The Assay Interview Project: Chelsea Biondillilo
May 1, 2019
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. Her work has been collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, and How We Speak To One Another: An Essay Daily Reader, among others. She is a former Olive B. O’Connor fellow at Colgate University, and her work has been supported by Oregon Literary Arts, Wyoming Arts Council and the Consortium for Science and Policy Outcomes/NSF. She has a BFA in photography from Pacific NW College of Art and an MFA in creative writing/environmental studies from the University of Wyoming. She lives and works outside of her hometown, Portland, Oregon.
The Skinned Bird is an intimate and conversational yet formally daring collection that includes map essays, obscured texts, and text-photo collages. The book excavates memories and interrogates an artist’s fascination with cruelty and decay, and it meditates on the loss of a former self made small by bullies, lovers, and low expectations. Biondolillo’s lyric, fragmented essays—full of geological, ornithological and photographic interventions, with landscapes, loss, and longing—travel the terrain of leaving and finding home.
Chelsea, congratulations on your book. The central metaphors here are of birds and migration. You chart your own Zugunruhe (restlessness, anxious migration) and map it onto a movement of birds. In one of the final essays of the book you write:
If I say that my compulsive fleeing from one place to another, from unassuageable heartache to heartache-to-be, is like a swallow flying year after year, to and from Capistrano, it is so that I can find value in it, instead of shame. (151)
Can you talk a bit about the nexus of flight and anxiety in this book? In what ways do you see your movements as migratory (which is deliberate, planned, and cyclical) vs. flight (which is reactive, an escape)?
I’m not sure I’d say all migrations are planned—we don’t know if birds plan, so much as respond day by day to the conditions around them, and once their bodies start to jitter and the provisions in their current situation begin to dwindle, they take off. For every first-year bird, this trip is to parts unknown.
While I was taking ornithology in Wyoming in grad school, we had this sudden break in winter, around late March, I guess. The sun shone, the snow melted, daffodils sprang up, and a bunch of the usual spring birds started to re-appear: American goldfinches I remember, and probably horned larks and swallows that I didn’t notice. Then, predictably for Wyoming, we got slammed with a late snow storm—several inches that stuck around for a couple of weeks, howling wind and below zero temps. I asked my professor what all the birds that had come back were doing to cope—thinking, I don’t know, that I was about to learn about some cool adaptation that song birds have. “They’ve probably all died,” he said.
Maybe birds on their third or fourth trip know what they’re doing, more-or-less, but they still can’t predict what we’ll have done in the meantime to impede or prevent their progress. There’s a thrasher that lives in Arizona during the summers, but heads south each winter. The species is in trouble, because each year they come back, more and more of the desert has been peopled.
Most of my moves felt like I was flying toward plenty—a new job, a new love, a new career. They felt planned and deliberate. Even when I was flying back to my mother’s house, it was because the alternative was homelessness—so it felt like the responsible thing to do. But hindsight being what it is, I know that I was perpetually unhappy with where I was and was always hopeful that the next place, next person, next thing would make me feel better. It’s such a cliché or so antithetical to the bohemian artist trope, but really, only therapy and regular exercise can do that. Even now, in the place that feels more like home than any other I’ve lived in the last twenty-five years, if I don’t do both regularly, I start getting restless (which I now know is really “anxious”) and wondering if I’d be happier teaching college in the middle of nowhere, somewhere I haven’t yet envisioned.
Your training and talent as a visual artist come through really strongly in this book. I understand that all these photographs are yours, is that right? They are gorgeous. Tell me about how text and image work for you in your creative process.
I have always been driven to combine the two, and so I am not sure how to answer “how” they work in my creative process, other than to say it’s a product of a compulsion, and I’m just lucky when the trial and error produces something to which editors/readers/viewers respond. As an undergraduate art student, I really struggled with this, and it informed my decision to give up on art as a practice after graduation. I would make something like a small, hand-sewn book, and paste photos into it, along with poems, and put the whole thing in a cigar box labeled “Fancy Tales” and my photo professor would say, “Am I supposed to read this?” So, then I’d take it to my English teacher, and she’d say, “Do you want me to look it over for grammar—or I guess you can’t fix any of that now, so should I try and talk to you about it as an art object?” It’s not that no one was doing this—I stumbled onto Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger almost by accident in my last two years of school—but I didn’t have language to describe why I made the decisions in my work that I did, so I was unable to push against the institutional disinterest I experienced.
