Jeffery Beam: a Life in Poetry
PHOTO BY REUBEN COX
Jeffery Beam: A Life in Poetry Jeffery Beam is the author of nine books of poems including The Fountain, Visions of Dame Kind, and An Elizabethan Bestiary: Retold. His two-volume enhanced CD collection What We Have Lost: New & Selected Poems came out in late 2001, and songs by composer Lee Hoiby based on poems from Beam's "Life of the Bee" premiered at the Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall on April 18, 2002. Beam is poetry editor of Oyster Boy Review (http://www.levee67.com).
VL:I have heard you say that being a librarian, at least in your own life, goes hand-inhand with being a poet. Would you elaborate on this idea, and describe your job in the Botany Library?
JB: I have worked in the Academic Affairs Library System since I graduated in 1975 from undergraduate school. I didn't want or feel the need to get a graduate degree, as I believed that becoming an academic was the last thing I wanted to do for the health of my poetry, and my spiritual life. And yet I wanted to be involved in an academic community. I've worked my way up from one of the lowest jobs in the library to the glass ceiling here for non-degreed librarians. My official state title is Library Technical Assistant II, but we formally call me the Assistant to the Biology Librarian in the Botany Section.
Presently the Biology Library is split into two sections (Botany and Zoology) reflecting an old structure of two separate academic units. I've been in this position since 1983, and in the library since 1975. Before this job I worked variously as a binding assistant, an Acquisitions Order Unit assistant, a gifts assistant, and an International and State Documents and general business reference assistant. Here my job allows for a lot of variety. With only two full-time people in the office, I manage all the circulation activity, the payroll and supervision of student and graduate assistants, technical services, facility management, and some bit of collection development—just about everything except for the overall management of the two units and the majority of collection development. My boss considers me an equal, and we four full-time people in the two units make most policy decisions as a group.
When I was
growing up I use to
make my playmates
This sounds particularly unpoetic doesn't it? But I love serving others, I love finding the answers to questions and solving problems, I love being in a small library where there is variety and scope. I had no background in biology when I came, except for the horticulture I had learned from my grandmother and that I had taught myself.
When I was growing up I used to make my playmates play "library" and I have collected books since I was four or five! It's good to have books around me—and to have the resources of a major reference library at my fingertips. It's good to absorb the energy and enthusiasms of the students. All this has imbued my work with a sense of service, with evolutionary ease in terms of subject and style, and with making important connections in the academic world. My books Visions of Dame Kind and An Elizabethan Bestiary: Retold might never have been written without my working with biological and horticultural materials. My children's work might never have happened except for the library asking me to develop an annual Friends of the Library children's program.
A tenth grade English teacher told me if I wanted to be a poet I should dig ditches for a living. I haven't done that, but I do feel I have found a comfortable place of everyday work and high pursuits. No doubt, I would be deeply satisfied to be a stay-at-home writer. My natural inclination is one of scholarly quests and writing. I do fantasize writing full-time, but until that happens, being a librarian at UNC is a perfect way to make a living.
VL: You have been commissioned to write the libretto for an opera based on the Persephone-Demeter myth. Can you tell us how that project is progressing?
JB: Slowly, slowly. Having a job has always made it difficult to focus on big projects. I have never tackled something so large, so utterly narrative in scope, and so different in style. One of the great gifts of poetry is it allows for working in small spaces and fragments of time. My nature, too, as I implied before, is somewhat scholarly. My curiosity compels me to know everything I can about Eleusis, the Mysteries, the myth itself, and as much of the scholarship and other connections as possible. Some people may think of this as a delay mechanism. It really isn't. It's the way I've always worked. I'm having great fun! I now have a little mini-library on these subjects. I think about it all the time. I'm now studying Gnosticism through the ages for I feel there is a direct association between the Mysteries and Gnosticism. I want to be Demeter and Persephone and Hades and am learning to be them as I study and write. This project fits in with a lifetime of interest in mystery religions, the occult, myth, esoteric Christianity, the natural world (especially the plant world), music, and literature. The process has always been more important to me than the product, which has probably been one reason my work is not better known.
The commissioner, Shauna Holiman, who also commissioned the Lee Hoiby settings to my "Life of the Bee" poems, has agreed that if we are to make a lasting contribution in opera that we should be ready to take fifteen years if that's what it takes. I may fail, but I've never let that stop me before. This is not to say that I wouldn't benefit from some time away to work on the project. Unfortunately, my position as an hourly employee doesn't allow for sabbaticals—one regret from not being a professor.
