Tuesday, September 08, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Shaindel Beers

Shaindel Beers was raised in Argos, Indiana, a town of fewer than 2,000 people. She studied literature at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama (BA), and at the University of Chicago (MA) before earning her MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has taught at colleges and universities in Illinois and Florida but feels settled in the Eastern Oregon high desert town of Pendleton. Her awards include: First place Karen Fredericks and Frances Willitts Poetry Prize (2008), Grand Prize Co-winner Trellis Magazine sestina contest (2008), First place Dylan Days Poetry Competition (2007), Award-winning poem published, Eleventh Muse (2006), Honorable mention, Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Awards (2005), Honorable mention, Juniper Creek/Unnamed Writers Award (2005), and the title poem from this collection, “A Brief History of Time,” was nominated for a Pushcart prize (2004). She is the Poetry Editor of Contrary (http://www.contrarymagazine.com/).

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I think it helped other people to take me seriously as a writer. A book is sort of “proof” that you’ve arrived. People have a reason to invite you to give readings because you actually have a book to sell and sign afterwards. I feel more sure of my most recent work now that I have a book out. I’m still a careful writer—I normally spend a lot of time with work before I send it out to publishers, but now I have a feeling that most things I write will be good enough “to find a home.” There’s definitely less anxiety in most ways.

I have a two-book deal for poetry with my publisher, so, on the one hand, there’s less anxiety in that I know what my second book will be, I know I won’t be shopping it around to publisher after publisher for years, but since I feel really close to everyone at Salt Publishing (It’s like a family.), I don’t want to let anyone down. I want it to be the best possible book it can be, not just for myself, but for the entire Salt family. So, there’s that other type of anxiety that I didn’t have before.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I've said this in other interviews, and I really believe it's true. I think poetry captured my attention because of all the white space on the page around it. I felt like I was accomplishing so much because I was reading through pages and pages of it in the same time that it would take to read fiction. Poetry is so distilled. You can fit so much more in the same amount of space.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It really depends on what the project is. I’ve had some ideas come to me so quickly, it’s almost not even like a conscious experience; it’s like the work was somehow channeled. This usually happens with poetry. Something is just “there,” and I get the first draft down immediately, then I spend quite a while revising it. This sometimes happens with fiction but not often. I remember once I was watching the director’s commentary on a movie DVD, and she said the phrase “horrible ship going nowhere,” and for some reason, it immediately made me think of a gas station. And I wrote my short story “Longing on Hwy 10” in one sitting. It starts out, “The Shell station is a horrible ship going nowhere.” Of course, I revised a lot after writing the first draft, but I really wrote the first draft straight through in two hours.

Novels are another sort of beast. I’ve never finished writing a novel, but I’m determined to. The one I’m working on now, I keep researching and researching. I don’t let that get in the way of writing (It’s easy to use research as sabotage to keep you from writing), but it’s definitely a different type of project. A novel is so big, you’re inevitably going to run into something you don’t know about—a character’s career, or a place, and you’re going to have to research that so that it feels real to readers who do know about these things.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Usually, a poem starts with an image or a feeling, and a short story starts with a character or a situation. The only way I can describe it is how an oyster works with a pearl. There’s a little grain of sand or something in there, and I just have to do something with it. I think for this reason, I’m an author with shorter pieces that combine into a larger project. I don’t think, except in the case of ideas for novels, I’ve set out with the idea of a book before. In fact, that sounds a little intimidating. It makes me think of that old Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” It’s all just a word then another word then another word, no matter what you’re writing.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love public readings, given that they are for an audience that is actually there for the reading. Sometimes you get invited to something, and people are there because there’s a musician playing afterwards or something like that, and they are just waiting for you to get off the stage, but if the people are there for poetry, you have to love it. Your job as a poet is to connect with people, and the most natural way to do that is in person. Poetry comes out of the oral tradition. It came before print, so I think public readings are our way of remembering that.

I recently did an interview and read poems on Oregon Public Radio, and I was overwhelmed at the connections I got to make with people. One woman called in and said she felt like we were “long-lost sisters,” another said she felt like she was “catching up with a life-long friend.” I’m still in touch with these people, by the way. I feel like I’ve done my job if that’s how people feel after hearing my work.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I think my general philosophy in life is that we’re supposed to leave the world a better place than we found it, so I obviously hope my poetry does that. I have a lot of social justice poems—poems about social class, a poem about my first sponsor child through Save the Children, and so on. If one person reads these poems and thinks about the divisions of social class in our society who wouldn’t otherwise have consciously thought about it, or if one person goes out and sponsors a child through an organization, then I’ve made a difference.

My second book is completely about children in war zones, so I obviously hope that has an impact. I hope it makes people really think about the impact of war on children and that it influences how they vote, what charities they donate their time and money to, things like that.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think that my answer to this question is pretty similar to a few of the previous questions. I think the writer’s role is to connect with people. To engage them in thinking and feeling and new ways of looking at the world.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I think it’s important to have trusted readers so that you’re not working in a vacuum. It’s good to have a set of eyes or ears that you run things by before you send them out to publishers. That being said, I think you reach a point where you’ve found your voice and you have good instincts about your work.

