“What I Most Prize: An Interview with Nicky Beer.” New Orleans Review. 34.1 (2010): 126-142.
Nicky Beer’s book of poems, The Diminishing House, is published by Carnegie Mellon University Press (2010). She has received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Louis Untermeyer Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Discovery/The Nation award. She has degrees from Yale University, the University of Houston, and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her poems, fiction, nonfiction, and reviews have been published in Best American Poetry 2007, AGNI, Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, The Nation, Nerve, New Orleans Review, Pleiades, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the journal Copper Nickel, and she is married to the poet Brian Barker. This conversation took place in 2009.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Before we begin, I’d like to congratulate you on the publication of your first collection of poems, The Diminishing House. How does it feel?
Nicky Beer: Thanks very much! It feels pretty unreal, even after all this time. Jerry Costanzo from Carnegie Mellon University Press called me with the great news back in November 2008, but even now I still shake my head in disbelief that it’s happening, and with such a terrific press.
AMK: This book was a finalist for a number of prizes over the last few years, including Sarabande’s Kathryn A. Morton Prize in 2006, the New Issues Poetry Prize, in 2007, and the Four Way Books Intro Prize in 2008. You also have an M.F.A. from Houston and a Ph.D. from Missouri, and I’m assuming that this collection (or some form thereof) was a large part of your thesis/dissertation. How has this collection changed over the years as a result of your improvement as a poet, the process of receiving these degrees, and of watching it come so close so many times to being published?
NB: Though many of the poems have been around since my M.F.A. thesis, and one of them I wrote as an undergrad, it’s gone through a great deal of change. I would say that the poems that deal more explicitly with my father’s illness and death came after my M.F.A. at the University of Houston. This was certainly due, in part, to members of my thesis committee-Ed Hirsch, Adam Zagajewski, and Mark Doty-observing that the manuscript, at the time, was rather reserved about the subject, with the exception of perhaps one or two poems. I’d say that the earliest incarnation of the manuscript was marked by both my awareness of wanting to write about my father’s death, and at the same time, my great reluctance and doubt about how to do it in a way that didn’t feel overly sentimental or emotionally exploitative.
While I can’t necessarily speak to my improvements as a poet per se, I can say that being surrounded by other poets-and ludicrously talented ones, at that-in my graduate programs and getting to see them grappling with their own writerly issues was an enormous boon for my own sense of focus and rigor. Sherod Santos’ manuscript workshop at the University of Missouri-Columbia was definitely a considerable help in this regard, and I’d say it’s a must for any creative writing program. When else will you get the opportunity to have your manuscript studied and discussed by a group of writers as passionate and anxious as you are about getting a book together? And speaking of the proximity and attention of great writers, I should say that my husband, the poet Brian Barker, has been there at every stage of the development of the manuscript, and given me invaluable help with the individual poems and the book as a whole. In addition to the direct help he’s given me, living with a superb poet who is so immensely serious and dedicated to his craft is a constant education in itself.
As far as the changes in the collection that came from watching it come so close to publication so many times, I’d say that it probably didn’t change as much as it should have, or rather-I definitely deceived myself into thinking that being a finalist was proof that the collection was “done,” when I ought to have still been tinkering with ordering, scrutinizing the weaker poems, etc. When I sent the manuscript to Carnegie Mellon, it was right after a major restructuring that wasyears overdue.
AMK: The Diminishing House is dedicated to your father, who passed away some years ago. His death plays a central role in this book, as well as his presence in your life before he passed, which is interesting to think about when you look at the book’s first poem, “Avuncularity,” which opens “Every child ought to have a dead uncle” and goes on to say that he
is the one whose fault it can be:
the slight warps, the spider-cracks in your speech,
the explanation for all the wrongness
that made the other children pause, assess you
a little coldly and pull back as one toward the playground.
“Avuncularity” comes in the form of an address from an as-yet-unidentified speaker to an as-yet-unidentified receiver of this address. By the end of the poem, we’re not sure who is speaking to whom, but once we’ve delved a little deeper into the first section, it becomes clear that the “you” in the poem is, in fact, the girl who has lost her father and, it seems, the speaker is that same girl, speaking to herself. This is a fascinating move.
