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.
DJ: Getting back to your work – do you see a line from certain poets or writers that you’ll be carrying or are carrying through your words? Who are some of the writers who have spoken to you or continue to speak to you?
SB: I’m sitting at my desk and there are a bunch of black and white postcards of different writers right in front of me…Anne Sexton, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg – I don’t write in that style, but I think I have the feeling Ginsberg does. Dylan Thomas…
I think there are some amazing writers who do very different things. To me, Anne Sexton was really brave. I have the poem, FOR MY LOVER, RETURNING TO HIS WIFE, taped to my door here. How brave is it to even start a poem with that title. You’re admitting you’re having an affair with a married man, and you’re going to write a poem about it. When she did that, it was a period where you don’t do things like that.
With Robert Frost, there’s a plainsong, rural feel in a lot of his poems, but there’s this immense depth there if you know to look for it. At the end of OUT, OUT – and I don’t remember the exact lines, that’s the poem where the boy’s hand gets cut off by a chainsaw – and at the very end it says something like, “. . . and they, because they were not the ones dead, returned to their affairs.” That’s just an amazing ending.
DJ: Tell me a little bit about “feeling that feeling” that Ginsberg felt.
SB: There’s a Ginsberg quote to the extent of, “Poetry is not the party line, it’s what you’re thinking alone at night.” I think he did a lot of beautiful, philosophical things with writing, even if our styles are different. If you can channel some of what he said when you’re writing, then you’re onto something.
DJ: I remember from some English class long ago, hearing Ginsberg’s work referred to as “confessional poetry.” I don’t know if you find yourself doing anything like that, which would get us into a conversation of “the I”. Or maybe I’ll ask you that first – is your “I” necessarily you, and is there a lot of you in your work?
SB: I would say in this book, the “I” is usually me. But then, part of my artistic license is that I can lie, or can make things sound more dramatic, either for the sake of the poem, or change words for the sake of rhythm, meter or alliteration.
DJ: If most of the “I” is you, tell me a little about the poem, A MAN WALKS INTO THE BAR. It feels really confessional. Is this a snapshot of something that’s true-to-life?
SB: When I was 21, I worked at a sports bar the summer before my senior year of college. It was a different world – it was a place owned by a former NFL player. There were a lot of big guys waiting tables who had either been pro or college football players. While I was obsessed with getting into Harvard or Princeton for grad school, this was my summer job.
DJ: There are all sorts of questions I want to ask now. Where was this?
DJ: The poem mentions short-shorts night?
SB: There wasn’t officially a “short-shorts” night, but you knew that if you wore short-shorts you’d get more tips. We weren’t Hooters, but we knew if we dressed like Hooters girls, there’d be more money involved.
DJ: And this guy without a hand walks in?
SB: Maybe it was an arm. It was a long time ago. I remember he was standing at the bar, and the rest of the servers – we were all checking him out. As he turned, we saw that one of his arms ended around the elbow. Then there was this weird moment of recognition where he knew we knew. That sort of thing. You feel bad taking part in re-wounding somebody, or reminding them of an injury.
DJ: So now if we return to the beginning of our conversation, and your way of carrying verses, snippets of a verse, or concepts of a potential poem, around in your head, was this something you carried around for a while? And when you bring something like that to the page, is there a reconciliation?
SB: I probably carried this poem around for five years. I don’t know if I was actually thinking of writing the poem. I was just thinking about certain jobs I’d had and different things that had happened. That was one experience that seemed somewhat deep out of, you know, carrying beer to people.
Writing it – even though I have no idea who this man is, and the chance of him reading my book is somewhat astronomical – I feel like, more than a confession, it’s sort of an apology.
DJ: I get this idea of you as someone with prompts all around you. It may take years for them to make it to the page, but there’s almost an unconscious gathering of material going on. Is there something that triggers these to release and find the page?
SB: That’s where I start sounding like, “It’s ancient Greece, and the muse makes me do it.” I’m not sure what it is but I have to write it down.
