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: