by M. F. Simone Roberts
This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2016.
Pre-registration will close today, Thursday, March 31, at midnight at Split This Rock's website. Please, register now.
Jan Beatty’s fourth book, The Switching/Yard, was named by Library Journal as one of ...30 New Books That Will Help You Rediscover Poetry. The Huffington Post called her one of ten “advanced women poets for required reading.” Her new book, Jackknife: New and Selected Poems, will be published in Spring, 2017 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Other books include Red Sugar (2008, Finalist, Paterson Prize), Boneshaker (2002), and Mad River (1994 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize). Limited edition chapbooks include Ravage, published by Lefty Blondie Press in 2012, and Ravenous, winner of the 1995 State Street Prize. Beatty hosts and produces Prosody, a public radio show on NPR affiliate WESA-FM featuring national writers. She worked as a welfare caseworker, an abortion counselor, in maximum security prisons, and as a waitress for fifteen years. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, Best American Poetry, and awards include the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, two PCA fellowships, and the $15,000 Creative Achievement Award from the Heinz Foundation. Beatty has read her work widely, at venues such as the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival, Split This Rock, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and the Madwomen in the Attic Workshops, where she teaches in the MFA program.
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Simone Roberts (MFSR): Let’s start by getting one subject out of the way. In your interviews, it’s clear that you’re surprised that readers or critics are surprised/outraged that one of your major themes is violence and everyday brutality enacted on women. I’m surprised, too. Their tone simpers as if they’ve just never read such hard and bruising imagery before, as if you are doing something unfair to them. It’s clear there’s a patriarchal taboo here. Their problem seems to be that when men’s poetry glorifies the brutality they inflict on each other it’s heroism, and your poetry is guilty of messing with that heroic masculine. As if violence is only heroic, instead of mostly just venal and selfish and ego-serving, and inflicted on intimates. I’m sure you’re a little tired of talking about the “scandal” of your realism. Instead, I want to ask you this: how would you like to see people (poets, teachers, readers) using poetry to connect intimate safety with social justice for women?
Jan Beatty (JB): Well, messing with the “heroic masculine” is still apparently a cultural crime. In answer to your question, I always want to return to the power of one voice. A woman speaking what is true for her can make a door where there is no door—that’s the power that I trust, that I live inside of. I don’t have a plan or desire for how I’d like to see people use “…poetry to connect intimate safety with social justice for women.” As long as women continue to write what is unspeakable to them, to write the brutality that happens to them—what they know in their bodies to be real and relentless, and totally unacceptable—then those voices will rise to help other women. As you know, this violence against women is deep, it happens every day all day—and yet, when women speak of it, there is tremendous resistance. We need to write the resistance and read the tough poems at readings—you never know who is listening, who needs to hear that she is not alone.
I have the privilege of directing the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, a program for women writers ages 18-94. Our entire reason for existence is to sandblast the invisibility of women writers. Part of our mission statement is that we “…value women’s work as writers, dreamers, and architects of society.” There are women who first joined Madwomen, saying: “I couldn’t write until my husband died. I was too afraid.” We have young women who are afraid to use the pronoun “I” in a poem, because some male teacher told them that it was self-involved. Talk to any woman, go to any writing class, and you’ll find stories that need to be told, but have been suppressed by violence against women—physical, emotional, psychic—whether in the world at large, in the academy, or by the white male poetry mafia. So, my suggestion is always to go to the power of the singular female voice in speaking and writing.
MFSR: “Three Faces and All These Fallen Gods” has a lot going on: The Missing Father, transgressive sex, and child’s longing. But, the interesting theme to me, the deeper register in the poem is about the world, or men, just not being *enough* -- real enough, intense enough, seductive enough for some kinds of personalities.
Younger, I spent many years wishing men
would say something hotter than I could think of--they never did.
would say something hotter than I could think of--they never did.
Because really, I want to be relieved of making it all up--
let them run it hard and right for a change.
For me, this theme marks a lot of your work -- missing the mark. So, in the other direction: What satisfies in this time? This might be a question about poetry, or poetics, but it might be about the world in which we make them.
JB: I guess the idea of missing the mark feels like an understatement. For me, it’s more like the great morass between how things are and how things need to be in terms of social justice. I’m obsessive and driven—and don’t think in terms of satisfaction that much, but in terms of striving, aiming towards a deepening in my own work. What that usually means for me is complication. How can I complicate the question or subject so that I can get to the heart of it? How can I strip off the easy, down to the metal inside us? What comes after our radiant failures?
MFSR: While we’re on brighter thoughts, I wonder, what’s the poem keeping you company these days? What’s the poem you’re rolling over in your mind?
