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.

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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AWP Portland Panel Preview

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I’m super excited that two proposals that I am on for the AWP 2019 conference in Portland have been accepted. Here’s the scoop:

Season of the Witch: Feminism, Ritual, and Independent Publishing (Brooke Wonders,
Kiki Petrosino, Joanna C. Valente, Mary Biddinger, Annah Browning)

Helen Oyeyemi writes of “…witches who whistle at different pitches, calling things that don’t have names.” What unnamed experiences might a feminist literary magazine or press want to summon? Join the editors of Luna Luna, Grimoire Magazine, Transom, and University of Akron Press as we discuss how ritual, folk practices, and symbols like the witch provide a way of speaking the unnamed, especially in the wake of the #metoo movement.

Maintaining Beginner’s Mind in Your Own Classroom: A Poetry Reading (Amie
Whittemore, Mary Biddinger, Adrienne Su, Keith S. Wilson, Cameron Barnett)

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “but in the expert’s there are few.” This panel refutes this dichotomy by featuring expert poets at play and inviting the audience to join the fun. Panelists will read poems inspired by prompts they have assigned each other, discussing the prompts as avenues to beginner’s mind. Then the audience will try a prompt on the spot, bringing the rest home for personal or classroom use.

If you’re heading to AWP in the spring, I hope to see you there!

Update in the thick of July

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I’m not a numbers person, so when I looked at my “Summer 2018” poetry word document and saw that I’d written, apparently, over fifty pages of new poems since the beginning of June, I figured it was some kind of mistake.

I always use a calculator when figuring final grades or balancing my checkbook. Sometimes when I read text with a lot of numbers I find my eye doing the same thing it did when I was a student in classes involving statistics (skipping over the numbers like they are bread crust and I’m a picky kid).

However, it’s Monday morning, somewhat cloudy, and I am adequately caffeinated and showered and realizing that wow, I have written a lot this summer, and it makes me feel good. This may be the most I’ve ever written in a summer, and it’s not over.

With the record number of Akron Poetry Prize submissions on my docket (687!) I had feared I would not have much of a writing summer. But the proof is there at the bottom left of the screen. Pages: 51 of 51. Words: 10,133.

Clearly these are not all “keepers.” And yes, I have trouble generating new work during the academic year, so this is catch-up in many ways. But I’m still rather proud.

PS: I’ve been doing #summerofprompts over on Twitter again this summer. Check it out!

New poems in Waxwing and Tupelo Quarterly

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News flashes times two for this hot June morning.

I am over the moon about having my poem “Heaven and Dirt” published in the new issue of Tupelo Quarterly (15) with such excellent company. This is a recent poem, and I’m thrilled that it found such a fine home.

Also, much gratitude to the editors and fellow contributors of Waxwing XV. I’m honored to have these four poems appear in the issue. “Fantasy Sports” and “History Town” are two prose poems from my forthcoming collection Partial Genius, so this makes me extra excited.

For a year or so I had inexplicable anxiety about sending work out. I am much more comfortable helping other people with their creative work, and really needed to think through my trepidation and take steps to eliminate it. And now that these poems are out, I have no excuses about getting more work into the atmosphere.

In other news, we received a record-breaking total of 687 submissions to the 2018 Akron Poetry Prize competition. You know what I’ll be doing for the next two weeks.

Take on May

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It’s the first day of finals week and I already have that loopy off-my-routine feeling. Waiting for things to grade, and when those things arrive they’ll be magnificent: finals from writers on writing, essays from my grad poetry lit class, and mimetic poems for books on our syllabus. This was an eventful academic year, that’s for sure, and next up (immediately next up) I’ve got plenty of Akron Poetry Prize reading and a compressed, three week World Lit course to teach. And hopefully, later in the summer, new poems.

I’ve got news to share. New poems of mine will be appearing in upcoming issues of Court Green and Waxwing, two journals that I admire immensely. It’s such an honor, and helps put a bit of wind to my sails as I am on the brink of sending more work out. I am also incredibly honored to be on this list, as a recipient of an Individual Excellence Award in poetry from the Ohio Arts Council. I’m thankful to live in a state where these kinds of grants still exist.

I spend a lot of time editing and mentoring and talking about making a sustainable writing life, but at the same time I find myself relying so much on “positive feedback” in order to propel myself forward. I think I have less, not more, confidence as I get older. Is that unusual? I suppose I’ll find out eventually.

AWP recap, and heading into spring.

AWP Tampa was warm and sunny and went way too fast. We were worried about weather heading out, but ended up with smooth travels. We sold a slew of University of Akron Press books and had a magnificent offsite, even if we got stuck in hockey traffic on the way there. Thank you to everyone who stopped by the table, or the event, to say hello!

In unrelated news, I have a new blog post up at The Word Cage regarding that “what’s next” feeling in the writing life.

I am on day one of spring break, and hoping that it’s a productive week.

Behold: a glimpse at AWP 2018, Tampa.

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Here’s the University of Akron Press table looking fancy. I had to give serious thought to the best way to display five new books at once. Challenge accepted!

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It was a delight hanging out at the UA Press table with assistant poetry editor Noor Hindi. We can’t wait to read your poetry manuscript for this year’s Akron Poetry Prize competition.

 

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One of the coolest parts of this conference was reconnecting with friends from my time at UIC. Thanks to Jet Fuel Review for this photo!

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Leaving Tampa was less sad because I got to fly to Charlotte with dear friend Erika Meitner. She has a new book coming out very soon. Can’t wait to read it! 

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Because I was a tourist on this trip, I need to include a touristy photo. Whenever possible, I looked out at the water, especially those nights in my hotel room grading papers and reading thesis manuscripts. I made sure to spend a bit of time in the sun, too. I think it helped.