Jill Bialosky is editor, poet, essayist, and novelist, with a new collection of poetry Asylum: A Personal, Historical, Natural Inquiry in 103 Lyric Sections forthcoming August, 2020. Her most recent book is the memoir Poetry Will Save Your Life. She is the author of four acclaimed collections of poetry, most recently The Players; three critically acclaimed novels, most recently, The Prize, and a New York Times bestselling memoir History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life. She co-edited with Helen Schulman the anthology, Wanting a Child. She is an Executive Editor and Vice President at W. W. Norton & Company. In 2014 she was honored by the Poetry Society of America for her distinguished contribution to poetry.
More about Asylum and Poetry Will Save Your Life follows the interview.
Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Jill Bialosky: I travel to get out of my own head, my own small bubble, and see what I’m missing, how others live, breathe, enjoy, struggle. I wander to come upon the unexpected. Two years ago we were lucky enough to go to Rome and Ravella. We wandered by the Trevi Fountain and there was the Keats museum that I had read about. I’d edited a book called Posthumous Keats by Stanley Plumly who wrote about Keat’s death mask and there it was. It was a revelation. Ravella had its own wonders. The seascape, lemon trees, and gardens. It was like being inside a painting. I guess I do travel for fulfillment and surprise, but I’m not sure I wander for distraction. I don’t like to be distracted. I’m a believer in intense focus.
Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.
Bialosky: When I travel, I like to walk, treat myself to museums and galleries, and of course have great meals and lovely wine. I rarely get tired of walking in a new city. Paris is my favorite walking city. I am a lover of beautiful things and in Paris even the pharmacies are little museums of wonder.
I travel to get out of my own head, my own small bubble, and see what I’m missing, how others live, breathe, enjoy, struggle.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.
Bialosky: My perfect cagibi is any table or desk. I’m a nomadic writer. I can do it anywhere as long as I’m following a thread. Of course, I dream of the perfect house with a view of the sea or the mountains where I could write, but I wonder if I’d be able to work in the midst of such beauty. It seems that I need chaos in which to write against. I know many writers when I was younger who spent most of their days going from one residency to another. That would not suit my temperament as a writer, though a few weeks out of the year, I would gladly welcome. Since I’ve lived most of my life in New York City as a writer, a room of one’s own was not possible. Now that my son has his own apartment, I have thought of making his room my study, but I haven’t yet been able to do that. It feels strangely selfish, but that is my own strange quirk, and it may change. Perhaps not a room of my own to write, but a few weeks of my own without any distraction would be my perfect cagibi.
Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?
Bialosky: I’m working on a novel that takes place mostly in a museum. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever written.
Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?
Bialosky: I travel to escape the mundane and routine. My writing is mostly interior and idea driven. A new place may allow for details of the landscape, or the dialogue of inhabitants to trickle in. If I’m traveling to a city filled with museums, or extraordinary landscape I may feel inspired by the poverty I feel at the feet of beauty. Once I went on a family ski trip in Utah. Being in the mountains and skiing for seven days in mythic, nomadic, snowy terrain inspired a poem of sonnets I wrote called “The Skiers,” and is in my collection called Intruder. It takes place on a mountain top and I imagined it as a mini-version of Paradise Lost. That came as a total surprise and wonder. I traveled to many cities in America when my son was on a baseball travel team. The experience of those places grew into a new book of poems, The Players, where I use the baseball field as a subversion of the American myth. Once, on a trip to the sea in Uruguay, we came upon a dead seal on the beach and that become the perfect metaphor for the end of my memoir, History of a Suicide. Had I not taken that trip, I’m not sure how I would have ended my story.
Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?
Bialosky: I’ll use whatever excuse I have to travel. I love going to new places and finding solitude and time to think. I’m usually always working at least a few hours a day when I travel, but I love my work, so it is not a hardship. Traveling to a new place gives me new places to tunnel in. I love hotel rooms because nothing is expected of you. No dinner to shop for or make. I can leave my papers over the desktop and on the bed and don’t have to put them away. I like getting up in the morning and writing in bed with my coffee. I once had a week’s residency at a hotel in Miami to work on a rewrite of a novel and just the sheer luxury of waking up only to write was a minor miracle. I have a full-time job as a book editor and time for my own work is a luxury.
Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.
Bialosky: I remember years ago reading Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl by Henry James, two of my favorite novels and longing to go to Europe. I hadn’t yet been to Europe and the first time I went to Rome and England I thought of both of those novels and the ways in which American culture and European culture is at odds and in conflict in James’s vision. The first time I went to Florence and looked out the hotel window I thought of Room with a View by E. M. Forster.
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Bialosky: No. But I’ve read in hotel bathtubs when sharing a room with my family.
More About Asylum
Jill Bialosky’s new collection of poetry Asylum: A Personal, Historical, Natural Inquiry in 103 Lyric Sections is forthcoming August, 2020, and available now for pre-order. From the publisher:
This book-length sequence by the critically acclaimed poet is a seeker’s story, revealing personal and historical traumas and how we search for understanding and meaning in their wake.
In Asylum, poet Jill Bialosky embarks on a Virgilian journey, building a narrative sequence from 103 elegant poems and prose sections that cohere in their intensity and their need to explore darkness and sustenance both. Taken together, these piercing pieces–about her nascent calling as a writer; her sister’s suicide and its still unfolding aftermath; the horror unleashed by World War II; the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly; and the woods where she seeks asylum–form a moving story, powerfully braiding despair, survival, and hope. Bialosky considers the oppositions that govern us: our reason and unreason, our need to preserve and destruct. “What are words when they meet the action of what they attempt to modify?” she asks, exploring the possible salve of language in the face of pain and grief. What Asylum delivers is a form of hard-won grace and an awareness of the cost of extreme violence, inexplicable loss, and the miraculous cycles of life, in work that carries Bialosky’s art to a new level of urgency and achievement.
More About Poetry Will Save Your Life
Jill Bialosky’s latest book is the memoir Poetry Will Save Your Life. From the publisher:
From a critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author and poet comes “a delightfully hybrid book: part anthology, part critical study, part autobiography” (Chicago Tribune) that is organized around fifty-one remarkable poems by poets such as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Sylvia Plath.
For Jill Bialosky, certain poems stand out like signposts at pivotal moments in a life: the death of a father, adolescence, first love, leaving home, the suicide of a sister, marriage, the birth of a child, the day in New York City the Twin Towers fell. As Bialosky narrates these moments, she illuminates the ways in which particular poems offered insight, compassion, and connection, and shows how poetry can be a blueprint for living. In Poetry Will Save Your Life, Bialosky recalls when she encountered each formative poem, and how its importance and meaning evolved over time, allowing new insights and perceptions to emerge.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.