Interviews – October 2012

Rachel Eliza: Past, Present and Now
By PQ Interviews Editor Millicent Accardi

A force to be reckoned with, the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths took the literary world by storm first with her stunning surreal poetry and, then, in the media, when she became an emerging poet to watch in the 2011 inaugural poetry issue of O Magazine.

A poet, painter and photographer, Griffiths is well-known for her literary portraits and is currently working on POP (Poets on Poetry) a film project consisting of interviews with over 50 contemporary poets “in conversation,” discussing poetry, culture and the human experience.
Griffiths received an MA from the University of Delaware and an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fellowships include residencies at Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and Millay. She has written four poetry books: Miracle Arrhythmia, Mule & Pear, The Requited Distance, and a chapbook, Memoria. Mule & Pear received the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award from the Black Caucus American Library Association. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence and lives in New York.
Q: How has participating in Cave Canem inspired and/or informed your poetry? For those who are unfamiliar with it, can you describe Cave Canem’s history?
A: Oh my goodness, I’d need too much space to answer this question. It’s good! I have a simple answer: gratitude. Gratitude to Cave Canem, to Dark Room Collective, to Black Arts Movement, to Harlem Renaissance, to Kundiman, to CantoMundo, to Letras Latinas, to Macundo, any and all bodies that sustain, support, and encourage our poetry and our histories.
I am so grateful that Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte believed enough in what was needed, what was missing, in what they had experienced themselves as young black poets, in what they saw was possible, so much so that they focused their powers into laying the foundation for the 16 year-old body that Cave Canem has become.
Ultimately, you have to do your work alone. But I think I’m more balanced. I used to be very reclusive and solitary. Perhaps too much so. What I know is that there is a community I can go to, that I’m part of. A community that I support. I can share poems and drafts and life experiences. I’ll be aging with some pretty splendid folks! It begins with the poetry and for so many of us, opens into a way of living.
Q: Who was your biggest influence in childhood?
A: After my parents, I’d name my elementary schoolteacher, Suzanne Pyne. When I was a younger woman, she died from cancer and it changed me. She was the woman to whom I carried my awkward fourth and fifth and sixth grade poems and short stories. I was trying to figure some things out but I knew it felt natural, what I was doing, no matter how it isolated me. I also gave her my visual art and she listened to my ideas. We had an alter life and though she has been dead for nearly ten years, that life continues with me. We made cookies, drank tea together. She had an amazing birdfeeder. She reminded me not to be so serious all the time. I was pretty serious about everything back then. We also spoke a lot about religion as I had attended a Catholic elementary school and always had questions about what exactly that meant. I also could not get over my astonishment about the notion of what a soul or spirit was. I never want to exile spirit from my work. At Suzanne’s home, she played classical music and folk music and she encouraged me to nurture my sense of delight, my imagination, my wonder and my love of Nature as a way to decipher the world and myself. Her death was one of the things that got me to leave the safety that was drowning me into silence back then. I left a PhD program and decided I’d try this ‘be a writer’ thing. I moved to New York and stayed in a woman’s residence and joined the anonymous rhythms of New York that allowed me to begin writing. No one cared whether I was serious or any good at writing, no one cared that Suzanne was dead. I had to figure out how to begin a new life. My tools were words, museums, parks, concerts, the Public Library, and my own solitude. I picked up a camera too. I only hope she would have approved.
Q: Is there a particular song from your childhood that sticks in your head? What is it?
