In Conversation With
Mary Biddinger is the author of six full-length poetry collections, including Small Enterprise and Partial Genius, both with Black Lawrence Press. 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 manuscript of small poems about ordinary things, and a new book of prose poems. You can find Mary Biddinger at marybiddinger.com and on Twitter @marybid.
Tom Simpson: Tell us about the decision, and the inspiration, to assemble a collection of prose poems at this stage of your writing career.
Mary Biddinger: My relationship with storytelling is what draws me to the prose poem as a form, and to the novel as a life necessity. Prose poems seem to come from a different place than lineated poems, and bring me a sense of exhilaration when I write them. The scope of the narrative in Partial Genius, which focuses on coming to terms with past selves and realizing how remarkable (and unremarkable) they actually are, exceeded the limits of a spare lyrical form, so this felt right both in size and sensibility.
I did not initially set out to create a book-length volume of prose poems, and actually wrote the poems in Partial Genius over a span of several meandering years, but once I figured out the pattern I decided to run with the project. As much as I attempt to make things organized and cohesive in regular life, I tend to let poems take the lead when it comes to writing.
The first time I wrote longer prose poems like those in Partial Genius was in my chapbook Saint Monica, which was my first collection with Black Lawrence Press. I was thinking about the convention of the five paragraph essay and wrote a poem in five stanzagraphs, admiring the capacity of that form as a container for ideas. I appreciate the way that the prose poem lets a writer compile an assortment of disparate things and connect them with pivots.
Right now I am finishing another collection of prose poems. It’s about a pair of graduate school roommates and their adventures in the late 1990s. There’s a lot of fishnet, weird snacks, dance club hits, awful jobs, beauty products, literary theory, and oddly named shots. I have had way too much fun with this new manuscript, and hope readers enjoy the characters as much as I have.
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.
TS: The University of Akron Press table is one of my favorite spots at AWP. Tell us about the origin of the "Poetry Lives!" slogan / swag and some of the poetry collections we should be looking out for.
MB: We love visitors to the University of Akron Press AWP table, and we feature a new Poetry Lives button every year. I launched the “Poetry Lives” slogan when the University of Akron Press was resurrected from an administrative shutdown in the summer of 2015. One of the few positive things that we were able to take away from that experience was a feeling of intense solidarity with poetry fans and readers around the world. When I use that hashtag it’s a personal reminder—and hopefully a reminder to others, too—that the collective strength of poets can create an undeniable force.
We have a number of awesome new and forthcoming poetry collections at the UA Press. I’ve been proofing final pages for The Boy in the Labyrinth by Oliver de la Paz and The Soft Path by Joshua Harmon. Oliver and Joshua both have previous books with the UA Press, and I’m thrilled to welcome these new collections to the catalog. Next up I’ll be working with designer Amy Freels on finalizing covers for A Brief History of Fruit by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, Sensorium by Emily Corwin, and Witch Doctrine by Annah Browning, returning to those collections to see how they speak to the cover art. Readers can check out our Akron Poetry & Poetics Facebook page for updates and glimpses of these covers, and we’ll be offering pre-orders on our UA Press ordering site. All of these books will be available at the University of Akron Press table at AWP 2020, as well.
TS: Is there still time for writers to connect with the "summer of prompts"?
MB: Thanks so much for asking about my #summerofprompts feature. This is the third summer that I have offered a weekly poetry prompt over at my Twitter (@marybid), and I’ll be continuing it a few weeks into August. A bit of good news is that I am working with the University of Akron Press to make a little book of prompts based on these posts and the wide assortment of poetry writing prompts that I’ve shared with my students over the years. I hope to make a book that’s a useful resource for all writers, both beyond and within a creative writing class setting.
Along with recommendation letter queries, I frequently have former students get back in touch to ask for more prompts, and so the Summer of Prompts was a way to send those ideas into the universe for anyone who might benefit.
TS: Whose poems, whose music, are you immersed in these days?
MB: I spent about six months working on the “official soundtrack” playlist for Partial Genius. One of the factors that slowed me down was that I kept adding songs that really belonged on a playlist for my new prose poem manuscript, the roommate book, so I had to go back and save those for later. Thus, I’ve been milling about on a sea of music from the 80s and 90s, from Missing Persons to Switchblade Symphony. In this playlist my hope was to recreate the feeling of a mix tape for Partial Genius, introducing some new songs to those who didn’t encounter them previously, and providing some nostalgia for those who remember.
Much of what I read in the summer happens behind the scenes, due to my work at the University of Akron Press. I spent the beginning of my summer hanging out with 623 manuscript submissions for the Akron Poetry Prize competition, which always puts me in a bit of a pleasant, dreamy haze.
TS: Your Instagram feed suggests that you exude radiant love for both cats and dogs. Is that true, and if so, has your failure to take sides alienated large swaths of your audience?
MB: I love this question! Thank you for making note of my ubiquitous pack and clowder. We could probably add my garden to this ecosystem, too, as I take joy in sharing what’s blooming.
My personality is sort of a cat/dog hybrid, so it’s no surprise that I get along well with both species. I am a friendly introvert (yes, we exist) so maybe I’m the pleasant neighborhood tabby that steps out of the bushes to say hello when someone walks past. I grew up with a dog, and have lived with dogs for the past ten years, but it was only feasible for me to have cats during the many years when I lived in tiny apartments. Both of my pups have the dual role of being resident clowns and guard dogs. My cat Klaus has the largest literary following of our household. People always ask for him at AWP, but he’s not a fan of crowds, even if they are adoring crowds. Poetry bores Klaus.
In terms of alienating swaths of an audience, I am a proud University of Michigan alum who lives in Ohio State country, so I gleefully take my share of antagonism there.