DeMisty D. Bellinger on the melody of the line

In her article, “‘Warming’ the Climate for Learning” Sandra Allen discusses the importance of the positive interactions between instructors and students. She explores three key areas to “warm” the learning climate, “(1) the teacher’s praise or approval; (2) enthusiasm for and use of students’ own ideas; and (3) teacher-student interaction”. When you teach writing, in what ways do you warm the climate for students to learn about creative writing and the art of chapbooks?

I hope to invite conversation by creating comfort in the classroom through humor, sharing my own experiences, and listening to my students’ experiences and aspirations for their work. I know I cannot excise too much of the classroom constraints from my teaching. Our classrooms are industrial. This past semester, I insisted on circling the large, rectangular tables to try to create the workshop atmosphere, and this made an unwieldly squarish circle. I tried my best to make the world homey, but I knew that it was just an institutional classroom with a Smartboard. Sometimes, I had to lecture, but I tried to keep those lectures short. But even with these elements, we were able to have an intimate experience in our writing. My classes are made up of undergraduate students, many of whom major in professional writing—the practical writing—and in other practical fields such as education. These aren’t MFA stars. Still, we’d often get lost in talking and sharing, working on someone’s poem. I want to hear what students have to say and I try to act as a guide more than a professor.

Some of the climate I help create for my class is through the assigned readings. I mostly teach contemporary poems and I do consider the audience. This is not to say we don’t read mainstream/canonized poets, but I don’t let them dominate the classroom. Our models are diverse: Natalie Diaz, Lucille Clifton, Maxine Kumin, Mark Doty, Judy Grahn, Li-Young Lee, Adrian C. Louis, and Phillip B. Williams, and so many others. I assign more poems than we can talk about. I share videos of spoken word and slam poetry because I know my students love spoken word and slam poetry. And I let the students share their ideas, their interpretations, their reactions to the poems. And I let them not react.

Warmth is interesting. I don’t consider myself a warm person, but I hear myself described as such, and I find that kind of neat. Warming the climate is a swell concept (in terms of teaching, that is). Here, this is what I do: encourage them to try and try and retry through revision; welcome them to share their work with me, with the class, and with a broader audience; practice sincere criticism and guide my students to act as helpful and encouraging critics of their peers’ work; make them laugh early in the morning; allow the class to falter, to not follow the lesson plan, to sometimes fail and to admit when something is not working.

I show students how poetry looks outside of the textbook-esque anthologies. I bring in lit journals, chapbooks, and collections because I know when I was at that stage, I didn’t know these things existed. One student was so impressed with the chapbooks I passes around that she asked if she could write one of her own under my tutelage​. We set up an independent study and in it, she researched presses, read about fifteen chapbooks and wrote short reviews, and composed twenty themed poems. That experience for me—and maybe for her—was enlightening. We both learned so much about chapbook publishing that semester!

Your new chapbook Rubbing Elbows (Finishing Line Press, 2017) features poems on musical icons like Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Yoko Ono, Tina Turner, and more. Arra Lynn Ross writes that “These poems are like little rooms where we listen, in harmony and in dissonance, to the visceral imagery that plumbs and sometimes soothes the depths of our ‘too-violent’ heart” and Noah Stetzer also notes the tonal attention in your work, calling it “a literary room filled with iconic musical performers.” He continues, “Inside, Bellinger draws us near to hear poems that vibrate with the delicate music in her textured phrases and the powerful silences in what is left unsaid….” In The Poet’s Companion Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux attend to sound, rhyme, and meter, as well as voice and style. They write, “We grow up inheriting speech patterns and physical structures that largely determine how we sound. In poetry, we may write with a voice that is also determined by things beyond our control—an innate sense of language, early education, and previous exposure to other writers.” Can you talk about your attention to sound and the language influences that may inform your poetics?

I do consider meter and/or rhythm. When I write, I think about how the words will sound together and I strive to choose words that would dictate the reading of the poem. Sometimes, I think that it would be nice to add stage direction or rhythmic notation to a poem, but those are silly thoughts because I’m not writing plays or songs here! And I don’t mean to be prescriptive in how people should read my work. Still, I think about what I’m trying to convey in a poem and attempt to get that across in word choice, line breaks, and punctuation.

For instance, in the poem “Conversations with Whitney over Colas,” which is part of Rubbing Elbows, I tried to connote the giving of advice from one friend to another. And I wanted the speaker to sound as if she is remembering and thinking as she talks. For that poem, I looked to the cadences of the women I grew up with—my mother, my aunts, my mother’s friends, and my friends’ mothers. I wanted it to sound like a worldly woman talking to her neighbor over the fence. But for the poem “Misterioso,” I looked to Thelonious Monk’s music to inform the rhythm. I tried to mimic Monk’s deliberate plodding rhythm and bleeding melody in the song by the same name, and to mimic his style of music in general.

