Interview with Dan Beachy-Quick on overtakelessness —
November 20, 2010
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of four books of poetry, North True South Bright, Spell, Mulberry, and This Nest, Swift Passerine; and three chapbooks, Apology for the Book of Creatures, Mobius Crowns (with Srikanth Reddy), and The Offending Adam (with Srikanth Reddy); and A Whaler's Dictionary, a book of interlinked essays on Moby-Dick. He has taught at Grinnell College and the School of the Art Intstitute of Chicago, and he currently teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Colorado State University. He is the recipient of a Lannan Foundation residency and taught as Visiting Faculty at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in spring 2010. Overtakelessness was published by Spork Press.
Christopher Nelson: Bees, pansies, sun, field—in Overtakelessness the external world is pastoral. There are no objects of modernity, and there’s a tone of innocence that is beautifully enhanced by the speaker being conflated with the flowers and fields and bees. I’m interested in hearing about this world in which a plow is the most overt human influence on the landscape, while covertly it seems to be a landscape dependent on the human mind.
Dan Beachy-Quick: I began Overtakelessness while immersed in Thoreau’s Journals, noting and questioning his repeated concern early on that “the corn grows at night” and that the etymology of the flower pansy comes from the French pensee. For the past few years, I’ve found myself more and more concerned with the way in which a poem uncovers a formal ground, and in that formal ground demonstrates (in ways irrevocable) a thinking about the world it itself has opened up to consideration. In order to see what it is to think, or think in what it is to see, I’ve felt an urge to return to ancient forms, to conduct my thinking in a poem not as myself thinking, but as a poet who cannot help but be anonymous in writing in a world inherited—a world of pastoral, filled with bees, flowers, sun, and field. It is, for me, this most basic of worlds in which the objects that fill it, by virtue of their referential simplicity, open more readily their symbolic complexity.
Overtakelessness is, to some degree, a poem that follows the increasing difficulty of thinking about that which the poem offers to be thought about, and so the motion of the poem is to draw self closer to object and to see, or to find, that to think is both to near and to distance oneself from that which is thought of—and to speak, or to sing, is to put to that world a technology it doesn’t possess for itself, even if that technology is only language. Here, in this poem, language is the plow, and each poem an instance of a basic agricultural work that can’t be told apart from a poetic one.
Nelson: Overtakelessness is such a musical book: frequent rhyme, assonance, and alliteration in primarily two-, three-, and four-beat lines. And there’s a delightful tension between sound and sense. Can you talk about that tension? And do you regard a poem’s sounds as a kind of meaning?
Beachy-Quick: I felt compelled in Overtakelessness, and more generally in the past year or two, back toward tradition, and traditional elements, as inclusive of genuine experiment. All the qualities you mention about the poem—the sonic and rhythmic life—became for me a kind of knowledge the poem accomplishes outside the brunt of referential meaning. In some basic (if vague) way I have my doubts about the way in which a poem goes about making meaning through the denotative and connotative quality of words. At times I think our desire to make “meaning” is some allergic reaction of the brain to the way in which words point at the things they name—that ambiguous flourish. But that referential capacity within words also carries within it other material—the material of the word itself, the words themselves, where syntax becomes not simply an order of words into linguistic sense, but a complication of, because a gathering of, music. I like this sense that underneath the terrain of the poem’s referential life lurks an underground spring that marks its inexpressible life—a life only made available by the work of the words on the surface. There is a kind of noise in the effort of “meaning-making” that music as meaning resolves—or, as Thoreau has it, one can’t “hear music and noise at the same time.” Or, as Oppen has it, that “the ear knows, and I don’t know why.” And with Oppen, I also feel that music in verse is another rigor, one which threatens the poem above it with sensation that overwhelms sense, or at least, pushes sense to a limit in which a word no longer gets to mean merely what is “says.” The word as such complicates its nature, no longer a vehicle of reference merely, but one of sense as in sensation, as in perception, and makes of the poem not only a system of language, but a nervous system.
Nelson: At a colloquium at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in spring of 2010 you spoke about reading as an experiment in being influenced and of the importance of reading and re-reading to your work. In Overtakelessness you’ve brought in William Carlos Williams. Is this allusion, homage, re-writing, a challenging of his dicta, or something else?
Beachy-Quick: The work of writing poems for me, not always but most often, feels almost like a sort of offering back to those poems, and their writers, that I most love. Sometimes I think I write a poem only as a way to join in to a conversation that has been going on, and is ongoing, without me, and doesn’t need me to continue. The poem as offering is this hope to enter a thinking others have already managed—that the poem, I guess, allows one in. The inclusion of the famous William’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” came actually from the pointed realization of the general doubt I have always felt toward that poem. I guess I’ve never been convinced by the way in which others talk about that poem, either in praise or in critique. And I never knew if I wanted to praise it or critique it. In Overtakelessness the poem is re-written, but re-written backwards: last line first, first line last. What I began to doubt about Williams’s poem is the nature of the first line as he has it: “So much depends upon.” I began to doubt the poem that knows ahead of its own work what is to be valued and what isn’t to be valued. In some sense, we are denied the encounter with the “red wheelbarrow / glazed with rain water / beside the white chickens” because we have been told of their importance in advance of our needing to make that meaning for ourselves. I fear the poem denies the reader her or his own creative work within the reading, and so the genuine coming to value of what images occur in the poem. And so, to rectify that problem for myself, I re-wrote the poem in a way that comes to an understanding of value only after encounter, the result of the world in the poem, rather than a value that prescribes the world to follow.
Nelson: We’re both admirers of Buckminster Fuller and his concept of tensegrity, a term he coined to describe an architectural structure’s integrity that results from a balance between tension and compression components; his geodesic domes are examples of this. You’ve applied this concept to the poem on the page. What is the tensegrity of the poem, and how is this principle at work in Overtakelessness?
Beachy-Quick: I first read about Fuller in Art History courses. But a few years ago, the MCA in Chicago had a large retrospective on him, and that was truly eye-opening to me. There was of course the sheer brilliance and whimsy of the man’s mind, the visionary wit. But I also began to feel deep overlaps with ideas I’d been struggling to articulate to myself in regards to poetry. It is that word, “tensegrity,” that dovetailed many things for me. I had long felt that a poem operated by the creation of a kind of tension—not a single tension. Each poem, I suspect, has to find the nature of its own tension. At some level, this idea of tension is a deeply formal concern, the tension being the key ingredient to a poem’s ability to cohere as a shape in which thought dwells, in which emotion can occur. That word “tensegrity” spoke to me of the tension as a form of poetic integrity, and a way to consider form as a balance of energies in the poem, any one of which being out of balance would cause the whole structure to collapse. In Overtakelessness, the tensegrity (at least as I see it when I read it) is in the counter-pressure of the traditional formal elements—rhyme, meter, image, form—and the deep skepticism the poem cannot keep itself from. The sensuality of the poem, and its simplicity, stand in needed opposition to the fear of the ideal the poem finds itself realizing as it continues—the fear of the poem always putting the world into the head, of internalizing, and of finding no way back out to the world as actual and existing outside of the self singing of it a considerate song.