Weekly Prose Feature: “Subject to Distortions: An Interview with Amy Beeder” by Emilia Phillips

June 21, 2013

Amy BeederAmy Beeder is the author of Burn the Field (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006) and Now Make An Altar (2012). Her work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, AGNI, and other journals. She lives in Albuquerque and has taught poetry at the University of New Mexico and Taos Summer Writers Conference. She has received the “Discovery”/The Nation Award, a Bread Loaf Scholarship, a Witness Emerging Writers Award, and a James Merrill Residency. She has worked as a freelance reporter, a political asylum specialist, a high-school teacher in West Africa, and an election and human rights observer in Haiti and Suriname.

Emilia Phillips: Your poems in Now Make an Altar always excite me initially with their subject, second with diction and sonics, and third, and perhaps most importantly, with syntax and form. One poem can sustain a great deal of maneuvering, from short subject-verb-noun constructions to complicated sentences that unpack and nuance their meaning through successive clauses; from fragments to catalogues; questions to one-word imperatives. For readers to get a sense of this, here’s an excerpt from “Country Life”:

They came for land. For hog-high wheat to Dixon, Weeping
        Water, Garland Falls;
came to Midland hamlets, made their farms from bogs & marshes,
fens & bottomland: immigrants from Krakow, Darkov, Laśko

who fled famine, coming wars or the Eastern factories, left
city rivers thick with indigo & slaughter’s crimson, tenement

air: TB & boiled tubers, fled the bellows & gutter cast, sawdust
        & accident;

left forever what Riis called the strip of smoke colored sky so that
their children’s children might grow up corn-fed, reverent,
thrifty; that they might join 4-H & raise lambs, might

crochet & macramé; might play the clarinet or their fathers’
        accordions, always
optimistic despite the blizzards & drought, locust & blight.
Where there’s space to push the earth aside: that’s the place

to raise a child—

There’s so much tension between your sentences and the way they carry themselves over the page. In “Country Life,” in particular, “They came for land” gives us the scope of the poem, the frame, whereas the long, semi-coloned sentence fills in the details within that frame and begins to identify what’s at stake. The sentence provides a texture, a sweeping movement that mimics the immigration of the people and the subsequent evolution of their culture. In that way, your form and syntax provide us with, what I’d call, physical information—an experiential understanding of what’s happening.

I imagine this takes many drafts to get right. Would you mind speaking to your drafting process, especially in relation to finding the appropriate and propulsive syntax for your poems?

Amy Beeder: You’re right that “Country Life” went through many drafts, more than usual. I wanted it to sound (as you said) both “sweeping” (fled famine, coming wars) and very particular (the reference to Riis, macramé, etc.). I also wanted it to seem not just layered but crowded, somehow; I imagined the masses of people disembarking at Ellis Island and, later in the poem, more contemporary images of confusion or chaos. It turned out that was difficult to do and still maintain clarity and movement. One thing I finally did in the section that you mention was to use a kind of “ladder” of repeated and/or similar sounding verbs : came/came/made/fled/left/fled/left. I thought short verbs might unobtrusively both ground and clarify the poem and push it forward.

As far as syntax and my drafting process, generally I am only thinking about whether the poem “sounds right” to me. Of course this doesn’t just involve purely sonic elements but constant arrangement and rearrangement: giving some phases more weight than others, repetition, dividing the subject or verb to create tension; choosing an imperative or interrogative. Still it’s something done by ear and not with a very conscious consideration of syntax, if that makes sense. In The Art of Syntax Ellen Bryant Voigt describes variance of syntactical patterns as being “like the engine of a train . . . pushing some of its boxcars and pulling others.” It’s a splendid metaphor, and useful: especially for students whose eyes tend to glaze over when you start using words like “elided,” or “subordinating pronoun.” And who can blame them?

EP: What you said about a poem “sounding right” leads me to think about the relational tension between tonal levels in Now Make an Altar. Despite their clarity, your poems devise a lush language-scape, even when you primarily use idiomatic diction; that said, you’re not shy of combining this with superannuated interjections like “O,” Latinate or archaic words, King Jamesian turns of phrase (“askew in the bow’s pitch Lord”), and outside/found texts—sometimes all in one poem. Some poets would say that “sounding right” in a poem means sounding conversational; others balk and insist that poetry deserves the best language the brain can buy. I often find that these individuals have different language backgrounds: the first, perhaps, in a community where interpersonal interaction and communication is the fundamental vehicle for language; the second, however, might have first encountered language in a stylized ritual or religious context. For me, your poems negotiate with and within both of these tonal modes. Would you be able to talk about some of your first experiences with language and/or the writers and texts that might have shaped your orientation(s) toward language?

