Chewing Rocks: A Conversation with David Biespiel

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In bohemian Boston in the 1980s, above Comm Ave by Ringer Park, young David Biespiel, a New England transplant from Houston, verbally spars with the droves of friends who come and leave in plumes of hash smoke while they consider the questions that form a life. How can we live in a world that shifts before we get a grasp on it? How can what we read inform the way we perceive spirit and body? What can we discover of ourselves by tracing our lineage—familial, literary, political—that will help us live more authentically?

The Education of a Young Poet begins with Biespiel following his great-grandfather as he moves to hardscrabble Iowa from Ukraine in 1910, where he’d wait ten years until his son and wife arrived. Biespiel’s empathy and attention to character are such that his consciousness merges with that of his family members: the “I” becomes a “we.” Later, Biespiel follows his grandfather to Brooklyn and into a shoebox apartment, where they pray to themselves in Yiddish—their “beauty-utterance”—to stave off loneliness. Biespiel connects with his ancestor so much that he mentions, “This room became the walls of every stanza I’ve ever known.”

A recipient of Lannan and Stegner Fellowships as well as an NEA grant, Biespiel is the author of five books of poetry and two previous books of nonfiction. The Education of a Young Poet, his Bildungsroman on how he came to be a poet, began as pieces written here at The Rumpus, where he authors the Poetry Wire column.

On a Monday afternoon in September, I spoke to Biespiel about how the work of a poet and memoirist involves being comfortable in uncertainty, extending moments in writing, and recalling the beauty of Tracy Chapman.

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The Rumpus: So what does a typical Monday look like for you?

David Biespiel: I got up early and took a walk. There’s a forty-acre park across the street from my house with a pond in the middle. I just finished half of a manuscript. I don’t know what it is, whether it’s a memoir or a novel. I was doing alignment so I could deal with that. And then I came to the office, here at the Attic Institute—our version of a one-year MFA program—and worked on some stuff for faculty and students. I had a conference with a student.

Rumpus: Do you teach poetry? Nonfiction?

Biespiel: I teach on the poetry side. I don’t know anything about nonfiction. [Laughs] I just try to write it.

To finish my Monday, I went and got my hair cut, came back to the Attic Institute, had a short meeting, and went and printed out said manuscript, got it bound, then came back, and took your phone call. I like to write in the afternoon, so if we weren’t talking, I’d probably spend a couple of hours writing. But I’m happy for a break.

Rumpus: You spend a lot of time working as a poet and critic. What compelled you to write a memoir as opposed to, say, a collection of confessional poems? Were there certain events in your life that you felt were better narrated through prose?

Biespiel: In some fashion, I’ve covered some of the same questions from The Education of a Young Poet in poems. Certainly drawing from autobiographical sources to write about the past. Certainly drawing from my own complex relationship with Judaism, writing about Texas where I grew up, and the epiphanies of the moment.

The pieces that went into The Education of a Young Poet began at The Rumpus as a way of answering the question, “David, how did you become a writer?” You can’t use just literature as your answer. You can’t say, “Well, I love Walt Whitman, and I love John Keats, and I really love Emily Dickinson.” I wanted to be like them. And then once I began studying those writers as poets, it led me to people who were influenced by them or the other way around. Then you read a next poet, and a next, all the way to antiquity. If you answered telling stories of your life, what would the answer be and how would you do it? Out of writing stories for The Rumpus, I turned to prose.

Rumpus: Your poems are exciting for their attention to language and word-level dynamics. Did you find writing the prose difficult, as someone who usually writes poems and critical work?

Biespiel: I kind of enjoyed it, I must confess. But for a long time, I saw writing prose as chewing rocks compared to the velocities of writing poetry.

Rumpus: In The Education of a Young Poet, you describe the Eros, the arousal, of slipping into the current of writing poems. And you find that writing prose is different?

Biespiel: Yeah, a lot more time in the chair. It’s slower, and I think that as poets, we can get away with stuff because we can ride on the melt of metaphor. We cover a lot of terrain psychically and temporally and linguistically via metaphor, and that can be a stand-in for an argument, whereas in prose, you have to make the argument, and you have to be convincing because the sequence must make sense in time and purpose.

Rumpus: A lot of the sequence in your book, instead of being in linear narrative, follows motion of mind and metaphor. Perhaps for that reason, some of your reviewers have talked about the “lyric” or “poetic” quality of your writing. Do you think that is an apt name for your style in the book?

Biespiel: Maybe it’s being lyrically received. I wasn’t trying to write lyrically. I was just trying to write with clarity and sensuality and a comfort with hovering in a moment, a stasis in which things are happening, in the lyric moment.

