Mary Biddinger and Matthew Cheney in Conversation



Mary Biddinger and Matthew Cheney have both published books with Black Lawrence Press, in Mary’s case five books of poetry and in Matthew’s a collection of short stories. Both are also ensconced in academia: Mary is a professor of English at the University of Akron, where she also edits the Akron Series in Poetry, and Matthew is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire, where he studies modernist prose and its legacies.***


MATTHEW CHENEY: First, maybe we can start with the most important question: Do you have any pets? Dogs? Cats?

MARY BIDDINGER: Matt, this is my favorite kind of question. When at home I’m surrounded by pets: four cats, and one dog. Sure, they can be pesky (try sequencing a poetry manuscript on a hardwood floor with an overzealous tabby who wants to give her input on section breaks), but they are also a great comfort and inspiration. The cats make a particularly good audience if trying out new poems for a reading: patient, fairly stationary, unafraid to purr if a metaphor is especially dazzling. My dog, on the other hand, barks when he hears “poet voice” emanating from behind a closed door. I won’t attempt to interpret that.

CHENEY: At what point do you read your poetry aloud? How much of it for you is an oral art?

BIDDINGER: Maybe this is a poet thing, but I read my work aloud as I write, and I beg my creative writing students to do the same. Come to think of it, I do this with recommendation letters, too, but it’s different with a poem. One of the most difficult aspects of writing a poem is finding where to end, and reading aloud helps with that a lot. Sometimes you’ve already nailed your dismount from the balance beam, but you nonetheless go ahead and attempt another few handsprings because you aren’t sure. biddinger-author-photo-the-czarReading aloud also helps me craft my line breaks. It’s vital to the process.

In terms of public events, I always want to read my newest stuff and that can be a problem when I am trying to promote a book. Dear Audience, allow me to read five new poems and then remember what you came here to hear, and then shift gears, before ending with something I wrote this morning. I think as much about the arc and sequence of the poems as I do about what pieces to read. But I also tend to be spontaneous, and have been known to shuffle poems around at the podium. It’s definitely art for me, especially when I read poems with narratives that explore vulnerability on the part of the speaker.

Speaking of readings, I had the pleasure of hearing you read at the CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles during AWP 2015, and felt that experiencing your fiction aloud amplified my appreciation of your work. I’m a devout reader of fiction, but often public readings of prose fail to replicate the experience of discovery and engagement that I have with the page. What advice do you have for fellow fiction writers who are going to read their work aloud?

CHENEY: I have a theatre background, though I haven’t done any performing for a few years, so reading aloud is a way for me to indulge my performance side. But there’s also the fact that, as multiple people have told me, I write short stories as you’d probably expect a playwright to. Even if they’re not dialogue-heavy, as many are, the voice or voicescheney-author-photo-for-book in the narrative are my base. Before anything else, a story is something I hear in my head. I can’t write without an angle on the rhythms and tones of the sentences.

As for advice for writers giving readings, I always think of it as performing a role, with whatever I’m reading as the script. I’m generally quite introverted, and I have absolutely no talent for small talk. For that reason, scripts and rehearsals are things I love. I don’t have any desire to be in front of an audience as myself; in fact, I’m terrified of it. Instead, I’m there as The Writer. That’s a role I can perform.

One of the biggest problems I see even with experienced readers is that they fall into very narrow vocal patterns and rhythms. It happens to all of us. We get into a rhythm, and then stick to it, so the sound of the next sentence becomes very predictable. That’s a recipe for making an audience’s attention drift. Actors know this, and so have developed ways to counter the habit, because for most of us, you really do have to pay attention to it if you want to avoid it. Different styles of acting and theatre have different approaches, of course, but generally I’d say one of the most helpful techniques you can learn in the theatre is script analysis, which is basically close reading combined with performance notes. Mark accents, emphases, changes in voice, beat changes, etc. This will also help with developing confidence, because you’ll have this wonderful score for your reading to fall back on.

With poetry, you’ve already got something of a score in the shape of the poem on the page. As a prose writer, the things that I find most fascinating and alienating (in a good way) about poetry are line breaks and stanza shapes. I’m familiar with your most recent collections of poetry, Mary, and in each I’ve been struck by their stanzas. Beyond the individual poems, there’s a rhythm to the books as books because, for instance, you’ll have a lot of two- and three-stanza poems, then just as we readers are getting settled, there’s a poem that’s completely differently shaped. And then of course, there are the prose poems, which are different as well. I don’t really have a question here, I just have a curiosity, so I wonder if you might be able to talk about how you think and feel your way through line breaks and stanza shapes…

BIDDINGER: I’m kind of a “when in doubt, try couplets” poet, but I can say that prose poems come from a different place for me. With the conventionally lineated poems, I am often working line by line, reading aloud several times before proceeding to the next line. When writing prose poems, I am all about the momentum. I usually know that it’s going to be a prose poem by the end of the first line. However, even when writing a prose poem I try to break up the work into stanzagraphs, or prose verse paragraphs.

