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:  

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.