FIRST BOOK INTERVIEW WITH MICHELLE BITTING
Note: The following interview was conducted by
email through January and February of 2009.
GREEN: Let’s start with you. Was there a moment you realized that poetry was something you’d pursue seriously? That you’d actually be a poet with a book? My own first book just kind of gradually materialized, but there was a specific poem I wrote in an undergraduate workshop where something clicked—for the first time I really accessed that inner creativity, and I graduated from writing lines to really chasing poetry. Not that it was good, but something was different. Did you ever have an experience like that, or is poetry something you always knew would be a part of you?
BITTING: You know I’ve always felt like I was supposed to do something in the arts, but it wasn’t so clear which medium was mine for the long run, which one I’d like to take to the grave, until a few years ago. I sang in church in elementary school and in junior high and, just to embarrass and freak myself out, asked if I could sing “What I Did For Love” from A Chorus Line at the all school assembly. I acted in college and had a career as a dancer in my twenties. Yes, I wrote poetry, I had the poetic haunting when I was younger, but it really hit me, and I mean in the old cliché “by lightning” way, just after I had my first kid. Everything I’ve done in the arts and even my time as a chef led me to taking up the pen for real. The big epiphany in terms of believing I might have a book someday came as I passed the twenty-poem “keeper pile” benchmark, and began to see the stirrings of a bona fide compilation. Of course, most of those poems were eventually thrown out by the time I got to Good Friday Kiss. Getting acceptance letters from Stellasue (Rattle) and Hilda Raz (Prairie Schooner) in the beginning stoked my fires, big time, and I certainly won’t forget the day I was dropping my son off at his therapeutic preschool and got a call from the folks at Glimmer Train saying my poem “Trees” had won first place in their contest. Publishing isn’t everything, but it does incite a desire to carry on.
GREEN: That’s something a lot of people try to deny, I think—that there are rewards beyond the writing itself that matter. Looking at the back of the book, several poems have won individual awards; I believe your chapbook, Blue Laws, won a contest by Finishing Line Press. And Good Friday Kiss, itself, of course, was published as winner of C&R Press’s first annual De Novo Award. Obviously you must be happy with the contest experience, having had so much success, but would you recommend that route for other young poets? Were there times that you doubted whether or not it was worth the investment? And now that you have a book under your belt, are you going to continue entering them with new work?
BITTING: Sure, I’ll keep submitting to contests—why not join in the fun? I don’t send as much as I used to, mainly because I wait for prizes offered by journals where I’d really like to see my work published, places that like to print some or all of their finalists. The entry fees really add up, yes, this is another factor, so I’m pickier about when and where I throw my money and words into the big spin. I think it’s great that Rattle is able to offer such a hefty purse for its annual prize. I mean, you could actually live off that money for a couple months and write! How dreamy is that? And I’ll bet you receive a ton of spectacular poems, people saving their best stuff to submit in hopes of winning five grand. The poem that took first place this year, Joseph Fasano’s “Mahler in New York,” was breathtaking.
GREEN: Ha, I asked that question and completely forgot that we have our own contest! Let me ask one more thing before we dive inside the book itself—had the manuscript Good Friday Kiss that won C&R’s prize changed significantly from the first time you submitted it to a press? In other words, do you feel like the original manuscript was different from the book you have now? And if so, does that mean the contest process itself was constructive, in forcing you to self-edit?
BITTING: Yes! That’s one of the huge benefits of entering book contests, the hardcore editing eye it encourages. Every time you submit you ask the questions all over again, and anything that doesn’t fly can eventually no longer be ignored. The baby lived through two different titles before finding its name, Good Friday Kiss, and shed half the poems along the way. It took a few years to get it right, and frankly, I could have waited longer than I did to start sending the manuscript around, but them’s the hazards of being new and over eager. On the other hand, the earlier versions did place in several contests, so I was encouraged to keep at it and improve the material.
