01 October 2012

Making Poetic History: Shaindel Beers

Making Poetic History—Interview with Shaindel Beers
By Kathi Stafford for Poets’ Quarterly

Shaindel Beers is the talented author of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, whose work has been published in numerous literary journals. She was raised in Indiana and earned graduate degrees at the University of Chicago (MA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA).  She is the recipient of numerous awards for her writing. Her poetry collection, A Brief History of Time, is an evocative portrait of daily life. She is an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon.

In the beginning. . .

Q: What is the first poem you remember hearing as a child?

A. I’m not sure I remember the first poem I heard as a child, but I can think of ones from my childhood. I’m from Indiana, so a lot of teachers had students memorize James Whitcomb Riley poems like “Little Orphant Annie” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin’.” I also remember that in another Halloween themed lesson, I could get extra credit for memorizing and reciting the “Double, double toil and trouble” witches’ spell from Macbeth. Later on, we had to memorize another poem, and I chose “Annabel Lee.” I think I understand where my “darkness” comes from just from answering this first question!

I’m not nearly as good as many poets I know at committing poems to memory, but I’m glad that I had teachers who showed me the value of the skill. I think it’s quickly becoming a lost art.


Q: How does your work as a professor inform and shape your own writing? 

A. I feel like I have lots of minds to mine for ideas. Something a student says in a discussion might inspire me to think of something that I never would have come across if I worked in a more “sterile” environment and didn’t hear from dozens of people a day. Also, in a classroom of sometimes nearly twenty students in beginning poetry writing, it’s amazing to see how many different ways there are to do something right. We can all get the same prompt, and one person will write a long, epic poem, another will write a form poem, and yet another will write something so sparse and beautiful that it is like a Chinese brush painting.

I also feel since I get to teach creative writing at the community college level, I teach mostly new writers, so I get to look at poetry with a “beginner’s mind” more than people who teach upper-level or graduate workshops. Sometimes I get to read a poem as if it’s my first time seeing it because I see my students discover it. It’s beautiful seeing that happen.

Q: What practical advice do you give your students about the discipline of writing? 

A: The most important thing is the Nike slogan. Just do it. You can have all of the ideas in the world, but if you don’t put it on paper, no one knows, and everyone loses out. I try to make “Nike writers” out of my students. It’s a lesson I need to take to heart, too. I love getting daily poetry challenges. I have a book-length manuscript due to my publisher in December, and I need to spend more time getting things down on paper instead of just letting them marinate in my head.

Q: If you could only give your students five poets and five novelists to study for a semester, what names would be on your list? 

A: Oh, that’s a tough one. Poets: John Milton, John Keats, Anne Sexton, Mahmoud Darwish, and Nazim Hikmet. I wanted to make it a diverse list, and I think there is a lot we can learn from this combination. It’s tempting to put Fernando Pessoa on there, but I’m not sure how many poets he would count as.

Novelists are tough, too. I know Italo Calvino would be my first choice because he does some amazing things that I’m not sure anyone else does. I know you said “novels,” but I think Borges’ short stories are magical. Sherman Alexie’s work is phenomenal (again, more so the short stories than the novels). I’m going to round the list out with more short story writers, I think – Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore.

The Writing Process

 Q: Poetry versus prose—you are talented in both areas, so please tell me about how you move between those two distinct disciplines.

A: I think I’m sort of intuitive in this area. Usually, a poem starts with a feeling, and a short story starts with a character in a place or a situation. I have a fiction publisher waiting for me to finish a short story collection, but I know I still write fiction “like a poet.” As in, it’s hard to discern if there’s a plot at times. And there’s often too much narrative distance between the character and me. I’m working on it. If I had infinite amounts of money, I would get an M.F.A. in fiction writing to figure out how to do it better. Right now, I’m just reading writers whose fiction I admire and trying to do what they do.

Q: Where do you go or what do you do when you need inspiration for your work?

A: I like spending time outdoors – either walking or running or playing with Liam at the park. I feel like I get better ideas outdoors. Being inside is too distracting. Either there’s artificial light, or the temperature’s not right. I feel best alone with my thoughts outdoors. I feel like spending time with animals helps, too. I guess, in general, these are just things that I find calming. I might take up visiting my college’s horses when I need ideas and see if that works.

