Wednesday, 11 May 2016
Shaindel Beers, interviewed by Jonathan Taylor
Shaindel Beers is the author of two full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009) and The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing. Her awards include First place Karen Fredericks and Frances Willitts Poetry Prize, Grand Prize Co-winner Trellis Magazine sestina contest, First place Dylan Days Poetry Competition, and others. She currently serves as English department chair at Blue Mountain Community College, as Poetry Editor for Contrary Magazine, and on the executive board of PAWS, the Pendleton Animal Welfare Shelter. She lives in Pendleton, Oregon, with a zoo of pets and a wild five-year-old son. Her website is here.
JT: You've written two full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time and The Children's War and Other Poems (both with Salt Publishing). How far do the collections share similar preoccupations (e.g. time, memory, feminism, violence)? In what ways do they differ? And do you feel that you "progress" and develop as a poet, or is it more complex than that?
SB: This is a really interesting question. I like that you’ve picked out time, memory, feminism, and violence as my themes. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard my work pinpointed that succinctly. Michael Chabon theorizes that all writers are obsessive compulsives, and everyone is writing the same thing over and over, hoping to get it right, so those might very well be my themes for the rest of my life.
I think the way they differ is that A Brief History of Time was my first collection, so a lot of it was written over a long period of time, and I didn’t really have a theme in mind. It was essentially my creative thesis for my MFA, so I just wrote with no plan. If a graduate advisor said, “Try this, write in this person’s style,” I did. I think it ended up being largely autobiographical and having a larger arc as a result.
The Children’s War started out as an obsessive project where I did nothing for a while but look at children’s artwork from war, and then it became a philosophical question – should it be a whole book of just that? Would people read a whole book of just that? Would I be lessening children’s war experiences if I put poems about something else in there? So, in my first book, I had a broad scope and narrowed down, and in my second book, I had a narrow scope then broadened. If you put one on top of the other, it’s an hourglass!
I think the progression is always more complex than that. That’s the journey. Figuring out who we are, seeing how we turn out.
JT: You write short fiction as well as poetry - and I understand that you're also in the process of writing a novel. What do you see as the overlaps or differences between the demands of these genres?
SB: Everyone is writing a novel. At least, that’s how it feels. I actually have a few novel starts where I’ve gotten “stuck” at the same point. I think it takes a lot of guts to write a novel, to keep going with something that big and assuming that people are going to stay with you. I don’t know if I have the confidence for it. I assumed my career would go in a sense like, poetry collection, short story collection, novel. I need a few more short stories to round out a collection, so I think I’m going to stick with that first.
If I ever do finish writing a novel, I’ll probably have to do it in a course or with a novel coach. I’m not sure if I’m disciplined enough to do it on my own. That’s sort of the beauty of poetry. It’s a small, intricate work – like painting a tile. You can have an idea, and you do it, and you might touch it up now and then, but it’s done! You have a little four inch by four inch work of art. I don’t think I’m ready for murals yet.
I think a lot of the pressure to feel like I had to have a novel is gone. I think it was mostly from outside, from people who only know novels, who expect something you wrote to be made into a film and for you to become rich. I think I’m past that now. It helped me to meet Peter Meinke, who is a wonderful poet who is now in his eighties. He has written many, many books of poetry, and I believe two short story collections. I asked him about that because his one short story collection won a Flannery O’Connor award, and I loved it. He told me he’s always writing poems, but he writes maybe one short story a year. That’s just how he works. I might be the same. I guess we’ll see. It’s kind of nice to be still under forty and calming down about these things.
JT: What can poetry achieve which other art forms can't, do you think?
SB: When I was a dance major, I used to get into “trouble” for admiring the other arts more than dance. Dance was so hard for me, and it seemed so easy for everyone else. I spent a lot of time being amazed by everything else – sculpture, music, painting – that I didn’t really appreciate the art that I was working on at the time. I don’t think there is any one particular art that can capture anything that another particular art can’t capture. All of the arts are sisters, and I love when we can collaborate and do them together – poetry and music, dance and sculpture, etc. One of the choreography projects I did when I was in college was that we had to go to a Rodin exhibit and start a choreography piece from the beginning pose of a sculpture. It was amazing to think of negative space in that way – the way a dancer and a sculptor both use them.
I think the goal of all art is to express human emotion – to somehow make it last, to make it more understandable and universal, and there are different ways of doing that. I’m for all of it.
JT: Would you say that your writing is heavily autobiographical or memoiristic in its subject matter? How far is it "confessional" poetry, for example?
SB: This is always a tricky question. I feel like “confessional” poetry was a phrase used to denigrate the writing of female poets. No one calls male poets writing about war “Confessional” poets, even though they’re certainly writing autobiographical, personal work. I’m still figuring myself out. I’m still becoming, so I think I’ll always be a part of my writing in that way.
JT: You teach as well as write. Does this help with the writing? How do you see - in more general terms - the place of the "poet" in contemporary capitalist society?
SB: I think that teaching while writing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m a professor, so I get to talk about writing and books and ideas all day. I teach at an institution that values my creative writing, celebrates my publications, sends me to conferences, and writers’ retreats, but then there is the feeling of always grading or always being behind grading. If I were a person who could hold down a 9-5 job at a bank or something like that, I might get more writing done, but I don’t think I’m that kind of person. I like to spend a lot of time in my head, staring out the window at clouds.
As far as the place of the poet in contemporary capitalist society, I think that the song “Cold Dog Soup” by Guy Clark says it nicely: “Ain’t no money in poetry / That’s what sets the poet free.” I like to ignore the fact that the next line is “I’ve had all the freedom I can stand.” I like to think that as long as I’m not making money as an artist, I’m not beholden to a market. I can do what I want. Would it be nice if poetry made money? Yes, but then, I’d probably lose some freedom.
JT: What are you working on at the moment? What are your medium and long-term aims for your writing?
SB: I’m always working on a bunch of different things. I’m sort of a poster child for adult ADHD, so various things occur to me, and I get obsessed and do them right then, and then sometimes they fall to the wayside. I was working on a sonnet sequence about boxing and domestic violence, somewhat inspired by Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and the amazing article on him in Grantland, “The Boxer and the Batterer” by Louisa Thomas:
I recently finished a long-form essay which is very important to me that I’ve been working on for a long time, and I’m working on a series of circus poems as part of a collaboration with the cellist Jesse Ahmann:
We seem to have the same artistic sensibilities, and I feel very fortunate to be working with him.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2013), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.