NB: Well, if the tone of this poem is “mothering,” I think it’s the work of a pretty brutal mother! But “Avuncularity” can certainly be read as the poet’s address to the self, even though the “you” has lost an uncle, and the ur-speaker of the book, so to speak, has lost a father. But in the end, it’s about that shared experience of the loss of an adult figure in one’s childhood, and the way in which that adult takes on increasingly mythic proportions. We begin our lives by seeing our parents as omniscient and omnipotent, and the passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood is characterized by those figures being brought-sometimes by painful disillusionment-more and more down to a human scale. The reality of losing an adult figure, or a parent, in childhood, is that you never get the organic experience of having these people restored to their actual size-they’re always an element of cartoonish exaggeration to your perception of them. Sylvia Plath’s “Colossus” epitomizes this skewed perspective beautifully: the little person crawls over the unchanging, but utterly inscrutable surface of the gargantuan statue.
AMK: This perspective transforms the occasion of the poem from one that explores what makes us and unmakes us into one that expresses a great desire in the speaker to be anyone but who she is. This gives the poem a more lyrical quality that is pretty impressive considering the fact that nothing has physically changed about the poem; rather, it’s the reader who has been changed. How did you come up with this approach?
NB: I think it’s the same approach that I try to pursue in any poem, and what I prize most in poems by others-that the poem should have, in its development from line to line, the necessity of rereading.
AMK: “Every child ought to have a dead uncle” is a bold statement with which to open a poem. It works really well because the reader immediately asks who and whywould someone say such a thing. As a result, the reader is forced to read the next lines. Going through line by line, it strikes me that this is how the entire poem operates, with some sort of development that requires us to keep reading if we are ever to come to any understanding of the characters presented to us. It’s sort of a funny (and yet obvious) way to think about writing- words that compel the reader to move on to the next words. Is this something you think about as you compose a poem?
NB: In a sense, yes. I often find that when I’m composing a poem, I either write or at least conceive of the ending first, and the process of composition becomes finding a comprehensible (or else a pleasantly incomprehensible) path to get to that end. As I’m writing, the nagging, little kid voice pesters me line by line: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” And it’s so difficult not to give in to the temptation to rush or force your way to that ending! Then again, as it was with this poem, sometimes a first line (and, by proxy, a speaker) just shows up, and the poem becomes the answer to the writer’s startled question, “Who the hell is talking here?” Now that I think about it, it’s not that surprising that so many poets-Yeats, Sylvia Plath, James Merrill-were infatuated with ouija boards and such. I think your observation that readers of the first line of “Avuncularity” would want to know who would say such a thing and why is pretty much the reason so many of my poems have been written-I’m usually trying to find out the same thing.
AMK: “My Father as a Small Submarine” also starts with a bold statement: “The hospital room at night / is the bottom of the ocean.” Like a thesis, this establishes the trope of the piece, but it also sets up the basic form of the poem, which presents a common object and converts it into something entirely different. Such as the tethers as sea kelp. The heart monitor as a restless eel. And the morphine drip as fathoms.
The result of all of this is much more than a poem in trope, but a poem that creates an entirely different world and that packs within its language a deep, lyrical resonance. Ultimately, I think this comes down to the line as an individual syntactical unit. These are just words after all, and each line is an independent collection of them. But when taken as a whole, the line becomes something much more complex…two-faced in a way…something that must have its own story to tell and yet must fit with all the others who have their own stories to tell. How do you take lines that so richly maneuver within themselves and make them work in the larger context of the almighty poem?
NB: Thanks for that! When constructing a line of poetry, I’m probably considering, mostly on an unconscious level, three different types of pressure it’s always under to perform: 1) it must be basically comprehensible and engaging as a grammatical (or pseudo-grammatical, if you like) language fragment, 2) it must have a certain sonic charisma, 3) it must be justified in how it appears formally (visually) on the page. I love the moment of uncertainty that comes just after a line break, when the reader needs to turn around and head back to the beginning of the next line, unsure if the expectations created by that line break are going to be fulfilled. It’s just a little unconscious blip of doubt, I think, but there’s so much mystery in that blip.
I find that if there is a kind of electricity in the unit of a line, it seems to be an expression of a certain undercurrent of our English language in general. There’s such an inordinate pleasure in the lexical discoveries one can make during composition-all the assonances, consonances, heteronyms, homophones, puns, slant rhymes, anagrams, the words-hidden-within-words (theparent in parentheses, for example). And often the formal tasks of lineation and stanza construction and progression are the means by which we can allow the natural play and music of our language to rise to the surface more discernibly. As for how these lines work within the context of the larger poem, I’d say that the lines are the poem’s vital signs-temperature, respiration, heart rate, blood pressure-the finished poem must read as though it would expire if one of its lines were subtracted.
AMK: There are several other poems about your father in this collection, “My Father is a Small Submarine,” “Lullabies,” “Erosion,” and “A Short Documentary of my Father Running Backwards,” that take a very direct approach to this subject matter, seemingly coming from your own experience and almost always expressing your desire that he return. Even though we see your father over and over again, I’m not sure that by the end we know much about what caused his death. Have you purposefully avoided addressing this aspect of your story? Is it painful for you to write about or are you simply more interested in the effects of his death than its causes?
