Grab Hold the Rope of Language: A Conversation with Jan Beatty
Twice a week for a year, I walked from my day job at Carnegie Mellon down Fifth Avenue to Carlow University. An adjunct professor in the Women’s Studies department, I freshened up before class in a basement restroom. And then, on my way up the stairs, I passed Jan Beatty’s office. I knew Jan from poems of hers I had read in graduate school and also from her unforgettable voice on the radio; she hosted a poetry podcast called Prosody that I loved.
Every time I passed Jan’s office I wanted to say something. I could see her in there, bent over her desk, working, probably writing some more spell-binding poems, but I didn’t know what to say. Jan was so cool. (Jan is so cool.) I loved her style, her big mind, and her unflinching honesty. I loved how she carried herself in the world and how she carried herself on the page.
So, I never introduced myself to Jan Beatty, and when I left Pittsburgh in 2007, I doubted our paths would ever cross. How lucky I was to be wrong about that—and how lucky I am that she agreed to have this conversation with me for The Rumpus.
The Rumpus: You’ve been described by reviewers and blurbers—and I have described you in teaching your work!—as a “feminist poet.” So I’d like to start by asking some big questions: what does feminism mean to you, and what does poetry mean to you?
Jan Beatty: These are massive questions, lifelong questions, shifting and complex questions. I’ll answer in the present tense, in the best way I can, knowing that tomorrow I might answer them differently.
Feminism is all about choice to me: the choice over my own body and life. How I want to walk around the world, how I want to present myself. It’s all about freedom—reproductive freedom, freedom to speak, write, work, love whoever and however I choose. It means not taking shit from anybody, and especially not from men—who have taken up too much space in the world for far too long.
Poetry is and always has been about staying alive. How can I walk around a world that often makes no sense, feels alien (not in a good way), and feels restrictive and unimaginative? The answer for me has always been to dive into poetry, to grab hold of the rope of language and see what resistance is there.
What is on the other end of wandering, getting lost, leaving the present tense and floating into dreaming? That place of calm and different vibration brings exhilaration, discovery, confusion, brick walls, new sky.
To find the words, the stories that feel “real,” the voices that feel “authentic”—that’s everything. These words have the power to move people and change their minds and my mind. The possibilities of that engagement are spirited, and those times when I seem to wake from hours of that exploration make staying alive make sense. Of course, this is love and connection, and there’s no substitute for that.
Rumpus: How do the words “feminism” and “poetry,” in all their multivalence, coalesce in your experience?
Beatty: It’s not the words “feminism” and “poetry” that coalesce but the meanings. There’s no way that I would have survived as a poet without feminism, without the right to choose. I never thought I had the right to be a writer.
I was born in a place called Roselia Asylum and Maternity Hospital in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and I didn’t know my real name until I was thirty-two years old. This is the story of my memoir, American Bastard, coming out in October with Red Hen Press. My adopted father was a steelworker, and I was brought up solid working-class. I was the first in my adopted family to go to college, and I never thought it was possible to become a writer, even though I had been writing all through my childhood. I attended West Virginia University because my boyfriend was going there. As a freshman, I stumbled into a women’s consciousness-raising session on campus—it was the 1970s. I remember saying to this group of rabid feminists that I didn’t think that women were oppressed at all. All the heads in the room turned. By the end of that first session, my life had changed as the beautiful women in that room began to school me.
I took no writing classes in college, and I majored in physical education, journalism, nursing, and then I got a degree in social work. After working as a social worker in maximum security prisons, abortion clinics, and the welfare office, I gave up on any idea of cultural “success.” I became a waitress and started to write again. I started taking night classes in poetry, one at a time, at the University of Pittsburgh. With the models of brave women writers like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds—who risked so much at a time when women were not being published—I found a lifeline.
Rumpus: As a professor, mentor, radio host of Prosody, teacher, and series editor of Madwomen in the Attic, how do you reach people who may be resistant to or intimidated by poetry? How do you reach poets who feel “stuck” in their writing process, confronted by more brick walls than new skies?
Beatty: I think that’s everyone at one time or another. Who hasn’t felt less than, not up to the task, a fraud in the world of art and poetry, wanting to hide under the closest table? Remembering the vulnerability of writing a poem, opening the self up to emotion—while finding a way to push people forward is a skill developed over a lifetime. If we’re lucky, we’ve run into those amazing teachers.
I believe in the power of poem to open up resistance and fear. We know that the words on a page are not just words on a page. I had that fight with one of my professors in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. It was Teaching Seminar, and Joe Harris said in class: “Let’s, for a minute, neuter Adrienne Rich.” He actually said that. I raised my hand: “What did you say?” When he repeated it, I said something like, “No, no, no, no. What are you talking about?” He wanted to talk only about theory, while trying to erase one of the bravest writers who has ever lived. To his credit, we kept fighting, and then we fought face-to-face, five inches apart, for a half-hour after class, until he finally said, “Well, to me, poems are just words on a page.” “Oh,” I said, “not to me.”
