Shaindel Beers: Poet Interview

Please join me in welcoming Shaindel Beers back to the Poetic Asides blog. If you follow me on social media sites, you may already know Shaindel’s most recent book, The Children’s War and Other Poems, has become one of my favorites.

Shaindel Beers.

Shaindel Beers.

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. The Children’s War is Shaindel’s second book; her first is A Brief History of Time. Learn more at shaindelbeers.com.

Here’s one of my favorite poems from The Children’s War:

After a photo of a Chechen girl on a train, by Shaindel Beers

I am four, almost five, and I am beautiful.
I have my red hat, my red coat; I ride
on my mother’s lap. People smile at me.
I make them happy. When my mother looks
at them, they look away. My mother has
brown eyes. I have blue. I have only seen
my father in pictures. We have to practice
my mother says. Where are we going?
To visit Grandma in the country.
What will you do there?
Help Grandma gather eggs and be brave
even if the hens peck me.
Ride Doishka, the pony. I look out the window
at the wildflowers speeding by.
And you mustn’t cry says mother if we get there
and there is no Grandma, no pony.

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What are you currently up to?

It’s August, so I’m teaching summer courses but online, which is actually more time-consuming than teaching in the classroom because even the discussions are written out as opposed to face-to-face. As usual, I’m constantly grading student work, but even though summer classes are still a lot of work, there’s a relaxed feel, so I’m getting to spend some time running, reading, and playing outdoors with Liam, my two-year-old. I’ve written some this summer, but it’s never as much as I hope to. I think when summer classes end, I’ll have my writing energy back.

There are high points, though. In a few weeks, I’m leading a residency at the Oregon Writers Colony in Rockaway Beach, Oregon, and my family (Jared, Liam, and I) get to stay at the house for a few extra days after the residency is over, so that will be nice to get some family time at the ocean. And the week after that, I’m doing a reading at the Barnes & Noble in Vancouver, Washington. So, even though I’m working more than I’d like to be doing during the summer, there’s a nice mix of work, relaxing, and family time.

Like many college instructors, I need to teach during the summer for financial reasons. Thanks to summer classes, earlier this week, I was able to buy a new stove, so YAY! Maybe my kitchen remodel will someday be complete.

Untitled-1The Children’s War and Other Poems is your second full-length poetry collection. Did you find the process was any easier the second time around?

I actually think it was harder in some ways because I had that fear that everyone seems to have with the second book. If people loved the first book, you’re afraid that the second book might not stack up. And if you’ve gotten some bad reviews of the first book (which, I think every book does, realistically), then, you know what that feels like, and you don’t want to be reminded again.

On the other hand, I had a two-book deal, so I didn’t have to worry about if or when the second collection was going to be published. My biggest struggle with this book was figuring out the concept, if I wanted the entire book to be ekphrastic poems or if I wanted the collection to be half ekphrastic poems and half something else. There were pros and cons either way; I’m just happy that the decision I made seems to have worked.

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The Children’s War uses ekphrastic poetry in the first half of the book. Could you explain what inspired that and how the process worked?

There was a Slate.com article called “The Art of War: Children’s Drawings Illustrate Darfur Atrocities” by Dr. Annie Sparrow and Olivier Bercault, that I happened across. The article was accompanied by a slideshow of drawings from children ranging in age from eight to seventeen, some of whom had never even held a pencil or crayon before.

Their expressions of their experiences were so powerful, I had to write about them. I started doing research on art therapy for children during war time online and eventually ended up buying source books for my work. It was so fascinating and powerful. I’m glad that I happened to see that article because that was the impetus for the entire project.

One thing I really admire about this collection is that the subject matter feels really important. Could you share your view on writing about important topics?

I guess that’s what I feel the poet is supposed to do. I really believe in the Bardic tradition, or even what the Romantic Era poets believed. We’re all living our lives, doing the same thing, but it’s up to the poet to record and disperse the stories for “the common man.” I don’t mean that to sound like I believe I’m not “the common man.” I’m just very fortunate to be able to work in a field and have been afforded an education that allows me to do so.

I grew up in a town of farmers and factory workers, so I feel fortunate to work in air conditioning and at a desk. Writing is a luxury for most people, so I want to tell stories for and about people who don’t have that luxury. If I’m going to do that, I want to make the stories worth it. I want to write things that matter.

Your publisher Salt Publishing recently made the announcement they were abandoning single author poetry collections. Did this announcement completely catch you off guard, or were you given a little warning ahead of time?

I was caught off guard. I heard about the announcement via Robert Peake’s article in The Huffington Post, “An Open Letter to Dispossessed Poets.” Actually, when that article came out, people started popping up in Facebook chat, asking me what was going on, and I was headed to my classroom, so I hadn’t even read the article yet and had no idea.

