Shaindel Beers’ poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently a professor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in Eastern Oregon’s high desert and also serves as Poetry Editor of Contrary. A Brief History of Time (Salt Publishing, 2009) is her first poetry collection. She is working on her second collection, The Children’s War.
Shaindel, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child.
I’m not sure what a “normal” upbringing is in America, given our melting pot reputation, but I always felt I had it a bit odd. My father’s background is Russian-Jewish, and he’s from Brooklyn, and my mother’s heritage is from nearly all of the countries of the British Isles, and she’s from a farming family. So, I grew up in a very rural, farm town of fewer than two thousand people with a father who wasn’t like any of the other fathers I knew (not a farmer or a factory worker), and my siblings and I (with the exception of my sister Adria) all had traditional Jewish names – Shaindel, Aaron, and Avram.
I’m pretty sure like a lot of writers, I was a “weird kid”. I was always making up stories and either writing them down or acting them out. I had an imaginary world I would go to in the backyard, and the way to get there was to swing in the chair swing on my swing set and sing a magical song. I won’t give the lyrics away, but I will tell you that the plant-life was blue and the sky was magenta. I was also addicted to reading because it was another easy way to escape real life. When the local library had the summer book club, I would check out a stack of books I couldn’t see over each time we went to the library, and the library was a popular summer destination because it was a free public place with air conditioning.
Will you describe the Argos of your childhood? What were the main social, political and cultural influences of your youth?
The Argos of my childhood was probably much stranger than I realised at the time. From the outside, and for a time, it was quite idyllic. I would play at the park across the street from my house, where my mom could see me from the kitchen window, or my father and I would practice batting, catching, and throwing in the backyard. If I was at my grandparents’ farm, I would ride my bike all day or I would go horseback riding with my friends who lived near my grandparents.
In 1984 and 1986, there were two murders that have still gone unsolved to this day, and they had a great influence on my childhood. My mother became very protective, especially because the 1986 murder was of an eleven year old girl who was staying home from school with the flu. I write about this in an essay which will be published in the spring issue of Contrary. It’s an essay on what it was like to read a “true crime” novel, when I had known the victim. Basically, my childhood went from being very idyllic to extremely repressive.
I think most of the influences of my youth were things that helped me rebel against the narrow scope of a rural town that was overwhelmingly Republican and oppressively religious, at least back then. I listened to whatever music my friends listened to (and whatever was in at the time). Some of these bands will date me and be really embarrassing, but a lot of time was spent listening to The Smiths, The Cure, and then a lot of Guns ‘N Roses and those sorts of “hair bands”. I vividly remember reading Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla one day in in-school suspension, and that seemed pivotal. I mean, what’s more rebellious than a lesbian vampire novella from 1872 (or reading it in in-school suspension)?
But regardless of how I tried to rebel, there was always something oddly Indiana about everything. For instance, one of my high school boyfriend’s grandparents were Amish, and when he and I were together in our world, we were high schoolers getting into trouble (I think we actually met in detention) and listening to angst-ridden teenage music, and then when we visited his grandparents, we unloaded hay at an auction yard and visited their gigantic Belgian plow horse and looked at quilt patterns with his grandma.
When did your passion for words develop?
I’m sure very early, but I don’t know how early. I know that before I could write by myself I would tell my mom stories and make her write them down. When I was sorting some things years ago, I came across a slip of paper with something about a cat and a rat written in crayon on it, and I asked my mom what it was, and she told me I would make her write stories like that all the time.
We also didn’t have a lot of money – so little, in fact, that how my family lived is still a little bit of a mystery to me, but I’ve never asked my parents about it – but when we got those Scholastic Book Club order forms at school, my mom let me buy whatever books I wanted. Other students would always laugh at how many books I got.
