An Interview With Nicky Beer
by Joey Lew
Nicky Beer is the author of The Octopus Game (Carnegie Mellon, 2015) and The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), both winners of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Her other awards include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Mary Wood Fellowship from Washington College, and a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. She is an associate professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, where she serves as a poetry editor for Copper Nickel.
Joey Lew: Hi Nicky! I just wanted to start by thanking you for taking the time to chat with me today.
Nicky Beer: A pleasure—I’m very happy you asked!
JL: I wanted to start by asking a little bit about your latest book, The Octopus Game, and I do apologize if you’ve been asked this many times before, but what drew you to cephalopods? I can’t help but notice that octopuses may star but squid and cuttlefish make guest appearances! Did you study these animals formally at some point or did you simply have an interest, and follow it up?
NB: I’ve always had an interest in marine biology, and have always been fascinated with aquariums. The Octopus Game itself, though, was inspired by one very particular octopus, who is immortalized in the first poem of the book, “Octopus vulgaris.” Many, many years ago—maybe 2005?—I was visiting the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga with my family. I had actually been looking forward to the special exhibit of seahorses and weedy sea dragons that was on view at the time, but on my way to that exhibit, I happened to pass the octopus tank, where a particularly charismatic specimen was showing off (this is not very common; octopuses tend to be shy/nocturnal/otherwise introverted in aquarium displays). I was so taken with the animal that I thought about it for a long time afterward, which eventually led to the “Octopus vulgaris.” But even after this poem was finished, I felt I still wasn’t done writing about octopuses. The more I researched them (and other members of the cephalopod family like squid & cuttlefish), the more obsessed I became!
JL: I love your use of the word “obsessed” there, because I feel like that’s a term that’s so easy to relate to as a writer—and because being fascinated by a thing does seem like (to me) the absolute best reason to write about it. I won’t lie, I did make use of Google reading through your book, but it seems to me you have such a knack for making specialized knowledge accessible—through humor and cultural capital in “Nature Film Directed by Martin Scorsese,” through relation to deeper universal thoughts or processes in “Skin Trade,” and so many others, and through categorization or breaking down into parts, like in “Octopus Vulgaris.” Even the choice to use epigraphs instead of notes feels like a way to play into this. Are you very conscious of the accessibility of your material? Or do these strategies come about naturally as ways to serve the poems?
NB: That’s a great question, and I appreciate your kind words about the knowledge being made to feel accessible through the poems. It’s definitely something I think about—I know that obscure language and references are not everyone’s cup of tea, and that it can be frustrating to have to put down a book/poem to look things up so often. Linda Bierds, a poet I absolutely adore, often traffics in obscure references/language, and the fact that she seems so utterly unbothered by these obscurities always delights me. I think I just delight in discovering oddball references so much myself, so on some level I’m probably writing for a reader who’s not unlike me. On the other hand, it can also make writing a poem without obscure languages/references a pretty novel enterprise!
JL: Clarity as obscurity!
JL: That’s lovely. A professor of mine once said that he loves a poem that teaches him something, anything, new. I know from admittedly limited experience/years writing that it can be difficult to remember what I know vs. what the audience/readership might know when deeply immersed in a specific subject—do you find it fairly easy to keep a clear head/edit for these sorts of things mostly on your own, or do you have friends/readers that help you remember when a term might not be as colloquial as you might consider it, research completed?
NB: My husband, the poet Brian Barker, is the person who reads my work the most regularly, and he’s fantastic for exactly that kind of feedback (and so much else as a reader). It helps because on the one hand he’s usually privy to whatever research obsessions I’ve got cooking, but the fact that he’s not directly immersed in these materials himself means that he’s very attuned to the gaps between my knowledge and the reader’s knowledge.
JL: That makes a lot of sense, and I think has the dual function of acting as both writing and romantic advice (marry your best reader)? In reading through The Octopus Game I felt like there were these strong through-lines, narratively and formally, that allowed me to read straight through without feeling overwhelmed, which leads me to so many questions about your organizational process in making the book. To start with—there were certain poem pairings, “Poem” and “The Burn,” “Oblation” and “Woman in a Stanza,” the first two sharing flame imagery though not in any redundant sense, the second two sharing Ars Poetica, that felt meant to move me through the text (or maybe I’m reading too much into this?) What were your thoughts in the more nitty gritty process of putting one poem after another?
