A Conversation with Jan Beatty

by Kathryn Kirkpatrick Issue: Spring/Summer 2017

Kathryn Kirkpatrick: I’m here with Jan Beatty, and she has just finished a wonderful craft talk in our Visiting Writers series. Jan, while you were speaking, I was reminded of Muriel Rukeyser’s quotation (and I’m paraphrasing), “write the poems you are afraid to write.” You started out by talking about or mentioning aesthetic risk. Could you elaborate on that as a guiding principle of your poetry?

Jan Beatty: Sure. That’s funny that you mention Rukeyser because I love her and often when people, especially young women, buy books, I write that in their book: “write the poems you are afraid to write.” So, I think you connected with that. One thing I tell my students is that, “look, we have a short time here on planet earth. We don’t know how much time we have and it’s your time – nobody else’s time. What is it that you really want to say?” And that may not come up immediately when you sit down to write. It’s something you may have to push for and you might run into a wall and find out what that wall is, and it often has to do with fear or cultural intimidation. Women have been told that they shouldn’t write, so it took me a long time to get to that at all. When I first showed my poems to a poet, I was taking one class at the University of Pittsburgh on my own. I was in no program. I was a waitress at the time, and I knew a professor and let’s just say I chose poorly, and I showed my poems to him. They were tough poems. One of the poems was a suicide poem. I was struggling as a person at the time, and his response to me was that these were not poems and that I was mentally ill. And it was pretty devastating to me at the time because that was my touchstone person. I thought, “Oh, he can see that I have trouble. Maybe he’s right.” So it took me a long time after that to show my poems to people and to write those poems and show them. I do what I can now as a teacher and as a writer to encourage women and to encourage them to protect themselves — you know, think of who you’re showing your work to and be careful about it.

KK: What you’re saying reminds me of the Irish poet, Eavan Boland. She has talked a lot in her work about gate keeping and who gives the permission to write. I noticed already with your interaction with the students at the session that you were nurturing their voices even as you were answering their questions.

JB: Absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot of fear out there, and I don’t know what they’ve heard, but I know I heard a lot of things that I shouldn’t have. Often from white male writers. And I’ve heard a lot of horror stories. You know, professors sleeping with students, etc. “No you can’t write like this. No you can’t write about that.” Which I find abhorrent and totally unacceptable, of course. So, I just want to inject positivity and permission whenever I can because I don’t know their background, but I know they’ve probably run into somebody. Let’s help them believe in whatever they’re doing. And we all need that no matter what. Not in some Pollyannaish sort of way — I’m very serious about it. As you know, it takes courage to risk, but it’s worth it.

KK: I think that another thing that’s been frowned on sometimes is to be overt about one’s cultural work as a poet. And I admire poets who are intentional about that and yet, there tends to be a stereotype about poetry that if you have an intention or you think of yourself as doing cultural work, it must be propaganda. How do you respond to that?

JB: Well, what do you mean when you say ‘cultural work’?

KK: I mean that when you talked about stereotype-busting, exposing racism, homophobia, sexism, in poems that the poems then are entering the world in a way that resists and counters and offers different stories, puts different people at the center of the poem. And I guess I think of all literature as doing cultural work, and so even the neutral literature is not neutral – it may just be representing the status quo. Poetry still gets presented as somehow being uninflected, I guess, by any kind of gender politics or cultural politics.

JB: Right, yes. I’ve run into that a lot. But I don’t believe in sitting down and saying, “Here, let me write a gender-busting poem. I don’t approach poetry like that, of course. I try to let the poem guide me, and yet I don’t think there’s any way to separate ourselves from culture or from politics, and you know it’s all through what we say and how we say it. I teach the Madwomen in the Attic workshop at Carlow University. Women ages 18 to 94 from the community and the university. And I’ve had some women say, “Why are you always — it seems like you’re attacking white men?” and I say, “I’m not attacking white men. I’m making them accountable.” And I say, “I make no apologies for championing women’s writing and women’s voices. And until we have the equal rights of men, don’t talk to me about that at all! Until we at least make the same amount of money! Please.” And until white men are not still primarily the gatekeepers of poetry-land and there is not a white male poetry mafia, please. So let’s not pretend there isn’t. Now a lot of people don’t want to hear that. There’s been progress with some organizations like Cave Canem, which publishes African American writers, and VIDA has done a lot for women writers. But there’s still a long way to go, and I think it’s important to keep talking and have no apologies about it.

