A Brief History of Time, poetry by Shaindel Beers
· Paperback: 76 pages
· Publisher: Salt Publishing, 2008
· Price: $14.95
· ISBN-10: 1844715051
· ISBN-13: 978-1844715053
Z: Before we begin our archaeological dig into the history of time, Shaindel, let me ask something else itching on my mind. Tell me about your name. You might guess that I love unusual names.
Shaindel: That’s funny because I’ve always been curious about your name, too. Shaindel is a Yiddish name that means “pretty.” It was my father’s mother’s name, and he promised his parents that he would name his first son and daughter after them. They both died when he was young, so this was really important to him. There seem to actually be quite a few Shaindels. I’ve known two Shaindels who use it as their Hebrew name, but not their everyday name, and I’ve met a lot of them on Facebook. Of course, it can be spelled any way because of the “vowel situation” in Yiddish, so there are Sheindels, Shayndels, etc.
Z: Tell me, how does your book differ from Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time? Did you both come to similar conclusions about life and the universe?
Shaindel: I greatly admire Steven Hawking’s work and the work of a lot of theoretical physicists who are out there today—Brian Greene, David Z. Albert, Brian Cox—to name a few. What’s really interesting to me is learning what we don’t know or even what might be possible that we’d never thought of before. And I feel like this book is a brief history of my time on earth so far and sorting out what I know, what I know I don’t know, and what I didn’t know I don’t know, to play on Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known knowns” speech. I wanted people to look at my book and think of quantum physics and parallel universes and identify with it that way, if that makes any sense.
Z: Your title poem. You’re no good at this love thing, either, eh? Like all the rest of us. You speak for many, Shaindel, right down to the definition of insanity (“…love is just another type of insanity…”) Which, actually, I believe good science has stated also—about the first stage we call romance, or the freely unzipping sort as lust. The brain is flush with madness. No other way we’d willingly get into such a thing. “Nonetheless, I keep on trying, like the benchwarmer/who begs to be sent in and is carried out crushed every time.”
Shaindel: That’s another thing about time and science that fascinates me. We look at people who we would consider fairly primitive in terms of scientific understanding, like the Elizabethans, who thought that love was a type of insanity, and now we have brain scan technology that shows that it is. Brain scans of someone newly in love show action in the same areas and of the same level as people with obsessive compulsive disorder. They also thought that love entered the body through the eyes, and we can look at studies of babies paying attention longer to attractive faces or statistics of emergency room personnel working harder to save attractive people. There are all sorts of ideas from other times that, on one hand, might sound silly to us, and then as we do more discovering, we realize that they were absolutely right all along, just without the same proofs that we have.
Z: And then there is “Would You Know Me,” a poem about the farmer’s daughter, the rather plain girl selling produce at the roadside stand that men don’t see … until she becomes a glamour girl, all made up and dressed up. You refer to that as her “disguise.” Indeed, many of your poems make powerful statements about women, how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about the men in our lives, or the men we wish were in our lives, then again, wish they weren’t. There’s “A Man Walks Into a Bar” that makes you lose all sympathy for women. Or the gold-diggers in “Why Gold-digging Fails.” Or, “The Thermophobic’s Wife,” – “She is a nurse, a wife, of ice.” The misunderstood woman of “Sleep” that everyone calls bad names. The single mother of a handicapped child in “Sunday Worship.” Many others. Talk about your views about women. A reader senses you have a lot to say, not all of it nice…
Shaindel: Wow. I could (and hope to) write books on this. I think I’m pretty sympathetic toward all women because I really believe society still dumps a lot on us—if we look at the fact that we’re supposed to look perfect, be perfect, be the breadwinner, the bread maker, and all for less pay, it’s not even close to being a fair world yet. I think a lot of women take part in giving a hard time to other women because they’ve fallen for society’s “divide and conquer” strategy—if that woman isn’t pretty or is a little pudgy, I can’t be friends with her because what will people think? Or if she’s too pretty, I’m too insecure to be friends with her, so I’ll bad-mouth her. Or I’ll look down on so and so because she’s a stay at home mom, so she can’t understand my life. Or this woman’s worked her way to the top of the corporate ladder, so she must be a bitch if she’s made it in the “boys’ club.” It’s almost like the goal of the way women are socialized is to make sure that no women like each other, and it’s all a competition, and what for?
So, I really try to get past it, and I hope that other women do to. I try to make it a practice never to say anything bad about another woman. I know I shouldn’t ever say anything bad about anyone, but I try especially hard in the cases of other women.
