Essay Press editor Randall James Tyrone interviews Dan Beachy-Quick on his new book, A Quiet Book.
Randall James Tyrone: Dan, I too am a student. And I do and don’t mean that in the “I’m constantly gathering information in the world” sense, but more so in the fact that I’m in an MFA program and I’m wondering about research through reading. This aspect of a writer’s process isn’t really taught in institutions, at least not in the way artists use it, but more so expected to almost be intuitive. It is very interesting to look at A Quiet Book and its many references and fields of study. Could you talk a bit about your research habits? How do you go about finding what applies to your work and what best supports what you’re going for? Also, what role did the internet play in the creation of your chapbook?
Dan Beachy-Quick: I wouldn’t say I have any “habit” of research—that is, I’m not setting out in advance with any kind of deliberate approach to what I’m concerned with considering. Mostly, I feel like my concerns organize themselves almost by themselves, a slow gathering over years of reading with little purpose more than my own curiosity. And for all that I forget over the years, which is most of it all, other aspects stay strangely tuned in mind, and gather together oddly like areas, and when that happens to a great enough degree, I begin to feel like I can write, like there’s something already there that the essay or poem can unfold.
More than the deliberate, that effort that can make something by willing it made, I care most about the connections that reveal themselves, that seem to speak out of their own necessity, and in a strange but increasingly true way, I feel as writer simply in service to those moments—a kind of scribe, in a way.
As to finding what applies, well—whatever I find myself most invested in somehow applies. At least a portion of it does. I taught Keats and Celan this past semester, and much in both of them felt tied into this work of quietness that worries me these days, and so I wrote about them according to what emerged as fitting. And it’s often that way, some motion in me discovering a similar motion in any given things being read, so that research as such is less about a plan and more about unexpected forms of sympathy making themselves felt.
That said, there are times when research in more typical ways is required, and then I do as most everyone does, read what one can read, though my major impulse is always away from secondary sources, and to dwell in the primary, to think as much as I can in the thinking of the one I’m most concerned about.
As to the internet, I don’t know. Sometimes I need to use it to find a source I just dimly remember, check a quote or a fact, but my use of it goes very little beyond Google. As to the formal features thinking about and through the internet might bring, I’m afraid those ideas tend to be pretty far from my mind.
RJT: Since I am interviewing you about a book of writing that potentially could be seen as poetry from a press called Essay Press, I thought it would be important to ask you about your thoughts on the idea of poetry as essay. I’m thinking about Wordworths ‘s “Lines Written Over…” and other poems in that vein—what are some of the benefits that poetry as essay give you as a writer and what are some of the constraints?
DBQ: I think, first, I might distinguish between how I see essays and poems working—especially since I’ve been at work in both forms for many years now. Poems—perhaps in tune with Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—seem to me to have a relationship to their own lives that borders on exclusive, even to the life of the one who wrote it. A poem seems fundamentally concerned with the creation of its own consciousness as a work more important than the poem being an expression of the mind or heart or even experience of the life of the poet. Essays—a weird thing to say, I know—might be more immediately kind. I mean that word in a number of ways. It is gentler, willing to record in language the inner life of the writer without making the same claim for radical individuation the poem must claim on its own behalf. It is also more like, more filled and willing to be filled with likeness, to the day, to the life, to the mind. An essay feels to me more willing to hold on to experience as a content, and is less ferocious to be the entirety of the experience itself.
That said, overlaps abound, and poems do essay-work, and essays do poem-work, and in A Quiet Book especially I find myself fascinated by the jarring apart of expectation that allowing poetic striving and essayistic gathering to play one against the other creates. Much of it goes back to the letters of Keats, and also of Dickinson, in which the poems find themselves placed in thinking of a different sort. They attend to each other, the poems and the sentences, but they are not the same. The feeling of that blankness between the prose and the poetry, and then the poetry and the prose, that lacunae of transition when the voice in secret ways transmutes or confounds its nature into something else, deeply fascinates me. It’s more than a change in tone or genre approach. It’s a shift in the very life of what words are—and it happens silently, in blankness, and we can only feel that quiet by reading work that contains it. That’s much of why there is an oddity of the poetic and essayistic in the book.
So, I guess, to be short about it—I don’t know exactly what poetry-as-essay might mean for me. Poetry and essay might be the prevailing conjunction.
RJT: Has writing in this style influenced your other work and in what way?
DBQ: I think when writing poetry it’s given me some license to complicate that high-lyric mode that is my tendency with other tonalities, from the ironic to the colloquial to the crass. And in writing essays, license to fragment, to shatter, to find the lyric moment as its own intelligence, not wholly betrothed to the larger aim of the essay.
RJT: I find A Quiet Book to occupy its own space near the borders of the many meshed sources of modernism and the openness/conversationalist tone of a confessional speaker. Note, I’m not attempting to classify you but I am hoping that you can talk about who you feel you’re in conversation with, assuming you believe the work is in conversation with others? Also, I am curious about who you hope would read this and do your voice and/or artistic preferences conflict with who you desire to be your audience?
DBQ: Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?—you never know who you’re in conversation with, and to assume you do sets in place a kind of limit of expectation or acceptance that I mostly distrust. I suppose the literature I love most is what I want to be in conversation with, and that feels important, not as any high-minded approach to the writing, but in a phenomenal way: that the first conversation must be the impossible one, and then the others, the unforeseeable one, can more honestly occur. The models I love most are Montaigne, Plutarch, Emerson, and Thoreau. Their minds meander like living rivers. I want what I write to be a kind of offering back to those voices I love the most, an asking to included in the conversation I cannot have in any other way.
As to that approach putting me in conflict with my audience—well, I don’t really know what to say. At one level, I hope not. At another, a conversation is a form of conflict easing itself into connection, and the depth of that connection, in the end, might depend on the worthiness of the conflict to begin with. The writers I most love are those with whom I most struggled at first, in whom I was drawn into conflict—maybe not with the writers themselves, but drawn into their own conflict with the world that necessitates writing in the first place. How balm the wound that is the world with but a word for ointment? But to ask the question, one must first feel the wound.
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author, most recently, of gentlessness (Tupelo Press) and a chapbook, Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs (Omnidawn). He is a current Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Colorado State University, where he is currently a Monfort Professor.
Randall James Tyrone is a Poetry MFA Candidate at the University of Wyoming. He is the recipient of the Bentley-Buckman Poetry Fellowship and the 2015 Tin House Summer Scholarship. He is an Editor for Essay Press and he is very excited for you.