KK: At Cold Mountain Review we’re trying to explore the intersections between ecological crisis and social injustice. How do you see your poems working in that current or do you?

JB: It may not be the first way I would talk about my work, but you know, definitely the social justice part comes in. I have some poems about women, race, a lot of poems having to do with class, for sure. But recently, and I don’t know if you know this, I completed a — I’m trying not to call it a memoir. It’s a nonfiction book of short leaping essays related to the body, related to adoption, as someone who’s adopted. But strangely enough, the only way I could enter that territory of a lack of memory for me was to go to the land, and I go out West every year. I just am driven to go out there all the time. I go there and just work and write. And so I was working with this topographical dictionary in my book of essays as related to the body, and I have some poems that do that actually — that sort of talk about the intersection. I’ll give you an example: I have a quote that uses the word “infant stream,” and that’s related to the baby in the poem. So I was sort of experimenting with some connections with place and the land in the situation where I didn’t know my beginnings. So in that sense, yes, I think it appears in my poetry and definitely in that book, which is called American Bastard right now.

KK: You live in Pittsburgh now, so do you feel like when you’re going out West to the land that it’s a necessary pilgrimage because of some kind of deep felt connection there?

JB: Yes, I mean I’ve been doing that for over forty years. I just keep going West and before that, I was running around Canada, and that’s before I knew my father was Canadian. My father was born in Winnipeg, but before that I had taken trains all across Canada a couple times, and I had no idea that I was half Canadian. So I think it was my body that was taking me to these places, you know, West, coming down from Winnipeg, the western part of the States and western Canada. I was just compelled to go in that direction. And I felt kind of good when I found out that there was a connection, because I didn’t know why I was going there. I just had to go. As a sideline, I had this attraction to Canadian men, and then when I found out I was half Canadian, I was like, “Oh! This is all coming together.” So there you have it.

KK: We’ve talked a little bit, and you’ve talked, and other women writers have talked about the confessional poem and the swirl of opinion around it and attitude toward it. The Dublin poet, Paula Meehan, has a section of a long poem called “This is Not a Confessional Poem,” where she launches into a very intense exploration of her mother’s suicide attempt. Could you locate yourself in that controversy, or if it isn’t a controversy, that discussion, that debate?

JB: Yes, it’s been bothering me for many years. The term is a problem. I realize it was a movement and I think it’s no accident that — you know, when Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and women were starting to write some very difficult poems that were revealing, that had to do with sexuality, that work was frightening and challenging to poetry at large. I think that a term like that was come up with– you know, ‘a confession’–as if something wrong had been done. As if this was something shameful being told to someone else. As if this was completely autobiographical. And I find that totally offensive. I think let’s be done with that term, and as I talked about this afternoon, I think that the publishing of women and writers of color and gay writers – that still needs to happen more — but that started to happen more in the sixties, when that happened, there was a movement in poetry to bring back formalism, the new formalism, which I found very suspicious. It wasn’t my idea, but actually the poet Maggie Anderson in 1973 wrote an article in Poetry Magazine about it called “Saving the Dishes.” It’s a great, great article. As a young woman poet, she could not find any poetry that looked like what she wanted to read or sounded like her experience, and when she finally found some women, like Plath, like Sexton, then New Formalism came. And everything was being put in these boxes. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with received, standardized forms although I’m a big believer in Levertov’s organic form. You know, I think it was a political move. I think most people would probably disagree with me or a lot of formalists might, but come on, just when people were starting to open up about their lives, that happens. It just seems suspicious to me, so I would say let’s get rid of the term confessional, or I would very much like it to have a new, expanded, informed definition at the very least.