JB: As part of the Madwomen Reading Series, we just hosted the amazing writer Diane Glancy. Her new book, Report to the Department of the Interior is filled with stunning poems of land and body—poems about the forced “education” of Native American children in boarding schools. There’s a poem, “Those Old Voices Are Always With Me,” that is just transforming—but you have to buy the book.
MFSR: Another major theme for you is the lost family, your search for your birth parents, all the biological and biographical holes in your personal narrative, even the everyone-and-no oneness of your biological father. As a reader, it makes me feel protective of you when I read these passages. Not that you want that, and not that your position is all that unique, but you are one of the very few women who write about it. We could take “Ghostdaddys” for an example.
My reach was endless, I was
birthed in a meteor shower and
all the stars knew my name.
My face the face no/
father, unrecognizable/so why not?
I was the ultimate cum-shot,
I was the wildly surviving thing,
racing after ghostdaddys in dreams
Dear father, whoever you are,
I hope the sex was ravenous,
with cross/checking, slashing/
I hope there were slats of light everywhere
to see my star on the other side.
to see my star on the other side.
Abstracting this a whole bunch though, do you feel that this fact of your life puts you in a poetically or politically useful relation to the social currents of our era? Questions about location, belonging, identity, really realness -- they seem to be sticking around our culture, and for you are shaped by your being a daughter rather than a son.
JB: Thanks for asking about this. I do think my position is unique in that I’m not only writing about location, belonging, identity—but writing about it through the lens of adoption. Many people will say, “I had a terrible mother, or my mother died, or I was raised by my aunt,” etc. etc. Although I’m sorry for their situation—not knowing who you are, where you came from—is a very different trauma. I spent my first year in Roselia Asylum and Maternity Hospital in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, PA, and didn’t know my real name until I was in my late thirties. Walking around the world not knowing is an extreme dislocation. The culture then steals your name and history and wants you to be grateful for it. That’s where I first learned brutality and the need for truth. So, yes, I think that I’m in a position to write the “real” body in a politically necessary way.
MFSR: You write often about the hole of “no dad” and the hole of “mother’s anger” that mark many of us. Parents check out in so many ways. And that’s usually the first of many dings and cuts. Then the world comes for (many of) us. One very human response to that is to beat the life out of ourselves. Booze and drugs are two easy ways we do this, there are others. It’s going to feel like whiplash to ask it this way, but Starhawk’s new novel is about how we who are damaged in this world might fare when we (always have to) build the next world. It got me thinking, and I wonder how you take the idea: what to do with our damage in and as we make that other community?
JB: Although it sounds dramatic, I really don’t think I’d be here, that I would have survived, without poetry. As a young child, writing gave me a world to live in, a place to escape to. Years of bad poems and locked journals under my bed. I know that many writers have this experience. But, although poetry can bring release and bring speech to the page, I don’t believe in poetry as therapy. What to do with our damage—I would say that we each need to do the individual work needed to heal ourselves. I’ve been in therapy for many years. The healthier I become, the more I can bring to a community of writers or students. But, of course, everyone needs to do what they want to do. All of the damage that we carry has great capacity to help others—it could be through writing, speaking, or just walking around as ourselves. The poet Maggie Anderson used to say that she pictures an older woman somewhere who needs to hear what she has to say. This helps her to write. You never know who is getting something from what you say or write. I know that I couldn’t write some of my tougher poems without the women writers who came before me, and who are writing today. When I am afraid to put something on the page, I think of Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn Brooks—how did they write their brave poems at a time when women’s writing was barely being published? I hope that I can contribute to that community of writers.
MFSR: The feminine voice in your poems isn’t afraid of her power. “Tomorrow in the open I will be legion-- / you will see me bleeding from every pore, / a woman in the switching/yard,” she says, coming into the land of her birth father’s people, the voice of that connection coming on cosmic. This is also a speaker who would, if she could, shoot her no-good boyfriend. I like her, identify with her on lots of levels. Not because she’s edgy, but because she’s in herself, and that doesn’t mean her life is neat and tidy. She may not be you, but she’s related to the poet who puts “Switching” -- “she became her own father” -- right next to “Dear American Poetry,” and doesn’t wink. The two make a triptych with “Stein: Letter to a Young Rilke,” advising the mystic to earth it up a bit. The place your poems live in Switching/Yard seems to be that place Virginia Woolf was describing when she talked about writers and “bisexual” minds (her usage, not mine). What you’re describing here is a kind of gender fluidity we don’t explore all that often, one that naturally and consciously and deliberately takes on the symbolism and textures of traditional masculinity. What’s your thinking about gender spectra, and switching, and the place of not-apologizing for inhabiting a whole self?