I’m a little anxious about my second book because my first book was basically my MFA creative thesis, and I crafted it with the help of graduate advisors, so this second book will be much more of an independent project for me, but I think all of my teachers throughout my life have done a good job before they sent me out into the world.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I really feel that there are two major rules of creative writing: (1) Read a lot, write a lot. To which I add, you have to read good writers to be a good writer. And (2) Show, don’t tell. Everything else is just details. Make sure each word = the right word. If something isn’t necessary, take it out. Oddly enough, that last bit came from Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. Whether or not you like Stephen King, it’s a worthwhile read.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I think it’s been fairly easy for me to move between genres. I feel that I’m behind on the learning curve in terms of prose because my graduate work in creative writing was all in poetry, but then, until fairly recently, no one really studied creative writing formally. You used to just read good writers and do what they did. With poetry, I almost always feel like I know what I’m doing. With fiction, I’m still a little unsure, and with creative nonfiction, it’s a bit rocky. But it all takes work, and it will all get there if I work hard enough.

I think the appeal is basically that each genre is like a new toy to play with. It’s like if you were a visual artist—colored pencil is fun and pastel is fun and oil paint is fun and sculpture is fun. You can do different things with each of them and learn from each of them. I hope to do the same thing in writing. I can accomplish different things and reach different people with each genre. I want to be multi-dimensional.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I wish I were more disciplined. I love when I hear those writers who talk about getting up at four every morning and writing for two hours. I haven’t gotten there yet. I try to write like crazy during the summers when I’m not teaching. I’m going to try to write for a given amount of time each Saturday now that I’m not working a Saturday job any more. (I used to work as a fitness instructor from 8 a.m. to noon each Saturday.) I do try to write whatever my creative writing students are writing. If we do a particular prompt in poetry writing class (which I teach in the fall quarter) or fiction writing class (which I teach in the winter quarter), I do those along with my students. Other than that, I don’t have a routine.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

If nothing’s coming to me, I really look for something. I try writing prompts from books or I’ll make them up. I’ll look at a person in a magazine and imagine a life for him or her. I’ll look at a random picture online. I’ll see what sorts of stories are in the news. I think that giving yourself prompts and projects jars you out of whatever your writer’s block is.

13 - Have you have a lucky charm?

I don’t. That’s really interesting. I’m sure I do some things that probably seem superstitious. If I’m giving a reading, I’ll try to wear something that Lee (my husband) gave me so that I feel like he’s there with me. It’s sort of a security blanket, I guess. When I put something in the mail to a publisher, I sort of think a good thought for it. Sometimes I joke with the people at the post office to send a good thought or wish with it.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Oh, definitely so. I’m fully in line with the Romantic Era poets who saw the poet as the Transcendental Eye, processing the world for readers. It’s all in there. I have a lot of theoretical physics in A Brief History of Time. As far as science goes, I even have a poem that has a chemical formula in it. I have many images from nature—a lot of elements of weather, I’m sure. My second book is entirely going to be based on children’s artwork. I think all artists are sponges who soak up the world around them, transform it, and put it out there as some sort of product for people to appreciate.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are certain female writers whose work I look at as a guiding force. That sounds awfully “new agey,” but I mean that their work helped me feel like I was a part of a tradition, that I belong, and that I have worthwhile things to say. Some of those writers would be Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, and Eavan Boland. As for a writer who got me thinking about poetry in a different way, I would have to say Richard Jackson, who was my graduate advisor for my third semester at Vermont. Working with him changed a lot of what I thought about poetry. He’s the one who really encouraged me to read about everything I’m interested in and make it a part of my poetry.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Finish writing a novel. I always have the idea, and I feel like I know what I’m doing; then, I hit a point where I get stuck. I’m determined to finish the one I’m working on now.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I’m still a full-time college instructor and a writer. I’d love to be one of those people who can teach fewer classes and write more. If we’re talking something completely unrelated, I’d love to be a horse trainer. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather spend more time with than horses, unless it’s dogs and cats, but there aren’t really any dog or cat careers I can see myself doing.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I think it’s the cheapest art form. You only need a pen and paper (before the computer age started, at least). Even then, computers are pretty readily available. You can still write by hand and commit to computer at work or at school, saving on your own flash drive. It’s a much easier art than having to buy paints and canvases or sculpting equipment or needing access to a kiln.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

This summer, I’ve been doing a whirlwind reading of friends’ work. I just finished Kyle Minor’s In the Devil’s Territory. It’s a beautiful debut collection of interconnected short stories. I just love how it all fits together. The same weekend I also read Stacey Lynn Brown’s Cradle Song, which is a book-length poem about Stacey’s childhood as a white Southern girl being largely raised by an African-American nanny. It is beautiful, insightful, and heartbreaking. I also read Michael Kimball’s Dear Everybody, which is a series of suicide notes of the deceased main character Jonathon Bender, compiled with other documents such as his mother’s diary and his ex-wife’s eulogy for his funeral. It’s one of the most sympathetic explorations of a mentally ill character I’ve ever read.

Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any really good films recently. I’m tempted to say Waitress, with Kari Russell. I know I’ve seen something good since then, but it’s not coming to me.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on my second poetry collection, The Children’s War, and looking at all kinds of children’s artwork from war zones. I’m also working on a novel. And I probably need about three or four more short stories to round out my first short story collection, unless I can find a publisher who would be happy with a very slim little volume of work.

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