I’ll Love Mountains as Only a Flatlander Can:
An Interview with Poet Shaindel Beers
In the Fall 2014 semester, Shaindel Beers developed a steadfast following in Akron, Ohio, where students in a University of Akron literature course fell in love with her poetry collection A Brief History of Time. Appearing as the first title on the syllabus for American Women Poets, A Brief History of Time had the daunting task of introducing many students to contemporary poetry, and it couldn’t have been a better welcome to the semester. Rather than confounding and befuddling the class members, many of whom were encountering poetry for the first time, this book spoke to them directly, with stories that felt incredibly real. Not only were these poems generous in the way that they represented the Midwest with such grace and passion, but Shaindel herself agreed to participate in an interview with the class, including sharing a brand new poem. Barn Owl Review and the students of American Women Poets send sincere thanks to Shaindel for being such an important part of the semester, and for being an ambassador for poetry.
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. She is the Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine and teaches at Blue Mountain Community College in the high desert town of Pendleton, Oregon. Find more online at the Official Site of Shaindel Beers.
In A Brief History of Time, you address many issues regarding social inequalities that strongly resonate with your readers. What message do you want audiences to take away, and what course of action do you wish them to take, after reading your poetry?
I feel like most of us spend a lot of time in our own heads, not really acknowledging what others go through and seeing only our own perspectives. I’m aware that in some ways, I come from a place of privilege in terms of white privilege, or even just being an American, but growing up, social class differences always stood out to me as well as people not understanding (or looking down on) rural life. When I would meet people from bigger cities or upper middle class backgrounds, it was appalling the questions they would ask:
Is everyone you go to school with named things like Billie Jean or Carrie Jo?
Do you have indoor plumbing?
And then, when I went to college, nearly 700 miles away to go to a fairly wealthy private school in Montgomery, Alabama (approx. pop. 200,000) after growing up in Argos, Indiana (approx. pop. 1,600), I was met with many paradigm shifts. There was more racial diversity than I had experienced at home, but many people still lived very securely in institutionalized racism. Students openly referred to the Walmart near the college as “the Black Walmart,” and the Walmart across town as “the White Walmart.”
There were incredibly wealthy students who brought their horses with them to board near the college. And just the difference between northern Indiana next to the Michigan border versus Alabama. I got a crash course in seeing various perspectives.
One example that I still use when discussing “angle of vision” (or bias, lens, filter) when I teach rhetoric happened when I was in college. A friend of mine asked another student for a ride, and as they were driving he said, “Isn’t this sad? All of this abject poverty next to these mansions?” and the other student said, without missing a beat, “I know. They really lower our property value.”
Those were the kinds of things that just blew me away. Or my fellow education major who said, “I wouldn’t care if that whole place blew up,” as we got into his car to go back to our campus after doing our student-teaching observation at an all-Black high school. If it weren’t for creative writing, I think I just would have driven myself crazy being angry about these things. I feel like writing was/is my outlet, and hopefully my way to make people think about these issues and act for change. If reading something I’ve written can make someone think about another group of people differently or go out and vote or volunteer somewhere, then my writing has done some good, and I’ve accomplished something I couldn’t by just being angry at all of the injustices.
When you write a poem, how do you know when you’ve finished? Is it difficult to let go of a poem? Do you have a favorite form?
To be honest, I’m almost never really sure it’s finished until it’s been accepted for publication somewhere. I have had poems that I am pretty sure are finished, but after they keep getting rejected and keep getting rejected, I feel less sure and start going over them again, seeing if there are any little changes I can make. Twice, I’ve had poems that I really believed in that kept getting rejected. They were both in the collection you read, “Rewind” and “Sleeping Man and Woman, Circa 2000 C.E.” I really felt like they were poems that were there somehow, whatever that means, but they kept getting rejected. Finally, they each went on to win first prize in poetry competitions that awarded prize money, and I felt a little vindicated that I had kept sending them out despite all the rejections.
The other day, I opened an email from a publisher in front of my students on a whim, and it was a rejection. I feel like three out of the four poems I had sent out were ready; that just wasn’t the right publisher for them. The one poem, I could see still had some tweaking and could be made stronger by paring it down. I’d definitely sent it out before it was ready.
Some of feeling like it’s ready is that you can read it out loud with no stumbling, no awkward phrases, no unnecessary repetition. Then, I try to make sure the sounds of the words are doing some work and that there are interesting images. I really try to follow Stephen King’s advice from On Writing, making sure that each word is the right word. If I have an adjective plus a noun, could it be replaced by a better noun? If I have an adverb plus a verb, could it be replaced by a better verb?
Sometimes I think I let poems go too easily. I don’t believe in trying to make a poem overly perfect. I think of Walt Whitman spending his whole life rewriting Leaves of Grass. Again, on a whim, I am including a poem with this interview that I hope you might publish and that I hope is ready enough. It feels right to me right now. Of course, I might hit “send,” then read it again, and be horrified that I’ve sent it.
I really love sestinas. I think it’s something about having so much of the work done for you by the form. You have those six end words; plugging everything in is sort of like an algebra problem. I really want to someday write a successful villanelle. It’s so hard for me to come up with the refrains that work well enough. I’ve also never even tried to write a pantoum. These are definitely things I need to do.
