Amy Pickworth: Let's jump right in. “Beginnings” opens with “When Job stands up to God / the poems tumble out.” Would you tell us a bit about those lines?
Michelle Bitting: After spending some serious contemplative time on the story of Job as part of the myth studies required for my doctoral work, I came to realize (with the help of writing by analysts Jung and Edward Edinger) that, at heart, this tale marks a shift in consciousness of the embodied divine through confrontation with an Almighty entity. Initially, this required a struggle between God and Satan who is then replaced by Job—an earthly, human manifestation. Suddenly, doubt overshadows the supreme nature of God. Old conditions must be destroyed to make room for new and this involves a fiery infusion of energy from the unconscious. This dark spark disrupts the status quo of thought and feeling, causing a mysterious flow of actions in service of eventual multiple epiphanies. You comb through the closets of the self to keep figuring stuff out. That’s writing! I can only hope for such striking phenomena to occur when I make a poem. And I am not in this kind of theoretical mode of thinking when I am doing that, by the way—ha! Hardly! Regardless, breakage allows for a tumbling forth of images. Like Job, growth and vision require effort, vulnerability and sometimes pain. So worth it, though. As Elizabeth Alexander says in her awesome ars poetica (I Believe), it’s The only way to get from here to there.
AP: The act of “combing through the closets” is definitely present here. You invite us to comb with you.
There’s such a strong sense of perspective—of looking closely as you look back—across the book. Intentional inquiry. You as speaker are on the other side, but you’re sifting through the various ways things might have gone down. Various reckonings, and the tenderness that goes along with that. And as readers, we feel like we’re sitting on the floor of the garage with you, opening boxes and flipping through old family photos.
MB: Oh well that is great, Amy! I could not hope for better. I have to constantly remind myself and my students that it's all about the materia—the stuff, the detritus, of course, as Sharon Olds has so notably demonstrated. The soup of existence, of poetry, is grand, but the grandeur is experienced via the mirepoix: bay, thyme, citrus peel, chiffonade of sage. The onions, cloves, carrots and kreplach. The “shell that snaps,” “dirt in the corner” to quote E. Alexander again, that somehow through the poet’s focused laser-beam eye takes on a mystical vibe, an eminence of the unseen hauled up into view. So often from garbage, the ashcan, the flesh wound, the medicine chest, the notebook, the everyday. Certainly those boxes and closets rummaged through. Especially the closets when it comes to memory, family, domestic life, childhood. I mean, when we’re lucky and we can sing some extra notes into it and it into us.
AP: The book is structured elementally—your section titles are Earth, Heart, Immanent, Body, Wind, and Epilogue. How did this structure inform the arc? Did all the poems come first, or did these categories shape some of them?
MB: You know, as usual and like so many other poets I know, I just took the stack of poems I had to construct the book with and I laid them shoulder to shoulder, snaking around the rugs and rungs of furniture on my living room floor. Then I got down on my knees and started swapping and shuffling them around according to what, I don’t know really. It had been a chapbook titled How Like Marriage is The Season of Flowers, which had been named a finalist for a couple prizes, and then it expanded to the full-length. So I sort of took that original format and worked the others in. I knew I wanted to start off strong with the two marriage poems, seeing as how the title of the book is an homage to both my relationship to my husband of twenty-five years, and, yes, I was thinking of Bowie when I first wrote that eponymous poem!
At first, I thought of divvying the sections up numerically, but pretty soon the elementals came into play. “Earth” for the title poem and then there are several references to heart, and the corporeal poems having to do with the family, domestic life. Teams formed themselves! I noticed there were a few pieces with the word “wind” in them so I gave myself the challenge to put the word “wind” into every poem in that section. “Immanent, Purgatorio” is a 100-line poem in terza rima and riffs on The Divine Comedy (obviously) utilizing 33 phrases and words from the 33 cantos in the opus. I have always loved to play with form. I’ve written quite a number of sonnets along my writing way. This poem wrestles in a new manner with an ongoing topic: my brother’s suicide, my childhood family dysfunction, and my excavation party through that as a trying-to-be-an-adult poet person.
AP: I was struck by your epilogue. It’s just one poem long, titled “Epiphany II.” (Or is it “Epiphany 11”?) The opening lines are “Then one morning you woke early,
/struck by a strange knowing, /a risen voice repeating: /The soul of the soul of the soul is love.”