Shauna has written the "book" or outline for the opera. My goal is to write maybe ten lyrics. Then the plan is to commission a composer. At that point the composer and I, one assumes, would work together. I've written four pieces and some parts of another. We're both happy with them: "Kore in the Meadows," "Demeter's Sorrow," "Demeter to Hecate," "Fragment Toward the Revelation of the Greater Mystery," and "Hades in Love" (the draft title).
Rather than getting distracted by the many versions and resulting interpretations of the myth we are trying to stay close in fact to the "Homeric Hymn." I'm struggling with how to retain a sense of narrative and order, and yet play, in at least some minor way, with a more avant-garde approach. This has me stymied at the moment. I'd like to look at avant-garde theater—for example Cocteau wrote a small operetta based on the myth—and look at, say, something like Gertrude Stein's "Four Saints in Three Acts." Louise Glick's work intrigues me, and seems to have a meaning for me within this context. As does H.D.'s. I'm looking for simpatico influences that will not overwhelm, but rather inform me.
VL: Have you done research in Greece for the project?
JB: No, but I spent most of November in Sicily tracking down Demeter/Persephone temples, sanctuaries, and museum pieces. Did you know the field, Lago di Pergusa, where Persephone was abducted was in Sicily, not Greece? It's still quite lovely, except now a racetrack surrounds the lake. The day we were there it was like Woodstock—motorcyclists were racing! How appropriate that when I visited, the Lago was taken over by Hell's Angels, and that Hades' chariot visits there almost daily. I did have two very important "meetings" with Demeter and Persephone and became much more intuitively allied to them. I saw many lovely votive statues, and brought back pomegranate images, and many photographs of holy wells, and temples. I would love to go to Eleusis.
VL:Can you describe "Gospel Earth" for us and explain how you came to write it?
JB: I mentioned that I have been reading extensively in Gnosticism. But also in the last six or seven years I've become very interested in one-line poems—that began with my book "little." I think of one-line poems as collapsed haiku. I like the run-on kind of ecstasy created in them. And, as in Dame Kind, I remain fascinated by the possibilities of the small poem.
There's a whole subculture of small poem non-haiku writers in this country, who mostly get ignored. We stay in close touch. Anyway, Joseph Massey, a fine poet himself, asked me for a collection of about 18 little poems for a chapbook. I had just recently published in two chaplets all the unpublished one-liners and small poems I had. I freaked! Someone asking me for work and I had nothing to give! What an unexpected quandary. That, of course, got the imagination going and I found myself writing these odd diminutive pieces that I soon realized were coming out of my Gnostic studies. It might not be obvious on the surface of them, but I know what I am playing at! The chapbook will probably be out in a very limited edition of fifty copies by time this interview is published.
VL: You are known as a gifted reader of your poems—perhaps I should say you recite them. In fact, I don't know anyone who has heard you who doesn't remember the event. What is your thinking about the performance of poetry? Do you see it as ritualistic?
JB: Jorge Luis Borges once said, "A poem demands pronunciation. Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song." Poetry for me is a path of knowing. It's important to me that poetry began in the cave, was first oral, and was first religious. I want a poetry reading to give a sense of that primal origination, and to remember in the performance that breath is essential to poetic space and meaning. Reciting from memory is one way to do that. Structuring the reading is another way—for example, I may begin a reading by ringing a pair of Tibetan temple bells.
I find myself happier and more whole in a reading if I am reciting rather than reading a poem, and clearly my audiences prefer it too. I love poems on the page, but a poem in front of an audience should ideally be a different thing. My great master, William Carlos Williams, knew that poetry was physical. He said, "The first thing to do in hearing poems is not to try to understand them at the start at least, but to listen. The arts are sensual in their intention to impress. Let the poem come to you." The page presents a barrier that isn't conducive to opening up consciousness or the body for the poet or the listener. Its music is made for hearing. Its furtiveness is more suited to the energy present when one person speaks to another.
I do feel that, at least for me, that my role as a poet is as a conduit between the Divine and the material world. I took my lessons from Rimbaud, Blake, Dickinson, Whitman, Lorca, Yeats, Sitwell, the Surrealists, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin. I am a pagan at heart. A Pantheist in belief. Poetry is one way Divinity attempts to awaken us.
By the way, the first drafts of most of my poems are written down, but subsequent revisions are made orally.
VL: Can you say a bit about the poems you sing?
JB: As a sophomore in college I began writing some poems that somehow lacked something. After listening to them for a time I came to realize they were song-like … that there was music in the air around them. Seeing Allen Ginsberg at Davidson College in 1972 also inspired and taught me. The first songs were fairly medieval in feel—somewhere between chant and song. As time has gone on there's quite a bit of variety in their styles. I suppose the lullabies are the ones most song-like. I believe this need in my poems reflects something from a past life … or alternatively, prepares me for a future one.
