We’re thrilled to introduce the 2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected thirteen writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. The 2020 OLF applications will be posted at the end of April, and the deadline to apply will be Friday, July 12, 2019.
2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of The Skinned Bird (forthcoming, May 2019), and two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. She has a BFA in photography from Pacific NW College of Art, and an MFA in nonfiction and environmental studies from University of Wyoming.
Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
Inspiration is stubborn and unpredictable. I try to remain open to experience and other voices and I hope for a spark. I started out as more of a visual artist, and I still get a lot of inspiration from imagery and images. I like to get out in the world as often as I can to see the natural world at work, and I have a large (ever growing) collection of books on artists, natural history, and various wonders of the world. I also never turn down a chance to visit collections of all kinds–museums, botanical and zoological gardens, aquariums–sometimes curators inspire me in that respect, and sometimes that which they’ve curated. Other writers, in person and on the page, are also a source of inspiration. I have been inspired by memoirs by Abigail Thomas, Wendy C. Ortiz, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Bich Nguyen Minh and nonfiction by Ellen Meloy, Maggie Nelson, and David Quammen. Poets, too, often inspire me with their textual feats of derring-do. Lately, I’ve been basking in the lights of Camille Dungy, Javier Zamora, Bianca Stone, and Martha Collins.
How would you describe your creative process?
For the last three years, I’ve had a day job working as a regulatory analyst for a bio-medical company, and so my creative work happens around the edges of that. I miss teaching, but this job allows me to better compartmentalize “work” from “creative work,” since my schedule is very consistent. I used to imagine that I was inspired by chaos–music blaring, a cluttered desk, myriad distractions–but I’ve learned that I need to clear time and space and assign myself to write, and a stable routine helps me to do that. For the last year, I’ve been working to build an office in my back woods, and it’s very nearly done. I’m trying to keep my magical thinking in check, but it will be so nice to have a room for reading and writing that I physically travel to (even if it’s a journey of only a hundred feet from the back door).
Before I sit down to write, I almost always procrastinate for as long as I can bear. Sometimes I call this gathering inspiration, and sometimes that’s exactly what it is. It’s also avoidance, because putting literal or metaphorical pen to paper is the hardest and scariest part of the process, and so to combat my fear and fickle attention, I give myself small, frequent deadlines. Once I get a draft down, all that I love best about writing starts to happen. The revision process is when I figure out what I’ve been trying to say and start carving and shaping the words around that purpose. My revision process is often tactile–I will print out an essay and cut it up, move sections around–I like to see the whole thing at once, if I can, so I can visually assess its shape and momentum. I go through several passes, fine tuning the form and language, and reading it out loud over and over. Sometimes the hardest part is knowing when to stop. I used deadlines for this, but also, if I can read the whole thing aloud without stumbling over some awkward phrase or overwrought passage, I call it finished.
What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
The whole thing is such a thrill and man, am I grateful! First, the group of writers this year is so stellar, I’m excited and awed to be in this talented cohort and to have the opportunity to learn more about them and their work. Writing is such a solitary act–even if we practice it in school or with a writing group, we are on our own on the page. This fellowship is also exciting because it is buoying to get recognition for all the hard work of writing, including the parts of the process that often feel invisible, like gathering ideas, the rounds of revision, all the submissions that weren’t accepted for publication. In my case, I’m also looking forward to exploring a new writing project, and the time that the fellowship will give me to do that is exciting, too.
What are you currently working on?
My first full-length book is coming out in May and preparation for that is keeping me busy. The Skinned Bird is a collection of lyric and boundary-pushing essays that explore ideas of loss, fragmentation, belonging, and home through a number of scientific and pseudo-scientific metaphors. For example, in the opening essay, I look at the legacy of my parent’s divorce alongside the phenomenon of bird song acquisition and what it might be able to tell us about human language acquisition, and later, I compare skinning a song bird for a natural history collection to the unsatisfactory relationship I have had with my biological father. Another piece juxtaposes my own list of breakups with record setting temperatures (in a city I found myself in over and over) and volcanic eruptions–a collection of data points at once frustrating and soothing in its order. Doesn’t most heartbreak feel catastrophic in the moment, and like something else once you’ve found some distance from it?
This book is the culmination of many years of writing about, around, and through scientific and field research experiences. This very late arriving winter, I’m doing a lot of writing in support of the book’s release, but I’m also looking ahead. I spent several years living all over the country and researching vultures around the world, and have spent the last year and a half making a home for myself in the house and on the land that my grandparents owned–I’m not yet sure how those two might be related to one another, but my plan for the second half of this year is to start putting those disparate experiences down on paper, to see what happens. While The Skinned Bird considers how we are a part of and apart from the natural world as it interrogates the limits of nature-metaphors, this newer writing I’m sketching out looks more deeply into ideas of conservation and preservation and how our sense of self can be shaped by what we choose to save.
What advice do you have for future applicants?
Send the work you believe to be your absolute best. If you apply and don’t get a fellowship, reward yourself for the courage and the follow-through that the application required of you, and for the hard work you put into your writing every day. Creative work is a practice in learning to work despite rejection and if I only every celebrated my successes, my writing life would be pretty dreary most weeks! Next, keep strengthening your writing practice (through writing, but also reading and learning), so that each subsequent application will be stronger than the last. While we each write alone, none of us writes in a vacuum–participate in the literary culture around you, go to readings, propose discussions or panels at events, advocate for writers and readers just as you advocate for yourself. Reaching out, I believe, is how we find our best readers and the best champions of our work.
Comments from judge, Maya Sonenberg
“In her essays, Chelsea Biondolillo takes us on vivid journeys to a Texas State University ranch where forensic scientists study the decay of human bodies and the way they’re scavenged by vultures, through the skinning of a bird, through the complex relationship between evolution and human invention, and through a daughter’s relationship with an intriguing, absent, and often irritating father. Through near-perfect prose, Biondolillo entices the reader to share her deep interest in the places—physical, intellectual, and emotional—where these journeys arrive. On every page of her work, I find myself learning something new and then questioning, productively, how that knowledge informs my larger understanding of the world.”
Excerpt from the essay “How to skin a bird” in forthcoming THE SKINNED BIRD (May 1, 2019)
Your first and only incision will be right over the sternum. All birds have a bald patch there. Blow lightly on the breast until the feathers begin to part and you can see the pale skin beneath.
Rest your finger there for a moment. Feel the bone your blade will follow. Make a wish, if you must, and then slice from collar to belly carefully.
I used to keep the letters my father had written to me in a box with all of my other letters. There were three of them, all written before I was eight, on lined paper with a ripped, spiral fringe. He put them into the envelopes he sent my mother. Otherwise, they were empty, except for a check, always made out for $75. Sometimes the envelopes came from Alaska or Tahiti.
When I was a little older, if I saw the mail before my mother, I would feel the envelopes, to see if they were thicker than just-a-check.
You will need to cut the spinal column and trachea before you go any further. To do this, carefully work a small surgical probe between the skin and neck muscles at the very top of your cut. The curved tip is blunt, and if you advance it slowly, it shouldn’t tear the skin. Work it behind the neck until you can see it on the other side. Then slide the lower blade of a scissor along the steel. When you can see the scissor’s point, cut.
On larger birds, you may need to cut two or three times, blindly. This is why the probe is important: it keeps you from cutting through the back of the neck and beheading your specimen.
You can find the complete essay here.
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