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"A Place Worth Staying": An Interview with Scott Beal

Scott Beal's first book, Wait 'Til You Have Real Problems, was published by Dzanc Books in 2014.  His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Indiana Review, Four Way Review, Midwestern Gothic, Glassworks, and Chattahoochee Review.  His poem "Things to Think About" which originally appeared in the January 2012 Collagist was selected for the 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology.  He lives, teaches, and co-hosts a monthly reading series called Skazat! in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

His poem, "Stegosaurus Moon," and "Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with Courtney Flerlage about imagery, a poems' turns, and the way the body guides a work.

What sparked “Stegosaurus Moon” into a poem? Where did it start?

The first two thirds of the poem is a rather literal transcription of the afternoon I signed my divorce papers. I had met my friend Gahl Liberzon at a café to write, and the first lines came out tinged with a “not with a bang but a whimper” disappointment at the mundanity of the event. At one point Gahl asked me when was the last time I challenged anyone to a duel. I accepted the question as a gift into the poem. When I was editing other bits out, I kept the duel question without really knowing why. Now it occurs to me that a ceremonial face-off between mutually respecting rivals may have been just what the day was missing. Not that I had wanted anything so adversarial; but I had imagined coming together to acknowledge the gravity of ending a long marriage, and to take a moment to honor its passing. The sadness that no such moment was available led the way into this poem.

I’m interested in the way the fantastic enters “Stegosaurus Moon” as a kind of wild volta. The poem begins with images of the everyday, the speaker ordering a coffee and “deploy[ing] my umbrella in the rain” after “signing the agreement that dissolves my life’s / biggest agreement.” Yet, later in the poem, the imagery turns to the fantastic: “I would like to say a few words about a stegosaurus. / A stegosaurus is pretty big compared to a school bus. / Thick armored plates mean it has its own back.” A surprising intrusion into the poem, the stegosaurus quickly becomes an image of encouragement that feels the right hinge of strange—an animal that could never have anything to do with “a round table with fountain pens, / our two names flourishing across a final page”—while still familiar. The stegosaurus helps us into the speaker’s mind, embodying what the speaker hopes to be while still hinting at doubt—it is, after all, extinct. What brought the stegosaurus into the poem for you?

It feels like being caught cheating to admit this, but the stegosaurus arrived arbitrarily, from a game. I’d taught a poetry workshop for kids that morning channeling André Breton and surrealist experiments with chance; I’d given each writer a set of cards with pictures on them, and told them to turn over a card every time they got stuck, and to put what they saw into their poem. When I wrote the line, “There was no need to occupy the same room,” the draft arrived at a kind of cul-de-sac which, like the afternoon itself, felt unsatisfying but offered little place to go. So I drew a card from my bag and found the stegosaurus, who offered me a ride to another neighborhood.

I appreciate hearing that the arrival of the stegosaurus feels fantastic, because the possibility of transformative magic is what I always want from a poem. And I don’t think this would be much of a poem without the stegosaurus, which provides a jolt to shake the poem into a new energy. At the same time, the image resonates for me because it’s not quite fantastic. As astonishing as it would be to find a stegosaurus downtown squaring off against a school bus, it’s not a dragon. It’s not a myth. We can have faith in a stegosaurus as a demonstrable possibility, however remote or unfamiliar it may seem. Arriving at the last two lines of the poem was my way of discovering that faith, too, in the possibility of a life after divorce. 

You play with a different sort of contrast in “Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement.” Toward the end of the poem, after the speaker describes the last meetings with the speaker's spouse before a divorce, the speaker says, “this plume rose within me,” which was the result of realizing “that we were getting along.” Later, the speaker describes, “this plume rose / as if thousands of particles lifted / to catch the late light.”  Before the poem lingers too long in this moment of lightness, the speaker clarifies that these particles are those that would rise when “an anchor had punched a lakebed / to claim in the midst of turbulent currents / a place worth staying.” I love the way you guide us through this image—we see first the plume, then the particles, and then this heavy cause, the anchor. The sequence and turn of the image captures a sense of relief, wonder, and finality in a way that blurs their contradictions—somehow, lightness and heaviness coexist. Could you share a bit about how you crafted the imagery in this poem to achieve this kind of balance—the light and the heavy?  

One piece of craft advice that has always stuck with me is something that Patrick Rosal casually tossed off once in the midst of a Facebook comment thread. Pat wrote: “There will always be a portion of a dream that cannot be written down, cannot be transferred to tape or on an SD card. The dream that guides the conscience of the fact has to be in the body. It has to be in the body.”  Ever since reading that, I have tried to become more consciously aware, while writing, of the way the body transmits experience, and of that transmission being the source of originality.

Accordingly, I don’t remember consciously crafting the ending lines of “Birthday Poem with Tentative Divorce Agreement” with an eye toward balancing forces, but rather trying to capture the physical sensation I felt in that moment at the table, and to decipher what it was telling me. Of course I’m aware, craft-wise, of the energy to be derived from tension, so my intuitions are often tuned to steer from one pole to another. In this case, I appreciate the observation about the coexistence of lightness and heaviness because you’re right, the moment is full of contradictions which the body can hold even as the mind tries to resolve: the sinking into the lake bed, and the ascension from the impact.

What are you reading right now that you’d recommend?

I have most recently been devastated by a poem called “Icarus Does the Dishes” by Tommye Blount in Kenyon Review. I’m taking my time with The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. A lot of my reading during the school year is related to teaching, so along with student papers and poems I’ve been re-reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and running out of time to have all the conversations in class that that book warrants.

What project(s) are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been working on finding a publisher for my second collection, of which “Stegosaurus Moon” is the title poem, and I’m starting to pull together a third. There’s a nonfiction project I’m working up the nerve to embark on, based on my obsession with a defunct Iranian metal band. Wish me luck.

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