One tendency I have is to write poems in stanzas with one long line, and one slightly shorter line. I’m not sure why I do this, but it’s helpful as a generative device. Sometimes I switch things up and start with the shorter line, and other times I begin with the long line. I like giving myself a space to fill up. I tell my students that having some sort of form can offer structure, and use the analogy of a bunch of paired socks waiting to be stored. If you let them hang out on top of the dresser, they’ll get knocked down or mixed in with other things, but if you confine them to a tidy drawer, all the sock chaos will conform itself to that sized container. That’s exactly how I feel about stanzas. I give myself a box (of whatever shape), and then fill it again and again.

CHENEY: It strikes me that all but one of your books from Black Lawrence have images of places on their covers. One of the things that first attracted me to your work, in fact, was some ineffable feeling of, for lack of a better word, placeness in your Small Enterprise poems. Which might just be my own projection. But I wonder. Do you feel placed?

BIDDINGER: Hang on a minute, Matt. I’m going to go write about thirty new poems about the notion of being placed. What an excellent query, and something I’m not entirely aware of when writing, but I’m sure it’s among my main motivations. Growing up, my family relocated frequently, so I believe I had a sense of preemptive loss whenever I would move to a new place. Often when I’m writing a poem I wonder, is this poem addressed to a person, or to a city? I like blurring that line sometimes, as I did in my book O Holy Insurgency.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite activities was just staring out the window of a car or a train. I loved looking into windows (even if they were boarded up or broken) and imagining what secrets they held. I try to go to that place in my mind when I’m writing, and it’s always a place, not a concept or an object. It’s no surprise that I get a lot of my ideas when driving these days. It’s hard to remember them without writing them down (I am not savvy enough to record myself while on the go), but sometimes I’ll repeat something as I’m driving on the highway, half mantra, half pre-poem.

I’m so thankful for having landed in a place that’s truly right for me, after a life of moving every few years. Akron has the perfect balance of lively spirit and Midwestern grit; it’s a place where I finally feel at home.

CHENEY: I’ve had very much the opposite experience — I lived in the same house in rural New Hampshire until I went to college, and I’ve not only spent the majority of my life in New Hampshire, but in that house, since I inherited it when my father died and it’s cheaper for me to live in it than almost anywhere else right now. Without ever planning to be, I ended up very rooted. For a while, that meant I traveled a lot — Europe, Nicaragua, Mexico, Kenya, all over the U.S. — but I usually came home to the place that has most usually been home. I’m only now beginning to see how this affects my writing, and I’ve really grown weary of travel.

BIDDINGER: I entered your essay “Why I Am Not A Poet” with mild trepidation (we poets are always on the lookout for division by genre), and was thrilled to see the connection to O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not A Painter.” In the essay you said, “When I teach writing, I try to teach the students to think like poets, even if they don’t write like poets, even if they write the prosiest prose.” I’m interested in hearing about how this works with your students. What aspects of their writing are sloughed off in response to the idea of thinking like a poet? PS: This quote is amazing: “Poetry is great for my iconoclastic intentions, because even students who have had wonderful, innovative teachers of poetry in the past may still hold on to an idea that poems are things that sound like Hallmark cards and work like cryptography.”

CHENEY: Fundamentally, I try to get students to play around. We take writing so seriously! And it is serious, deadly serious, but I wouldn’t keep doing it if it weren’t also play, because there aren’t enough extrinsic rewards to make writing short stories a worthwhile activity otherwise. So I try to help students see the pleasure in the sound of language, the pleasure in playing around with form and structure. I use a lot of Gertrude Stein whenever I can — I challenge the students to try to write like her, which at first seems easy, but is actually really hard because it’s hard to give up on denotative meaning and look at the words as shapes and sounds. I encourage students to write badly, as badly as they can, because generally their idea of “bad writing” is something free and weird, something their high school English teacher would scowl at. The results can be illuminating and liberating. I also steal a lot from Lynda Barry’s books What It Is and Syllabus — for instance, I bring crayons to class and we write with them. To find what is serious about writing, we have to first get away from all the assumptions of seriousness we bring to the task. And then maybe we’ll find the real seriousness along the way.

