Michelle Bitting’s recent collection, Notes to the Beloved, earned her a Kirkus star. In the book, the poet conjures narrators equally cerebral and sensual, tragic and comic, drawing from a wealth of personal experience—she’s been a dancer, chef and teacher—and her ear for the musicality of plain language.
Bitting strives, she says, “to write darkly sensual, frank poems that deal boldly and in a shockingly skillful way with the female body and experience.” We recently spoke to her about inspiration, self-promotion and her measure of success as a poet.
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Notes to the Beloved comprises poems of wildly different natures, from those tied very closely to a particular moment to the visionary and boundless. Where do your poems come from?
I just got through giving a workshop this morning on this very subject of “scratching” for poems. How it’s so much about the free-floating imagery and ephemera hanging out before—and behind—your very eyes. Mark Doty calls it “the mind playing over the world of matter.” I think that’s really great, because it suggests the immediate, spontaneous, live-streaming act of gathering scraps and shimmering detritus, both audible and visual, in conjunction with, and driven by, whatever emotional engines are revving their cylinders in the unconscious.
I work a lot from prompts—lists of random words that fellow writers share and generate new work from. And then I let my own burning narrative needs play against that and assist in navigating the content. So, when it’s going well, it stays surprising for me. As far as specific subject matter, my poems often deal with the body—its beauty, its brokenness.
Speaking of the body, when faced with reminders of their own mortality, your narrators often respond in very physical ways: eating, skinny dipping, making love. Why are these adequate responses for them?
It all comes back to the body, doesn’t it? Despite our “loftier” intentions? I embrace the joyful pleasures of the flesh, and all the yearning and struggle that seem to go with it as a human trying to love other creatures walking around on planet Earth. There is some healing and repair that happens when something powerful manages to be stated through poetry, through art.
I also admire the saints and martyrs, their extreme devotions to mystical matters and the often spare simplicity of their existence. I think any serious poet who applies herself to the rigors of this calling can dig that on some level. I also think food and sex and burying your head in a warm vat of lilac are worthy endeavors.
You have a robust Web presence, a packed schedule of readings and video promos of your books. You clearly have a handle on how to promote poetry. What role do you think promotion and marketing play in poetry these days?
I think there are only a handful of lucky poets who don’t have to push and promote the hell out of their work. I don’t like having to submit my work—it’s very time-consuming and way less interesting than actual writing. More and more I like doing readings and I love teaching. I’m very turned on by people who inspire others, and I strive to be one of those people myself. And that takes getting out there.
I find the more I do for my website and let people know all the projects I’ve got my hands in, the more creative opportunities arise. Then it spills into overload mode, and it’s time to get quiet and focus deeply on making the work. I’m getting better at shifting from one mode to the other. It’s an acquired discipline. You have to build up your muscles.
Would you consider yourself successful in your promotion efforts? What, in your opinion, constitutes success as a poet?
That’s a really good question, and I’m not sure I can answer it for poets, but I know that for myself, if I’m writing poems on a regular basis that move and amaze me and other people, and make them want to read more, publish me and buy my book, then I guess I’m enjoying some success as a poet. But not everyone is into that game, and still they write good poems and maybe love teaching. I hope they feel successful. I’d like to keep writing some truly stunning and beautiful and challenging poems. I’d like to surprise myself and fascinate others. In doing that, I might be accomplishing a little soul-shifting work and saying something true about the human condition.