Beckian Fritz Goldberg is the author of several volumes of poetry including Body Betrayer, In the Badlands of Desire, Never Be the Horse, Twentieth Century Children, Lie Awake Lake, and The Book of Accident. Reliquary Fever: New and Selected Poems is due out in 2010. Her work has appeared in such anthologies and journals as The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Harpers, The Iowa Review, and The Massachusetts Review. She has received the Theodore Roethke Poetry Prize, The Gettysburg Review Annual Poetry Award, The University of Akron Press Poetry Prize, the Field Poetry Prize, and a Pushcart Prize. Goldberg is currently Professor of English at Arizona State University.
Superstion Review: In an interview with Willow Springs you said, “My thought process is in image.” Would you expand on that idea? How does that thought process help you as a poet? How does it affect other aspects of your life?
Beckian Fritz Goldberg: Hearing that, it sounds awfully abstract and I don't remember what prompted me to say it but I think I meant simply that my mind doesn't necessarily travel from idea to idea but from image to image in an effort to make connections. So poetry is a natural language for me because it, to a significant extent, depends on the image. It's primarily associative—one image leads me to another and I have to explore their connection in order to know—in an idea sense—what I am thinking. By image, I don't mean simply the visual as the image in many metaphors may be a smell, a sound, a texture. I'm not sure how it affects other aspects of my life except perhaps that writing straightforward expository prose was a great challenge for me. It seemed more foreign than writing something more image-driven.
SR: Among other courses, you teach an upper-division Poetic Forms class. Would you describe your experience with writing forms? What types of shifts do you see in student writing after they complete a forms class?
BFG: The primary benefit in writing in forms is that it teaches you about craft and it forces to try things that ordinarily you might not think of. The outcome isn't always brilliant villanelles or sonnets. I didn't write a decent poem in forms class when I took it, meaning not one I would keep. I associated the sonnet with the devil. In fact, my first “formal” poem that I kept was a sonnet written nine or ten years after taking the course and it was called Satan's Box. Sometime later, trying to work my way out of a long writing-drought I started another sonnet which grew into a crown of sonnets—that is seven sonnets, the last line of each becoming the first line of the next—as an exercise in masochism. There were nights all I'd do was work on three lines. And again Lucifer was a character in the sonnet sequence.Most students who take a course in writing traditional forms are not interested in becoming Neo-Formalist poets. The primary impact of training in forms is that you come back to your “regular” poetry with more of a sense of what makes a whole, the inner logic of any form or design, and aware of more possibilities when you craft a poem or need to fix a line that's not working. Just as important, formal verse trains the ear to hear different cadences in the language, gives us tools to achieve sonic and rhythmic effects. For most students the shifts in their poetry will be gradual—often the first thing they notice is they are better at revision. This may be because writing under the restrictions of form often means you are doing a lot of revising as you write just to get the right metrical beat, manipulating a line so you can get it to move into the refrain line or, just looking ahead knowing you have only six lines left and they have an intricate rhyme scheme to fulfill, you have to revise the previous lines because you realize “cabinet,” “purple,” and “Hawaii” are going to be hard to rhyme. You have to plan ahead.I think the first time students write in traditional forms the form is louder than the poem. Coming back to traditional form after more experience there's a better chance the poem succeeds on its own terms as well as being a card-carrying sonnet or sestina.
SR: Norman Dubie gave a stunning review for your book In the Badlands of Desire. How has Dubie's work influenced yours? Who are some other poets who have influenced your writing?
BFG: Well, Norman Dubie is a great teacher had a large influence on my growth as poet. I began working with him when I was an undergraduate—in my mid-20's, being a late bloomer—so I've know him a long time. I love many things about his work but I think one of the things I most value in Norman's poems is there's a certain nobility of language no matter what he writes about or what the moment in the poem is. He has such a sure, true voice it's like the poem casts a spell. And his images are stunning. Norman's poems are a reminder to me not to give in to topical faddishness, rhetorical bullshit, the “pressures of reality,” but to keep steering the course. In some sense we're influenced by just about every poet we've read. But there are those we fall in love with, we study, we want to possess, undress. Early on, Jorie Graham, Larry Levis, David St. John, Stephen Dobyns to name a handful. Later I encountered Jean Valentine's work and it had a profound influence on me. And Michael Burkard. But I'm talking about contemporary American poets. I've been influenced a lot by reading Tsvetayeva and Pasternak and Rilke and Celan and Amichai, a whole host of others. By influence I mean primarily that the poet's work opened up new possibilities for mine, not that the writing itself resembles any of these.
SR: Your work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including American Alphabets and New American Poets of the '90s. How do you feel about your role among Contemporary American Poets? Do you see any new trends in the writing and publishing of poetry?
