My head is now feeling less bruised. Thank god these migraines don’t occur that frequently anymore and are far less severe than they used to be. A few years ago I’d have been out of comission for days. (This is all down to not eating chocolate or cheese or red wine.)
I’ve had a migraine today so this isn’t going to be the most intelligent post ever so I’ll keep it brief. As it was the funeral of Harry Allingham earlier, I thought this was appropriate. Affecting song and wonderful, heart breaking words.
And the words (from the Pogues’ version):
When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli
How well I remember that terrible day
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again
Now those that were left, well we tried to survive
In a mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
But around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit
And when I woke up in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying
For no more I’ll go waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs two legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me
So they collected the cripples, the wounded, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared
Then turned all their faces away
And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory
And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men answer to the call
But year after year their numbers get fewer
Some day no one will march there at all
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me
And their ghosts may be heard as you pass the Billabong
Who’ll come-a-waltzing Matilda with me?
copyright © Eric Bogle
So. Niki Aguirre, what is 29 Ways to Drown?
29 Ways is my first collection of stories published in late 2007 by Flipped Eye Publishing. It took me roughly a year and a half to complete. I started writing some of the stories while I was doing my MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck.
What was the first story you had published?
I was seven when I wrote my first book – a stapled mess of construction paper on which I scribbled poems, stories and stick people drawings. I made it for my grandfather who was in hospital. I think it was called something like ‘Why God doesn’t want you in heaven.’ He thought it was the most hilarious thing ever and showed it to all his nurses and visitors. I only wish the book was meant to be funny. I was so traumastised, I didn’t publish anything again until university. My poetry workshop took me seriously and never laughed at my poems. Come to think of it, those guys never laughed at anything.
The wonderful stories in 29 Ways to Drown are a varied bunch, in theme and in mood; how would you describe a typical Niki Aguirre story? Are there certain ingredients you put into everything you write?
I don’t have a set list of ingredients I purposely include, although I am conscious of things creeping up. My obsession with duality and mirror images for example: light and dark, hope and despair, religion and science. Humour, is another biggie. No matter how badly things are going for a character, they will always try to say or do something outrageous. They can be quite irreverent. A writer once told me that literary stories should never be funny, but I disagree, Kafka is hilarious. So is Gogol.
I hope this doesn’t make me sound mean, but I enjoy subverting expectations. This is partially a reaction against people who stereotype. For the record, having South American roots does not automatically translate into ‘writes magic realism’. Mainly, I want to rattle my readers a little. That’s a natural, healthy desire in a writer, right?
When writing 29 Ways to Drown, I worried my stories didn’t have a cohesive theme. But then I realised they were related. This was a book about people drowning – mostly metaphorically, but in a few cases literally. It was about people trying to escape their predicaments. It’s taken me a long time to accept that my subconscious is responsible for all my best ideas.
When I was younger and much more literal, it use to annoy me when a teacher talked about Hemingway’s fishing rod. I couldn’t understand the need for subtext when the writer had obviously taken such care to describe the sea, the boat, the water. Why couldn’t a rod be a rod? What happened when Hemingway was describing a sex scene? Was that really about fishing?
Who do you write for? Do you have a reader in mind? If so, what do they look like?
My ideal writer laughs in all the right places and thinks I’m a brilliant, misunderstood genius.
I don’t really have anyone in mind when I write, but I do have an ideal critic who pops up during the editing stage. My critic is intelligent, well-read and demanding. He needs to be entertained as well as challenged and finds paint-by-numbers stories devoid of concept and thought, pretty patronising. Despite my critic’s impossible standards, he is willing to go on a bumpy ride – as long as I don’t ignore the payoff.
My critic has warned that if I ever lead him into a wall, or worse, into nothingness, after I’ve asked him to follow me blindly for 400 pages, he will walk. Then who would I write for?
Your story ‘Shed’, about a struggling writer, made me grin the whole way through; do you think that most writers have that intense, neurotic, selfish streak? Could we all do with lightening up?
