In each of our “Boo’s Hollow” issues, Associate Poetry Editor Lea Graham invites writers and poets to reflect on the role played by place in both their own work and poetry in general. This month, we’re proud to share the thoughts and work of Mary Biddinger.
Lea Graham: From your essay and so much of your work, you clearly have a commitment to the Midwest and the Rust Belt, particularly, but I always think of you as having lived in various places and traveled widely. Can you give us a kind of timeline or narrative of where you grew up and where you’ve lived since?
Mary Biddinger: Last week I had the pleasure of reading and doing a Q&A at my MFA alma mater, Bowling Green State University, and an undergraduate student asked about my Midwest roots. He was pretty surprised to learn that I was born in California. My rationale in response was that the Midwest has an extra sort of magic for me, since I haven’t always lived here. When I was two years old, my family moved from California to New Jersey, so basically I went from one ocean to another before I could speak in complete sentences. I think this may have something to do with my desire to travel.
After this big move, I lived in various Illinois, Michigan, and Chicago towns. In the 1990s, my parents moved to England, so that was a delightful shift, and I loved going home to Turvey, Bedfordshire for holidays. I only wish, however, that I’d appreciated overseas travel more back when I could do it (Italy is a quick plane ride from England, etc). Now that I have two children, long distance travel is pretty much impossible, but I hope that we can do some exploring in the future.
LG: I really love the listing of the “dirty places” you name in your essay. Your work is often about characters and places that are somehow outside of approval or at least are struggling or at some edge. Can you talk about your draw towards a kind of raw experience? What do you think it is that pulls us to the dirty (and, as you say, “dirty” as multiply defined)?
MB: My Catholic school education probably gave me too much insight on the assessment of what is clean and what is not. I have always struggled with conflicting desires to be both perfectly good and horribly bad. There’s a lot of redemption involved. So I tend to write about struggle and sharp edges because I find them more appealing to my wicked side. There are already so many things coaching us in our goodness: spreadsheets, hand sanitizer, organic produce. At least poems can walk down dark alleys, even if we have to pass them by in order to keep ourselves on track.
LG: Beyond the places you’ve lived or experienced themselves, what or who has influenced your interest in place? What other writers call your attention or have helped to shape what you do?
MB: I have recently been most struck by the fiction of Bonnie Jo Campbell. It moved me in ways I have never experienced previously, because it is so true to real life. I recall sitting at the edge of a pool while my son was swimming, and reading American Salvage while various children splashed me savagely—I just couldn’t put the book down. I also admire the poetry of Steve Kistulentz, and how he deals with place as simultaneously haunted and haunting in his collection Little Black Daydream.
LG: I think of you as one of the hardest working poets I know (which is saying a lot!) You have a fourth book coming out in May of 2014 … and after that, what’s next?
MB: Oh golly—thank you! Well, my collection A Sunny Place with Adequate Water is coming out (if it’s on time) on the 13th of May in 2014, so thus the last day before my 40th birthday. I look forward to reading from this book and hopefully traveling with it a bit.
This past summer I finished a new collection of poems, titled Small Enterprise, which I hope to keep polishing and hanging out with. This book contains the Risk Management Memo series that I’ve been sending out into the world lately. While in graduate school I worked various side jobs, including one where I authored a number of “risk management memo” documents. I decided to reconceptualize this form and make it relate to other sorts of risk, the kinds that are more personal and less corporate.
I am also at work on editing a new volume for the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, which features essays on a variety of women poets who have an innovative sensibility. I look forward to shouting details of that project from the rooftops of Akron, Ohio very soon.
Photo by weifeng zhao