This brings me to a question I have about teaching poetry — what do you do? How do you bring students into poetry, how do you get them thinking about it deeply, engaging with it deeply?

BIDDINGER: I tell students that I consider myself to be an ambassador for poetry, and often I find myself locating and undoing the students’ negative past experiences with poems. There are, of course, exceptions (sometimes students had a great high school teacher who exposed them to various poets, or didn’t force them to write a sonnet about autumn under duress). But generally, I try to convey to students the idea that poetry belongs to all of us; it stems from the oral tradition, and shares similarities with the music in everybody’s headphones as they’re walking across campus.

Speaking of music, I would love to hear more about your process in compiling a playlist for your short story collection Blood, which was featured at Largehearted Boy. Any playlist that kicks off with The The is a winner in my book. How is your writing influenced by music? Is it part of your process? And are there any current artists or songs that you would recommend to writers as inspiration?

CHENEY: I’m always happy to meet another The The listener! (I wrote at length about The The for Kelly Baker’s website, Cold Takes, as part of a series on music, memory, and emotion.)

I put the Largehearted Boy playlist together as a kind of pedaogical tool — I wanted to propose songs that would help readers find a way into the stories, into their tones and weirdnesses. This becomes especially important later on, because the stories toward the end of the book shift into a kind of surrealism that I’ve discovered can be really alienating to readers. So, for instance, what happens if we think of the song “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford as a companion to the story “Walk in the Light While There Is Light”? There are few recordings I find as powerful as that song. I have no idea what the song is “about”, and yet all the brief images, those moments, somehow together add up to something overwhelmingly powerful, ineffable — an effect beyond words, despite being created by words.

If I’ve discovered anything by having this book published, its just how much some readers resist and, in fact, are angered by the weird turns a lot of my stories take. The teacher in me of course wants to fix this, to create pedagogies to make my work more pleasurable or at least accessible for readers, and the Largehearted Boy playlist is one such attempt.

You’ve had your own encounters with readers who reject the weirder moments of your work — the moments I really love in your work — and I wonder how you’ve dealt with that over the years.

BIDDINGER: Matt, I feel a “kinship of the strange” with you, and I’m so glad to talk about weird moments in our work. I’ve always been attracted to oddness in literature and music, film, art, and so on. Thankfully my parents cultivated this in me, and it was only when discussing movies or records with friends that I became aware of my non-mainstream tendencies. Something unusual about me is that I grew up watching very little television (except for the news, and of course Twin Peaks), so maybe that time spent reading Camus and listening to Laibach had an effect.

When I started taking creative writing classes as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, my strangeness set me apart without alienating me from classmates and professors. Looking back, in some instances they were very forgiving of my overt weirdness, but the most important thing that they did was support me even it my poems made “no sense.” Later, in graduate programs, I encountered more peers and professors who would call me out on the strange. I became self conscious. Sometimes I would write a fake poem to bring to workshop, an accessible narrative with crowd-pleasing concrete details, rather than the weird thing I was working on at home and keeping to myself.

I struggled with this until my first book came out, and then I purged myself of all those voices that said things like This poem needs a topic sentence, or I just don’t get it. I think that’s one advantage of writing beyond a writing program. You finally come into your own, and become responsible for making your own decisions. Allowing myself to return to my strange roots was liberating, and I was glad to be able to truly surprise myself in my work again.

CHENEY: How have those experiences as a student shaped your own pedagogy? What do you do with the weird writers?

BIDDINGER: I try to be an advocate for my student writers who write the weird. First I share with them the work of fellow writers of the strange. Next we talk about reaching audiences and making them feel, without compromising the experiments of the poem. Often all readers need is a sense of setting, or a feeling of kinship with a speaker, and then they are able to make the necessary leaps. I am also very open about my own struggles as a writer, including workshop experiences where a weird poem was a huge flop, and I think this helps create a dialogue. Finally, I try to get all of my students to at least dabble in strangeness, whether it’s writing a poem without a linear narrative, or really pushing imagery into surreal territory. Even if the writers don’t continue their trajectories of weirdness, they nonetheless have a new appreciation for it as a craft decision.

CHENEY:  In the introduction to The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, which you edited with John Gallaher, you write that you sought out essays “that are investigating poetry and the situation of poetry as something important, with something at stake.” It’s now more than five years since you put that book together, and I wonder how you see the importance of poetry — your own or others’ — now. What’s at stake these days for poetry and the situation of poetry?