I had so much fun creating Henry the Aspiring Novelist. Writing can be so emotionally and intellectually demanding – you have to get into the right headspace to come up with ideas and storylines – you have use that space to flesh out compelling characters and realistic dialogue – you have to stay there for months or years at a time without going mad or losing your passion. You are isolated in your own world, you eat dinner with your characters, you say their lines out into empty space. Being neurotic and self-absorbed comes with the territory. That’s why it is important to laugh at ourselves whenever we can.
You’re an American, born to Ecuadorian parents, who’s now living in London – which one of those countries most often influences your work?
Sorry to give you the beauty pageant answer, but all of them have influenced me in some way. Each country I’ve spent time in brings its own unique set of elements, accents and nuances to my ever-changing database of voices. I enjoy observing mannerisms and the subtle (and not so subtle) forms of expression in everyday speech.
In Flight of the Blackbird and Language of Trees, I used a South American form of story telling, complete with legends, myths and unreliable narrators. I also tried to emulate oral tradition by employing the stories within stories approach.
With Two Percent, Anna K and Time Immemorial, I used my ‘American voice’, which is visual, less constructed and more direct.
The setting mostly determines how I will be influenced, such as my title story, 29 Ways to Drown, about an American woman who moves to London. The voice emerged as both British and American, which was interesting. I found myself aware not only of the words the character used, but of the pauses between her speech – what she couldn’t say. In the background to that story there was ever-present rain. The couple couldn’t communicate except by weather conversation.
The Shed was also inspired by living in Britain and was all about subtext and shaded meaning. The elements play a big part – not just rain, but the of the seasons. Henry is a man of few words, but with so much going on beneath the surface. He is a man with secrets.
Talk to us about your reading habits.
Like most writers, I am a voracious reader and often have three books going at the same time. I can be quite ruthless about putting something down if I don’t like it. On the other hand, if I really like something, I’ll read until my eyes fall out and after I’m finished I’ll reread it again and again. I’m quite obsessive. At the moment I can’t get enough of Roberto Bolano. Love at first read. Love, love, love.
Any bad writing habits?
Oh yeah. I have periods where I’ll write until I drop from exhaustion. Other times, I won’t write a word for months – not even a grocery list. I’ve tried to be more disciplined about my schedule, but so far no luck.
I also have to have music on to write. If it’s a really good song I’ll stop what I’m doing and break into dance.
What should a great short story do?
It should be unforgettable, evocative and haunting. It should keep me thinking about it long
after I’ve finished the last page.
What would you say to someone who wants to be a writer?
If your goal is to be published you have to work hard and develop a tough skin. Rewrite and edit when appropriate, but know when to stop messing around. By that I mean you need to step back and recognise when your work is good enough. Don’t tinker around for years dreaming of perfection or change it to fit someone else’s vision. Doing that will wreck havoc with your confidence. Remember, publishing is a business and your book may not fit in with what a publisher wants. Lots of amazing books get rejected initially. Don’t confuse the quality of your work with saleability. Some of my favourite writers would never be published today.
I read that Flann O’Brian’s second book, The Third Policeman, was rejected by everyone: friends, colleagues, even the publisher of his first novel. O’Brian was so crushed he shelved his novel for 26 years. 26!! He reportedly kept the manuscript nearby so he could see it every morning during breakfast.
When you’re not writing, you’re most likely to be found…
Spacing out on public transport, or walking in the park with headphones on. It is a good way to work out thorny plots.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully there will be a novel out soon. I’d also like to work on another collection of stories. I recently started a new project. The idea came to me in a dream and the images were so intense and lingering, I felt I had to write about it. But it is proving hard work – while it is clear in my head it isn’t translating to the page just yet. Stay tuned.
Niki Aguirre is an American fiction writer based in London. Niki studied English Literature at the University of Illinois and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London.
She is the recipient of the Birkbeck Outstanding Achievement Award for Creative Fiction (2006) and a grant from the Arts Council England (2007).