A: I have a fond recurring memory of my mother playing her Pavarotti records over and over again in the house. But there isn’t a particular melody that’s definitive. Our house was suffused with music from early in the morning until we went to bed. Even after we went to bed it wasn’t unusual for a radio to be on somewhere in the house. We used to have dance parties, jumping off the furniture, breakdancing! My father loved jazz so there was always that happening and I took to that, the mood of jazz, very strongly. I went back further than what my father played, which was more contemporary, and was drawn in immediately to early jazz, big band, and the blues. When our family took road trips the car was filled with pure soul – The Spinners, Tina Marie, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, The Commodores, Dianne Reeves, Sam Cooke, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Deniece Williams, Stephanie Mills, Stevie Wonder, and like, Bon Jovi and Van Halen, that song Jump! was so perfect for air guitar… oh I couldn’t even begin to name all of them! Like most of us, I can hear one of these songs or artists and go back in time and I want to stay there, especially when I turn on the radio these days and try to figure out the relationship between percussion and consciousness. What are the drums saying?
Q: Can you describe where you work best. Is it a café or at a desk? On a train? In dreams?
A: I think it may be a matter of what section of the work process I’m at. What happens in a dream is different from the work of translating what eludes us in our bodies. The body is trying to negotiate its own country and the world in which it is contained. Sometimes that is trauma, sometimes it is the vestiges, memories of what is sublime. I try so hard to remember language as I’m coming up from that profound space between the residue of a dream and full waking. Cafés aren’t good for me when I am actively writing but I do like to read or write letters or observe people in them. I’d be distracted! Between the caffeine and the energy of a café, I’d be a window. I do like to read on trains but am not coordinated enough to write very well for a long period of time that way — I’d be trying to take photographs from my window if I were on a train. I like to write very early. Lately it’s also better for me to stand than to sit at a desk so I go back and forth.
Q: How has the so-called literary “canon” affected how you write?
A: I wish I could say I even thought about it. I’m aware of “It” but I don’t want to bring that near the energy of the work at hand. On the page and by practice. In regards to the gaze of the ‘canon’, I’d be invisible. Maybe I won’t always be, but it doesn’t matter because I’d still write and have my community. The only permission I have to ask to be is the permission I grant myself. The canon is in service to the language; it doesn’t own me or the language. Though there are important conversations about this democracy. Perhaps the old way of talking about canon is also a way of talking about privilege. I remember reading what Toni Morrison once said about writing from the margins, which was that essentially it freed her to write whatever she wanted. It’s true. But you know what? I also have to include Cornelius Eady’s words from his knockout poem, “Gratitude”, about ‘canonizing’: “And to the bullies who need/the musty air of/the clubhouse/All to themselves:/ I am a brick in a house/that is being built/around your house.”
Q: Your short poem, “Melancholia”, describes a gothic scene as an entry to perhaps address how we humans have damaged and taken advantage of our planet. Under what circumstances did you compose this piece? How did it come about?
(after Lars von Trier)
There’s a bride on the lawn of never-again.
The universe swivels like a woman burningon a vine of moonlight.
A black horse kneels under stars:
:a swarm of hawks fall from light –
Don’t let them know,
slower. Slowly, says the Earth.
I’m dying in the memory
of what I was.
A: I wrote this poem after watching the film by Lars von Trier, which the poem is named for. The film’s tones are elegiac and apocalyptic. The musical score is profound. Much of the visual imagery and the palette of the film seemed to speak, in that moment, to some elegies I’d already been working on that focused on the palpable world, the properties of what a dying world or civilization might look like. Why the earth needs death, our deaths. Nature is pretty significant in the poems I’m working on these days and I don’t divide it from human agency.

