The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show #10: Nicky Beer

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Nicky Beer is the author of The Octopus Game and The Diminishing House, winner of the 2010 Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Her awards include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a scholarship and a fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a Discovery/The Nation Award. She has been stranded on a fjord, had her teeth licked by a wolf, and owns a personally autographed photo of Geena Davis. She is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the journal Copper Nickel, and once saw a Cooper’s hawk eviscerate a squirrel on her way to class.

Nicky’s turn-ons include: Tom Waits, Skeeball, CuteOverload.com, tongue tacos, senior citizens in punk rock attire, having a bag of Reese’s Miniature Cups in the fridge, and getting a whiff of skunk through an open window late on a summer’s night. Turnoffs: Ferrets, ham that tastes like a salted Dr. Scholl’s insert, Bill Paxton, recipes that measure garlic only by the clove, and supermarkets who place products impossibly high or too far back on shelves, obliging her, at 5’5″, to engage in impromptu parkour to secure a can of chickpeas.

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The Rumpus: My fellow citizens—those of you watching at home or streaming online from the lonely airports and depots and burrito joints across this land, please welcome to the Late Nite studio one of my favorite poets, the lovely and talented Nicky Beer!

Come on out here, Nicky. Welcome to the show!

Nicky Beer: Whooo! Hi folks! Hi Dave!

Rumpus: We’re so happy you’re here with us tonight. Is it an easy flight in from Denver?

Beer: Once they strap me down and fill me with Bailey’s it’s a dream. That band sounds AMAZING! When did you add the guy with the theremin?

Rumpus: You don’t expect me to know much about that, now do you? We’ve got Anton running things over there. He’s a bit mercurial, but… wait, did you say theremin?

Beer: It’s a very erotic instrument.

Rumpus: Is that what passes for erotic in Colorado? That thing looks like my uncle Lou’s short-wave radio.

Beer: No lie: I once went to a wedding that had TWO theremins on hand. Now that weed is legal, we’re operating on a whole other level. You walk through Denver and people are just rubbing themselves against parking meters for kicks

Rumpus: I’m glad you confirmed our deepest suspicions. I’m also glad you found our smoking lounge behind the green room.

Beer: [Cough, cough] Thanks much for the economy sized vat of salt and vinegar chips, by the way. I was doing the backstroke in there.

Rumpus: When we get to the break I’ll have Gerry the intern bring you more munchies. That kid’s been loafing around the studio all week.Beer's The Octopus Game cover

But Nicky—we’ve got this new book of yours to discuss, The Octopus Game. Look at this gorgeous thing. What a cover!

Beer: Isn’t it terrific? Everyone needs to check out Sandra Yagi’s work, tout suite!

Rumpus: It’s fantastically creepy. I thought maybe the octopus gripping that shark was a bit of a stretch until I saw this video. Holy crap!

Beer: I love that one! The octopus is all “Jaws, my ass—c’mere ya little hors d’oeuvre!”

Rumpus: I know. Wow. Is it okay to say you’re an odd species yourself, as far as poets go? Not many bards would choose an octopus as her muse. How did this whole thing gain steam?

Beer: Actually, that video is a pretty good depiction of how the octopus chose me!

Rumpus: Yeah?

Beer: Many years ago, I was strolling through the Tennessee Aquarium with my family—as ya do. And they had a very charismatic octopus in a display—just showing off, noodling around with a Mr. Potato Head doll that was in the tank.

Rumpus: I’ve been looking at octopus videos for days on end after reading your book. They’re noodlers for sure. Smart little bastards.

Beer: Damn right. I tell people I wrote the book purely as a kiss-ass gesture for when they eventually take over the earth.

Rumpus: It’s good to think ahead.

Beer: So this octopus at the aquarium just floored me. I was so goddammed charmed, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wrote one poem, and then wrote another, and another…

And I was lucky enough to have some time with Carl Phillips, who was doing a residency at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I was finishing up my PhD. I told him that my plans were to turn the stuff into an eight-poem sequence about the octopus, to which he replied, “Why stop at eight poems?” Cue heavenly music and spotlight. I was off and running from there.

Rumpus: Props to Carl. But rewind for a sec. Did you leave the aquarium knowing you were going to write poems about an octopus?

Beer: I don’t think I knew for sure. I actually thought I was going to write about the weedy sea-dragon exhibit next to the octopus tank, but afterwards, my mind kept circling back to the octopus.

Rumpus: How much time elapsed between the aquarium and the first poem, which I’m guessing was “Octopus Vulgaris,” right? The audience can link to that poem here.

