Poet Shaindel Beers asked me if I would like to read her new volume of poetry and do a review or interview. I opted for an interview, because, well, I’m nosy! I always have questions and want to know the background, where ideas originate, the creative seed, so to speak. Shaindel sent the book to me gratis.
I read this book and was very moved. The stories about the pictures created by children after experiencing the trauma of war are striking. Shaindel has managed to give voice to these visual creations.
Here is our interview:
First, what gave you the idea to write poems about children’s drawings?
I just happened to come across a Slate.com article called “The Art of War” by Dr. Annie Sparrow and Olivier Bercault, who are researchers for Human Rights Watch. They had traveled to Sudan and gave pencils, pens, and crayons to children while they interviewed their parents in the refugee camps, and Slate.com had a slideshow of the children’s artwork and some portions of the interviews in the article.
I pretty much became obsessed immediately and started writing the poems. It was actually one of those artistic obsessions where you think you might be going crazy, where you can’t think of or work on anything else.
Where did you first encounter these drawings?
After using the artwork I found via the Slate.com article, I started looking online for other sources of children’s war artwork and ordered sourcebooks, including They Still Draw Pictures: Children‘s Art in Wartime from the Spanish Civil War to Kosovo by Anthony L. Geist and Peter N. Carroll and Sunflowers in the Sand: Stories from Children of War by Leah Curtain. Of course, there is so much artwork out there, there were many terrific sources I didn’t get to use. I wanted the work to have a sort of immediacy, so I only used pictures that spoke to me right away, and I wanted to try to use artwork from around the globe to honor as many child survivors of war as possible.
I find it fascinating you were able to tell the stories of these children and their suffering by studying the pictures they drew. Did you have background information (not mentioned in the book) on what happened to these children, or did you imagine what may have happened based on the drawings? You certainly channeled the emotions of these children. Did you feel like you were doing that? Did you meet any of these children? Did you speak to people who worked with some of these children?
It really varied depending on the sources. Some of the pictures came with detailed stories, but many didn’t. If a picture had a story, I stayed as true to it as possible, sometimes including quotations from the children. But other pictures, I completely interpreted on my own. For instance, in the piece that inspired, “Painting by a Child at the Landmine Education Center in Dong Ha (Quang Tri Province, Vietnam),” there was a number 13 in the painting, and I had no idea what it was, so I had to come up with an interpretation for it. What I imagined in the child’s voice was:
…I do know the number I have drawn
on one mine. 13. The number of children lost in our village.
What I tried to come up with first was the age of the child and then stay true to that age. If a drawing was by a nine year-old, I tried to stay true to a nine year-old’s vocabulary and perspective.
I haven’t met any of the children or had any correspondence with them. I did exchange a few emails with the founder and director of the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange, Claudia Lefko, asking for further information about some pictures from their website and a small translation question, but that is about the extent of the contact I’ve had with anyone who has been in contact with the children.
What was your process in translating what the pictures were telling you into a poem?
I guess I really tried to inhabit the work — what story is the picture trying to tell? Is it witnessing? Is it imagining a peaceful world outside of war? If I were a child artist, why would I have picked this color, this style?
I picked up a lot of knowledge from reading the interviews and stories, which helped. I learned that children, regardless of culture, seem to draw dead people with their heads at the bottom of the page or to not color them in because in their minds, this is a way of portraying something as “not right.” I also spent a lot of time remembering what childhood was like and remembering how my mind worked at various stages to help fill in the blanks. Most of all, I wanted to honor the children’s stories and be as authentic as possible. If I did make changes, like putting a child on a train instead of a bus, I hoped they were small, artistic license sorts of changes that didn’t change the core of the story.
I did want to ask you some questions about the 2nd part of your book.
It is my favorite kind of poetry, I guess of the “confessional” school, where you are putting your emotions into words. Can you speak to any of your inspiration for that? Were you addressing situations in your life that brought these feelings forward?