GREEN: This is a nice segue into what I’m most interested in—the evolution of the book, how it went from, as you said, a twenty-poem “keeper-pile” to a full-fledged and strongly themed book. As it’s published, there are five sections, each dealing with a different one of your relationships: brother, son, daughter, lovers, and finally yourself. When and how did that organizational structure emerge?
BITTING: Most of my early poems were about motherhood and dealing with my brother’s death. The psychological compression of suddenly being “confined” with a baby, and in the wake of a sibling’s suicide, triggered a survival-instinct need to write, I mean, it really was a lightening to the skull kind of phenomenon. The release and freedom and wisdom that I gleaned through the journey inside made life bearable, and miraculously, my little world of triumphs and trials became relevant to more than just me. So my subjects presented themselves like saints on burning stakes, their hair of smoke and flame—you know, I couldn’t ignore them! And then over time it became clear which one of these poems belonged with the other. For a while I wasn’t sure about putting the heavy brother and childhood poems in the front and then moving away from that to the domestic and sexual poems, or about placing all the poems about my son in one section. I tried mixing them all up, but it felt weird and disjointed, and I liked the idea of moving from the darker, intensely personal, childhood-related stuff to sections that contain more poems of awareness and connection with the world beyond my sticky cocoon.
GREEN: Well, if I might say, I think the arrangement really works. The darker content at the beginning haunts and informs the brighter world you’re walking into. How long after your brother’s death did you begin writing about it? Did you show those poems to anyone at first, or were they just for you?
BITTING: I’m glad you think so! The breakthrough poem on the subject of my brother was my poem “Trees” and I wrote that in 2001, about six years after his suicide. That one brewed for a good long time and then was triggered, released from its dormancy, when we were having some tree-trimming work done at my house, when our kids were babies. It came down with the overgrown limbs, you could say. I’ve written other poems about my brother, some shared, some not, but that was the ringer and I could never have written it immediately after his death. Some people can do that, maybe as you become more of a master, but I know I need eye- and heart- adjustment time when the really big shit hits the fan.
GREEN: Tell me more about that wisdom you gleaned from writing. Is there a specific a poem that was particularly revelatory for you? Particularly cathartic?
BITTING: You know, again, I have to name “Trees” as a pivotal poem as far as acknowledging the redemptive and cathartic power of writing poetry. There are numerous poems, well, the whole book Good Friday Kiss, really, is a huge purge and hopefully artfully executed enough to be meaningful to others, beyond my personal experience. But that poem, which won the Glimmer Train Poetry Open (the last year the contest existed) made something lovely and transcendent out of a truly ugly, terrifying and bleak occurrence. At that moment, I understood what could happen, and the more I write, the better I become at writing through the storms, to gain insight and connect with a greater self when the immediate nail-biting, cigarette-lusting one is overwhelmed by life. When I fall to pieces and need art to re-assemble my scattered self. I love how Palestinian poet Ibrahim Nasrallah puts it: “Writing is our best opportunity to understand ourselves clearly. Therefore, the secret of writing resides in the fact that we become whole in the act of writing, unlike any other moment in life.” I think that’s so right on! And he should know, writing such soaring, beautiful verse under the worst of circumstances.
GREEN: One of my favorite books on writing is actually a children’s book, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The metaphor is that the mind is a sea—your consciousness is all you can know from the surface; you can read the currents, feel the waves knocking your boat around, glimpse the occasional fin of a shark… But writers are fisherman, throwing out lines and pulling up all the mysteries of the deep. Maybe even slaying some of the beasts that stalk us. I can’t help but think of how that metaphor works in another way, with poems like “The Sacrifice,” which we originally published in Rattle #27. When you sent us the poem, about a mother staying up late to sew her daughter’s Isadora Duncan costume for a school play, it was a powerful and emotionally charged piece, but without knowing the context, it seemed the subject was simply domesticity. The parent’s affect muzzled out of necessity. Obviously the mother was struggling through something, but we didn’t know what. Given the context of your brother’s death, the reference to Duncan’s drowned children is suddenly no longer figurative—and that final line, which we always loved, becomes brutal: The mother watching the daughter on stage doing “the hard, privileged work of feeling for both us.” Here you are, pulling this beautiful beast out of the inky sea, and we didn’t even know what we were really looking at. Which again demonstrates that this is a book, rather than just a collection of poems. This is a long build-up to what might be a very short question: How did your mother respond to “The Sacrifice,” which in the end is really a heartfelt “thank you”? And how has the rest of your family reacted to the subject matter of book?