29 Ways to Drown is Aguirre’s debut collection of short fiction published in 2007 by Lubin & Kleyner. Her short stories have appeared in Tell Tales, X-24, LITRO and Pen International Magazine.
Real life can get in the way of writing at times. As can barking dogs and everyone deciding to cut their hedges at once, noisily. So it’s not been a productive week thus far for me.
A huge and very warm welcome to my blog, Tamar. It’s a genuine pleasure to have you here. Can we start with you telling us all a little about what you do?
Thanks, Nik. I’m delighted to be here. I guess my qualification for being here is that I write novels and short stories. I’ve published three books – a novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, a collection of stories, Kafka in Brontëland, and my most recent book, a novel in linked stories (what some people call a mosaic novel), Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes.
I’ve just finished reading Kafka in Brontëland, your first collection of short stories, and I utterly loved it. There’s such a delightful mix of surrealism and realism: where do these stories come from? Do they share similar roots?
On some level they’re all stories about identity and belonging, themes which have preoccupied me a lot over the years. Because of my background I’ve always felt like a bit of a floating person, and I really found my way as a writer when I realised that this was my subject. At the time of writing them, I felt Jewish but was on the outside of the Jewish community, Yorkshire but with foreign roots, lived in the countryside but had grown up in the city – in so many ways I was in the margin between identities. I found this to be a very creative place.
Essentially I think I am a realist writer, but I find reality to be highly surreal at times, especially when transformed through memory. Delving back into childhood to seek inspiration for my fiction is like entering a dream, because childhood for me stands behind a locked door, like Alice’s garden. Writing is how I get myself back in there.
Are there any ingredients that are present in all of your stories?
Character and language are the two essentials of fiction, as far as I’m concerned. I see a character, I find the right language, and narrative takes care of itself.
‘Kafka in Brontëland’ is an unusual title to say the least, and openly literary. Was it your intention to have such a blatantly literary title? Did you not worry it could put people, who might not be familiar with the work of Kafka or the Brontës (or not like them), off?
Well, it doesn’t seem so unlikely for a book to have a literary title. A book is a piece of literature, after all. I was amused, after it appeared, to find a visitor to the Brontëblog expressing horror at the intrusion of that modernist monster, Kafka, into romantic Brontëland! But you don’t have to have read (or like) Kafka or the Brontës to enjoy the book. The title is merely meant to sum up the predicament of being a Jewish writer in a Yorkshire landscape. Or more generally, of being an outsider who can never belong.
I invited my blog readers and Twitter friends to ask questions. Here’s one: ‘Were you deliberate in putting your family’s history in the author bio knowing that readers would then wonder how much, in your work, was thinly disguised autobiography?’
My family history is to me an essential part of my biography. I didn’t know readers would do that. Since becoming a published author I’ve been continually surprised by the way readers respond to my work, but it isn’t something I have any control over.
The pejorative cliché, ‘thinly disguised autobiography,’ implies work that is somehow not proper fiction or even not proper art. But it is impossible simply to transfer life onto the page and for it to work as fiction. Fiction is fundamentally different from real life. If a story or novel works artistically, then you can be certain that whatever personal experience the author drew on in order to create it, that experience has been essentially transformed.
What does the word ‘story’ mean to you?
It is something that is created by a character or characters.
And the word ‘writer’?
Someone who feels a compulsion to sit down every day and write a certain number of words for other people to read.
Another question from a reader: ‘Do you remember the first short story you wrote?’ And I’ll add to that: What was it, and why did you start writing?
I wrote my first story when I was six. It was called The Setting Sun and it was about a little girl called Mary who was swimming in the sea one evening when she saw the sun was falling down into the sea. So she swam as far out as she could to try and hold it up. But every time she looked up the sun was still far ahead. Then she remembered about the horizon, so she swam back. But when she told her mother that the sun had fallen into the sea her mother just said, “Time for bed.”
Ever since then I’ve been writing about misguided people with impossible aspirations.
