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Chelsea Biondolillo

Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of The Skinned Bird (KERNPUNKT Press 2019). 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 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 Portland, Oregon. www.roamingcowgirl.com

Blurbs

"Sometimes when a human is truly an animal, their thinking patterns shift in fundamental ways, absorbing the color here and the systems within systems, to the point where they feel alienated from humans and the human part of themselves. The ache and dizziness of pulling these back into an integrated body and psychology is a story only a few of us can tell. Luckily, Chelsea Biondolillo is here to walk us through that process with no apology, only reverence."

– Kristin Hersh, musician & author of Rat Girl

"Birds fill this book. But The Skinned Bird is also full of music, silence, rain, deserts and desertion. Chelsea Biondolillo shows us through science, memory, an updraft of questioning, and a flicker of answers how we learn and relearn how to sing. Like the space feathers need between them, Biondolillo gives us the space inside these essays for the air to flow and lift. Don’t worry if there is a pause. Biondolillo will stitch you in. The Skinned Bird is a brilliant dive into how deeply we can love people and place and dirt and birds and air. And how we sometimes have to let go of all of that to truly fly."

– Nicole Walker, author of Sustainability, A Love Story

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The Skinned Bird: Essays

I Know I’m Somewhere New: An Interview with Chelsea Biondolillo

06/26/19

Dana Diehl: In this book, you use birds to reflect on your life. Why do you think birds have such power over you? Why do you think they illuminate your life more effectively than other animals might?

Chelsea Biondolillo: Birds live on every continent. They have incredible diversity of size, shape, color, and behaviors. When I travel, birds are one way I know I’m somewhere new (mockingbirds in Arizona, scrub jays in Oregon, rheas in Chile, tuis in New Zealand, and European cuckoos in Austria). And while they are unlike people in nearly every way, they feature frequently in our metaphors and clichés across cultures and throughout history. This means they can always be found somewhere in the periphery of any story I want to tell.

Practically, I live with a lot of anxiety and attendant depression, and birds are one way for my brain to get some perspective. They remind me about all I can’t know and can’t control, about all the things I can’t see (like geomagnetic navigational lines) and will probably never understand (like why Oregon has a hummingbird that doesn’t migrate). It doesn’t always work, but sometimes looking for a bird can help me to break out of panic states.

DD: As long as I’ve known your writing—about five years now—you’ve been writing about and researching birds. It makes me wonder, which came first? The birds or the writing? Did these passions develop independently of each other, or have they always been intertwined? Or has one fed the other?

CC: I started actively writing after I lost my corporate job in 2008, and my first publications came the following year—short travel essays on a couple of blogs, some sidebar pieces for glossy mags, and a handful of book reviews. One of my first essays published in a real literary magazine, though, was about starlings. It was the runner up in Diagram’s hybrid essay contest in 2011. That same year, according to my Submittable rejection history, I was sending out a piece on red-winged blackbirds (which eventually appeared in Birding in 2014) and one on hummingbirds (landed in Phoebe, 2012). I remember printing a bunch of peer-reviewed papers on big cats when I got to grad school in 2011, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the bird lady, but nothing has so far come of those. My thesis was full of birds and I still like writing about them.

My grandmother was an avid birder, and much of my reading and creative pursuits were encouraged by her—so I think there’s some creative-muscle memory there, but also there’s a lot of science available about birds, and so when I had a bird question (like, why do starlings mimic, or are hummingbirds really headed toward extinction), there was easy information to find and mostly approachable experts to interrogate. In that sense, birds helped me become a more interesting writer.

DD: The essays in this book vary widely in form. What do you enjoy, or what is useful, about shifting forms?

CB: My undergraduate degree is in photography, but that’s only because my alma mater hadn’t yet created a mixed media studio major. In art school, I sewed books and glued tiny tarot cards on the pages. I built boxes and filled them with broken ceramics. I took photos and transferred them to watercolor paper. I was always looking for my form—and it turns out it was in a different discipline! Playing with text and form in my essays is one way I am continuing that collage/mixed media process. Experimenting with line breaks or balancing small text blocks with images (or obscuring text with photos) allows me to view an essay as a visual composition or even as an object—which means I can consider how I hope to reach a reader and a viewer, both.