I was asked to create a chapbook by poet Joseph Quintela for the A5 series of a wonderful, experimental press he founded and runs, Deadly Chaps. My chapbook, Memoria Memoria, is part of a trilogy that also includes chapbooks by poets Doug Kearney and Prudence Groube. We each were given a blank book of 20 pages and asked to play for a month or so. I decided to focus on films and create poems inspired by some aspect of the films I watched and the intersections I experienced between cinema and poetry. These were films, many of them, that I’d watched for years and so I knew that some things were already working and waiting in me about them.
Q: How do women writers find their own space and establish a sense of belonging?
A: Could I use an image to answer this?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Mahogany L. Browne, Aricka Foreman, and DéLana R.A. Dameron (center).
I belong to these women. I belong to our poems, our bodies, what we know, what we ask, what we reveal, what we imagine. I would do anything I could to support each of them and the power for which we are. That is the space I envision when I think about women artists and it is achieved, for me, by breathing and by the work. They are our sisters, our women, our poems. They want to me to live as myself. We were at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, just shortly after a Cave Canem Retreat a few years ago, and I was photographing them for a series of a project I’m working on that is woman-centered. I think most of my writing and images invoke women. For me it’s not even a choice even when it’s very complex. All women do not get along but neither do all men; however, certain kinds of men do not get torn apart no matter what or who they are. They can be individuals and they’ll be left alone, their power and identity is not threatened or questioned or criminalized. Obviously it is different if you do not exist or belong, entirely, within the privilege and institutions of a heteronormative community. Anyway, this was an afternoon I’ll never forget. There was a moment with these poets, there were so many, – they were so beautiful, so powerful. Aren’t they something! So fine! They had come into view, as women, as beings, inside the lens, fully. They let me see them and see myself! It was a sensation, palpable in our bodies. To love and hold each other. I asked a stranger to take a picture with my camera. I didn’t want to be separated from them for a minute. I never do.
Q: What do you think poets can do to enhance communication between generations of poets?
A: Respect goes two ways. So does condescension. But, so does listening. If you’re younger, know something about the history. And not the easy one, not the conjure, not the hearsay or the forgery. There are qualifiers to that too, I suppose. Don’t make assumptions or sweeping statements, however romantic or reductive, about a poet, especially if you’ve never read any of his/her work. And even then, consider empathy, if that appeals to you and your imagination. Don’t demand that poets, especially older ones, help and support you if you’re only interested in the chandelier of your own “I”. In all parts of the world, we have seen over centuries, how important it is to have community, even if it means just one other person. If you’re older, know, you do know, that there is a future, however altered or unlike the past it may be. Know that we need your voice, your trust, and your help. Acknowledge that times are different and that change, for all of us, is terrifying but significant. There are many ledges within the body of change. It can be political, individual, environmental, technological, cultural, economical, societal, — but it’s always human. Sometimes we’re forced to jump, sometimes we’re willing to jump because we are being chased or hunted or we just want to do it for something nobody else can see in us, or because we simply want to see what flying feels like. In other instances it would be quite wise to carry the geography of what existed before us along to guide us as we scale the air and its institutions. I feel afraid when I see so many gifted individuals leaving us much earlier than we expected. The wave is curling more quickly and those who are in the middle are being pushed forward to the crest with increasing speed. When I was younger it wasn’t something I thought about much. I know better now and I don’t want to hurt or damage any of the tenuous filaments that connect us. Of course there are some essential, universal conflicts and conditions, which flow through us at all times because we’re human. I do believe each of us will experience all of these roles as time moves through us. How long does any generation have? We don’t know, can’t know, until several new generations are born, are also moving. Consider the longer narrative and what meaningfulness your humanity holds.
Every voice has meaning. Every voice will be judged by its peers and their ideas: present, ghosts, and future. I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s relative, or absolute, or both? Our voice, valued in that American way too many of us have experienced or have had forced against us, or we ourselves inflict or accept, being aware of it or sometimes not even being conscious of it. Go beyond that. There is an entire earth of cultures. Go further and there is an incomprehensibly different hourglass, which measures the ineffable universe. Then go write a poem and try to forget all that even though you’re That too.
I’m sort of an old soul. I appreciate the stories and experiences of older poets so much. I could listen for hours to their words, their memories and opinions, and feelings. They will one day be part of my own history. We’ll go to mud, to clay, to the noise of the dead. But I’m also in a space where I can see a crest of younger voices. They are mighty! Sometimes they make me sad. Other times I shake my head and pull into my little shell. They know where the wires go and I feel lost. The wiring can often strand me even as it assures me I’m connected to everyone. I’m in the company of some gifted people and am so glad to walk the path at this very moment. I want to listen to younger poets and I want to speak to them and I want the listening. I hope they won’t forget me but they just might.
Again, to zoom out and under light why we must talk to each other – they’re banning stories, narratives. They’re voting to make certain Americans illegal. Americans who look and love like me. They’re shooting freedom in the back of its head, claiming self-defense. Performing erasures, performing amnesia. I wouldn’t mind my poems receiving some health insurance, would you?
They’re trying to drag our bodies, particularly the bodies of women, black men and black women and immigrants and gays, through the gates of something illegible and illegal. They want us to help them with their massacre. They’re killing the old and the young – men, women, and children, newborns and unborns, undifferentiated, and otherwise. And it feels like Big Brother because it might be that and also something far more subtle. It’s anti-intellectual and anti-intuition. You’re a witness even when you don’t want to see. If you don’t see it that way, that works too. Not all poets want to include the notion of ‘politics’ in their process or their work and we all have to do what is best for us to live fully within the brevity we are. But serious harm is happening at the pulse of our generations, all of us. They don’t want our poems to bleed but something is bleeding underneath the dream.
Ultimately, we’re stronger together than divided.
Q: What project are you working on right now? If it is writing-based can you share an excerpt of what you’re working on right now?
[Untitled, excerpt]
At least touch me. This is what I want to say to the women and the men who are arriving, clumps of dust and curses in their palms. They arrive, some two-legged. Others must walk on their knees and palms. Others cling to the bridles of mules and horses. Perhaps some of them have arrived by air or wind, dropping from a high point inside of dusk from the shadowed back of a bird.