I knew that poems could change a life. I knew that I needed to be around women, and I walked down the street that day to Carlow University to join the Madwomen in the Attic, taught by the amazing poet, Patricia Dobler. I was in graduate school at Pitt, but what saved me was the community workshop of the Madwomen, ages eighteen to ninety-five. I needed to be heard, and this became my new home.
Rumpus: What poem has been the most important hammer/wrecking ball in your life so far? Why? And what poem have you written that feels like the most important hammer/wrecking ball you have given to your readers so far? Why?
Beatty: There have been so many wrecking-ball poems in my life, thanks to the killer poets out there who tear the lid off of life and let us all breathe. One of the essentials has always been, “The Language of the Brag,” by Sharon Olds. I love the voice: I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw… I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body… I love the extreme courage, the direct arrow of language, but especially the ending where Olds calls out the “masters”:
I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.
– Sharon Olds, Satan Says, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980
I can’t read this, still, without waves of fuck, yeah! running through my body. Thank you, Sharon Olds, you incredibly brave, inspirational poet! How did you do that those many years ago—when the political climate was worse for women, and especially women writers? Heroic. When I’m afraid to write something, sometimes I’ll think of Olds and all the women who’ve come before, who have risked and written through tougher obstacles.
I don’t know what poem might be a hammer/wrecking ball for my readers, but I would guess that “Shooter” from Red Sugar might be one. That poem was a wrecking ball for me when I wrote it. I was in Sheridan, Wyoming, at Jentel—the writing residency—and it was late at night. Late one night, who knows why—I thought I should make notes of all the times that I had been abused, assaulted in my life. This went on for hours, until I started feeling sick and weird. What was I doing, out in the middle of nowhere? I didn’t know that I was writing a poem. It started to go to a darker place, as can happen with abuse, and I started to think I was mentally ill, that something was terribly wrong with me. Why was I writing this, and why did all this happen? I put the pages away until I was home and grounded in Pittsburgh, and I took parts of it to my friend and killer poet, Judith Vollmer. “Is this a poem?” I said. “Definitely,” she said, “but you have to cut it back, find the movement.” I worked on many drafts of “Shooter,” making it a much shorter poem about the violations that happen to women on a daily basis.
I’ve had a lot of resistance to the poem and also a lot of response from women who relate to it. At an auditorium reading at Monmouth University, an older man told me that I shouldn’t read “Shooter” because it would upset the young women in the audience. I told him that I thought they knew about these things. An editor of a major press told me that it was man-hating; a woman colleague told her students that it was hate speech. I had intense exchanges with both of them, and many other people who reacted to the poem.
One night, at an outdoor festival in rural Pennsylvania, I was reading with a group of writers. They were wonderful writers, but seemed to be playing it safe with their poem choices, with not one word of profanity all evening. I was the final reader, and I was wondering if the audience might be conservative in their tastes. I had planned on reading “Shooter” and some other tougher poems. I decided against it. But when I stepped up on stage and looked at all the women out there, I said, “Fuck it.” I read “Shooter” and the other poems that I had planned on, and when I went to the food tent, there was a line of about fifteen women waiting to talk with me. It was stunning, as woman after woman started telling me their stories. We were in line for over an hour.
One woman, who I will never forget, told me that she was raped and that her husband told her it wasn’t her fault. She was crying, “I’m sorry,” she said, “You’re the only other person I’ve told.” Her husband was standing ten feet away, holding on to the tent ropes, looking at his shoes. It was devastating. I hugged her: “It’s not your fault; it’s not your fault,” I said, and we talked and sat and cried. After that, I decided that I would always read “Shooter” even if it felt strange, that I would send it out into the universe. There’s no way to know who is listening or how someone hears the poems. And, I needed to remember how “The Language of the Brag” and so many other wrecking-ball poems helped to save my life.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about how this aesthetic—which of course is more than an aesthetic but also a worldview, a commitment to truth—informs your new memoir, American Bastard (Red Hen Press, 2021).
Even the title is arresting. The reader, or at least many readers, will encounter the word “bastard” like a live ember. It registers as a word we aren’t “supposed to” say, perhaps a word that isn’t “polite” to say.
Then we open the book, and it looks different from how we may expect a memoir to look. The chapters are short with provocative titles. One of my favorites: “My mother was a dress.” We might wonder about genre. We might wonder about the dialectic between your work as a poet—”red sugar” appears multiple times here—and your work as a writer of prose.
How are they connected? How do they diverge? Why was it important to you to write this book as you wrote it? (I want you to know, as I have been reading, fuck, yeah! is running through my body.)
