Welcome, Jay Robinson! (And welcome back, Mary Biddinger!)

This month we are featuring the poets and writers who have signed with us in the past twelve months—all writers who submitted work during one of our two annual open reading periods.

Today we bring you Mary Biddinger and Jay Robinson collaborative authors of the poetry collection The Czar, which we selected for publication last month. Jay is a new addition to the Black Lawrence Press family, but this will be Mary’s fifth book with us. Welcome, Jay! And welcome once again, Mary!

About the Authors

Biddinger BLP 2015Mary Biddinger is the author of the poetry collections Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007), Saint Monica (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and Small Enterprise (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming 2015). She is also co-editor of The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (U Akron Press, 2011). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, jubilat, The Laurel Review, and Pleiades, among others. She edits the Akron Series in Poetry at the University of Akron, where she is a Professor of English. Biddinger is the recipient of a 2015 NEA creative writing fellowship in poetry.


BLPAuthrPicJay Robinson is the co-author of The Czar. He teaches at Ashland University and The University of Akron. He’s also the Co-Editor-in-Chief/Reviews Editor for Barn Owl Review and helps edit The Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. Poetry and prose has appeared in 32 PoemsThe Laurel Review, Poetry, Whiskey Island, among others. The Czar, forthcoming in August 2016, is his first book.



Can you keep a secret? The Czar
gave me an Advent calendar as a gift.

Have you ever felt real ermine
at the bottom of a damp steel box?

Neither have I. A storm blasts
even the strongest poplars into sheep.

I’ve spent too much time trying to
find the missing half of my figurative

locket. Do you know how to use
a genuine knife, or would you like this

imitation? Don’t ask why rocks
are slippery. Sometimes the only thing

I have left is my religion. I open
the first box. Inside is a tiny note

that says, This is my gift to you.
Needless to say, I hoped for more.

Sometimes the gifts we give are
bound by the trade deficit. The Czar

and I at first traded exclusively
in glances at his mistress. Both of us

wanted her underneath the tree
at the center of the city, although

for different purposes. These things
my therapist says not to discuss.

Once again, I have had too much
sangria. The debt ceiling is spinning.

The Czar’s campaign motto promised
he would hold back my hair.




is a little worried about how much he loves the novel Wuthering Heights. In private, he whispers, “I am ___________” then sends himself to un-heaven. Who is the naughtier child, Catherine or Heathcliff? And why doesn’t the weather in Czarland Heights vacillate like a northern place with moors and hillocks? He can’t say that heaven wouldn’t want him, as he invented the concept. Why did it have to involve heaps of coconut? Why was his movie in black and white, and replete with ringlets, the dogs dead for decades? In a less probable world, the Czar would have also been a Czar. Yes. In a less probable world, though, Edgar wouldn’t have died. And the peasants would have feasted nightly on more than limburger cheese and half-stale crackers. Before the Brontë sisters, he considered books an accelerant. Like his mistress’s faux bridal lace teddy. Or the Lady Czar’s culinary renderings of aimless heft. At night he stares out the castle windows. A low, accusatory moon in the Czar-like sky. Stray cats in an alley and a pail of warm milk. Low water level in the moat. He sips Glenfiddich by the gallon, tells his mistress he will stay up all night until he finds the right word. But he never does.





When I paint my monarch in watercolor
I half expect him to sentence me

to twenty years hard labor. My biscuits
unphenomenal. All the Alexandrines

in my notebook unremarkable.
Just another girl with coal hair, ready

to boil a pot of beets, leaves, and ashes.
My monarch and I never completed

each other’s exercise programs.
No attempt to traverse the passageway

of intrusion. So many stoplights
in his kingdom, and he as colorblind

as a prairie dog.  Nightly when I hem
my monarch’s garments, I am mending

the chiffon of my own discontent.
He will never read this. His version

of literacy involves a military campaign
against the gorillas at the zoo.

Confession: I do not write Alexandrines.
My notebook not a notebook. Confession:

I have been plotting my own illicit
self-portrait for years. The photographs

I’ve taken in black and white lack
recognition. Confession: recognition

has never been my aperture. Sentence
me, my Lord. Tie me to an outpost.

The Czar: On Location and Origins

Mary placeThe idea behind these poems took root in a conversation in Mary’s University of Akron office in September of 2013 (pictured right). We joked about a fictional Czar. At the time, every societal ill seemed to warrant its own Czar, so it was fun imagining a ridiculous figurehead who slapped his own cornucopia of corruptions and idiosyncrasies down on the boardroom table. We jotted silly, somewhat absurd things about the Czar on sticky notes, in text messages, and on the backs of envelopes. We realized we should attempt a collaborative poem when we planned to write a poem a day the following month. But we are obsessive people, so we decided to write a bunch of poems, not just one, and soon the poems were virtually writing themselves. It was as if the bawdy, cantankerous Czar himself had been conjured from our conversations, and became a third party in the writing process.

Laughter was at the root of this project, though rather than fizzling out with a punchline, each poem developed its own identity and role in the overall collection. We first drafted The Czar using a shared Google doc in October of 2013 through the first week of November 2013. One of us would start a poem and the other would finish it. Sometimes you could open the document and literally watch the other person writing the piece you would endeavor to finish later that day.

Jay placeThese poems were written in libraries (pictured left), or sometimes in our heads while driving, or with cats at our feet, or kids playing in the background (cats, children, and beasts of other stripes pictured below). They were written in Ohio or New York or wherever we traveled. What was on our minds at the moment ended up manifesting in the poems in some way: snippets of talking heads on the television, internet celebrity gossip, odd statements of small children, our own personal tribulations.

In rereading these poems, it is not at all certain who wrote what, and both of us have experienced the sensation of not knowing whose words are whose, and it’s something of which we are proud. In other collaborations, transitions between authors might be troublesome, but like the ornate waistcoat of a powerful Czar, the seams in these poems are indiscernible. We mirrored each other’s aesthetic in an aesthetic that is solely the book’s. And we never analyzed the character of the Czar or the collective narrative of the Czar that formed. Everything assembled organically in the process of writing the poems, finishing what the other started, or anticipating a direction and then pushing the poem into another direction entirely. It felt like putting together a puzzle with our eyes closed, which sounds exactly like a parlor game the Czar would play.

If you would like more information about The Czar as it makes its majestic debut, you can visit jaymrobinson.wordpress.com. If you’re interested in czarworthy photography, follow us on Instagram @theczarofczars.

Mary beastJay beast