Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Shaindel Beers: A Brief History of Time

Recently I interviewed Shaindel Beers about her new book of poetry, A Brief History of Time, published by Salt Publishing in 2009.

1. Several of your poems use long lines. What is their appeal to you and what other contemporary poets and/or poems of the long line do you admire?

I love the rush and the feeling of breathlessness when you get to the end of the line, whether you’re reading aloud or silently. A lot of beginning poets think that the short line makes a poem move more quickly, but each line break stops you for about the same duration as a comma as your eyes make their way over to the left margin. I hadn’t really thought of a lot of contemporary poets who use long lines; I guess, I always think of Whitman automatically when I hear “long line,” or Ginsberg, since he was so influenced by Whitman. I just looked up some poets I really admire who I think might use long lines and realized a lot of them do who I hadn’t thought of—Richard Jackson, Charles Harper Webb, Mary Ruefle, and Bruce Weigl to name a few.

2. I noticed one prose poem in your collection, “Stretching out that fifteen minutes.” What do you like about the form? Dislike?

Prose poems are tricky to even talk about. Is it a prose poem? Is it a short-short story? Is there a difference between these two things? I really think a prose poem is a poem that throws one of the basic elements of poetry out the window—the basic unit of poetry is the line—but keeps all the rest of them. I especially tried to make this one land on the poetic side of the spectrum by phonetically spelling out the way the boy’s name would sound depending on the direction of the wind. But it definitely depends on strong narrative like a short-short story.

The things I don’t like about the form are when people try to definitely label something as a prose poem versus short-short fiction and get huffy in their defense. The other thing is when people write prose poems that could be traditional poems, but they are writing it that way because they are too lazy to decide where line breaks should go. If you can do it with appropriate line breaks, it doesn’t need to be a prose poem.

3. Given your undergraduate major was in English, to what extent are you influenced by classical Western writers?

My good friend and former colleague, Larry Starzec, used to say, “Writers read with larceny in their hearts.” As a writer, you read, and if something is breathtaking, you think, “How can I steal that?” As an English major, you are steeped in the Western tradition, so I think that there’s no way around admitting that that is my main influence. My main focus, even through my first graduate degree, was British literature. I’d never really read American literature until I was teaching it at the community college level, and I’d read almost no contemporary literature until my MFA program (my second graduate program). I would say the Western influence, until relatively recently, was even more focused than most people’s—pretty exclusively 19th Century and British.

Hosting my radio show, Translated By, has gotten me reading at least one non-English language book a week, and I’ve become really intrigued with a particular Japanese writer, Yoko Ogawa, so I’m definitely trying to expand my horizons, but the U.S. really is pretty insular as far as literature goes, and you really have to look for what’s been translated into English.

4. Being a Californian I can’t resist the film question. If you could turn one of your poems into a film, which one would you choose and why? Any idea of whom you’d cast in the key roles?

I think that “HA!” would be one of the best poems to turn into a film. It seems to have a lot of “scenes” without needing different settings—it would all basically take place in a Dollar General store, and it has an interesting cast of characters. I had never thought about casting it before, but I think Susan Sarandon would make a good Ann. Is it fair to put someone as glamorous as Susan Sarandon in a Dollar General? I think Steve would be played by Milo Ventimiglia (Jess from Gilmore Girls). The real Steve (yes, I didn’t change the names for this poem) actually looked just like Ventimiglia. Maybe the addict cashier would be Brittany Murphy, and I don’t know who the nice cashier would be. Probably someone pretty nondescript.

Click on the above title to find more about Salt Publishing & Shaindel Beers

Interviewer: Chella Courington
Santa Barbara, CA
March 2009