We laugh because honesty
is uncomfortable here in this trailer where I'm
supposed to lie to these high-schoolers, tell them
if they work hard enough, they can be anything.
The way the lie was told to me. We laugh because
we're all in this together -- our falling apart houses
and cars and hearts and lives. I wish I could tell them,
The thing that you have is this. The vastness.
The peacocks in the middle of the road, the man playing
air guitar as he walks along Mission Highway.
And I know, Children, that this isn't much, but it's the gift,
the one gift, these stories, that can't be taken away.
— Shaindel Beers
from The Gift (for my Golden Eagles)
Shaindel Beers is a poet and teacher living in the small, eastern Oregon town of Pendleton. She's the author of two poetry collections, the poetry editor for Contrary magazine, and teaches English at Blue Mountain Community College.
How did you come to poetry?
I wrote my first poem, unprompted, as a natural reaction to something when I was ten. I learned that my cousin had shot my dog. I remember I cried so much, and then I found a notebook. Poetry has been how I emotionally process ever since.
Your first poetry book, “A Brief History of Time,” offers a direct and down-to-earth voice that we don’t often see in poetry. Is this a conscious choice, a reflection of your personality, or something else?
When I was a younger writer, I was always drawn to blue collar poets because they felt familiar; they made me feel like I, too, could be a writer. This wasn’t anything I tried to do; it’s more a part of who I am. I’ve gone to college; I have two graduate degrees, but I’m from a farming and factory town with one traffic light where people know that you wave hello at someone driving a tractor. That’s just good manners. I’ve tried to broaden my vocabulary, but using words that don’t seem natural to me always seems like putting on a false front. I completely agree with what Stephen King says in his memoir On Writing:
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be more embarrassed."
Your latest book, “The Children’s War” takes an unusual tack in exploring global and domestic violence. What prompted this poetry project?
I happened upon this article one day, and it was so powerful, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started studying the artwork of child war survivors and the history of art therapy for children during wartime wherever I could find it. I ordered books online, I scoured online galleries. I wrote authors of studies. It was an obsession, one of those projects that basically writes itself.
But then midway through, I hit a wall. The big question for me was if I was supposed to write an entire book of children’s war poems or if I should include other forms of violence. On the one hand, I didn’t know if anyone could read an entire book of poetry about child war survivors. On the other hand, I didn’t want to seem selfish by including personal narratives with war narratives, but I decided to treat the collection as a study of violence in general. Violence in the home and in the community eventually becomes global violence. It is all borne of the same motivations – for one party to oppress and dominate another party.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?
There’s so much terrific advice out there that I’m not sure I can narrow it down, but I really believe that if you feel you’re supposed to write something that in some way is supposed to help someone, write it. Write it, and keep sending it out into the world until someone publishes it.
Life can be trying, as evidenced by your work. In the face of difficulty, what keeps you going?
Last year, I was at the Quest Writer’s Conference in Squamish, British Columbia, and a bunch of us were sitting at a table outside the dining hall soaking in the magical view of the Tantalus Range. One woman said, “You know how you become one of those older women you admire? You just keep going. You just wake up the next day, and keep doing what you’re going to do.” It was so simple, but it was an epiphany. You just wake up the next day and start over again.
Bonus Question: I’m a word collector and keep a running list of favorite words. What are your favorite words?
Most of the words I like have to do with the interesting sounds in them rather than the meanings of the words. I love the sound of the word coagulate because I love the weirdness of those vowels shifting into each other. In the language of the local Native American tribe, “good morning” is “Tahts maywee.” It sounds so cheerful. You can hear some of the language here in Roberta Conner’s TEDTalk, and it’s a great talk on the importance of indigenous languages. I also love the word chartreuse. It’s a beautiful color, too, but the sound of the word is lovely.