BIDDINGER: Something that has struck me lately is how we’ve created better access to poems about social justice. This, of course, is due to necessity. But I believe we are in a moment where people are finding that they need poems, and perhaps those people aren’t ordinarily poetry readers. Thinking about poems like Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” or Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” both of which I have shared with friends and students, and how they have been passed around so often lately to the point of becoming “viral,” suggests an increased demand for poetry of this nature. A new readership is seeking poems about racial injustice, about the struggle for LGBTQ rights, about economic disparities, and my hope is that this will further make a case for poetry’s relevance, and for its ability to articulate truths about the human condition in a way that only poetry can.

Responding to this question makes me wonder if you, too, have a report from the field. Have you noticed recent changes in the world of fiction, or any noteworthy trends?

CHENEY: I don’t keep up with contemporary fiction as much as I used to because I’ve got this whole Ph.D. thing going on that keeps me reading piles of stuff in very specific areas, leaving little time or, more importantly, brain capacity for other reading. At this point, I could tell you more about what was going on with 1930s British fiction than current U.S. fiction. But of course, even somebody who only reads occasionally in new work would notice a couple of trends, particularly the popularity of dystopian writing and the growing shelves of a certain type of eco-conscious writing, writing that is somehow grappling with what some philosophers and scientists have come to call the anthropocene. Roy Scranton’s New York Times essay (and later book) “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” is one entry into this idea. Jeff VanderMeer’s recent books are the most interesting fictional exploration of these concepts that I know. (Some people have taken to calling such stuff cli-fi, a term I deeply dislike because it sounds really silly, and I don’t think a term for basically the most important global issue facing us should sound silly. Anthropocene is an ugly word, but not silly, and ugliness is appropriate to the horrors the future holds for life on this planet.)

Maybe writers tend to be especially attracted to doom and gloom by temperament, and certainly it’s true that the world has always been ending, that apocalypticism is as close to a historical universal as anything is … but given the state of the world economy, with a tiny number of people controlling the majority of the world’s wealth; and given the tenacity of racism and sexism and nationalism all the other awful -isms that plague us; and given the state of the world’s ecology, which is wracked and wrecked by ever more chaos, destruction, disaster, misery, and extinction — given all this, it’s not entirely a surprise that writers are drawn to gloomy and doomy ideas. A lot, and maybe even most, of what gets written about this stuff in novels and stories is kitsch, with, it seems to me, an underlying agenda to make us feel better, but it’s hard to sell work that doesn’t to some extent or another try to flatter the reader. Maybe kitsch is better than nothing.

And I may be too pessimistic, too resigned, myself, to doom. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to literature from between the two world wars: with those writings, at least, we know what happened next, and we know who was accurate in their ideas, and who was too optimistic, and who was just full of themselves.

At a reading recently, I said that though I’ve tried to write science fiction, especially when I was younger, I’ve never succeeded at writing what I think of as actual science fiction — as opposed to a story like “Expositions” that uses science fictional tropes for non-science-fictional purposes — because to write science fiction, one must believe in the future, and I don’t. (The audience laughed. I laughed. What else could we do?)

Perhaps we should finish with something lighter. One of the things, actually, I like about your poetry is that it is often infused and enlivened with moments of lightness, sometimes absurd, sometimes touching, sometimes both. Do you have a favorite poem of lightness, or a poem that lightens you? (For me, it’s Olena Kalytiak Davis’s “sweet reader, flanneled and tulled”, which I can read at any time  — preferably aloud — and feel better. I’ve been known occasionally, even randomly, to just blurt out: “And I, Reader, I am but the daughter/ of a tinker.”)

BIDDINGER: Oh, that is a magnificent poem by OKD! And thanks so much for picking up on the humor in my poems. It’s always the worst when I read something that’s intended to be comical, and audiences look at me like I’m trying to be depressing or poignant or something other than funny. So much of my poetry comes from misunderstandings, typos, overheard and misheard phrases, and other potentially comical things. Humor is really at the heart of my work.

When I’m looking for a poem to fill me with lightness, or humorous joy, or to remind me of poetry’s performative properties, I turn to Matthew Guenette, who manages to be hilarious while also making a powerful social commentary. I offer you a video of Guenette reading his poem “Sestina Aguilera” here at the University of Akron. The quality isn’t great, because it was taken back before smart phone video, and because we couldn’t stop laughing. Wordplay, popular culture, improvisation, and humor come together in this performance, which is a joy to share.

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