“A Loving Friendship”: Five Questions for Nicole Beer

Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She has received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Louis Untermeyer Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Discovery/The Nation award. Her poems, fiction, nonfiction, and reviews have been published in Best American Poetry 2007, AGNI, Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, The Nation, Nerve, New Orleans Review, Pleiades, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.  She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the journal Copper Nickel.

I was drawn to Nicole Beer by one of her poems I read in Best American Poetry 2007, “Still Life with Half-Turned Woman and Questions,” which, for me, jumped off the page as a unique piece of poetry. The poem influenced my decision to find out more about Dr. Beer, her life, and her writing process.

Logan McGovern: Has poetry always been a passion of yours?

Nicole Beer: Pretty much since I was about five years old, when I heard a voice-over of William Blake’s “The Tyger” on a promo spot for a nature show on PBS!

LM: What has all the recognition and awards for your poetry done for your career and passion for poetry?

NB: The recognition I’ve received has been helpful in getting me jobs, raises, and promotions in my career as an academic; I have a hard time thinking of being a poet itself as a career since the work doesn’t obey the usual rules of professional advancement. It’s not something that moves forward in a straight line–it’s more like a flock of starlings swooping and swirling around a field, sometimes landing en masse in a tree, then taking off again suddenly for no clear reason. My passion for poetry is something that exists outside of recognition and awards—it’s more like a loving friendship I’ve had for decades and decades that’s about the joy I derive from reading and writing.

LM: Does teaching creative writing at University of Colorado in Denver help steep your creative interest in poetry?

NB: Absolutely! I love seeing the discoveries my students make as they develop their own poetry and prose—it’s a reminder to me that there’s always something new to learn as a writer, no matter how long you’ve been doing it.

LM: In “Still Life with Half-Turned Woman and Questions” what was your intention by creating a back and forth of questions and answers in the poem?

NB: The question/answer format is based on W.S. Merwin’s poem “Some Last Questions.” My poem is also a response to the painting “Interior with Woman Sitting at a Table” by the Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi. Before I wrote the first draft, I had a reproduction of the piece hanging over my desk for months—I found the art so compelling, and so curious, and I knew I wanted to write about it, but I wasn’t quite sure how. Eventually I happened upon the idea of just asking the painting questions—even though I knew that this was a painting that would likely refuse giving me a straight answer about anything.

LM: In your poem “Still Life with Half-Turned Woman and Questions” did you intend for your readers to find a concrete meaning from the poem, or rather leave it up to their own interpretation?

NB: That’s a really great question! Let me put it this way: the words and form of the poem are there to guide and direct the reader’s thoughts, but not to do the thinking for them. It’s like dancing in your room to a song—the artist is giving you rhythm, melody, harmony, lyrics, etc, which may have an influence on how you dance, and she may have even have a video where you can see how she chooses to dance to the song, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dance to the song however the heck you want.  

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