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by Mark A. Roberts, Poetry Editor


[The interview was conducted at the North Carolina Literary Festival, April 5, 2002 in Chapel Hill, N.C.]



NANTAHALA: I can see that Lee Hoiby's classical compositions and Shauna Holiman's singing of your poems is an interpretation of your poem cycle, The Life of the Bee, not just an accompaniment.  So, let's begin with your ideas about how successfully or unsuccessfully music or song can "accompany" poetry. 


JEFFERY BEAM: I think that music and poetry can work well together, although it can be a distraction — I think of all those Rumi tapes with music behind them — they drive me crazy.  In the case of the bee poem-songs, it's the tension between the high art of classicism, the primitive voice of oral poetry, and the primal energy of the beehive that makes them work so well.  And the music is integral to the songs, not just surrounding accompaniment.  I don't like background music with poetry very much.  You can see how I used it on my CD, as a prelude or postlude to the poems.  There may be occasions when music can work with poems as backdrop but I have seldom experienced it.  Songs are much different.


N: I wanted to ask you about [the tension between classicism and primitivism].  Here [at the North Carolina Literary Festival] I've seen all kinds of different poets.  When I came into this one, however, I felt like I was in a cathedral; I felt like I was in the midst of high art taking place— something that Ezra Pound would've approved of, as [our editor] Rob Merritt said.  And when I read over your work before coming here [to Chapel Hill], I noticed an elevation of language, which for many poets that's something they don't do; [for them] it's more of the common language, more conversational.  So, why do you strive for the higher art?


JB: The thing that interests me is integrating both.  If you hear me read my poems they're presented in an almost conversational way and yet at the same time there's something elevated about them.  One of the things that has always impressed me about William Carlos Williams's work, which is why I became so absorbed by it — is his elevated, yet common, language.  It's hard to describe how language such as his, which is really quite plain, can also seem elevated.  A lot has to do with his tone, the measure of his speech, and the breath of the ideas in the poems.


N: Isn't that a difficult balance, though?


JB: It is! It is a very difficult balance.  And you're right.  When I started out [at the beginning of my reading today] I said [that] I don't write mainstream poetry and it's because I'm trying to do something— not in the mainstream— but in the mystical stream of poetry, which requires a ritualistic, elevated approach.  Yet I want [my work] to be accessible too, so I look to poets like Edith Sitwell and William Carlos Williams and try to find what it is that's common in those two voices so that I can integrate it into what I do.


N: You mention ritual.  And in The Life of the Bee there are a lot of [poetic] masks that you use.  You are speaking through these voices, and you mention that it was hard being possessed by these voices. 


JB: Yeah!


N: But isn't that what people are drawn to— I mean it gives us a way to objectify an experience that we have in some way.


JB: I believe the thing that allows my audiences to respond so beautifully is the poetic personas in the poems combined with the actual voices I "put on."  Theater allows the audience to take on masks too, not just watch me perform.  If I take on the sound and self of the Queen Bee, so can the audience.  You know, long ago I realized that there was something about Robert Browning that I loved.   It was that he was often someone else—


N: The dramatic monologue—


JB: Yes, the dramatic monologue, and I thought, you know, this is what I can do.  I don't find it easy to write about myself in a way that a lot of poets do. The major content of most poetry these days has a confessional, self-referential bent.   It's just not something I do; I don't know why.  Even the poem about my grandmother ["The Loom"] has details about my life with her but really I take on her mask ... Maybe I'm schizophrenic!


N: Well, you manage it very well if you are!


JB: That's good; I won't get locked up yet!


N: I'd like for you to talk about religion and mysticism in your work but also in poetry itself.  I've read critics and poets who have written about poetry [who say that] religion/spiritual life should be separated from your art.  I don't see that that's the case with you.  And I think that that is quite difficult to achieve.  I suppose, from my point of view, you are taking something very important out of it [poetry] when you do that [take the spiritual out of artistic expression].  What draws me to your poetry is that spiritual element.  Could you talk a little about where that religion comes from—?


JB: Well, the word I would take issue with is "religion."   When I think of the word "religion" I think of something institutionalized.  And I haven't been a part of institutionalized religion since I was eighteen.  But I think the spiritual life is, of course, the core of poetry, to me, and I think that is the highest form of poetry. Now there are people who would disagree with me, but ... there was a journalism student here [today] and she asked a similar question, and I said, poetry, music and dance all started in the cave and were meant to pull down that Divine, mysterious energy in the universe that no one could quite figure out and felt that they needed to access. In this way music and dance and poetry are almost inseparable.  That's why when I am on stage you see me sort of dancing as well as singing and reciting the poems.  I don't think you can or should separate them. What I do is attempt to access the Divinity that permeates this world, that's my role as a poet— it's not the mainstream now but it's an ancient mode of poetry— which is vatic, and for me also rooted in Vedic mysticism — the one-in-all, the Atman.  My intention is to pull back the spiritual into the world.  Well that's not even the right way to say it:  The spiritual is here already but everyone's eyes or their soul or their mind or even their physical bodies [need] to comprehend it and if I succeed at that in a poetry reading I feel like that's what I was meant to do: open those doors, so that the audience can experience what I experience when I am writing or reciting the spiritual light that's everywhere.


N: Do you have an advice for aspiring writers?


JB: My advice is to listen.  Listen to yourself.  You can't go off with just this idea of what you have to say ... the world is there to tell you what to say so you first have to listen to yourself and listen to the world.  You can't do one without the other.  And then write down what you hear.  Believe once you've done that, [that] what you have said is important.  It doesn't matter if the world ignores it because saying it is the important thing, writing it down is the important thing; it changes the molecules of the world! Whether some critic in New York or wherever says something good about it or not, you have still changed the world by writing down and speaking those words.