“Rooms full of people waiting to hear something beautiful”: An interview with poet Katie Bickham

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The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is now open! In honor of the 2016 Book Prize season, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson will interview authors about the process of constructing a manuscript and bringing it to publication. This week, Katie interviews Prairie Schooner contributor Katie Bickham, winner of Pleiades Press' Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize for her book The Belle Mar, about dangerous syntax and her fascination with Muhammad Ali.

How many books have you published, and where?

I have one book, The Belle Mar. It came out in 2015 and is published by Pleiades Press, distributed by LSU Press.  It is the winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize.

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

This collection is unusual in that it is meant to be read chronologically and spatially.  Each poem takes place in a different room in a Louisiana plantation home in a different year.  I’ve had a jones since I read Rita Dove’s Mother Love at eighteen for books that all work as a closed narrative or are unified by some concrete device (more than just thematically), so I knew when I was dealing with the blank page that I was just looking for that vehicle where everything struck home. 

The house came to me in conversations with a mentor, Alexs Pate, who writes a lot about social justice.  I wrote the first poem first (set in 1811), and after that, I started just jumping around digging at the big years. I have a Great Depression poem, a poem for the serious hurricanes, poems for the Civil and World Wars.  Then it became this really tender work of mining the small moments between these catastrophes or triumphs – the only time it ever snowed in Louisiana at Christmas – one of Muhammad Ali’s greatest televised fights – the cross sections of lives.  I guess I’m saying I cheated the “How do I order my poems?” problem by working on this strict chronological timeline. 

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

“Bent” and “Heavy” are my words.  I limited myself to one use each in the book.  But generally, because the poems are narrative in themselves and in relation to each other, I spent a lot of time writing against an overly prose-y style.  I’d catch myself having written a line or two and say, “That’s just a sentence.  Try again.  Be dangerous.”

Can you explain what about lineation or the breaking of syntax feels dangerous to you?

Maybe I'm just talking about the risks we take with language when we jump off the cliff of prose into poetry.  We're asking people to suspend their disbelief about something as basic as parts of speech – what words do, how they talk to each other.  The poetry I enjoy reading very subtly presses against common syntax. It doesn't do away with it – it doesn't dive into the realm of the experimental – but it uses one or two words in a way that is unsettling.

How did you decide which poems to include in the collection?

My husband chose.

Haha. I love this. Explain! Why?

My husband is the best kind of editor because he knows absolutely nothing about poetry.  You read him a poem, and he either gets chills after it or he shrugs.  I tried only to put in the poems that gave him chills.

How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

I knew that contests were probably my best bet, since my publication history at the time would have fit on a Post-It note and wouldn’t have recommended me in an unsolicited scenario.  I chose the most ambitious contests I could – specifically those that published female poets or people writing about social justice. My rule has always been to submit to no more than three places at once.  If they all say no (and the first three all did), I make adjustments and tweaks without losing True North and send to three more.  On the second cycle of three, I was a finalist in a couple, but ultimately they were all no’s.  On the third cycle of three, I had two yesses and was able to choose.

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

Single space after periods.  Get real with the fact that there is such heavy (see?) silence after publication, maybe the loneliest days there are.  But the future is full of rooms, and those rooms are full of people are waiting to hear something beautiful, so keep on.

Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

No – if anything, it confirmed that I work best in hard architecture.  There was this famous poet who said he just wrote whatever he felt until he had enough pages for a good manuscript and then published it.  If you told me to do that, I’d freeze.  I need the walls. I’m working in a couple of different constructions now, but both have the same closed narrative base.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

Sadly, I was newly pregnant. So I had some decaf coffee and a Pepcid and I cried a lot.  And I always told myself that if I ever got a book deal, I’d call a beloved professor and friend before any family, even my husband.  She read every poem I wrote when I was getting started at twenty years old, every line.  Sometimes she gave me notes, sometimes she lent me books to read in lieu of notes, and sometimes she just read.  None of that was her job, and she’d tell you she isn’t a poet.  It was just an act of tenderness – I felt often like she saw something in me and wanted to protect it until I was ready.  Anyway, I stuck by that when I got the news.  She was my first call.

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

How little it changed.  When I was a kid, I could stand in our driveway and make free throw after free throw unless somebody was watching – then I became a huge klutz.  Publishing is just like finally making a basket in front of people.  But I’m still kind of playing alone in the driveway.  There’s nothing to do but keep on working and trying to do it again.

What is your favorite part of your first book?

Of all the people on earth, living or dead, Muhammad Ali shakes me up the most.  I’m no boxing aficionado, but I’ve watched every fight of his I can find, every news clip and interview.  Once I got hold of my own voice, I knew I wanted to write a poem about him.  “Grand Staircase, 1970” is about Ali’s fight with Oscar Bonavena in Madison Square Garden – but more specifically, it’s about the people watching the fight at home in the living room, how even they can’t help but be moved.  It’s also the happiest poem in the collection – one unbridled moment of triumph.

I'd love to hear more about why you find Ali so compelling. What draws you to him?

Part of what draws me to him is his quality as a poet in a place we might not expect to find one.  It's the same reason people like the idea of William Carlos Williams, the pediatrician, scribbling poetry on his prescription pads or Bukowski, the drunk postal worker, making poems in hourly hotels with sleeping hookers.  You have this man who is a physical force, who uses his body in ways people have never seen before, and the real right-hook is that he's also a poet.

He also seems to me to be a very representative American figure, someone who really summed up the zeitgeist of his age, but unlike presidents or movie stars, he summed up the counter-culture, the underbelly, the resistance.  His was a message I don't think the buttoned-up white America wanted to hear, but people, even white people, couldn't resist him.  Even as he made choices they found politically abhorrent, they watched him, rapt, worshipful.  He made people uncomfortable, and he said, "You want me to dance for you, you want me to fight, and I will, but you're going to sit there and listen to me.  That's the cost of admission."



Katie Bickham earned her MFA from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine and currently teaches creative writing at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana.  Her first book, The Belle Mar, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize from Pleiades Press.  Katie is also the recipient of the 2012 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize from The Missouri Review.  Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, The Missouri Review, Deep South Magazine, and elsewhere.  She lives in Shreveport, Louisiana with her husband and son in a very old house.