BITTING: I’m glad you see it as a thank you—how great! I’m reminded of that signature poem by Sharon Olds: “Station” where she says: “We spent a long moment/ in the truth of our situation, the poems/ heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.” I certainly had that moment of recognition when I was writing “The Sacrifice.” I was looking at, and discovering, in retrospect, what my job or function or duty as a family member was, even from an early age and via a number of mediums, as a channel for what others could not express. There’s your beast, your shark fin, your “mysteries of the deep” or what Olds refers to as “poached game,” I guess. When it’s accurate it’s always deadly beautiful, a little dangerous—isn’t it? In a family of extreme and often wildly fluctuating emotional energy, you choose your armor: a costume, a box of paints, a guitar, etc… For my family still living, I hope they can accept this bringing forth of the darkness as a good, positive, redemptive thing. A rough song strung with barbed-wire notes, but one of grace, nonetheless. That may be too much to ask. I believe my mother is proud and, understandably, a little freaked out. I hope to write more poems of blatant praise, in time.
GREEN: Megan pointed out that the broadest theme of the book might be the inability to escape one’s physical body, for better or worse. All of the characters, yourself included, seem to be dealing in various ways with the biological cards they’ve been given, some trying to escape, others trying to accept. Were you conscious of that theme as the book was coming together, or was it something that only emerged later? And what do you think draws you to that subject?
BITTING: Yes, to escape the body by diving deeply into it, right? In this country, we do not love, I mean, truly love, the body enough. Hopefully, it’s going to turn around, this un-Whitmanesque loathing slash obsession and profound irreverence for and inability to accept the flesh. I know a progressive Episcopalian priest who acknowledges what spiritual damage is being done and the need for a more joyful, embraced sexuality among his congregants. The extreme exploitation and demonization of the body, the projection of what’s taboo and sacred in the most backward, repressed ways, is the source of some pretty twisted behavior and legislation in this country. I suppose I’m writing through the body to become one with it, and at the end of that is freedom, release. Ultimately, there’s no denying the terrors and beauty of the body.
GREEN: Last question—what’s next? That might be harder to answer than it seems; I’ve talked with a lot of poets about the sophomore slump—birthing your first baby is such a momentous process, that you’re left with a kind of post-partum depression. Or maybe just a sense of being lost, overwhelmed by all the possible directions you could go. Are you feeling that, or is the path ahead already clear for you?
BITTING: No, it’s not so clear at all, though I’m not feeling the debilitating post-partum effect so severely because I had a semester of an MFA to finish up when the book came out, so my energy was focused there. Now that I’ve completed it I’m a bit at sea, yes, but not exclusively due to the after book-birth let-down. I’m so caught up at the moment with sheer survival and figuring out how to take care of my family, I guess you could say I’ve got some hardcore distractions. It is becoming arrestingly clear that I have more than enough material for a new book, so I will have to spend some time puzzling together a manuscript in the not too distant future, and I look forward to doing that. My head and heart are so full at the moment, and I’m really looking at other artist’s work, trying to figure out ways to write that are true for me but not necessarily in the same, comfortable vein I’m accustomed to. Right now, it’s crucial I just find time to write and that the lines surprise and move me in ways I didn’t expect.
GREEN: Thanks, Michelle, this has been a pleasure.
BITTING: The pleasure is mine. All good things to you and Rattle!