Mostly they are deciding about fire, bullets, and faith. I remember one of the women saying I ought to be burned on a stake or in a pit. I remember how they often spoke of Mama and me, expressing strong hope that we should burn in hell. They wondered aloud if we would be capable of burning, they doubted we had the same bones as other human beings, or whether our interior organs would melt at all. Some of the children made new words from their parents’ hatred of us. Crossbreed became Crossbones. And it was not uncommon for a girl, black or white, to approach me while Mama was in the store, and pinch me to see whether their theories about us being ghosts, about us being flammable, were true. When the body could not be trusted to affirm their ideas, they suggested the certainty of any inferno. Mostly, hell. Which was a vivid landscape of reckoning. It would be our home, they assured us. I remember that Mama gave the flames of their eyes little air. But now I think back to Mama and the way she looked each night in the bed we shared, as though she were burning from within, while we slept in our husks of beauty.

They say I took everything away. Sometimes this was true. But their ‘everything’ was narrow and limited. They said I was like my mother, that I began stealing it when I was a girl. I don’t know what a girl is. I’m just me. What could I have taken from this earth? There was nothing to be stolen that did not require force, pressure, or time. And I was only in love with the entire wide-armed world at first.

That was the beginning. And it, I mean this peculiarly omniscient world, armed itself, adorning its mountains and shameless eyes against me, waiting to shatter the skin of glass that belonged to me. Where I looked outward with hope.