Rumpus: Being able to inhabit a moment and marinate in that moment.

Biespiel: Yeah—and to extend time. You’re able to, between walking from the couch over to the door, inside that space, hover for decades. And then you reach the door and walk out of the building. Kent Meyers, the fiction writer, calls it “infinite time.” You can blow out the terrain in the psyche. In real life, it’s much shorter. In lyric time, it can last much longer.

Rumpus: I notice that the text is, in a way, a hybrid—collaged with sections of songs or poems that relate directly to the events following and preceding them. How did outside texts/pieces figure into your writing of the book? Did you use songs and poems, for example, as a way of reentering the experiences? Or are they part of the “fiction” of memoir?

Biespiel: I think it was more organic in my case. It happened both ways. I sketched out some things, and afterward, I realized that was going on then and that was going on then. Then you do a little research and see, oh, what were the top forty songs that week? I love that song! And you know you were listening to it at that time.

I saw the quotations from poems and songs as being akin to documentary footage rather than something to explicate in a literary or critical way. They were the B-roll. So that, in the book, there was David talking, and then you give it over to Whitman, and you give the reader ninety seconds of his poems to give a sense of them before returning to the book’s core narratives.

Rumpus: It felt like that for me as a reader. Poems, because they’re music, do have an emotional resonance, and the ones you use infuse the sections that precede or follow them in the book.

Biespiel: Like a song in a musical. Let’s sing a song! The method is completely unnatural, but it’s a book.

Rumpus: In much of the book, you’re concerned with lineage. You talk about your poetic lineage and your political lineage, your family’s immigrating and settling in the New World. How did tracing your lineage illuminate or complicate the writing process?

Biespiel: That’s a good question. Literary lineage is part of your autobiography. The authors are the literary base, the image base, the character base that you bring into your civilian work. Same with film, architecture, music, sports. That’s one tributary of the autobiography.

Remember in high school, in the back of those biology textbooks that had the acid pages, there was the da Vinci human body? You turned the page over and saw the blood system, and then you turned the page and saw the muscles, and then you turned the page—it’s the same. There’s your DNA, your people, where they’re from, the stories they give you. And because they’re in memory, the only way you can keep them alive is to imagine you were there. Trying to expose them, the multiple narrative that make up your own myth, seems natural.

Rumpus: You’re a Southern boy, right? Did you experience any culture shock moving from Texas to bohemian Boston in the 80s?

Biespiel: Yeah, I think I did experience culture shock. When I first arrived in Boston, I was basically told to go home. “Homeboy” is what they called me—very funny. I didn’t take offense. I just thought, This is exactly where I want to be.

The pace was different. Houston is a sprawling city. Boston is just crammed into the size of a postage stamp. I had no experience with people who were prep-school-educated. I grew up in a very tight-knit Jewish community, and where I lived was majority non-Jewish as were my friends, but my cultural life was Jewish. So certain types of Protestant experiences I didn’t have any experience with when I got to Boston. You know, I’d never heard of the Grateful Dead. People were going to all these Dead shows and asking me whether I wanted to go to the Dead, and I said, “Who are they? I don’t think they ever played with George Jones.”

I never went to a Dead show, but I was seeking more complexity. I was certainly familiar with racial tension, which we have in Houston but which is very different in Boston. Well, “tension” isn’t the right word. In the South and all the way throughout the United States, there is systematized racism, but its character was different in the Northeast. I think it’s partly because, in Houston, blacks and whites aren’t so enclaved as they are in the North. In the South, there was much more interaction, it seemed to me. The deep, deep history of blacks and whites, and one enslaving the other, and them living on the same property. And there was what was said on the street and what was said behind closed doors in Houston, whereas in Boston, nothing was kept. If it was said, it was said on the street. And that culture shock was new to me.

Rumpus: You talk in the book of memorizing Kennedy’s speeches and eulogies for him and how Kennedy’s striving to right simple wrongs, to take risks, was important to you. Particularly in our political climate today, do you think that poets have a responsibility politically or civilly?

Biespiel: I’ve written about this on different occasions in different ways. In 2007, I wrote a piece in Poetry called “This Land Is Our Land,” and I made a call for poets to be more political in life. I was pretty explicit that poets can write whatever they want. I’m not going to tell people how to write, but we do have a skill set, and the more we put ourselves out into the world as poets, as a sort of poet of the tribe, as representatives of metaphor, and try to claim space for metaphor in the inner life, that’s going to be important and be helpful to poetry and bring a tension for poets writing about whatever they choose. That article caused a lot of controversy. But it’s interesting now how far in that direction so many American poets have gone, with their art and with their place in civil society.