NB: In developing the poems of The Octopus Game, it became clear that some poems I was working on might not refer to octopuses or cephalopods specifically, but still shared the spirit of the octopus poems, in terms of their concerns/arguments/aesthetics. So it was important for me for the non-octopus poems to have octopus-related “friends” nearby in the book that would make their relevance(s) more apparent (by juxtaposition, echoing, ordering, etc.). Even in a poem like “Marlene Dietrich Reads Rilke…,” there’s literally an octopus hiding in the background, though only I know it’s there. Basically, part of making decisions about the kind of book I wanted to write involved making a space for the non-octopus poems in a way that still made them feel necessary to the overall project.
JL: I can definitely see that—although now I know there’s a hidden octopus there I feel like I’m going to keep looking at it…thinking of that poem specifically, the lines “The room had no clock./The sun tries to put its fingers in her mouth” are to me a great example of how Dali-esque some of the poems can become at times, while still often acting as narratives or grounding themselves in an objective reality. The title is so specific but the poem seems to be able to get away and hint at something larger—it is reminiscent to me of something David Baker said: (no quotes here as I’m paraphrasing) there should always be two things going on in a poem. I feel like that’s achieved in the movement from concrete to abstract, absurd to normal, but also in the constant interplay of the octopus and what it represents. When you were choosing an individual species of octopus, or an individual body part in The Diminishing House, did you begin the poem knowing what subtext you would pair it with, or did it come as you wrote?
NB: Another great question! (And that Baker paraphrase is so excellent—it ought to be embroidered on a sampler, I think.) I think it varies wildly from poem to poem that I write. I will say that, as time has gone on, I will become interested in a thing to the point that I know I want to write a poem about it, but (to use Baker’s terminology here), I’m often stumped about what the Second Thing is. Over the years, I’ve come to trust that a subject matter might need to sit in my head for a year or two before the synergy with the Second Thing happens. I’ve learned to be a lot more patient about this (maybe because I have no other choice, right?).
JL: Patience is such an interesting concept in poetry (given all of the connotations of tension, and of moving through a work)! It can seem like publishing holds a key focus or demands a deadline, and it’s so hard to sit on an idea you’re excited about, so I think that there is a choice, but that “synergy” as you described it maybe comes from waiting for that right pairing?
NB: I’ve found that as long as I’m constantly seeking inspiration through reading, going to museums, going to zoos/aquariums, etc., I’ve always got a good backlog of stuff ripening in my head. It’s probably not unlike a distillery warehouse, where there are rows and rows of barrels dating years back. Just keep up with the process, and you’ll always have stuff that’s ready.
JL: Distilling certainly sounds like a great use of one’s headspace! I appreciate your bringing up your inspirations—this idea of finding inspiration through everyday living in reading definitely jives with something I’ve read of yours before (in your NEA statement, I believe!) on how poetry “resists efficiency, pragmatism, and anything that falls under the heading ‘proactive.’” Do you find that your teaching and editing contrast your writing, or that you approach each similarly?
NB: What I can say about my writing, teaching, and editing is that they’re all interdependent—I need all three—legs? Pillars? Walls for a triangular room? Whatever metaphor sounds best…. But what I mean to say is that I need the teaching to be interacting with poetry in a very public and instructive kind of way. To get my students enthusiastic about a poem or a technique, I need to be constantly in touch with my own enthusiasm. And the editing makes me feel deeply connected to that great, largely invisible literary ecosystem that constantly gives me new work that I love, that makes me jealous, that makes me excited, that shows me new possibilities for this art form I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. And the writing becomes a way for me to both relate to my students, and to rise to the challenges and inspirations presented to me by other writers, past and present.
JL: It seems like your art really stems from a place of joy, and of active literary citizenship. It actually makes me think of Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and certainly, I felt this sense of the unabashed awe and intensity in The Octopus Game. I’m wondering, given what appears to be a current shake-up or conversation on the traditional workshop model, what your ethos is approaching the classroom—I’m thinking particularly of the use of constructive criticism and of pointing out highs or lows in student works, of, as you say, bringing enthusiasm to the classroom, etc.
NB: One of the things that I think is really important to keep in mind for the workshop (and here I should say that I teach undergrads almost exclusively, so more grad-based workshop leaders may differ, or would suggest qualifications regarding my remarks) is that is a necessary tool for the development of the skills of the workshoppers, as well as the workshop-ees. The ability to articulate a critical point of view, and to respectfully disagree with one’s peers is so essential to art-making, but also to functioning in the world as a citizen. So I do think that part of my job in leading a workshop is to push students to a great place of clarity in articulating both praise and criticism. And I try to offer praise when they’ve articulated an idea especially well, to reinforce this notion that the workshop is as much about them as a writer whose work we’re discussing. I also make a point of allowing the writer to have the first and last words of the workshop: before the work is read aloud, I ask the writer if there’s anything they’d like to say, or any particular kind of feedback that they’d welcome. Also, at the end of a workshop, I ask the writer if they have any follow-up remarks or questions. Given that the author has to remain silent for the workshop, I think it’s important for that writer to still feel a sense of empowerment and agency in the process.
