Interview: TJ Beitelman

Posted on July 22, 2013 by

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TJ Beitelman: Writer, Teacher, Misfit Pilgrim

TJ Beitelman: Writer, Teacher, Misfit Pilgrim

Near the end of TJ Beitelman’s “Elegy in Seven Parts That Is Start-to-finish Love Story,” he gives the reader an image of ghostly sermons, one of which is “About how we hoist things up above our heads/ And can never hold them there.” For me, this is an essential image in Beitelman’s work in which he often explores the tension between the real and the ideal. His two books, In Order to Form a More Perfect Union and Self-Helpless: A Misfit’s Guide to the Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness, often feature protagonists that keep moving forward while living in the wreck of that tension. Beitelman is a writer and teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, and we’re happy that he took some time to talk with us about his past, present, and future projects.

After reading your poetry collection, In Order to Form a More Perfect Union, I wanted to talk with you about the organization of the book. First, there’s a lot in the title that speaks to the larger themes in the collection: America, separation/unity, physical/metaphysical, relationships, etc. To me, the organization of the book tells a story. How difficult was this for you to get this organization or was it something that just fell in place?

Yeah — “form” and “order” are sneaky-important, too, which speaks directly to your question. I guess a more general answer is that I was always groping in the dark with this. I think I’m always groping in the dark with anything I’m writing, but that was especially true with this book. For the longest time, I didn’t know what I was doing. I teach writing, and one thing I say to my students all the time is, “Intention is overrated.” Maybe I’m generalizing on a sample of one — myself — but that’s always been my experience. What I think I’m writing and what I’m really writing are very often two different things.

John Ashbery has this quote where somebody asked him how (or if) his experiences fit into his work and he said something like, “I use my experiences when I write, but I don’t write about them. I write out of them.” I don’t think I ever knew what that meant until I wrote this book. I also didn’t know what it meant as I was writing it. Not until very, very late in the process, anyway. Now I can see where I was writing out of (but not directly about) a very specific and very intense set of experiences that centered around a major transition point in my life. This was my creative consciousness (if you’ll allow me that term) pushing those intense experiences through a certain kind of sieve. Me trying to put things into order but in an oblique way. An abstracted way.

Anyway, all that’s to say (a) yes, “order” is central to the project, and (b) it makes a lot of sense that I would have to grope for the form of the collection. I was definitely groping for some semblance of form in my life then, largely in vain. It took years, literally, but the form of the collection did finally coalesce. The life part, well, that’s still very much a work-in-progress.

So, “Aubades,” the first section of More Perfect, is named after the lover’s song of the morning, but the term is also used to reference lovers parting at dawn. The poems seem to be shaped by concepts of unity and separation on various levels. The structures of the poems seem to be playing with these concepts as well. There are several contemporary sonnets, which have a history in love poetry. “We the People” has a two-part structure which echoes the traditional view of the sonnet having a volta or turn. “Chang & Eng Suss the So-Called Tragedy of Separation,” well, I see it as a prose poem, which would be a fusion of two genres into one, although I may be off there. The title poem has thirteen parts, which reflects the individual colonies being folded into something “united.”

It’s always a gratifying (also humbling) experience to be read closely and well! I could probably simply say, “Yes, Stephen, you’re correct.” But that wouldn’t be very fun, so I’ll elaborate:

“Chang & Eng” is definitely a prose poem. Seems only appropriate, especially since they’re collectively talking about being enmeshed — either physically or emotionally. They’d kill for a line break, those two, but that’s the one thing they can’t have. They’re doomed to the shared misery of an infinitely imposed enjambment. Or something.

That idea of being enmeshed — whether it’s Russian dolls or Siamese twins or two restless lovers untangling their entwined limbs to get out of bed and face the day/life alone — absolutely informs the structures of the individual poems, certainly in this section and really in the book as a whole.

A sonnet is a kind of mesh that encapsulates a bunch of separate but related elements: 14 lines, 140 syllables, a rhyme scheme, a volta. If you choose to write a sonnet, it’s a mesh that gets imposed upon you. The title poem invents its own mesh: fifty 13-syllable lines in 13 sections. (Yes: I have issues.) Thomas Jefferson et al. invented a mesh back in the day — E Pluribus Unum. Love is mesh, or it can be. At any rate, whether they are imposed upon us or we invent them ourselves, the structures we build up around ourselves really do say a great deal about who we are, both individually and collectively. And not just how we build them, but how we dismantle them, too, when and if the time comes for that. The same goes for these poems, I hope. The structures themselves say a lot.