‘Mr Applewick’ is one of my favourite stories in the book. It goes into great detail, in part, about the workings of a piano (Mr Applewick is a piano repairman) – I must ask: was this researched or do you play?
It was the first story for which I did any extensive research, which I really enjoyed. I do find research inspiring, especially when it includes all sorts of technical terms, which can be rather poetic. I was inspired to write the story when I had my own upright piano – which is not a Broadwood, sadly, like the one in the story, but a Laurinat – renovated by a gentleman rather like Mr Applewick. He was, in fact, an amateur astronomer. I only met the man a couple of times, but I created an entire inner life for him – and then killed him off, of course! And the story itself opened up into a meditation on God, the universe and everything.
As a matter of fact, I’m now selling my piano, so if any of your readers are interested in a piano with a literary connection, they’re welcome to get in touch!
What’s your writing process? Do you have a regime?
Absolutely. I write in the mornings and set myself a minimum word count per day (this varies from project to project). I do some educational work in schools but am able to confine that to the afternoons.
When writing a novel, I don’t like to plan things out too rigidly in advance; I like it to be a voyage of discovery. But I usually have a strong sense of the beginning, the crisis point and the ending. I keep a notebook in which I jot things down as I go along – random thoughts and phrases, character notes, narrative pointers. But if I write down too much it feels as if it’s carved in stone, so I try to keep as much as possible in my head, where it can remain fluid.
I think every writer has to find their own way of working which is right for them, so looking at how other writers work can be interesting but not necessarily very useful. As I’ve grown in confidence as a writer, I’ve learned to trust my own instinct and to have faith that things will work out, even when they seem blocked or muddled.
How different, or similar, is Kafka in Brontëland to your other books (the novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, and your second collection, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes)?
I wrote all three books simultaneously over a period of about thirteen years, so I think of them as a sort of trilogy. They all deal with those themes of displacement and identity I have already mentioned and anyone who reads all three will recognise that, spiritually, they have come from the same place. Stylistically, Tribes is more dense and poetic than Kafka and quite fantastical. It follows the life-journey of an unidentified narrator who encounters a series of persons, each of whom is in some way lost, exiled or alienated. The denouement is quite Heart of Darkness-like. Genizah is a multi-generational family story and crosses a number of genres – family saga, academic thriller, historical novel and contemporary journey of self-discovery. All three books have their melancholy aspects, especially Tribes, but I always ensure there is a thread of humour running through my work.
Do you have an audience or reader in mind when you write?
No, I write for myself in the first instance. If I kept a particular audience in mind, I would be constantly trying to second-guess and please them, which would spell disaster. On the other hand, there is a distinct difference between writing only for oneself and writing to be read, and that is the difference between just writing and being a (professional) writer. I always keep my responsibility to the reader in mind: to make every word count.
What book(s) or author(s) would you recommend to someone who liked your work?
What advice would you give to people who want to be writers?
Keep plugging away. If you don’t write anything, if you don’t keep sending it out, you’ve no chance of succeeding.
And would that advice differ if they wanted to be short story writers?
If they only want to write short stories they have my respect, because that proves they’re in it purely for the love of it.
What’s next for you?
Moving on, naturally. My preoccupations have changed. I’ve laid my feelings of dislocation to rest. I’m three quarters of the way through a new novel. After that, I have another novel in mind and perhaps then, finally, I’ll get back to short stories, which I’d love to do.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thank you very much for inviting me onto your blog!
Thanks for being here, Tamar, and for such interesting answers.
Tamar Yellin is the author of three published books. Her debut novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press 2005; St Martin’s Press 2008) was awarded the Sami Rohr Prize, the Ribalow Prize and was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize. Her collection, Kafka in Bronteland (Toby Press, 2006) received the Reform Judaism Prize, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes was published by Toby in 2008 and will appear in paperback from St Martin’s in the autumn of 2009. She has a website at www.tamaryellin.com.