A Man With a Beautiful Mind

By Sonya Sabanac for Poets’ Quarterly
When I first met Jack Cooper in 2007 at a Los Angeles poetry reading, I instantly fell in love with his words. That night I took home his collection, Across My Silence. Opening Cooper’s book is truly like opening the door into an exciting world where every person and every moment counts. Cooper has this unique ability to make us see that there are no ordinary things and, as he puts it in “Transitory Endings,” that “we are all finishing each other’s stories.”
Q: The great Serbian scientist, the father of electricity, Nikola Tesla says in one of his interviews that the world needs good energy to run on and among other things, he names the energy of poetry. What are your thoughts in that respect? How crucial is poetry?
A: Tesla understood that everything is energy, that the second law of thermodynamics applies equally to art as to electricity. Nothing is lost, not memories, not ideas, not love, only transformed — art assures us of that. When Tesla says the world needs good energy like poetry, I think he’s simply saying there’s life-giving, transformative power in beautiful thoughts. How crucial is poetry? Poetry changes everything sooner or later because it dissolves our rational limitations, it throws us up in the air. When Garcia Lorca writes, “If I die/leave the balcony open,” who can any longer think that death is the end? When Carl Sandburg writes, “Listen to the wind in the trees/counting its money/and throwing it away,” who can read that and keep their money all to themselves?
Q: Your book Across My Silence is a real treat for poetry-readers. For those who are not so much “into poetry,” it is the perfect opportunity to fall in love. Your poems, though smart and philosophical, instantaneously catch the reader’s mind and heart. As an example of that, I would cite one of the shortest poems in your book called “Home.”
“By the home for boys
trains pass
full of people.
Oh Mommy!
Oh Daddy!”
How do you explain that easiness that flows between your lines and readers?
A: I can’t explain it; it just emerges in the words, and the words gather momentum, like a river or a train. I like the word “co-creating,” like it’s between me and an elemental force, maybe the Higgs boson or a universal consciousness. I once worked in an institution for troubled boys that was right next to a train stop. They would sit by the window watching each train go by, hoping it would stop and their parents would get off and walk into the building and hold them and take them to their real home and love them forever. That’s what we want a poem to do – to take us home.
Q: Most people I talked to regarding your book are amazed with the variety of the topics in your poetry and they would like to know where your inspiration comes from. Where do you go for it? Inner journey, your own experience, observation of other people’s lives or combination of the above?
A: A poem can come from everywhere – nature, friendships, death, even a broken bone. I recently wrote a poem about losing my first molar. The poet Mary Oliver is said to have found so many poems in the woods near her house that she finally stuck pencils all around in the trees so she’d never miss the chance to write something down. I feel the same way, but nature is where you find it. I saw a dying pigeon on the sidewalk the other day. I tried to give it some water but it didn’t want any. Then I realized the sidewalk was its home. It didn’t know where else to die. That’s a poem. In the beginning, a lot of poets write about their memories. That’s okay, you have to try to make sense of your life, but a writer needs to be in the moment even when writing about the past. Eventually, we move on from personal history to immediate experience – the fire erupting down the street; a wild bird flying in the window; waking up with crazy thoughts, like what if the opposite of everything were also true, or what if no children on earth would starve today. And you need to read everything. There is all this wonderful material out there, like the man in Canada who was arrested for serial kissing. Seek an ascendant meaning, find the metaphor, the pain, the power, and, finally, the gift that you can make of it that maybe only you – as your higher co-creational self – can make of it.
Q: How early in your life did you discover that you are a poet and can you tell us if this gift of poetic sensibility was ever a burden in some ways?
A: I started writing poems really in college, but I wanted to study biology not English and just kept them in a notebook. When I dropped out of grad school to protest the Vietnam War, poems began to pour out of me, and I self-published two books with woodblock prints by the artist P. A. Milton. Still, it really wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I committed myself to the poet’s life with the help of an incredible coach named Steve Chandler who knew everything I didn’t about poetry and loved my work. Yes, the poetic sensitivity can be a burden, but only if you deny it, only if you don’t or can’t give it expression. I can only imagine what it must feel like to live in a country without the freedom to write, read and publish.
Q: Many of your poems are about animals, (Like “Shrew”, a poem that was nominated for Pushcart Award.) What is the secret of that admiration?
A: Animals are pure in spirit. There is no such thing as a devious or evil animal, with the possible exception of those that have been trained, or tricked, to be that way by humans. Animals are like anything else uncorrupted – wildflowers, the phases of the moon, little children. I was raised around animals and feel a close bond with them. One of my most persistent themes is exploring how humans and animals are not at heart so different. I write about birds a lot – they fly, they swim, they build nests, they lay colorful eggs, they wear beautiful feathers, they perform wild dances, they travel long distances by the earth’s magnetic field, and they can even talk and sing. ee cummings has a line about birds: “if men should not hear them men are old.”
Q: Who are the poets that were most influential to you? Does age affect which poets you love?
A: To the first question, let me just list a few poets, passed on and still with us: Sappho, Basho, Shakespeare, William Blake, Walt Whitman, ee cummings, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, Garcia Lorca, Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, Czeslaw Milosz , Claudia Emerson, Tess Gallagher, Elton Glazer, Tony Hoagland, Mary Oliver. To the second question I would answer No, except for nursery rhymes. I still love Lorca as much today as when I discovered him 40 years ago: “When the moon rises/the sea covers the earth/and the heart feels/like an island in infinity.” So image-rich and metaphoric, so mellifluous both in Spanish and in English. “Cuando sale la luna/el mar cubre la tierra/y el corazon se sienta/isla en el infinito.”

Q: Thinking about your life and career, do you have any setbacks?

A: I saw a bumper sticker on a Ferrari the other day that read, “Failure gave me this car.” Understanding that there are no mistakes, that failure is opportunity, yes, I’ve had more than a few setbacks in poetry. More than half of my poems are rejected by journals, and as many as 90% are turned down at least once before they’re finally picked up. On average, it probably takes six to eight months for a poem to find a home. Getting a whole book of poems published or winning a major award is a rare feat of having the right material for the right reader at the right time.

