Once in a while a review helps you understand your own book better, and that is the case for Beth McDermott’s review of Partial Genius for RHINO. I am so grateful for Beth’s insights, and know that I will return to this review in the future when needing encouragement. For a minute I wondered, would it be weird to print out a review and frame it? I may just have to do that with this one.
Though I’m grateful to be home and back with my family and students, the first leg of my Florida Literary Arts Coalition Writer’s Circuit was a memorable trip. What a delight to speak with so many new writers, and to hang out with poetry and fiction colleagues from various institutions. One of my favorite parts of the tour (aside from marveling at the landscape) was getting to feel like a writer among writers again. So much thanks to FLAC, and to all of the organizations and individuals who made this tour a possibility. My heart is as warm as the weather was down there–a sultry 90 degrees with abundant sun.
Tomorrow is the beginning of a three-college tour in Florida–my first of two tours this academic year. You can find information on this week’s activities below, and a full listing of upcoming readings here. Yay!
Fall 2019 Florida Literary Arts Coalition Writer’s Circuit Readings
Poet Mary Biddinger
9/30: Florida SouthWestern
10/1: University of Tampa
10/2: St. Leo University
Further details on the FLAC tour are here, at their website.
Even though this is my sixth book, the feeling of unboxing never becomes less exhilarating and terrifying and awesome. Partial Genius arrived along with a number of back to school parcels, on a rainy day, and I’m glad I didn’t know the package would be arriving (I’m a worrier). My first thought upon unboxing was delight with the color of the cover. It’s cheerful and loud, as well as contemplative. I am grateful for the care that Amy Freels took with the cover design and the interior; I think I’ll be able to perform from this book without reading glasses, which is a plus.
Thanks to all who have offered congratulations and shared my excitement about this new book, my first collection exclusively made up of prose poems. Partial Genius is now in stock at Black Lawrence Press, and at SPD, as well. There’s a peek inside feature if you would like to read a few poems before buying a copy for yourself or your best friend or your secret crush.
As we’re excitedly waiting for Partial Genius to drop, I’m happy to share the two items below.
Much gratitude to Tom Simpson for interviewing me about Partial Genius, the writing life, and balancing various hats over at American Microreviews and Interviews.
Here’s a sneak peek:
TS: How do you balance your writing life with your work as an editor and professor? Do you have particular routines and practices that have sustained you?
MB: I have taught college English for over twenty years, and have been an editor for almost as long, and yet I am still struggling with balance. What has helped is learning how I function best, forgiving myself for that, and then finding a way to work with my tendencies instead of against them. I am motivated by deadlines. During the academic year I have little, if any, time for creative writing, so those are fallow spells and I’ve come to terms with them. Over winter and summer breaks I write obsessively. Ideally during the academic year I will revise poems and send them out, but often that task falls to summer.
My work flow is one of constant triage. I jokingly tell friends that I am not a good custodian of my own writing, and it’s true. Helping other people with their poems and manuscripts is often top priority, and more enjoyable than working with my own poems. Perhaps someday I will no longer be scrambling, but for now it’s the scramble that keeps me moving.
I am thrilled that Partial Genius was one of the Must-Read Poetry Books for August 2019 over at The Millions. Thank you to Nick Ripatrazone for thoughts like these:
Biddinger’s prose poems are eccentric, meandering, and surprising. The first poem of the collection, “Historical Achievements,” ends: “One year I wrote ‘mouth’ across my knuckles for Halloween and exited the pep rally before the microphone was switched on, flocks of balloons still humping the plastic bags designated to contain them.” The sentence is pure Biddinger: funny, dizzying yet specific, and grounded in a pleasantly wistful storytelling (her poems don’t often feel melancholy, but they do contain absences—incomplete stories—which offer pauses of sentiment within her play). Partial Genius is unlike any book of poetry that you’ll read this year; a credit to Biddinger’s voice, and the range of her interests.
The countdown to Partial Genius continues!
Much thanks, from a poet in Akron, Ohio.
I am tremendously grateful to the Cleveland Arts Prize, which announced today that I am the recipient of a mid-career award in literature, with such excellent company. This kind of recognition is so meaningful, especially to those of us who are mid-career and looking ahead while also reflecting back on previous projects. To those of us who might currently have two almost-completed book manuscripts, and who are in need of a push forward. When I moved to northeast Ohio in 2005 I had no idea that it would become such a welcoming and supportive home. Today I send gratitude to all who have supported me and my work.
If you’ve just found this page, here’s information on my poetry, including my forthcoming prose poem collection Partial Genius, over at Black Lawrence Press.
If you know me you know that I love music, and it’s a joy to pass along this Spotify soundtrack that I made to accompany Partial Genius, my new poetry collection that drops next month from Black Lawrence Press. The hope is that this mix transports you to a dance club and frees you from your worries.
The songs are all meaningful ones for me, and connect to the poems in the book in both obvious and subtle ways. Thank you for giving it a listen!
A Partial Genius soundtrack, featuring an abundance of dance hits (and more). Fishnets optional.
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.
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.
Spring 2019 was a challenging semester–from illness to blizzards to various other unexpected happenings–but I am glad to be barreling into the summer of Partial Genius and hundreds of gorgeous poetry manuscripts to read and my summer World Lit class, which is always a joy. I’ll be starting another round of #summerofprompts over on Twitter in June. There’s a lot to look forward to, and it won’t be long.