In 2007, I was a lonely voice. There were other voices. Split This Rock was very involved in that. But because so many poets have chosen a political idiom right now in the United States and so many poets have assigned value and inherent knowledge to their racial identity and used that as a form of argumentation, I’m thinking now’s a good time to buy low for my own poems and write poems that are deeply in the interior and the psyche. There are plenty of people out there working on subjects of political poetry, partisan poetry, all the way through to crossing the threshold of propaganda. I start thinking now’s a good time for me to start writing about the myths of my own psyche.

Rumpus: There’s a bravery to writing in an unabashedly lyric way about the self in a time when personhood is splintered and questioned.

Biespiel: Yeah, and there’s not a big range in the political poetry of the last year, or not a political range. On the one hand, no poet that I know of who writes in English in the United States is anything but a humanist. So all poets, including myself, seem to be under that umbrella. We just don’t have Rush Limbaugh poets, Ann Coulter poets.

For many years on The Rumpus, I made a case against conceptual poetry. The movement to write poems from identity, just to put a broad stroke on it, is at least about a person living in the world.

Rumpus: I have to ask. What was it like meeting Tracy Chapman on the T in Boston on the way to a Mondale rally?

Biespiel: It was great. We just had a howdy-do, I’m David, I’m Tracy. I mean her first album hadn’t even come out, so she was just this pleasant, beautiful, friendly woman. And then I saw her performing at the rally. That was funny. And when she came out with her first album, my friends and I realized that she was the girl we saw on the T! I never saw her again, I mean in real life.

Rumpus: You write, “A writer’s job is not complete without attention to precision.” What is your revision process like and what constitutes precision in writing for you?

Biespiel: What you’re trying to be precise about is your relationship to the observed thing. And “observed thing” could include remembered thing, fantasized thing, fictionalized thing, recorded thing, trans-altered thing. It’s the model that’s in front of you or in your brain or your memory or whatever. So you’re trying to be precise about what it is you’re seeing because it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be able to depict it as it is.

If I tried to draw your face, Justin, if you were here—first of all, what arrogance could I have to think I could actually draw your face and account for all your human experience when I’ve only known you for, say, twenty minutes? So I think what you’re being precise to is the observed thing, your vision. What you’re looking at, what you’re creating. And what you’re creating is the thing you’re trying to precise-ify. Because you can’t precise-ify the lived thing, the observed thing. Within the context you make for your own writing, you can precise-ify what you’re making. And that’s how you can write across temperaments. You can write representationally, or you can write expressionistically and still be precise.

My revision methods are just chipping things away and moving them around and trying to get things right. Finger painting. I’m also open in my own writing to failure. I want to fail. I want to go to a place where I don’t know what I’m doing, where maybe I’m a little lost, maybe a lot lost. To be in a place where I’m uncertain. I have a high level of comfort with uncertainty in my own writing. And in that space, I make decisions, and I know all those decisions are going to change everything else. And at a certain point, you just come to a place of rest. When you start writing, before you revise, not everything is possible, but a lot is possible. In revising, you reduce your options so that nothing is possible, and you just think, I can’t change this anymore because I’ve already passed that decision point.

Rumpus: As in the saying “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

Biespiel: Yes, but you get to a place where you accept the limitations of the thing you create, and then you start something new. I’m not done with those questions [in any given piece of writing]. I’m not done with that material. I’m not done with that language even. I’m not done with that diction, those forms, etc. But for that one piece, I’m done. And then I’ll take all that stuff and those concerns and make another piece.

Rumpus: It puts me in mind of Ted Hughes’s saying that every poem of Sylvia Plath’s couldn’t be a perfect plaid couch, but it could be a stool, and she’d work on her poems till they’d each be a perfect piece of furniture.

Biespiel: I love that anecdote, too. He’d say she’d set out with great ambition to make the whole living-room set, but sometimes she’d only make a chair, and that would be the only chair she could make, even if she didn’t want to sit in it. And the ambition is to make everything, even if you can’t.


Justin Wymer, a native of West Virginia, holds degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has received fellowships from the Harvard Office for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute, and the University of Iowa, as well as a Rockefeller International Experience grant. His poems and translations have appeared in Atlantean Poets, Beecher's, Boston Review, Conjunctions, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Lana Turner, Nat. Brut, Souvenir, THRUSH, and elsewhere. More from this author →