Q: When life strikes us down, many of us become more bitter, angrier, more frustrated, and tend to shrink into misery. But you, Mr. Cooper, remain a person in love with life, in love with love – in spite of its price, in love with animals and your surroundings, even when “everything moves towards chaos” you are able to see “little girls dressed up for Easter like hibiscus flowers…” (Those two lines are taken from the poem “Self-Circumference.”) How do you explain that positive outlook that you have.

A: For me, it starts with loving and being loved. My wonderful wife and two amazing boys, several life-long friends. My baby sister. A favorite uncle. A handful of other great people. We keep each other healthy and important and growing. Still, I think it all comes down to the fact that you create your reality. Life doesn’t happen to you. In poetry, as in life in general, you have choices. I choose joy over despair, action over depression, forgiveness over grudge. But I have to keep on top of it, stay honest with myself, confront my demons. It’s so easy to blame others for your circumstance when in truth we all are responsible for our words, our lives and even for the fate of the earth.

Q: Thank you. This is a powerful message. The other thing that I love about your poetry is that wonderful sense of humor that makes us laugh in spite of the seriousness of the situation, like in the poem “Broken” where you can see yourself being mugged by a six year old, or in “Absolutely” about your uncle who “lived and died in pure absoluteliness….” I can see you having fun while writing those lines.

A: Absolutely. Steve Chandler liked to refer to the great athlete Fran Tarkington who said, “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.” Having fun writing a poem doesn’t mean it’s one big joke. It means you’re excited to find the surest path to the heart. There’s another maxim, which I think Frost said: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

Q: All the admirers of your poetry are impatient to see your second book. Can you tell us if it’s coming soon.

A: My second manuscript is now sitting on the desk of an editor at an excellent press that was the first to publish some of my favorite poets. Is he the right guy? Is it the right material? Is it perfect timing? I think it is, but I’m not the decider. I hope [the editor] reads this interview.

Q: At the end of this interview, please tell us what are you working on and what are your publishing goals?

A: I’m working on a few different poems in various stages of realization and on my second play with Charles Bartlett. I want to get more poems in the national journals. A poem of mine was recently chosen as a finalist in North American Review’s 2011-12 James Hearst Poetry Prize. I need to create more opportunities like that. These contests have entry fees and sometimes I get worried about the money. I also need to work generally on how to think bigger – an NEA or Guggenheim grant, a major fellowship or residency. There’s a part of me that thinks too small. I need to take responsibility for that. My big goal is to create something that lasts, something that holds up over time. Mary Oliver says she wants to be read in 300 years. I could live with that.
matter of
dark matter
this grasping
at the ungraspable
our wizards of wonderland
are staring into holes for a new religion
hoping to answer new ultimate questions –
What holds the universe together?
What binds us all? I’m thinking
if not this nervous bargain with time
if not this gravity of ignorance
perhaps the matter of the shrew
that mere idea of a mammal
that thumbsized pennyweight
born naked and blind in a nest of grass
so innocent, so unguarded it can die from
loud noises, even from thunder
A shrew can go unnoticed
unnamed its whole life
Like a star
like love
it can be
© Jack Cooper. First published in The Kerf, 2011 Edition, College of the Redwoods
Jack Cooper’s first collection of poetry, Across My Silence, was published by World Audience Publishers, Inc., New York, NY. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. His poem “All of the Above” was chosen as a finalist in North American Review’s James Hearst Poetry Prize. His work has also appeared in Santa Fe Literary Review, South Dakota Review, Bryant Literary Review, Muse & Stone, Argestes, The Evansville Review, Tundra, Runes, The MacGuffin and many other publications. Cooper studied psychology and English literature in Norway, attended graduate school in alpine botany at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has written for television, film and the stage.
Sonya Sabanac was born in the former Yugoslavia, City of Sarajevo. She graduated from Law School in her native town and immigrated to California in 1994 in the aftermath of civil war in her country. Though a passionate reader all her life, she only started writing in her late forties. Ms. Sabanac is a member of Los Angles Westside Women Writers Group. Her poems appeared in San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, Magnapoets, Poetic Diversity and the Anthology about Immigrant Women, “Shifting Balance Sheets” that also published her memoir “How I Decided To Go A Little Crazy.”


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:
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