KK: Well, so you mentioned Levertov’s organic form. Can you say more about that? Because I noticed that idea in your craft talk as well: thinking about where the poems come from and how we think about ecology and the human body and the boundaries between the human body and the rest of the world. There’s a lot of discussion now about those boundaries being more permeable, right? There’s always been the discussion of the muse, but is there a new way of talking about where the poems come from in an organic way?

JB: Well I have this great piece of a quote from Levertov if I could read part of that. Okay, so Denise Levertov, amazing poet that she is, has a great essay on organic form and she talks about the form rising from the poem, rather than from received forms, which are placed on the poem, which to me opens up room for interaction with the body and the environment in her book of essays, Poet in the World, that is one place where that essay appears. And I’ll just read a short quote from her, which connects the body to the world. She says, “suppose there’s the sight of the sky through a dusty window, birds and clouds and bits of paper flying through the sky, the sound of music from her radio, feelings of anger and love and amusement roused by a letter just received. The memory of some long past thought or event associated with what’s seen or heard or felt and an idea or concept she has been pondering, each qualifying the other, together with what she knows about history, what she has been dreaming whether or not she remembers it working in her. This is only a rough outline of a possible moment in life, but the condition of being a poet is that periodically such a cross section or constellation of experience in which one or another element is made predominant demands or wakes in her this demand.” I love this idea of everything coming together and crossing over and coming through the body so that it’s the bird, the grass, the land, the radio, well you can tell it’s a little older quote with the radio, the memory — thought, everything criss-crossing, and there’s a moment. I love that. Then, from that, starts the poem and then the form develops from there. To me that is so appealing as opposed to you’ve got sixteen lines, use this word ten times. I’m like — I feel like I’m in a box. I mean I know that can be helpful to some people to get started and everyone has their own way, but regardless the body is always involved and wherever you’re sitting, I think, is always involved and whatever is out your window is involved, so I think absolutely, ecologically speaking, it’s a whole.

KK: I remember the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, saying that he came to a place in his career where he felt that a poem was something that wanted to be voiced, and I love that sense of a poem that has agency. That we’re kind of minding it, tending it. That it is its own thing. That feels very ecological to me. We’re not always controlling it and mastering it.

JB: That sense of mastery is a problem. Trying to get out of the way and listen to what’s there and not impose a frame, not impose your will and just, not to be too cosmic about it, just try to receive whatever you’re hearing, feeling, seeing. I love Seamus Heaney.

KK: So, would you talk about your Madwomen in the Attic workshops and what you were thinking about when you – you took them over, right? And it’s obviously an allusion to Gilbert and Gubar’s major work, The Madwoman in the Attic, which in turn alludes to Jane Eyre.

JB: Yes, it’s a great program at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, and it was started 37 years ago by Ellie Weimert and the great poet, Patricia Doebler, who was my teacher, who took things over and grew the Madwomen. Unfortunately, Patricia died over ten years ago, and I started working with the Madwomen. But who the Madwomen are –it’s just a great group of women ages 18-94, as I said, and we don’t turn any one away. We have nine sections: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The cost is $175 for twelve weeks. We try to keep the cost low. If you don’t have the money, we have a scholarship program. We wanted to be open to everybody, so it includes undergraduates. You might find an undergraduate, someone who has a book of poems, someone who has an MFA, someone who’s just starting poetry, someone who’s 70 years old coming back to poetry after their husband died. Everyone is in the same class. We don’t have levels, and that’s kind of the beauty of it, everyone working together. It’s really something. I can’t explain it except that it’s really fun, and it’s so encouraging, and yet we’re very serious. I think we’ve had over 90 books published by women in the Madwomen, and it’s unbelievable. I’ll give you one example. I have a Tuesday morning class which is primarily women in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and some undergraduates and at the very beginning when I first started teaching the Madwomen I found it challenging because a lot of these women are older than me. I was raised to respect my elders, you know, so how am I going to tell them that their poems aren’t good? How am I going to do this? And it was a different kind of teaching that I had to learn. I said to them one day, “Look, there’s some people in the community who think that you’re a bunch of older women writers. Do you want to be looked at that way? Or do you want to be looked at as writers?” and I swear this happened: they started pounding on the table, and they started saying, “writers … writers . . . writers.” It scared me a little to be honest. I said “Okay then, let’s get to work.” They’re very serious. They’re on time. If it’s snowing, they’re on time. And all ages, but some of them come after cancer treatment, some of them come with an oxygen tank. I mean they just show up. And it’s very humbling. I have found a way to tell them that their poems are not working, so it’s working out. I’m learning a lot, let’s say that. But it’s such a great program, and it’s just really one of the best things that’s happened to me.