There’s a lot more I could talk about—the beauty industry, how much disposable income women spend on clothes and make-up and whatnot—much of which isn’t optional. There are workplaces where women are expected to have their nails done, make-up on, etc. Kelle Groom has a great poem about applying for a job, I believe as a hospital administrator, and the dress code and other policies which is a great example of what I’m talking about.
Even in academia, where we’re supposed to be beyond this, I’ve had colleagues, both male and female say, “Oh, he’s never met a skirt he doesn’t like,” or “he likes you because you’re young and good-looking,” or whatever. It obviously can’t be because of any achievements I’ve made or hard work on my part.
Z: You take on the act of protest in “For Stephen Funk, in Prison for Protesting the Iraq War.” The poem ends with a line that disarms: “Our weakness is not made of different stuff than courage…” Can you tell us the story behind this poem?
Shaindel: It’s pretty autobiographical, like many of the poems in this collection. Before the Iraq War started, many groups just wanted more time for there to be searches done to see if there really were any “weapons of mass destruction,” and, like many young people, I went to hand out leaflets at the mall. Within about five minutes of starting, the police came and asked us to stop, and I did, no questions asked. I’m sure I said something about “just handing out leaflets with statistics on them” or “freedom of speech,” but I didn’t put up any kind of fight. I sort of shrugged, put my flyers back in the car, and came back into the mall to go to Red Robin. Not too long afterward, I learned about a letter-writing campaign to write to Stephen Funk, who was in prison for refusing to be deployed because he was afraid of what his fellow soldiers might do to him as a gay Marine. I wrote him this letter while he was court-marshaled and just felt really shitty because he really stood up for what he believed in, and he was imprisoned for six months. I, on the other hand, was minorly inconvenienced into walking an extra trip across the mall parking lot to put my protest materials away. I wanted to apologize to him somehow and to thank him.
I’ve gotten acquainted with Stephen Funk online since writing about him, and he’s a phenomenal person. He’s recently graduated with his International Relations degree from Stanford, he’s really involved politically in Iraq Veterans Against the War and other causes. He’s still a hero of mine.
Z: That wistful “Summer 2000 Sestina” with the sweetness of new love. Lost to mistrust. And difference. Is it possible to love what is different than ourselves? Or is it difference that always pulls us apart? Or is it difference that makes it love at all?
Shaindel: I think this is part of my issue with “I’m no good at this love thing.” I haven’t figured this out. I think we’re attracted to differences; it’s not necessarily a case of “opposites attract,” but that the unknown is always more intriguing that the known. There have to be commonalities there or you have nothing to talk about, though; you’re on different planets. You just have to figure out what the commonalities are that are important to you. I have a friend who is a super-liberal yoga instructor, and her husband is a Rush Limbaugh fanatic, but she says she knows if she had a stroke, he would be there, spoon-feeding her and changing her diapers, and that’s what matters. Those are the sorts of things we have to learn about ourselves in relationships.
Z: “Starved girls who try to imagine it’s just a job.” In your poem, “Why It Almost Never Ends with Stripping,” you portray the woman selling her body for money, for survival, and how she gets seduced into ever uglier acts. A little more, a few more bucks. Until she is lost. With all those blind men looking at her who refuse to truly see her, what is it you want us to see?
Shaindel: I want people to see truth, to see humanity. I think this goes along with the “divide and conquer” strategy of society against women, and I think this also goes along with social class and, sadly, with what is valued in our society. A lot of people in our society look down on sex workers, but someone is paying them. And those someones are paying them a lot. A lot more than school teachers, a lot more than social workers, and hundreds of other important, worthwhile occupations I could name. I don’t think we should blame those working in the industry; I think most sex-workers are victims, too. I wanted readers to see that it’s an easy trap to fall into and an easy one to spiral out of control in.
I think the same is true for a lot of things people do because they are desperate for money—drug dealing, drug manufacturing. I think if we had an economy that valued people’s hard work (or people in general), and people were paid a living wage, we wouldn’t have people who are so desperate for money, that they would literally do anything for it.
Z: “A Study in Weights and Measures” and “Surgery” takes on life, one’s body as something that is us, yet not, a distance there, perhaps to survive such trauma as cancer, even a befuddlement at why one wants to fight so hard for life when life is such a fight.
