With the recent publication of her first book of poetry,A Brief History in Time, I had the opportunity to interview author, Shaindel Beers, a former classmate of mine at Huntingdon College. Here is what transpired.
1. Your poetry is filled with some very astute perceptions along the lines of race, gender, and class. What is your background? Where are you from? What is your family like? What do they do?
I’m from a very small rural town in northern Indiana, called Argos, which, at least in the 2000 census, had a population of 1,613. It might seem unusual to someone that you can grow up somewhere that is 98% white and be so impacted by race, but I moved from Argos to Montgomery, Alabama, to go to Huntingdon College, and it was like another planet. I’d heard racist comments in Indiana, but they were the sort of things one “expects” from people of a certain generation. Like, my grandpa would say something and change the channel if he walked in and I was watching The Cosby Show. But I think there was a lot of jealousy in this. If you remember, on The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby’s character was a doctor, and the wife was a lawyer, and here’s my grandfather who has a sixth grade education and has had a hard life—farming (which always depends on the weather), factory closings (which depends on the whims of the wealthy, or the economy), all sorts of things. I think a lot of people from his generation in the same position probably felt the same way. It isn’t right, but you can understand where it comes from.
When I got to Alabama, the racism was much more real. First of all, there were people of other races—at least then in Alabama, Whites and Blacks. And, to me, it felt like the Civil Rights movement had barely happened. When I met one of my first college friends and wanted to go to Wal-Mart to buy some dorm supplies, she started driving the opposite way I thought we should be going. When I asked why we weren’t going to the Wal-Mart next to the college, she said, “Oh, that’s the Black Wal-Mart,” like it was the most common thing in the world. I heard other such gems such as a wealthy woman who said, “Of course, we’re not racist; all our maids have always been Black” and the one that appears in my poem, “Branching.”
For me, at least, gender and social class are so intertwined. I think that there is much more hope of social mobility for men than for women. There’s a book I haven’t read yet but want to called Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. I remember when I was in high school and things were rough, my mom would say things like, “Maybe some nice boy will marry you.” That really seemed to be the answer she had for everything. She bought me a subscription to Brides Magazine when I was around fifteen and seemed fine when my high school boyfriend at that time just assumed we were getting married and gave me a ring.
I think a lot of women my age were raised without the skills we really needed because our parents still expected us to move from their house to a husband’s. And that really seems to surprise a lot of people, but I think small towns are socially a generation behind other places.
As far as my family, they are sort of a “mad genius” family. That’s probably saying enough.
2. What is your ethnic makeup?
On my father’s side, I’m Russian-Jewish, maybe with a few other Eastern European countries thrown in. On my mother’s side, it’s pretty much everything from the British Isles. I can look up family tartans in Scottish museums and things like that.
3. Do you have a great interest in Greek mythology? Your knowledge of it seems to be very expansive. Does it inspire you?
I absolutely love all mythologies, but I know more about Greek mythology than others, probably because it was required in eighth grade. We had to memorize who was the god or goddess of what and read The Odyssey. I’m always fascinated by rewritings of myths and fairy tales for a few reasons. First, there’s less work for the author because the reader already knows the basic story, and secondly, because there is a wealth of the human condition for the reader to connect to. For instance, in Louise Glück’s Meadowlands, she uses the figures of Odysseus and Penelope to explore the breakdown of (presumably) her own marriage. Most of us know the story of The Odyssey, and most of us have suffered broken hearts, so putting these elements together creates something between the author and the reader that is greater than the sum of the parts. For my creative writing MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, part of my graduation requirement included giving a lecture on a specific topic in creative writing, and I did mine on “Feminist Revision of Myth and Fairy Tale.” If any readers are interested in it, they can let me know, and I’ll email them the lecture.
4. You seem to have lived a very interesting life--from the mundaneness of rural Indiana to the cosmopolitan life of the city. Give us a rundown of your life from birth to present. Where have you lived? What has marked you?
First of all, I don’t see how rural Indiana is any more mundane than living in a city. Wherever you are is your reality, and you can have a boring or an exciting life in either. I was born in South Bend, Indiana, which is where Kenneth Rexroth was born. (Maybe it will eventually be a city known for poets?) I lived in Argos until I moved away to Montgomery, Alabama, for college, then I moved to Chicago to go to the University of Chicago for graduate school, and after that, I kept moving further and further out to the suburbs, for jobs. (And I would do my graduate residencies in Vermont in the summers and winters from 2003-2005.) Eventually, I got a full-time college teaching position in Florida. I just wasn’t a Florida person and had to get somewhere where it would snow before I died of depression (or drank myself to death), and I ended up in Eastern Oregon. So far, it’s the best place I’ve lived. I have fantasies of a cabin in Montana or Alaska or somewhere more remote than this with bigger mountains, but this is pretty phenomenal for now. It’s also a great teaching position. It’s a rural mountain community college, and there are only three full-timers in the English department (myself included), so in addition to the regular Composition sequence, I get to teach Shakespeare, British literature, Fiction writing, Poetry writing, and Poetry as Literature. It’s nice to get to use my graduate degrees in both British literature and Creative Writing. Anywhere else, I’d most likely have to choose one or the other.
A lot has marked me. A. Lot. I’ll let people read my poetry collection and decide that.
5. You seem to have had a lot of experiences in terms of love and loss. What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
I’m still learning, but I think I’m discovering that you can survive anything if you have to. I’m also learning to value myself and not to mould myself into whatever will make other people happy, but it’s definitely a process.
6. Who are your greatest influences as a writer?
I’m just going to start listing here. As far as poets: Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Richard Jackson, Eavan Boland. Fiction writers: Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Ellen Gilchrist. I’m sure there are at least a hundred others, but I’m hoping readers will look up everyone on this list if they’re not already familiar with them.
7. What's next for you?
So far, I feel really fortunate to be booking readings since the publication of A Brief History of Time since it’s my first full-length book. I hope to keep giving readings and to keep up with my radio show, Translated By, on www.blogtalkradio.com . In June of 2010, I’ll be teaching at Writing Away Retreats http://writingawayretreats.com/ , which I’m really excited about.
I have a two book deal with Salt Publishing, which is just amazing. I’ve never even heard of another poet getting a two book deal! For my second book I’m working on, tentatively titled The Children’s War, I’m looking at children’s art drawn during war-time from the Spanish Civil War to the current time and writing an ekphrastic poem on each one that inspires me.
I have what amounts to maybe half of a short story collection so far, and one novel in progress that I wish was more in progress. And I always have stories and poems going on in my head.
Next stop on Shaindel Beers' Virtual Book Tour Kate Evans:Being and Writing.