Five Questions with __________ is an experiment with flash interviews. The series on poets continues with poet, critic, and professor Dan Beachy-Quick. Dan barely needs a formal laureled introduction, which I am never prone to giving in this space anyway. Instead I offer a personal one. When I was 22 I was accepted to an experimental writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a program Dan directed at the time. The enormous tuition and fee costs (during a period of hand-to-mouth existence) made me decide against going. Dan’s response to my letter of decline was kind and encouraging. Though we did not stay in touch his work has often found its way into my self-made syllabus. His latest book centers on reading. If ‘reading is a method of entering’ and ‘entering is a form of initiation,’ what better knife-polishing apprenticeship than reading Dan himself? ‘What he desires is a face he can desire, Without waking up or changing his own face, But desire puts on him a mask he cannot take off.’
Taha Muhammad Ali said of sadness in his poem ‘The Falcon’†:
What confuses me is
that you are bigger than my day,
greater than my past,
and larger than my tomorrow.
Well, I rely on it. One of the deeply ethical qualities of poetry I find myself more and more astonished by the longer I work on writing it, is how it makes available those resources of sadness (and happiness, and horror, and bliss, and on and on) that eclipse the boundary of one single self to ever experience or contain. There is something in sadness, especially, that haunts and promises. A poem somehow trespasses into the privacy of sadness and joins it. This isn’t to say that poetry ends sadness, or reveals its secret, but more to suggest that poetry participates in sadness—it confronts what it also must comfort. This sadness is also the place where a merely confessional poetry shows itself as the egoist’s own worst form of self-absorption. One’s own sadness seems valuable only insofar as it initiates one into a larger sadness, one larger than time and so larger than a single life, the whole deep well of human lament that nourishes, when we let it, the syllables of our own verse.
What percentage of people do you imagine read the footnotes?
Glibly, it depends on either how boring the book is? Or how boring (not simply bored) the reader is? I don’t know, when I’m in deepest enthusiasm reading, I forget the footnotes are there. But sometimes in the same state, the footnotes are like a secret cache of discovery. It depends on the nature of the footnotes. If they’re just citations, who cares? I can’t. If they are insights that can occur only underneath the body of the text, underground spring or unconscious river, then they are a different thing all together, and one of the real pleasures of reading.
Right, a percentage: 50%.
From what job have you been fired, burned out, laid off, or highly tempted to walk out on?
I worked for a recording studio that recorded books on tape for the blind and handicapped. It was a mix of the Kafkaesque and 90s sitcom, Parable Before the Law and Seinfeld. Many blind people are HAM radio operators, and so we would record the HAM radio magazine, which included tables of frequencies and stations in 5 point font. It would take some 12 hours to read them, and the man that read them spoke in this absolute monotone: “50 megahertz, GBT346, LDX434,” and so on, to infinity. It was purgatorial. Very few of the recorders meant to catch mistakes and re-record, etc., which was my job, could stay awake. That was unfortunate, because the same reader had the awful tendency (when listening to someone at volume in headphones) to belch often and long. These would sometimes wake up the recorder, sometimes not. There was a tape in the office, for when morale was down, of this man’s belches all spliced together, so that the whole office, played over loudspeaker, would hear a 12 minute burp. There was also the woman who read the romance novels and started off the morning shift by pouring vodka in her tea. May I also say how awkward it is to listen to a semi-drunk 60-something year old woman read breathily to me listening on headphones about “Rowan’s unsheathed sword” which, yes, was a euphemism. Or to say that such love scenes—i.e. running down the stairs while still consummating their forbidden but undying love—lasted for some 50 pages. And then the job would turn so strangely sad and kind of beautiful. A man who had worked there for decades, an old actor nearing retirement, had an entire book sent back because he was breathing too loud between sentences. I’ll never forget trying to fix that book. When the breath was loud and long enough, I could simply cut out the section of tape and splice it back together. After 4+ hours of doing this, I looked down, and saw these ¼ inch sections of tape all of which contained this man inhaling for another breath. The ground was littered with his breathing. It haunted me, and still does. That’s a job I wanted to quit. Well, really, I wanted to be fired. I could never bring myself to quit.
In which popular Hitchcock film would you have most liked to play a supporting role, Rope, Marnie, The Birds, North by Northwest, or The Man Who Knew Too Much?
The Birds, I suspect, because I am fascinated by birds, and I’ve come to suspect that we’re fascinated by things we also fear—that fear one finds only inside beauty or what one loves as beautiful. Fascination seems to be the desire to be harmed by what you cherish—or at least that’s somewhere in there.
What is your most unfailing source of joy?
The fountain Hippocrene where the muses bathe? Manna? Eating an apple in the morning? Bird song? Certain mistakes of the senses, as when wind through trees sounds like a waterfall? Dumb luck? My own children when unaware I catch them looking thoughtfully at something? The alphabet? (or is that unfailing sadness, as above). I wish I knew. I mean, I think I wish I knew. Maybe this is something it’s best not to know, lest like a lab rat, we keep pressing joy’s button until we cease entirely. Let me revert, as all too typically, to Keats: a thing of beauty. It’s as good as any other answer I know.