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A Brief History of Time Paperback – January 19, 2008
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About the Author
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 her second poetry collection from Salt.
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Shaindel Beers earned a Master of Arts from the University of Chicago in 2000 and her Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Vermont College in 2005, where I met her. Her startling new book is a dense collection of time travel which carries the reader not only through decades and centuries but it also spans the geography and psychology that is a young woman's life. And though she is only 32 years old, Ms Beers' life, one could say, seems as densely packed and successful, as her first book of poems. Shaindel Beers lives in Oregon with her husband Lee, teaches several English, poetry and creative writing classes, fits in some farm work, a little personal training, hosts an online radio show "Translated By" and is the poetry editor for "Contray," poetry and fiction webzine. Ms Beers is also the poetry reviewer for "Bookslut" an online monthly devoted to literature.
In, "A Brief History of Time," Beers deftly blends such incongruent elements as love and samurai. Her poetic voice is frank and multifaceted. She tells her life's stories while enchanting the reader with her use of language, form, imagery, stunning emotional insight and social empathy. This first book, composed over a ten-year period includes award-winning poems, a wide range of styles: sestinas, plainsong, free verse, and the exotic ghazal. Beers' poems give voice to a range of characters, from the pedestrian to the sublime. Through this poetry, we see the world from a virtuous and honest narrator, as in the poem "Return," "I lived there, and now I need to go back, feel my legs merge again into fins/ and swim through time. Have tea with the Lady of the Lake,/ laugh with the sirens at their stories. Shudder at tales of/ strange men cutting holes to the realm above."
Shaindel Beers' second book is a work in progress, forthcoming from Salt, and tentatively titled "The Children's War."
I had the opportunity to ask Shaindel a few questions about, "A Brief History of Time:"
Bluemoon Northeast: Your book's title comes from the poem, "A Brief History of Time," an appropriate title for this collection in which time recurs as a theme: "for the nine o'clock break (6)," "songs from my childhood sprang back..(31)," "because I have you this weekend..(61)..." There are many examples of time references in this collection. Can you say a bit about time and how it emerged as a theme in this collection?
Shaindel Beers: I think of time as something that we can't escape. When we come into the world we are given a birth date and when we are buried (if we are buried) on our tombstone there is a birth and a death date with a dash to represent everything that happened in the interim. That dash is everything. Time is utterly fascinating. Our lives are shaped by it. We wish we could go back in time. We want time to slow down. We want time to speed up; we wish we could see into the future. We regret not valuing time. I remember, especially when I was a teenager, waiting for a boy to pick me up for a date and thinking that the time when I would hear his car in the driveway needed to GetHereNow! Then, one day I thought, someday I'm going to be eighty and regret all the minutes I spent just waiting. As I get older, I realize how relative time is. When I was ten, a year seemed like forever; now, it's hard to believe it's 2009.
I'm also a theoretical physics geek, as evidenced by the title of my book (an homage to Stephen Hawking). I daydream about things like the Grandfather Paradox and (yes, in Star Trek terms) the Temporal Directive. What if you could go back in time like in my poem "Rewind" and change these events? Would the world be any better? Would we (humankind) just find different ways to destroy ourselves? Or, would we have good intentions but do more harm than good?
Bluemoon Northeast: In the title poem, we are taken on an odyssey through a history of love that seems random and yet delivers the reader to a very deliberate location. Tell me about this poem.
Shaindel Beers: I wrote this poem while studying with Richard Jackson at Vermont College, now Vermont College of Fine Arts. Rick is a great associative poet. He asked me to look at other poets who write this way: Dean Young, Robert Bly (the father of Leaping Poetry), and many Eastern European poets who write this type of poem. If you're not sure what I mean, think of stream of consciousness in prose. I began writing about love--specifically, the crumbling of my first marriage--and then I started thinking about other times' and cultures' concepts of love.
It was a fun poem to write. Anything that popped into my mind I went with, without self-editing. I did research the poem; thank G-d for Google! I went from marriage being a war of attrition to wondering about warriors. I've always been fascinated by the samurai. I studied various classes of samurai. I thought about how my (romantic) relationships with people never seem to work out. I tried to think of what I really love that will be here forever (theoretically, at least). I thought of mountains and researched when certain mountain ranges were formed. I feel this poem took me on a journey more than that I wrote the poem. I love that I ended the piece with Jenny, sitting on the hood of her 1983 Cutlass Supreme. Those were some of the best times of my life, speaking of time.
