Friday, October 2, 2009

Up Close and Poetical: Jan Beatty

Welcome to the first in a series of profiles of featured poets here at Blog This Rock. The series, titled "Up Close and Poetical," aims to introduce you to our featured poets and their body of work.

Jan Beatty writes about class, joining poets like Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, and Jim Daniels among others in a tradition of telling working class stories from lived experience, tackling an American taboo even greater than race. In a 2008 interview, she told Classical QED 89.3 Pittsburgh that class runs through her books, Mad River, Boneshaker, and the latest, Red Sugar, often as an issue of survival. This concern with the lives of those without privilege reflects Beatty’s life and career. Although she currently runs the Mad Women in the Attic writing workshop at Carlow University, Beatty has lived a life of blue collar work. She has been a waitress, an experience that continues to inform her poems, perhaps most famously through “A Waitress’ Instructions on Tipping,” found in 1995’s Mad River. She worked as a rape counselor, briefly in a maximum security prison, and as a welfare case worker. Of the latter, she says, in an interview with KDKA Television, Pittsburgh, it was “tough work,” and she struggled to separate herself from her clients. This connectedness to the lives and battles of others, though, makes Beatty’s poems so moving.

However, when asked if her poems are biographical, or if they tell any one person’s real story, Beatty balks. “Ultimately,” she asserts, “it’s not so important what’s real, supposedly real, what isn’t, but what is the poem conveying.” And her poems convey a sense of the body, of Pittsburgh, and of brutality. There is too much “shying away” from brutality, Beatty told Bill O’Driscoll in an April 2008 interview in the Pittsburgh City Paper, particularly in a world where it is everywhere. She positions her latest book, Red Sugar, as a “tug of war between the romantic and the brutal,” differing from Boneshaker, her 2002 release, in that Red Sugar pushes deeper into the inside of the body. This is what inspires Beatty’s work, this “going deep and looking at the body, a woman’s body, a woman walking around the world.” In her poems, we see the experience of working women walking around Pittsburgh; the city and its economic hardships come alive in her poems, which are filled with such a sense of locality that Beatty might be mistaken for a regional poet. Make no mistake though: the Pittsburgh sensibility has as much to do with Beatty’s working class background as it does with poetic material.

Born in a foundling home, and adopted by a steelworker and his wife, Beatty was the first in her family to go to college. “It took me a long time to get to poetry because of class,” Beatty candidly declares. She wasn’t raised with the idea of becoming a poet or a writer as a career, but as a result, Beatty has made it part of her project to make poetry accessible. Her writing workshop is open to women of all ages, and she teaches at least one student in her 90’s. Her language is straightforward, clear; her poems have working class speakers. “People have a fear of poetry,” she states. “That’s one thing I want to do with Prosody [a poetry radio show and podcast Beatty hosts]… is say, ‘Look, this is for everybody’.”
This move toward accessibility doesn’t result in a reticence about tough issues. A review of Boneshaker in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette claims “rebelliousness becomes the ethos with which Beatty challenges American mores…. [She is] creating a world in which our cultural assumptions don’t hold up.” In Red Sugar, Beatty continues this resistance to norms. She says of her poem “I Saw One of Blake’s Angels,” “I want the speaker of the poems to be indicted most of the time. I hate this idea of the separate observer who’s not involved. I want interaction, I want communication. I want them to ram into each other. I want something to happen.”

Something happens indeed. Beatty’s poems indict the reader as well as the speaker; there’s no slipping away. We remain haunted and changed by what the poems witness.

Jan Beatty will be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 10-13, 2010. See the website for more details:

Katherine Howell is the Blog Goddess and Communications and Development Assistant for Split This Rock Poetry Festival; she lives and writes in Washington, D.C. Her review of Jan Beatty's Red Sugar can be found here. Other reviews by Katherine can be found here.

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