My mother wrote a local history book (one of those sold in county historical museums) when I was about seven, and I used to research with her by going to graveyards and copying down names and birthdates and death dates and “proofreading” pages of the book. I doubt I was actually proofreading, but she let me pretend I was. She also completed her Master’s degree sometime around this point, so I remember her always researching and typing (on an electric typewriter) and showing me how things worked – like changing the ribbon or using correction tape. Thank G-d for computers!
My father always had some massive book from the library with him wherever he went, so I guess this was what I grew up thinking adults did. My parents, despite whatever other flaws they had, were probably the best intellectual role models I could have had in the time and place I grew up.
Which writers have inspired and influenced you?
Wow. This is a hard question. I had the great fortune of studying with Richard (Rick) Jackson at Vermont College, and his views on associative poetry changed the way I write immensely. He told me to read everything I was interested in, especially nonfiction, and to include all of that in my poetry – landscape, philosophy, physics etc. I’m afraid I’m sort of a fickle reader; nearly any book I like that I’ve just read is my “favourite”. But some books and writers that stand out are If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, which changed the way I think about writing. One of my friends told me it would, and I thought he was exaggerating, but it really did. It made me not take linearity so seriously. Why tell things in order? I was so blown away when things wrapped up in the end, that I actually hugged the book. I didn’t want to let it get away. Cosmicomics, also by Calvino, taught me to think outside of the boundaries, too. In that story collection, there are characters that are molecules, nebular dust, all types of possibilities.
Anne Carson’s poetry does something that I want to accomplish, but I can’t even put into words what that is. “The Glass Essay” in Glass, Irony and God, in which she interweaves Emily Bronte’s life with the speaker’s (I’m assuming her own) is amazing. There is something about the economy of emotion which is almost like an out of body experience. I think that Louise Gluck does something similar in a lot of her work. There is some sort of elegance in talking about such emotionally-charged events in a detached way that it almost becomes more emotional for the reader because of the absence of emotion in the writer. It is almost as if the reader’s emotion does the work because the writer leaves out a piece of the puzzle.
Anne Sexton has always seemed brave to me. Just writing a poem entitled, “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife”, is brave, let alone what it says in the poem. And she’s always surprising with images, especially in that poem, “I have been momentary. / A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor” and that heartbreaking ending, “As for me, I am a watercolor. / I wash off.” I think any woman, regardless of her romantic history, feels that ending.
Would you name a few of your favourite books? Why are they important to you?
I’ve already named several, but let’s see … When someone asks about favourite books, I generally think of prose. For some reason, it’s hard to come up with favourite poetry collections, but I have favourite poems and poets. As far as favourite books, it’s been a long time since I read it, but Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter sticks with me. I think it’s because each character is so beautifully tragic because they are so fully human. Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America is a gorgeous short story collection. The one time I can remember simultaneously laughing and crying while reading was the story “People Like That Are the Only People Here”. And I love what Lorrie Moore does with alternate stories and characterisation in Anagrams.
Another thing I like that writers do is when they rework previous works – like retellings of myth, fairy tale, or Shakespeare’s plays. I recently read David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle which is a retelling of Hamlet in mid-twentieth century rural Wisconsin and found that really interesting. I really enjoyed Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands, in which she uses the figures of Odysseus and Penelope to explore the breakdown of (presumably) her own marriage. I guess in the same vein, we could add Kate Daniels’ The Niobe Poems, where she takes the grieving mythological mother and transforms her into a farm wife whose son drowned in a river; Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red, where she takes the myth of Herakles and Geryon and turns it into a teenage same-sex love story, and, of course, Anne Sexton’s Transformations. I think these stand out to me because there is a plot that holds the collection together, and the story holds up rather than individual poems or images staying in my memory.
I guess that was a roundabout way of answering, but I got to it.
Shaindel’s next virtual tour stop is Brandon Wallace’s blog, Julius Speaks, on 11 March. Don’t miss it.
All “On the hood of a Cutlass Supreme” tour dates are here.
Order A Brief History of Time here.