NB: I think it’s the interest in the effect, rather than the cause, as you say. My father was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the summer of 1990, but his condition slowly deteriorated over the course of the ensuing year, and he passed away in the summer of 1991. One might say that his death was so drawn-out, and had so many stages over a relatively extended period of time, that it would be difficult for me to locate his absence with the actual event of his passing away-he’d been slipping away so gradually that when he finally died, it already felt like he’d been gone for some time. The poem “His Mistress” in the book is probably the one that alludes to that gradual disappearance; the tumor allegorized as an interloping, seductive force that lures the father further and further away from his family.
AMK: The Diminishing House includes a unique, what I’d call sequence, of poems broken up throughout the book about various parts of the human anatomy. The first of these “anatomical poems,” “Floating Rib,” is the fourth poem in the collection:
One member of the two lowest pairs of ribs,
which are attached neither to the sternum
nor to the cartilage of other ribs.
The permanent elsewhere of fathers-
my hand goes to my side as I read.
A lie thrusts out into viscera, gestures
to untouchable bone. My own
private wish: to snap it free and brandish
what? A burin? A blunderbuss?
Tool for making, unmaking. Lever
to press against my tongue, to bear me
through terrible convulsions. I will not make
of it a new body. I’ll hammer it to gravel.
The ribcage opens its book, one phrase
Later, you address the “blunt, cartilaginous lower tip / of the sternum” known as the “Xiphoid Process,” and the Philthrum, “the hollow that devides the upper lip,” “Genes,” and many more. All of these poems address/celebrate the body’s strangeness, focusing on anatomical elements that are often embarrassing and that, in my case, I didn’t even know existed.
In all cases, these poems work almost like metaphorical definitions of these strange anatomical features, such as “The Xiphoid Process,” which you transform from a part of the sternum to “a single stalactite drip[ping] / onto the head of a blind fish / that shudders like a weak fish,” or the Perineum, which, well, I’ll just quote you, is “the area in front of the anus / extending to the genitals” and which becomes, in your most deft imagination, “the necessary expanse / between desire and duty!”
Where do these poems come from?
NB: Interestingly enough, “Floating Rib,” despite being one of the first anatomy poems in the collection, was the last one to be written-the first line comes from the poem “War” by Aaron Baker, from his terrific book Mission Work. “Variations on the Philtrum” is the earliest of these poems, and it has a surreptitious connection, again, to my father. One of the most resonant memories of my childhood is my father pointing to the area above his upper lip and saying, with a certain rapture, “Do you know what this is? A philtrum.” He’d learned this from a book he’d just gotten called What’s What: A Visual Glossary of the Physical World, which is simply a book of diagrams of the names of various parts of things, from human anatomy to architecture to musical instruments to items of clothing to commonplace objects (did you know that the pointy end of an umbrella is called a ferrule? Now you do!). He and I were both enchanted by the idea that such an essential, yet unassuming part of one’s face could have a specialized name; and the idea of focusing on other unsung anatomical regions seemed like a kind of tribute to him.
AMK: Is it fair to say these poems are about your father in some way; the frailty of the body; its strangeness?
NB: Absolutely. These poems became a kind of antidote for the other ones in the book that deal with his death and illness more directly; the idea of dealing with the human body in a more objective, analytical way was a necessary strategy, given that the ultimate impetus of the book is the, yes, terrible frailty of the human body.
AMK: Does it concern you at all that some readers might miss this aspect of The Diminishing House?
NB: I think being a writer means being willing to give up a certain element of control about how your work is read; this shouldn’t excuse any writerly laziness, of course, but it’s interesting to consider the relationship we have with our work as a trajectory from a position of ultimate control, in terms of composition, and a total absence of control, in terms of who reads the work and what they may take from it. If someone misses something about my work, or decides it’s really all a massive allegory for the Franco-Prussian war, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it beyond what I’ve already tried to do to the best of my ability in the poetry. And Harold Bloom has a point, in terms of his idea that misreading can be a valuable part of literary engagement.
AMK: What’s most important to you when you read a poem? An unfair question I know, but I think it’s important that we discuss what really works for us as readers. And, of course, it’s always changing. For me it used to be story: do I get what’s going on in the poem and does it interest me. Then it changed to “How good are the first four lines?” Now I’m more focused on where the poem takes me and how it takes me there.
What do you think?