Bluemoon Northeast: I noticed that while much of the work here is free verse, there are a few instances in which you use form, in particular the sestina and the ghazal. How does poetic expression in strict forms such as these, differ from expression in free verse?
Shaindel Beers: I think that strict form is a maddening exercise that hones the poet's skills. Whereas, it's difficult to ride a motorcycle at least for me, since I haven't had much practice. It's really difficult to jump a motorcycle off a ramp and fly perfectly through a flaming hoop, to land safely on the other side. That's the difference between free verse and prose to me. There's a lot that can go wrong with all of these restrictions. I'm aware that some of the form poems in this book might not seem quite as strong to the reader as the free verse poems. I'm still sort of waving to the crowd going, "Okay, a little singed, but I made it over here alive!" I hope they're rooting for me instead of pointing out the burn marks on my suit.
I think some forms work philosophically with their content. For instance, sestinas seem obsessive because of those six repeating end words throughout. I think it works to have a sestina about something obsessive, like love. In "Moonlight Sestina," the end words are: you, moonlight, real, touch, infatuation, and once.In a love poem, the you, the beloved, is important. Moonlight is blamed for lunacy, which could be obsessive; there is also moonlight in snow, it reflects, hence the repetition. I think we often wonder if love is real, also an obsessive tendency. Touch is an end word for the same reason. I shouldn't have to explain why infatuation keeps repeating. And I think there's a fun irony in the word once repeating throughout a sestina. This wouldn't be close to the same poem if the parameters of the sestina weren't there.
Although poetry is beautiful and artistic, the sestina (at least, to me) is like algebra. The formula is laid out; you just plug in the words. But they have to be the right words, in a Ginsbergian "each word = right word" sort of way. There's no room for mistakes, especially when trying to stick to the iambic pentameter!
Bluemoon Northeast: Also can you say a bit about the ghazal as a form and why you chose it?
Shaindel Beers: The ghazal (pronounced like "guzzle" in English) is a hard form to explain. It is an ancient Persian form of poetry and there are certain things that one can do in other languages you can't do in English. Therefore, if you're writing in English, you choose which rules you want to follow. For "Weekend Rain Ghazal," I tried to write couplets with no enjambment and where each couplet is able to stand alone as a poem. I also used the same end word in both lines of the first couplet and followed through using "rain" as the end word for the second line of each couplet. I signed the poem with a "pseudonym" in the last line. Traditionally, the ghazal is about illicit, unattainable love. My poem was written in the early crazed infatuation stage of my relationship with my husband, Lee, so I guess it fits; he was supposed to be working across the state building a fence, right after we met. The rain kept him with me.
If your readers Google "ghazal" they will discover lists of rules and examples of poems to last a lifetime!
Bluemoon Northeast: Natasha Saje said that, "your poems stitch together an autobiography whose questions of gender, race, and class remain open." Would you call these poems confessional? Can you talk about writing autobiographical poem?
Shaindel Beers: The problem I have with calling my poems confessional is that this label seems to be a way for men to not take women's poetry seriously. Someone says, "Oh, she writes confessional poetry," and it means we don't have to hold the writing to as high a standard or it means that it will never reach the same standard of quality as other types of poetry. I think that a lot of my poems are rooted in autobiography. I'm a firm believer in the 1970s-personal-is-political-brand of feminism. Many women write relationship poems because their lives are viewed through that lens. In parts of the country, women are still so and so's wife, or so and so's mom. I don't know if we've come as far as a lot of people think we have in terms of gender equality.
What I worried about most when this book was released were the people who are mentioned or alluded to in the poems reading them and freaking out. I never thought about this as I was writing the poems. I guess I was a pretty selfish writer. My loyalty is to the art; a life is raw material to be used for poetry, anything goes, sort of thing. I do believe that, to an extent. But when my parents told me they had ordered the book, I had this sinking feeling. I thought, "Ohmigod! They're going to sue me!" I mean, in the first poem, I mention my mother trying to stab my father. (I've never asked either of them about; it was something I heard from my brother). I also mention my mother being in jail for two counts of attempted murder. These were actually reduced to manslaughter charges, but such is poetry. But my mom wrote me this email that said, "We received your poetry book, and we think it is very good," which is not at all the reception I had expected.
I'm slightly relieved that my next book is ekphrastic poetry, where I am looking at children's art. There will be less of me out there for a while. But I'm sure I will still be writing confessional poetry. I feel like one of those people who won't go to Europe until they've been to all fifty states. Sure, I know there is a giant world out there to explore, but I don't even feel like I know myself yet.