I really believe in the 1960s and 1970s feminist rallying cry, “The personal is the political.” Women’s stories were ignored for far too long in our society and are still marginalized in many ways, so, for me, even if I’m writing work that seems personal, it is a political act because I’m asserting my right that the things that happen to me matter. They are worth writing about, and they’re worth reading about. And by extension, I’m writing for those women who’ve had the same experiences but who haven’t written about them yet.
I also process things through writing, sometimes years after the fact. Everyone seems to remember Wordsworth’s quote that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” but they often forget the part that he adds, “it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” I seem to have a lag time of a few years between an event happening and my writing about it. I have some poems about my abusive marriage which I left several years ago in this collection. I just couldn’t write about that experience while I was in it, or even shortly after it was over. It took a lot of processing the events to even understand what had been happening to the point that I could write about them. And, in turn, writing about those events helped me to move on and heal from them.
Liam, my son, is now almost three years-old, and this books ends with pregnancy poems and one poem in which he’s a baby. I’ve always been curious if people who don’t write are just “faster” processors than the rest of us.
When did you know you wanted to write poetry?
The first poem I remember writing that wasn’t an assignment, I wrote when a grown cousin had shot my dog. I wanted to process what had happened, so I wrote. Poetry was my way of dealing with things. That’s when I knew it would be my way of figuring the world out. I was about ten years-old then.
Do you journal? Did you journal as a child? Can you talk about it a little bit?
I’ve never really been disciplined enough to keep a journal. It’s one of those things I’ll start on and do really well for a few weeks, and then it slips by the wayside. I wish I were a more disciplined writer.
I “journaled” as a child in the sense that some Language Arts teachers had us write in a journal every day, usually with a prompt they wrote on the board. I remember that and sustained silent reading time being my favorite parts of school.
If left to my own devices (if I had a day off of work and an empty house), I generally like to use the cycle of read, sleep, write. I like to read until I feel like my head is “full,” then I take a nap, and while I fall asleep, I think about whatever I’ve just read, and then when I wake up, I write something inspired by those thoughts.
Who are your literary “heroes”?
There are so many. Since you asked about “confessional” poetry, I would have to say Anne Setxon. She broke so many barriers of writing about deeply personal issues, and she also did the interesting work of reinterpreting fairy tales using events in her own life in her collection Transformations.
In a sense of this specific collection, The Children’s War, several of the poems came from prompts given to me by Carl Phillips, who is such a fine teacher and terrific poet. He gave these crazy, specific assignments at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop that seemed impossible to follow, but they turned into such beautiful poems. I learned from him both as a poet and as a teacher.
Of course, there are so many others, but I think we can leave it at those two in the terms of this collection.
Shaindel Beers’ poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in Eastern Oregon’s high desert and serves as Poetry Editor of Contrary. A Brief History of Time, her first full-length poetry collection, was released by Salt Publishing in 2009. Her second collection, The Children’s War and Other Poems, was released in February of 2013.
Shaindel was raised in Argos, Indiana, a town of 2,000 people. She studied literature at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama (BA), and at the University of Chicago (MA) before earning her MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has taught at colleges and universities in Illinois and Florida but feels settled in the Eastern Oregon high desert town of Pendleton. Her awards include: First place Karen Fredericks and Frances Willitts Poetry Prize (2008), Grand Prize Co-winner Trellis Magazine sestina contest (2008), First place Dylan Days Poetry Competition (2007), Award-winning poem published, Eleventh Muse (2006), Honorable mention, Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Awards (2005), Honorable mention, Juniper Creek/Unnamed Writers Award (2005), and the title poem from this collection, “A Brief History of Time,”was nominated for a Pushcart prize (2004).
Personalized, signed copies of A Brief History of Time are available on the Buy Signed Copies page, too!
Remember my teaser a few weeks ago about the wonderful poetry of Shaindel Beers? Here is an example.
The tank, bigger than the hut, fires
and all of the colors explode from the hut.
Why is this man green?
Because he is from the tank.
Why is this woman red?
Because she was shot in the face.
And why aren’t you colored in?
Because it is like I wasn’t even there.
I recently discovered this website, jfkfacts.org. It explores the Kennedy assassination, without making assertions about any particular theory. It states it tries to deal with facts only. Some of the people who comment on the material obviously do have opinions. I feel like the truth has been somewhat obscured by the folks at either end of the opinion spectrum who believe they are 100% right.
