Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Shaindel Beers: "Some people fall into alcohol, some people fall into drugs; I fell into poetry."

When you read Shaindel Beers' poetry, it soon becomes clear you are entering a complex, compassionate, smart mind. Beers' book, A Brief History of Time, is described by Salt Publishing as at once an exploration of what it is to grow up in rural America and a treatise for social justice. These poems, many of them award-winning, span a wide range of styles—from plainsong free verse to sestinas to nearly epic works. The characters/speakers in Beers’ poems range from the rural working class to mythological characters. These poems look at the world with an honest, unflinching eye. She is one of the up-and-coming poets from Generation X we will be hearing a great deal from in the future.

"Up and coming" is not just PR blather. As I read her book, I got the sense that I was being introduced to a poet who is doing serious work that will have longevity, a poet who richly incorporates craft and experience.


Please tell us about the genesis of your new book.

I started writing some of these poems quite a while back, maybe even ten years ago, before I ever thought about going to graduate school for creative writing. I always knew I wanted to work in academia and be an English professor, but I assumed I’d go the PhD route and teach British literature at some small, private liberal arts college. You know, the standard dream everyone has when they fall in love with literature. I loved doing my Master of Arts in the Programs of Humanities at the University of Chicago (sort of a design-it-yourself program built around a core course—mine was British literature with some philosophy mixed in), but after that sort of intensity and the exorbitant price tag, I didn’t know how to go on to get a PhD. Luckily, I started adjuncting at a community college and a university, and one of my colleagues invited me to take his creative writing class. I ended up using the work I generated in that class for an application manuscript for grad school for creative writing and then went to Vermont College’s (now Vermont College of Fine Arts) low-residency MFA in Writing program. This book is basically the manuscript I generated there as my creative thesis.

Of course, I kept taking out weaker poems and adding stronger ones in the five years I was sending it out to publishers, but the bulk of it was written during my time at Vermont under the tutelage of my advisors that I had each semester. I couldn’t have asked for a better graduate school or writing experience.


What's the one thing you most want people to know about your book?

I really wanted to write an ambitious first book, and I hope I’ve accomplished that, but it’s one of those things that only time will tell. It’s tempting to get enough “good” poems to put together a first book and start sending it out as soon as you have enough, and I tried not to do that. I chose the poems that are in this collection out of hundreds I’ve written, and a lot of them, I feel, are ambitious poems, and several of them have won awards or honorable mentions in contests. My goal is to do writing that is important, not just good.


A Barbara Walters question: If you were a poem by any writer, which poem would you be and why?

I really think I would be “Do Not Duplicate This Key” by Richard Jackson. It’s brilliant and daring and smart and gorgeous and all kinds of things I’d love to be. Here are the first few lines of it:

It is not commonly understood why my love is so deadly.
At the very least it uproots the trees of your heart.
It interferes with the navigation of airplanes like certain
electronic devices. . . .


Isn’t that great? Who wouldn’t be won over by a love poem like that? And he fits everything in there from Ovid to the Spin Doctors (as in the 1990s band) to war in Sarajevo. Another favorite part is:

… Even the skeptic,
David Hume, 1711-1776, begins to believe in my love.
My own steps have long since abandoned their tracks.
My own love is not a key that can be duplicated.
It knocks at the door of the speakeasy in Sarajevo
and whispers the right word to a girl named Tatayana.

It’s just a beautiful, beautiful poem, and it sustains itself for three pages, which shouldn’t be considered long but is, in the poetry world these days.


Why do you write poetry?

I think I do it because I have to. Some people fall into alcohol, some people fall into drugs; I fell into poetry. It really just seemed to be my natural response to the world around me; I can’t even explain it. When I was a little kid. Little. I don’t know what age, I used to try to make up songs when something was happy or sad or upsetting, and then I think the music part of that fell away. I guess it was too much to try to plunk out the tune on a piano and then write out the notes on staff paper. If I wrote poetry, I really just needed paper and (back then) a pencil. I still think it’s the cheapest, most accessible art form to take part in. You really just need a notebook and a pen, and you’re all set.

The first time I can remember a poem being my initial response to something happening was in elementary school, my cousin shot my dog. I heard about it after school; someone told my sister about it, and she told me. I was devastated, and I wrote a poem that had a definite stanza structure with a refrain. If I remember correctly, I had a drawing that went with it. Poetry is sort of how I deal with everything—a good day, a bad day, a beautiful sight, and so on.