JL: Absolutely. It also strikes me that that first say can help a writer frame their goals for a piece, so that the group might help them achieve them as a complementary whole—a microcosm as you suggest of a healthy literary community! I’m sorry for the disjointed nature of the questions here—I keep getting excited about one thing and then distracted by another! I was hoping that we might return a bit to structure though—as an MFA student with the looming threat (opportunity?) of a thesis, I have to ask about your placement of sections. Did you want to encapsulate individual narratives across sections, or tonal movements, were they meant to give readers easy stopping points, or positioned for an entirely separate motivation?
NB: No apology necessary—I’m having a great time! The way I treated the sections in The Octopus Game was that I wanted to use the first section to establish the premise of the book—not just that’s about octopuses, but to make it clear that octopuses are going to be written about in extremely varied ways—hence the great variation in form in that first section: sonnet, prose poem, appropriated forms from health questionnaires/annotated literary work, longer poems, short poems, etc. And I wanted the second section to show how the octopus was going to be stretched even further with form and cultural references. All this would then allow me to take a bit of an extended break from the octopus in the first five poems of the third section. From there on out the octopus poems get a bit more conceptual, and are less driven by facts or cultural references. And then this also allows the octopus to come back into the book in the last few poems in a more judgmental way (especially in “Ad Hominem”—I knew I would need to have a poem where the octopus gets to make fun of me for the somewhat ludicrous premise of the book). And I think somewhat I always knew “The Octopus Game” was going to be the last poem…even back when the working title for the book was “Cephalopod Suite.”
JL: I have to admit that “Ad Hominem” was one of my favorites—how novel being insulted by an octopus! I do think that, like so many of your other poems, though, it gets at this essential defamiliarization that makes us a little bit uncomfortable facing the daily reality, it’s like, why do we immediately assume we’re looking at the octopus and it isn’t the one looking at us?
NB: Exactly—this is often what I love best about ekphrastic poetry: when it reveals that we’re exposing something of ourselves whenever we look at art, and that the art is judging us as well.
JL: Yes—totally—and this may be a stretch, but given the immense variation in your poetry’s form that you mentioned above, it seems like looking at the art of others might remind you of all of the uses of three dimensional and even two dimensional space? I was especially impressed by The Diminishing House’s “Cubital Fossa,” as the concrete poem seems to be such an elusive form to nail. Does content or form usually lead for you, or can either waltz in first and impose on or sculpt the other?
NB: I think it’s something of a toss-up, depending on the poem, though I will say that when I’ve got a draft that isn’t working, and I can’t figure out why, that’s usually a sign that I need to be rethinking the form.
JL: Are you a kill your darlings sort of person (if there can be said to be such a sort)—as in, do you often overwrite and end up striking through, or underwrite and end up expanding?
NB: I think I have a tendency to overwrite in a first draft, and chop and slash away thereafter. It’s not uncommon for me to have to write out an entire draft to realize that the last lines of the draft are actually the beginning lines of the next one, and everything leading up to them has to get the old heave-ho. Annoying, but if that’s what it takes, them’s the breaks.
JL: Ha! I love the implied will power there. I feel like, deviating from process, there’s this dark persona that lurks behind many of the octopus poems, but if I might jump back in forth in time a bit, “Every child ought to have a dead uncle” is quite a bold line to open The Diminishing House with! In some of your later work, too, I’m thinking here of “Cathy Dies,” “Elegy,” and “Kindness/Kindling,” there’s just this raw honesty to the persona, an acknowledgment of complicity or judgment, that, for me at least, heightens the credibility of the speaker.
NB: I think “Avuncularity” (and the opening line you quote) is a great example of how a lot of my poems develop; often it will happen with a single line like that showing up, and me wondering, “God, who would say such a thing?!?” And then writing the poem becomes a way of figuring that out. I really do love how persona allows us the opportunity to give space to our darker selves, our uglier selves…we need to avoid the temptation to be the heroes of our own work.
JL: I definitely think that one can see a bit of themselves in the judgmental or the dark, or at least, one has to think to see if they can, where the hero might be something of a cop-out. I love how “Harvard Med Fieldtrip” and “Please Indicate the Total Number of Sexual Partners (Male or/and Female): _____” come at those more vulnerable places from an angle of humor. To me they add so much to the tonal dynamics. Do you hope, given how much went in to organization, formal dynamics, tonal dynamics, etc., that your reader will move straight through, or do you think there’s equal value to hopping around?
