The Czar: Two local poets collaborate on a tyrannical collection
by Sophie Hamad
Collaborative work can be tricky, especially when two creatives collaborate on something as personal as a collection of poetry. But sometimes it produces something revolutionary. As is the case with The Czar, the shiny new poetry collection by Barn Owl Review editors Mary Biddinger and Jay Robinson.
Biddinger is also an English Professor at University of Akron, where she teaches poetry writing and literature, and edits the Akron Series in Poetry at the University of Akron Press. Biddinger is the recipient of a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship in poetry.
Robinson teaches at Ashland University and the University of Akron. He also helps edit The Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. His poetry and prose has appeared in 32 Poems, The Laurel Review, and Whiskey Island. The Czar is his first book.
Biddinger and Robinson will read from The Czar at the Big Big Mess reading series on Saturday, August 13 at Annabell’s in Highland Square. Be sure to check them out and pick up a signed copy of The Czar. In the meantime, check out this collaborative interview for a glimpse into the creation of the collection.
SH: How did you come together to write this collection?
MB: We’ve been collaborating for many years as editors of Barn Owl Review, and one day in October of 2013 we were joking around in my office (as we often do) about a CZAR. We let him become the butt of our jokes, a bombastic and awful fellow reeking of power and bumbling his way through modern life. It was before other terrible figureheads rose into question in Akron and beyond, mind you. This czar had a tenuous relationship with all things sociopolitical and literary. He had trouble with even the most basic relationships. In the midst of great privilege, he personified fragility and ignorance. The effect of hanging out with this persona was much like attending a birthday party in the 80s where the birthday kid received one of those birthday-kid-sized inflatable clown punching bags. Even those of us not ordinarily inclined to throw a punch found ourselves gleefully squaring up. The Czar was an exercise in persona and play. Writing this book was the antidote to everything sorrowful in this world, while also commenting on everything sorrowful in this world, at the same time.
SH: How does co-authoring a collection of poetry work, or how did it work for this particular collection? Did you work on each poem together?
JR: For both of us, this was a new experience, a first time experience. Kind of like someone telling you to learn how to ride a bike and placing you on the seat with the bike already rolling downhill. As individuals our own processes becomes so familiar, and sometimes, tiring. It was the perfect moment of departure. We have worked together on poems, editing each other’s work, for over a decade. Having a strong sense of how the other wrote poems, how they used imagery or voice, certainly allowed us to hit the ground running, or stay on the bike seat and find our balance a little more easily. Basically, to write these poems we shared a Google doc. One of us would start a poem, and the other one would finish it. Sometimes we both started or finished multiple poems in a single day. All of these poems were originally drafted from October 1, 2013-November 11, 2013. One fascinating thing about sharing the work via a Google doc was that sometimes you could literally see the other person working on, editing, starting, or finishing a poem. It literally felt like poetic special effects. From an aesthetic standpoint, both of us tried to channel the voice of the other in what we wrote. We have a similar style to begin with, but we don’t use the same verb structures or sentence lengths. In that way, in the act of writing and channeling one another, the poems found their own voice. The greatest testament to this is the fact that looking at many of these poems, we couldn’t tell you who exactly what which part. We are both incredibly proud of the work and what we accomplished in writing these collaborative poems. For both of us, it remains one of the most rewarding creative experiences of our lives.
SH: Can you tell me a little about the cover? (I was so surprised to see that it was glossy!)
MB: Normally I’m a fan of the matte cover, but that’s because I lack the crystal veneer of a true czar. This one just had to be shiny. The Czar is all about atmosphere: slick like a retro hairdo, gritty as an unwashed armpit, shaking the crumbs of yesterday’s croissants out of its trouser cuffs. The cover photo was taken by Jay in Van Buren, not too far from Saint Louis, where he’s from, and it’s of the Mark Twain Motel. Considering the trashy grime factor of the book, and the way that the location’s name dialogues with literature (as do the poems…Wuthering Heights, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Flowers in the Attic, The Man with the Golden Arm, and many others), it seemed extra significant. Additionally, this book is all about the tension between high and low culture, with an encroaching sense of the post-pastoral. There’s a lot of post-pastoral encroachment going on in that parking lot. We were working with Amy Freels on the cover design when the world lost Prince. The purple accents are a tribute to him.
SH: How did you come to the decision to write an entire collection with The Czar as the subject?
JR: The Czar, as subject, became a lens through which to view so many things. Neither of us has ever really written about personal experiences in a confessional manner. Yet, both of us have always had a fascination with persona poems, narrative, and the mannerisms of confessional poetry at work in persona poem. And I think both wanted to write something defined not just be the individual pieces, but the whole. In a way, if you write one poem about the Czar, how couldn’t you write 7? If you wrote 7, how couldn’t you write 33? The Czar, as a subject, demands attention, full attention, as ridiculous and loud and obnoxious as he can be. He’s the definition of irony. He’s literally both hyperbole and litotes at the same time. And if you write one book on the Czar, how couldn’t you write another?
SH: How will you read at Big Big Mess? Will you take turns reading poems? Will you read them in unison? Is it a surprise?
MB: We’re going to tag team this gig. We’re probably going to fumble with the mic a bit, because Jay is really tall and I am not. We may interweave one of the poems, too. There’s an official set list. I’m just so excited to be sharing this project with the world, and what better place than with the beloved Big Big Mess.
(Images courtesy of Mary Biddinger and Jay Robinson)