Mary Biddinger Hears Owls: An Interview by Serena Agusto-Cox

March 3, 2009

Mary Biddinger

We hope you enjoy our series of poetry interviews. This one, with Mary Biddinger, was conducted by Serena Agusto-Cox in February-March 2009. Please read more from our series of interviews with poets published in 32 Poems. Ms. Biddinger has a poem in the spring 2009 issue of 32 Poems. You can get a copy here.

1. Not only are you a contributor to 32 Poems, you also founded Barn Owl Review. What “hat” do you find most difficult to wear and why?

As a kid I loved the Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Little did I know that it would be a literal representation of my future. I’m a poet, an editor of Barn Owl Review and the Akron Series in Poetry, and a writing program administrator moving into the directorship of a large, consortial MFA program (the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, or NEOMFA). Outside that, I’m a mother and homeowner, a book club facilitator and a photographer of random Rust Belt detritus. I’m a person who rarely knows what day it is, but who plans what to cook for dinner a week in advance.

The only conflict between hats seems to be the administrative hat versus the artistic hat. They don’t want to stay on at the same time. The administrative hat wants to cover up the artistic hat. The artistic hat tells me to lie on the floor of my office and think about poems, while the administrative hat tells me to run down the hall and start ransacking the filing cabinet. Thankfully, the editorial hat doesn’t conflict with any of the other hats. It’s sort of the best of both worlds for me.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

This is a fascinating question. A lot of people have expected me to be anti-performance because I took the rather square academic poetry route of going to school straight through from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of my doctoral program. But I didn’t intend to become a poet. I’m not sure what I wanted to be, but it involved French, traveling a lot, and wearing combat boots. It wasn’t until I started hanging out in coffee shops and bookstores in Ann Arbor, where I was a student at the University of Michigan, that I became interested in poetry as a lifestyle. I am far too nerdy to claim that I embody the poetic lifestyle in any serious sense, but performance and spoken word were what pulled me in.

Most of the authors I cannot live without—Vasko Popa, Lorca, Neruda, Zbigniew Herbert—are international poets who comment substantially about the human condition, whether it’s in subtle metaphor or an explicit battle cry. I do think that poetry has the power to equalize humanity, or at least to rivet humanity to the point of caring about the other side of the issue.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

Cats. I love cats. I would have a hundred cats if there was enough space (and a gigantic, room-sized lint roller). Right now I have five cats. I am also obsessed with cuteness. When I feel annoyed or frustrated I depend on LOLCats ( and Cute Overload ( ) to lift my spirits. Other obsessions: hand washing, daydreaming, planning and setting goals, eating clementines.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)

I do love Bird by Bird. The first time I read it I started to weep (I’m not kidding) because I felt like someone finally understood what I was looking for as a writer. When teaching, I am fond of The Poet’s Companion (Addonizio and Laux). I’m not a big fan of writing in form, but I enjoy flipping through Lewis Turco’s New Book of Forms and scaring myself into appreciating free verse a bit more.

I have had good and bad experiences in writers’ groups. The better experiences have always been with writers who shared some aesthetic sensibilities with me and who swapped poems beforehand. I’ve been told that my poems are difficult to understand on a first read. I was always the girl in the workshop who finished reading her poem and was met with resounding silence and befuddlement. I can’t workshop well with readers who want all of their questions answered in a conventional way.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

I remind my students that poetry predates literacy, and that it belongs to all of us. I’ve found that today’s young people (school-agers) are more open to poetry than they were in the past. I think it’s the convergence of freestyle and academic poetry that creates the rift, though it really doesn’t have to be a rift. I try to keep my own poems out of the realm of the allusive and grounded in the everyday. If you’ve seen rebar before, you can “get it.”

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I am an only child, and grew up in a very quiet house. I can’t concentrate with any kind of noise. This is debilitating in a household with two small kids. I don’t listen to music when I write, but I listen to it the rest of the time. My favorite thing to do is to listen to music that inspires me while driving on a cloudy day. That’s where my poems come from. Here are a few that get me there.

Five Random Songs on Mary Biddinger’s Playlist (in no particular order)

Teen Age Riot—Sonic Youth
Come this Far—The Cranes
Apartment Story—The National
Disorder—Joy Division
Gigantic—The Pixies

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

Almost all of my closest friends are writers. When I was younger I felt very competitive with them. By nature I am a “guy’s girl,” and that always makes me self-consciously aspire to have more friends who are women. What has surprised me is how many friends I have made thanks to the blogosphere and po-scene. And I’m not talking about acquaintances, but kindred spirits like the TypewriterGirls of Pittsburgh, who were instant favorites of mine.

I am extremely grateful for the writer friends who serve as surrogate mentors for me. I didn’t have many advocates as a student, and none that I’m still in touch with, but folks like Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Oliver de la Paz and Simone Muench and Amy Bracken Sparks have filled in where my mentors left off. I’d be lost without my writer friends.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I work out at the gym about four days a week. I lift weights, run on the treadmill, attack the elliptical. I’m naturally an antsy person, and sitting at a desk doesn’t suit me for long periods of time. Working out gives me some balance. Otherwise, I try to eat healthy all of the time. No sweets, lots of protein, fruit, veg. There were times in my life where I existed only on pasta, and now I avoid it. I have a penchant for Basmati rice.

