“We wouldn’t perish without poetry, but we would be considerably less.”
Kim Bridgford is the director of the West Chester University Poetry Center and the West Chester University Poetry Conference, the largest all-poetry writing conference in the United States. As the editor of Mezzo Cammin, she founded The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, which recently celebrated its third anniversary at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her collaborative work with the visual artist Jo Yarrington has been honored with a Ucross fellowship. Bridgford is the author of eight books of poetry, including Bully Pulpit, a book of poems on bullying; and Epiphanies, a book of religious poems. She has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Connecticut Post, on NPR and the website of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and in various headline news outlets.
We recently caught up with Bridgford, who is working on a new book of poetry called Doll (which includes poems about an inflatable doll and Barbies) to talk about poetry as an intimate art and also as an entrepreneurial business.
What was the literary community like in your hometown/your place(s) of education?
“I grew up in Coal Valley, Illinois, a small town outside the Quad-Cities (Iowa/Illinois border). I studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and then at the University of Illinois, where I received my Ph.D. in twentieth-century literature. I wrote my dissertation on American women poets. The writing community at Iowa was extraordinary, and changed my life. I had teachers such as Donald Justice, Sandra McPherson, Larry Levis, Gerald Stern, and Marvin Bell. My contemporaries at Iowa were Andrew Hudgins, Lynn Emanuel, Deborah Digges, Peter Schmitt, Clare Rossini, Robin Behn, and Eric Pankey. I entered the graduate program when I was twenty-two, so it took some time for the significance of those years to sink in.”
How long have you been writing and what do you write?
“I started writing when I was six years old, and almost immediately decided I wanted to become a writer. I loved going to the library, and couldn’t imagine anything more magical than writing my own book and having people read it.”
Tell us about some of the literary projects you’re involved with.
“This is the twentieth anniversary year of the West Chester University Poetry Conference, so we are in a celebratory—and nostalgic—mood. Natasha Trethewey will be our conference keynote speaker (June 4-7, 2014), and Kay Ryan will be our poet-in-residence this fall. We also have other exciting events, like a Sylvia Plath birthday party on October 27.
I edit an online journal by women, Mezzo Cammin, which will publish its sixteenth issue this winter. We are getting ready to celebrate the first fifty essays written for The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, a comprehensive database of women poets, at Lincoln Center in April. This is one of the most important projects of my writing life, as the aim of the database is to connect women poets across time, space, and national boundary, illustrating their commonalities. The project was recently featured on the blog of The Best American Poetry and on the website of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts.”
What are you most excited about in terms of what is happening with the literary arts in West Chester?
“West Chester is a vibrant community with a love of the arts. West Chester students have shown both their passion for the arts and their dedication to them—publishing work, winning national prizes, going to graduate school, and getting involved with the West Chester University Poetry Conference. The town of West Chester has a passion for dance, music, poetry, and visual art: and has been a strong supporter of our salon series at the Poetry Center, where people open their homes to small gatherings and host a reading by a visiting poet—for example, Tyehimba Jess, Rhina P. Espaillat, or A. E. Stallings.”
Can you tell us a little about what you’re currently working on?
“I have a new book of poetry coming out called Doll, which includes a series about an inflatable doll, as well as poems on Barbie dolls and other dolls. I am finishing up a collaborative project on travel, The Falling Edge: Iceland, Venezuela, and Bhutan, with visual artist Jo Yarrington, and I am completing a book called Human Interest, which has as one of its subjects famous kidnappings, in addition to the quirky human interest story. This book gives me an opportunity to pursue more serious subjects as well as return to lighter subjects, such as the Guinness World Records I explored in my book In the Extreme.”
What do you want to see more of in our local literary community? What can be improved?
“My comments have more to do with society as a whole. We tend to be a fractured and distracted society, constantly checking our e-mail and phones and sometimes missing the moment that is happening. I think art slows us down, gives us a different pace and way of thinking: makes us happier ultimately and more contemplative. At the same time, we all need to make a stronger commitment to the arts. We need to buy more books, to support artists by attending more exhibitions and readings, and to give donations to arts organizations that we care about.”
Why is poetry important?
“Poetry is an intimate art, and it communicates intensely about the most important moments of our lives: birth, death, marriage, love and loss, heartache. It delights in language and form, and shares that delight with others. We wouldn’t perish without poetry, but we would be considerably less.”
What advice do you have for local aspiring writers?
“Poetry is an entrepreneurial business. You have to get involved in various aspects of the business: readings, literary journals, classes, local, regional, and national communities. You have to be prepared to fail, to embrace that failure and learn from it, in order to reach for the highest rungs of the art.”
Tell us something interesting about another poet/writer in the South-central PA area.
“One Pennsylvania author I love is Barbara Crooker. She takes on big questions, has an extraordinary gift for detail (she has often appeared on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac), and she radiates optimism. She has also spoken and written at length about her son’s autism, and has been generous about sharing her expertise and knowledge with a range of constituency groups. She is one of the hardest working writers I know, and she is gracious about supporting and advising other writers.”
Bridgford was kind enough to allow The Triangle to republish her poem “Before Jumping Off The Bridge” which was originally printed in her 2012 book of poems Bully Pulpit by White Violet Press.
BEFORE JUMPING OFF THE BRIDGE
For Tyler Clementi, cyber bullied to his death
“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
Tyler’s suicide note
I loved to play the violin, to hear
The notes before I felt them in my hands,
That process: a god of sunlight with all ends
Before beginnings, unbitten apple, air
Unsnaked and pure. When what was mine was gone—
My privacy—it scoured out my soul.
I knew it wouldn’t end, this kiss and tell
I didn’t tell. These arrows can’t be seen,
Must be felt, the kind of drawn-out note
That rests inside the wellspring of your throat.
I don’t pretend to understand what loves
The meanness that results in ruined lives.
It’s the music I jump into, and the mouthing
Of love. You know, how a kiss dissolves to nothing.