Prairie Pulse 1305; Heidi Czerwiec, Elisa Korenne “The Next Big Thing”

(mellow rock music) – Hello and welcome
to Prairie Pulse. I’m John Harris and coming
up later in the show, we’ll see a music video
from Elisa Korenne about the Nonpartisan League
founder, A.C. Townley. But first joining us now
on the set is our guest, UND English professor
and poet, Heidi Czerwiec. And Heidi, thanks
for joining us today. – A pleasure to be here. – As we get started, and as
we always do, tell the folks a little bit about
yourself, your background, where you’re originally from,
and how you ended up at UND. – I’m originally
from North Carolina. My folks still live
in the Raleigh area. Then as I was going
through grad school, ended up in Utah
where I got my PhD and then taught there for a
few years until a job opened up in creative writing, which
is actually rarer and rarer, so I had no problem
moving to North Dakota even if it meant (chuckles)
moving to North Dakota in January, which I did, to get a job in teaching
creative writing. And it’s been a really
wonderful 10 years there. – Well now how did you
choose this career? – I actually started
out as a music major and had taken a class in the structure of poetry,
the meters of it, the music, the rhyme schemes, and
a lot of the language that’s used for it is the
exact same language (chuckles) that’s used for music, and
it made complete sense to me. It was just a lateral move, and I had written
poetry for fun, but had never really
done anything with it and showed some
to the professor. And he said, “Oh you should
pursue this” (laughs) and ended up switching over
and pursuing graduate school in English and creative writing. – Well in fact,
you’re here to talk about some of your writings. And in fact, we’re gonna
talk about your new book of poems, little bit, your
“Self-Portrait as Bettie Page.” Why Bettie Page? The famous pin-up and
what are the poems about? – Well the poems are
somewhat about Bettie Page and her life and the
contradiction that she poses and about my fascination
with her that she was such an interesting character that I had been
fascinated with for years. I got interested in her when I was a grad student and about the same time
that the Rockabilly resurgence with
people swing dancing and wearing pompadours,
but also with tattoos and dyeing their
(laughs) hair purple, so it was this very strange
moment, but her image popped up in a lot of places, and I
was fascinated with her. And everyone thought
she was dead. And then she pops back up, and it turns out, no
she’s actually alive, and that made me want to
know more about her and started researching her,
still just as an amateur, just for fun, but she’d always
been sort of in my head. And then I started working on a
project of poems about her and realized there were a lot
of parallels between our lives in some weird ways and
started exploring that. Hence, the self-portrait
because it blurs that boundary a lot. – Yeah well, what’s been the
reaction thus far to the book? – Lot of people really
like it because Bettie Page is thought of as a edgy, sort of slightly
racy character. The book of poems are written in a pretty strict sonnet
form for the most part, and sonnets are usually seen as being outdated and boring and too conservative. And so the pairing of the two
has been very interesting. And even people who have
said, “Oh I don’t really like “formal poetry” have thought,
“That’s really an interesting “way to pair the two together,”
that because she was known for the sort of
early bondage work where she’s posing in corsets and has a whip (laughs) and things that sound racy,
but when you go back and look at the photographs, they’re
actually sort of cheesecake and cute (chuckles) and silly. But the pairing of the
bondage with the idea of a strict form like the sonnet actually works
really well together. – Well then yeah the
contradictions in her life and why she fascinates you, so did that draw you to write
the poems or what was it? – Yeah the original
way I found my way into writing about her was that I was sort of starting to
do some research on her and had found a statement that someone made
about wearing corsets that said, “It seems
like it would be “really restrictive, but it’s
actually very liberating.” And I had heard any
number of poets who write in formal poetry say
the exact same thing that it seems like it would
be really restrictive, and it’s actually very freeing,
and that’s when the project clicked, and I thought, “I’m
gonna write sonnets (laughs) “about Bettie Page.” But it wasn’t until I
started writing them and started realizing that
there were a lot of overlaps between us and
that I was a woman writing about her just as many of the
photographers who took the best-known photos
of her were also female and trying to figure
out, what does that mean. Am I another woman in