Do you think teaching is a good complement to writing--or does it just get in the way?

I think that the teaching itself and the interaction with students is wonderfully invigorating for writing. I said in an earlier interview that I learn so much from my students, I even thank them in the acknowledgments section of my book because they are so inspiring. I think that the massive amounts of grading that most instructors have to do for their jobs is what is prohibitive. There are those lucky souls who have a 3/2 course load; I am not one of them. I teach five courses a quarter on the quarter system, so fifteen regular courses a year, and I elect to teach two six-week summer courses for extra pay.

If you’re a writer, though, you make yourself write whenever you can. I know writers who get up at three in the morning every day to write for two hours before “the real world” intrudes, and another who teaches full-time and writes like crazy for the entire month of May and revises the rest of the year. Each person just has to figure out what works for him or her.


Do you believe all poetry is political--or just some poems?

I believe all poetry is political. First of all, you’re expressing that you’re literate if you’re doing something in writing, and you’re showing that you have leisure time (of some sort) during which to write, and if you’re intending to be read by others, that what you’re saying is important enough to be put down on paper and passed on. These are all political acts. Of course, getting out of bed and going to work is one sort of political act, and refusing to get out of bed and go to work is another. I guess I’m one of those cultural theorists. The ones your mother warned you about.

Please share with us one poem from the collection, and then riff a little about the journey the poem takes the reader on.

I think I’ll use “A Man Walks Into a Bar”:

A Man Walks Into a Bar

He was tall, well-built, blue-eyed,
a guy most girls would want to take to bed.
Then he reached for the beer with his left hand,
revealing the stump of his right.

We could tell the second he knew that we knew.
We’d smile, but the smile wouldn’t travel
all the way to our eyes. He’d turn back to the bar,
fold his arm closer so that we could
no longer see

as we rushed off to sling beers for guys
not as good-looking but more whole,
the ones who leered lecherously,
on “Short-Shorts Night”
and left ten dollar tips for two dollar beers

always expecting more, always bitter when we didn’t deliver.
The quiet one, we wounded week after week, a guy
any of us would have considered “out of our league,”
“a long shot,” if he had been unbroken,

the sad, blond man we were afraid to love.


--
I worked in this sports bar the summer before my last year of undergrad, and it was like another planet. It was this bustling, rowdy place that seated something like 360 diners, and it had a TV on nearly every imaginable surface—even in the bathrooms. I used to have to know how many TVs in case a customer asked, but I don’t remember now. I want to say 81 TVs. But it was really this sad place a lot of the time; people would lie and say they had tickets to be somewhere important and get us to put a rush order on their ticket, and then they would spend over an hour there; this one lonely obese man would come in and sit in the same attractive server’s section each day and order a gigantic meal and then a caramel apple sundae for dessert (and we felt like we were helping to kill him by giving him all this food), and all kinds of pathetic, drunken loneliness.

The above poem is one of those instances that I felt bad about taking part in. I wanted to start out with the standard line to a joke, “A Man Walks into a Bar” because I think we generally think of bars as a happy place, but a lot of people are there to escape and forget their troubles, and it’s doubly sad when they are wounded there, too. So, we have the expectations of the servers seeing this attractive man, and then that acknowledgment when “he knows that they know.”

Nancy Mairs has an essay about how the reason for our discomfort with the disabled is because we realize that it’s the one minority we can become a part of at any time, and looking back at how I was when I was twenty-one, it makes sense. There was something really scary about seeing this man who was beautiful, and then noticing his missing arm. But, somehow, it’s still too much in the poem, and I have to keep up with the pace of the sports bar and rush off, serving more beer, but I mean the poem as an apology and to show (I hope) that I’ve grown in the last ten years since I was a server at a sports bar. I hope I’m a better person and that I would treat this man differently today, and I hope that life is being good to him now, wherever he is.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I’d like to thank everyone for following along on this virtual book tour and all of the interviewers; it’s been fabulous.

I’m doing a book giveaway on Goodreads.com that I would love for your readers to enter. In honor of my book’s half birthday, I’m giving away six free copies; one for each month the book’s been out. And if people message me on Goodreads that they’ve entered the drawing but didn’t win, I’ll sell them a book for the cover price, but I’ll cover the shipping for them (US only).

Of course, everyone can find me on Facebook; you can never have too many friends in the writing world!

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To watch Shaindel read two poems at the Northwest Poets Concord, click here for "Clean" and here for "The Last Ballet Class Before the Operation."

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