Anyhow, I decided to read another book about the assassination. Truthfully, although I’ve read books about the parties involved, I’ve never read anything about the assassination itself. My husband recommends Best Evidence by David Lifton.
Jfkfacts.org recommended this book, and I ordered it because the author has won a Pulitzer, so I figured it would read well. It is called Not In Your Lifetime by Anthony Summers. The title refers to some of the classified information that was to be guarded until all parties alive when it occurred are no longer with us. I’m excited to read it. I hope I can finish it by my birthday, which is the day after the 50th anniversary of the assassination. It is a long book.
The other book I received is a collection of short stories by Stephen King called Just After Sunset. Some of my favorite works by him are short stories or novellas. One of the more chilling stories I read long ago was called Quitters, Inc. Click on the name of the story for a review. It must have made quite an impression on me if I can remember the name and some of the things that happened in it!
I will leave you with a sculpture by Henry Moore, ca mid 1930′s. I took this picture at my favorite museum ever in Denmark, Louisiana.
The talented poet Shaindel Beers sent me a collection of poems she wrote, and is allowing me to interview her and do a profile of the collection and her. I am very excited about it. It will be awhile before the final piece is on here but I just wanted to let you know about her. She is on my blogroll but click on her name above and it will link to her website. Here is the cover of her most recent poetry collection.
Ta for now!
have I been in a situation with a person or persons where I was uncomfortable and not having fun and remained because I was afraid to say no, I don’t want to be in this situation? It’s hard to believe it could still happen at my age. It has weighed on me terribly this week, but I must let it go. Because I’ve obsessed over this, it has been difficult to write. However, fuck it. I can’t let this make me not write.
So, I was at a yard sale last weekend and got a book–The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford.
This is the 1992 edition. The first story I read was Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.
Certainly I have read this story before. However, I’d forgotten it. I only recognized it because I recognized the photo of Shirley Jackson when I looked it up. According to wiki, it has been described as a “chilling tale of conformity gone mad”. You definitely know something bad it going to happen early on. What eventually happens is quite chilling.
I think went to the beginning of the anthology and started reading the stories in the order they are in the book. I will list the name of the story and the authors I’ve read thus far.
A Day in the Open by Jane Bowles
A Distant Episode by Paul Bowles
Blackberry Winter by Robert Penn Warren
O City of Broken Dreams by John Cheever
The View from the Balcony by Wallace Stegner
No Place for You, My Love by Eudora Welty
The State of Grace by Harold Brodkey
The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
I liked all of them. None really knocked my socks off. Blackberry Winter and No Place For You were visceral, you could feel the weather as it was described, which of course also set the mood. I think my favorite was Brodkey’s State of Grace. It was introspective. The others definitely had an element of abstraction about them. I also liked A Distant Episode. It was interesting culturally, describing a life and culture that is anathema to me.
All of the stories so far take place mid 1940-s through early 1960′s. The book has stories by some of my favorite writers, including John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Kurt Vonnegut. I remember in high school I read a short story in textbook by John Updike. That sparked my interest in him and his books. I have no memory of the story from high school.
Well, that’s it for now. Will keep you posted on the stories. I love not only 20th century writing, but also biographies of the writers and other players, as you know.
November for Beginners
Writing prompt from MamaKat.
I just added a picture of Bob, Memom’s 3rd husband. I noticed he doesn’t look as old as I remember him….. wonder why?
Memom & Bob had a garden at my aunt’s house across the river. One summer evening they took me to the garden with them. Bob was bald, and wore a pith helmet in the sun. I always remember the meal we had after with so much fondness. I can taste and smell it right now.
So, we had blt’s with real good bacon. All the veggies were freshly picked from the garden. The tomatoes were so big, you only needed one slice for a sandwich. She also made corn on the cob, and green beans with potatoes in them, season with pork, I’m sure. It was so delicious. I was prolly about 11 and I still remember it so viscerally.
I came across this pic. It is of my sisters and me on Easter at Memom’s. Note Memom’s cool red Rambler in the back.