Beth Copeland: Poet Interview

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Please join me in welcoming Beth Copeland to the Poetic Asides blog. I first came across her work last year when I judged a North Carolina book contest. Her book, Transcendental Telemarketer (BlazeVOX), was among the finalists.

Beth Copeland

Beth Copeland

Beth Copeland lived in Japan, India, and North Carolina as a child. Her book Traveling Through Glass received the 1999 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award. Her poems have been widely published in literary journals and have received awards from Atlanta Review, North American Review, The North Carolina Poetry Society, and Peregrine. Two of her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is an English instructor at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She lives in a log cabin in the country with her husband, Phil Reich. Learn more at her website: http://bethcopeland-writing.com/.

Here is a poem I really liked from Transcendental Telemarketer:

Wisteria, by Beth Copeland

How the word sounds like mysterious
and wistful combined,

how vines twine, counter-clockwise
around telephone poles

and twist around dying pines;
how flowers dangle

like amethyst pendants from pergola
posts, how branches

from a distance look like purple smoke
from unseen fires

on gnarled vines that tighten like wires
around a choking host.

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What are you currently up to?

I'm working on a poetry collection inspired by my parents' decline into dementia and death. My father developed Alzheimer's disease late in life and died a few years ago at age 95. A few years after he was diagnosed, my mother fell and broke her hip. While she was in rehab, it became obvious that she had severe short-term memory loss and could no longer live independently. My mother died in January, 2013, at age 89. The poems in the manuscript are at times tender elegies and at times humorous commentaries on human frailties.

One thing I admire about Transcendental Telemarketer is its versatility in content and form. Could you explain a little what your writing process is like?

Content determines form and vice versa. Working within a fixed form forces the poet to find unique ways of escaping, Houdini-like, from the locked box dictated by form. When I work within the structure of a fixed form, I’m forced to come up with new ideas and ways of using language. I enjoy experimenting with what Roger Weingarten calls “reincarnated forms” or traditional forms that have been reinvented or tweaked. Even when the subject is serious, the wordplay is fun.

This collection is filled with interesting plays on form, including traditional forms like the haiku and canzone. Do you have a favorite form?

Transcendental-Telemarketer

I discovered the canzone while reading “Lenox Hill” by the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. I admire Ali’s attention to form and the way he creates a hybrid culture of Eastern and Western themes, forms, and sensibilities in his work. I was so moved by “Lenox Hill” that I wrote a canzone as an elegy for Ali, using his poem as a template for my own. I’ve since written two more. “The Bambi Canzone,” which is published in Transcendental Telemarketer, uses the relentless repetition of the form to exorcize an unhealthy obsession with my then-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. My third canzone “Falling Lessons” is a tribute to my father.

Transcendental Telemarketer was published by BlazeVOX [books]. How did you hook up with them?

I submitted the manuscript through an open submission period, and it was accepted.

One thing I rarely discuss is the shape of the book, but your collection is larger than most. I wondered if it might be shaped that way to fit in poems like "Buddhist Scroll," but could you explain why that decision was made? And also, could you share how much or little input you were able to provide on the cover?

The shape of my book is the default shape used by BlazeVOX [books], so I didn’t have to do anything except agree to it. Fortunately, the width is ideal for poems with long, sweeping lines, such as the title sestina “Transcendental Telemarketer” and “Buddhist Scroll” which is written in three vertical columns.

The cover photograph of an old-fashioned telephone is a picture I took while staying at The Roanoke Island Inn in Manteo, North Carolina. BlazeVOX [books] editor Geoffrey Gatza used a negative image of the telephone in his book cover design. I love how ghostly it looks! Gatza is skilled at cover design and gives writers control over images used. I’m very pleased with the book cover.

Many of your poems have a first person narrative, and I know many poets differ on how true to be in narrative poems—with some poets departing from reality completely and others staying as true as possible (and many in the middle). Where do you fall on this spectrum?

Uh, here goes … I fall on the true side of the spectrum.

When I give readings, I often preface the reading of “My Life as a Slut” by saying that the speaker is not necessarily the poet. I say it more as a joke than as a disclaimer. In truth, everything in the poem comes from my own experience.

When I started writing poetry as a teenager, it was a way to release feelings that I was not supposed to feel, let alone express. There’s a part of me that is still faithful to the teenage writer I was; I tell the truth in my poems even when the truth exposes my flaws, scars and insecurities. I’m not very good at writing persona poems; at age 62, I’ve lived a long—at times colorful—life, and I have true stories to share.

Your bio mentions you live in a log cabin with your husband. Sounds like an ideal way to write. Is it?

I have a full-time teaching job and commute almost three hours round-trip, so my life is less bucolic than it sounds. However, when I'm home, I appreciate the privacy of country living. Being surrounded by nature—trees, birds, lizards, rabbits, deer, snakes, even squirrels—is relaxing.

I have a “Writing Please Do Not Disturb” sign that I hang on the doorknob of the small bedroom I use as a study, so my husband knows to leave me alone when I’m working. I’m fortunate to have an understanding husband and a quiet retreat where I can write.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

Tonight I have a beautiful book of poems on my bedside table: The Next Moment, by Debra Kaufman, a North Carolina poet. I especially like her “good girl” poems.

If you could pass along only one piece of advice to other poets completely new to the game, what would it be?

I would tell them to honor their truth, whatever it may be, and to write it. Trust the poem. Don’t try to force it or control it. Let the poem take you where it wants to go.

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Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer's Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World's Problems (Press 53). Follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.

Also, if you'd like to be featured for a poet interview, send Robert an e-mail at robert.brewer@fwmedia.com with an explanation of who you are, a recent book, and anything else that might be interesting for an interview.

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