2019 MID-CAREER ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
Like a lot of junior high and high school students, Mary Biddinger had drawers crammed with “angsty” notebooks full of poetry. It wasn’t until she was a freshman at the University of Michigan, however, that she experienced a pinpointed revelation of her destiny to become a serious poet.
“I was sitting at a fountain on campus, reading a copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel,” she recalls. “Then I had a discernible moment of epiphany in which I realized, ‘Oh wow. I want to be a writer!’”
Born in Fremont, California, she moved around quite a bit growing up but lived the longest in the Chicagoland area and Metro Detroit. Mary also knew early on that she wanted to “stay in college forever” just to be surrounded by the academic environment that she enjoys so much. She found a way to live her life as a poet, professor and editor, too, by becoming an English major. She attended the University of Michigan (BA in English and Creative Writing), Bowling Green State University (MFA, Poetry), and the University of Illinois at Chicago (PhD in English, Program for Writers). Since 2005, she has worked as a Professor of English at the University of Akron, where she is on the faculty of the NEOMFA creative writing program.
“I’m somebody who, if I have a goal, I will work very, very hard to make that goal happen,” Mary observes. “So, in terms of publishing and writing as much as I can, that’s something I have not stopped doing since that moment at the fountain in 1992.”
Today, Mary teaches both literature and creative writing courses, with a focus on women writers, contemporary poetry, and world literature. Her MFA course offerings include poetry workshops and craft and theory courses such as Poetry of the Body, First Books of Poetry, and Poetry of the Unexpected.
“I love being in the classroom, and the students at the University of Akron are wonderful learners and individuals who care a lot,” she says. “The literature that I enjoy teaching deals with aspects of the human condition in a way that resonates with my students who are going through their own struggles, so everything comes together for me creatively.”
Since 2008, Mary has edited the Akron Series in Poetry at the University of Akron Press. In that capacity, she reads more than 600 manuscripts every summer. “I read every single submission personally because I feel like these people who are submitting to the contest are sharing their stories with me,” she reveals. “They’re sending them to me personally, so it’s my responsibility to read everything that comes in, even if that’s hard, it’s inspiring.”
She is the author of six poetry collections: Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007), the Chapbook Saint Monica (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (Black Lawrence Press, 2014), Small Enterprise (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), and a collaboration with Jay Robinson titled The Czar (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). She is also the co-editor of a volume of essays, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (with John Gallaher, University of Akron Press, 2011). In August, Black Lawrence Press published her first collection of prose poems, Partial Genius.
“Mary's poetry is original and engaging,” says her close friend and colleague Jon Miller, director, The University of Akron Press and Professor, Department of English. “There's nothing else like it. Full of creativity and wisdom, her poems grow on the reader. Great originality can be challenging but it does not intimidate or frustrate over time.”
Mary has received three Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards in Creative Writing for her poetry in 2007, 2010, and 2018. She was also the recipient of a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in poetry.
Currently, she’s working on a second volume of prose poems and a book of writing prompts for anyone interested in writing. It will be published as a gift book by the University of Akron Press in the near future.
“I’m a mom, and I have a lot of professor duties, so I don’t get the luxury of going on a writer’s retreat or having three quiet hours in the morning to work,” Mary concludes. “So winning a Cleveland Arts Prize helps make writing a priority, even to acknowledge to other people at work or beyond, ‘Hey, people want me to keep writing poems.’”