Chelsea Biondolillo is a Portland-based writer whose research and fascination with winged things has taken her all over the world. Her debut essay collection, The Skinned Bird (Kernpunkt Press), uses Biondolillo’s expertise as a springboard toward deeper explorations of a living planet, of human connection, of everyday realities like disappointment and grief. In the midst of Arizona monsoons and the drizzly rains of the Pacific Northwest, settings that uniquely highlight the beauty and brutality of the natural world, Biondolillo encounters bird and after bird—which is to say, Biondolillo encounters herself. In each personal essay, The Skinned Bird peels back the layers of what it means to be human, often through unconventional means: the insides of a dead bird, migration routes, weather patterns, decades of a grandmother’s bird logs. This collection gets to the heart of what I’ve come to understand as Biondolillo’s most poignant inquiry: How do we live, how do we carry on, when we know all that we know? When we realize we know nothing at all?
Erica Trabold The Skinned Bird traverses geologic time, scientific inquiry, taxonomy, life, love, and your own personal history. How does the essay allow you to keep all these plates (and more) spinning? What does the essay allow you to do that other forms might not?
Chelsea Biondolillo Generally speaking, I am not particularly amenable to rules of any kind. I like that the essay has truthiness as its only real constraint. I say truthiness instead of truth not to be funny or coy, but because the fallibility of memory, the bias of perspective, and one’s positionality all mean that the truth I write can only be an approximation. Knowing that, I take as my one rule to write about “things that happened and things that exist.” Other than that, I can write my essays long or short, reported or reflected. I can even break the occasional line. I can bounce between bird taxidermy and my relationship with my father, or between geologic eons and my ex-boyfriends, because they fit the constraint: they happened or are happening still. This is also (I suspect) why I love photography and collage so much—there’s endless possibility in picture-making, but every image begins as a physical object before a lens or pair of scissors.
ET Your writing has such strong visual appeal. In this collection, “The Story You Never Tell” is a text essay obscured on each page by a giant, gorgeous image of a seashell. The reader can make out some of the essay’s words, but most of the writing is inaccessible. Can you tell us a little about this choice and, more broadly, how visual elements inform your work?
CB On the one hand, that essay is an erasure. I have always been drawn to erasures, in both fine art and in poetry. Part of what I like about the form is the blurred lines of authorship they suggest. As a result, most erasures have to contend with issues of power and control, or directly engage with them, since creating one means that one writer “erases” the writing of another. So, in the creation of “The Story You Never Tell,” I wondered how that power dynamic would be troubled in a self-erasure.
In this essay, I don’t consider obscuring the text to be a way of hiding or silencing it so much as I consider the move to be protective. Beyond that, I don’t want to speak too much to the content or why it is hidden, as I want readers able to approach those pages with little intervention. But I was curious how much text could be removed for an essay to still count as an essay. Is it still an essay? And if it is, is that because I say so (like John Cage’s “4’33”” music composition, performed by being silent), or because the context of the piece suggests it is so (à la Duchamp’s “Fountain,” an artwork by dint of being in a curated art show)? But, it’s also a collage of two distinct elements: the text and the photos. In that sense, it comes to be as a product of an additive, rather than a subtractive process.
ET The pulse of your work really seems to live at the intersection of mediums. What else can you tell us about your day-to-day, week-to-week art making process and what it looks like?
CB This is tough to answer, because the current demands of my day job—plus side gigs teaching—leave me very little room for art making right now. It’s a frustrating place to be, and I’m not very good at managing my expectations about what I should be making time for or producing. I’m always taking pictures though, especially now that my phone can function as a camera. Regardless of my workload, I don’t write every day, and though I guilt myself over it every day, stewing about ideas for days or weeks is part of my process. It gives me time to open the idea up to greater possibility. There’s a Bukowski poem with the following line: “sometimes, I gather evidence of a kind that takes some sorting,” and I think about that line a lot when I’m feeling like my writing practice isn’t enough.
Generally I’m a big collector: of snippets of text, of images, of ideas. These collections take the form of piles of paper, filled memory cards, photo albums, miscellaneous notebooks, a file on my computer desktop called “essays etc,” and a bookshelf devoted to coffee table and picture books on all sorts of art and natural history. When I have an idea in mind, or even just time to work without a goal, I mine this evidence and then set about sorting it. Usually, sooner or later I get to a point that requires more information, and then I will google, make calls, write emails, or go somewhere that can inform whatever I’m writing about. Revision is my favorite part of the process, because once the raw materials are on the page, it feels more like art-making—moving text and images around, changing the narrative and literal shape of the piece.
