Interview with American Poet, Scott Beal

Photo Credit: Trevor Stone

Photo Credit: Trevor Stone

Brief Biography:

Scott Beal’s poems have recently been published in Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Muzzle, Southern Indiana Review, Sonora Review, and other journals. He won a 2014 Pushcart Prize. He serves as writer-in-the-schools for Dzanc Books in Ann Arbor and teaches in the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan. His first book of poems, Wait ‘Til You Have Real Problems, will be published by Dzanc Books in November 2014: http://www.dzancbooks.org/upcoming-titles/wait-til-you-have-real-problems-by-scott-beal

Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a poet/writer?

Scott Beal: When I was in tenth grade, a poet named Terry Blackhawk visited my high school. Working with Terry got me out of class for an hour a week, and I hoped it would help me write awesome heavy metal lyrics. It didn’t. But at the end of the program I got to read a poem I had written at a small event in the school library. Two years later, I had a huge crush on Lisa Phillips, who had just moved to my town. Lisa had cassette recordings of beat poets like Ed Sanders and Anne Waldman who had read in the gymnasium of her old high school. She carried Allen Ginsberg books in her backpack. I remember being amazed at the idea that someone might choose to read poems for any reason other than a class assignment. I borrowed Ginsberg’s Plutonian Ode and Waldman’s Helping the Dreamer and was dazzled by their invention and energy. I had no idea words could do that. I started writing poems in part to impress Lisa (it didn’t) and in part to get a taste of that electricity in language.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you a poet or writer? Could you explain the difference between the two?

Scott Beal: Poets are a subset of writers – all poets are writers even if not all writers are poets. I know that’s a boringly logical answer, but I’m not sure I have a better one. I write all the time; of course I’m a writer. But most of that writing is functional by design in a way poetry isn’t. The writing I care most about and throw myself into is poetry. So I’m a poet.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your first literary work? Was it a poem?

Scott Beal: I wrote my first poem in sixth grade, I think, about pilgrims and Thanksgiving; it was cloying and it rhymed. I believe it’s still taped to a page of a scrapbook which lies somewhere in a box in a storage unit. But my first literary work must have been a story I wrote in fourth grade about buying a horse. I didn’t want to write it. My English teacher made everyone in the class write a story based on a classified ad from the local newspaper, so I picked one at random about a horse for sale and scribbled as fast as I could to be done with it. The teacher entered all our stories into a contest, and a couple of months later I got a check for $10 and a wood plaque that said “Second Place.”

Geosi Gyasi: Do you base your characters on real life people?

Scott Beal: Sometimes more consciously than others.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most difficult piece of work you’ve worked on?

Scott Beal: Poems are difficult in different ways. Some stories are gutting to write, others shameful to face, still others just damned difficult to express correctly. I struggled with a poem called “Chopsticks” for ten years before I figured it out, and figuring it out involved reliving a death so sharply it was hard to hold the pen through the final lines.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about how “Dear Mark Strausbaugh, Dining Room Manager,” came about?

Scott Beal: One day after lunch I found this business card from a downtown restaurant tucked under my windshield wiper. On the back was written in a woman’s hand: “Thank you for giving the ice cream guy my wallet but shame on you for taking all my money.” I had found no wallet and taken no money. But I felt guilty anyway. I wanted to find this person and clear my name, but I couldn’t – the card wasn’t hers, it was Mark Strausbaugh’s, which the woman must have grabbed from the restaurant to scrawl her note. So I tucked the card in my wallet and went on my way. I still have it. A couple of weeks later I visited a friend in Queens. We spent a lot of time swapping sad stories. One afternoon as we sat in her apartment, I took out this card and started writing to Mr. Strausbaugh, and in the process my false guilt for the transgression I didn’t commit bled into real guilt over the failure of my marriage, which was very fresh. I’d had a hard time coping with that guilt, much less writing through it; the accidental introduction of Mr. Strausbaugh into my life gave me a way of approaching both.

Geosi Gyasi: Which of your poems do you feel is more autobiographical?

Scott Beal: All to varying degrees. None perfectly.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you intentionally set out to work out plot before you begin writing?

