“Jumping Rope with Sidewalk Chalk: An Interview with Mary Biddinger” by Emilia Phillips
Mary Biddinger is the author of the poetry collections Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007), Saint Monica (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), and A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming 2014). She is also co-editor of The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (University of Akron Press, 2011). Her poems have recently appeared in Crazyhorse, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, and Sou’wester, among others. Biddinger teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Akron, where she is an Associate Professor of English and Assistant Chair of the Department of English. She edits the independent literary magazine Barn Owl Review, as well as the Akron Series in Poetry and the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics.
Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013), the prose editor of 32 Poems, and the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.
Emilia Phillips: How could I not begin a conversation with you without saying that I’m in awe of how much work you do as a poet, an editor, and teacher. Do you see those as separate roles or do they all work toward the same goal? Any advice for our readers about how to be an incredible citizen of poetry?
Mary Biddinger: Emilia, thank you so much for your kind words. Luckily these are all mutually agreeable activities, though sometimes my brain gets a little murky when I’m teaching English Romantic novels and editing essays for the poetics series, while trying to write my own poetry, take pictures of my beloved Rust Belt, and cook delicious dinners as often as possible. I feel like everything feeds into the literary experience, so it’s okay to have a lifestyle that is a bit of an immersion and where work sometimes creeps under your afghan on the couch. You might discover your cat batting around a to-do list on the kitchen floor, and that’s okay.
In terms of advice, I encourage my students to adopt a benevolent attitude regarding the arts, even toward artistic achievement, rather than a model that simply rewards individual progress at the expense of developing relationships. When I started out as a poet I was aware that my work was different, and that it would not always be conventionally recognized. I was unwilling to change my work in order to attain a sort of conventional recognition. So instead I focused on what I could do to help other writers, and to build a sense of community. You know in junior high, when all the kids were lined along the edges of the gym, and nobody would go out and start dancing? I would get out there and bust a move. I’ve never stopped dancing.
EP: Helen Vendler said, “all good poets of the past, almost without exception, were at least bilingual if not trilingual.” Of course, she’s talking about literal languages but it strikes me that there are other types of languages, such as visual languages (i.e. photographic or film languages) and musical languages. There’s the language of criticism versus the language of poems versus the language of everyday speech. Do you think the Vendler quote should be taken as an instructive historical fact? How literally should we follow it?
MB: I think we should take Vendler’s notion as fact, but we can also remove the language from language. I might replace the word “language” with the word “system,” but that sounds too scientific. Is it okay for a language to exist for only one interlocutor, and to serve as a means of observation rather than communication? I suppose I get hung up on the path between feeling and saying. That could be why I write poetry.
There’s also the idea of language needing to be taught, and seeming somewhat ominous to learners. As an academic adviser I often hear students bemoaning the language requirement for the College of Arts and Sciences, as if that extra bit of Spanish is so much more burdensome than a geology lab. If we are going to consider ourselves multilingual then we may want to give credit for an equation like this: Openness to the world + Unafraid to say Aha! = message delivered, message read.
EP: I wonder if this foreign language phobia also relates to the general reading public’s relationship with poetry, which many readers—even incredibly smart people, some even in my family—always immediately react to poetry with “that sounded great, but I didn’t understand it.” Is poetry really all that foreign to our everyday lives in language? How do we as poets bridge that gap, if we can?
MB: How funny—it occurs to me that when I teach poetry, and when I have taught French in the past, I often talk about the language of dreams: When writing your poem, consider the logic of dreams. Once French words enter your dreams, allow your wakeful self to return to the world of the dream, where you likely had no anxiety about your parapluie or your horloge. Do you think this phobia, or maybe generalized mistrust, of both poetry and foreign language might have something to do with a lack of control, or of conventional sense? Just like there are people who are “language people,” there are also self-professed “poetry people,” and I bet some of them are both at once.
EP: I suppose it depends on the person, but perhaps the mistrust of poetry and foreign language both derives from anxiety about one’s self and one’s abilities. For some people that manifests as frustration, others curiosity. Does that make sense? Is that how you see it or am I embroidering your ideas?
MB: That makes sense, but I also wonder about language acquisition and children, who don’t know yet that they should be frustrated when learning a word in a second language, and who often readily approach poems without vexation. Maybe the answer to both questions is to recall not only our dream self, but our childhood self, from back before we knew the names for everything. Perhaps we should put our ideas back into pictures.