This is that Then again, that speaking from the perspective from the other side. Can you tell us about this poem, and why it ends the collection?
MB: There is an “Epiphany” poem (#1) in my previous collection Notes to the Beloved so I felt this need for it to be both separate and connected to its sister. Because The Couple Who Fell To Earth re-examines some old themes through myth-related lenses and because all this “visitation” from within and without by various vital spirits is part of a life-long transformational experience I’m having with the world and with my art, it felt right to have “Epiphany II” come at the end and on its own to throw down the ultimate statement. Love.
It seems to me that when you really dig through to the bones of existence, the good, bad, strange, and sublime is somehow connected to the lack or triumph of Love. I am desperately trying to learn that in a truly fulfilled way. Sometimes I have to address myself, have a little talk with myself, step outside myself to get some perspective and remember. Doesn’t everybody?
AP: Absolutely. We all do. That makes me think of a few of your lines in “Dressed Up Like Holmes Falling into a Glass Darkly”: “Watson, let’s not pretend / we aren’t chained to the past. The smartest sleuths in town / know it’s a spiral, not a circle”
MB: Well, the spiral connotes the labyrinth shape and both of those forms are neither circles nor mazes if we’re talking about life progression and growth. The spiral moves around a center point and in a trajectory that is constantly shifting, energetic and not uniform, flat or linear. And the labyrinth, unlike the maze, steers towards that pin-point center and back out again. There are no dead ends, obviously. Except death. And even then, well, that depends on you, Reader…. As in Dante’s world, one “bank shots” off the past like a catch stitch in order to move forward which is not always comfortable but definitely necessary to keep evolving as a human. All painful folly present and accounted for!
I’d like to think I’ve done an okay job at reckoning with my past selves and somehow reinvented with a little help from my friends including the mythic ones that live and shape-shift on into eternity. I tried to tap into some of that verve in The Couple Who Fell to Earth and I’d like to further explore otherworldly vigor in my coffee-chugging teacherly, avocado skin-scraping parental and body-sagging lover-realm some more in future verse works.
AP: Speaking of exploring, what’s the last thing you read that you loved?
MB: Two writers I’ve been in love with of late are Safiya Sinclair and Lidia Yuknavitch and their books Cannibal and The Small Backs of Children, respectively. Looking to get Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan soon, too. They are badass smart but in a way that is corporeally engaged and lit up with both the fire of personal narrative as well as mythic and mystical intricacies of cultures at-large in a really plugged in way that feels true, immediate, and strange. Fiercely personal and of the Beyond. Not unlike, yet entirely different from, the way Pablo Neruda was able to talk about mundane things like his socks but in the most high stakes, your-life-depends-on-this, childlike, and totally exotic way. I wish I could do that!
AP: I know what you mean. I had the chance to visit Neruda’s house in Isla Negra a few years ago, and because of the very engaged way he wrote about the mundane, it really affected my experience of just looking at ordinary stuff that had belonged to him. The seashells on the shelf, the hats in his closet, it all felt charged. The transfer of heightened awareness is powerful.
MB: I love that story! How lucky, lucky you to go there! Yes, the unstoppable music inside the commonest things. True poet magic in action. As Neruda said: You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.
Words to live by, especially in these terribly turbulent, extraordinary times.
Thanks so much for making time for this chat, Michelle. It’s been a pleasure.
Michelle Bitting’s latest collection is The Couple Who Fell to Earth (C & R Press, 2016), named a Kirkus Review Best Books of 2016. She has poems forthcoming or published in The American Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Narrative, The New York Times, Vinyl, Plume, the Paris-American, Fjords, Tupelo Quarterly and others. Her poems have appeared on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. Her book Good Friday Kiss won the DeNovo First Book Award and Notes to the Beloved won the Sacramento Poetry Center Book Award. She has won awards from Glimmer Train, the Beyond Baroque Foundation and has been a finalist for the Poet's & Writer's Magazine California Exchange, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Julia Peterkin, and Rita Dove poetry awards.
Amy Pickworth’s poems have appeared in journals including Dusie; Forklift, Ohio; The Great American Literary Magazine; H_NGM_N; Ink Node; New Ohio Review; Smartish Pace; and Two Serious Ladies. Her book Bigfoot for Women (Orange Monkey, intro by Matt Hart) was released in 2014. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.