Mary Biddinger is the author of the poetry collections Prairie Fever, Saint Monica, O Holy Insurgency, and A Sunny Place with Adequate Water. She is also co-editor of The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Bat City Review, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Crab Orchard Review, Forklift, Ohio, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Quarterly West, and Redivider, among others. She teaches literature and poetry writing at The University of Akron, where she edits Barn Owl Review, the Akron Series in Poetry, and the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics.
TCJWW: Several of the poems in A Sunny Place with Adequate Water venture into surreal landscapes with dream-like observations and interactions between people. How can a poem keep a reader grounded within it while simultaneously pulling them deeper into a magical world?
Biddinger: It’s my hope that these poems work on an intuitive level for readers, especially the poems that lack a traditional narrative. I have always found the world to be very strange. Once I was walking in springtime and saw the most majestic miniature swan hiding in some tall grass. It appeared to be preening its hindquarters and enjoying the sunny afternoon. Upon closer inspection, this swan ended up being a discarded tissue that had twisted itself into an apparition. I had caught it at just the right angle to see what it wanted to be.
These are my favorite moments in life, and the ones that make the most sense. It’s easy to become so tired of the world that all wonder disappears. My poems try to combat that fatigue, and to bring some magic back to the quotidian. They also aspire to accommodate the sensibilities of those who, like me, relish the world for its bizarre little surprises.
TCJWW: Several of the poems in this collection share the title “Coin-Operated”—”Coin Operated Rattle without a Snake,” “Coin-Operated Engine Finds its Steam,” and “A Coin-Operated Lung and a Half,” to name a few. What is the connection between these poems that appear all throughout the book?
Biddinger: I still have nightmares about running out of coins. I relocated frequently when growing up, and as a young adult, and spent many hours in various coin-operated laundries. As a graduate student, at times I subsisted on the fare offered by vending machines in the basement of University Hall. And then all of that changed, and we really didn’t need coins the way we used to need them. Now my kids skid nickels along the hardwood floors in our house, as if they have no more value than stray buttons.
This got me thinking about coins on a metaphorical level. The coin-operated horse at Meijer still only costs a penny, but in most other situations we need more than a little jingle in the pocket to get what we need. I considered how coin-operated machinery was on its way out, and then let myself get outlandish. Coin-operated vibrating beds were a welcome invention of the past, so why not coin-operated lungs? Once I started writing these poems, I could not stop. The book holds most, but not all, of my coin-operated poems.
TCJWW: Several of these poems were previously published in journals. What was your process of sending out poems from a series to different journals like?
Biddinger: Sending out poems from a distinct series involves a lot of hope. I have done this with my Saint Monica poems, and with a newer series that revolves around the Risk Management Memo as a foundational document. When I ready a submission packet, I make sure that the series poems stand on their own as individual pieces, and that they hit different notes. I also mix the packet up a bit, with a few poems that aren’t from a particular project. I am thankful that editors have responded positively.
TCJWW: There are a few prose blocks and single-stanza poems in this collection of mostly open, airy couplets and tercets. How do you see form working for (or against) a poem like “They Appeal to my Sense of Logic, and Lose”?
Biddinger: I’m a prose poem addict, but for me, prose poems come from a different place than their lineated sisters. I wanted the prose poem sequence in this collection to function as its own sort of meta-narrative, with the recurring motif of an executioner, a heavy dose of paranoia regarding both the past and the future, and a consistent speaker. In a way, prose poems like “They Appeal to my Sense of Logic, and Lose” could also be likened to secondhand post cards stuck into the book, the kind that you might pick up at a resale store and use as a bookmark. They are trying to tell their own story.
TCJWW: I’m drawn to the poem “Sweets behind the Counter.” Can you tell us a little bit about its creation?
Biddinger: Like many Midwesterners, I grew up in close proximity to various moribund Victorian towns that relied upon antique retail in order to (kind of) survive when other industries left. My mother frequently took me to antique stores and I became aware of how objects can feel haunted. Typical shoppers were looking for a steal: something to stuff with silk flowers and pose in the foyer. I was there for the horrifying panic of being surrounded by the personal effects of the long-dead. There was also a certain culture of these places that was simultaneously historic and modern. The best antique stores were in terrifying old mansions with gravel driveways, and had territorial geese that would chase you back to your car. In the greater context of the book, this poem speaks to the nature of obsolete things, and their changing value within a new economy.
TCJWW: What books inspire you? What books are you reading now?
Biddinger: I find inspiration in contemporary fiction because it transports me, and often I desperately need to be transported. Some recent novels that have knocked my socks off are An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Erika T. Wurth’s Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend. Favorite recent poetry collections: Copia by Erika Meitner, Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems by Olena Kalytiak Davis, and Soft Threat by Alexis Pope.