EP: Speaking of control, there’s a lot of poets out there who swear by letting the poem take the poet anywhere, implying a lack of control by the poet, whereas other poets want to make sure the poem is in their control through form or other craft measures. What do you think about these distinctions and their pitfalls? Where do you fall in?
MB: Last night in my workshop class I used the analogy that creating a poem is like making homemade yogurt. You need a starter, and a bit of patience, but then something new starts growing on its own, and becomes its own entity. I guess this could also apply to sourdough, but I’m not the greatest baker.
I understand how some folks want control over poems, or a particular shape to channel the energy into, but my hope is always that the poem will start running away from me, and that’s the most exciting part. I liked going to the rodeo and the county fair when I was a kid. My best poems come from the experience of going somewhere unintended, then looking around and making sense of the surroundings. Sometimes writing a poem is like chasing a greased pig, rather than methodically assembling a BLT.
EP: I guess it all depends on whether or not the greased pig is intended for the BLT. (Ha!—forgive my joke.)
So since we’re talking about poem generation, would you mind talking about what some of your new poems are like? Do you have a new project?
MB: Emilia, thanks for asking about my new projects. I have two books that are forthcoming: A Sunny Place with Adequate Water is due out on 5/13/14 (coincidentally, the day before my 40th birthday, and therefore the last day of my 30s) and Small Enterprise, which is set to be released in September 2015. Both books are with Black Lawrence Press, a publisher that has been incredibly supportive of my work over the years. As a poetry series editor myself, and one who works closely with aspects of book design and production, the prospect of finding a publisher for my own work was a bit daunting. What if they wouldn’t let me have any input on the font? How could I cope with a cover less beautiful than the covers we pride ourselves on at The University of Akron Press?
Thankfully BLP has been a dream to work with, and that has helped foster confidence in my newer projects. A Sunny Place (which at first we were calling ASPAW, which I pronounced as Ass-Paw, a most unseemly moniker) contains a series of poems involving real and invented coin-operated machinery. Small Enterprise draws upon my brief background in risk management to serve as a backdrop for a love story set in a pre-millennium Midwestern city. Both projects, as might be expected, are a little bit wacky. I’m not sure that I could write anything that wasn’t strange, and I will not try. Right now I am working on a series of prose poems named after cathedrals in France, but not about cathedrals in France. I think you’d have to read them to understand.
EP: Do you have a poem you’re particularly into from the new projects? Would you mind sharing part or all of it with us? Why are you particularly excited about it? What does it mean for your work in terms of its progression?
MB: Emilia, here is something quite new that hasn’t appeared elsewhere. I’m excited about this piece because it continues my project of writing poems that refer to the writing of novels. It also blends modernity and antiquity, with a little bit of awkward fashion and a few critters. I think this poem, like many recent poems, demonstrates my newfound comfort with playfulness, which felt inappropriate when I was a younger writer, like somehow I had to obscure my goofy self and write from a more serious point of view in order to be heard. It’s also an urban poem, wherein the speaker is aware of her city’s literary history, but not above turning it into a little joke.
A Bear in Your Bonnet
Already I was feeling a bit remaindered
and thinking maybe the hoarfrost cat suit was too
suggestive for a day that gained degrees
by the fistful. I reminded myself of a story once
written in haste, then returned to with
astonishment, if not shame over the lugubrious
usage of those thinly-hoopskirted men
and women undeserving of the flimsiest roman
de clef. Once I staggered out of the clinic
and had to press exterior walls so ______ came
to the rescue with something that stung
but just for a second. I could never be friends
with anyone who insulted taxi drivers
or filled milk bottles with lake water so livery
horses could experience the other side.
Maybe I was always the girl left watching one
suitcase or another, while my friends
made out with statuary or conducted play tests
of fortitude involving water chestnuts
and held breath, or harnessed their inner Charles
Drouets, and we know how well that
turned out. I’m not above admitting that some
days I pretend you’re the one rocking
the rocking chair at the end of your own novel.
It could still turn out that way, where I
get the privilege of being a shadow’s demise,
or at least the last word, an owl turned
into something with twice the smarts and claws.
EP: Incredible title, incredible poem! I love how you address a writer here: “I’m not above admitting that some // days I pretend you’re the one rocking / the rocking chair at the end of your own novel.”
MB: Thank you, Emilia. My forthcoming collection Small Enterprise, which was recently accepted by Black Lawrence Press and is scheduled to drop in September 2015, has a number of poems regarding the art of fiction, and writing of novels. It seems like writing poems about fiction would be like jumping rope with sidewalk chalk, but it actually works.