When I came back to writing, after getting laid off in 2008, it was initially to reinvent myself as an “environmental journalist”—but by the time I graduated, I was back on my bullshit: My thesis had a couple of reported essays, but it also had several images in it, some collages, some drawings, some photos—those weren’t really considered by my committee, but that bothered me less than it had as an art student. I’d spent at least as much time on them as I had several of the essays, and I included them as a slideshow during my thesis reading.
Photography is the thing I am always doing, even if I don’t have time to write or read. I use it as a form of note-taking and super minimalist journaling. Only sometimes do I consider the photograph itself a final form—the added caption feature is part of the reason I’m such an Instagram addict (despite the problems of privacy and control on the platform). Many of my images there are throwaway moments from my day, but mixed in are considered works composed of image and text. I pulled from both IG and my Twitter feed to create my 2016 chapbook #Lovesong. I can experiment in those online spaces in low-stakes and always accessible formats.
Following up on the visual aspect of things, I want to raise the subject of images that are not simply juxtaposed to text but that actually block it out. “The Story You Never Tell” is an obscured essay. It’s page after page of seashell photographs lain over text. We can only read the first and last lines of each page, plus some fragments of text around the periphery. Tell me about your thinking in presenting this essay in this way. Why the seashells? And what is behind your impulse to publish an unreadable essay?
Part of it is curiosity. How much of the text can be obscured, and have the writing still “count” as an essay? My interest in the piece is split between the “erasure”-ness of it and the “collage”-ness of it, one generally considered a subtractive form and the other additive. But also, I wonder what happens to the act of reading a text that has been self-erased. Since every interviewer has asked me about it, it seems to be doing something intriguing, which is encouraging.
As far as the shell portraits, I had been thinking a lot about shells for a couple of reasons. One, I’d not long ago written a craft essay on hermit crab essays for Essay Daily and in that essay is a line from the Conchologists of America website: “Just as important as protection and rigidity, is the assistance a shell renders its maker in pursuit of the necessities of its life.” That line/idea has stuck with me.
And two, seashells make me think of my grandmother, and my grandmother’s house (which is now my house), which is a theme that reappears in the text. All my life, she had this particular seashell in her bathroom, a small Venus comb murex under a glass dome. One of the shell portraits in the essay is of my own Venus comb specimen. The Venus comb is a snail shell from the Indo-Pacific oceans and it is ridiculously spiny and ornate. Every time I moved (all those two dozen times), it was with a TON of stuff. It was hard and took weeks to pack, load and then unload and unpack. At some point, I began to understand the stuff as my fancy shell—it allowed me to re-create the same apartment pretty much anywhere in the US—the same knick knacks on the same shelves with the same lamps and curtains and throw rugs. The inside of my place always look the same, which was a deep comfort. But it was also a burden. Just like that murex shell must be sometimes a burden to its inhabitant. No quick getaways in that thing.
All that is to say, the words and images in this essay together are a story I have lived in, for better or worse, for a very long time. I manipulated the text in a number of different ways before arriving at the current version, and once I saw them on the page, these photos felt correct, and the resulting essay/object felt very much like an ideal amalgam of my two interests. The shells in that sense are assisting me in pursuing the necessities of my life.
In addition to the things that make up a home and the objects collected over a lifetime, you make reference to foods and the way they can crack open the door of memory. For example, I love the image of you and your father eating pancakes rolled up like cigars. In my version of your book, I’ve underlined “We ate peanut butter and mayonnaise.” I’ve never come across that combination before. Tell me more about the culinary delights of your childhood.
So, here’s the funny thing about those: Originally, I thought they were a mistake my mom had made one morning, because she always made me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and my step-father, mayonnaise and ham sandwiches. I assumed they were the result of a mix-up, because I remembered eating them a few times as a kid, but I also assumed they must have been gross. I must have complained, I figured, because I didn’t eat them for very long. While writing that essay, I called my mom to ask what the deal was with them, and to find out if my stepdad was mad about the grape jelly and honey ham sandwiches he must have gotten, and she told me that I’d requested them (much to her disgust) after having them at my grandmother’s house. Well, then I had to look it up, and it turns out this was a very common Depression-era Southern sandwich. The ingredients were cheap, and all that fat kept a person going, apparently. Plus, early peanut butters were drier, and the mayo supposedly moistened it up and made it more spreadable. The flavor isn’t bad—especially if you’ve ever enjoyed savory peanut sauces, but on really soft (read: cheap) white bread, the whole thing lacks textural interest. I know very little about my father’s family, but my mother’s mother once mentioned that some were from Kentucky. This would have been her way of disparaging them, so I never knew if it was true or not.