Beer: Yes, that’s it—I think at least a year. A lot of my poems take a long time to marinate.

Rumpus: So it marinated, like a calamari recipe, for a year. Interesting. You must have been working on other poems during that stretch.

Beer: I was—I think I was still working on the later poems from The Diminishing House.

Rumpus: Which is your first book. So there was some overlap. I like thinking of the octopus lingering there in your mind for that long, waiting for you to capture it.

There are so many wonderfully imaginative descriptions in the poem, like this one: “blue-blooded, three-hearted hedonist.” If I hadn’t become a late-night television megastar, I’d want to be that.

Beer: There’s still time!

Rumpus: Hmm… if you’ve got some of that good Denver product, I can log some hedonism-hours after the show.

But back to this poem’s descriptions: “time-lapse lily,” “self-tossed parachute of cream and coral,” “Gehry porticoes against the thick plate addled by green neon.” This is expressive writing of a different order—not plainspoken at all. Where does all this unusual description come from?

Beer: I’d say it’s from an unrepentant infatuation with the English language. I love being able to mine both its imagistic and musical qualities in tandem. I love writing lines that feel like I’ve got a mouth full of delicious verbal food when I say them out loud—and I’m usually reading aloud pretty frequently throughout the whole composition process.

Rumpus: Reading your own work aloud, you mean? Your drafts?

Beer: You betcha!

Rumpus: Well I envy that marriage of eye and ear at work in this poem and so many others from the book. Your title, The Octopus Game, suggests to me that perhaps you’re writing process is playful, that play is important to you.

Beer: Absolutely—no question about it. There has to be an element of play in one’s art, or we become too damn self-serious. And all the play that young animals do—that’s all practice for the serious business of hunting and self-defense they’ll grow into. So play is inextricable from seriousness.

Rumpus: There’s an interesting moment in the last stanza of “Octopus Vulgaris.” You write, “Just looking, / you think, as if such an enterprise / were safe.” Is that the moment you described in the Tennessee Aquarium—the octopus with Mr. Potato Head wrapping its tentacles around your imagination? To me it reads like the imaginative seed of the whole book.

Beer: It’s funny—I think that moment actually came much later in the revision process. If memory serves, it was probably from when I was trying to figure out the “so what” of the poem. I.e.: “Okay, you’re digging on this octopus, Beer. So fucking what?”

Rumpus: Which is an important question to ask.

Beer: So that led me to think about this notion that looking is never an innocent enterprise—that there’s always some kind of power dynamic involved, and one, or both, of the parties in the “looking exchange” can be changed as a result. Rita Dove’s “Agosta Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove” is a poem that addresses that idea wonderfully.

Rumpus: You’re right! What a good comparison. I love the final gesture at the end of that poem: “Not / the canvas / but their gaze, / so calm / was merciless.”

Some poets and readers, of course, are suspicious of poems with a so-called “subject.” Do you ever worry about this?

Beer: Hell no. Probably because I find myself gravitating towards odd subject matter all the time.

Rumpus: Yeah, I figured that’s something you probably couldn’t afford to worry about. I think it’s sort of a specious argument anyway. In the end, good poems are made of beautiful sentences whether or not they’re directed at a “subject.” The octopus obviously inspires you—she brings out your A-game!

Beer: Absolutely! I’m so frequently led to a poem by subject matter—it’s what gets my brain going on to goofy tangents, trying to figure out how voice, form, etc. are all going to negotiate turning the subject into art.

The Diminishing House CoverRumpus: Me too. Otherwise we’d just be writing poems that sounded like this.

Beer: Oh man—but what I wouldn’t give to do an entire reading in that mode, just once!

Rumpus: I wonder how the crowd would react? Probably depends on the scene.

Beer: I think at least a few people would think I was a genius, while others would think I was lapsing into a fugue state. “Machine kissed with butter.”

Rumpus: It’s funny. People seem to forget that Dan Ackroyd co-invented flarf.

I’m swerving back to the poem now one more time. There’s this word, “girandoles,” I had to look up. In fact, I looked up a bunch of words in the book: maquillage, cloques, goffers, chromophores, phlogiston. While reading, I thought to myself that you love words, sheer words, maybe more than any contemporary poet I can name.

Beer: I’m a collector! Actually, it’s something I make my students do—keep a journal for an entire semester where they collect unfamiliar words.

Rumpus: That’s cool. But I’d hate to play you in Words with Friends.

Beer: I can get pretty compulsive with computer games, especially word games. There was a time when I was racking up five or six Scrabble computer games a night. I had to swear it off for a bit.