JB: Well, yes, I don’t want to be confined to one kind of voice or gender or one kind of gender, etc. I wouldn’t call the voice in my poems a “feminine” voice, but a woman’s voice. A woman who switches, yes—sometimes speaking as a man, a father. Sometimes speaking in a more fluid way, across a range of voice. I don’t know why someone would apologize for inhabiting a whole self, since that’s what we are. I don’t mean to imply that any of this comes easily. The problem seems to come in saying we are this or that----since that rules out other this or that’s. I think that this switching is common and explored a lot—but I would like to see a lot more acceptance of fluidity, since that would give us all room to breathe. I’ve never been a fan of categories. If I step in one, I’ve got one foot out the door, which is the way I like it.
MFSR: And that question, has something to do with poetry and publishing. In the small world of literary criticism or theory, we go around and around about how and if people are shaped by official or sanctioned culture, when that culture is made by (a small group of people), and how or if that culture is a machine for discipline, for lopping off parts of the psyche, the body, our ability to be fully. Split This Rock was delighted to publish “Dear American Poetry” as a Poem of the Week because we know in very great depth that American poetry is vibrating now with voices that put paid to the myths of that official culture, including its ideas about what poems are and why. What’s been the most promising trend or even insurrection that you’ve noticed over the last ten years or so?
JB: Yes, thank you for publishing “Dear American Poetry”—I thought it was brave of you. Well, I would say that Cave Canem has really changed American poetry in a much-needed way, supporting the work of African American poets. Also, the terrific journal, Bloom, published by Charles Flowers, has brought more visibility to the voices of queer writers. And Split This Rock has become such a great, energized movement for poetry as political action and diversity.
MFSR: One thing I really admire in your poetic is your insistence that the poem take the shape and form, or lack of it, that its subject and tone require. Better to stretch form than to silence a truth seems to be your way. Poems come fragmented, poems come linear, they’re full or bare of metaphor, like the range in Red Sugar. And you let some of your poems talk about themselves in ways that could be annoyingly ironic and “meta” and are instead admissions that you’re borrowing and running with it, as in Switching/Yard. How does that set of choices work for you? How much “listening” to your poems do you need to do to see their form?
JB: I’ve always tried to focus on writing the poem. What I mean is that I actively fight against any idea of project or plan or received form. Partially because I hate the idea of a project or guidelines that would limit or constrain what I would write about—but also, because I’m a big fan of organic form. I like what Levertov said about working intuitively: “… content and form are in a state of dynamic interaction; the understanding of whether an experience is a linear sequence or a constellation raying out from and into a central focus or axis, for instance, is discoverable only in the work, not before it.”
I’ve always been a fan of “finding the poem in my body,” as in working intuitively, combined with research, experience to be open to the poem forming. I’m a slow writer, and I believe in letting poems sit and develop. After usually many, many revisions over time, I’ll come to the poem. When I finished the manuscript for my first book, Mad River, I thought I had a problem because it had taken me ten years to write the book. There was a variation of tone and form that I thought was a weakness, but my editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press, Ed Ochester, told me that this variation was a strength of the book. I was happy to hear this, since I need a lot of room in my life and in my work—and I balk at the fixed idea of narrative arc, what seems to me to be a restrictive, conservative structure.
MFSR: What’s next for you? What are you imagining and working on now?
JB: I have a book coming out in Spring, 2017—Jackknife: New and Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press. I also have a lyrical nonfiction book on adoption called American Bastard that I’m hoping to get published soon. I’m looking for a publisher, so if anyone has a lead, let me know. Other than that, I’ve got some new poems that seem to have to do with women bodies and maps.
Thanks, Simone, for the interview and all the time spent on this. Best of luck with your work.
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Beatty notes her press on her website: janbeatty.com. For this interview, I was inspired by these:
- The Poet on the Poem: Jan Beatty at Blogalicious
- Review of The Switching/Yard by Jan Beatty by Kay Cosgrove at Green Mountain Review
- The Switching/Yard by Jan Beatty, Jacob Victorine at Muzzle Magazine
- JAN BEATTY’S "SHOOTER," A CONTROVERSY FOR FEMINIST & GENDER POLITICS, BY MARY KATE AZCUY at HEART ONLINE
M. F. Simone Roberts is the Poetry & Social Justice Fellow for Split This Rock. Roberts is an independent scholar of poetics and feminist phenomenology, a poet, editor, and activist. She is co-editor of the anthology Iris Murdoch and the Moral Imagination: Essays and author of the critical monograph A Poetics of Being-Two: Irigaray's Ethics and Post-Symbolist Poetics. Her poems are coming soon to a journal near you. Descendant of both aristocrats and serfs, she adventures this world with her consort, Adam Silverman.