Welcome back, Mary Biddinger!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired in the past six months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods and our 2017 Hudson Prize. Today we bring you Mary Biddinger, author of the prose poetry collection Partial Genius, which will be published in the summer of 2019. This will be Mary’s sixth book with Black Lawrence Press.
Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

Biddinger headshot 2017The Author

Mary Biddinger is the author of six full-length poetry collections, most recently Small Enterprise and The Czar (with Jay Robinson), both from Black Lawrence Press. Her work has recently appeared in numerous journals including Denver QuarterlyDiode, Five Points, Green Mountains ReviewGrimoire, JubilatThe Laurel Review, and Pleiades, among others. Biddinger received a 2015 NEA creative writing fellowship in poetry. She edits the Akron Series in Poetry and is a Professor of English at the University of Akron.

On writing Partial Genius

When writing the chapbook Saint Monica, which became my first collection with Black Lawrence Press, I stumbled upon a form that felt both compelling and expansive. The prose poem in five stanzagraphs made its first appearance with “Saint Monica Composes a Five Paragraph Essay on Girard’s Theory of Triangular Desire.” I wrote this piece with the well-worn essay format in mind as a gimmick, but ultimately felt that each discrete prose chunk forged its own identity while striving to, as they say in composition class, provide support for the thesis. I decided to return to this form with Partial Genius and to create a series of these poems that align and overlap to illustrate the experiences of one central speaker.
The poems of Partial Genius build upon the form in a collective narrative arc, working in unison to craft a larger story where plot points shift via juxtaposition and association. Thematically, this book is post-youth, post-love, mid-epiphany. What do you do when you finally realize that you are really good, but only at unremarkable things? What value does memory hold when weighed against other heavier commodities such as money and time and conventional beauty? Partial Genius ponders the years spent waiting for reconciliation of past wrongs, the ownership of former selves, and the desire to truly fit into one landscape or another.


I frequented a desolate pie shop. The drinks were lukewarm and all songs on the jukebox were about dying. I did not do this because I thought it would make me authentic. I was lukewarm about everything, often felt war was imminent. I lived in a neighborhood full of homeowners terrified of being first to roll the trash cans down to the curb.
Intermediate violin class taught me to just keep on going. One afternoon a fluorescent bulb exploded over first chair, and I thanked my stars for being second. Someday I wanted to be a lady who carried a small cat in a medium wooden basket. Nobody considered this a morbid wish at the time. For years, the ribbons I wore in my hair were only mildly ironic.
At the wolf sanctuary, they told me I had to play with the almost-wolves. Some of them were people in costumes who rubbed their backs against tree trunks. Later I settled down with some rhubarb and a book filled with blank pages. My friends had recommended this place as a stopgap measure, but they had never set foot on the property.
Sometimes my hair wakes me up. Other nights I bolt out of bed and start building a shack from the contents of my desk. Don’t judge, but there are days when I think about digging a hole for myself, or making a sign: I am not the only one who can help you. The sign would have a conventional font, and a red border, to foster a sense of harmony.
If asked about my most glorious moment, I’ll confess that dancing in a completely empty studio in delirious wee hours of Houghton, MI, was better than any night beneath a sugar maple. I can’t describe the glory of the sound system, but music will never again be such a bottomless quarry. It was the late summer of 1988. I knew absolutely nothing.
After a few hours in a paddock with the ram, I thought maybe it wasn’t so bad. I was known for overreacting. Perhaps the fence wasn’t buzzing with electricity. My clothes felt less muddy than anticipated. It was like staying at a bed and breakfast: more rustic than the brochure, shadowed by excessive history. The history was mine. The ram had not felt a human hand in years.
Every time the phone rang, I dropped what I was holding. Most of the calls were from a self-proclaimed licensed technician. I attempted to explain my concerns to the hold music. Somebody was asking somebody else for money on live television. A politician pushed his pamphlet through a crack under a door. I contemplated my unfinished landscape painting in the attic.
Seminars in animal husbandry are mostly about management. One teacher held up my breakout budget for everyone’s scrutiny. What I wanted to say was that I had years of relevant experience. Such a statement would not fit into a single spreadsheet cell. In my early writings, I had a tendency to reverse the words scared and sacred, to the point that my man became hallowed.
I figured it wouldn’t hurt to sing to the ram. At this moment the rain had turned to mist, as in a grocery store broccoli corridor. In previous dreams, I had traversed the countryside with the ram on a silver ribbon. Commissioned an appropriately scaled saddle. Watched as he approached a basket of freshly scrubbed leeks. Held his wise face steady for the priest’s blessing.
Of all the things I scrawled on my man’s back window, I never reconsidered the part about flexible long term investments and reversibility. I was known for adopting my own version of the truth. He prepared his dinner, and then set it aside. I was the kind of person who could abandon a painting before the edges were completely dry. He never listened to the same song twice.

(Both of these poems originally appeared in Gargoyle.)