I used to get sick a lot, but so far 2009 has treated me well. I believe in the power of citrus. I drink too much coffee and diet coke, but hope that my good habits outweigh the bad.
Prairie Fever by Mary Biddinger - Poetry Book Cover

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

When they are in season, I purchase a ton of different kinds of berries. They are like poem fuel. I used to live near a Whole Foods store that sold a glorious berry cup. I’d walk several miles with my daughter in her stroller just to get that berry cup. I also recommend, despite the astronomical price, Rainier cherries. I allow myself one bag a year. I eat half a pound of them in a sitting. If I go to heaven, I will get to sleep on a bed of Rainier cherries.

My problem isn’t so much writer’s block, but lack of time for writing. I am perpetually overscheduled, and too often poetry ends up at the bottom of the priority list because I can’t write while cutting up an apple. I need to work on that (making time, not writing while wielding a knife).

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

I have no writing space. I have my office at work, with a never-ending stream of students and other visitors, and then I have the table set up in the corner of my bedroom. Usually it’s so stacked with bills and literary journals that there’s not much room for anything other than my laptop. Before my son was born, I had a huge studio on the top floor of my house, but now I’m crammed in the corner.

My ideal writing space would include high-quality soundproofing, and a specialized robot that monitors my cats’ activity, allowing them to lounge comfortably on windowsills, but preventing them from ransacking papers. My writing space would also come with an assistant to do laundry and other housekeeping tasks, therefore eliminating any need to put off writing in order to pick up legos. This space would have an intercom so that I could speak with my best friend and first reader, Jay Robinson, whenever I needed a second opinion on a line break or a title. It would also enable me to have my entire poetry book collection there, but also simultaneously in my work office. This might involve some kind of wrinkle in the universe. Finally, my ideal writing space would have some kind of luscious décor like seashells and green sequins pasted all over the walls.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

My follow up to Prairie Fever, currently titled Hot Corners, is just starting to circulate to some publishers. This book contains a series of persona poems on a fictional reinvention of Saint Monica, patron of wives in bad marriages, among other things. Hot Corners includes non-Monica poems as well, and you can find poems from the book in current or forthcoming issues of Gulf Coast, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Laurel Review, Memorious, Ninth Letter, North American Review, /nor, Third Coast, and many other journals.

The poem that’s forthcoming in 32 Poems, “The Velvet Arms,” is part of a new series that explores the urban transient hotel as a locus of everyday desire and transgression. The poems aren’t cemented in any particular timeframe, and slide between the 1940’s rooming house and the contemporary SRO (single room occupancy). I was inspired to write this series thanks to an apartment building I lived in for many years when I was in Chicago. It was an old vaudeville-era hotel, and I kept thinking of how I wasn’t so different from the people who had inhabited it before me. A number of the poems from this series, including “The Velvet Arms,” are written in exactly twenty lines of blank verse.

Beyond that series, which may be more of a chapbook that a book-length collection, I am working on a new manuscript that begins where Hot Corners ends. It’s coming together organically, rather than as a premeditated project. I’m not sure where it will go, but I can promise that there will be dirty snow, trembling baguettes, a terrifying carousel pony, and a watermelon tied up in a tree.

Here is a poem:

Originally published at La Fovea


We were all suffering from a kind of incandescence.
Would rather fling all the freshly-baked rolls
down the stairs than face the accuser.
I wondered if I was moldering. My mother
didn’t even recognize the ravioli that I edged
with my spinner. I’d filled it with scraps of cloth
anyway. All the girls in my class had hair like Journey
and mouths the slashes of red a wolf leaves behind.
Save me, oh god of direct and swift evacuations.
Some day I would be lecturing a class of students
or getting tangled in the horizontal blinds
in the middle of an emphatic statement. Nobody
there to wield the tin snips. My pack of girls only
a trigger on a night at the county fair, the reek
of funnel cakes scissoring long-sleeve blouses
into the ratty tanks we’d stash in our purses for later.
There was something dangerous under our skin.
I ask my class again to mark up this draft of the globe.
They’ve never been drunk in Nice and vomiting across
multiple electrified rails. In a dream, the double that is more
authentic than the original walks down a street with me.
We stagger in unison. We’ve both had to begin the dessert
again from scratch, not being able to resist a swift punch
to the center of the springform pan. We’d both rather
surrender all of the wooden coins before anyone asks.
Is there anything more exhilarating than a good wait
in damp clothing, or the moment you open your mouth
and realize you know the language after all, you can call
off the dogs or invent the numbers for the payphone,
and the man who shows you to your room won’t leave out
a tour of the aluminum shower down the hall.
He whispers you can both fit in there. He’ll write down
every stranger who leaves a card at the front desk.

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