Music and poetry are inseparable of course. It's one of the problems I have with the democratization of poetry. So much of what I see in magazines and books lacks music, and prosaically displays serious deficiencies in internal, if not an obvious sense of, sound and rhythm.
It's funny that we think anyone can write poems, and yet not everyone can paint, or sing, or dance, or be a brain surgeon or successful businessman. It has to do with the idea that everyone owns language and emotion, but we forget that true poetry as opposed to verse is a craft. Eliot put it rather bluntly, but nevertheless correctly, when he said, "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to escape from these things."
There's nothing inherently wrong with people writing down their emotional states and histories in verse, but I do distinguish between verse and the art, or craft, of poetry. Another important critic, Richard Blackmur, observed that the art of poetry is "amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence in the poetry of a fresh idiom: language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter at hand but adds to the stock of available reality." I think a poet must consciously consider his or her responsibility to the language, and to the craft—not just for the sake of art, but also for the sake of keeping language vital, and demonstrating to others the power of speech. It's obvious to me that one of the reasons we are in the current international political mess we are in is because our society in general has lost the capacity to think for itself, and is not critical enough, nor precise enough, in its assessment of what our rulers and the media say. Our educational system, including libraries, is perhaps failing at that. In some ways the crush of popular culture (not to say that popular culture doesn't have its place) is overwhelming our capacity to inform.
VL: I would like to hear about the history of your children's songs and your work in taking contemporary poetry to children.
JB: I mentioned earlier that the University of North Carolina Friends of the Library approached me twelve years ago about developing a children's program. In actuality, for a few years before, graduate students in Carolina's School of Information and Library Science had been reading a single story to a group of children during the holiday season. One year the students pulled out at the last minute and I was called as a hopeful quick solution to the crisis.
I, of course, can't do anything halfway. I asked a friend, Kristen Olson, who at the time was the children's book buyer for the campus bookstore, if she would join me. She and I have one of those friendships in which we become six-year-old playmates when we are together. She was a natural. The first year we developed what has become the standard—a 45- minute program of songs, poems, and stories all "acted-out" very amateurishly as if we were in someone's living room. The props are always minimal, although the UNC Zoology Librarian, David Romito, makes us wonderful masks.
I didn't have any children's work of my own at the beginning, but thought, "Why not?" I wrote my first lullaby that year. Since then I always write a new piece (eight lullabies and three poems so far). I have found it challenging and expansive to my role as a poet. I am very hopeful that I can publish these lullabies as illustrated children's books, with audio CDs and printed song sheets notated for guitar and piano. I love the idea of a child turning the page while I read and sing along; and parents playing, singing, and reading along with their children.
But back to "Winter Stories." During the years I've worn out a couple of partners. Maggie Hite who now works with the World Library Partnership was my partner for a few years. We've had some musical and storytelling guests. The last three years I have had the same three partners—Terry Rollins, a fantastic professional storyteller, and two wonderful musicians, Kate Barnhart and Jill Shires. This is the team! We work beautifully together and it's been fun to be able to add musical instruments to my lullabies.
All of this connects, of course—my obsessions with myth, religion, and poetry, the evolution of music in my work, the children's work, theater, and oral literature. Not to mention the importance to me of the printed poem, book, and CD as a visual testimony to an aesthetic richness. We haven't covered that—but this is very important for the whole picture. The "print" form should be a happy marriage of visual and verbal language, a tactile example of learning by doing, affirming the elegance of poetic process. My intent, then (and this could be said of my performances too) is to bring the beholder completely into the experience—and through the "object"—poem and book, photography and book, drawing and book, poem and song, poem and voice—to the center of artistic vision where the human and the marvelous meet.
I am so grateful how easily these components have revealed themselves to me throughout my 30- plus years as a poet.
VL:How might Virginia Libraries' readers promote poetry in their libraries and communities?
JB: Post poetry on your walls! Invite poets in to speak to your community. If you can publish somehow, even just broadsides, or poems in your publications, do so! It's significant that you do this interview series. Feature displays on poetry—especially beautifully produced works of poetry. Don't forget that poetry is an oral physical art, and add spoken word CDs to your collection. Read lots of poetry yourselves. The more you read it the more you realize that life is a poem and that poetry is everywhere around you. Find ways to relate poetry to other subjects in your displays and publications—politics, environmental issues, religion, history, cooking! Share those realizations with your office mate and your produce vendor, your mother and your doctor. I'm always giving poetry to everyone with whom I come into contact!