BFG: Naturally it's nice that the work has appeared in anthologies and I'm happy to be included with many of my contemporaries in such venues. As for my role among contemporary American poets—I have no clue. I think that's a hard question for any poet. My concern is mainly with the writing itself and trying to stay true to the kind of poetry I believe in. The rest isn't up to me, I feel. It seems to me that there are more and more opportunities for young poets to publish than there were when I first started sending out and that's healthy. I know there are different trends, sometimes a poet or a group of poets who catch the attention of critics or theorists, and there are varying aesthetics which come in and out of fashion, but it's difficult to say what will triumph in the long run. I see a whole lot of irony and cleverness sometimes in contemporary poetry and I have to agree with a line by Bob Hicok that “irony has no nutritional value.”
SR: Your volume Lie Awake Lake is highlighted by many poems surrounding the death of your father. Were those poems difficult to write? Did the composing process for those poems differ in any way from your other poems?
BFG: Lie Awake Lake was a bit different in the composing process than previous books in that I ended up doing quite a bit of “research” in mostly ancient and medieval anatomy texts because the deterioration of the body was primary in mind having experienced my father's decline and death. It was a book that also began differently for me—usually I accumulated a small compost heap of poems and then as I began to be aware of the relationship between them, I'd start to get the shape of the book, a sense of direction. I wrote the first poems of the book as a sequence over a week I spent visiting in New York about three weeks after my father died. I was sick with bronchitis and not in much shape to write so the poems were spare and came out pretty much complete—my inner editor was too out of it to interfere or second guess and I would sit at an old typewriter in the apartment where I was staying and type whatever I could. Mostly the poems were done in the first draft because I had little energy so I had to get the poem done and then go back to bed.
SR: You have won prizes like the Theodore Roethke Poetry Prize and the Pushcart Prize. Could you discuss how such recognition has affected you as a writer, or, your career as a writer?
BFG: Recognition is good for the soul sometimes and the main thing is that it gives you more of an audience for the work. It's nice now that I actually get asked for poems by journals. I guess it has been encouraging in terms of my career—I could be sitting with half a dozen unpublished manuscripts and working at Walmart as my day job. I'd still be writing though I think.
SR: In The Book of Accident you dedicate several of your poems to former students. Could you discuss how teaching informs your own writing?
BFG: Sometimes I dedicate a poem to a person who gave me something for the poem—or I stole something from them for it. Since I have a lot of interesting conversations with my students, sometimes it inspires me to write something I might not have if I hadn't talked with them. The fortunate thing about teaching is that it allows me to engage in a pretty continuous dialogue about poetry, poems, writing, Life with a capital L, and that feeds my work. I've had the luck to work with many crazy, talented and thoughtful students and it's allowed my work to continue to grow.
SR: In The Book of Accident the poem “Amnesia 2” starts, “Past, what's wrong with you?” This to me epitomizes the assertive, take-no-prisoners tone that appears in many of your poems. Could you discuss the use of voice in your poems? Who does the speaking? When you compose, is the voice there, or do you have to make any shift to find it?
BFG: “Voice” is something I can identify in other poets' work; it's much harder to identify in my own. I write a lot in the first-person and the voice is like an inner-voice made public in the poem. to me, the poem is always an act of intimacy so the sound of it, the speaking of it, is informed by that. I have to hear that voice in order to write. One of my former teachers, David Wojahn, once remarked that the trouble with finding your voice is that then you're stuck with it. That's something I keep in mind because we need to question even our own voice at times to keep the poem honest, free of mannerisms or redundancies. Our worst writing is when we imitate ourselves.
SR: In all five of your books, from Body Betrayer in 1991, through The Book of Accident in 2006, your poems are filled with witty, surprising associations. I'm curious to know if you ever write similes and metaphors that don't work? It's just that you make it look so easy. Do you ever have to throw out images that don't make the cut? A metaphor right on the edge? How do you know when it won't work and when it will?
BFG: For me, images, similes, metaphors are natural and I have never really struggled too much with them. I suppose I do try some that might not work and hopefully they get cut before a final draft but I honestly don't remember any specific occasions. I do know that sometimes I've had questions about whether I'm being too idiosyncratic with an image or not clear enough about the association and I've debated or had a poet friend take a look at it—but more so earlier in my writing than now. As for how I know when something works and when it doesn't-that's mostly in my gut. Specifically there's a little tiny organ like a marine animal somewhere in our guts that flinches or flutters when an image doesn't quite work. But sometimes you just have to hang your ass out there because the image captures or conveys what you wanted even if it is way outside the box. Risk is part of writing. I particularly like to say things I shouldn't—both in poems and in everyday life, but saying it in poems gets me in less trouble.
SR: What are you working on next?
BFG: I'm finishing up Reliquary Fever: New and Selected Poems due out this year and then I want to finish a new manuscript of prose poems I've been working on called Egypt From Space.