June 9, 2009

Shaindel Beers: A Blog Tour Interview

Shaindel Beers was raised in Argos, Indiana, a town of 2,000 people. She studied literature at Huntingdon College, earned her MA at the University of Chicago and her MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently a professor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in Eastern Oregon's high desert.

A Brief History of Time is her first full-length collection. The title poem was nominated for a Pushcart prize (2004). She is doing an online book tour of interviews and today she drops in on Poets Online.  She is at work on two poetry collections. (see bottom for update). 

You do a lot more to utilize the web than most poets. We "met" via Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. I have been following your blog tour online. What was the impetus for that?
I think I've always been someone who is up-to-date with tech and social networking trends. Back when everyone was using MUDs (Now, I'm dating myself, right?), that was how I spent my "down" time during college. So, when other social networking came along, it seemed obvious (to me, at least) how to use it career-wise as a writer. Luckily, I have a publisher (Salt Publishing) who is just as up-to-date and innovative. They strongly encourage their writers to have a MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter account, and they help put together the virtual book tours with bloggers their writers already know. It's a wonderful fit for both of us. They encouraged me to use tools I was already using and taught me quite a bit more. 

I find that using social networking tools (like Facebook, Twitter) is moving beyond social and into my professional life? Is that true for you?
I don't really see a difference between my social and professional life, actually. If you're a writer, it's who you are. To quote Robert Frost: "To be a poet is a condition, not a profession." There's something wrong if you're trying to separate your social and professional lives, in my opinion, at least.

  Your book's title will make people think of Stephen Hawking's physics book with the same title. It's also a powerful poem in the book. Is the book a brief history of your time, including events that occur in the "parallel universes" of life (poet, spouse, teacher, sibling etc.)?
That's precisely how I want people to think of the title. I'm not a theoretical physicist, but I really admire their work. In my interview with Zinta Aistars at Zinta Reviews, I said: "What’s really interesting to me is learning what we don’t know or even what might be possible that we’d never thought of before. And I feel like this book is a brief history of my time on earth so far and sorting out what I know, what I know I don’t know, and what I didn’t know I don’t know, to play on Donald Rumsfeld’s famous 'known knowns' speech. I wanted people to look at my book and think of quantum physics and parallel universes and identify with it that way if that makes any sense." It sounds like you totally got it the way I was hoping people would. The previous working titles of my book were pretty horrible. Chris Hamilton-Emery at Salt suggested naming the book after the first poem, and I was thrilled with that. I wasn't sure, at first, if people would be up in arms about my book having the same title as Hawking's book, but most people seem to get it.

Do you feel that time is also one theme that runs through the book in poems like "Elegy for a Past Life," " Flashback" and others?
 Yes. Time is a constant theme in all of our lives. Some of us just don't realize it. In my interview at Blue Moon Northeast, with Meg Harris, I said: "When we come into the world we are given a birthdate and when we are buried (if we are buried) on our tombstone there is a birth and a death date with a dash to represent everything that happened in the interim. That dash is everything. Time is utterly fascinating. Our lives are shaped by it. We wish we could go back in time. We want time to slow down. We want time to speed up; we wish we could see into the future. We regret not valuing time. I remember, especially when I was a teenager, waiting for a boy to pick me up for a date and thinking that the time when I would hear his car in the driveway needed to GetHereNow! Then, one day I thought, someday I’m going to be eighty and regret all the minutes I spent just waiting. As I get older, I realize how relative time is. When I was ten, a year seemed like forever; now, it’s hard to believe it’s 2009. I’m also a theoretical physics geek, as evidenced by the title of my book (an homage to Stephen Hawking). I daydream about things like the Grandfather Paradox and (yes, in Star Trek terms) the Temporal Directive. What if you could go back in time like in my poem “Rewind” and change these events? Would the world be any better? Would we (humankind) just find different ways to destroy ourselves? Or, would we have good intentions but do more harm than good?" 

Speaking of titles, you call your blog tour "On the Hood of a Cutlass Supreme" which comes from the book's title poem. Does it have any other significance? In the title poem, that's where my best friend from high school (and from my entire childhood) and I would sit and talk about life. I wanted the book to have that feel and for the virtual book tour, by extension, to have that feel as well. I want the reader to feel like we're that intimate. It's high school, and we're sitting on the hood of a car, under the stars, talking about life. 

