Memory and Birdsong:
Nicky Beer & Shara Lessley

Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), winner of the 2010 Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Her second book of poems, The Octopus Game, will be published in 2014. Her awards include a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a "Discovery"/The Nation award. She is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. Her awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship from Colgate University, The Gilman School's Tickner Fellowship, and a "Discovery"/The Nation prize. Shara's poems and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, and The Missouri Review, among others. She currently lives in The Middle East and teaches for Stanford University via The Online Writer's Studio.

Shara Lessley: It's tough for me to believe that it's been six years since I first heard you read selections from what would eventually become The Diminishing House at the "Discovery"/The Nation reading in New York. I remember being particularly astonished by your poem, "Cardinal Virtue"—that its titular bird could transform from something "half-alive / in the jaws of our cats, a yellow ribbon / of innard dragging on the dirt" to an "Incomprehensible thing, drenched in the color / of something we call joy." Suddenly, my own poems about birds felt very slight! What do you recall about that night at the 92nd Street Y?
Nicky Beer: Oh my goodness. Getting lost trying to find the green room. Feeling tongue-tied and shy upon meeting the judges. Seeing my (now departed) Aunt Blanche, matriarch and mistress of the universe. Your magnificent purple heels, which announced to me This woman is an utter badass.

And "slight"? Seriously? This, from the poet with the scrupulous eye and ear for music who wrote in "Fallen Starling," "bone-/cap clear as blown glass / through which one might trace / the almost-evolution / of faculties sewn in the little / sac of pigment..."?

But while we're on the subject of birds, yes, they seem to be hopping about both of our books with great vigor—shoot, my second book is mostly about octopuses, and yet I still manage to have a damn bird poem in there anyway. Our cherished predecessors like Keats, Moore, Bishop, and Clampitt wrote about them with deep attentiveness, and yet there seems to be an especial resurgence of ornithological interest in contemporary poetry—Anhinga came out with the anthology The Poet's Guide to the Birds in 2009, the AWP conference had a panel on bird poems a few years ago, etc. And yet we write about birds for our own private, sometimes inscrutable, reasons, like a writerly Rorschach.

And now is the moment where I feel this burgeoning question split in two (no pun, I swear)—on the one hand, I'd love to hear about what draws you, Shara Lessley, to the bird as subject, but I'm also curious to know when and how "Two-Headed Nightingale" was anointed the title poem of the book.
SL: Fuchsia velvet stilettos with crystal-encrusted frogs on the straps—those shoes were my own version of the "ruby slippers." I figured if nerves got the best of me that night, I could simply click those heels three times and transport myself back to my attic apartment in Hamilton. What a wonderful memory. I hope it won't be too long before we get to read together again... To answer your question, "Two-Headed Nightingale" is one of the few poems to survive my MFA thesis. Whatever its limitations, the poem was critical because it taught me to move in a different way, to slough off the confines of narrative time and linear organization. Instead of leading, the draft taught me to leap.

The phrase itself sums up the collection's central tensions. Of course, seeing the word "nightingale" within the context of poetry, one can't help but think of Keats, whose influence has been essential for me. My birds, however, bear little resemblance to the Romantic master's "winged Dryad of the trees." Instead, the winged things that populate Two-Headed Nightingale are darker, more deviant. They're often in a state of decay, yet somehow animated. I think that's what attracts me to both birds and insects—their complicated machinery, concealed interiors, their strange (and totally instinctive) methods of survival.

The phrase, "Two-Headed Nightingale," also refers to the stage name of conjoined sisters Christine and Millie McCoy, who were born into slavery, traveled internationally as stage performers, and earned rave reviews for their abilities to sing and dance. Portraits of female performers—both public and private—surface throughout the book. Had I designed the cover, it probably would've featured a woman artist (say, a dancer from Ballet Russe in the title role of Firebird) conjoined to an actual bird—the fallen starling you mentioned previously, perhaps, or a decaying sparrow. Fortunately, since I have no talent as a visual artist, the good folks at New Issues stepped in to take care of matters relating to design.

The title of your debut, The Diminishing House, also comes from one of the collection's poems. Did you try other titles on for size? And now (huge congrats!) Carnegie Mellon has slated the release of your second book—what are you calling it? And why octopuses? Why all those arms and eyes? (I can see the poet's and birder's links—octopuses, too, have ink jets and beaks!)
NB: In a previous incarnation, The Diminishing House was called Apocrypha for the Body, which was also my MFA thesis, but the earliest drafts of that manuscript bear little resemblance to the current book (lots of poems cycling in and out, wearing different disguises, speaking different languages, whistling different tunes, etc.). The earlier title was, in part, due to the fact that I centralized more of the "anatomy" poems of the book ("Variations on the Philtrum," "To Radius and Ulna," "Just about my clavicles," etc.) into a single section. I did love that earlier moniker, though—cripes, isn't it great how that word apocrypha clocks around in your mouth like a big, empty nutshell? After some essential help from the manuscript workshop I took as a PhD student at the University of Missouri- Columbia with Sherod Santos, as well as indispensible feedback from my husband, the poet Brian Barker, the title changed to The Diminishing House—which seemed to speak a bit more directly to the death of the father in the book's putative narrative—and the anatomy poems started to get more scattered throughout the book, decentralized.

