Charlotter wins poetry award for first book

Charlotte poet Bethany Breitland keeps close the wisdom an old mentor once gave her: Don’t be a tyrant to your writings — you can’t control them like you were controlled.

Bethany Breitland
Bethany Breitland

That philosophy sums up the decisions behind Breitland’s upcoming book “Fire Index,” a collection in which she tries to find a sense of agency in her traumas through poetry.

“Fire Index,” set to release April 4, is the first book by the Indiana-born author, mother, educator and activist, who settled in Charlotte in 2019 after stops in Malibu, Boston and Atlanta. Her cross-country work saw her running poetry courses at a correctional facility, teaching at an inner-city high school and a prestigious prep school and providing adult education to women who had escaped sex trafficking.

She moved to Charlotte after earning a master’s from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Last year, she won the latest of several career honors: the annual poetry book award from Sundog Poetry Center, a Vermont nonprofit, for her manuscript of “Fire Index.”

Her upcoming collection deals with child abuse, religious trauma, sexual abuse and motherhood, and writing it was, for Breitland, part of her healing process.

“This book was for me a literal process of becoming my own person,” she said.

She employs techniques like right justification, use of white space, lower-casing and prose poetry — all of which, she said, helps her move away from a passive outlook and assert herself over the experiences.

“Those pieces are reflective of some agency gained and some real departure from not only the hard patriarchal, religious fundamentalism, abusive background I came from,” she said, “but also a departure from the patriarchal elements of language and publication and even poetry.”

Breitland’s form might appear random to some readers, but her style is purposeful. It reflects “the scattered mind trying to make sense of her own experience,” she said.

Those techniques come to her as she writes. “So, the poem becomes what the poem wants to be,” she said.

The motif of fire acts as a throughline in Breitland’s work, stringing the poems together to form a collective whole. That recurring theme was inspired in part by a fire in Breitland’s home a few years ago but also serves to reflect the burning of past events and their transformation through the healing process into an entirely new entity.

Breitland described it as a dynamic, alchemic nature. “Something burns and it turns into something else,” she said.

Instead of nursing her pain, she could channel it into art.

Breitland said she knew she wanted to live in Charlotte as soon as she visited the house she would eventually move into. She was drawn to the town by its peace and quiet and its location halfway between Burlington and Middlebury. After settling down, she discovered just how many other artists flock to Charlotte.

Breitland’s book launch is set to take place at 7 p.m., April 4, kicking off National Poetry Month, at Phoenix Books in Burlington, where she plans to do a reading and sign copies. Find more details here.