You write in a number of forms (sestina, ghazal, sonnet, villanelle). Some poets find traditional forms restrictive, while others find them liberating. What is your approach to working with formal poetry? I think that by writing in form, we're honoring a tradition of those who came before us. It doesn't mean that we have to do it all the time, but it's an important skill to have. It's more work, and you come out with a different sort of finished product than with free verse. It's kind of like making homemade ice cream instead of just buying it at the store. Usually, I have an idea for a poem, and I just start it in free verse; other times, I get an idea for a line or for end words in a sestina, and I know that that's what's going to happen. And then I haul out the ice cream maker from that cabinet in the back room of the garage. I know it's going to be a battle, but that I'll like the finished product.
You also host an Internet radio program on poetry in translation. I think that all poets are translators to some degree. What is your interest in translation? Have you done any translation work?
I've actually given up the radio show. I miss it, but there was no way to continue reading a book a week and finding translators to book far enough in advance on top of my regular teaching load (five courses a quarter on the quarter system and two summer courses--so seventeen college courses a year). I got the show after being a guest on another radio show. The producers had been thinking of doing a show on translation, so they gave me that show. I'd had what I would consider an "average" interest in translation before that. I would read a poem in a journal or anthology that had been translated into English, and I'd read the translator's bio and the original language author's bio and think about it for a little bit. I became really interested in it when I got the show. I met all types of amazing translators of various languages; I learned a lot about geopolitics and the histories and philosophies of other cultures. It was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything, and I'd like to go back to it if I'm ever less busy. I haven't tried doing any translating yet, but I'd like to. I'm not really fluent in anything other than English, but I have a little experience in Spanish and German, and I'd like to give it a try with a dictionary in hand. Maybe I'll add that to my list of things I want to try to accomplish this summer. 

You have an interest in mythology. Do you identify with any characters or stories from mythology?
I've always loved mythology. I don't know if schools still do this, but in eighth grade, we had a unit on Greek mythology (which actually might have lasted the whole year) where we read The Odyssey and studied the gods and goddesses and various stories. Even before that, we had cartoons on mythology. A lot of these were the 1980s videogame-inspired cartoons, but with "Kid Icarus," you still got to learn who Medusa was and all kinds of other mythological characters. I just looked up some of those cartoons on YouTube just now, and even though they are pretty "primitive" by modern standards, it's still impressive how educational they were. 

Did you ever connect your childhood hometown of Argos, Indiana with its Greek sister city? ( Zeus had Argos destroyed after Acrisius tried to kill Zeus' son, and Poseidon's Kraken almost destroyed it again.)
Oh, definitely. I think I more often thought of Panoptes, the hundred-eyed monster guarding Io. Our high school mascot was the dragon, and our dragon was named Homer (after the poet) but also because he was the mascot of the "Home Team." There are a lot of strange, mythological traditions in my hometown. I think a lot of small towns are like that. They become quirky because they are searching for an identity, something to be proud of.

From doing readings, do you find that some of your poems work better on the page and others on the stage? Does that come into play at all when you are writing? Some poems are definitely better to read aloud and some are better on the page. I have one poem that has a chemical formula in it, that I almost never read at readings, and another poem where I have to explain that in print, one speaker is italicized and the other is not, and I hope that listeners can tell what's going on when I read that one. I think all poets should read their work out loud, whether or not it's going to be presented that way because poetry originally was an oral tradition. So, in that sense, I think about it, but I don't consider myself a "Slam poet" where I'm writing to perform. I write some things that work well in that sense, and I write some things that don't. I basically write what I'm compelled to write and then I let the rest sort itself out. 

We have at least one shared childhood memory - ordering from the Scholastic Book Club in school. Despite a real lack of money, my mom always let me get at least one book. What were some childhood books that you loved?
I loved everything, ever dealing with horses. Those C.W. Anderson books with Billy and Blaze were just beautiful. The pencil drawings were a quality that I don't think I've seen in children's books since then. I read all of the Marguerite Henry horse books, Misty of Chincoteague, Stormy: Misty's Foal, the whole series, and all of her historical horse books. All of the Walter Farley Black Stallion books, and a lot of books by Lynn Hall. We had to write an author a fan letter in elementary school, and I think that Lynn Hall is the author who wrote me back. I actually think I'm going to write her another fan letter, now that I think of it. It looks like she's still writing Young Adult books about dogs and horses. I'll never forget her book Riff, Remember, about a dog who witnesses his owner being accidentally shot in a hunting accident, and Riff tracks down the people who shot his boy. I still want to own a borzoi someday because of that book. I'm definitely writing Lynn Hall another fan letter soon.

Did you have an interest in poetry before college?
My mother was an English major in college, and I was constantly stealing her poetry books. I think it was an attention span issue that made me read poetry rather than fiction. I felt like I could absorb so much more poetry in a shorter amount of time. There was all of this white space around it on the page, and I could just travel down the page at breakneck speed. It's interesting, now, looking at what Victorian poems college students studied in the 1960s that we don't even think about now, but that's mostly what I was reading when I would take my mother's books--the Victorians and the Romantics--and that's pretty much what I specialized in for my first graduate degree. 