For most of my childhood, my mom and stepdad were working class, and our menu reflected blue-collar American economics. My mother had been a cook and waitress at a diner for many years, and so most of what you might find in one made appearances on our table: pot roast, tuna casserole, hamburger steaks with mashed potatoes, potato salad, creamed corn. I went to a fine arts magnet grade school in downtown Portland, and I remember begging her to make my sandwiches with whole wheat bread and her refusing (“you won’t like it”). My friends were the children of progressive pre-yuppies and they ate “healthy” sandwiches with things like sprouts on them. They told me the white bread from my sandwiches was balling up in my stomach and turning into glue and would take years to digest. I would later work at a natural foods store for over 13 years, in part to distance myself from feelings of shame caused by my lack of experience with exotic or fancy food, and in part to gain a vocabulary I thought I’d need to escape the working class myself.
A theme or image or sensation that keeps returning in this book is this narrator’s compulsion to touch and to examine closely things that are in various states of decay, that are poisonous, or that sting. You write:
It isn’t a good idea to be the girl who like torn skin and spiders and snakes. You might find yourself differentiating from the group. Stratifying. If you are the girl who looks when a bug is stepped on or a mouse is half eaten by your own cat, your orbit may widen out and flatten, like a comet, your view moving father from the center to an outer perimeter. It will feel as far away as Cassiopeia, as Arcturus. (78)
The other day I was walking in the woods with my dog and we came a across a skull. It was all white and weirdly beautiful. I thought of you and your book when I sort of tapped it with my toe. I think it may have been a cat’s skull. I considered taking it home (it was very Georgia O’Keefe and all that…), but I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. Tell me about being the girl (now woman) who feels compelled to touch and examine skulls. And who looks at cruelty square in the face. I love this line: “Destruction was never the point. I wanted to see the aftermath; I wanted to know how things were unmade” (82). And also, the notion of “a taxonomy for all my dark fascinations” (82).
While cleaning one of the (many, seemingly never-ending) piles of literal and figurative garbage around this house last summer, I came upon a box of old bottles and jars. I wanted to save some of them, because they had been so important to my grandparents for some unfathomable reason which I nonetheless felt obliged or compelled to honor (in itself one of many essays I need to write one of these days). I was lifting them out of the box one by one, when I realized that one (an old tequila bottle, I think) had a bunch of something in the bottom. Not exactly dry, but not wet—clumps. The glass was dark, so I couldn’t tell what it was, until I tried to shake the stuff out. It was (had been) a nest of mice. They must have bunked down when the bottle was on its side, and they could easily get in and out of it, but then the box must have been moved or jostled, and as a result, righted, and they were trapped there. By the time I found them, they were mostly little mummies, somewhat stuck together.
I was torn between wanting to get a good look at (and to be honest, possibly keep, somehow) the mummies and wanting to keep the old bottle intact. The two were mutually exclusive and my partner, who is not into creepy dead things, was not as excited as I was about the dead mice. I eventually got one out and took a picture (the most reasonable way of “keeping” it) and then tried to empty the bottle of its gruesome contents. I never really got it clean and it was eventually put in the recycling.
And yet, I will gag and pale at having to help my partner peel off a band-aid from an especially nasty cut. Or, I will literally skin a bird, but don’t like to eat wings because chewing on the bones and sinew and cartilage feels too much like I’m scavenging inedible bits.
Part of it, I think, is that in so much of American culture, death is completely taboo, and we are raised to be squeamish about it. We don’t hold vigils by the side of our dead, often don’t even get to be with our loved ones when they die—it happens in hospitals in the company of machines, and only later do we arrive, briefly to pay respects and then skedaddle. I’m a naturally curious person and dead or gross things were rarely examined in the reading I had available to me as a kid—but they were all around me in the dead mice and frogs that my cat killed, roadkill, the snake at school eating white rats, so I tended to stare. I don’t “love” dead or gross things, but I want to know more about them, and sight and touch is one way we learn. Being told I shouldn’t, or that I wasn’t supposed to, only encouraged me.