I can’t blame them. Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, who run Salt, are busy parents of three children. They made so many sacrifices for the press, even, at one point, I believe, living off of grocery store gifts cards that people had gotten them. So, when one of their books was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I don’t think you can blame them for turning their attention to Fiction. The truth is that poetry doesn’t make money, and money is a reality in our society. I don’t think I can expect them to do any more than they did for poetry. They gave it a good go, and they’re fabulous people. I honestly love them like family and always will.

I did have a publisher actually ask me if I had a third collection ready. (I don’t.) And I had told the publisher that I was staying with Salt. If I had known that that wasn’t a possibility sooner, that would have been nice, but I don’t feel like I’ve burnt any bridges or anything.

Do you have a specific writing routine?

I wish I did. This is something I need to get better at. You have several kids, so I know you know that adage, “Sleep when baby sleeps”? I try to follow, “Write when students write.” If I’m having my students do a writing prompt, I do it along with them. I also try to take online challenges to keep myself busy, your April Poem-A-Day challenges as well as the ones that Molly Fisk does. I even thanked both of you in the acknowledgments section of my book!

I know that people say not to say, “When x happens, I will do y” just because that’s not how life works, but trying to have a routine with a full-time professorship and a two-year-old is hard. I definitely think things will be easier when Liam is older.

You’re the poetry editor for Contrary. I’m sure what appeals to you changes from poem to poem, but have you found general things that appeal to you as an editor?

To me, a poem has to have some sort of visceral moment that takes your breath away. You have to feel something or be surprised by something in it. A lot of times this could just come from having an image described in a way that you never would have imagined before.

I’m all about concrete language. Temple Cone described The Children’s War as having “gem hard language” in the cover blurb, and I was so honored. That’s what I’m looking for in others’ work. I want to be surprised, I want to be shown something new.

There are two examples that I always give students on this topic, and both come from fiction, just to show that you can use surprising language anywhere. There’s a Lorrie Moore short story where she describes a hill as “Dalmatianed with trees.” That’s brilliant! We know that she means spotted with trees, but taking it one step further is what surprises us. There’s also a Sherman Alexie short story where he describes an irrigation rig as looking like an enormous stick bug that had stepped into the field. It’s perfect! I live for moments like that.

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What (or who) are you currently reading?

I’ve been on sort of a fiction kick this summer. I’m currently reading Enlarged Hearts, a short story collection by Kathie Giorgio. Kathie and I graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts together, and I teach for her online at All Writers Workplace and Workshop. I read her first novel when it was in manuscript form and wrote the cover blurb for it. I loved it. It’s called The Home for Wayward Clocks, and I admired how each chapter was almost a stand-alone short story. Enlarged Hearts has one story in it that is a chapter in The Home for Wayward Clocks. All of the stories in Enlarged Hearts have The Fat Girl as a main character. It’s not always the same “fat girl,” but it’s meant to show us how in society we label others or ourselves that way.

I not only love the writing but the way that it’s challenging me on a lot of levels. I think most women, myself included, have body image issues. I also started college as a dance major, and I’m a (not great) runner and try probably more than the average person to be fit. According to some calculator on the Runner’s World website, I should be 102 lbs. to be at my optimum running weight. (That is not going to happen.) But I’m definitely finding it interesting to read a short story collection where the character doesn’t know how much she weighs because the doctor’s scale only goes up to 300 lbs. I’m learning a lot about the way the women in the stories feel constantly judged and about the women in the stories who feel secure in their bodies. It’s definitely a learning experience for me.

Before this, I just finished Elizabeth Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I think taught me a lot about taking risks with characters and situations, not playing it safe.

I’m also going to read poet Claudia Serea’s newest collection, Angels & Beasts. Claudia writes beautiful, surrealist prose poems, which I’ve published before in Contrary, so I’m very excited to have an entire book by her!

Years ago, you advised poets to “read and read and read.” Does that advice still hold true for poets?

Yes! If you’re going to be part of a literary tradition, you need to know what that tradition is. You can’t live in a vacuum. I would also suggest getting outside, wherever it is that you live. When I’m teaching literature classes, and a poem is describing a certain flower or a certain bird, and I ask students if they know what that flower or bird looks like, and they don’t know, it’s sad to me. Maybe it shows my background specializing in 19th Century British works, but I want students to hike and listen to rivers and do all of those things.

Explore the world. It’s the only raw material you have for your art!

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Robert Lee Brewer

Robert Lee Brewer

Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor for the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and an avid reader of poetry. In addition to editing books (Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market, and Guide to Self-Publishing), he creates blog posts, writes a column for Writer’s Digest magazine, edits a free weekly newsletter, and more fun stuff. Voted Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere in 2010, Brewer’s debut full-length poetry collection, Solving the World’s Problems, is out from Press 53 (learn more). He’s married to the poet Tammy Foster Brewer, who helps him keep track of their five little poets (four boys and one princess). Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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4 thoughts on “Shaindel Beers: Poet Interview

  1. PressOn

    This interview inspires me to read Shaindel’s work. It also inspired me to look up her first name; I’d never heard it, but was struck by the beauty of its sounds. It was only fitting that the name itself means “beauty.”

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