a long line of women who exploited her, or is
there some sort of feminist argument to be made here? I wasn’t entirely sure, so I was using the
poems to explore that. – Mm-hmm, well who’ve
been your poetry and literary influences coming up through your career? – Oh sure, my
influences sort of come from all over the place. There’s John Dunne and George
Herbert from the 17th century, who mostly wrote
sonnets, but very witty, very playful. I love the language of someone
like Lucie Brock-Broido. The vocabulary she uses
just really excites me. I like narrative in the
works of Robert Frost and David Mason and let’s see,
Brigit Pegeen Kelly and T. S. Eliot for ambition. I’m not sure I would say
my poetry’s like Eliot, but I definitely have those
ambitions of trying to pull from lots of different
sources and somehow put it all on the page and have
it make sense together. – Okay well let’s talk
about your style of poetry and that you call yourself (laughter)
a high modernist? – Yeah. I did at one point. And I think that was because of a sense of form and how that worked
in my poetry, that I
was very interested in form, even when
I’m not writing a fixed form like a sonnet that I’m very interested in how lines of poetry work,
how the shape of the poem is contributing to
what it’s saying. And even now that I’ve been
moving in and out of form that I’ve started straying
off into other areas that are more hybrid forms
like the lyric essay, I’ve still been very,
very conscious of form, so I think that’s where
the high modernist and also that I tend to not
write about myself very much. I think many people have
an idea of poetry as, “Oh I’m just writing
about my feelings.” And I rarely even include
myself in the poems, so the fact of
including me at all in the “Self-Portrait
as Bettie Page” was sort of a departure. Although they aren’t
always truths too, that sometimes they’re lies, and sometimes they’re
half-truths as well, but yeah I tend to do
research on a topic like Bettie Page, like conjoined twins, like
the Bakken oil boom and then write work about that as opposed to really
including myself. – Well with that said,
would you read us, you wanna start
with Bettie Page, and could you read a couple
– [Heidi] Sure. – [John] of poems from there? – [Heidi] Yeah. – [John] And of
course I’ll ask you, just kind of set it up for us. – Sure. This one’s called
“Betty-Shaped Space,” which is talking about the mystery,
the enigma that she was because she disappeared. In 1957, after doing pictures
for many years, decided to become a
born-again Christian. And while she never repudiated
her work, and in fact, was very proud of it and
didn’t see what the problem was that she just no
longer did the photos ’cause she got interested
in doing missionary work and so on. But because she disappeared that added to the
myth surrounding her. “Bettie-Shaped Space. “Bettie, you are 80, a mystery. “You disappeared in ’57,
left a Bettie-shaped space “in photography. “None since have had
your levity or your heft. “Curvaceous question
mark, fame’s runaway “gone incommunicado,
absence, rift. “You are/become poetic
silence to fill with words, “to graft on you
our whims at will. “Bettie, you are 80. “You’ve never been more popular. “You had the mystique
of an icon who died: “a Monroe, a Dean. “Fame’s fugitive, you
stay teasingly oblique. “You lived long past your
falsely-rumored death. “And dying, you
dissolve into the myth.” And then this poem is the
last poem in the collection, and it’s called
“Autobioerotic” and is one of the self-portraits
where I’m really talking about me, but in
terms of her and using writing in
form as a parallel to posing in bondage. (laughs) “Autobioerotic. “You started innocently: first
a pair of words that rhyme, “a sweet pentameter that
left you wanting more. “And so you wrote, for fun. “And it was good. “Someone took note. “Young girl, new style, but
thought you needed edge, “put you onto sonnets, with
just a smidge of sapphics, “titillating, but
still, quite tame. “You got a kick out of it. “It was a game. “But then you get a
penchant for harder stuff: “ballads, rondeaus. “Those French ticklers
not enough for you. “You published hardcore
villanelles for magazines “with certain clienteles. “You’re verse’s vixen. “Where do you go from here? “You keep composing,
or you disappear.” – So what do you hope
people get when they read this set of poems here? – Well first of all,
pleasure. (laughs) Just enjoying the
sound of the words. I think that it’s important to keep Bettie Page in the
consciousness in a way, thinking about women, women’s issues,
women’s bodies, and how women in art are perceived and how they
help or hurt each other, so I think those are
interesting issues and to see the sonnet as something contemporary and interesting and
challenging and playful. – Okay, well let’s turn to some of your other pieces of work. Can you talk about “North
