Summer Reading: Mutiny Gallery by Poet BK Fischer

June 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm , by

It’s summer time and the livin’ is officially easy … doesn’t a glass of lemonade (or chardonnay) outside on the porch with a great new book sound idyllic right about now? I can hear your sighs of relief already. We’re sure you’ve got the drinks covered, but we’d like to recommend the read that accompanies you during your next moment of peace this season. BK Fischer is a poet from Sleepy Hollow, New York, and her novel-in-verse Mutiny Gallery is just the engrossing book you need. New to poetry? Fischer’s thoughtfully crafted poems bring everyday life into a new, intriguing light—the perfect introduction to the genre.

We caught up with Fischer about the inspiration for the book, her life as a writer, and what to do if you feel like you want to be a poet … and you didn’t know it. (Couldn’t resist!)

Tell us a little bit about Mutiny Gallery. What was your inspiration?

Mutiny Gallery tells the story of a woman who leaves her suburban home and takes her 10-year-old son on a cross-country road trip, stopping at offbeat museums along the way. Two things inspired me to write the book. In 2007, I wrote a short play about a woman named Claire and her toddler son, Max, which was performed at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, New York. When that production wrapped up, I was looking for a new project, and I wondered what would happen to those characters ten years later. At the same time, I picked up a book a friend had given me called Little Museums: Over 1000 Small (and Not-So-Small) American Showplaces, and I started to imagine Max and Claire visiting these strange places. Their visits to these museums began to tell the story of their experiences.

Readers new to poetry might be surprised to learn that your collection is actually a ‘novel-in-verse,’ a full story told through poetry. What makes poetry the best medium for this story?

I liked that telling the story through a series of poems allowed room for gaps—leaps in time, place, and emotion. Our lives are not usually one continuous story, but rather a series of memories, episodes, events, and intense moments (with long dull stretches in between). Lyric poetry is especially suited to conveying moments of extremity, fear, quest, and revelation, and for capturing the intensity of a stopping place in the mind.

The structure and format of the poems vary throughout the book.

I found that different types of poems suited the needs of the story in different ways. I used collage poems to convey the cluttered mayhem of domestic life. The prose poems, without line-breaks, worked well to suggest interiority and recollection within a surrounding cultural context. I love lists, and I use a lot of list poems to capture trains of thought in the minds of the characters. Sometimes a more spare, imagistic poem offers a way to describe a dramatic turning point. All of these forms became part of a portrait of these characters as they moved from place to place.

I think some women might find it surprising to find pieces of themselves or their everyday lives in your poems. When I read the lines “food samples at the Price Club / She mans a Bunsen burner / offering tablespoons of Honey / Baked Beans in lined up mini / soufflé cups. For nine hours,” I smiled.

I wanted to capture the realities of work and parenting in the book, the mundane matters of finding childcare, figuring out how to feed the kid, getting frustrated, driving, coping with sickness. I am thrilled when I hear people say “I wouldn’t usually read a book of poetry, but I really liked Mutiny Gallery.” I think it’s accessible to people because the detail keeps it real. The book is not autobiographical, but I do draw on details from my own life in a lot of poems. I did once earn a paycheck working at Price Club in exactly this way, and yes, it was baked beans.

Today, it’s impossible to avoid being bombarded by media of all sorts—television, YouTube clips, Facebook updates. Why do you think it’s still important to read poetry?

I’m excited to see that poetry actually fits very happily in those media, even thrives there, whether it’s something like that widely circulated YouTube clip of the three-year-old who can recite Billy Collins’s poem “Litany,” or a snippet of poetry that someone tweets or posts on Facebook. A tweet itself could be considered a form of poetry, with its compression, focus, and wit.

Many people think of poetry as a kind of marginal enterprise in the culture—that being a poet is akin to, say, being a bassoonist—but the truth is that the fine arts, in their many forms, are central to most people’s lives. Poetry has been around since the dawn of time, and the day after the dawn of time, someone questioned its relevance. It seems to me that poetry permeates the culture in one way or another, if sometimes below the radar. We need it—poetry stretches our imaginations, deepens our thoughts, compels us to concentrate, and I like to think of it as a force of empathy and connection. Poetry is an antidote to distraction and isolation.

What do you enjoy about crafting poetry? What is your process like?

 I love that writing allows me to reflect and create in the midst of a busy, people-filled life, sometimes even right in the middle of domestic chaos. I worked on a lot of the poems in Mutiny Gallery quite literally at the kitchen counter. (You know those 9 minutes it takes for the mac and cheese pasta to cook? Those are good minutes.) I am busy with many kinds of work in my daily life, including raising three school-age children (ages 11, 8, and 6), teaching poetry workshops for adults, and working as an editor. I write whenever I can find a stretch of time—short or long—when my domestic and parenting responsibilities are not too pressing. I take a lot of notes, and carry a notebook wherever I go. I have several projects going at the moment, which is like having several pots simmering on the stove at once, and I can always pick something up and work on it.

What would you say to someone who was trying to write poetry? Is there any sort of prescription for this very fluid art form?

Anyone who wants to write poetry should read poetry—lots of it, anything you can get your hands on, old and new. Figure out what you like and don’t like, what you find exciting or provocative. It is also helpful to find a writing group or some writing friends who can read what you write and offer constructive feedback. Writing can’t exist in a vacuum. I wouldn’t say that poetry has any prescriptions or rules, but rather that it is an art form with a long history like any other art form, and that it’s good to familiarize yourself with what can be done, the same way you would if you were interested in learning to paint, or play the cello. You don’t need to reinvent the art of playing the cello by yourself—it saves time to learn how it’s been done in the past.

 

B. K. Fischer’s poems have appeared in Literary Mama, The Paris Review, FIELD, and other journals. She is the author of two books: Mutiny Gallery, a novel-in-verse that won the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize, and Museum Mediations, a critical study of poetry and the visual arts. She holds degrees in writing from Johns Hopkins and Columbia, and a Ph.D. in English from New York University. She currently teaches poetry workshops at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, where she is co-editor of Slapering Hol Press. An avid amateur triathlete, she lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York, with her husband and three children.