AB: That’s a fascinating question and one I’m not I sure can answer satisfactorily. But here goes: According to family lore I read early, (my mother was a first-grade teacher with strong opinions about children learning to read early and about the evils of television), and before I could read would obsessively turn the pages of books or magazines and “pretend” to read, often aloud. I don’t think that’s unusual; both my daughters did the same thing, and I think a lot of children do. Neither I nor my daughters encountered much language in a religious context, but I wonder if enough extra emphasis on text early on might count as a stylized or even ritual encounter. I know I was always encouraged to read stuff (Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot) that was clearly beyond my level, and so learned to enjoy texts/words/phrases without completely understanding them. When I saw “Under Milkwood” in middle school I didn’t get it, but I loved it. I think phrases from that play, the rhythm of Dylan’s language, would have stayed with me even if I hadn’t reread it many times. Nabokov had a similar influence. That kind of thing may account for some of the sound over sense in my work.

As far as more conversational (or narrative?) modes: my father is a wonderful storyteller. A number of my poems are based on his stories: “Black House,” “Photograph in a Montana Bar,” “The Book of Lost Railroad Photographs,” etc. Those poems always depart considerably from the original story, but then my father’s stories always changed, too: they were exaggerated, details were added and subtracted, new characters (complete with accents) were introduced. My poem “Train” refers to his story of a runaway train in Cheyenne in 1950. The train is the central image, but really the poem is about how histories always change, not just through re-telling by others, but even in the teller’s mind, perception and memory. Just for fun, I called my Dad today and asked him to tell me the runaway train story again. Sure enough there were new details, including the expression “in the big hold” which I surely would have used in the poem if he’d said it before.

Where was I going with this? Maybe that even conversation, story-telling and conversational poetry are subject to their own stylizations and distortions.

EP: Many of your poems enact some sort of process of making: a fire in “The Charges Are Stalking & Arson,” a sale in “Harold von Braunhut, Distributor of Sea Monkeys, Promises Instant Life,” folk art in “Darger’s Colors,” etc. By taking on the idea or process of making, does a poet automatically engage in ars poetica?

AB: Sure, any kind of “making” in a poem will suggest ars poetica to some readers, and I’m one of them. When Dana Levin taught (all too briefly) at UNM, I had my students read her poem “In Honor of Xipe.” I read it at least in part as an ars poetica, and suggested that to my students. Later when Dana visited my class and someone brought that up, she was surprised; she never thought of it as one. But does that mean it’s not? I think whether a poem engages in ars poetica is as much up to the reader as the poet. (Having said that, I considered “The Charges Are Stalking and Arson” and “Harold von Braunhut” as ars poetica(s), but not “Darger’s Colors.” Which is pretty odd because Darger is the truly ekphrastic one).

EP: I once had a professor tell me that if I was ever stuck in a poem to address a specific person. His suggestion was that an addressee would orient the poem toward its stakes. Because the collection harbors the trope of making, you often employ the imperative and, therefore, take on an implied or overt “you.” How does direction/insistence as well as an addressee guide your writing process?

AB: That’s funny, because I once had a poetry professor tell me to avoid second-person address at all costs. Obviously I didn’t take his advice. It’s always come naturally to me. I like the urgency, the insistence, as you call it. I agree with your professor that it’s a useful way to find the heart of your poem or stir things up at least, or change the tone. But for me I think also it’s a way to “revise” life, redress and revisit, apologize to or mourn people, or tell them off. Although for me “you,” does occasionally mean me, most often it’s a very specific person, who then of course may shift or bifurcate as the poem develops. The whole poem and the addressee may change but that initial energy/urge hopefully remains.

EP: I’m interested if, when revising, you ever feel that that initial energy/urge has changed. Do you let the poem go where it’s headed? Scrap it? Return a few drafts? Start over?