Scott Beal: I’ve learned it’s important not to. As a younger poet I would often write toward a preconceived ending. The challenge of writing was to plot the poem’s path from A to B, and there was pleasure in that – the path itself could be inventive and surprising. But still, I would end up at B. What I’ve since figured out is that there’s tremendous arrogance in knowing from the beginning that B is the important thing. It limits the mind’s potential to reach beyond its frame; if you move only toward what you see, you’ll never see anything new.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have influenced you most?

Scott Beal: It’s hard to know – Amy Gerstler, Alice Fulton, Ross Gay, Albert Goldbarth, Thylias Moss, Charles Simic (none of whom are alike), and many others, the Stephen King books I devoured as a kid, Nancy Drew, Lewis Carroll, Iron Maiden, The Clash, Percy Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” brief conversations, students, friends. Influence is a weird alchemy.

Geosi Gyasi: What circumstances led you to write “Feats of Pain and Daring?”

Scott Beal: In Chicago there used to be a monthly variety chow called The Encyclopedia Show – each month they picked a seemingly random theme (bears, or diseases, or Alan Turing) and invited writers and musicians to create a new piece for the show. The second time I participated, the theme was “puberty,” and I was assigned to write a poem on the sub-theme of “rites of passage.” I found myself trying to write two different kinds of poems – a self-deprecatingly comic poem about my own experience of puberty (which seemed too easy) and a list poem exploring difficult rites of passage across cultures (which seemed too distanced). As often happens, the conjunction of these impulses got the poem cooking.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics? Have any critics ever influenced your work?

Scott Beal: Most of the criticism that has influenced my thinking about poetry directly has been written by poets. Charles Simic’s essays from The Uncertain Certainty and Wonderful Words, Silent Truth that explore the tension between modernist and surrealist ideas about The Image have always resonated with me. When I read Alice Fulton’s essay “A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge” in The Nation, it reinvigorated my sense of poetry’s purposes and the role of conscience in art-making. Fulton’s essays on fractal possibility in poetry from Feeling as a Foreign Language have challenged the way I write, as has García Lorca’s “Theory and Play of the Duende,” in different ways and for different reasons. There are many others: A. R. Ammons, Marianne Boruch, Reginald Shepherd, Louis MacNiece. Reading what poets say about their craft helps us see the possibilities of poetry more richly.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you think about teaching and writing?

Scott Beal: Leading poetry workshops for children and teenagers has been an ongoing source of energy and delight. In The Art of Recklessness Dean Young says that “everybody is a wonderful poet up until the third grade”; but based on my experience, it’s still true until at least sixth grade. Elementary school poets haven’t inherited an aesthetic standard for what you are and aren’t supposed to say, or what counts as legitimate art or not. So they’ll say the craziest, most daring things. They feel liberated to be goofy, to have fun for fun’s sake with language, to go back and forth between hilarious and heartbreaking in a blink. And the high school poets I’ve worked with in Ann Arbor have such an immense capacity for vulnerability and risk. I’ve learned a lot from them, and pushed my work to new places inspired by them.

I hated poetry until late in high school. I think many Americans hate poetry, or distrust it, or are just plain disinterested. And I think it’s because of the way poetry is taught. In English classes, we learn that a poem is an intricately-wrought artifact with multiple, impenetrable layers of meaning, and then we are tested on whether we can decode these inscrutable symbols correctly. We come to understand that a poet must be some kind of asshole, to bury his meaning under mounds of symbolic misdirection. If he has something to say, why not come out and say it? Of course that’s not what poets are really up to, and the pleasures of poetry, and the ways it can inform and transform our lives, are much richer and messier than the standard English class model would allow. Part of what I relish about teaching poetry is that I can redress some of that damage and give kids an experience of poetry that isn’t designed to drive them away from it forever.

Geosi Gyasi: You earned an MFA in 1996 from the University of Michigan. What benefits did your studies bring to your writing?

Scott Beal: I entered the Michigan MFA program when I was 21 years old, fresh out of undergrad. The then-director of the program, Nick Delbanco, encouraged me to live and write for a few years away from school, then come back when I’d established a writing life independent of studenthood. It was wise advice, and I ingored it. I had a wonderful experience in the program and certainly grew as a poet – not so much from any particular instruction, but from sustained time to write and the pressure of high expectations. I had the fortune to take workshops from Alice Fulton and Thylias Moss, two poets whose work meant more to me anyone else’s on the planet. When you know Alice Fulton is going to read your poem each week, you don’t try to pass off any bullshit.

