“Our obsession with pop culture or people’s obsession with celebrities inspired me to start writing the poems of Rubbing Elbows.”
Rubbing Elbows (Finishing Line Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
Conversations with Whitney over Colas
Talk about the gaucheness of hotel bathtubs.
Do not mention hotel bathtubs.
Say nothing of hotels.
Expound on the importance of family and children, but
refrain from using the word “future.”
Make eye contact and make her laugh.
Do not smoke in front of her.
Do not smack your teeth in front of her.
Do not mention men who go freely before
cameras and boast around her. Do not
talk of men. Do not talk of awards or the coolness
of bathtubs, the porcelain ungiven, the water
hot as blood, the bubbles
dissipating before the bath is
Why did you choose this poem?
That this poem exists at all shocks me. It works so hard at not admitting anything. I was not a big fan of Whitney Houston, but I loved her voice and was always floored whenever I saw a televised performance. I expected her to grow old and regal, to be ushered out on stage when she’s nearing eighty and made to perform. But I didn’t want to talk about her music or glory. I wanted to show that she was really every woman in that she was still subject to misogyny.
Her death felt like a robbery. I wanted to talk candidly about her death in as few words as possible, walking around it while still addressing it head-on.
Also, I love reading this poem aloud to audiences. I think we all loved Houston. She was, in many ways, a daughter of America.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
Some of these are old:
There’s this little, tiny chapbook called i want to die by Walter Mackey published by Plain Wrap Press. That press is no longer in existence. There was some controversy and I believe that led to their demise, but I did like the simplicity of Mackey’s book. It came out when alt lit seemed to be a growing community. Then that scene died—or maybe it hasn’t died, but my awareness of that scene is gone. It was not very friendly towards women.
I like Adam Peterson’s The Flasher. That’s from another dead press. That, too, was seemingly simple. It beautifully crosses genre lines and had this hardboiled pulp feel, if that makes sense.
Unrest by Chloe Yelena Miller will always be one of my favorite chapbooks. Honest poems written gorgeously. Who could want more?
This is not an exhaustive list for me. It’s not even a noticeable percentage of my list. There are many more, including Laura Madeline Wiseman’s Stranger Still, and I like Phillip B. Williams’ work a lot, but I’ll stop there.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
Our obsession with pop culture or people’s obsession with celebrities inspired me to start writing the poems of Rubbing Elbows. Also, my own desire to spend time with the people society reveres. Don’t you imagine talking to your favorite stars? Don’t you wonder what you’d say to Jimi Hendrix if you met him on the street (I know he’s dead, but still!)? I’ve met some famous people in passing and never really had a conversation with any of them, but I do sometimes wonder what they’d think about issues that are important to me, such as racism and sexism, and how these issues intersect with celebrity culture or their own specific celeb persona because no matter who we are, we will continue to be affected by these phenomena.
What’s your chapbook about?
Rubbing Elbows indulges in celebrity obsession. These poems manifest fantasies about stars living and dead—some, like Clara Schumann, long dead. Some of the poems are innocuous, but many enter into challenging social issues via pop culture.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
“A Treatise on My Ignorance, in which I Wallow Happily, Blissfully.” It is kind of an outlier in the chapbook in that it’s not about any celebrities. It’s about neighbors who I did not like! I realized, in writing the poem, that I did not like them, which really bothered me at the time. I don’t like not liking people! In that poem, instead succumbing to my anger and dislike, I decided to make them into beautiful people.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Titles are the hardest thing ever. I couldn’t think of a title to save my life. I wrote the title of the chapbook, then wrote a poem with the title of the chapbook. That’s strange, right? Ultimately, I thought the book was full of poems where the speaker gets to rub elbows with famous people, so I decided to call it Rubbing Elbows.
I tried many different arrangements of the poems before landing on one that worked. I tried doing it in order of publication, I tried to do it by the dates of the celebrity, then I decided to start with a poem that I thought was rather strong and end that way, too. This is not to say that the rest of the poems are not worthy of starting a conversation, but that those two poems are bookends. The first acts as a legend of reading the works that follow (these are fantastical pieces that include real life concerns) and the end shows how to incorporate fantasy into reality.
There are four poems that do not directly address celebrity culture and they come at the end of the chapbook. The last poem is an homage to the lives lost at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“The Unrequited Love Story of Mary Mallon” was first a short story that did not work. I wrote the story while in grad school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and revised it and revised it. Then, I forgot about it for eight years or so. I remembered the idea of the story and thought that maybe I could make it work now, so I tried. I read it to my husband and he had too many questions about plot, which told me that it still wasn’t working.
So, I wrote it as a poem I read it to my husband and he only had one question. Awesome! So I revised it a couple of times and he dug it, so yay!
This is the first time that something did not work for me in one genre, but worked in another genre. I now want to go back to all my shelved stories and poems and try them again in other genres!
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“The House That Has Eight Grandkids.” It is literal, it is autobiographical, and it has nothing to do with celebrities.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I like writing ekphrasis poems when I can’t think of what to write right away because they get me out of my own head. Ekphrasis also invites the broad use of imagination and although the work is visual, if the work is good, it may encourage a poet to consider all five senses.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Did you omit any poems? Why?
I wrote a poem about Anthony Kiedis. It just wasn’t working yet. But now, it’s fine.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel about an erstwhile abusive woman who is trying to make amends for her life and identify herself instead of having the world around her create her identity.
I am also writing two cycles of poems that are kind of intertwining. One is about capitalism in a neoliberal world. Sounds thrilling, right? Really, it works! Some of those poems have been placed, such as “Big Men in the North,” which found a spot in Boston Accent Lit. That poem is about two business men who emigrated from West Africa and who try to hold on to their traditions. That one was inspired by a friend who raises goats and had a family from West Africa come to buy a goat for a celebration. It was also inspired by a drawing from the artist Cosmo Whyte, where two men in business suits are killing a goat.
The other cycle I’m working on is kind of a neo-slave narrative focusing on escape. This one focuses on a woman working her way north away from slavery.
I started these two cycles after November 8 of last year. How many pieces of art of all kinds began after November 8 of last year? One thing that day did is encourage many of us to make!
Eventually, I hope to somehow collate these two cycles into a bigger work.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I’m okay at music! I play a couple of instruments already, though I am definitely an amateur. I play viola in a community orchestra and in a quartet, and I play piano on my own. I am not a great musician and I wouldn’t even say that I’m good. I’m much better, I think, at listening and commenting on music.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Doesn’t everyone say read? I say that, too: Read everything. Books, of course, but also the back of your cereal boxes, billboards, and instructions that no one reads. Listen more. Experience often. And, of course, write. Writing is an art, so treat it as such. Just like musicians, you have to practice. Try writing once a day (this is not always possible, I know). I don’t care how long or what you write, just practice writing.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Why a chapbook? Why not a full-length collection? Or is this leading to something bigger?
DeMisty D. Bellinger teaches creative writing, women’s studies, and African-American studies at Fitchburg State University. Her writing has appeared in many places, including The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, and Forklift, Ohio. She enjoyed a full month fellowship at Vermont Studio Center and received her MFA from Southampton College and Ph.D. from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. DeMisty lives in Massachusetts with her husband and twin daughters.