So last week I got up to date with everything I’d been struggling with over the past couple of months. Now I’m trying to get everything organised. And get back to writing. This is good.
Welcome to the blog, Shaindel. It’s a true pleasure to have you here. So, who are you? What do you do?
Thanks, Nik! Lovely to be here. That’s certainly a broad question. Let’s see. I’m a writer and full-time college writing instructor in Pendleton, Oregon. I spend most of my time teaching, reading, and writing, at least, I hope. I’m afraid if we timed my life, I might spend the most time grading, followed by laundry, dishes, and cooking, but let’s not think that way. And then I work part-time jobs on weekends—Saturdays as a fitness instructor at Curves and Sundays doing yard work for a couple in a nearby town. I’m always busy, it seems. Oh, I also teach poetry writing online at AllWriters.org, if any of your readers would be interested in looking into online writing courses with me or with other great writers in the States.
The poems in A Brief History of Time are varied in theme, form and subject matter; is there one place they all started from?
That’s really interesting to think about because I guess that one place would be my consciousness, unless everything starts in the subconscious? I’m really just someone who’s always looking at the world around me and taking note of things. There are images that just need to go into a poem, and you save them. On the road to Pilot Rock, the nearby town I work in on Sundays, a white dog had been killed by a car in front of the country cemetery, and someone put a bunch of red silk flowers on him. It was the most shocking sight—snow-covered ground, and this dead white dog, and bright red silk flowers on him. I’ve always thought about that. All of those levels of meaning—winter and snow and a cemetery and a dead white dog and red silk flowers and a mourner who either took those flowers from another grave or didn’t put them on the grave they were meant for and instead put them on the dog. Anything we see could be a poem if we look long enough. Life seems to be largely tragic with a current of beauty running under the surface. Writing is what I choose to do with it.
Talking of content (and perhaps theme), it seems you’re fearless in what you write about and how you write – is being brave part of a poet’s job?
I think being brave is a part of everybody’s job. At least, in my experience, the world seems like a tough place. We have to be brave to learn how to crawl and walk and then to get out of bed every morning. According to the British Romantics (probably the poets I most admire), the poet was supposed to be the bard, the spokesman, for the everyman. So, while everyone has to be brave to get by in the world, the poet has to be brave for everyone. For the people (and other beings) we don’t notice because we’re too caught up in our own lives—the woman with cancer, the starving child, the dog hit in front of the cemetery.
Talk to us about your childhood. What sort of poetry/literature were you exposed to?
My mother had a degree in English and taught high school and section edited newspapers and wrote, so I was exposed to more literature than most children, I’m guessing. I read voraciously and oddly. I read everything about horses ever written (at least, it feels like it), tabloid newspapers my father would buy, and my mother’s old college literature textbooks—especially the poems of Byron, Keats, and Shelley, which were included in this one massive volume, and an anthology of Victorian poetry that she had from college.
When you were younger did you dream of becoming a poet and writer when you grew up? And is that kind of aspiration a usual one to have for someone growing up in rural America?
By the time I got into high school, I knew I wanted to do something related to literature. The only job I really knew of was high school teacher, so I went away to college to double major in Dance and Secondary Education with an emphasis in English. As soon as I got into a British literature class (which, incidentally, had a female professor), I knew I wanted to be a professor. At this point, I was still taken with the idea of teaching other writers’ literature; it hadn’t occurred to me to take my own writing seriously. And I don’t think it occurred to me to take my own writing seriously until possibly graduate school (the first time around—1999-2000 for my MA in Humanities). The second round of graduate school was for my MFA in Creative Writing, so I was obviously taking my writing seriously by that point.
I’m sure it’s a crazy aspiration to have in rural America, but then most aspirations are crazy to have. You’re sort of expected to stay put, marry a farmer (if you’re female), and take over the farm (if you’re male). Some people obviously do other things, and times are changing, but generally people do what they know. I think my professors were probably the first middle-class, none rural people I’d ever seen in my life. I grew up in a town where everyone farmed or worked at factories, and there was the one doctor’s office, the one lawyer’s office, that sort of thing. So, obviously, the doctors I grew up seeing were middle class, but they were sort of like characters in a play who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the cast. They were always somehow apart from everyone else.