It’s worth noting that I would have never touched a dead bird in the wild before learning how to skin them. One of my first questions in the lab was about the kinds of diseases they were crawling with (as a half dozen adults in my life had probably parroted that factoid at one time or another— “Don’t touch those, they are covered in diseases”) and the lab tech said, basically very few that could bother me, so I didn’t even wear gloves while prepping the skins. Now—much to the horror of others, I will pick a dead bird up to get a close look, or to move it somewhere more amenable to an unmolested decomposition. Technically, this is against federal regulations (really! also illegal: keeping feathers you find on the ground), but it isn’t death-defying for me. Plus, I wash my hands afterwards.
This essay from which I quote above is called “Phrenology // an attempt.” It contains these mysterious snippets of texts that the reader eventually comes to understand are the words of Fanny Burney who underwent a mastectomy with insufficient anesthetic. The reader slowly makes a breathtaking series of realizations of what’s happening in this paratext. Tell me about how you discovered Fanny Burney’s story, her documents, and about your decision to enter into this conversation of sorts with her.
I first read Fanny’s letter in a book of my ex-husband’s called Eyewitness to History. It was a collection of first-hand accounts of things like Vesuvius’ eruption, dinner with Attila the Hun, a variety of wars, and people’s deaths (see? we’re so fascinated with death!), and one of the eyewitness accounts was of an “early mastectomy.” It was the idea that the woman could feel and hear that scalpel scraping across her ribs, that stuck with me. And that’s just how it happens sometimes—I get stuck on an image or a phrase and it just rattles around until it finds an outlet.
In this case, it ended up as a collaged essay. Originally, I’d set out to write something scathing about women in science, and I’d gathered up all sorts of bits and bobs on the topic (some artifacts that didn’t make the final cut: a table compiled by one of the Harvard computers, a group of women who documented astronomical values in the late 1800s, and a list of volcanoes named after women—later changed to a listing of eruptions and used in the essay “Pyrology”) and once I got all the pieces together, and after more rounds of complete revision than any other essay I’ve ever written, it turned into something else.
Fanny’s story infuriated me when I first read it—her husband arranged the operation and didn’t tell her when it was going to happen (other sources say she asked not to know, so she wouldn’t worry herself to death), she was only given a wine cordial (or a small dose of laudanum in tea) as anesthetic, though morphine would have been available… It seemed at first to be just one more example of disregard for women in a scientific (in this case, medical) setting. But as I was assembling and disassembling my collaged pieces, I started to wonder if she would think me stubborn and ridiculous for not appreciating more the extra 29 years the surgery gave her. On the page, I’ve pitted her unremitting scream against the silent, unnamed woman in Brakhage’s autopsy movie, and Virginia Christian, electrocuted at age 17 by the State of Virginia after being denied the chance to testify in her own defense. In essence Fanny is saying, “what, you’d rather I was dead than in some pain?”
Finally, I love your essay about tattoos, called “With this Ring.” This essay is a meditation on permanence (tattoos) and impermanence (tattoos). The text turns over the notion of regret. Should the narrator, for example, get her wedding ring tattoo removed after a failed marriage? Is it better, she asks, to live with the markings of the past or to start an uncertain process of trying to erase its traces? I can’t help thinking how apt it is for an essayist to cover herself in tattoos, as if she were writing her own life on her skin, recording her life on her body. Any thoughts on connections between tattoos and essays?
I think of both essays and tattoos as a record of a point in time. In that sense, they are permanent, serving as the record of a way of thinking about the world/oneself at that moment, but impermanent, because as Steve Miller once said, “time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future.” I have several medium-sized tattoos on my back that I designed during and just after art school, and for years I thought they were beautiful and elegant. In my 20s I would have told you all my thoughts on witchcraft and alchemy as pre-modern incarnations of personal and cultural transformation and empowerment. Now, they look so 90s with their pseudo-tribal shapes and heavy black lines that feelings of compassion for young-earnest-me eclipse the elegance I once saw in them. Their value/meaning for me has changed from philosophical to historical record.
The essay too can change meaning over time. It can be revised and republished, the tattoo removed, amended, or obscured. Some of the few people who have read the full text underneath the seashells, for example, expressed dismay that the real essay “will never be published now” (I mean, it is, in that it is in the book, but I get what they mean). And maybe that exact version will not, but all its components could surely reappear elsewhere in my work or on my body: my most recent tattoo is of a Venus comb murex, and it’s on my forearm—so if you see me, you can ask to see it. I love showing it off.
Deal. I look forward to examining it! Chelsea, thank you for this.
Julija Šukys is an associate professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri and a Senior Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile). Her essay “There Be Monsters” appears as Notable in Best American Essays 2018.
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