At The Table with Michelle Bitting
The Writers’ Kitchen is thrilled to welcome poet Michelle Bitting to the table as this month’s esteemed guest. Michelle’s most recent collection, NOTES TO THE BELOVED, is a recipient of the Sacramento Poetry Center Award and continues to garner rave reviews across the nation.
Join us for this TWK exclusive interview, plus an original exercise written by the author just for you on the topic of “CLARITY.”
TWK: What piece of art/artist most influences you/your creativity?
Bitting: As a teenager, Robert Rauschenberg’s Odalisk, along with many of his other Combine paintings, jolted me to attention in a pleasant, consciousness-altering way. I began to see things I didn’t notice before. It shifted my perceptions about what is or has the potential to be beautiful.
TWK: What’s the most essential ingredient in your writing life?
Bitting: Unlined paper—notebook-size best, though God knows I’ll write on any handy scrap available. Also, blue or black Precise Rolling Ball pens—Fine point. Again, in an emergency, any utensil I can stain paper with will do. Pricked finger?
TWK: What do you miss or not miss most about being 5 years old?
Bitting: Stomping around in mud puddles in my pre-school yard after a winter rain. The deal was, if your shoes got soaked and grimy, you got to choose a pair to wear the rest of the day from the spare shoes box. One pair in particular I coveted: black patent leather Mary Janes laced with grosgrain ribbon. Eventually the teacher got hip to the fact I was mucking myself up on purpose.
TWK: What is the single most important virtue or combination of virtues in your writing life at the moment? (work/process) etc.
Bitting: “Touching it in some way every day.”
That’s what Poet Extraordinaire Frank Gaspar said at a writing residency I attended recently and I think it’s well put. For me, this can mean writing for hours in uninterrupted oblivion, or just gathering bits of glimpsed images, phrases and dialogue. To simply rearrange some punctuation on a work-in-progress or travel deep into unknown territory. This way, you’re always in touch with the source and ready to rock when there’s time for rolling it out.
TWK: How would you define your personal relationship to clarity in your composing and drafting process?
Bitting: Like that five year-old splashing around in murky, silt-filled water with an eye for the shiny patent leather payoff, I’m learning to allow myself to be messy—unbound, unchained, fluid, gooey, permeable and blind to assumptions in order to find clarity and precision later with my slicing knife of well-honed steel. Blind abandon, recklessness, in order to eventually take control and own the art.
TWK: Create a brief writing prompt for the site users and do a version yourself.
Bitting: Let your mind wander back to a very specific moment in time that keeps coming up, calling for your attention. Glimpse this memory. It can be simple, pedestrian even. Let yourself (or your character) stomp and splash around there for a while.
Channel the sensory details of the moment and describe it in short phrases, sentences, words—as quick writes or flash jots.
Now do the same for one, two, maybe three more moments—glimpsed locations—gleaned from past to present, without thinking too much about how or if they connect. On some level, it’s likely they do!
When you’ve muddled around and captured your series of images, go back and see if some of them oddly want to come together to inform and illuminate a clear idea or scene that’s been brewing underneath.
Go wild and then focus. Shine those pretty shoes. But first, happy mucking about!
Here’s what I got:
“Back Then I Wanted To Paint Like Rauschenberg”
And so fingering the plaid design on my uniform skirt I scoured the walls of the school dark room for signs of intelligence. I found them developing in trays of dangerous chemicals under the glare of a red safety bulb. Also in the cloth of many colors flowing out of my art teacher’s mouth. Some of this I snipped and collaged into my self-portrait that may also have contained rags from my mother’s Charity League costume: red sequins with fringe around the hips. Also the fork my father stabbed repeatedly into my brother’s meatloaf whenever he looked away, as he often did, to stare out the dining room window at whatever the void was creating, grateful for the golden flight of bees, the Euclidean patterns their bodies made swarming in and out of honeycomb chambers cached in a weeping Pepper Tree. Such sweet hell to navigate! All those sticky rings of hidden inferno, its puzzling interior. In the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg, who glued whole chickens and refrigerators, barbed wire, tin cans, rope, astronauts, sprung sofa recliners, door knobs, you name it, into his paintings, my self-portrait contains anything I care to fix to it, such as various album covers of LP’s my brother spun repetitively for me on Saturday mornings: Tom Verlaine, The Band and Joni Mitchell’s Miles Of Aisles were pretty crucial. I can see us now, lounging in our pajamas, the smell of stinky socks and strawberry pancakes vying for alpha prominence in the dog park of our nostrils. The painting of my life would not be complete without a snapshot of the last time I saw my brother Will, only I don’t own that. If I’d known he wasn’t coming back I would have paid more attention. Nor do I know anymore what happened to the picture of him I carried around in my brown fringe hippie purse for so long before handing it to the stern but sympathetic cop in the lobby of that grand and scary Yosemite hotel the time he went off his meds and drank down the mini bar in his room. He wandered off into a sunset of giant Sequoias and fiery orange and red sky with nothing but the clothes on his back and a compass spinning like a circus clown inside his head. The sky like a big blank canvas he walks into, where he resides now, adding a vital dimension of sculpture and pathos to the painting of my life.
Michelle Bitting has work published or forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Narrative, Rattle, Nimrod, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, diode, Linebreak, the L.A. Weekly and others. Poems have appeared on Poetry Daily and as the Weekly Feature on Verse Daily. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University Oregon. Visit her at www.michellebitting.com