DD: In “The Story You Never Tell,” fifteen lovely, stark, black-and-white photographs of seashells block out fifteen pages of text. The words that creep around the edges of the photographs are ominous and evocative. What was it like to write this piece? Did you know you’d cover it up as you wrote it? If so, how did that affect the experience of writing it?

CB: That essay was originally written as a “regular” essay, but after a few rounds of revision, it still didn’t feel done. I wanted a way to redact the textual specificity without turning it into a MadLib that readers would want to solve like a puzzle. As an art student, I often incorporated words, phrases, or even pages of text in my work, and as a result, had many conversations with my instructors about how readability can negatively impact a composition. (Reading the text was not supposed to be the point in painting class.) I wanted to play with that idea—how much text would it take to make clear that what the viewer was seeing was an essay, without the content of the essay taking over? I was inspired by works from painter Titus Kaphar and texts like Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, which feature elements of concealment / or otherwise hiding one or more parts of a composition to highlight another. I tried out several methods of obscuring the text, including other imagery, before settling on portraits of seashells from both my and my grandmother’s shell collections.

And while the resulting piece can't be "solved" through reading (so it's not like I can spoil it), I am worried that too much talk about the hows/whys of writing it could dictate a new reader's experience of it in ways that I want to avoid. In that regard, it could be sort of a spoiler to say too much more about it.

DD: You mention several animals that have occupied your life: the cats, the geese, the insects, the dogs, the mockingbirds. Who are the important animals if your life right now, both wild and domestic?

CB: I’m living in the home my grandparents built, and one of the artifacts my grandmother left behind was a stack of birding journals. Over several years she tracked every bird she saw every day—most from her own picture window. It’s been weird and amazing to read her journal and see which birds are still regularly appearing at the feeders my partner puts out, and which seem rare now. We delight in seeing downy woodpeckers and varied thrushes, and often see bald eagles in the neighborhood—something I do not remember from my childhood.

As far as non-bird obsessions go, the other inhabitants of this place, the rabbits, snakes, deer, and hordes of ravenous insects (they got about half of my kitchen garden last year and would love back into our house’s fir posts and beams) and their boom-bust seasonal cycles are one of my areas of focus right now, for both practical and creative reasons. But also, I’ve also become much more aware of plants, as I’m currently surrounded by two acres of formerly neglected landscape. What thrives on neglect, and what literally withers and dies without care is of considerable interest to my gardening decisions.

DD: If you could disappear off the grid for a year and immerse yourself in the study of a single species that you haven’t already devoted a lot of time to, where would you go? What would you study?

CB: Being back on the West Coast has reminded me how much I love the Pacific. Rather than any single species, I’m often interested in systems, and the relationship between sea lions, salmon, and fishermen out here (and its current lack of balance) intrigues me. Sea lions have been seen on local rivers, over a hundred miles from the ocean, and are posing major risks to steelhead numbers, which impacts recreation and ecology. I’m drawn to stories that seem to have easy answers—over fishing or oceanic pollution in this case—but upon review, have complicating factors, like, are the sea lions starving at sea, or are they exploiting ready food sources inland? I’d have to see a lot of the Northwest and North coasts to be able to draw any reasonable conclusions—and that would be a wonderful way to spend a year.

DD: If you could be reborn as a bird, which bird would you like to be?

CB: Probably a crow. They seem to watch out for one another and have a good time when they can.

DD: What is something you are obsessed with right now? It could be a hobby, a TV show, a dish, anything.

CB: I am deep into sweater knitting, having finally settled down somewhere that is at least chilly for much of the year. Since moving back to Oregon, I’ve finished nearly half a dozen, and I have a dark green wool pullover on the needles right now.

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