I think my one high school English teacher was joking because she is very happily married to a farmer, but one day she told us, “Don’t ever marry a farmer, your whole life will depend on rain,” and something about it stuck with me. After that, I saw factory closings and people lose their farms, and I wanted to try to work outside of that and stay in school and depend on my mind to make a living for myself. Obviously, that plan has its own kind of difficulties as well.
There are a number of scientific terms in your poems – why’s that? Is science something you’re interested in?
I love science. If I could study something because I enjoy it and not for any particular reason, I would love to study theoretical physics. I don’t have a mind for math (or at least I didn’t in high school), and I’m not good with things like dissections and whatnot, so I never took a biology lab in college, but I love reading about theoretical physics. It fascinates me. I actually find the theories comforting in a way. If something horrible is happening here, there’s always another dimension somewhere where the possibilities are different.
You’re an English professor. How has that influenced your work?
I think it has influenced my work in really practical ways. Reading and writing is an important part of my job, so I don’t have to “switch” anything on or off when I come home. I know writers who are nurses and medical sales people and things like that, and I can’t imagine being different people in different worlds and doing something completely unrelated to writing all day then coming home and writing. If I want to go to a writing conference, my college pays for it; if I have a reading or something like that scheduled, the college is understanding if I need to miss a few classes.
I also get to be in contact with so many amazing people—something like one hundred students each quarter. Many of them have the most amazing life stories, and some are phenomenal writers in their own right. Being around them keeps your writing energy up. It would be the perfect job if it weren’t for the grading. And it’s not even all of the grading that’s bad; it’s grading the weaker papers that takes away from your writing energy. I really think the brain is like a computer as far as GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). If you read good writing, you’ll produce good writing. Sometimes the less than stellar papers you’re grading sap your energy, but then, you’ll get a brilliant one and feel privileged to be reading it.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
My former colleague at College of Lake County, Larry Starzec (a phenomenal writer, please find his work) would tell his students, “Writers read with larceny in their hearts.” He’s right. Any time you read and find something that knocks your socks off, think how can I steal that? (Of course, meaning, how can I do that?)
How can good writers become great?
I think I’m at the point in my life where I think there are only three rules to writing. (1) Read a lot, write a lot. To this I would remind people of the GIGO principle. You have to read good writers to be a good writer. (2) Show, don’t tell. (3) Make sure each word is the right word. Go through your writing and make sure each word needs to be there and that it’s the best possible word for the job. If it isn’t necessary, get rid of it, and if it’s not quite the right word, find the right word.
Why isn’t poetry more popular? Do you think it has something to do with the way it’s taught in schools or is there a tendency for poets to write for other poets rather than a wider audience? Or is it down to the way it’s marketed or perceived?
I think you’re right on a lot of points. I think that most people aren’t exposed to modern poetry until college, if at all. For that reason, they expect it to be rhyming or archaic, and then when they are exposed to modern poetry, they feel stupid and intimidated because they thought it was going to be rhyming and archaic, and it isn’t.
I think that poetry isn’t marketed well. It’s definitely marketed with a sort of snob appeal a lot of times. People need to read poets who are accessible and who are like them or who they feel are like them. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I think there are projects in the States that are doing a good job like American Life in Poetry (http://americanlifeinpoetry.org/) which provides newspapers and online publications in America with a weekly poem and some commentary. It was started by Ted Kooser who was the US Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. He was born in Iowa and has lived in Nebraska for most of his life. This is the type of influence that would have helped me as a young writer. I’m sure for someone in a city or of a different background, it would be someone else, but we need to see poets who are like us to see it as something for us. It’s very easy to see something as belonging to another race or social class or region and to not even bother with it because we think that means it’s not for us. We need to do something to fix that and have all types of poetry represented so that there will be future generations of all types of poets.