You list among the poets you admire Anne Sexton and Anne Carson. The poets we enjoy are not always similar to our own writing. Do you see other poets' influence in your own writing?
I think the best answer for this probably connects to the above question. I see a lot of the Romantics and Victorians in my work, although a lot of other people see a lot more Plath or Sexton. I love nature and the outdoors. And solitude. And I also like people's stories (think Browning and his dramatic monologues). I think there are a lot of both of these things in my work, even though they obviously feel modern.

Poets Online offers a monthly writing prompt. It's not a workshop, but what is your take on poetry workshops, writing from prompts, and MFA programs?
I think that the more practice you can get, the better, and the more contact with other writers you can get, the better. Workshops are fabulous as long as you don't get into a back-patting workshop where everyone says everyone's work is brilliant. You need some honesty. Someone has to let you know when something is not working, or when you're becoming a one-trick pony. For that reason, I think people should try different workshops -- ones at local libraries, community centers, and online. Even if you're well-published and have degrees out the wazoo, sign up for a community college class in creative writing, just to produce new work and have fresh eyes look at your work. Writing from prompts is fabulous. I plan on spending a lot of my summer working from prompts.
Any time something is generated from outside of your normal experience, you create fresh work. For example, Robert Lee Brewer at the Writer's Digest Poetic Asides blog, posted a prompt a day for National Poetry Month, and I wrote all kinds of work I never would have thought of otherwise because it stretched me outside of the thoughts that are normally in my head all day. I pass out lists of prompts to my students all the time with headings like, "Write Like Crazy Day," and we'll fly through a list of prompts, spending a few minutes on each one. It's something you have to do to take yourself to new places. As far as MFA programs, I would highly recommend the program I went to, the low residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I really think low residency is the way to go. You are on campus for a few weeks out of the year, getting the time you need with other writers, and being away from home, and the rest of the time, you are working on packets with your faculty advisor--which is really just like working with an editor, at least in my experience. It really is the most real-life model I think there is for being a professional writer. The other side of the argument is that MFA programs cost a lot of money, and no one is guaranteed a job or publication when you get out. You can be self-taught and just read and write and send work out to publishers, but I needed the low-residency model to generate a first book. I already had another graduate degree and was teaching college, so I didn't have the pressure of expecting an MFA to get me a job. A Brief History of Time is basically my creative thesis from my MFA program, but I still sent it out to publishers for nearly five years before it was published. People have to want to do the hard work for themselves, and they need to see that the MFA is a tool to help them get there; you can't expect it to be a magic potion. 

Your upcoming book, The Children's War, is inspired by children's art done in the time of war. Have you been influenced by other ekphrastic poems (Hollander, Williams, Auden, etc.)?
I've always liked ekphrastic poems. I'm a fan of all of the arts. I have a minor in dance. (I actually started out undergrad as a choreography major) I played tenor saxophone in a jazz band and clarinet in a community band all through my undergrad days, and I love seeing how the arts influence each other. I'd love to choreograph some of my poems, actually, and I've done projects where a visual artist takes my poems and our work is shown in a gallery together. We're all doing the same thing, so it's very natural. Some of my favorite ekphrastic poems are Anne Sexton's "The Starry Night" and W. H. Auden's and William Carlos Williams' poems on Brueghel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. I think ekphrastic poems like this make artists members of a community that transcends time and space. 

How far along is the new book? When do you expect it to be published?
I love that you phrased it as "how far along" and "expect" because I think of books as babies. It's not that far along. I've really wanted to work hard to promote A Brief History of Time and do a lot of readings and interviews. Having another book right away would be like having two of them in diapers at the same time. I want to work a lot on it this summer and maybe think about it coming out in 2011. Two years apart seems reasonable. I'm also working on short stories and have some deals going there, so I want to give everything the right amount of time it needs. I used to feel that crazy rush that I needed to have all of these books out, but I think I still have time; I'm 32. I wanted to say "only," but I'll just say; I'm 32. I think everything should be okay as long as I keep working steadily. 

Are there any questions that haven't been asked on the tour stops that you want to address?
I've done so many interviews, I'm not sure what hasn't been asked yet. I just want to thank everyone for the amazing response to my first book. I couldn't be happier. For all of the talk about "Is poetry dead?" I can tell you, it isn't. I've heard from so many amazing writers and readers since my book came out.

Shaindel is the Poetry Editor for Contrary. Read her "Too Close To Home" memoir about a childhood friend who was murdered at age 11 in the magazine. 

On social media, she is posting videos of her reading on her YouTube site and posts to FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

We used a poem by Beers for our June 2009 call for submissions on confessions and she also provided us with a second idea for writing.



  1. this is a really good interview, revealing and interesting, i think its the first virtual book tour interview I've ever read that has actually made me want to read the book....

    It's the first time I've visited this blog but I hope to be back!

  2. I picked up the book this past weekend. It's a great first collection and all the supplementary materials on the blog and site (plus the other links) is a really useful addition to my understanding of the poems. Hurrah for the Web!


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