I missed the fifty 13-syllable lines! I have my own issues with structures, as well, especially when I’m facing a blank page. Sometimes a structure or rule will allow me to start writing, and often this allows me to explore something that I might not otherwise. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

I hesitated to even mention the syllabics, but the little man who runs the left side of my brain couldn’t resist. I’m reminded of a time in a grad school workshop I was in, when a guy took pains at the end of a critique to reveal to the group that he’d written his poem in an elaborate syllabic structure. None of us had noticed, of course, and he took that to mean we hadn’t read the poem closely enough. I’m pretty sure he was wrong, but worse than that, he wasn’t being very generous to his reader. Syllabics aren’t for the reader. You can’t hear them or really even see them unless you go looking for them. They’re for the poet, as you say, to provide a kind of tension to compose something worth reading. And you’re also right that sometimes those self-imposed formal strategies work and sometimes they don’t. But it’s not a reader’s fault if he doesn’t suss out one of my convoluted composition strategies. Even if a reader doesn’t know what a sonnet or a sestina is, he should be able to access the poem. A poem is a poem. It’s cool to dissect one, to count and classify its bones, to see how it works. But dissection is, by definition, a post mortem. Something’s died in that process. The poem has to live and breathe on its own, in the wild, so to speak. Sparrows have no idea how many bones they have in their wings. They just fly.

If the “Aubade” section is the brief union and then separation, the second section “Curses” then is the psychological aftermath of the breakup. Again, there are thirteen parts and, interestingly, four pairs of couplets. How did you decide on this form for the “Curses”?

Well, full disclosure: if it’s not already blatantly obvious, a break-up played a major role in the aforementioned “major transition point in my life.” These weird “Curses” were actually the first poems that came out of the aftermath of that break-up experience. (Thus, I hereby acknowledge my debt to the time-honored tradition of cryptic emo-poetics. Who started that? Maybe Dante.)

And now a pop culture digression: when Dustin Hoffman was making Kramer vs. Kramer, he himself was going through a divorce. He first rejected the role of Ted Kramer because, as it was originally written, he didn’t think it captured the full range of what he was experiencing at the time. He agreed to take the part if he could help re-write the script. It was in the re-write process, he says, that they came up with a central idea to inform the story. That is, when you’re going through a divorce, the one thing you want to do is immediately stop loving the other person, but it’s never as seamless as that. On some level, you still love your estranged spouse despite yourself. Much of the heartache comes from trying to hold those competing truths in your head.

There’s some of that idea at work in these “Curses.” The speaker of these poems wants you (and maybe especially himself) to believe he’s cursing his former beloved. What he’s really cursing is that he still loves her. Or he’s doing both of those things at once. That’s where his heartache is. (I hope that’s also where the energy of the poems is.) So the idea of dichotomies, competing realities, entered the sphere of the project here — before I even knew there was a “sphere of the project.” And couples/couplets (with the frayed/fraying connection of syncopated, irregular, even haphazard rhymes) fits in there somehow, too.

This, too, is where 13 entered. The idea of it. (The title poem came later, as did “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which was the last poem I wrote for this collection.) That number is seen as unlucky in some circles, so it seemed to fit the concept of a curse. That it’s one short of 14 — which, of course, is how  many lines a sonnet has — seemed sort of appropriate, too, if only in a gestural way. Sonnet ≈ Love. Sonnet ≈ Wholeness, order. Sonnet ≈ Poem.

It’s not a stretch to note that each of these poems stops where the volta of a traditional Petrarchan sonnet would be. This speaker’s reached a turning point but he has no idea what’s next. It’s an abyss of white space. So he starts again, takes what seems like a different route, only to find himself staring into the very same abyss, again and again.

Above all, in these “Curses,” there’s something missing. Like a ghost limb.

Lastly a disclaimer: I wasn’t thinking about all this as I was writing these poems. I swear. I just wrote them. Only later did I really think about them. And, I mean, my interpretation could be totally wrong. At the very least, there’s a real chance it makes the poems much less interesting for other people. (Hmmm.)

Oh, actually…one more disclaimer: the Wallace Stevens allusion (re: 13) was unintentional, though I don’t mind that it’s there. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but there it is. Intention is overrated, right?

The elegy section is the most difficult one for me to connect with the whole, but I see it as the nostalgia for what has been lost. This makes sense that it surfaces after the initial anger of the curses. These poems also seem to be a kind of resignation or acknowledgement of the finality of the separation. Maybe even the impossibility of true union and even true separation in any kind of absolute form.

Remember that bit in The Electric Company (or was it Sesame Street?), “One of these kids is doing his own thing…can you guess which one?” If one of these kids is doing his own thing, it’s the “Elegies.”

They’re actually the oldest poems — they pre-date even the “Curses” — and/but they were the last to find their way into this collection.

I like your reading of the section a lot. Ah, nostalgia…

I’ll add that, for me, these poems fit for a few reasons: first and foremost, they were written out of the same set of experiences — out of the same relationship, at any rate. Still abstracted, still somewhat oblique, but approached from a different set of allusions, images, precursors, sensibilities. (Come to think of it, given when they were written, I suppose they were somewhat prescient.

