Bruce Beasley is the author of seven books of poetry, and he is currently working on an eighth, entitled All Soul Parts Returned. Beasley has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Artist Trust of Washington, and he has won multiple Pushcart Prizes in poetry. He is a professor at Western Washington University, where he teaches about monstrosity, theology, and dreams in relation to poetry.
During his time in Nashville, Beasley spoke about his revision tactics, which include taking unfinished poems on long, multiple-language journeys through Google Translate to force interest-ing phrases and line breaks. When Beasley read from Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012), the poems seemed to transport him to a different land—he closed his eyes, tipped his head back, and waved his hands as though he could feel the words threading through the air.
Interviewer: What personal, literary, or other external influences spurred you to begin writing poetry as a young teenager, and what did you write about initially?
Bruce Beasley: I started writing when I was about twelve or thirteen, horrendously sentimental and abstract poems in which I let the vagueness and mawkish conventionality of the language conceal the real occasions of the poems: the severe alcoholism of both of my parents, the violence and disorder of my father’s unpredictable rages, my increasingly severe shyness and social withdrawal and isolation. I didn’t know yet that you could talk about such things directly, in poems, or anywhere else for that matter. Poems were the closest I got to speaking about such things. “I am alone, and my fears besiege me” was a typical opening line. The poems were, though I didn’t know it then, ways for me to talk about things I had forbidden myself to talk about more directly. I thought poems were for declaring already experienced emotional meanings. The idea of writing about something I didn’t understand was alien to me then.
I still have the first anthology of poetry I read, when I was fourteen or so: Hayden Carruth’s The Voice That Is Great Within Us. I read every poem in it, all 700 pages of it, though most of the poems got no more than a big question mark from me, or, scribbled in the margin, the question “Theme?” But there I began to underline and say aloud lines like Stevens’s “The lilacs wither in the Carolinas” and realize it wasn’t just lilacs and Carolina that were happening there, it was l’s and k’s and long i’s and short i’s, or “It was like sudden time in a world without time, / This world, this place, the street in which I was, / Without time, as that which is not has no time….”
I started to feel, in lines like Roethke’s “I’m cold, I’m cold all over. Rub me in father and mother” how there were forms of sense and logic in poems that were wilder, more thrilling, than the tedious logics of ordinary speech. I became entranced by the cadences and violent repetitions and chants of Plath and used to listen, over and over, to a public library LP of her reading her poems. I read Eliot, especially “Ash Wednesday,” till his lines were thrumming through my mind all day and night: Because I do not hope to turn / Because I do not hope, / Because I know I shall not know….” Gradually it began to sink in that poems weren’t summaries of what you already thought you knew, but plungings into what you couldn’t know, didn’t know, or didn’t know you knew, and in language that was wilder, richer, stranger, and exhilaratingly different from the way people talked in Macon, Georgia.
It is clear from your work that the language you use is purposefully different from everyday speech (perhaps especially that of Macon, GA) and it indeed stands out as “wild, rich, strange, and exhilaratingly different.” You mentioned while you were here that you keep a “word hoard” of words you hope to use in future poems. What is the next word you’re hoping to incorporate? Are there words that you’ve never been able to cross off the list?
Lately I’ve been obsessing over the German word zerissenheit, which means a state of dissolution or disunity, of being torn or self-divided, and which William James wonderfully translated as “torn-to-pieces-hood.” I’ve been thinking a lot about how words, when torn-to-pieces, reveal other words locked inside them.
I’ve been collecting odd figures of speech, like “per se” (after a student wrote it as “per say”), “beyond the pale,” “in the offing.” Phrases where the original meaning of the word has eroded away from common use but the expression containing the word nevertheless lingers. I have in mind poems called something like “In the Offing Beyond the Pale,” “All Unbeknownst,” “Se” (the se of per se means self, but in English looks like the word self cut in half). I often write titles bereft of poems before I write any of the poems.