AB: Any of the above can happen. I do always try to let the poem go where it’s headed, because for me the subject and direction of the poem often change, even dramatically, without the poem losing what I think of as its essential energy. And I try to follow my ear: I agree with Richard Hugo that it’s usually a disaster to try and “push words around” to say what you want; rather, they should push you around. (Still I always try to keep an early draft, just in case). Rarely do I totally scrap a poem. If I can’t make it work I just leave it in a file called “Rough,” and revisit it occasionally; sometimes I’ve come back to those poems and have suddenly been able to make them work. What I’d call “starting over” usually involves a change in point of view and/or or a significant structural (stanza, line length) change. Or the poem’s “meaning” changes entirely, becomes something I didn’t see before, surprises me.

EP: What’s the first and last poem of Now Make an Altar that you wrote? How did those poems open up the collection, shape it, and then complete it for you?

AB: The first poems I wrote were the “letter” poems: H, D, and X; I think X was the very first. I was reading a book on the history of the Latin alphabet and was fascinated by how letters developed and changed, by their Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician origins, etc., but even more by the theory that some shapes of letters may have had had meanings. Does “X” come from the Phoenician “samekh” (fish) because it looks like bones? Does “D” come from a door (an open tent flap), or the shape of a breast? For me this came down to the basic question of how language carries meaning.

I suppose those poems might have shaped the manuscript because so many of the other poems address that same question. How do we “make” things out of marks on a page, or speech? I don’t think the poem “Unstack the Dams Now Make an Altar” was the very last poem I wrote, but it was near the end, and in a way speaks to same idea. When we were very young, my brother and I used to play by trying to conjure things up in the ravine behind our house (I’m not sure what we expected to see: protective spirits, fairies, the rumored ravine-dwelling ghost?) with potions, patterns of mud and sticks, and sacrifices—usually of Barbie Dolls. There’s still something about writing poetry that reminds me a little of that play. Weird, huh?

EP: The idea of the poet being at play is both an image of joy and desperation—and entirely accurate. I once had a student ask a poet with whom my class was Skyping if he’d ever burst into tears while writing a poem. The poet responded that he hadn’t but had burst out laughing. I think students and beginning poets initially have the notion that writing poetry has to be a torturous, heart-wrenching affair; I’ve found, however, that I experience the breadth of “real life” emotions while writing, including levity. What are the dangers, if any, risked by a poet who takes their writing and process too seriously?

AB: Ah, the beginning student who wants it to be torture! Fun. That usually passes. Usually. I do get impatient with the professionals who still introduce their poems with assurances of how serious the following poem is, how important, how sacred, how transformative, how inspired by the muse. The dangers risked by that? Sounding boring and pretentious.

Not that I have anything against introducing poems, especially at readings, where the audience can’t necessarily reread the work right away. I do that a lot. But intros should be informative, grounding, helpful in terms of placing the audience, not telling them how impressed they should be.

EP: To some degree, it seems that being a poet these days is as much about visibility (where one teaches, what contests one’s won, etcetera) as craft. What’s your conception of the ideal life of a poet?

AB: Warning: this is a very personal issue for me. Though I have been extremely lucky with publications, I am an outsider in PoBiz. I don’t have an MFA, “only” an MA in literature. I have never held a tenured position; the years I taught at UNM I was adjunct. In fact, until I won The Nation/Discovery, I taught freshman comp and technical writing. That speaks to your point about visibility: winning that prize suddenly qualified me to teach poetry (!), albeit at about one-eighth of what tenured professors got to teach the same class. In the end my publications and student evaluations meant absolutely nothing to the UNM English Department. For years I taught for disgracefully low wages because I thought somehow as a poet I had to be associated with a University. Now I write freelance three hours a day in a field unrelated to poetry and make more money than I did teaching. I work on my third book and another collaborative project, fix up my house, and hang with my daughters. So for me the ideal life of a poet is what I have right now (or would be if I just had another hour or two every day to write poetry).

EP: Would you mind talking a little bit about your experience living abroad as a human rights observer in Haiti and Suriname and a high school teacher in West Africa? Were you writing poetry during that time? In those locales, did you encounter poetry?

AB: I never wrote poetry when I lived abroad. I did keep copious journals. Now I write poetry and never anything journal-y. All the places I lived abroad (except for France) were all, for various reasons, pretty extreme on a daily basis, and I think I wrote because I didn’t want to forget anything that happened—but still I should have written more. Suriname in particular is a blur. I’ve never thought much before about whether I encountered poetry in those locales. But now that you mention it, I think about how my Mauritanian family, my students, my neighbors, people I lived with for almost three years, really lived language. Griots would visit: chant, sing, pray, tell family histories; everyone in my family spoke Fulani, French, Arabic and at least some Soninke, Wolof and English. My Lycee students were the best language learners I’ve ever seen: they could watch the weekly (always foreign) movie at the outdoor theater and pick up 20 or 30 English or Chinese words or phrases without even trying. And then make puns and plays and games out of them. Everything endlessly repeated and changed. Poetry? Everything a joke. My family taught me Fulani and claimed to want to teach me Arabic, but then only taught me the most obscene Arabic phrases. I miss them.

