Today’s featured writer: Chelsea Biondolillo
The featured writing: “Lovesong” published at Diagram.
I met Chelsea a year ago when I took one of her generative creative nonfiction workshops online through Apiary Lit and then met her in person during lunch with a small group of badass women essayists during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Through this interaction, I found a kindred spirit. Chelsea grew up in Oregon and even spent time in my obscure rural town in southern Oregon when she was sent to Herb Pharm (a farm and herbal medicine company) for a training when she worked as a nutrition team leader at Whole Foods. We also share an enthusiasm for the wilderness and a fascination with birds. When I found a dead owl splayed upside down as in mid-flight caught by the barbs of a blackberry cane behind my chicken coop, the first (and possibly only) person I knew I could send the photos to who would appreciate them as much as I did was Chelsea. So when I experienced her multi-media essay “Lovesong” published on Diagram, there was no question I would feature it here on The Sunday Spotlight.
“Lovesong” is one of those essays that defies categorization. It is a blend of photography and text, even three links to YouTube music videos of the song “Lovesong” by The Cure and covers by Adele and 311 as an end note.
The essay juxtaposes pictures of dead birds—both found on the side of the road and part of a university vertebrate collection—with quotations from books on birds (such as National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America) and personal notes and poems from lovers. The effect of these juxtapositions is startling and savvy, composing an offbeat metaphoric compilation.
I love when artists and writers blend mediums and take risks, and Chelsea’s essay “Lovesong” does just that. For those of you who are interested in alternative forms of essay (and even those of you who aren’t), check it out!
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of Ologies (Etchings Press, 2015). Her prose has appeared recently or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Diagram, Orion, Passages North, Sonora Review and others, while her journalism has appeared in Discover, Science, Nautilus and on public radio. Two of her essays were selected for the forthcoming Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 and Waveform: 21st Century Essays by Women. She has received the Carter Prize for the Essay from Shenandoah and an O’Connor fellowship from Colgate University. You can read her occasional #cnftweets and see pictures of her breakfasts on Twitter: @c_biondolillo and follow her travel and publishing news at Roaming Cowgirl. These days, she teaches, writes, and hikes in Arizona.
A few questions for Chelsea:
“Lovesong” is such a unique essay the way it blends the images of dead birds with epigraphs and personal poems and notes from lovers. I’m so curious how this piece came together. Can you share the process of how it manifested? What was your inspiration? And which came first, the images or the text?
I’d been trying to find a way to use the dead bird pictures for quite awhile. I wrote three microessays about skinning birds back in 2013, and they’d caused a bit of controversy with some publishers before finally being printed by The Fourth River as part of their Women and Nature issue in Spring 2014. Those micro essays were included with a chapbook submission that has so far been rejected by every reputable prose chapbook press at least once. When speaking with one of the press editors at AWP last year, she said, “Oh, I remember your dead birds!” Ever since, I really wanted to push the dead bird thing. I had been rearranging the pictures for a bit, trying to hear what they had to say and during that process, I was talking to another editor friend who loved the idea and solicited a piece that combined the photos with some text snippets–as soon as I heard “text snippets” I thought of old love letters. I had hoped I had enough material just from weird poems I’ve been given over the years, but then while digging through my box of correspondence, I found such great gems in old letters that I broadened my scope. The editor who solicited the piece was ultimately vetoed by her colleagues. Luckily Diagram was more open-minded.
Are you the photographer of all the images? If so, what kind of role does photography typically have in your work (if any), and if not, how did you gain access to the images?
I took all the photos. My undergraduate degree is in photography, from way back in the darkroom days of film and printing chemicals, and for as long as I can remember, taking photos has been a part of my creative process. Usually, the pictures are a form of note-taking (though a few of my longer essays have been published with accompanying photographs) rather than an end to themselves, but I’ve been experimenting more and more with images as essay components. In fact, this last fall, I worked with Creative Nonfiction magazine to launch their latest rolling microessay contest on Instagram. You can see the images and essays by searching for the hashtags #cnfgram and #tinytruth.
Nature and the environment—specifically birds, and even more specifically raptors—are influential in your writing. When did this influence begin and where did it come from?
I hate to be disappointing here, but that is the million dollar question that I’ve so far been unable to answer well. My grandmother was an amateur photographer and a pretty avid birder. She took me for long miserable car rides where we would stop on the side of the road and stare into otherwise empty fields for long minutes at a time, trying to identify warblers and grosbeaks. I don’t remember liking birds especially as a child, but they’ve stuck with me in a way that now feels like nostalgia. Sort of like how some of the worst hair metal from the ’80s now feels a bit beloved, maybe? Whenever I feel lost, I turn to birds. They are some kind of thread back to something–and once I figure out what, there might be a book in it.
Many of your essays play with form. Does the inclination to structure an essay alternatively come naturally to you? For you, what are the determining factors that dictate the form an essay will take?
I am a collector. I have a hanging file that always lives near my workspace that is (still) full of ripped out magazine pages and sheets of strange wrapping paper from my art school days (mid-’90s), not to mention the old love notes that appear in “Lovesong” and a host of new snippets, stones, shells, feathers, bones–these objects and images, and the ideas they represent, tend to roll around in my head until a format or outlet for them becomes clear. Sometimes, I think, “Don’t I have an old postcard of a skeleton? Maybe that’s what this needs.” Sometimes, I think, if I start writing down all the steps to skinning a bird, and all the things I remember about my father, what would that make? It is not a good process, because it can take years for some idea or image to tell me what it wants to be. I wish I had the discipline to sit down at a desk every day and write and make images, and then cull the best from a great and weighty stack. As it is, I just try to keep my eyes and mind open and wait for word from the files to bubble up.
Can you list three of your favorite books, and why? Additionally, can you list three writers who inspire you?
I don’t have three favorite books. I have a fluid list of dozens that I love. But here are three of the usual suspects:
- Bluets, by Maggie Nelson – the way she plays with form, and the melancholy and magical way the heartbreak bubbles up through the blue to the surface of the piece.
- The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie – it’s beautiful and smart and funny and complex and lush and surprising.
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard – I have a lot of favorite nonfiction and this is one of them. I love Dillard’s wry humor that bubbles up unexpectedly and her patient and wide eyed lens.
I am inspired by Alison Hawthorne Deming‘s ability to move from poetry to prose with grace and agility. I am inspired by Maira Kalman‘s mixed media book projects, and the way she uses all sorts of text, images, and assemblages to tell her stories. I am inspired by Kenneth Patchen’s optimism in the face of what (at the time for him, as now) was so much horrific human behavior. Here are a couple of his picture poems.
Will you share with us what you are currently working on in terms of your manuscript(s)?
I am not working on anything right now. It’s not a comfortable feeling and I beat myself up about it a few times a week. My workload has gone from “intermittent” to “crushing,” so writing will just have to wait until summer.
What other activities besides reading and writing do you enjoy?
I am an avid knitter, slow but consistent runner, occasional birder and as-often-as-possible hiker. When I can, I also love camping, backpacking, and road trips. All of these things are about process. They take time, and over time, they reveal wonderful things. That’s what I want my days to be like, and ultimately, the work I create.
Do you have any words of wisdom or writing advice to share?
Oh man. I feel like (especially right now) I only have terrible advice to give. How about this: be compassionate with yourself. I have a reminder set on my phone that goes off everyday at 7:45 am. Often, I miss it because of my schedule, but I know that (even if I don’t see) it tells me every day: “You are awesome. You work had and you do your best.” I need this reminder, because I can be my own worst cheerleader, and that’s about the most unhelpful kind of ally to have when you’re in this line of work.