DJ: Do you try to avoid that type of language?
SB: Not with other writers, but with people in general, it may sound flaky.
DJ: Tell me just a little bit about your daily practice, what does it look like when you factor in all the other things you do? How do you honor the page?
SB: A lot of it is just in my head. Things get committed to the page when, for instance, I’m caught up with grading, or during winter or summer breaks. I used to feel guilty saying that, and I still sort of do. I have a lot of things in my head right now, but I’m surrounded by piles of grading and other things.
DJ: You don’t keep a journal?
SB: No. I’m really undisciplined in that way.
DJ: One of the reviews I read of A Brief History of Time says “there’s something for everyone in the book”…
SB: That review means a lot to me because it’s from a former student who has a very busy life. He’s an Iraq war veteran, and isn’t the typical “reader of poetry” when you think about who goes and buys books. A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR was the poem that really got to him because he was awarded the Purple Heart. I think the poem reminded him of vets he knew who came back as amputees.
The fact that a former student of mine, this big tough Iraq war vet, wrote a heartfelt review of my book is really important to me.
DJ: In the poem, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, there’s this wonderful line right in the middle of it when you’re talking about giving up on loving people and loving things instead:
“I’ll love mountains as only a flatlander can”
There’s a lot being said in that one line, the idea of loneliness, longing, everything being new…could you talk a little about the emotions coming up, and what that’s saying?
SB: Being from Northern Indiana – first of all, it’s flat. If you go somewhere and you suddenly see mountains, they don’t even seem real at first.
Human relationships can be so hard. A lot of people have the thought that, “Oh, if I could just live in a cabin it would be so much easier.” The poem combines these ideas. And mountains have been here so long. The Rockies have been here for 65-million years, which makes the idea of the people coming in and out of your life seem somewhat transient. The mountains are always there for you.
DJ: With regards to distance, or the idea of being removed from a story that eventually comes forth as a poem – does being away from the story create a panoramic view for you where things feel safer? How does this factor in, especially when you consider the gap between the origin of a poem and its eventual creation?
SB: Part of it is trusting that an idea is worthy of being literature – if that doesn’t sound too lofty. I think when we’re either new or young writers, we have this egocentric belief that everything is brilliant. Sometimes for me, it’s about seeing if something is even worth hitting paper. If it stays in my head for weeks, months, years even, then it’s probably worth writing down.
DJ: So it doesn’t have to do with safety or being away from it, but more about the its worth?
SB: With some of my poems, I think they’re probably painfully open about things that might never be safe. In A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, I mention,
“This will explain why my father is
still married to my mother even after she tried to knife him
just days after coming home from jail
for two other attempted murders.”
I don’t know for sure that my mom tried to knife my father. It’s something my brother told me when I was away at college. Right there I say my mom was in jail, and I say why – it was actually attempted manslaughter, but “murder” sounded better. Fewer syllables. And if your mom has tried to kill two people, why make it sound like less than it is?
When I was first writing, everything was about “the art”. I didn’t care about people, or if I hurt them. It was pretty selfish. Then my book came out and my parents told me they ordered it. I thought, “My mom’s going to sue me.” And I actually got this really civil email that they enjoyed my book and thought it was quite good. I thought, “Wow, I talked about you being in jail.” Either she didn’t see that part or it didn’t register as something that should bother her.
DJ: So now how do you show up with your students and help them access the things they need to access?
SB: I keep in mind that most learning is done by imitation. There’s this great quote by Saul Bellow, “A writer is a reader moved to emulate.” I try to find writing that will connect with them so well that they’ll want to write like that. I think that’s really the only way to do it.
There didn’t used to be MFA programs in creative writing. You used to just read the great writers and do what they did. I really believe it comes down to reading a lot, writing a lot, show don’t tell…those are the rules I give to everybody. It seems strange to be paid to teach when there are so few rules, but the rest is just detail.