Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Interview with Mary Biddinger
Mary Biddinger is the sixth interview at The Fine Delight. This interview was conducted through e-mail. A bio note, as well as links to Mary's books, follow the interview. Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Mary!
1. "Saint Monica Burns It Down" is a poem that made me smirk, nod my head, and think. The poem was published back in 2008, but could you speak about its composition?
This poem is a departure from others in the chapbook because its central “her” is a bit ambiguous. Is the she Monica, or is Monica the other woman? Is the he one of the male characters appearing elsewhere, such as Monica’s beloved Kevin McMillan, or her not-so-beloved husband Jason? The ambiguity allowed me to incorporate an element of deception into the poem itself, since the poem is about infidelity, subterfuge, and revenge.
Like many of my poems, “Saint Monica Burns It Down” started with a collection of images bumping against each other in my head. I was probably handling some hot peppers and wondering if a vengeful spouse or lover might ever consider using them as a weapon. Peppers like that can certainly help deter wildlife from windowsills and gardens. I also wanted this poem to create an unsettling domestic sphere, with limited comforts and the potential for danger around every corner. Saint Monica is as much about unmaking a home as making one, and I hoped that the scene itself reflected the emotions of the poem, or even better, managed to convey them to the reader.
2. I'm really looking forward to your forthcoming chapbook, Saint Monica. Could you tell us more about this project (how it started, the process, etc.).
The first Saint Monica poem was “Saint Monica of the Gauze.” I wrote it on sort of a whim, without contemplating who Saint Monica was. I’m sure her hagiographic background was somewhere in my subconscious, but I wasn’t looking for a new patron saint, and I definitely wasn’t scouting for the protagonist of a project book. I was just writing a poem and I gave it a title. I didn’t give it any thought until I was at a funeral and looked over to see a stained glass window with Saint Monica’s likeness on it. The funeral was incredibly heartbreaking—a young wife and mother who had lost her life to cancer—and the church was packed with mourners. I’m an emotional person, and somehow at that moment I realized that Saint Monica had found me for a reason. Yeah, it sounds cheesy, but I refuse to deny the serendipitous beginnings of the book. Poetry itself is already mystifying enough.
Soon I realized that the persona of a new Saint Monica was an ideal figure for articulating some of my thoughts about coming of age in the rust belt Midwest. There are references to the hagiography throughout the book, but my Monica is a reinvention of the saint as an ordinary girl. Amazingly, people liked reading the Monica poems as much as I enjoyed writing them. I had fun with Monica because she was a version of myself, which enabled her to be both authentic and fictional. I wanted the chapbook to tell her story in vignettes, rather than in a linear narrative. I wanted the chapbook to have a message, without being sanctimonious. Catholicism is part of my culture, and it was my intention for the book to be an ethnography of sorts.
3. You edit Barn Owl Review; in your experiences at BOR (or elsewhere), have you encountered many poems that engage faith? What are some of the successes/mistakes you've seen in those poetic attempts?
Readers of BOR may notice that we have quite a few poems that reference religion in some way. I co-founded the magazine with poet Jay Robinson, who is a graduate of Calvin College and was raised Presbyterian. Religion is an interest for both of us. We are churchgoing folks, albeit with different churches. Our magazine is by no means a religious publication, but we are open to publishing poems about religion. Now that Mike Krutel has joined the editorial staff, we have another former Catholic school kid on board, so if we ever have a Protestants-versus-Catholics BOR basketball game, at least I have some backup on the court.
As editors, we tend to be impressed with faith-oriented poems that incorporate humor, or mysticism, or both. The new issue of BOR, which will be hot off the press in February, features the poem “Why God is a Woman” by Nin Andrews, as well as “Jesus, My Suitor” by Liz Robbins. Maybe someday we’ll do a special web feature collecting all of the religion-oriented BOR poems from past issues. In terms of missteps, we’ll likely pass on any poem that’s hateful regarding someone’s religion, or that promotes degrading caricatures. We also prefer poems with an element of surprise, and freshness.
4. Any Catholic literary influences?
I am wowed and energized by a number of younger contemporary poets who have a Catholic background, or who write about related subjects. Anna Leahy comes to mind right away, with her marvelous saint poems. Steve Kistulentz, my favorite former altar boy, also writes poems that delve into notions of Catholicism. And Phil Metres has some incredible poems that are actually prayers. I had no idea that poets could write poems that are prayers. I’m not sure I would ever want to, since Phil already does such a beautiful job of it. My dream reading would have all four of us reading poems that relate to faith in some way.
I should also note that there’s a beautiful essay by Elizabeth Robinson in the book I recently edited, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, which addresses in a secular way the use of persona and the mystical poem. This is not a Catholic literary influence, because the essay discusses a “transcendent mystical experience” that is not linked to a particular religion, but I found it related quite directly to my work with Saint Monica.
