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Interview with Shaindel Beers

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Shaindel Beers’ poetry feels like the Midwest itself – open, rolling, as if a dust storm could blow through any moment. Her first full-length collection, A Brief History of Time, captures the sadness and longing of a never-ending landscape in rich language that evokes loss, flight, grace and humility. We spoke a few weeks ago, and discussed the concept of “mental crafting” (Beers holds onto ideas for months and even years before writing them), teaching (she is a professor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, OR), rural life (she grew up in Argos, Indiana), online publishing (she’s been poetry editor at Contrary Magazine since its founding in 2003), “short-shorts” night (as referenced in the poem A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR), and how memory and reflection lead her into verse.

DJ: You definitely have a lot going on, between your own work, your work with Contrary, what you’re doing at “the school” and your radio program (blog talk radio). Is there one area where you get greater pleasure or satisfaction?

SB: I guess everything feeds into more material to write about. It would be nice to have more free time to write. Still, I learn a lot from my students and from my other part-time jobs. They give me more time to think about writing.

DJ: A lot of your work reads in a way as if it arrived on paper exactly how it happened, almost in a “channeled” sense. I don’t mean “channeling” in a new age way, but more so like the poem came out of you in one long gush. I’m trying to get a picture of you working when suddenly you’re hit with this wave…

SB: I work a lot in my head, more than I ever write down. I wish I were one of those writers that carries a notebook and pen everywhere. I go through phases where I try to make myself do that. Sometimes something will stay in my head for months or even years before I write it down.

DJ: What finally gets you to write it down? Why does it stay so long, and what gets you to say, “I have to get this thing out?”

SB: Sometimes because it doesn’t feel finished. I’m not saying it’s a finished product in my head and then makes its way to paper. It’s like a seed. It has to germinate for a certain amount of time. Sometimes I write it down because it feels like it’s almost done, and sometimes I write it down because I’m afraid of forgetting either a part of it or the whole thing.

DJ: Would you say you’re mentally crafting pieces?

SB: I always feel like there’s a frame around things. When it feels like I have enough to build on it, that’s when it goes on paper.

DJ: So you’re never too worried that you’ll actually forget something?

SB: There are things I think I’ve forgotten.

DJ: Looking at the poem, ELEGY FOR A PAST LIFE, you mention in the second stanza:

“Back then at sixteen
I thought we’d make it out together,
and become writers.”

How long has this been going on for you, getting these lines coming to you, and at what point did writing enter your life?

SB: I probably wrote before I could physically write. When I was little, I would tell my mom stories, make her write them down then read them back to me. I was sort of a writer before I knew letters or the alphabet.

I think it was either high school or undergrad when I made that leap between wanting to be a reader and being a writer. I don’t know if I felt confident about my own work until I started having things published, first in the undergrad literary journal, then later in places right out of college.

DJ: It’s interesting that you showed up in the world as an oral storyteller, because there’s a wonderful diversity in the language of your poetry. Did you make your way to poetry from other places, or has poetry always been a place where you found a home and a voice?

SB: Some of it might be that poetry requires a shorter attention span. When I was an early teen, I remember reading my mom’s old poetry books and feeling like I could read a lot in one sitting, because mostly they were just stripes down the middles of pages. So I could read much more poetry in a short amount of time than I could, say, fiction. I feel this way about writing it also.

I’m trying to get better about spending more time at poems and fiction. I think poetry is my natural progression as a writer, then eventually I’ll move onto fiction. A lot of writers move in the same way.

DJ: So you’re actively writing things other than poetry?

SB: I have about half of a short story collection done. I need three to six more stories to be long enough to send out.

DJ: When you mention that poetry requires something of a shorter attention span, how do you say this is a benefit when it comes to online publishing? Especially when you consider the fact that there are well-regarded online literary sites and opportunities popping up all the time.

SB: I’ll sit down and read a 500-page novel in hard copy but I’d never do that on screen. I don’t know if it’s a physical issue, where staring at a screen that long isn’t good for your eyes, or if it’s a psychological issue, where we feel that things online should be short. There’s definitely something to the fact that people will only spend so long reading something online. You expect it to be no more than three screens if you’re scrolling, as if there’s an intuitive link between how long something is and how much we’re willing to read. Which is a good thing for poetry.

In general, I think people are in the mode of reading shorter fiction when they’re online. They’re more likely to read a 2,000 word story online than a 10,000 story.

DJ: Is that sort of shift completely positive?

SB: I don’t think it’s positive. It might just be one of the necessary evils that happen. I don’t want to think that we’ll be like Japan, where our literature turns into text message novels, or whatever the craze is. I hope it doesn’t go that far, but I think we have to be realistic that, if we’re sending things to an online venue, people are only going to read a poem that’s one screen, or a story of about 2,000 words.

DJ: As you’ve edited and been a reader for print and online places, could you speak to whether or not you see a different caliber of writing coming in?

SB: With Contrary, at least right now, I’m the final poetry editor. Of the 1,000 or so submissions a month, I only see the top 20 – which makes it really hard to choose. I’ve gotten things sent to me directly where I’ve felt people didn’t even look at the literary journal, but I haven’t seen any differences in quality from when I was a first reader for print to now.

DJ: Do you have any sense of shifts going on as it relates to the financial viability of small press publishers vs. online journals?

SB: I just know it’s expensive going to print. Just look at the big newspapers that are shutting down or selling right now. Print no longer seems to be where people are getting either their news or reading material, and I think we’re moving more to the online end of the spectrum.

In one issue of Contrary, we had nearly 100,000 page views – there’s no way we could afford to print 100,000 issues, or even 20,000 issues for that matter. I think a lot of it is the economy, but some of it is environmentalism – we’ve all seen journals give thousands of back issues away for free. It’s sad because there is something to the hardcopy print world and the tactile feeling of a book, magazine or journal. Unfortunately it’s expensive to do these days.

DJ: A hundred-thousand views is huge. When you think about a journal like Contrary, if it was exclusively in print as opposed to online, it would probably be a regional-type press.

SB: Definitely. And if anyone weren’t from the University of Chicago, or around the South Side, it would just be word-of-mouth subscriptions. People would read their classmates who were published in there, and that’s how it would spread cross country.

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