EP: Going back to your introduction to “A Bear in Your Bonnet,” I wanted to say that I too have previously felt that playfulness was inappropriate! Frank Zappa has a documentary and concert called “Does Humor Belong In Music?” I’ve always thought that the question could extend to poetry. What do you think?
MB: I’m a sucker for anything humorous. Sometimes I just say the same word over and over, and start laughing uncontrollably (I recommend milk…milk, milk, ha!). I have always been attracted to poems with humor, especially when they also have an underlying sorrow or deeper commentary, such as the poems of Jason Bredle and Peter Davis and Jennifer L. Knox.
EP: Your poems have always seemed to me to contain a veneer of joy over some dark turns. It’s almost like Cicero’s vessel for capital punishment—a leather bag containing a monkey, rooster, dog, snake, and man—thrown into the Tiber and everyone, everything washes up on the shoals and emerges alive. How can poems contain so much conflict and still contain joy? Or, at the very least, a kind of joyful mischievousness?
MB: I think “joy with dark turns” is a good character sketch for my own self. Maybe it’s because I have lived so long in places where beauty comes in a rusty and ramshackle package. I would have to try exceedingly hard to write differently. In terms of mischief, it’s what fuels me. I am always up to something. During school Mass when I was a kid, my best friend and I would make obscene sculptures with tissues and display them for each other behind hymn books. I guess you could say that I use a similar gesture at times in my poems.
Rebecca Hazelton*: To what extent do you feel personal experience is necessary in order to create “authenticity” in a piece of writing?
MB: I’m all for emotional autobiography, where the author puts very true feelings into the work, regardless of the circumstances. I write various fictions into my poems, but they are all authentic. However, I do feel it’s necessary for me to have as many adventures as possible, in order to maximize the potential for going new places in my writing.
EP: Now, Mary, give us a question to ask our next interviewee.
MB: Are your poems animals or vegetables or both, and why?
“Upheaval: A Review of Mary Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency” by Ross Losapio
Black Lawrence Press, 2013
In her third collection of poetry, O Holy Insurgency, Mary Biddinger develops two central figures that bring about their own style of chaos with little help from the world around them. A Bonnie-and-Clyde-like dynamic animates many of the poems as Biddinger deploys portentous action and energetic characterization—hallmarks of her oeuvre—while advancing the text’s thematic agenda. Rather than naming the speaker’s companion, an ever-present “you” pervades O Holy Insurgency, and the evolving relationship between the speaker and this presence serves as one of the collection’s defining characteristics. This stylistic choice, though, necessarily fashions a learning curve for Biddinger’s audience. We’re taught, as careful readers, to be especially wary of the elusive and wily second-person perspective—not to assume it is merely the speaker’s alter ego, to be suspicious of it invoking the plural and often tepid universal—and so some trepidation accompanies the first handful of poems as we seek out and consider alternative meanings. Ultimately, though, the consistency of voice and narrative traces throughout the collection evoke an increasing familiarity with these two characters, which has the simultaneous effect of rewarding second and third readings of the entire text. An affectionate, but combative relationship emerges between Biddinger’s characters. In “Ode to Your Innocence,” the speaker states, “I had your innocence all afternoon. After / the afternoon I had your innocence again.” Compare this expression of control to the first line of “Disturbance Near an Unnamed Creek,” later in the text: “We both took turns holding me down.” An affinity develops in which the struggle for dominance and domination thrives and gratifies. Desire draws these two together, even as they seize and relinquish power over one another.
The nuance and duality of the speaker’s relationship with the “you” mirror the highly personal and frequently violent way that they interact with the world around them. “They had barely started / boarding up the window,” begins “A Pact”:
Thunderbird fragments daggered
the revolving cake case,
though only one red velvet died.
We didn’t mind the spilled gasoline
and you kissed me. I pulled all
of the broken glass from your jacket.
You liked its sheen, but it wasn’t good
for either of us.
Broken glass becomes an increasingly important image over the course of the collection, its menace and attraction feeding both characters. “Soon people were sacrificing two times / the admission just to touch our glass,” the speaker of “A Diorama” states a few pages later, embodying the shards. As the pair brings the world crashing down in their wake, though, they simultaneously create:
There were wonders, but we didn’t know
they were wonders, or that they belonged
to us. The watermelon we tethered in a maple
with fishing line, just to see who would look up.
