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Local poetess looks at ‘Queen of Pinups’ in new book

UND associate professor Heidi Czerwiec authored a book of poetry, "Self-Portrait as Bettie Page.". photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

When Heidi Czerwiec went to college, she wanted to major in music. Today, she’s a published poet and professor in the UND English Department who recently released “Self-Portrait as Bettie Page.” But she said the switch wasn’t that surprising.

Poetry is a “very condensed musical use of language that elevates our human experience,” Czerwiec said.

At age 4 or 5, she said she was “making up little poems and songs.” She continued writing through high school, but it wasn’t until she was encouraged to pursue the craft that she started to take it more seriously.

Czerwiec said her favorite thing about poetry is “the way it sings, the pleasure in the language.”

In “Self-Portrait as Bettie Page,” she writes about the iconic pin-up model who is full of contradictions. Czerwiec said it was those contradictions that drew her to write about Page, who rose to fame as the “Queen of Pinups” in 1950s America.

‘Challenging the viewer’

Czerwiec thinks the reason Page has become so iconic is because she would wink at the camera “as though she was challenging the viewer right back.” Her dark look, in contrast with the typical blonde models of the time, and the mystery of her also add to her lasting appeal, she said.

Though what fascinates Czerwiec is that she “had an unhappy sex life but is one of the 20th century’s most enduring sex symbols. That she became a born-again Christian but never repudiated her career.”

She’s just “such a fascinating person and character,” she said.

Czerwiec builds on those contrasts by writing about Page through a series of sonnets, a very structured form of poetry known for its 14 lines and strict rhyme scheme. But while it might seem restrictive, “it’s actually very freeing,” she said.

There’s also the added element that sonnets are typically written about women.

William Shakespeare, Dante and Petrarch, all male poets, wrote most of their sonnets with women as an object of desire. But in “Self-Portrait as Bettie Page,” Czerwiec points out the sonnets are both about and by women.

Writing poetry about Page also enables Czerwiec to capture her image in a different form. Czerwiec said she can look at her from different angles and “perhaps give a more rounded exploration” or picture of her than a camera can.

The book isn’t just about Page, however. It’s about Czerwiec herself and the “places where it’s overlapping with my own life.” Czerwiec lists their Southern roots, early careers as teachers, divorces and artistry as things they have in common.

This book also marks a progression for Czerwiec from her previous writings.

In her earlier works, she said she “was very concerned with sounding smart and trying to be ambitious.” Now, she said she has “more of an eye about who I’m writing for and how I can reach them.”

She tried to balance the “smartness” more with humor, playfulness and feeling, she said.

‘Time consuming’

Compared to prose, she said writing poetry “time-consuming and boring.”

On her process, Czerwiec said she usually will get an idea and wait a few days before attempting a draft. But most of it “is rewriting, trying to make it better, trying to make the words sing more, make the form work better.”

She does notice are overlaps, such as how both poetry and prose make arguments. Czerwiec said she especially sees this in her own writing, in which extensive research informs her poetry and nonfiction writings.

Poetry just makes its arguments “through images and metaphors and music,” she said. And prose, especially creative nonfiction, is still influenced by poetry.

Czerwiec said her inspiration comes from things that “haunt” her for a while. She said she’s really drawn to things that “seem like they’re on the fringe, but in some way to me seem profoundly human,” like Bettie Page.

She also develops her writing by “constantly reading poetry.” Czerwiec said she doesn’t think people can really write poetry unless they’ve read widely to get a sense of what conversations are currently going on in poetry. She said it’s an important part of the inspiration process and finding out what possibilities of language other poets have discovered.

Some of Czerwiec’s own recent reads include “Incarnadine” by Mary Szybist, “Thomas and Beulah” by Rita Dove and the most recent issues of the Mid-American Review, which she called “terrific.”

While poetry may seem to get lost in all of the prose written today, Czerwiec said “there are more publishers of poetry (today) than there have ever been.”

She thinks a lot of this misperception is because in school, poetry is all about techniques and vocabulary, about “some hidden meaning to it” that people have to get right. As a result, “that takes all the pleasure out of it.”

Czerwiec said “it can be a lot more part of our lives if we just give ourselves over to the pleasure of the language.”

“Self-Portrait as Bettie Page” is available for $9.89 on