hosting. It was a memorable night of celebrating our collaborative poems and reading work by other authors from the volume. What a treat!

This week I’m heading to the College of Charleston for the Crazyhorse Reading Series. It’s Thursday, October 25th at Randolph Hall, Alumni Hall. Details are here on the website. I will be reading poems from Small Enterprise and from my forthcoming prose poem collection Partial Genius, as well as work from a new project (!!!) or two.

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