Beatty: As a young woman, I was so shy, I couldn’t talk with people. Some of this is in my memoir. I was lost and looking to disappear. I remember being with my parents as a young girl in a department store. They were buying school shoes for me, and I remember saying to the clerk that I wanted a pair of quiet shoes, a pair that no one could hear when I walked. So, it’s been a lot of years and a lot of living to be able to say these things directly.
American Bastard is a whole other thing, with its own life. I’ve wanted to write this book for as long as I can remember—before my poetry books, before I was teaching. I’ve been obsessed with writing about being adopted, because I never saw this story anywhere. It was the story I needed to read as a child, a teenager, an adult—and it never appeared. There were books about adoption, yes—and the work of Betty Jean Lifton saved me with their honesty and research. But, the story written by an adoptee telling the truth of how it was—that was never written without whitewashing, without compulsory gratitude, etc. Years ago, I had a vision of this book, with the cover. I knew the title, and I knew I wanted to use that photo of me at six years old with high tops and a shotgun—it was the language I knew as a child. I was always a boy growing up, and this was my protection stance, my fuck-you to the world, as in, “Stay away.” The story of the chasm between the shotgun boy and the quiet-shoed girl is the memoir.
In my vision, I knew it would be a red and black cover. It wasn’t a plan but a vision. I never thought I could write this book. When I finally felt strong enough to write it, I found a book proposal from 2000 that I had put together but never sent out.
I found it immensely challenging and sometimes terrifying to write this book. Digging into the past of adoption brought up so many internal conflicts, periods of confusion, nothingness, ambivalence, fear, self-loathing, all of it. You ask me about the form of American Bastard, the short sections, the crossover poems, provocative titles.
I had notes and notes and journals and journals over years with adoption work throughout. When I felt that I could actually start the writing of it, I was stuck. I had written some boring paragraphs, some overly “polite” introductions. I had gotten some advice to “welcome the reader in,” to not “antagonize” the reader with intensity. I tried that. I was boring myself. I took parts of a manuscript to writers I respect, and they felt it was too confrontational and that it needed to be more chronological. One writer I love suggested that I tell the story with the adoptee on a train as she goes through all these chronological journeys. “I can’t do that,” I said. “Why not?” he said. “Because that would make me want to die.”
I had brought a topographical dictionary with me across the country—Home Ground, A Guide to the American Landscape, by Michael Collier; eds. Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. I had a special connection with Barry Lopez after meeting him at a writing retreat in Sitka, Alaska, and his presence through this book gave me even more grounding.
When I finally wrote the first of many drafts of American Bastard, I began each section with a quote from Home Ground. I was devouring the dictionary—something I used to do when I was younger. (I kept a huge red-leather bound dictionary in my bedroom closet during my entire childhood.) I was going by instinct, looking for what felt like metaphors for my story: terms like infant stream or storm beach. These became epigraphs for many sections, and they guided me through stories like a split/screen adventure, a twisted road trip. This is how I was able to get the beginnings of the book on paper, and then, of course, there were many drafts and revisions.
There are some poems in the book that have appeared in earlier books, such as “My Mother Was a Dress.” These poems often appear in different forms. Although the use of instinct and leaping both appear in my memoir and in my poetry, the writing of my memoir was drastically different. The challenge of writing nonfiction remains daunting to me, and I take refuge in the comfort of the “speaker” in poetry. I’m driven towards an authentic voice and a “sense of truth” in my poems, but definitely not a sense of literal truth. The responsibility of the nonfiction writer to truth feels heavy and almost unattainable to me.
When I sent my memoir out for publication, I was lucky enough to get referrals from wonderful writers who connected me to their agents and editors. I could use their name, they generously said. In every case, the same response—the editors said the story was “harrowing,” “stunning,” “heartbreaking” —but, could I make the story chronological? I was frustrated, since I couldn’t remember most of my childhood, and, more importantly, I felt a drive to write this story with a leaping energy.
After four years of sending out the book, I was ready to give up. Two things happened. An Irish writer friend asked me if the editors I’d been dealing with were men. “Yes,” I said. I couldn’t believe that I was sending my strange, leaping book to only male editors. I’m usually much more awake than that—”Oh my god,” I said, “What am I doing?” “Try some women,” she said.
The second thing may seem odd, but I went to my astrologer about some life issues (not the book), and she said, “What’s up with the memoir?” “It’s dead,” I said, “I’m done with it.” “No you’re not,” she said, “Look at this.” And she pointed to all this publication in my chart. “It’s right here. It’s coming out,” she said. “Send that thing out.” I’m telling you the truth when I say that I wouldn’t have sent out the manuscript again without those words from my astrologer. A year later, I won the 2019 Ren Hen Nonfiction Award. Chosen by a woman, Nikki Moustaki. Managing editor, Kate Gale.
Photograph of Jan Beatty by Beth Kukucka.