Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

An Interview with Katie Bickham

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

An Interview with Katie Bickham

Article excerpt

If you have read Katie Bickham's work, you know she's from the Deep South. Hailing from the state of Louisiana that resides partially below sea level, Bickham has a talent for getting to the underneath of things. She brings a grounded attention to her work, a devotion to an honest, artistic, and historical reflection of her home. Louisiana, the South, the United States as well as a keen and compassionate intellect, and a willingness to sit in the uncomfortable truths about our country's history to a powerful poetic effect. Alicia Ostriker said of Bickham's first collection The Belle Mar: "Some of these poems may rip your heart out; others may cause it to expand." Ostriker points to the source of Katie Bickham's poetic power. She is not afraid to go into the swamp. She knows what is at stake and goes anyway. Bickham writes by the principles of Robert Frost who said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." She lets herself cry and be surprised.

Bickham received a Stonecoast MFA through the University of Southern Maine where she met writers who served as mentors. Poets like Annie Finch, Tim Seibles, David Mura, Kazim Ali, and Alexs Pate all guided her work as Bickham explored complex aspects of poetic form as well as confronted the history of her home state in terms of tradition, family, race, and violence. But it was under the guidance of Alexs Pate that she drafted the first stirrings of The Belle Mar and traveled to Louisiana's archives and plantations to lay the book's foundations. She grew up steeped in her region's history and geography and eyed the layout of plantation houses and crumbling workhouses and aligned their beams and staircases to words. The fictional house she built learned its structure from beams and crossbeams of these old houses as well as from Bickham's refined sense of poetic structure, the rhythm and power of her lines.

Today, Bickham lives in an old house in Shreveport with her young son and husband. She's working on her second poetry collection while teaching English and creative writing at Bossier Parish Community College. Her poetic voice is fairly similar to her conversational one: generous, humorous, unflinching, and wickedly smart. Her divine sense of humor is part of the power of her poetry and political acumen. Writing does its best work when it attends deeply to the whole experience of being human. Bickham looks hard at our hilarious, difficult, cataclysmic humanity and then she writes it. You don't have to know Bickham long, either personally or through her writing, before you start quoting her.

Bickham's poems have appeared in Rattle, The Missouri Review, Deep South Magazine, The Road Not Taken: A Journal ofFormal Poetry and elsewhere. Her work has won the The Missouri Review Editor's Prize and The Belle Mar was selected by Alicia Ostriker as the winner of The Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize. She is currently a finalist in the Knightville Poetry contest from The New Guard Review. This interview was conducted through email on October 9, 2016.

Burlington, Vermont

MR: You have spoken consistently about how you have "become what you wanted to be when you grew up." You knew from an early age that you wanted to be a poet. Tell us about your early life and what led you to choose writing.

KB: I think on some level, all poets were sad children. I was a melancholy kid. My brothers were eleven and thirteen years old when I was born, so as soon as I could really know them, they had moved out to begin their lives. My parents and brothers had known this entirely different family that in many ways ended when I came. I've had a sense my whole life of being too late for something, of arriving just when something good is winding down. Writing poetry (instead of fiction) has felt that way, too, the genre which has fizzled and tried to revive itself in the last several decades.

When I was old enough to do simple arithmetic, I came to my mother's bed late in the night crying because I'd figured out how old she'd be when I was twenty, thirty, forty, and it felt unfair that I had missed so much of her life, that she would miss so much of mine. …

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