Focusing just on the versatility Beers displays in these poems might be misunderstood to suggest that the book lacks cohesion. In fact, however, the poems revolve quite provocatively around a central idea suggested in the book's ambitious title. Taken together, they form a sort of narrative of a young woman's personal and social development towards self-actualization in late 20th century America as she becomes increasingly aware of the inconsistencies between what has been promised and what is actual and as she explores the possibilities for reconciling these differences. The story is not linear because any story that strives for realism will resist linearity. The story is "brief" because it arises from and focuses on a life that is still incomplete. Nevertheless, the story is wide-ranging because Beers recognizes that any segment of any human life seen honestly and accurately will constitute a microcosm of all human life, of "history."
It is the unblinking realism, the haunting familiarity, of these poems that is most appealing about them. Auden said the poem "must say something significant about a reality common to us all," such that its "readers recognize its validity for themselves." Otherwise, we might ask, what would be the point. Beers writes about things that matter and things we recognize, and time and again she gets it just right, so right, in fact, that the reader finishes nearly every poem feeling as if they've just read a record of their own thoughts and experiences.
Perhaps the most impressive poem in the collection is the first one, the title poem, which in some ways serves as a model for the entire book. This free verse stream of consciousness journey from mixing coffee through Virginia Woolf, dinosaurs, annuities, "People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People," The Last of the Mohicans, and a 1983 Cutlass Supreme to an image of the moon as a baseball reveals a personality that wants it all to make sense, understands it never will, but finds purpose in the effort. She muses (more poetically than this excerpt can achieve), "There seems to be a message here, but I don't know what it is . . . . nonetheless, I keep on trying . . . . My regular duties . . . . pouring Gatorade, wiping away sweat and shards of bicuspids and incisors . . . . just another type of insanity . . . . doing the same thing the same way and expect[ing] different results. I did it to help people . . . . by writing these untruths."
As these lines, this poem, and indeed this entire book suggests, the separation between what is of concern personally and what is of concern socially is much narrower than we usually, for the sake of convenience, conceive. It should not be surprising, then, to discover that the poems I find most powerful are those that appear more personally probing but in the process produce lines that bear larger social implications as well, such as these from "Flashback:"
When you are four, you don't realize
that a road can go on forever, take you from forest
to wheat field to desert, that there are worlds you
have never known. Worlds where the dull sound
of your mother's body hitting a wall, a door, the baby's
changing table are as alien as saying I love you.
It is through the consideration of such personal poems that we begin to recognize our own potential for the greater social responsibility expressed in lines like these from "Rewind:"
If we could invent
the automatic rewind, bodies would expel
bullets that would rest eternally in chambers,
130,000 people would materialize
as the Enola Gay swallowed the bomb,
landmines would give legs and fingers
back to broken children.
Right now, teeming cancer cells
would be rebuilding blood and bone.
Perhaps the most worthy ambition of poetry is to help us achieve greater empathy and understanding, to help us recognize the universal through the familiar. Shaindel Beers accepts this challenge of the poet. The speaker of one of her poems chastises herself for lacking the courage to stand up for "things that matter, the stuff of life and death." A Brief History of Time may very well be the penance for that lack of courage as these poems face unflinchingly that task of promoting our ability for compassion and action.
"Sleeping Man and Woman..."-- This might be my favorite of all of the author's poems. I love the cool, observant eye she casts on universal subjects of love, death and suffering. Beers is at her best in these detached, knowing moments of observation.
"To CKC....": This is another powerful poem with an unexpected look at the safety that death can provide for some. I love the gentle and compassionate eye of the poet here. The last line is one that makes me catch my breath every time I read it; this poem is always new for me, and to me, that is one measure of great poetry.
"Rewind": Beers deftly joins the personal to the universal in this poem. The speaker presents the hard reality of decay and destruction unflinchingly and without sentimentality which might ruin such an honest look at existence.
"Body Shop": Again, we get Beers at her best: honest, ironic, dark, and unflinching. She joins the personal with the universal themes of women as property or parts of a whole and shows how ridiculous, but understood by all women, these notions truly are. I never tire of reading this one.
"In a Top Drawer": This one makes me shiver every time I read it, and it never gets old for me. The morbid vision of speaker as unwitting destroyer of life is a powerful one.
"Because You Are In It": This poem gives voice to a theme that I think many people are aware of but don't talk about for fear of seeming silly or strange... that thrill of every molecule of everything being part of the beloved (when in the throes of new love). I like this one.
I am excited to see how this poet expands on her clear and effective voice in the future.