Telling Our Truths: A Conversation with Shaindel Beers

By

The poems in Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers place a great deal of emphasis on domestic violence and the problematic, if evolving, male figure. However, these poems also arrive triumphant, placing equal emphasis on the beautiful: nature, escape via the circus, gentle moments with animals and a growing son. Such a collection walks a delicate line, but it is an important one to walk, and explore: questions of where we should expect danger and fear, compared to where it actually appears; how we can repair ourselves from interactions with one person in the interactions with others; why we might look for opportunities for escape, even only for the mind; and how that escape may look different for each person.

Poet Shaindel Beers is an instructor at Blue Mountain Community College and the author of two previous collections, A Brief History in Time (2009) and The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013). Her poems have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly and Poetry South.

I spoke Beers about her collection, Secure Your Own Mask, the personal implications of her work, and the role of the political in her poems.

***

The Rumpus: From political anecdote and fairy tales to memories and dreams, these poems’ wide breadth create a rich experience for the reader. Can you share how you went about writing some of these poems, and how you decided which poems to include in the collection?

Shaindel Beers: As far as writing the poems, I really just write whenever I have an idea, and if I feel like the ideas aren’t coming, I participate in online challenges like Tupelo Press’s 30/30 or Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Aside’s April Poem-a-Day Challenge. A lot of these poems were written during those challenges. Online poetry communities are great for giving you a goal to work toward and some sort of accountability. Most of being a writer is just “showing up for work.”

As far as deciding which poems to include, I have to admit that I am not a great organizer of my own work. I definitely have a sense of which of my poems are stronger or weaker, but it’s really hard for me to “kill my darlings,” so to speak. Jennifer Givhan is an amazing writer and editor, and I enlisted her help. I basically sent her a giant file, and said, “I know there’s a book in here somewhere; can you help me find it?” I also want to add that this was paid labor. I think that writers have to be realistic that we need to pay our friends if they’re providing a service. It’s a lot to ask someone to help carve a book out of over one hundred pages of poetry.

Rumpus: Did you find these poems came to you somewhat randomly, or did you write on one subject matter for a while before moving on to another? How did you approach your organization of the collection?

Beers: I did feel like the poems came to me randomly, with the exception of the pelican poems. Those, I wrote all at once in a series because I was doing Tupelo Press’s 30/30 Challenge of writing thirty poems in thirty days. I was running next to the Umatilla River, and saw more pelicans than I had ever seen at a time. I decided to go back and count them, and there were thirteen! It felt like a sign to write “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pelican” after Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” So, those I wrote one a day, and then, “This Old House,” I write one part per day. With “This Old House,” I wrote until I felt like I was done. When there was hope at the end of the poem, I knew it was finished. I was lucky enough in May to sell that house that had so many dark memories for me, and move to a new one and start a new life. I only moved three blocks away, and when the leaves have fallen from the trees, I can see my old house from my new one. It’s an interesting metaphor that you don’t have to go far to move on.

Rumpus: I can see how you might write these longer poems from a different place—all in one sitting, until they personally “feel” complete; it makes good sense! Are you comfortable sharing with us how personal some of these poems are? How much is drawn from life, or specifically created for the poem/collection?

Beers: These poems are deeply personal. I was in a very abusive marriage that I am lucky to have survived and escaped from, and because of that experience, I floundered for a long time, not really having a sense of what I was doing in my life and just grasping. In many ways, I lost a decade of my life, but I feel that this book is a sort of triumph over that, and I hope that it helps others.

Rumpus: It’s a lovely triumph, Shaindel; thank you for sharing. Do you find yourself writing more so from personal experience, current events (for example, the #MeToo movement), imagination, or some combination of all three?

Beers: I would say that it’s a combination of all three. I went to undergrad in the 1990s, and the mantra was definitely “the personal is the political.” I think it comes down to the Muriel Rukeyser quote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” We all need to tell our truths. Women have been kept silent or have been expected to be silent for too long.

Rumpus: Yes! Especially considering the times we’re in right now, with its movements and events, I agree that it’s particularly important for women and non-binary individuals to share their stories. I’m so happy you’ve had an opportunity to share yours.

One particular aspect of this collection that I would like to address is the shifting male figure in the collection—away from the figure that contributes to domestic violence, to a figure (such as your son) that provides hope in relation to more violent encounters. I wonder if you might discuss some of these ideas—how domestic violence is interwoven throughout the collection, the order you wrote or placed these poems in, how the male figure shifts, etc.?

Beers: I wrote this collection really organically, so this is somewhat the chronological order in which it was written. I was processing the abusive marriage I was in, and then other relationships, including becoming a single mother, and figuring out how to raise my son to be the kind of man we want to see in the world. My son is seven, and we talk about gender and race and politics because kids ask these questions. In first grade, a lot of kids tell other kids they can’t wear a certain color because it is a “girl” color, and other kids tell each other, “There’s no such thing as a boy color or a girl color.” I think they’re very aware. Last night, we talked about a medical bill, and Liam was aghast that people pay for medical bills. He actually said, “That’s like Mickey’s Christmas!” (His concept of A Christmas Carol is the Disney one.) And he said, “How Tiny Tim would die if Scrooge didn’t pay Mickey.” Kids are really perceptive. I don’t think it works to hide reality from them.

Rumpus: I absolutely agree. I have one girl and one boy myself, and it’s very important in our home to teach them about consent, perceptions, and as you said, raising them to be the people we hope to see.

