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Weekly Poem: Mark Bibbins takes ‘little pieces’ to craft layers of meaning

In “They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry. They Kill You Because They’re Full,” Mark Bibbins writes what he calls “persona poems.”

One of his poems is in the voice of Pat Robertson, another in the voice of Medusa (although not necessarily the classic Medusa from Greek mythology). Sometimes, the voice of his poems changes more subtly, responding more to a mood or a perceived audience than channeling a whole different person.

“We speak differently to a child then we do to our boss. We speak differently to a stranger than we do to our intimates,” Bibbins told Art Beat. “Even though we think of ourselves as these fixed, consistent things, the way we present ourselves to the world changes … depending on what situation we’re in and who we’re dealing with.”

The way someone hears and understands the poem can change, too. The “transaction between poet and audience,” as he calls it, is affected by how a poem is read or even if that poem is read.

So, what was it like reading a poem for the NewsHour, where his audience is unknown? Well, that was a little different.

“It’s not like walking into a room and giving a reading. It’s very abstract and distant, which is fine. A lot of our communications are both of those things, so I don’t feel especially uncomfortable doing it that way.”

For Bibbins’ first book, poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum wrote a blurb describing this style of writing: “The objects of his regard are moods as they manifest in words.”

“Mood is a good way of putting it. Maybe another way of putting it is tone or position towards a subject … The way I like to have people read the poems is not by some moral or message behind it, but what my mood is around my subject,” said Bibbins. “I like to hope that the way I present things allows people to approach a subject from an angle that they might not necessarily approach it themselves.”

For example, in his poem “Bowerbird,” Bibbins juxtaposes the urban and the wild.

Listen to Mark Bibbins read “Bowerbird” from his new collection “They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full.”


I recently rescued a supermarket
bag from the crotch of a tree,

found fewer shields than souvenirs,
figured out how to game the pain scale

and opted not to. Water the color
of watery tea comes through

the light figure on a holiday
when nobody can come plug it up

and make us regret complaining.
Nothing like a movie to remind you

that you never travel and a lot
of almost fornicating happens

a mere floor or two above the one
you’re on. Shoulder, TV flicker, flash

of back. I’ll make up a name and try
to affix it to whoever left these four

white doors on the sidewalk, which
I dragged home two and one

at a time. In daylight they reveal
the smudges left as tenants groped

one spot, then the next–hall, stairwell,
street, the mess just beyond, forest

on the opposite side of the globe.
There’s always the absurd

woven into each nest I build and hop
around, waiting for the right one

to wander in. The right one
is the one who wanders in.

“You don’t necessarily think urban when you think about one of those creatures. I didn’t set out to do something like this, but one of the things that might emerge from a poem like that is how we create our own environments to attract other people.”

Bowerbirds have an interesting way of attracting their mates. According to the poet, “they build these huge elaborate houses — the males do — and they decorate them very meticulously and they gather all sorts of different colored things. It’s quite a production. They’re really amazing.”

Then, “in addition to his house, he sort of jumps around and flaps his wings and makes a performance of the whole thing to attract a mate. Whether or not we realize that, we’re always doing something like that.”

Bibbins writes poems like collages -– using words or anecdotes to create new layers of meaning.

“I’m not stealing whole phrases from other places, but there tends to be this laying side-by-side things that don’t necessarily go together and seeing what the effect of that is … I like to take little pieces of things.”