A dare involving teeth. Sentences we’d write
Spontaneous and mischievous, these acts please their creators in a way so pure and unadulterated that they don’t even think to claim their work. “Craftsman” begins, “The Northern Lights were never enough.”  Such a concise and dismissive statement draws an immediate reaction from the reader (Never enough? According to what measurement?), but brooks no argument. Ultimately, perception is relative; the phenomena that the speaker causes or feels—that pendulous and looming watermelon—genuinely delight and thrill, responses that transmit directly to the reader.
Among the poems’ many achievements, the greatest feat of demolition and reconstruction of O Holy Insurgency occurs within the speaker herself, in the collection’s title poem:
Overthrow me. It’s not hard
unless you say it is. Gone:
envelopes with nothing inside,
paprika burns on a tongue
that invents its own reverse
chronology. Nothing left
to mend, but that’s not so true.
Every night we remake us
as our skin transubstantiates. 
Flesh morphs and does so by her own design, not the caprice of some higher power. Biddinger’s unrelenting imagery and description flood the senses in this poem, and her technical prowess serves this central declaration of autonomy in its undercurrent. The natural syntax breaks as the reader progresses from line to line, generating tension and divergent meanings that mirror the agenda of insurrection.
The concepts of birth and birthright come to inform Bidinger’s authorial choices as the speaker’s relationship with the “you” develops and her inner uprising mounts. “Metropolis” most clearly manifests the connection between O Holy Insurgency’s figures and their origins, transforming and transposing them:
In the city where you
were born, lights don’t stay on
all night. My city walks into
a bar, and admires your city’s
belt buckle. Never before such
a herald of sparks. Everyone
knows my city: slaughterhouses
and red sequins, the rivers so
still that nobody can truly break
The poem reveals a complicated conception of the world into which the speaker is born, concurrently romanticizing and estranging it. The speaker’s city inspires pride, but also presents itself through dangerous and uncontrollable chimeras. Agency shifts from place to person, and in “A Genesis” the speaker becomes a font of life and knowledge:
You began when you saw my thigh.
My thigh could educate entire
districts. My left breast knew more
than the average philosopher.
Her ferocious independence takes bodily form and the speaker envelopes the city, becoming her own patrimony and power source. “The city sent us a letter asking / to harness our heat for infrastructure / development.” This sentiment resounds throughout the collection and echoes a foreboding declaration from “A Gauntlet,” early in O Holy Insurgency: “In our next life / we would decline a next life.” While religion, philosophy, and science contend with each other regarding what occurs after death, Biddinger skillfully renders the point moot with this simple assertion.
From the outset O Holy Insurgency erupts in upheaval that sustains throughout the text. Its first poem, “Dyes and Stitchery,” opens with disorientation and a barely remembered past:
I flipped out of my grandmother’s hammock
and landed between stones the first time
I saw you. But you were just a sprig of asphodel
then. Seven-year-olds could buy cigarettes.
Dogs were trusted behind the wheel of a Jeep
when the owner was adequately drunk.
But the poet conjures velocity and agency over the course of her project, arriving, in the final poem “Rip Current,” at:
Baguettes trembled. Knees
turned on themselves, then
on each other. Except mine.
In the center of volume ten:
a map, in color. The kind
of prayer we made with it.
Simultaneously plea and answer, these poems call out into the darkness and come to rejoice in the resounding echo. Mary Biddinger’s latest collection delivers on the promise its title makes, bombarding the reader with miraculous acts of rebellion while seeding a sense of the epic that provides context and reason for revolt. It moves from Anno Domini to Ave Verum Corpus in its two sections, and that single gesture may contain the best understanding of and impetus for the collection. Beginning with “In the year of the Lord” grounds the text in Christianity, the gift of Jesus Christ’s death and the debt that it implies. “Ave Verum Corpus” is a hymn that translates roughly to “Hail, true body” and assigns redemptive significance to the suffering of all. In making its way from the former to the latter, Biddinger’s poetry becomes an anthem for recent years. In times when all seems at the mercy of natural disaster or religious intrigue or political partisanship, it reminds us that rebellion and resurgence are potent instruments of change, should the individual take them up. The central figures of O Holy Insurgency eke out the meaning in their own trials. They create an imperfect system that, through courage and stubbornness, works perfectly.
Ross Losapio is a graduate of the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the recipient of the 2013 Catherine and Joan Byrne Poetry Prize, and his poetry appears or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the minnesota review, The Emerson Review, and elsewhere. His reviews appear in Blackbird, Rattle, and Verse Wisconsin.