5. What are the elements or traits of Catholicism that make it so appealing to writers?
I’d have to say that the element of tradition is appealing to writers. Even if writers themselves aren’t Catholic, their neighbors growing up were, or their friends from school were. Unfortunately, I also believe that controversy attracts writers, some of whom choose to resort to stereotypes of Catholic characters, or to who write inaccurately about the Church. I admire writers such as Rachel Dilworth who are able to approach potentially sensational topics with great care and reverence (yet with bravery, too).
6. Michael Leach has written that "If Catholicism can enchant and enthrall your imagination in the early years of your life, you will always be haunted by it. As novelist Alice McDermott said, with considerable pride, we are forever doomed to be Catholic." What is about Catholicism that has once (or continues to) fascinate/enlighten/help you?
Every day I aspire to help people, whether it’s letting someone merge into traffic in front of me, or lending an ear to a student who needs encouragement. Of course, this approach isn’t exclusive to Catholicism, but my religion is what taught me to be a good citizen of this world. I feel tremendously grateful for the gifts I’ve received in life. I get to do what I love for a living, and I am thankful every day. I also appreciate the fact that being Catholic makes me part of a large and diverse community. When my family lived overseas, or even when we traveled in the states, we always visited new churches and went to Mass there. And finally, I feel that being Catholic taught me how to leave myself in a way, how to step outside as part of the ritual of the Mass. The Mass itself—the language and music of it—has certainly had an influence on the cadence of my work, the music of it. I love listening to my four year old son because he understands the Apostles’ Creed to be a series of sounds, not necessarily words. He’s too young to read them on paper, but he can repeat those words, and feel the way they speak to each other, and to the worshipers.
7. One of my theology professors, Rev. Patrick Madden, has discussed how the Church can benefit (and has benefited) from the scholarship of independent Catholic theologians. What could the Catholic Church learn from writing and writers? Do you have advice for the Church?
So many writers, myself included, wish to make a statement about the human condition. I would love for the Church to further explore the role of the arts in promoting social justice, and representing the lives of people far removed from the relative comforts that many of us enjoy.
8. You have another full-length collection forthcoming (with a great title), O Holy Insurgency. What should we expect with that collection?
Thanks for asking, Nick. As the title might suggest, this is a book that’s not afraid of hyperbole. O Holy Insurgency is a collection of epic love poems. Quite a departure from Saint Monica’s world of forbidden longing and unhappy homes, I know. I had originally planned to make Monica into a book-length collection, perhaps with thematically-related non-Monica poems included. But after several incarnations of that manuscript, I ultimately decided not to go there. In order to have a full arc, and a complete book, I would need more—for lack of better terminology—“bad marriage poems.” And I had reached a point in my life where bad marriage was no longer a concern. I was incredibly happy, and everything felt rather grand and epic. The Saint Monica poems were finding good homes in journals such as North American Review and Ninth Letter, which gave me the confidence to try something a little nervy.
O Holy Insurgency uses an abundance of religious imagery, but it’s more about a general sense of power (and oppression) than about Catholicism. In order to write an epic book I had to take all of my figurines out of the tidy dollhouse and build a jagged stone castle for them instead. In Saint Monica I felt somewhat restrained in terms of the erotic, and I was limited because the relationships were so troubled in the first place. Saint Monica is a cautionary tale about cautionary tales. I was ready to write a book that threw caution to the wind.
Of course, this created a unique dilemma in seeking a publisher. As a publisher myself, I have very strong preferences for certain presses, and I wanted this book to find a home that would let it be epic, and that would have epic feelings for the poems, a real passion. I can’t really describe the morning that I learned Black Lawrence Press loved the book as much as I love it. Let’s just say that I jumped up and down a few thousand times.
9. What project(s) are you working on now?
Finishing O Holy Insurgency was bittersweet. It felt like my magnum opus. So what was next? I don’t necessarily need a project in order to write, but I was feeling daunted without one. I wanted to write some silly poems, almost as a joke, since the last book had serious overtones. I had been thinking about how our world is going electronic, and how very few things are coin-operated anymore. You can swipe a card to purchase a subway ticket or a soda. Back in the day, we had to fill those machines with quarters. So I started thinking about machinery, and coin-operated things, and things that would be pretty hilarious or terrifying if they became coin operated (such as an apple pie, or a lung). I realized that what I was really trying to get at was a sense of nostalgia. The poems in this new collection often hearken back to a pre-gentrification sense of urbanity, the rowhouses when they were teeming with children, not high-end appliances and granite countertops.
I am hoping to recreate a lost city, or at least to testify on its behalf. The landscape is a not-so-veiled version of the west side of Chicago. The book is an elegy for the nickel, a love song to the washing machine that swallowed a handful of quarters in exchange for watery turbulence. And of course, anyone remotely familiar with Chicago knows that it is a city full of steeples.
Mary Biddinger is the author of three collections of poetry: Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007), the chapbook Saint Monica (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), and O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), and co-editor of one volume of criticism: The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (U Akron Press, 2011). Her poems have appeared in numerous magazines, including Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, and Ploughshares. She edits Barn Owl Review, the Akron Series in Poetry, and the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, and teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Akron/NEOMFA.
Mary Biddinger page on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/6zsv8z3
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 12:08 AM