Thanks for the congrats about book #2! I'm really thrilled to continue my relationship with the wonderful folks at Carnegie Mellon. It will be called The Octopus Game…I'd never thought about the bird/octopus connection before, and now that you've pointed out, I feel a little dopey for not seeing it sooner!

The octopus obsession came about from I visit I'd made with my family to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. Octopus exhibits can be really tricky—often there's too much light, and the animal stays shy and hidden, or else it's so dark you can hardly see a thing. But as lucky would have it, they happened to have a wonderful habitat set up with a very energetic creature—playing with a Mr. Potato Head doll for stimulation, if memory serves me correctly—who was striking some very elaborate poses against the glass. The memory of the animal stayed with me a long time, and even after I'd finally written a poem about it ("Octopus vulgaris," first published in AGNI), I felt I still wasn't done. I found myself writing another poem, then doing more research, and found that these were creatures with fascinating natural characteristic (intelligence, physical malleability, camouflage skills, solitary lives, etc.) and metaphoric potential (for example, their bodies are suggestive of both the phallus and the vulva) as well; as I slowly tried to figure out what the poems of my next book might look like, writing about octopuses seemed like great opportunity to engage in the kind of play and experimentation that I wanted to use to move forward (or even just slither sideways) from the poems of the first book. While the poems of The Octopus Game are just as deeply personal, they don't operate in guise of autobiography to the same degree.

To follow up about the female performers and makers represented in Nightingale, it seemed to me that they represented a kind of double-bind that the female artist finds herself in; on the one hand, art allows her to immerse herself in an intimate world of her own making, to create something according to a private vision and code of aesthetics. On the other hand, she's still usually operating in systems that are largely controlled by patriarchal or misogynistic forces, and may even collude with them. This is present the dark masochism of the dancers in the book's second section, but really hit home for me when reading "Song for the Catatonic," based on a 1950 carved sculpture by a British mental patient (interestingly, the creator of the source artwork was a man, but in the poem, you've made the artist a woman): "She whittled as they watched; became the tree / when they didn't." So here's point to my long-winded lead-up: what kinds of convergences and divergences do you see between your background as a dancer and your life as a writer, and how do you see gender operating in these two worlds?
SL: I was extremely reluctant to write about my days as a dancer. When asked about that time I often say, "I no longer live in that body"—a quick way to shut down the conversation or turn it elsewhere. Part of the difficulty is that I haven't fully grieved ballet's loss, nor have I been able to reconcile my feelings about being talented, but not talented enough. I don't know that I ever will. At the same time, the old life feels very far from where I am today. That version of myself is like a character in a film I haven't seen for decades. The scenes and episodes in which she once appeared are fading. It's funny that you mention "Song for the Catatonic," a poem I cut from the manuscript many times. I could never find its ending. In a way, though, the poem's plot reveals something about how I felt when the dancer in me began to unravel. As much as I loved—still love—ballet, I felt restricted by its privileging of my physicality. Much like the artwork in "Song for the Catatonic," I was a constructed thing. I moved (or didn't) when I was told to. I entered and exited according to cue. I was shaped. Whittled down. I felt what I was told to feel. During my best and worst performances, I said nothing.

I do say a great deal about the connection between working poets and dancers in "One Cluster, Bright, Astringent," a personal essay appearing in the summer issue of The Southern Review. As for the misogyny you mention, I can't deny that it's there—both in the poems ("female teachers are mistresses; men, masters") and in the world of ballet I experienced. However, the dancer poems in Two-Headed Nightingale offer a snapshot of a period that lasted from when I was very young well into my mid-20s. In order to offer a more balanced portrait, perhaps I should have written a poem celebrating the gifted and generous people with whom I studied or performed. More odes! Fewer elegies! Which reminds me: a reader recently asked whether it was difficult to immerse myself in somberness while writing Two-Headed Nightingale, a question that took me aback. How would you characterize the tonal distinctions between The Diminishing House and The Octopus Game? Has it been liberating to move away from more autobiographically-based subject matter?
NB: I'm very much looking forward to that essay! I think it's fascinating that you seem to be characterizing the role of the dancer as one of silence and submission, when the audience, from its vantage point, sees the dancer as someone so strong and self-possessed. Then again, we strive to make our lyric poems seem spontaneous, despite the fact that they are the product of endless hours/ days/months/years of hemming and hawing. So much labor to appear so light!

As for the tonal distinctions between the first and the second book, even though the tone of the first book is decidedly somber, the experience of writing it most definitely was not. These poems were written over such an extended period of time—the oldest poem in the book clocks in at around fifteen years from its first draft, I think—that I can't say I was writing under some kind of distinct emotional aegis as it came together. I can't even say when it became clear that the death of the father became the overarching event of the book; the poems simply showed up, and eventually began to coalesce. The experience of writing the second book was more—I don't want to say "fun," quite, but by giving over to the obsession with the cephalopod, it allowed me to set up formal and topical challenges for myself that I hadn't done to the same extent in The Diminishing House: "Hey! How 'bout I write an octopus poem in the style of Rimbaud?" "Hey! How 'bout I write a one-sentence sonnet about an octopus?" "Hey! How about I write a poem about a fictional octopus?" The second book allowed me the opportunity to experiment more in a way that I wasn't ready to do with the first.