A year or two after I left the program, my writing hit a wall. I got a job drafting proposals and contracts for a clinical research organization, and I discovered what Nick Delbanco had warned me about: balancing writing and life outside of school is a different monster. I went two years without a single poem, and after my first chapbook got published in 1998, I went ten years without publishing a line. A lot of steps had to fall into place for me to learn how to maintain a life of poetry on my own, and it still happens more haphazardly for me than for many writers I know.

Geosi Gyasi: Which teachers were most useful to you as a student?

Scott Beal: In 9th grade English I was a bitter student. My teacher, Mrs. Way, seemed old and crotchety and had the most ludicrous classroom rules. For instance, any student caught chewing gum had to wear the chewed piece on their nose for the rest of the hour. On the first day of class she strictly forbade the use of “be” verbs in any of our writing for the entire year. Then she assigned us to write a two page paper introducing ourselves. I thought, how do I say “my name is Scott” without “is”? When I complained, she gave an infuriating smile and said to figure it out. It took me many years to realize that a year of writing under this prohibition worked a lifetime of passive voice out of my system. It did more lasting good for the liveliness of my prose than any lesson I’ve received. I’m sure Mrs. Way is long dead, but I tell my own students about her year after year, and I wish I could have had a chance to thank her.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most boring thing about being a writer?

Scott Beal: The predictable inflow of rejections can get monotonous at times, a slow drip of flickering disappointment. When you’re relatively unknown and send work to tough markets, you know the statistical odds of acceptance are small, so each rejection slip is unsurprising and easy to rationalize. You shrug and send again. But if the cycle repeats for long without an acceptance or two to shake things up, even if you know better than to despair, the routine can get dull.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you visit the libraries a lot?

Scott Beal: Yes! I love my local public library, but most often what I check out aren’t books. I love audiobook lectures like the ones produced by The Teaching Company. Recently I’ve listened to series on sensory processing, philosophy of emotions, history of science, ancient battles, espionage, medieval heroines, and orchestral music. I’ve also discovered great music by checking out CDs from the “world music” section with interesting album covers. I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like to, so I do a lot of listening.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe your work methods as a writer?

Scott Beal: I write in planned spasms. There are certain months each year – mostly in spring and summer – when I furiously churn out poems. Other months I hardly write at all. I sometimes feel like a sinful writer in that I’m not good at carving out daily writing time while also teaching, parenting, and tending to everything else. I know people who do it and they amaze me. I’m grateful for the times when I’m able to prioritize poems.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you do when not writing?

Scott Beal: I have my daughters for half of each week, so I spend a lot of time with them playing games, watching movies, helping with homework, fixing meals. I work as a lecturer for the Sweetland Center for Writing and the English Department at the University of Michigan, teaching classes and working one-to-one with student writers. I’m also writer-in-residence at Ann Arbor Open School, where I stand in front of a class of 55 fifth and sixth graders every week and make them write poems. I co-host a monthly reading series called Skazat! at a coffee shop in downtown Ann Arbor. I play indoor soccer, badly, one night a week. I watch Adventure Time and RuPaul’s Drag Race with my partner.

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, what makes a good poem?

Scott Beal: Surprise.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about “The Girl with Barbed Wire Hair”?

Scott Beal: I’d been studying Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Song,” which begins: “Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.” Everything in the poem unfolds patiently from that opening jolt – the poem builds its own logic over dozens of lines, expanding in concentric circles from one chilling juxtaposition. I wanted to unwind a poem like that. I played with random juxtapositions, mashing outdoor things with indoor things, violent things with delicate things, and was struck by the collision of barbed wire and hair. From there I wrote many failed drafts, different characters in different scenes, before I discovered what felt like the true logic of barbed wire hair – and then it took many more drafts to flesh out the arc of that character. I don’t think my poem reads much like “Song,” and I didn’t plan it along a parallel trajectory after the opening impulse, but I see other layers of similarity. Both poems start with violence, and in both the unnatural image becomes a kind of wishful magic in response to that violence. And both poems break narration late and shift their address in a way that raises the stakes.

END.

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