You don’t just write poems, do you? You’re a successful short story writer as well. Can you tell us about that side of your work?
I just like to make things up. Being a writer is a privilege. What other adults get to play with imaginary friends all day and aren’t in a loony bin? I’m very pleased with my short story writing, but it will feel more real when I have a full collection placed with a publisher. I think to have the length of a standard short story collection I need maybe three more stories. Right now, it would be a slim volume. I’m not in a rush, but some days I wish the ideas would come to me. Right now, I’m working on what I hope will become a novel, so that seems to be where my energy is.
Story writing process vs poetry writing process. How do they differ and which feels the most natural?
I think they both feel natural. Poems seem to start with an image or feeling, and fiction seems to start with a character in a situation, for me, at least. I’m sure it’s different for everyone. I try to write whatever feels like it needs to be written at the time.
I mentioned in my review of A Brief History of Time that your last lines are often stunning. How important is a poem’s last line? And how does it relate to what’s gone before?
I think a last line is extremely important. It’s what you’re leaving the reader with—your last chance if they’re only reading an individual poem—or if they’re reading your collection, your last chance until the next poem. You don’t want to rely on a sort of trick or twist-ending or anything that would make the reader feel cheated, but you do want to leave them with a lasting image, a lasting emotion.
What would you hope people came away from reading your collection thinking?
I think that good literature has to change people. It has to change the way they look at something or think about something or feel about something. I hope I can do that for someone. One of my friends, Wes Saylors (someone else whose work you should look for), told me that Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler would change the way I thought about writing. I thought he was exaggerating. He wasn’t! I hugged the book when I finished it. I would love to think that somebody, somewhere hugged my book when they were done reading it.
You’re an editor at the wonderful Contrary Magazine – what do you look for in a poem when you’re wearing your editor’s hat, and do you look for something different when you’re just reading for you?
I think what I said to the previous question pretty much answers this one. If I’m a slightly different person after I’ve read the poem than I was before, then it’s done its job. The treat of being an editor is that someone else chooses what makes its way to me. I read, perhaps, twenty poems that the readers before me have whittled down from sometimes nearly a thousand submissions, and I choose the top half dozen or so to go into the magazine. Many of them aren’t the type of poem I would look for in a book store, so it’s exciting when something finds me that I never could have dreamed existed and it opens up my world into a whole new type of poetry I’d never thought about before.
What’s next for you?
I have a two book deal with Salt, so I’m working on The Children’s War, which is poetry inspired by artwork children have done during times of war from the Spanish Civil War to wars that are currently going on. I hope to get those few stories finished and have a short story collection ready to send out soon, and then there’s that novel I’m working on.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d love for your readers to find me on Facebook or Twitter or Goodreads. I try to be as accessible as possible to readers, and it’s always good to get to meet other writers. As I mentioned before, it’s a tough world, we have to stick together!
Shaindel Beers was raised in Argos, Indiana, a town of fewer than 2,000 people. She studied literature at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama (BA), and at the University of Chicago (MA) before earning her MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has taught at colleges and universities in Illinois and Florida but feels settled in the Eastern Oregon high desert town of Pendleton. Her awards include: First place Karen Fredericks and Frances Willitts Poetry Prize (2008), Grand Prize Co-winner Trellis Magazine sestina contest (2008), First place Dylan Days Poetry Competition (2007), Award-winning poem published, Eleventh Muse (2006), Honorable mention, Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Awards (2005), Honorable mention, Juniper Creek/Unnamed Writers Award (2005), and the title poem from this collection, “A Brief History of Time,” was nominated for a Pushcart prize (2004). She is the Poetry Editor of Contrary (www.contrarymagazine.com).
You can find more about Shaindel and her work at these places:
- Her Red Room Author site
- Shaindel is the Poetry Editor for Contrary.
- Her author page at Salt Publishing
- She is posting videos of her reading on her YouTube site.
- Friend her on Facebook and
- follow her on Twitter