Bethany Breitland: Sundog Book Award Winner 2022

Bethany Breitland
Photo credit:

Bethany Breitland Photo credit:

Rebekah Dalmer, Writer

Bethany Breitland is breaking the rules of poetry and emerging with a fiery collection of poems. The annual Sundog Poetry Book Award for a first or second book of poetry partners with Green Writers Press to publish a new manuscript from a Vermont writer. Breitland’s manuscript, Fire Index, was chosen for the 2022 award and launched at Phoenix Books on April 4. It was an intimate gathering and a celebration of a loved author and her debut. I sat down with her recently on behalf of Sundog Poetry to talk about her early inspiration, writing process and published poems. 

How did you learn about the Sundog Poetry Book Award? What did you expect to come of it? 

I thought [the manuscript] was ready and sent it in a year ago. It made it a round but it didn’t go any further. That’s one of the indications that something isn’t quite ready… is rejection. Rejection is so valuable. I know I’m onto something but maybe I need to go a little further, maybe I need less. [The competition] came back around and I believed in my manuscript. 

How long have you been working towards a collection of poems like this and were you expecting to publish?

Yes. I have been working on these poems… I think maybe I wrote the first poem in this collection in 2018. One of the poems in here I wrote this autumn. I did expect to publish, the manuscript was probably three times this size and I kept on taking things out, only allowing what was essential. There were a lot of pieces I really love because they sound awesome, or I make a metaphor that I’m really proud of myself for, but they’re not essential to the book. It was a long process of rewriting, editing and going okay… it’s ready. 

How would you describe your high school experience as a young poet? Who were your early influences?

I was reading all sorts of feminist literature, mostly fiction, and was really turned on to feminist literature my sophomore year of high school. From there I was introduced to Nicki Giovanni and Emily Dickinson. I was reading canonical poetry- accepted in the canon, and then I was reading edgy… at the time- women of color that were just coming out and telling their experience. I found the tension between the two influences a comfort because I lived inside that woman- between being structured, censored, cultural requirements with the way that I was raised in my family and the things that I couldn’t say… and reading poets that were saying the unspeakable and breaking apart those rules of politeness that so many poets confine to. Being able to read between the lines of Emily and being able to read the more inflammatory, contemporary work… helped me find my own voice there.

The title Fire Index; does this refer to the kind of fire index that weather agencies use to measure burnability and fire intensity? Is it related to the cover of a burning landscape?

It’s a field on fire. The idea that there’s a scale of burnability is fascinating to me. The National Weather Service creates a scale of what’s more burnable, this has a greater chance… I needed a lot of things to burn so they could turn into something else. Just like definitions, I’m turning things in on themselves… I often talk about things burning so they can turn into something more useful for me. 

Were you thinking of anyone as you wrote these poems? Who do you want this book to reach?

Everybody. When I taught high school, I taught gang kids in Los Angeles, moved to Boston and I taught criminals in downtown Boston and broke up knife fights, women who were just coming out of the sex trafficking industry, and I prided myself on teaching populations at risk. Then I taught at a private school . . . and I was like ugh. And there’s a part of it… people that have privilege aren’t as honest about themselves. They don’t have a need to change or to see themselves as raw as they actually are. I found this to be the greatest risk of all. They were a population at risk to a much different degree. Not lesser in value. Who do I want this book to reach? I want it to reach populations of risk.. Of being honest with themselves. 

There’s a lot of opportunity to be victimized by our lives but that is not what’s gonna heal you. What’s gonna heal you is to be honest about your life and what needs to change and how you participate and how you’re still participating up here. Letting it burn. This book doesn’t have any self pity in it. 

Fire Index: what compelled you to write this last poem in such a unique style? 

First, this book is a collection of hybrid poems and narrative pieces. In hybrid work, you take forms that are traditionally meant to be something else and you decide no, I’m gonna make that a poem instead. Poems do not have to look like… they can look like anything you want! Using the hybrid form is a reclamation of saying I haven’t been allowed to play in this area… I’m only supposed to do this… well instead I’m gonna break that rule and I’m going to express myself over in this form. 

So there’s an index and all the words refer to other words and I tried to indicate a relationship between these things… Everything goes to the open field. I’m trying to lead the reader through my experience into the open field because the open field is where we don’t have to categorize and we don’t have to put people in their boxes and we don’t even have to put pain in a box. 

We can let pain play with our curiosity, we can let characters that have hurt us and play with our adult self. That to me is healing. That’s where integration comes from. Trauma in your brain seeks to separate everything. The traumatized mind is so overwhelmed that it’s trying to understand the truth and so it separates things into events permanently happening all the time. So there’s a box called sexual abuse and in that box, it never goes away. Disappointing experiences are there and they don’t ever move out of the box, they’re never released. Therefore, they never change. They are always hurting you.

Instead of parceling things, which I do in the book, there’s a movement to letting them all come out of their cages, letting me come out of my cage, because really I’m the one that’s caged by the trauma. Letting me go into the open field and be whoever I want to be. I’m playing with definition. I’m playing with the strict abuse of language where people define people, they say you are this and they put a word on you, and then the word isn’t allowed to change. I use definition throughout the book and I’m usually messing with the definitions… Trying to find the rebellious, healing, activism that comes from moving out of confinement into a larger space. 

Breitland will be featured at a VT Poetry Showcase at Next Stage Arts in Putney, VT on Saturday, April 22.   Hear Bethany Breitland read her work at Her work can be purchased at Phoenix Books in Burlington, or online at Shop — Sundog Poetry