Beers to You: Poet Shaindel Beers Visits Crisis Chronicles!
Actually, this blog is about much more than a fine vehicle. It's about fine poetry — though I guess in a way we poets are vehicles, as well as drivers. Sometimes we let the muse drive us and sometimes we drive the muse around. Other times we wrestle with the muse over the steering wheel and run the poetic vehicle off a cliff. To survive the artistic drive and get the most out of one's creative journey, balance is essential. A poet must know when to listen to the muse's back seat driving and when to follow his or her own instincts — when to apply the brake or reaccelerate, and precisely when to veer sharply left or merge gently to the right.
Reading Shaindel Beers' poetry collection A Brief History of Time (Salt Publishing, 2009), I was impressed by how well the author handles her poetic vehicle — on country and city roads, over train tracks, around mountains, across Florida, Oregon and points between and beyond — even passing through the cell of an Iraq war protester. The territory is sometimes perilous, and it would be easy to lose one's way; but this poet navigates masterfully. No matter where she takes us or how fearlessly she uses her vehicle in this book, Shaindel never loses her balance or ruins its finish. In the end, A Brief History of Time dropped me off at home eagerly looking forward to the next journey with her poetry.
I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Shaindel briefly yesterday, and here's what she had to say:
[photo of Shaindel Beers courtesy of Evan Moodie Photography]
JC: Besides being a writer, you work as an English instructor at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon. Though I've always considered teaching one of the most noble professions, I could say the same about poetry. Which do you consider yourself foremost: a teacher or a poet? And which do you consider more important?
Shaindel: That’s really tricky. I don’t know if I would say that I consider myself one more than the other. It would be kind of like asking me if I’m a woman or if I’m white. I see the two as being equal parts of my identity. Since most poets have to have a “day job,” I don’t think there’s a better match than doing something that allows me to have poetry in my life every day. I teach at a community college, so most of my teaching load is composition, but I’m always teaching either a creative writing course or a literature course (or one of each) each term as well. I get to teach great poetry to my students, and I get to see some of my students compose amazing works of their own. I also have the luxury of having a job that pays for me to go to writers’ conferences and retreats and that allows me to miss work to do a reading or a speaking engagement occasionally.
It’s always odd to me when I meet writers who are outside of academia, and I ask, “Are you going to this or that conference this year?” and they say something about not knowing if they can afford it or if they can get time off from work. It’s easy to take for granted that most colleges or universities are paying for their English professors to be there.
I think teaching and writing are both equally important, too. There’s that Walt Whitman quote, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” I think that a lot of those audiences are formed on college campuses. It’s where most people pick up their first books of poetry, so I’m creating my own work in one facet of my life, and creating readers and critical thinkers in the other.
JC: When did you first know you were a poet?
Shaindel: My answer is going to sound similar to signs you might be an alcoholic. You write every day. You write alone. You write to cope with things that happen in your life. More than 50% of your friends are writers.
I think that at the time, I felt like a poet when I first got published in a literary magazine, but looking back, I should have known I was a poet when it was my natural practice to write about things to process them. In elementary school, my cousin shot my dog, and I didn’t know how else to grieve other than to write a poem about it. That was probably a sure sign it was going to turn out this way.
JC: I know a poet who believes that certain words we might refer to as profanity (for example, "bitch" and "cunt") have no place in poetry. Yet you use them to great effect in pieces like "Sleep" in A Brief History of Time. If there is a boundary between when such words should be used and when they should not, where do you draw it?
Shaindel: Words are just words. They have no power other than the power we give them, hence all of the groups “taking back” words that were used against them. For instance, feminists taking back the word bitch, as in Bitch magazine (http://bitchmagazine.org/), or LGBT populations taking back the term queer, as in the chant, “We’re here; we’re queer! Get used to it!” The key is to make sure no matter what you’re writing to use the right word in each instance, whether it’s an adjective, an adverb, a profane word. Look at each word in your writing and determine if it’s the right word. If it isn’t, take it out. If a word is needed there, replace it with the right one.
I think all of the profanity in A Brief History of Time belongs there. I didn’t have any in poems where it didn’t belong, but in “Sleep” and “HA!” and some of the other poems, that’s how it was. Those are the people I’m writing about, and that’s how they talk. If they were going over Latin conjugations in a classroom at Harvard, that’s what I would have written.
JC: As much as I like (and in many cases, love) each individual poem in your book, one of the things I find most impressive about your collection is how all the poems - despite their quite varied forms and subject matters - work together as a whole and combine their stories to tell an engaging "bigger picture" story in what seems to be chronological order. How chronological - and how autobiographical - is A Brief History of Time?
Shaindel: The collection is actually very chronological. And very autobiographical. I believe in Robert Frost’s theory that in a collection of twenty-four poems, the twenty-fifth poem is the collection itself. I tried all kinds of arrangements by emotional arc or theme, but the only thing that seemed to work was chronological—or at least a frame story—with “A Brief History of Time” as the first poem with the world crammed in there and “How Time Betrays Us” with me imagining my death as the last poem. Some details are changed in the poems; it’s not straight memoir, but it’s mostly true. And as John Ciardi says, “Poetry lies its way to the truth.”
JC: Thank you, Shaindel! It's been a pleasure to participate in your virtual book tour. Is there anything else you like to share with Crisis Chronicles readers?
Shaindel: I’d just like to thank everyone for checking out this interview and encourage them to take a look at my book. I’m doing a promotional giveaway at Goodreads.com in honor of A Brief History of Time’s half birthday: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6135468.A_Brief_History_of_Time. I’m giving away six copies, one copy for each month the book’s been out, so I would love for your readers to enter the drawing. And be sure to find me on Facebook or on my Red Room author site: http://www.redroom.com/author/shaindel-rebekah-beers. Peace, love, and happy writing, Everyone!
JC: Read Shaindel Beers' "Sleep" (from A Brief History of Time) in the Crisis Chronicles Library — http://library.crisischronicles.com/2009/05/13/sleep-by-shaindel-beers.aspx
From the back cover:
Shaindel Beers' poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in eastern Oregon's high desert and serves as Poetry editor of Contrary (www.contrarymagazine.com). She hosts the talk radio poetry show Translated By, which can be found at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/onword.