NB: I can’t say that there’s any one particular thing that I’m looking for, but I find that an overwhelming sense of envy lets me know that I’m reading something really terrific. Also, the longer I’ve been a reader of poetry, the more I value the writer who can surprise me without being gimmicky. I think I used to look more for thrills and formal pyrotechnics-these days, perhaps because the culture in which we live seems increasingly polarized, and the discourse more ugly, I find I need a great deal of compassion in the poetry I read. Many have said it before, but I’m learning more and more that one’s age has a great deal to do with what we seek out in our poetry, or with the kind of poetry to which we return, and I find it extraordinarily comforting that art, whatever form it takes, can be a protean, but steadfast, companion for all one’s living days.
AMK: When you were revising these poems, what did you find you worked the most on?
NB: I don’t know that there was any common problem I ran into with all these poems-they all aggravated me in different ways. I’d alluded to this earlier, but one of the biggest challenges for me was settling on an order and structure for the book-so I suppose the biggest revision challenge, on a macro scale, was trying to figure the relationship all of these poems had with one another. While the book is clearly centered around the subject of my father’s death, it was still a challenge to figure out how those poems not explicitly related to that subject could still be relevant to the book.
AMK: There are three prose poems in The Diminishing House, including the title poem. I can’t say I understand the prose poem very well. They are oftentimes surreal, but, formally speaking, I’m not sure why we call them prose poems rather than flash fiction or vignettes. What’s your take on it?
NB: I think the prose poem form is a kind of Zen study of the poetic line; rather than “if a tree falls in the forest,” etc., the question posed by the prose poem is “What is the function of the line without the line break?” The challenge of the prose poem is, I think, to induce a kind of hypnosis on the reader, to guide her attention through the accumulation of unbroken lines, and to attempt a kind of sleight-of-hand (if you’ll allow me to mix my magician metaphors) in the process. The point is to use the lack of white space/line-break relief in the course of the poem as an opportunity to lull or charm or entrap your reader with visual momentum, and make them break the surface at the end, gasping for air, when they realize for how long they’ve been submerged. I don’t know if that’s what I accomplish, but that’s what the prose poets I admire do-Charles Simic and David Keplinger are the first that spring to mind-and what I try to keep in mind when I write them.
AMK: “LMNO,” “Provenance,” and “My Father is a Small Submarine” proceed like a fairly typical contemporary poem in free verse, hugging the left margin and utilizing loose iambic. “Still Life with Half-Turned Woman and Questions” is a list of questions followed by their answers:
Q. So, what are you working on these days?
A metaphor machine.
Q. What did you paint first?
A table that glints with the self-assurance of a wrack.
“Variations,” “Erosion,” and “Lullabies” make use of sections, one with numbers, one with asterisks, and the other with Roman numerals. “Ouroboros” makes use of the wider elements of the page with longer, dropped, and indented lines. “Mako” is in tercets. And, finally, “Cubital Fossa” emulates via form the object of its definition, “the triangular anatomical region / anterior to the elbow joint“:
Pack mule for packages,
cradler of gunbutts,
This book is a virtual tour-de-free-verse. What can you tell us about free verse and its line; how it can change a poem, how it can be changed by a poem?
NB: I think your use of the word “play” is incredibly relevant here. The constant challenge and delight of writing in free verse is to innovate, to explore its limitless possibilities, without those explorations seeming trivial or arbitrary. And it comes with the heavy responsibility of following your own rules, the rules you, rather than literary tradition or history, have established for the form of the poem…this is probably why I find writing sonnets so liberating–in terms of stanza and line length, someone else has already made the decisions for me!
When you play with form in free verse, you’re looking for what the form will teach you about itself, and also what it can teach you about its content. In a poem like “Mako,” the tercets are such a civilized, symmetrical form, and yet its subject is about something outside of civilization, something ancient, something that is essentially beyond human comprehension. And part of the drama of the poem is the human speaker’s struggle to comprehend something that is beyond fear, beyond desire, beyond compassion.
Finally, experimenting with free verse form can keep your own work from becoming too predictable-it’s a healthy way of staying restless and inquisitive as a writer. Exploring a form is as much of an opportunity to plumb the unknown as exploring new subject matter and personae.
AMK: What about the shape of a poem on the page? Does this concern you?
NB: Very much. Rewriting is as much a task of playing with the poem’s shape as it is playing with its language. “Erosion” was a poem of great revelation for me in this respect. I had come into poetry with a great commitment to traditional forms, blank verse, and regularized line-length, to the extent that I’d effectively dismissed exploring variations in free verse shape. When the early drafts of “Erosion” were failing badly in regular lines, the experimentation I started doing in breaking the poem up into irregular sections showed me how much playing with shape could open up a poem. In fact, it’s usually the form of revision I revert to the most when there seems to be something naggingly but inexplicably not quite right about a draft.