Rumpus: By the way, what the heck is “phlogiston”? My dictionary app didn’t have it.

Beer: Hang on—“The phlogiston theory is an obsolete scientific theory that postulated a fire-like element called phlogiston, contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion. The name comes from the Ancient Greek. It was first stated in 1667 by Johann Joachim Becher. The theory attempted to explain burning processes such as combustion and rusting, which are now collectively known as oxidation.”

Aren’t you impressed that I managed to summon all that from memory, under these hot lights?

Rumpus: I think I just heard the sound of all 29 of our viewers sleepily clambering for their remotes. Can I ask you some more questions about the book before they click over to Lizard Lick Towing?

Beer: Anything for you, Dave!

Rumpus: I don’t want to cut to a commercial before talking about the strong cinematic element running through The Octopus Game. “Bela on the Shore, 1955” is one of my favorites, which refers to Bela Lugosi in some lousy Ed Wood film. Bride of the Monster, I think. And “Nature Film, Directed by Martin Scorsese.” And “Phlogiston Footage.” See? I’m still hung up on this phlogiston thing.

Talk about the various cinematic frameworks and references. They’re unusual.

Beer: One of the things that attracted me to the octopus was its malleability; its ability to manipulate its own form into something else, often for the sake of illusion. So filmmaking struck me as an artistic medium that has a similar agenda—think about how many sex scenes in movies are so effectively done that they make us forget that the sweaty, heaving couple are usually surrounded by a bunch of burly, hairy dudes holding boom mikes and a PA holding the director’s kombucha.

And actors, too, are all about being able to shape-shift. That seems to have a great deal of kinship with octopuses, too.

Rumpus: One of the recurrent themes in the book, I think, is this wonderful subtle comparison between what is human and what is octopus. The book contains so much wonder; these odd ocean creatures are elevated to our status as enigmatic, cerebral, protean species. You’re exactly right—we’re all shape-shifting actors.

Beer: We couldn’t survive our days without shifting and adapting to threats and opportunities.

Rumpus: Speaking of film and shape-shifting, you’re going to share with us a few of your favorite octopus YouTube clips, right? I’m assuming, since you live in landlocked Denver, you turned to online research for inspiration once these poems gained momentum.

Beer: Many of the poems were written in Kentucky, in a huge backyard amidst tobacco fields and horse pastures! Though the wind blowing through the grass often sounded like the ocean. And I visited the Georgia Aquarium, and the big ole Monterey Bay one. But yes, I’ve brought some clips!

Rumpus: Did these clips directly impact your poems?

Beer: This clip of the mimic octopus definitely epitomizes the moments of my early research when I learned about what terrific camouflage artists they are. I’d had no idea how incredibly talented they were, and what extraordinary evolutionary gifts they possessed.

Rumpus: Whoa! I feel like I’m hallucinating. And I haven’t even sampled that pakalolo you’ve stashed backstage.

Beer: To be able to change not just the color, but also the TEXTURE of one’s skin? And certain specific of cephalopods can emit light from their skin! That’s where “photophores” comes from. When I first started out, I think, like the average person, I’d thought they were kind of nifty and sinister-looking. But the more I learned, the more I fell in love.

Rumpus: I can see why.

Beer: Really, if you want your mind blown, just pick a species, and if you research long enough, your mind will be blown. There’s a species of hyena that gives birth through her damn clitoris! I mean, come on!

Rumpus: There you go again, using another one of your fancy words…

Beer: Oh, dude…

Rumpus: Hey, my mom’s watching the show. Got another clip? I think I might also have one you’ll dig.

Beer: Go for it!

Rumpus: If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.

Beer: How about this one?

Rumpus: That’s incredible. I love the eerie soundtrack too. Have you seen like every octopus YouTube video?

Beer: Probably not—and I think it’s only a matter of time before they open their own production studio and take over distribution.

Rumpus: Hell yeah, just corner the whole market. People need to see this stuff. This one is also pretty terrifying. Crabs are on the wrong end of the situation in a lot of these videos, I’m afraid.

Beer: It’s true, and since my astrological sign is Cancer, I really should feel guiltier about rooting for the octopus here. But let’s face it—crabs are delicious.

Rumpus: Hey, don’t sell calamari short! We’ve got to balance the equation with one more clip. Have you seen it?

Beer: Whoa, that was some seriously intense shit! There was something about the trajectory of the underwater footage that made them look like they were skydiving as they fought. Remind me never to get on the wrong side of a sea lion.

Rumpus: Poetry-wise, what have you been working on lately? I suppose you’re trying to get as far away from octopus poems as possible, right?