EP: I’ve often heard the complaint that poets who teach in academic don’t live in “the real world.” This seems to me a criticism of integrity and authority. Should poets seek to retreat from academia and po-biz once and a while? Does it depend on the poet?

AB: I’d never say academia isn’t “real world” It’s its own real world. Teaching, and administration, if you do them right, are very hard work. And if University departments are rife with sometimes exaggerated drama and intrigue, so are many offices, and, I assume, factories, restaurants, etc.

That said, it might be interesting to see more poetry by people who don’t work in academia all Just for variety. Right now I’m thinking of two very idiosyncratic poets: Atsuro Riley and Hailey Leighthauser, both of whose work make me sit up and take notice right away because it was just so weird and exciting. Neither of them has every worked in academia and I don’t think either has an MFA.

EP: I’m fascinated by the action that one can “live language” because it also implies its opposite—not living language—or, at the very least, degrees of it. It seems like Westerners, particularly Americans, see “language,” artful and meaningful communication, to formal and/or important occasions and spaces (like poetry) and, instead, see information as the medium through which we communicate on a daily basis.

Do you feel that the English language’s potential isn’t realized by most Westerners, particularly Americans? How so? Is it possible to teach the appreciation and practice of artful and meaningful language use on a daily basis?

AB: I really hesitated before writing that phrase “lived language.” Of course everyone who speaks, reads or hears, lives language. I guess what I meant was what I saw as a level of comfort (and just pure delight) with spoken language in particular. My students in Kaedi never missed a chance to talk in class, give their opinions, or (brilliantly, damn them) mimic me. Naturally this made classes chaotic, but when I hit upon the idea of letting them do doing “plays” (short dialogues in English) in front of the class, things improved.

Yet speaking in front of the class is the very last thing most American students want to do. Some will take a failing grade rather than do it.

. . . Off the subject again. Yes, I do think the possibilities of English are not realized by most Americans, but that’s probably true of almost every language almost everywhere. As you said, it’s become dominated by “communication.”

EP: Have you done any translation? If so, would you mind telling us a little bit about the process? Do you think that poets who speak other languages have an obligation to translate poetry into English?

AB: I’ve wanted to do translation, but, no, I haven’t. One issue for me is that the other languages I speak or once spoke I didn’t learn in a classroom, so my speech is far better than my writing or reading. That’s true even with French.

An obligation to translate? I guess I don’t feel one because I know there are people so much more qualified. Though I would love to translate Pulaar/Fulani poetry or stories, just because they’re so cool and there probably aren’t that many in English, I would need a lot of help to do it.

EP: As poets, we’re aware of the possibilities of language but we are also aware about language’s limitations. Is there a subject, image, or idea that you’ve never been able to express or fear you will never be able to express? What keeps you writing even though your medium isn’t perfect?

AB: Words always fall short. Like most writers, there are things I don’t write about directly but are always there; after awhile you realize this perpetual raging subtext is one engine of your work. Dylan Thomas said the “best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the words of the poem so that the something that is not the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.” Or, to take the other view that experience is what “fails,” Gunter Kunerts: “That’s why I write; to bear the world as it crumbles . . . ”

Matthew Olzmann*: Frank O’Hara once said, “Only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American Poets, are better than the movies.” If you were to write a similar list, what poets would you include?

AB: After mulling this over for a few days, I decided not to give a list of names. They would be probably known to many of your readers anyway. (Sorry, Matt!) Of course there are poets I admire, poets whose books I buy, etc. But I think what I like best about American poetry right now-and why it’s usually better than the movies- is that I keep finding (in all kinds of journals) amazing poems by people I’ve never heard of.  I love it.

EP: Now, Amy, provide us with a question for the next interview.

AB: As a poet, who was your important teacher?


Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.

*As a part of our interview series, we ask each interviewee to provide us with a question for the next interview. To view Matthew Olzmann’s interview, go to May 31st’s Weekly Prose Feature: “Usually a Window, But Occasionally a Stage: An Interview with Matthew Olzmann”

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com.

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