AMK: “Patellae Apocrypha” is placed in quotation marks and sounds a lot like a line from an Old Testament text. Is “Patellae Apocrypha” a found poem or is something else going on with the quotation marks?
NB: I very much wanted it to sound like a Biblical text, something apocryphal (in fact, the original title for the book wasApocrypha for the Body). At the same time, though, I wanted “Patellae” to have an immediacy to it, as though a relatively recent past were being recounted, so that’s how the quotation marks came into play.
AMK: Tell me about the length of your poems. One is one sentence and two lines long while the longest covers three pages.
NB: I don’t usually write extremely short or extremely long poems, though I have a deep admiration for poets who do-my husband is certainly among the latter. I can say that that the extremely long or short poems I’ve ever written have come about, in part, from a realization that I wasn’t writing poems of these sizes, and I wanted to keep from settling into some sort of length-rut. For now, I seem to be drawn to the shorter and medium-length poem, but I hope to always be looking for opportunities for breaking out this mode as well. This goes for subject matter and tone, too- I think it’s a good idea for any poet to pinpoint what lies outside of her poetry, and then to try and find a way of getting those things in there as well.
AMK: There are a number of poems in this book that are about specific animals or objects: all of the anatomical poems, “Cardinal Virtue,” “Ouroboros,” “Stumphumper,” and many more. Obviously, the poem that considers an actual thing has a long, rich tradition in poetry- “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” for example. What is it that fascinates you about object, the ordinary?
NB: I think what fascinates me is that, when closely examined, the ordinary doesn’t exist. I think that’s why amateur birdwatching appeals to me-the more you start paying attention to your immediate surroundings, the more extraordinary they become. For example, the indigo bunting is a small, blue bird common to most of the country in the summer months. But here’s something astonishing about them-they migrate at night, navigating by observing the placement of the stars in the sky! The commonplace is simply a clever disguise that’s worn by the mysterious. It’s the same thing that attracted me to writing about human anatomy–being bored, rather than an admission that you have “no inner resources,” as Henry’s mother would say, is rather a problem of not appreciating what your inner resources really are. In your most dull moment, your body is performing extraordinary chemical and electrical feats which are the product of millennia of natural selection. Speaking of William Carlos Williams, in one of his essays, he argues that art “is most theoretical when it is most down on the ground, most sensual, most real…A flower or bird in detail…becomes an abstract term of enlightenment.” One is always looking for the path from the physical to the metaphysical.
AMK: Almost all of these poems have this strangeness to them that I can’t quite put my finger on. They’re surreal but not forcefully so; surreal but with concrete image and metaphor. This strangeness is pretty obvious in the anatomical poems but is subtly at work in the more typically narrative ones. Take “Avuncularity” for example. I mean, what a weird way to approach the subject matter of your father, opening the poem with “Every child ought to have a dead uncle” when you later learn that the speaker’s father is, in fact, the one who has passed. Is this aspect of your poetry simply an aspect of your personality; a form of imagination; a way in which to write in a different way from your predecessors; something else?
NB: That seems like a matter for the gods, the therapists, and the critics to decide! But seriously-I suppose it all comes down to Frost’s adage about writing, i.e., if there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader. I think I’m always looking for ways to startle or surprise myself when I’m writing a poem, and I similarly try to encourage my students to not have too predetermined a notion of where the poem will head when they set out to write it. The strangeness of the poetry could indeed be an expression of my strangeness as a person, but everybody’s pretty strange anyway, and of course, anyone who’d voluntarily devote a large portion of their lives to making art is irretrievably a weirdo.
AMK: Are there any favorite lines you fantasize that, some day, a stranger off the street would praise you for?
NB: Honestly, if that ever happened, it wouldn’t matter what line it was!
AMK: What, of all things, do you hope people will take away from this book?
NB: I’m hoping that I can replicate for her readers the experiences that I had upon reading books those books that struck in me a chord of recognition. Seamus Heaney has a remark about this experience in the closing lines of Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” that I like very much: “[These lines] do what poetry most essentially does: they fortify our inclination to credit promptings of our intuitive being. They help us to say in the first recesses of ourselves, in the shyest, pre-social part of our nature, ‘Yes, I know something like that too. Yes, that’s right; thank you for putting words to it and making it more or less official.'” So I think I’d be happy if a reader thought that I’d made something “official” in a way that was true to her intuition.
AMK: Thank you Nicky.
NB: Thank you, Andy!