NB: I do hope that my readers go through the book in order at least the first time, but if they get pleasure and enlightenment in hopping around, I hope they do that, too! I put a lot of stock in ordering, and learn so much from how other poets organize and order their work that reading books in order is how I conceive of my own work. BUT! I’m suddenly remembering that there was a poet who had a book come out where they offered alternate orderings for reading. I’m pretty sure I’m not making this up. And Elizabeth Bradfield, in her latest, Once Removed, includes at the back “An Idiosyncratic Index,” where she groups poems under headings like “Birds” “Marine Mammals,” “Shipwrecks & Disasters at Sea,” etc. This is a roundabout way of saying that I’m still delighted by and open to other ways of thinking about ordering.
JL: That really seems to circle back to your earlier comments on inspiration—feeding off of what you’re reading. Do you find there’s a certain sort of poetry you gravitate toward? A sub-genre or time period?
NB: That’s hard to say…I think I’m definitely drawn to science-y poetry, and poetry heavily informed by research. But I also love reading work that’s extremely different (in aesthetics, in obsessions) from my own…I recently read Andrea Cohen’s Unfathoming and just loved it, and our work is extremely dissimilar—at least on the surface.
JL: Do you mind expanding a bit on “at least on the surface?” What sort of deeper threads might you seen running between the two of you?
NB: Cohen’s work is very stripped-down and unornamented, and she’s one of those rare geniuses of the short-lined, short poem form—my own tendency to get verbose and decorative is definitely in contrast to her aesthetic. But I think there’s an extraordinary amount of compassion and humanity in her work—which is all the more extraordinary because of its brevity. And compassion and empathy are traits that I value deeply in poetry, which I hope to honor in my work, however roundabout my methods might be!
JL: I definitely found myself forgetting your anthropomorphization of anything from the clavicle to the octopus and living in the appreciation of it, which I think is reflective of that ethos. Do you have a passion that you’re currently exploring or researching, or do you tend to take writing breaks after finishing books or between projects?
NB: I don’t really take breaks, not because of any particular kind of stalwart work ethic or generosity of the muse, but more because I’m just always fiddling with ideas one way or another. Right now I’m working a manuscript of poems called Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes, and many of the poems are interested in forgery, fakery, optical illusions, things like that. I was reading a bunch of art forgery books, and that entire world is such a complex meditation on things like value, originality, expertise, etc. But my interest in fakery is also a reflection of my own obligations to “fake” things—I was diagnosed with major depression many years ago, and this book is probably the closest I’ve come to writing about it so directly; both the illness, my attempts to hide it, and my reflections on being on medication that helps me manage it.
JL: I love that title. It’s a brave thing, I think to go to combat with illness on the page. I wonder if, as you’re editing, teaching, and writing (so, as you mentioned, each leg of the triangle at once), you might have advice for those attempting to do the same, or simply trying to put their work on any subject out into the world.
NB: I think it goes back to that idea of being patient with one’s subject matter. You shouldn’t feel you’re obliged to write about your dealings with mental illness until you’re ready to do so; it’s important to remember that the maintenance and progress of one’s mental health is very different from the development of one’s art. In short, the fact that you may not be in a space to write about your experiences with mental illness doesn’t mean that you’re repressing anything, or making unhealthy choices. It simply may not be the right time for you, and that’s okay. And really, that goes for any deeply personal subject matter—you’re ready when you’re ready. Keep reading other folks who are doing what you want to do, and you’ll figure out what works.
JL: Thank you for sharing that. I love how it all seems to come back to immersion in the work of peers, mentors, and predecessors. As someone with so many varied realms of intellectual curiosity and widespread compassion, how did you know you wanted to pursue poetry?
NB: I remember hearing William Blake’s “The Tyger” on a promo for National Geographic on PBS when I was very young, and that’s my earliest memory of hearing the language of poetry in a way that told me I was hearing the language of my native country. It was simply a use of words and sonics and rhythm that made complete sense to me, even if I didn’t understand why. And my father was always writing something at his typewriter (both my parents were academics), so the constant presence of writing in one’s life was always a natural, domestic thing to me. Even before I had a sense of the publishing world, or that poetry was a contemporary thing, I was always writing poetry because it made sense to do so—as much as someone coming from a family of sports fans has sports deeply ingrained in their lives.
JL: I love the meeting of the academic and domestic, what a lovely way to find writing. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas on your inspirations and process, future and past work. It was so good to hear your thoughts!
NB: Thank YOU, Joey—you made it an absolute pleasure from beginning to end!
Joey Lew is a MFA candidate in poetry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She holds a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Yale University, where she was a member of WORD: Spoken Word Poetry. Her work is forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly's Reviews.