The heartache is still there, even though they were written while the relationship was still “intact.” Yet another case of the poems telling me what I was thinking and feeling after the fact.)

I also think they’re more fair to the Other — I feel like the speaker of these poems gets implicated in the carnage, too, which is important. There’s no such thing as an entirely reliable narrator.

The last reason has to do with narrative. They’re fractured into seven sections apiece, but they are stories (sort of), (sort of) self-contained. In that way, they form a bridge to the last section, which, as much as anything else, is a story. Maybe after a difficult experience, what we’re really working towards is a cohesive story to tell about it — what Michael Ondaatje has called “the truth of fiction.” Not the flimsy facts. Not even the raw, unadorned emotions or the images. A story that somehow redeems and transcends the experience itself.

Maybe that’s why instead of unlucky 13, lucky 7 is trying to impose itself on this section? Given the not-so-lucky subject matter of this section — ghosts, murderers, abandoned sons and wives, dead lovers and husbands — that would be tantamount to whistling through the proverbial graveyard, but it’s better than actually crawling into the crypt.

Or maybe this section’s not interested in luck at all. Maybe these three seven-section poems are an attempt to conjure up some manner of divine intervention in the midst of all this sundering? I don’t know. Now I’m just making shit up…

At first glance, “Pilgrims: A Love Story” seems to fit right into the recurring tropes in the book: America, Love and love, couples, unions, the pilgrimage, etc. The initial introduction of Jude Law and Gabríel García Marquez is disorienting, and seems purposely so. After reading the “Pilgrims” section I saw this section as a healing or rebuilding of the psyche, that really Law and Marquez are extensions or parts of the personality or consciousness that I’m tracing through the sections of the book, perhaps rather mistakenly. Maybe I’m also seeing this in the romantic tradition of the car trip in America. That losing yourself is a way of finding yourself.

I don’t think you’re mistaken at all. I think, in the end, this consciousness knows it has to face itself, even (or especially) if it doesn’t know how. That’s all the more disorienting because it has so many faces. Jude Law. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bob Dylan. Clint Eastwood. Travis Bickle. Ronald Reagan. Alexander Haig. Elvis. Emily Dickinson. Thelma and Louise. A trickster. A guru. A fool. Or maybe they’re not faces, really. Masks might be the better word for them. Peeling off mask after mask after mask — does it bring you closer to oblivion or closer to God? Maybe both? Which, yeah, is mostly just another way of suggesting that losing yourself might actually be a way to find yourself. God, I hope so.

What are you currently working on and what’s on the horizon for you? You did the cover art for More Perfect and have posted videos that tie into the book–do you have plans for working in other mediums?

I’m a dilettante. It’s a problem. But thanks for noticing the cover art. It’s a piece of the puzzle, for sure. There’s a fair amount of “Where’s Waldo?” type fun to be had with it.

I see the whole thing—the poems, the cover art, even to some extent the videos — as an artifact of a set of experiences. “Here, Reader, I made this.” Where “this” is a crinkly, homemade commonplace book of sorts, informed by the principles of collage and pastiche, with spit and gum and rubber bands holding it all together. I was lucky that the fine folks at Black Lawrence Press were open to the idea of letting me take that risk.

More and more, I make fewer and fewer distinctions between mediums. I’m interested in making sounds, images, and stories. I’m most comfortable using words to do that “making,” but it’s also nice to use tools that aren’t quite so comfortable. I think this sort of experimentation is almost necessary for writers, given the age we’re inhabiting. I’m not so much a technophile as I am a pragmatist. It doesn’t take a visionary to see how a lot of people prefer to access their sounds, images, and stories. It’s pixels and screens, stretching out into the far distance. And poets can use cameras. Just watch any Terrence Malick movie.

That said, I am a writer, and I love how books work — both as a reader and as a writer.

I don’t think the book is dead or dying. It’s a tool that works in a unique way and, a little bit like vinyl in the music industry, it’ll never go away. Books deliver a particular experience that can’t be duplicated — they’re artifacts, to use that word again, but they also work differently than their electronic counterparts. I find them more formally supple. White space, for instance: books do white space way, way better. Rendering a book like Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter or even Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in electronic format would totally destroy the experience of those narratives for me. So, ironically, I think the digital age has the potential to be pretty liberating for the physical book as a creative tool, especially novels.

To wit: I’ve got a novel coming out in a month or so, also from Black Lawrence Press. It’s called John the Revelator and it’s been referred to as a “romping bildungsroman,” which sounds like a pretty good name for a punk band. Norwegian punks, maybe. Sadly, there are no Norwegians in the novel. But there is fair amount of sex, drugs, and maybe even a little rock-and-roll. Some Blues, at least. And, yeah, some white space, too.