For me, the poems of The Octopus Game are still very autobiographical—in some cases, almost painfully so, but it may not be clear to anyone but me. I don't mean that to be as theatrically enigmatic as it sounds—the events upon which The Diminishing House is based, the death of my father, are now over twenty years in the past. The part of my life that informs The Octopus Game is much more recent, and while there may not be events as clearly traumatic as the loss of a parent, they still had a great deal of profundity for me and inform the work.

And now, in a bit of tit-for-tat, what kind of differences between Book #1 and Book #2 are you finding as you work on The Explosive Expert's Wife?
SL: When it comes to subject matter there have been big changes, which have impacted both structure and tone. I've traded birds and insects for IEDs and bomblets; swapped poems about dancers and acrobats for those featuring the spouses of accused terrorists and FBI chemists. California's Pacific Ocean has been replaced by the Dead and Red Seas. The counterparts to the ex-pat poems that take place in the Middle East visit stateside explosive ranges and government labs. Sadly, our nation is no stranger to homegrown terrorism, as the recent events in Aurora, Colorado, remind us. I don't know whether James Holmes' booby-trapped apartment will figure in the manuscript eventually, but I am working on poems about historical figures including brothers James and John McNamara, who dynamited the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, killing 21 people and injuring more than 100, and the "Mad Bomber" who, for sixteen years in the 1940s and 1950s, planted and detonated explosive devices throughout New York City.

I know all of this sounds dark, but there's also a great deal of beauty and celebration popping up throughout the manuscript. I think this sense of lightness is due to the fact that Jordon is a country with a great deal of joy, as well as hardship. Since moving to the Middle East, I've written love poems, poems that honor partnership and marriage. My son was born here and the excitement of that experience seeps into a number of poems, even those that have little or nothing to do with parenthood. Tonally, it's my goal to write a balanced second collection. I don't want the weight of IEDs and crime scenes to weigh the book down. My hope is that the poems will speak individually, as well as to each other—"The Explosive Experts Wife" to "The Accused Terrorist's Wife," for example—in order to spark a larger dialogue about notions of terrorism, marriage, culture, country, gender, and home. Lofty ambitions, for sure! We'll see how it all turns out. As you write in "Provenance," "All our art is dumb luck anyway, a morbid nursery rhyme."

Well, Nicky, we're in the middle of Ramadan here in Amman, which means I need to get to the green grocer and back before the streets fill with hungry folks rushing home to celebrate Iftar. My last question for you is one of endings: what final sentence or line most recently knocked your socks off?
NB: Alissa Nutting's entire short story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, knocked my socks off; the last line of the last story in the collection gives a pretty good idea of why:

"The gauze on Keith's arm will shift until a tiny bird pokes its way out and flies down the hall, past my apartment, off far away to where all spent illusions return."
And you?
SL: I confess I'm unfamiliar with Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, but will have to check it out. Since it arrived in the mail, I've been reading and rereading Paula Bohince's most recent collection, The Children. Bohince's poems are so familiar in their emotional register that as I pour over her lines, I almost feel as though I'd written them myself. It's quite eerie—in the most wonderful way. The first time I sat with "Everywhere I Went That Spring, I Was Alone," "Owl in Retrograde," and "Silverfish," I audibly gasped. Time and again, I am humbled by Bohince's powerful subtly, her gift for mining the natural world in such quiet, yet transformative ways. As much as I admire them, I'm reluctant to isolate the poems' final lines here, as so much of their power accumulates over time. I don't want to diminish that strength by depriving the sentences of their larger contexts.

As for impactful endings (and beginnings and middles!), I recently devoured A Door in the Ocean, the memoir in which David McGlynn considers how his parents' divorce and the unsolved murder of a childhood friend resulted, in part, in his passing immersion into the radical world of Christian evangelism. The book is insightful and engaging, and transforms very private experiences into meaningful ones for the reader. Whatever the crisis—familial pressure to live the Bible to the letter, the sudden deaths of friends, overseas mission work, the author's relationship with sex and God, financial chaos, unexpected fatherhood and the potential loss of a child—McGlynn returns time and again to the water. It's his love for competitive swimming that serves as the book's central metaphor for both hard work and faith. The book ends as it begins—in moments preceding immersion—as McGlynn prepares for one of the oldest ocean races in America. The writing is graceful and urges us, as readers (and writers), to confront that which is often unforeseen and unknowable:

... A wave sweeps in and engulfs my hand. I am ocean, I am salt and water. My heart is bursting. The harbor seals are barking, great deep woofs from the rocks. From the beach the woofs sound like cheers, calling out to me as I begin to run—as the Pacific takes hold of my ankles, my knees, my thighs, as I pull my hands together and throw them forward and dive—go.


Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761