Beer: You know, I thought that’s what I’d be doing, but I think the ideas of camouflage and illusion from the second book are extending into this next book as well. The working title is Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes. Right now I’m working on a poem about stereoscopy, that phenomenon when two similar two-dimensional pictures are placed side by side to give the visual illusion of being 3-D.

Rumpus: Any chance we can help you continue writing new work? I’ve got a hell of a Three Obstructions assignment I’ve devised just for you. I guarantee it’ll be more challenging than opening a jar is for an octopus.

Beer: Do your worst, Roderick!

Rumpus: Let’s see if this gets the old creative juices flowing.

By the way, if anyone in the audience wants to give this a try, post your draft in the box down below. We’ll send a copy of The Octopus Game to the first viewer who takes a real shot at the assignment.

Your Three Obstructions:

  1. Write an ode to a Kaiserpanorama.
  2. Use 5-line stanzas.
  3. The poem must borrow at least two quotations from this video of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

 

Take that, Nicky Beer! What do you think? You scared? 

Beer: Those obstructions wandered into the wrong tidepool—I’m gonna tear their little claws apart!

Kaiserpanorama at the Ossuary

Twenty-four human pelvises
carousel-mounted so that spectators
might gaze through those holes
around which the ischium and pubis fuse
as if through a prehistoric lorgnette

The tourists come for the famous
hand-colored stereoscopic slides
of skeletons posed in assorted historic
scenes   One dressed as Galileo
on a balcony overthrusting a Paduan cityscape

his empty sockets trained
upon the eyepiece of a telescope
Another shows a looming Annunciation
where an anatomical Holy Mother gravely studies
her metacarpals as fleshless cherubs throng

above her wimpled skull There goes
Hannibal perched upon a rearticulated
elephant as the Alpine sun through
their ribcages throws a bowed grid
behind their forced perspective path

To keep the mechanism from rattling
the proprietor lubricates each gear
with an owl feather dipped in butter
By the end of a busy day the machine
smells like a third-rate boulangerie

In a shabby bombazine his wife
perches on a high stool at the door
Clicks the larger coins between her knuckles
when her mind drifts out the low window
Their sallow daughter proffers bags of popcorn

Once had her cheek half-heartedly pinched
by the Bohemian ambassador It takes
the whole family to keep the bones
rolling over their casters   To pull the bodies away
from the other local attractions   The missus curses

the newly-arrived dancing bear Though sometimes
he muses that an African parrot might give
the place some tone   Could be taught
to say Good morning Madam   Your children require
educational entertainment   It would be my pleasure Madam

But the daughter has crept into the gallery
after hours and stood in the gaslit dim
Peeled her pettistuffs away and pressed
her bare sex against each of the two
dozen stools   Clamped her right eye shut

and felt the chilled press of the brass oculus
against her damp eyelid   Choosing to regard
only one picture at a time   Refusing the illusion
Turning her cheek to the blank hip   Dreaming
of the worshipped fresco her spine will become

Rumpus: Nicky Beer, two things. First of all, I’m pretty sure you’ve just broken a Late Nite record by writing such a long piece during the commercial break. Second, um… no punctuation? What gives?

Beer: I think there’s something disorienting about a poem that appears in regular stanzas, but lacks punctuation—at first glance, the form of the poem seems tidy and law-abiding, but you don’t find any commas, periods, etc. to further anchor your intake of the sentences. Since the first thing I’m asking the reader to imagine is having to view stereoscopic slides by peering though the holes in mounted human pelvises, I thought that seemed like an appropriate formal choice.

Rumpus: I’m hunting around for the passages you borrowed from Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. All I’ve got is “It takes a whole family.” Where might we find it, madam? My contract requires that I hold you accountable for these Three Obstruction rules, you know.

Beer: I put one of my favorite Marcel’s lines into the mouth of the imagined parrot: “It would be my pleasure!”

Rumpus: Just trying to make sure everything’s on the up-and-up here, chief. Brilliantly done. It’s a powerhouse draft.

Beer: Thank you, Dave! I owe it all to the performance-enhancing drug of your obstructions. And opium.

Rumpus: Anything else you want to say to the good folks out there who hung in for the whole show?

Beer: Yes. Which of you bastards ate the rest of my salt and vinegar chips?

Rumpus: Where’s Gerry the intern? Gerry!

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Read more about Nicky Beer at her website.

Stay tuned for Episode #11 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Cate Marvin.


David Roderick’s latest book of poems is The Americans. He also has a website and can be followed on Twitter. More from this author →