When writing, if I forge even one good sentence on any given day, I know I have discovered a kernel of emotional truth,” writes Sue William Silverman in Fearless Confessions. She discusses the grammar of a sentence, noting “Generally speaking, short sentences or fragments communicate a sense of urgency…” andLonger sentences convey a more relaxed or contemplative mood…,” then suggests to writers to “listen carefully to your own cadence and beat.” Talk about the sentence structure employed in Rubbing Elbows. In “Jimi Hendrix and I Wait Together” the entire first stanza is one sentence, while the prose poem “Yoko Ono Said” is composed of many sentences and sentence fragments. How does the grammar of the lines in your chapbook inform the mood the poems seek to convey?

In “Jimi Hendrix and I Wait Together,” I was trying to do three things: make a long, melodious line reminiscent of a guitar solo which, like any good solo, moves away from and lends to the main idea of the song; see a lot about Jimi Hendrix’s hands in a quick instance (because when one stares, she has to do it quickly so that the person who she is staring at won’t notice, and the speaker is staring at Hendrix’s hands. I couldn’t find many pictures of his hands, actually, when I thought of the poem and drafted it out, but I imagined that his hands had to be very strong. I likened those hands to Baryshnikov’s feet which are magnificently muscular); and I was trying to connote the act of observing, or of looking closely at something. And, I guess, I was trying to capture the assignment of seeing a legendary guitarist’s hands up close. That poor sentence is doing a lot of work! Also, I suppose, like Sue William Silverman says, that this sentence is contemplative.

In “Yoko Ono Said,” I wanted it to be conversational. Short sentences and almost interruptive. I also wanted to feel like an anecdote told by the speaker to someone. Although she does speak a little in this poem, I wanted it to feel mostly like interpretation from the speaker.

I think the forms and the content of the poem dictated the length of lines and the grammar of lines in the poems. And, yes, mood is always a part of it. And looking at the poem about George Sand and Chopin, “Polonaises and Pastorals,” I wanted grammatically correct sentences because it felt right for a dying love affair between a writer and a composer.

How do you define chapbook? A short collection of writing, generally twenty to forty pages.

What makes a good chapbook? An overarching theme for most poems (or whatever the genre) would be nice, or the poems must belong together, but each poem should stand well enough on its own.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I love Noah Stetzer’s work and I dig his chapbook Because I Can See Needing a Knife. I like what Dancing Girl Press puts out.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I am reading more chapbooks and writing whenever I find the time. Summer is coming. Summer is golden reading and writing time!

What’s next for you? I’m working on two cycles that kind of intertwine. One is somewhat of a neo-slave narrative, but we go through the present day and the other is a commentary on neoliberalism and capitalism, but from a African-American and African diaspora point of view.

Current chapbook reading list: Residence Time by Michelle Menting, Exercises in Painting by Khadijah Queen, Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill by Kimberly Simms, and many others that I have not found yet.

Number of chapbooks you own: Eek! I don’t know! About twenty? Twenty-five?

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: About fifteen? Twenty?

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I ask for them at bookstores. I buy them when I have money. I display them in my office. I assign them to students. I let students borrow them and I’m okay (deep breath) if I never see them again.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I buy and share their work. I sometimes share links on social media. I often suggest other poets’ chapbooks to friends, family, coworkers, students.

Your chapbook credo: The beauty of the physical book should match the beauty of the content.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: What is this thing called “earnings”? Ha ha! If I made money, I’d probably spend it on placing the next chapbook.

Your chapbook wish: That someone would find a cover-worn copy of my chapbook in 2019 at a train station in Los Angeles and read it, cherish it for months, tell friends about it, and lend it out. Can I be in a free little library? I want to be in a free little library!

Residence: Central Massachusetts in a little town called Fitchburg.

Job: English professor, writer, mother, wife, and amateur musician. Only one pays, though.

Chapbook education: The streets. By which I mean friends and the internet. But ‘the streets’ sounds better.

Chapbook Bio: DeMisty D. Bellinger, a Milwaukee native, teaches Creative Writing, Women’s Studies, and African-American Studies at Fitchburg State University. She holds an MFA from Southampton College and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska. Many of her previous publications are listed on her website, Her most recent poems can be found in Blue Fifth Review and Boston Accent Lit.​

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Martha Drummond
    May 27, 2017 at 12:07 am

    DeMisty, you music idea is exactly the super creative endeavor I imagined you would produce. I can’t wait to read it.

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