Reading other writers helps, too. Sometimes just reading the rhythm of poets you admire works. When all else fails, you just have to make yourself do it. That’s when I look for poem-a-day challenges or writing prompts online.


Q: What poets are especially compelling to you right now?

A: A lot of the poets I’ve been reading are poets I know personally or have worked with. I think I should put that disclaimer out there. I was in a workshop over the summer (my first writers’ retreat since becoming a mom, so I really needed it!) with Carrie Jerrell, and I was absolutely blown away by her work. It’s phenomenal. And she was producing these amazing poems every single day. Rebecca Lehmann is another terrific poet. I published one of her poems in Contrary Magazine, and nominated her for Best New Poets, and then her manuscript won a Crashaw Award from Salt Publishing (my publisher). I’ve published Temple Cone and admire his poems immensely. Any new parent should read his long poem “A Father’s Story.” It’s available both as a chapbook and as part of his collection No Loneliness. Derick Burleson’s poems blow me away. He even has a sonnet about Star Trek called “Enterprise” in his collection Never Night.

There are so many great poets out there. You really just have to look. 

Q: Louise Gluck writes in Moonbeam, “The same night also produced people like ourselves./ You are like me, whether or not you admit it./Unsatisfied, meticulous. And your hunger is not for experience/but for understanding, as though it could be had in the abstract.” These lines reminded me of your intense and dynamic poems in A Brief History of Time, where you search for understanding. Was Gluck’s work a strong influence on your poetry? 

A: I actually read several of Gluck’s collections while I was working on this manuscript in graduate school. We were supposed to read something like three to five poetry collections a month and write annotations of them. What I kept coming back to in Louise Gluck was her distance, maybe even reticence toward emotion even when writing about very emotional events. One example I can think of is the way she writes about her divorce in Meadowlands, but she retells it through the story of Odysseus and Penelope. Something about this device intrigues me. Anne Carson does the same thing in her long poem, “The Glass Essay” in Glass, Irony, and God. To me, there’s some surprising amount of dignity and power in writing about something so emotional from a distance. It’s almost like the speaker in the poem is just holding it together by keeping that distance.

I think part of the reason this intrigues me so much is because of my background in 19th century British literature. Think of all of the Austen and Brontë heroines who learn something heartbreaking and keep whatever the tragedy is to themselves. That kind of reserve amazes me, and it’s something that Gluck, Carson, and (I think) Elizabeth Bishop all exhibit in their writing.

Q: Your work is also reminiscent of Philip Levine, especially Not This Pig, with its emphasis on working-class Detroit. Has Levine influenced your work as well? 

A: I need to read more Levine. I’ve read a poem here and there, and I admire them greatly, but I don’t believe I’ve ever read a full volume of his work. I think I write working class poetry because I grew up working class. When you graduated from my school, it wasn’t an automatic question to ask if you were going to college. You were just as likely to be going to a factory or the military or working on your family’s farm. Mostly, I’ve just been writing what I know.

Q: If you have belonged to a writing group, please describe how that worked for you and whether it was helpful for your writing. 

A: I took writing workshops and belonged to writing groups when I was trying to put together a portfolio for graduate school and to generate more work. I think that writing groups are helpful for newer writers or for people looking for their voice. The difficult part is when the writing group becomes a cheerleading squad. Then, you become overly confident. That was the experience I had several years ago in a writing group. I needed to be in a group with writers who expected more of me, who were more willing to give negative feedback.

There are terrific writing groups for higher-level writers, and I have friends who attend them, but they are driving three hours each way to attend once a month. I haven’t been that committed to a writing group yet, and there aren’t any that are closer to where I live.

I enjoy attending writers workshops like the Kenyon Review Writers’ Retreat, which I attended this past summer.  

The Poetry of Place 

Q: How did growing up in Indiana influence your writing? How did the tragedy of the unsolved murders in Argos impact your life?  

