I met Shaindel Beers through my life story project. She was one of the first people to step up and I have admired her fearlessness ever since. So I was happy to participate in her blog tour, On the Hood of a Cutlass Supreme Tour.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME is Shaindel Beers’ first collection of poetry. It is at once an exploration of what it is to grow up in rural America and a treatise for social justice. These poems, many of them award-winning, span a wide range of styles—from plainsong free verse to sestinas to nearly epic works.
Michael Kimball: When you signed up with Salt Publishing, it was a two-book deal. Could you talk a little about that and a little about how you decided which poems would go into A Brief History of Time and which poems would go in the second book?
Shaindel Beers: Sure. I think what I’m learning more and more as a writer is just to go with those crazy ideas that you’re not sure of because they seem too crazy. After all, my two-book deal came out of a crazy idea. Basically, A Brief History of Time is made up of poems I wrote and crafted during graduate school (my MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts—I also have a Master’s degree in Humanities split between British literature and Philosophy from the University of Chicago, but that’s sort of a different world), and a few poems written since then. It’s a collection I was sending out in minorly different variations since 2005 or so. And it’s definitely a separate body of work from my second collection I’m working on.
My second collection, The Children’s War, came to me as an idea when Slate.com did a story on children’s drawings in Darfur illustrating the atrocities there. I became obsessed with the drawings and started writing a poem on each one. Then, I learned that child psychologists have been using art therapy in war-torn areas since the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, so I started looking at those drawings and drawings done by children living through nearly every war since then. This was an obsession during summer break last year, where I hardly left the couch for a week once I got the idea; I was just poring over children’s drawings and writing. I got a little worried about myself, so I asked Lee (my husband) if he thought it was a good idea and showed him what I was working on and sent a few of the poems to friends. I read a few of them on a radio interview I did, and when I was sending my manuscript to Salt, I was a bit short of their page requirement for a manuscript, so I sent the seven or eight Children’s War poems I had at the time. I was really honest that they didn’t feel like they belonged in the same book, but that I knew they were something and that I was trying to meet their page requirement for a full book. I couldn’t believe it when Chris Hamilton-Emery from Salt called and offered me a two-book deal for A Brief History of Time, my completed manuscript, and for The Children’s War, if I thought I could come up with enough poems on children’s war drawings. I was elated.
Kimball: Publishing can be so difficult, so I love to hear stories like that. I want to ask you more about The Children’s War, but I’ll save that for next time. There’s a poem early in A Brief History of Time that’s titled “Elegy for a Past Life” and that title, that idea, animates a lot of the poems in the collection.
Beers: I guess I’m a big believer in the notion that “you can’t go home again.” Either home will have changed since you left it or you will have changed since you’ve been there, and you’ll see it differently. There was something really idyllic about growing up somewhere so rural that if you didn’t want to see anybody all day, you didn’t have to. I could just get on my bike or take off walking and be in my own head for as long as I needed to be, and I think it helped me to grow up, being alone with my thoughts like that. I hate to sound biased, but I almost feel like it made some of the people in my little town some of the deepest thinkers I’ve ever met. My high school friends and I would just walk (or ride bikes or horses) for miles outside of town and talk about any topic you could imagine. My high school boyfriend who “Elegy for a Past Life” is about got a word processor when we were together (yes, this was before computers), and we would write stories together, taking turns sentence by sentence, for hours.
I never realized how different a lot of the outside world was until I was somewhere else. I went to college in Montgomery, Alabama, which was a different universe in a lot of ways than Indiana. I think the biggest culture shock was the amount of money everyone seemed to have. It’s not fair to say “everyone” because there were other students at my college on scholarship, but it seemed like almost everyone had been living in an entirely different world than the one I grew up in. I still remember things I said during some college classes, and, looking back, I think, “Wow…I must have sounded like such a hick.”
I even did have a boyfriend later in college who re-taught me how to say certain words. It was very My Fair Lady. I used to say cement as “See-Ment” and vehicle as “vee-hick-al” and a bunch of other things that would have been embarrassing to have kept saying my entire life. On the one hand, it’s very sad and classist and patriarchal that he did that, but on the other hand, I’m sure it’s helped in the very real, prejudiced world in which we live.
I think of stories that some of my friends who grew up in really different lifestyles have told me, and when I was younger, I might have envied them, but I don’t now. It doesn’t sound interesting to have gone to concerts or movies every weekend or to have had crazy parties at someone’s house where there were more people at the party than in my entire high school. I think the quiet life I grew up with was training me to be a writer all along.
Kimball: I grew up in an ungrammatical family and I often think that that way of talking made me into the kind of fiction writer I am today. Are there other parts of your biography that were formative for you as a poet?
Beers: I’ve tried and tried to come up with a different answer than what I’m going to write, but I can’t. I think growing up around a lot of chaos made me realize that anything could happen. By chaos, I think I mean “mental illness,” but that sounds a lot sadder and less poetic than I wanted to sound. You’ve already written about my kidnapping when I was four on life story blog, and I talk about it in my poem, “Flashback.” Basically, one day, my mom just told my little sister and me to put our favorite toys in a laundry basket, and she put us in the car, and we drove from Indiana to Texas. I think I learned early on that life is unpredictable. I don’t know if my mom had a plan at all, but we stayed with the most amazing array of people. We stayed with her friend Vangie (short for Evangelina). One of my memories of that is that Vangie’s family would speak Spanish when it was just them together, and I woke up and heard a lot of Spanish, then the word “burritos,” which I recognized. I woke my mother up, “They’re having burritos!” She tried to tell me I was dreaming and to go back to sleep, but when we got up, there were breakfast burritos.
We also stayed with a friend of my mother’s named Nancy. She was blind and had a little Pomeranian I was obsessed with, but the dog did not like children and always snapped at me. I was still always crawling under the kitchen table to try to pet him. I remember loving to touch Nancy’s Braille newspapers and being fascinated that she could read that way, when I couldn’t read at all yet.
Another person we stayed with was Mrs. Thompson. I remember that she was a complete stranger, just an old lady sitting on the porch with a border collie, and my mom stopped the car, told Mrs. Thompson her story, and asked if we could stay there.
We stayed with a lot of other people, but this is just the abbreviated version. And this was all when I was four.
My dad also had great stories about his brother (my Uncle Jack) who had been Bobby Fischer’s best friend and was mentioned on the first page of Brad Darrach’s Bobby Fischer vs. the Rest of the World. I only met Jack once. He came to visit when I was in, maybe, eighth or ninth grade, and he had a paranoid delusion that we had had him injected with the AIDS virus (he had gotten a booster shot while he visited us since he hadn’t been to a doctor in forever) and that our whole town was in on it. When he got back to New York, he would call my dad crying, begging him for the antidote and asking why we would do that to him. I don’t know how long that went on, but I’m sure it was at least a year.
There are many, many other family stories like this, but it made me realize that life is unpredictable. Sometimes my students will write works (fiction and poetry), which aren’t at all surprising, and I think, “Wow. They must have had boring lives if they think this is exciting.” Growing up with a lot of mental illness around meant that anything could happen, or at least people could believe that anything could happen. I had a cousin take her kids and her brother’s kids out into a field with a jar full of change to wait for Jesus, and it was so cold they all could have frozen to death; a relative from my grandmother’s generation shot all of her kids, and it was the truancy officer who discovered the crime scene when he came to see why the kids hadn’t come to school. Anything can happen, and that’s, perhaps, the most important ingredient in creative writing.