Dakota Is Everywhere?” – Yeah that’s a new anthology that just came out
this past March from the North Dakota
Institute of Regional Studies at NDSU. And while I was visiting
schools around the state as part of Poetry Out loud, I was looking for poems
about North Dakota and by North Dakota poets, especially living ones to
share with the students to say, “No, poetry
comes from right here,” that poetry doesn’t have
to happen in Britain or 200 years ago. It can be written by people
right here, right now. And I couldn’t find a book. There’s one collection that
exists that has some poetry in it, but it also
contains a lot of prose, and it didn’t help as much. So I thought, “Okay I’ll
put one (chuckles) together” and started contacting poets
and saying, “Are you in?” And fortunately, everybody
was really gracious and really excited, felt glad
that someone was doing this ’cause they thought, “Yeah,
this needs to exist,” so I was able to get 17 poets from around the state
to participate in this and collect together a number of voices of people who
grew up in North Dakota and some of which
have moved elsewhere, some of which have lived
here their entire lives, some of which have moved
here from other places. But all of the poems
in here are talking about North Dakota in some way. – And you recently completed a poetry manuscript called “Maternal Imagination.”
– [Heidi] Yes. – [Heidi] Yeah it’s a
kind of weird manuscript. I’m trying to place it now, but it’s mostly dealing with
birth defects. (chuckles) At the time, I was in the
process of adopting my son and got probably wrongly
fascinated (laughs) with it ’cause it can be
sort of disturbing. But as late as the 18th century, maternal imagination
was considered a cause of monstrous births, the
idea that the mother sees something horrible, and
it imprints on the child, and the child is
born monstrous, so most of the poems have to
do (laughs) with that idea and motherhood. – Now did you always
write as a young child, or did you develop
later in life? – I always wrote. I can remember being small
before I could even write physically, like
making up little songs while I was swinging. And then later once I
could write, writing poems, I think my very first
published poem was about the Easter Bunny and
was hung outside the room (laughter)
of my third-grade class. But it was always
just sort of for fun until later on. – Well now I understand,
have been told that you’ve been published
in different journals and magazines and that
you’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. So can you maybe tell
us about all that? – Sure, the way that
most writers get started is publishing, especially poets, is publishing in
journals and magazines, sending out your work and
getting those published. Most places before they’ll
publish a book would like to see that there’s a market for you
(chuckles) that other people are reading your work
and are interested in it. It’s also part of
sharing your work with a larger readership. The Pushcart Prize, editors nominate you. They usually have two from everything that
they publish that year. They can nominate two poets per year. And then someone reads
all of those and picks out who actually wins
the Pushcart Prizes. (John chuckles)
I have not won one yet, but I’ve been
nominated four times, which is still really exciting. – Well indeed. Are young people or your
students, obviously you teach at UND, are they good
writers, good poets? Has that been lost in
all the new technologies and things that are
going on out there? – No I don’t think
that it has been lost. Intro to Creative Writing
at UND is taught as a gen ed class that counts
for fine arts credits, so I get a lot of
students in there who are not English majors
and may have never written anything creatively
before in their life. They’re just there
because they want (laughter)
that fine arts credit. So my job is to woo
them (laughs) and
to get them starting to think about language
and how you can use it and manipulate it to
create certain effects on your reader and
that that can be used anywhere else in their life, that it’s not just
limited to this only works if you’re writing a poem, but that you can
manipulate language to affect readers in certain
ways for your clients, for your proposals,
anything like that. They can take that
away with them. – Well I also understand that you translate
Spanish poetry. (Heidi laughs)
^Who do you do that for? – I’m one half of
a translation team. My partner, Claudia Routon, who is a Spanish
professor at UND, she and I, between us, make one good
translator. (laughs) So she does a lot of
the trots in Spanish, like the first
translations of a poem. And then I work on shaping it as a poem and getting the sound into it. And then we go back and forth on whether this is
accurate or not. And we’ve had some success with publishing those poems as well.