ET Revision is a fascinating (if frustrating) part of the process for every writer. Which of the essays in The Skinned Bird required the heftiest revision? What did it need, and how did you stay patient through the revision process?
CB “Phrenology” remains my most edited essay ever. I think the very first draft came out of my second semester of graduate school. Three different visiting writers saw it (Colson Whitehead, Maggie Nelson, and John D’Agata), plus one workshop and my thesis advisor, and everyone suggested wildly different directions for it. It had probably been rejected by about half a dozen of my favorite literary magazines when Whitehead said he loved it, and that sent me over the moon. He was and remains a writing hero of mine, and he said out loud what I’d secretly hoped: that there was something in the essay worth championing. It went from second person to third person to first person. I don’t remember where the text boxes came from, but the footnotes were definitely a blended mix of inspiration.
A bunch of additional material was originally mixed in but got cut through successive edits (including a bunch of astronomical math and a list of volcanoes that later ended up being repurposed in “Pyrology”). Its biggest problem through all my revisions was a lack of cohesion and direction, or what Dinty W. Moore calls “the invisible magnetic river”—the pull under the text that takes the reader from the beginning of the essay to the end, bringing key components together as it goes. I had all these elements: quotes, lists, personal anecdotes, political rants. They were intriguing and readers wanted to read them, but they weren’t adding up to a specific thing. So each reader would see a possible thing, and they’d give me wise counsel on how to get there.
I didn’t take every suggestion, but each time I got feedback I listened and considered. I cried more than once, and then I gave the essay up completely because it felt too broken, or like a Frankenstein’s monster. I stuck it in a drawer and left it there for a month or so. I wanted it to work, but I didn’t know how. Ultimately, it was resurrected when it came time to submit my thesis draft for the simple reason that I was short pages without it. But that decision meant that I had to figure out what it was trying to say, and then get it to say it better. This was the first (but definitely not the last) essay that I physically cut up and moved around on the floor of my office. The thing is, when it was in its final form, it got picked up almost immediately by a great magazine (Hayden’s Ferry Review) and then was a Best American Essays Notable that year. There’s no telling me now that there’s any such thing as too much revision.
ET All of that revision, all of that inquiry of self, all of that work certainly has to serve a larger purpose. So I have to ask, why birds?
CB In the past, I’ve often fallen back on what Nelson says in Bluets: “We don’t get to choose what or whom we love.” My grandmother was an amateur birder, and as a kid I learned several calls and could identify birds that I saw in her yard. I came to them with my own fervor much later. When I got laid off, I remember thinking, “You can do anything you want now, so what’s it gonna be?”—with the caveat that I was tens of thousand of dollars in debt, had a relatively new mortgage and car loan, and no savings, plus, just six months severance and a handful of weeks’ worth of unemployment. Whatever I was going to do, I had to be able to get pretty good at it in less than a year. I signed up for classes in geology, creative writing, and belly dancing to keep my options open.
After a year of applying to and getting rejected by graduate programs, I decided to up my game. I started assigning myself stories like I was a newspaper editor. The first one was on starlings, inspired by a press release that said some researchers had found that the birds understood complex grammar rules, and the second was on hummingbirds, after some Google sleuthing found several populations of them in potential decline. I don’t know why I picked those two stories, but the first one got runner-up in a Diagram contest and the second was a finalist in two others before being published by Phoebe. What I learned with those essays is that birds are accessible subjects. Birders are generally open and often generous sources. There’s a ton of scholarly and creative literature about birds, and if I wanted to observe birds myself, they are literally all over the planet.
Later, I learned that a ton of bird research has correlative human research—like the work on bird songs and linguistics that comes up in the first essay in The Skinned Bird. There’s also work on bird migration, mate preference, and environmental pressures, which is done in other fields (like anthropology, psychology, and so on) in relation to human activities. These correlations aren’t unique to birds; there’s plenty of research on how mammals care for young or use tools or adapt to their environment. But birds, unlike macaques and sea otters and gazelles, can likely be seen right outside your window.
One of the hallmarks of my own circular and unrelenting thought process is that when I get stuck on an idea, I see it echoed everywhere. I jump to unlikely conclusions and I find evidence to support those conclusions in strange places. To attempt to translate that mode of thinking to the page, I need thematic elements that can follow leaps from fathers to tattoos to taxidermy, from my memories of childhood and through two dozen moves, across the country and even across continents. I need motifs that will follow the reader after they’ve put down the essay or book, that will reappear and remind and reverberate. What better thing to do all that than a bird?