To jump to another aspect of perception, I’m interested in the address of reality in the collection. Specifically, the acrobats that appear early in the collection, as well as their few returns to it later on, whether via images of acrobats, the circus, or the surreal. These poems and the recurring references to the circus contain images of beauty and grandeur that contrast with domestic violence, which is especially evident and powerful in their chronological context. How do you view these poems—as comparative, escapist, etc?

Beers: I don’t know if people still have fantasies of “running away” to join the circus, but I certainly did. I’ve had more circus poems published since this manuscript was completed. Maybe someday I’ll have a separate chapbook of circus poems. Some of the poems might be escapist, but some are dark. I have a poem about an abusive ringmaster. I see the circus and circus people as their own world, just like ours. Some people are good, some people are bad, some people are lost, etc.

Rumpus: I would love to read a collection of circus poems! And I think you’re totally right, in how individuals of that background would range on just as diverse of a plane as someone of any other background.

Another aspect of your work that made a tremendous impact was the nature imagery, and nature’s influence in these poems. The book’s front cover, recurring images of birds and deer, the crow wrapped in the shawl in one of the later poems—I would love to hear your views on the importance of nature to your work, and even how you go about producing such images as the crow in the shawl.

Beers: About the front cover, the artist is Heldáy de la Cruz, and I encourage everyone to support his work. Nature is very important to me. I consider myself a rural person, and I feel depressed if I’m too separated from nature. Also, I don’t feel like nature is anything we need to fear. I used to frequently go on fairly long (up to ten mile) hikes either by myself or with my son, and my parents or my grandmother would send me news stories about hikers being attacked by mountain lions and talk about how dangerous it is. I honestly feel like the most danger I’ve ever been in was at home with my abusive husband. Statistically, studies back this up. Nature is renewing. It’s where we belong. As far as the image of the crow, that’s just how it happened. My colleague, Ki Russell (who is an amazing writer you should all check out), keeps a shawl at work because our offices are chilly, and we needed to catch this injured crow. We threw her shawl over it, and drove it to a wildlife rehabilitation sanctuary.

Rumpus: I love your comparison here of the dangers of the outdoors and the dangers which can lurk behind closed doors.

What would you say your primary influences are in creating your work, beyond the themes we’ve discussed and current events? Are there particular artists and writers you find yourself turning to regularly, or certain types of writers you find yourself seeking out (such as lyric or narrative poets)?

Beers: I admire any art that tells a story, and I mean that broadly. In my second book, I looked at artwork by childhood war survivors, and felt like I had to write that book because the stories were so powerful. Each drawing was begging me to write a poem about it. Everything in nature is a story—a bear crossing a hiking path to get to the creek, ladybugs waking up from hibernation. I think with Mary Oliver’s passing a lot of poets are being reminded of this. And we’re in such a rich time of amazing singer-songwriters right now. That’s why it was important to me to ask musicians for blurbs for my book, and I’m so happy that Rhett Miller shared his words on the back cover of Secure Your Own Mask. Other singer-songwriters I think writers should be listening to are Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth, and Dar Williams. We’re all in this together as creators, and I think we need to do more to support each other’s work outside of our own genres.

I think we need to be brave and try other art forms as well. I’m going outside of my comfort zone and singing in my local chorale’s spring concert. I’m going to be brave and try a wine and paint night, and I’m hoping to go to a songwriting workshop and learn from some of the songwriters I mentioned above. We need to find empathy for all the arts by seeing what other artists go through in their own way and bring that knowledge to our work.

Rumpus: This is such an excellent point! I think it’s easy for us to confine ourselves to our genres, as you say, both through what we expose ourselves to (where we find entertainment) and what we allow ourselves to draw inspiration from. This is an important reminder to open up and allow various art forms blend together and create new works.

Finally, one last question—for fun: If you had to choose a favorite poem from Secure Your Own Mask, what would it be, and why?

Beers: It would have to be the opening poem “The (Im)Precision of Language.” As I had the idea, it felt magical. I was driving to work from dropping my son at daycare, and saw a ring-necked dove (really a Eurasian Collared Dove) on a wire, and just got it in my head how we have ring-necked doves, which we consider a symbol of love and peace and wringing a dove’s neck, which is violent. From there, it was almost as if the poem wrote itself. When I was writing that poem, the Contemporary Women Poets class at the University of Akron was studying my work, and sent me an interview, and it felt like an appropriate poem to send to them. The poem felt Midwestern to me with the hunting references and deer rifles, and I wanted to gift the students with a poem in addition to answering their interview questions. I also wrote much of the poem physically on paper while my Introduction to Imaginative Writing students were writing in the classroom, and the energy of people writing silently in a room together on paper is always magical. Great things seem to happen. So, everything about that poem is special to me.


McKenzie Lynn Tozan lives and writes in Chicago with her family, where she works as a copywriter, poet, and book reviewer. She received her MFA in Poetry from Western Michigan University, where she worked as the Layout & Design Editor for New Issues Poetry & Prose, and her BA in English from Indiana University, where she was Managing Editor for 42 Miles Press. Her poems have appeared in Rogue Agent, Whale Road Review, James Franco Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Thank You for Swallowing, The Spooklet, and Analecta, among others; and her book reviews and essays have appeared on The Rumpus, BookPage, Health, and Motherly. For more, visit her at www.mckenzielynntozan.com. More from this author →