When thinking about organizing your collection of poems, was there a specific process of elimination when narrowing down which poems to include?
Luckily for me, A Brief History of Time was mostly my creative thesis from graduate school, so I feel like my faculty advisors did a lot of the work for me as far as eliminating weaker poems. I also did a post-graduate manuscript workshop to make a final pass over the book before sending it out to first book contests.
For The Children’s War and Other Poems, I had Terry Ann Thaxton (whose first two books also came out from Salt) go over the manuscript for me and help me eliminate weaker poems. My big question with The Children’s War was whether the whole book should be ekphrastic poems on the children’s artwork or if I could include other poems in it. I had a two-book-deal from Salt Publishing, and I think they knew they were going to stop publishing poetry collections by individual poets, so they kept checking in to see when my second book would be done. My school where I teach, Blue Mountain Community College, paid for me to go to the Kenyon Review Summer Writers’ Workshop to help me finish up the second book. I just really needed a push to get some more poems written.
I honestly don’t trust myself to make the final decision about what poems should go in a book. I assume that if the poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, they are good to go, but I always have someone look over a manuscript for me who I know will be an honest, thorough reader.
We wanted to thank you not only for your authentic representation of the Midwest, but for writing about ordinary people who often would not typically be the subject of art. What inspired you to write about the Midwest and its people?
I don’t want to sound so cliché, but it’s very much one of those, “You can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the girl” sorts of things. I’m very happy where I am now, mostly because it is rural and working class, even though it’s not the Midwest. I will confess that the line in “A Brief History of Time,” “I’ll love mountains as only a flatlander can,” is very true. I have a gorgeous view of the foothills of the Blue Mountains from my new office, and I love the sense of accomplishment I get from running really hilly routes, and it’s hard for me to drive past a hiking trail up a mountain and not want to know what the view from the top looks like. But I think even this love was formed from the Midwest. I also feel more comfortable with working class people and settings and characters. It’s probably a case of “write what you know.” I don’t think I could convincingly pull off something else. I did live in Chicago while getting my first graduate degree from the University of Chicago, and I lived in suburbs as I got jobs further and further out from Chicago, and then my first full-time tenure track professorship was in Florida outside of Orlando, but I was always an outsider in urban/suburban places. Even if I wrote sci-fi, it would probably be the same narrative in a different setting, the way Luke Skywalker is from a farm on Tatooine.
I thoroughly enjoyed all of the interactions I had with your class – your emails when you ordered my book and snippets of conversation from your class that Mary shared with me. I hope it’s not too presumptuous on my part to send you a poem that I’ve been working on and that I *think* I’ve just finished today. I think it has tones of the Midwest, so you were the audience I wanted to share it with.
The (Im)Precision of Language
How far the ring-necked dove is
from wringing a dove’s neck. The way
a stand of trees can hide a deer
stand, concealing the hunter who
will shoot the deer. The deer, who will
fall in the fall in the fallow field.
Once, someone who was dear to me
threatened me with a deer rifle. Cleaned
it random times, out of season when
he was upset. Said, I don’t want to be
divorced. We can make this work, while
working the polishing cloth along the metal
barrel of the gun. My blood barreled through
my body when I would see his truck in the drive.
I was never not scared to come home, to fall
asleep, to say the least little thing wrong.
Language became a tricky game where saying
nothing meant everything, where saying everything
meant nothing left to fear. I sang my sorrow song
to anyone who would listen, recognized the panic
of birdsong, the desperation of the killdeer
feigning its broken wing. Anything to lure the predator
from its nest. Its broken wing was strength
of a different kind. I figured showing my weakness
might help me. Someone might understand the bird
of my heart always crashing against the cage
of my ribs, the moth of hidden fear fluttering
to escape from my throat. Once, in my Shakespeare
class I learned that brace meant a pair, a brace
of kinsmen, of harlots, of greyhounds,
a brace of warlike brothers. In another time
I stood at the front of the classroom in a chest
brace because my husband had collapsed
the cartilage between my ribs. I couldn’t reach
the string on the movie screen and had to ask
for help. I said, I’m wearing a brace, so I can’t
stretch. I thought of the grimace stretching
across the nurse’s face when I said, I know,
this sounds like domestic violence. It was an accident,
just goofing around. I wrapped the Velcro belt
around my ribs each morning as he ribbed me
that I should have given up, What was I trying
to prove by staying in a submission hold
until he cracked my ribs? How could I be
so stupid? So stubborn? I didn’t know he
was grooming me for greater violence,
the rock thrown at me in the car,
the wedding ring pressed so tight
by his hand holding mine that I bled.
Which brings us back to the dove,
the difference between ringing
and wringing and where language leaves us
when someone controls every word we say,
when we have no one left to talk to.
A little love from the students of American Women Poets:
A Brief History of Time was my first experience reading poetry, and I loved it. I knew, after reading it, that I wanted to write my own poems. –N.W.
Shaindel, your poetry was the introduction for me to love poetry, and I can’t thank you enough for that. –A.B.
Beers’ collection of poems was my first real interaction with modern day poetry. I was blown away by how easily I could relate to the poems and get wrapped up in the stories. Her poems have inspired me to write poetry myself and have broken the fence I always had up to avoid poetry. –S.S.
Photo credit: Apple of My Eye Photography by Jamie Brown