Interview with Mary Biddinger, Series Editor for the Akron Series in Poetry

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In truth, I had never put much thought into the Akron Series in Poetry in the past, partially due to my own ignorance, and partially due to aesthetics.  However, lately, I’ve been more interested in the Series, edited by Mary Biddinger relatively recently beginning in 2008.  I love what Mary says about her aesthetic tastes: “I love poems with teeth.”  So do I, and I like writing poems with teeth–fearless ugly and beautiful poems on the messy human condition, that aren’t afraid to use their sharp fangs.

I don’t know Mary, but she seems intelligent, witty, and just really nice.  I’m glad I had the chance to interview her.

I love what you once said about editing making people happy.  That’s so different from the usual power and controlling the poetry world attitudes I sometimes hear about.  You sound too nice to be true!  How do you maintain this altruistic attitude in publishing?

My own positive experience publishing books likely set the tone for my life as an editor. I have found so much support from Black Lawrence Press, publisher of my three newer books, and Steel Toe Books, publisher of my first. I do, however, experience personal anguish over only being able to accept a few of the many admirable manuscripts received every year for the Akron Poetry Prize. I begin the summer reading period with much enthusiasm, but by the end of the process I am filled with anxiety. When the judge passes along her verdict, it’s the happiest day of the year for me, not only because there’s a winner, but because then I am able to finalize my editor’s choice selections. I enter the contest completely open to whatever comes my way. It’s exhilarating.

Do you call people to tell them their books are taken and what’s the funniest thing someone has said or done?

I do call folks. And I am not much of a phone person, so I am often trembling and double-checking the number, and my voice probably sounds super shaky when I introduce myself. I will confess that I have upon occasion used a little script when leaving a voice mail message, so that I don’t say Um, uh, Akron Biddinger, uh…book prize instead of congratulating the winner. So I guess I am the one who does the funniest thing, when it comes right down to it. Hopefully this year I will be a little more articulate.

Akron and Cleveland State University Poetry Center seem to be tied together in more ways than geography.  Why or how has this relationship developed?  How similar or different are the poets you are publishing compared to Cleveland?

My relationship with the Cleveland State University Poetry Center actually predates my work with the University of Akron Press, and I still serve as a juror for the CSUPC Open Book Competition. When I arrived in Ohio, the Akron Series in Poetry was still under the direction of Elton Glaser, its founder. I first began my work as a juror with CSU, and then transitioned into the University of Akron Press poetry editorship in 2008.

Both series underwent an editorial turnover at a similar time, and in both cases the presses became more welcoming of innovative poetry. I also believe that the Akron Series in Poetry and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center share an eclectic sensibility, and an interest in representing poets who may not have received due attention in the past. It is wonderful to think of Northeast Ohio becoming an epicenter of contemporary poetry, like somehow we’re revitalizing the rust belt one wild poem at a time.

How would you describe your editorial aesthetic if you believe in the idea of an aesthetic?

I love poems with teeth. I love poems that aren’t afraid to use their teeth. The collections I return to are those that take significant risks. I like it when a manuscript gives me the same feeling I get when dreaming about jumping off a Ferris wheel. I feel that humor is underrated in contemporary poetry, especially humor that is also poignant. I am much more likely to fall in love with a manuscript that makes a few missteps, but does so with bravery, versus a highly-polished, competent-yet-safe collection.

Do you ever worry that reading and editing so much poetry will take away from your own writing?  Or do you think it can only help and inspire you?

Editorial work does nothing but inspire me. It does cause me to occasionally spend excessive time pondering the nature of the poem (like, why do we have poems in this world, etc). And since I read every manuscript that crosses the transom, at times the sheer volume of the work makes me feel like my eyes will bleed. However, I am heartened and excited by all the manuscripts that land on my desk.

How did you get involved with the poetry series at Akron? How has the series changed since you’ve gotten involved?  Or how have you changed it?

Elton Glaser passed along the editorship of the Akron Series in Poetry in 2008. He gave the series a wonderful foundation, and helped create this gem that is valued by the university, and by the community at large. I feel tremendously grateful to have inherited such a well-established series, especially since much of my editorial background comes from small, independent, nonprofit entities like Barn Owl Review.

In terms of changes, I will say that my sensibility is vastly different from Elton’s in most aspects, from the selection of manuscripts to the design of the books. I had never entered the Akron Poetry Prize contest back when I was living in Chicago and sending my first book to publishers. I looked at the list of published books and did not think my work would be a good aesthetic fit. Now I believe it would be hard to pinpoint any one style that is representative of the Akron Series in Poetry. I strive for an eclectic and varied selection of judges (Dara Wier this year, and in previous years Natasha Sajé, G.C. Waldrep, and Martín Espada), and my own taste is always evolving. So often, manuscripts seduce and surprise me in ways I had never expected. That’s the beauty of this job.

What are the trends you’re seeing in poetry book publishing, if any?

As a publisher (and book reviewer, beyond the UA Press), I try to get my hands on as many poetry books as possible every year. I also love reading what’s new because I adopt small press poetry books for my creative writing and literature courses. I have noticed some presses going with a smaller, square-ish trim size lately, and there seem to be more matte cover finishes lately. In the past two years I have seen fewer instances of the frontispiece poem being formatted outside the first poem in the book, while this was quite hot five years ago. There seem to be more book-length poems published, and maybe a bit more use of space on the page. Please don’t hate me for saying this, but I am not a fan of French flaps, and I hope they go out of fashion soon.

Do you have a future vision of the Series?  Is there a commitment from Akron that it will go on for a while?

The University of Akron has been very supportive of the Series, and I believe we have a healthy future. Along with collaborator John Gallaher, I recently started the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics at The University of Akron Press, which publishes collections of essays, so our poetry branch is growing steadily. We are currently beginning a volume of essays exploring the work of women poets—mid-career or later—who are innovative and have not received what we consider to be adequate critical attention. Last year we published our first poetics volume, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics. Putting it together was a lot of work, and people thought we were crazy at first for making a book of essays without a singular theme, but it ended up being a real showstopper, thanks to our essayists.

How would you characterize your own work?

Normally I am prolific, almost to a fault, because I’ll find stashes of twenty poems I forgot about, or I will leave poems unfinished and move on without giving them a second glance. When I want to submit to a magazine, I will just write five new poems, rather than revising my existing poems. I often work in a series because I get haunted by things and want to write my way through them. I frequently work with autobiographical or emotionally autobiographical material, but wouldn’t necessarily consider myself post-confessional. I read fiction for fun and inspiration, so there are always story elements in my poems. I let my poems use their teeth. My poems have crooked incisors, but nevertheless they bite just fine.

(Photo from here.)