I’m thinking about the words “gospel” and “evangel,” as both mean “good news,” though evangel comes from eu and angelos (good messenger) and gospel comes from god and spel (good news). I’m beginning a poem called “Gospel with News” that would play with the idea of the new and the pneu-, which means to breathe. Hyperpnea, which means rapid breathing.
I’ve been thinking lately in terms of syllables: the -phor of metaphor and euphoria and semaphore, which means at its roots to carry or bear and suggests to me “fore-,” which is one of those wonderful autoantonyms. Autoantonym is itself a word I want to get into a poem but haven’t yet been able to. Fore- meaning before in time but ahead in space: foretell.
I like those title ideas. It’s fascinating to me that you often know the titles of your poems before you write them. I usually wait until a poem is done before figuring out what the title should be. Do you ever change a title after writing the poem, or does the title direct the poem so that the two go together perfectly in the end?
For me, titles ideally give the poem something it wouldn’t otherwise have, so that the title is an important part of the poem and not just a summary of it. I always write more titles than I do poems (not all the titles find the poem that would go with them…). A recent poem of mine about the lyrebird, the Australian bird that has a tail shaped like a lyre and that is an uncanny mimic of other birdsongs and of sounds like train whistles, was called “Lyrebird.” I originally wanted “lyrebird” to refer not only to the bird but to the poem. Revising now as I’m working on the book manuscript in which it appears, I renamed it “Nuptial Song” because it appears in a context of poems about marriage, parenthood, and family, and the lyrebird’s mating cry is its mimicry: it borrows the mating calls of other birds for its own, and in the poem I borrow lines and phrases from lyric poems about birds throughout the history of English poetry. So the calls of birds are mediated through poems about the calls of birds, and so “Lyrebird” became a nuptial song for poetry and music and the world.
For me the job description of a title is to complicate the poem, raise it to a higher power, not just to say what the poem has already said better. I like to think of titles as the poem that starts the poem.
“Nuptial Song” sounds like a beautiful poem. I love that idea of the title “as the poem that starts the poem.” Do you think of book titles in the same way? Theophobia, certainly, is a fascinating title which raises questions–just as the book’s poems do–about the nature of belief and man’s relationship with God.
I’m drawn to book titles that are a little bit paradoxical or mysterious. One of my books is titled Summer Mystagogia. “Mystagogia” is a word I love, which refers to the period just after initiation into a mystery; it’s used in Catholicism for the period immediately following baptism, and was used in the ancient Greek mystery religions for those who had undergone initiation into, for example, the Dionysian rites. Recently I had a dream about that title. I was giving a poetry reading (on top of a massive pile of refrigerators, radios, and microwave ovens) and was asked what the title of that book meant. I was explaining in the dream–though I didn’t know I thought this–that you had to read the book in order to understand the title, that the act of reading the book was necessary to become an initiate of the mystery of the title.
Theophobia–fear of God–I mean to have a double sense: the Biblical term godfearing suggests awe and wonder at the overwhelming otherness of the numinous; the Proverbs say that “the dread of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That fear of God as what Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy calls “mysterium tremendum” merges throughout the book with a different kind of God-fear: the fear that God isn’t there, and the other fear of the horrific things that have been done–and continue to be done–in the name of various gods.
I’m just finishing a new book with the title All Soul Parts Returned. The title comes from a pamphlet by a New Age shamanist a friend of mine gave me, offering to travel into “Nonordinary Reality” to retrieve missing pieces of your soul to restore you to wholeness and guaranteeing that all missing soul parts would be returned during one session and for one fee. That idea of the soul as divisible, breakable, and commercially restorable fascinates me: the soul as a fixable commodity, like a clogged sink, with a money-back guarantee.
Theophobia—and All Soul Parts Returned, for that matter—strongly suggest that spirituality is integral to your work. Is it difficult for you to separate spirituality from poetry, and vice versa? In what ways do you think the two intersect?
For me, poetry is and has always been a form of spiritual practice, my own form of returning lost and broken soul parts. Words themselves, when I’m writing, feel like soul parts. Even poems not explicitly theological feel to me like parts of a spiritual investigation that takes place through language.