– [John] Well I always hear – [John] the phrase
lost in translation, or it loses something
in translation. Does that ever
happen? (chuckles) – Oh definitely! I think the translation,
while the idea or the content of the poem is given to you, the words that ultimately
get used are yours, are not the original
author’s, so yeah, but I do think it’s a good
way of allowing cultures to read each other’s work. – Okay well we’d like you
to read just a little more, and I think you’ve got
some pieces picked out. Can you tell us what you wanna read for us today?
– [Heidi] Sure. – [Heidi] I’ll
read one poem from the “North Dakota Is
Everywhere” anthology. And like I said,
many of these writers included here were writing about growing up in North
Dakota and living here and so as a contrast, I thought
that I would include a poem that was about moving to
North Dakota in January and the first impressions
of that, which for me were also paired with the
breakup of a marriage too because my then-husband in the process of moving
to North Dakota said, “I’m not living here” and left and went
back to Utah, so yeah, this is about all
those (chuckles) things. It’s called “Sedating the Cats.” “Each morning, they hid. “The drug’s tuna
taste fooling no one. ‘It’ll make the move easier,’ “I said, pinning them myself. ‘Because they like you
better than me,’ he said. “Soon they’d
stagger like drunks. “Meows thick in their mouths. “Inner eyelids drifting back
and forth uncontrollably “across their sight. “I draped their carrier
against the cold with a blanket “also to calm them as one
would a horse or a parrot. “Despite my deceptions, each
night they’d pin down my limbs, “kneading me with
their nearness. “Their weight, not
the same as his weight “in a different bed,
in the same room. “Each morning, the
drug and me crying “until I couldn’t see straight. “Once we slid off the icy road. “Then even their slurred
murmuring went silent. “I was shaking
uncontrollably from shock, “from sub-zero cold. “The man who accompanied
me was the same man “who would abandon
me once we arrived. “Each morning, the drug. “Each morning, me wishing for
something to make it easier. “When we arrived, they
hid from me for a week.” – And I think we may
have time for one more. – Okay, I’ll read
a short one from a new group called “Sweet Crude: A
Bakken Boom Cycle” that will be published next
April, and it’s a lyric essay, so a crossover between
poetry and nonfiction. “North Dakota is a foreign
country, alien, a flyover state, “even from space. “When we show our
foreign friend a photo “of a satellite flyover,
he’s astonished. “At nightfall, light clusters
on the frozen prairie. “Phantom city emerged from
among the ghost towns. “A blooming midnight meridian. “Stars in a lake of blackness. “A constellation
of ignited eyes. “The natural gas that
emerges alongside the oil “costs more to
capture than flare. “The foreign companies
that drill here burn money, “a billion a year
in flames and fines. “A little Kuwait on the
prairie, whose dread watch fires “smelter under the dark, more
brightly than Minneapolis, “more broadly than Chicago. “In winter, truckers cluster
for warmth beneath the flares, “which fling their
flapping rags of fire “six yards into space, toward
the stars and satellites “and passing planes. “Foreigner, flyover passenger, “when you peer out your
window, what do you see? “What lies beneath you?” – Heidi, thank you for all of
that, but we are out of time. But if people want more
information about your books or your poetry,
where can they go? – They can go to my website
at, or they can look on
Amazon or Google me. (laughter)
– Okay well Heidi, thanks so much for joining us today.
– [Heidi] Thanks a lot. – [John] Stay tuned for more. (upbeat rock music) Nonpartisan League
founder, A. C. Townley, was a critical part
of both Minnesota and North Dakota politics. His life is played out
through music by Elisa Korenne in her original song titled
“The Next Big Thing.” (jaunty jazz music) (car squeals)
(cars clang) – Well that’s all we have on
Prairie Pulse for this week. And as always,
thanks for watching. – [Voiceover] Funding for
Minnesota Legacy programs are provided by a grant from the Minnesota Arts
and Cultural Heritage Fund with money from the vote
of the people of Minnesota on November 4th, 2008 and by the members
of Prairie Public.

3 Replies to “Prairie Pulse 1305; Heidi Czerwiec, Elisa Korenne “The Next Big Thing”

  1. UND English Professor Heidi Czerwiec is another left-wing, liberal radical.

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