A: I think a lot of the influence of blue collar, working class issues that you mentioned before come from growing up in Indiana. I’m sure I’d be a very different poet if I had grown up in New York City rather than in a town of 1,200 people. I also think there’s a certain simplicity to a lot of my vocabulary. I just feel comfortable using simple words (although sometimes I read poets with extensive vocabularies and feel a little intimidated). 

I hadn’t thought of the unsolved murders in my town as impacting my poetry. Perhaps just a feeling of darkness or a feeling that anything can happen. Both of the unsolved murders were very unexpected. In one, a woman answered the door and a man posing as a UPS man (or something like that) murdered her with her own fireplace poker. In another, a childhood friend of mine stayed home sick from school and was murdered. I guess it gave me a sense of the world being a potentially dangerous place or of people being potentially dangerous.

Q: How does the landscape of eastern Oregon influence your writing style? 

A: Because it is rural, it feels like home. I think I might be back to writing more rural, sprawling poems, and I hope the wide open landscape inhabits them. During our faculty in-service yesterday, there was talk of starting a large animal vet tech program at my college and of maybe even starting a draft horse program. I should have lots of interesting rural subjects and landscapes to pull from.

Q: How has your experience as the Poetry Editor for Contrary impacted your own writing? 

A: I think I’ve had a chance to see so many different types of poems. I have an assistant editor now, so my load is much lighter, but back when I was seeing seven hundred poems (or more) per issue, and then picking out perhaps four poems to publish, it was amazing to see the scope of quality and the breadth of what poetry can be. It’s also taught me not to take rejection so personally. Maybe there was nothing wrong with my poem, but they had six autumn poems already.

It’s also introduced me to many fantastic writers. Poets usually send us three to five poems in a submission, and if those poems blow me away enough that I publish them, I immediately look to buy a book by that author. I’ve found so many phenomenal writers this way – Temple Cone, Rebecca Lehmann, and Marilyn Kallet, to name a few.

Motherhood and Family 

Q: I know you are a mother as well as a writer.  How do you balance the demands of parenting with your career? 

A: Liam is only eighteen months old, so I don’t have it down yet. It helps immensely that my partner, Jared, has been a stay-at-home-dad. He just got a new job, and we’re working out daycare details, and this week is just our faculty “welcome back,” so we haven’t fully integrated both of us working yet. It’s a work in progress. I think an important thing to do is while your child is discovering things (again, with that “beginner’s mind”), try to discover with them. If you see their delight at seeing a flower or petting a cat for the first time, try to live that experience with them. Think about how you can put that newness, that excitement, or delight in your writing.

As far as really practical things, read and write when they nap (if possible). And don’t be afraid to write “mom poems” or “pregnancy poems.” If you’re honest, you’re not writing schlocky stuff. There are still many debates about what are “women’s poems,” etc., but as long as you’re writing what’s true to you, who cares? 

Q: How do you recharge your energy when you feel overwhelmed by the personal and professional demands of your life? 

A: Honestly, just getting outdoors and going for a walk or a run works. Being with nature or getting pumped full of endorphins cures most anything. If I have too much other noise in my head still (usually less than stellar student writing), I’ll read some writers I admire to get me going.


Q: What is your soundtrack for writing? 

A: I actually have trouble concentrating if I have music with lyrics playing while I write, so I prefer just the burble of the fish tank which is in my living room. Or maybe quiet classical or other instrumental music.

If I could listen to music while writing, it would be something alt-country or Americana – Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, Emmylou Harris, that sort of stuff. I’m also part of a songwriting team with my partner Jared, and that’s the type of music we write, too.

Here are the links for two of our songs so far: http://www.reverbnation.com/open_graph/song/10256308

Here is a new poem, still unpublished. I actually wrote it at the Kenyon Writers Workshop, which I mentioned in the interview:

The Image Grows; It Moves

This is the heart.
Little spark. Pulsating star on the screen.
It is hard to believe someday you will be human.
Right now, you are a blueberry. A kidney bean.

I want to make the world safe for you.
On long walks I snap photographs
so I can show you the flowers that bloomed
while you swirled in the soft bowl of my body. But still,
I’m afraid of being like my parents. How can I keep
from hurting you when violence is the one tool
I have been given?

How will I be ready when we are rushing
toward each other at 160 beats per minute?

                                    --Shaindel Beers

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