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The Children’s War and Other Poems

2013/11/26

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.

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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).

Shaindel loves meeting her readers. You can find her on Facebook or on Twitter.

Personalized, signed copies of  A Brief History of Time are available on the Buy Signed Copies page, too!

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