Shaindel: I’ve always felt like someone who lives in my mind more than someone who lives in my body. To explain that further (maybe?), I’ve always loved being sore after a workout because I think, “Oh, good, my body’s still there.” The scary part is when you’re “weary in body and mind.” I know that there’s either an Old English or Old Norse term for that, but I can’t find it right now. Those are the times that you want to give up. Sometimes, I think of celebrities who have had those breakdowns and are sent to a spa for a few weeks to relax (think Mariah Carey, 2001), and I wonder, “Where’s my break? How do I get one of those?” I remember scheduling a preventative cancer surgery after grades were due so that I wouldn’t be missing any work. That’s the world most of us are living in. But at least I had health insurance and a job; a lot of people would have had it worse.
Z: You express a power in those who seem to submit. Only seem. “Body Shop” is about a woman giving away pieces and parts of herself for others, served up on a platter, and “What Will We Do With You? This Bone Has Almost No Flesh Protecting It” is about power. The brothers beating up on their sisters think they have power, but power, you write, is actually more inside of her, when she smiles up at the anvil. What is this power?
Shaindel: I think it sort of goes along with the lyrics of “Me and Bobby McGree,” “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” If you don’t care what happens to you, there’s almost a freakish sort of bravery there. It’s why people rush into burning buildings to save someone, or why someone takes a bullet for someone else. It’s verging on super-human. But, it takes a lot to get there (outside of the cases where it’s instinctive—for one’s child or something). Someone I know who used to be a bully in high school told me that the scariest kids were those who just let him beat them up, because they were used to it. If someone didn’t hit back when he hit them, and just took it and didn’t cry, then he just knew they got hit all the time at home. Some people, this is what life has done to them. I think it’s the hardest kind of power to earn because you earned it, but you didn’t ask for it.
Z: “My Love, A Partial Explanation” is, I think, more a sad but nurturing love song to yourself than to the lover we see there. “I’m always/on the outside, never quite able to figure out the rules/that everyone seems to take for granted.” Except, of course, that everyone else is no doubt thinking the same thing. “You’re never sure it it’s love, or if you’re just grateful/that you’re the one thing it won’t kill” as you compare loving you to loving a guard dog. Much of your poetic power, Shaindel, seems to be your ability to capture the voice of the misfit in all of us, the outsider we all are. Later in this collection, in “Tonight in this hotel room’s mirrored wall…” you share a scene of two damaged persons making love. Scars, healed wounds, incisions on bodies, that these two do not love in spite of these “imperfections” but are bonded by them, the fallen Adam and Eve. “We name imperfection the best beauty of all” and “Unmarked beauty is not beauty to all.” I would say, “at all.” What is beautiful to you?
Shaindel: Despite this being a dark collection, I think life is beautiful. Just being here and watching it unfold. My husband (who might have been that high school bully in a previous question) is possibly the biggest, toughest guy I know. But sometimes when we’re driving in the country, a little calf will be running in a field, and Lee will say, “Look at that little guy, just figuring out what running’s all about.” That’s beautiful. Just the world around us and seeing other beings figure it out. That’s what it’s all about.
Z: Young, yet you already understand “How Time Betrays Us.” “Every day around the world, 120 million people make love./Today is not my day./In the time it will take you to read this,/somewhere, in America, a woman was raped.” But with this collection, you have, Shaindel, given us your words. As you write in “I Give You Words,” when all other beauty passes, you can give us these words. Thank you for your words. They are beautiful, strong, sad, surviving, maddening, enduring. With something of all of us captured within them.
Shaindel: Thank you so much for a beautiful interview, Zinta! And thanks to your readers for following along on my virtual book tour. Please go to Goodreads.com and search for “Shaindel Beers” to enter a drawing for a free copy of my book (there will be six lucky winners, one for each month my book’s been out), and please find me on Facebook. You can never have too many friends in the writing world!
Also, if you want to help save a fabulous small press, Salt Publishing has a Just One Book Campaign. Like many small presses, the economic crisis has been hard on my publisher, so if literature lovers can buy just one book from Salt, it would make a huge difference:
Other links for Shaindel Beers:
Saving Salt Publishing: http://www.saltpublishing.com/blogs/confidential.php?itemid=622
Shaindel’s page at Salt:
Shaindel’s book giveaway at Goodreads:
Shaindel’s Red Room Author site:
Contrary (where Shaindel is the poetry editor):
Shaindel will have a page devoted to her and her poetry in the upcoming summer 2009 issue of The Smoking Poet, online in June.
Shaindel will have a page devoted to her and her poetry in the upcoming summer 2009 issue of The Smoking Poet, online in June.