KK: One of the things that I also found myself wondering about during the craft talk was what Adrienne Rich talks about in one of her essay collections — she may even use this language — “now is not the time to write avant garde poetry.” In other words, she was making the case for accessible poetry – poetry that includes all readers. So that’s another kind of debate or controversy, right? About accessibility. How do you feel about that issue in poetry?

JB: Well, I mean, I love Adrienne Rich. She’s amazing. But I think people need to write whatever they want to write, however they want to write it. And that’s the bottom line for me. Period. I mean I was brought up working class, my adopted father was a steelworker and you know, there was no hope, I thought, that I could ever be a writer. I thought I could study writing. I was the first one in my family to go to college. I was not brought up with poetry or theatre or the museums, etc. So I have a very soft spot for colloquial speech and “what really happens” on the streets and with working people, but that’s me, that’s my bias. I remember I went to a workshop that Sharon Olds gave in New York years ago on accessibility, and it sort of changed my mind about some things, because I was big into accessibility. It has to be for everybody — everybody has to get it. And Sharon Olds talked about her workshop that she did at — oh, what’s the name of the hospital in New York City? — I can’t remember the name of the hospital where she would go and do workshops with people who had a lot of challenges, and she said to herself she always wanted her work to be accessible so that her class at the hospital could understand the poems. Then she gave a reading at the hospital with her class, and they told her that they didn’t know what her poems were about; they didn’t know what she was talking about, and she realized that she didn’t know what people would understand, and who was she to decide that? And she was kind of insulting them in a way by imagining they could understand this but not that, so she felt that the best thing she could do was to write whatever she needed to write and whatever she was driven to write, and I believe that. I mean, it’s very insulting if you have this idea of dumbing down your language for some kind of audience, that’s kind of obscene. So that’s not anything that I ever thought, but it’s an interesting question, and I also taught this class years ago called “Fear of Poetry,” because there’s a big fear out there of poetry and really it’s just read it line by line, and get what you want and feel what you want. Just let it fall on you. There’s an intimidation, and there’s a class factor, and I think we need more poems about class.

KK: I agree. That’s part of why I enjoy Paula Meehan’s work, too, because she’s put working class people at the center of a lot of her poems. Would you like to read a poem?

JB: Sure. Speaking of working class, I had fights with my father a lot. He was a steelworker and we fought about everything– in a good way. But about religion, work, women. And this is one of our fights, actually. And this is in italics. I can’t say it like he would say it, but this one was about work. And it’s called “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”:

You want to know what work is?
I’ll tell you what work is:
Work is work.
You get up. You get on the bus.
You don’t look from side to side.
You keep your eyes straight ahead.
That way nobody bothers you—see?
You get off the bus. You work all day.
You get back on the bus at night. Same thing.
You go to sleep. You get up.
You do the same thing again.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
There’s no handouts in this life.
All this other stuff you’re looking for—
it ain’t there.
Work is work.

KK: Thank you. We read that poem in class. There were some very interesting comments about it.

JB: Well, thanks for doing that.

KK: Yes, and thank you for coming. I feel like we could have many more conversations, but we’re going to draw a line under this because we’re supposed to be at dinner in twenty minutes!

Kathryn Kirkpatrick

Jan Beatty’s books include Jackknife: New and Selected Poems (2017), The Switching/Yard, Red Sugar, Boneshaker, and Mad River (Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize), published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Beatty hosts and produces Prosody, a public radio show on NPR affiliate WESA-FM featuring national writers. She worked as a welfare caseworker, an abortion counselor, in maximum security prisons, and as a waitress for fifteen years. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University, where she teaches in the MFA program.