Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In the Spotlight: Jeffrey Beck

Jeffrey Beck received an honorable mention for the Worcester County Poetry Association Frank O’Hara Prize. His poem, appearing in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review, is a poem about his father (pictured below), Arnold James Beck, who died on March 29, 2009.  

What does it mean to write? What do you believe to be the role of the writer?

Writing poetry is creating astounding word-machines that move. They “move” the thoughts, senses, and emotions of readers. That is the role of the writer: to do the creative work with words that will lead to these movements. And the poet seeks to move all three—thought, senses, emotions. If a poem lacks one of these movements, it is less successful. The poet Ted Kooser says that certain poems remind him of machines that were invented in the nineteenth century—fantastic mechanical levers to help men tip their hats. Of course, no one bought those machines because, in spite of their cleverness, they weren’t really needed. A poem that really moves people will seem necessary. A poem that is cleverly worded, but not moving, will be discounted as a trifle.

According to your LinkedIn profile, you received a PH.D. in English in 1993 and have been teaching since. You are also currently the dean of the Nathan Weiss Graduate College at Kean University and are involved in several projects. Could you discuss your strategies for finding time to write while also maintaining such a busy lifestyle?

Most of my days are filled with meetings and administrative tasks, so I tend to write early in the morning. I come into the office at a time I call “garbage hour,” when the garbage trucks are on the streets, usually around 6 a.m., and I often write for an hour before I begin the rest of the day’s work. I think of “garbage hour” as a liberating time, as it is creative, and it allows me to recycle the trash that happens in my life and others’ lives into my writing. Of course, sometimes I write “garbage” too, and have to throw it away, although I try to continue revising poems through to publication.

When writing “his father’s voice,” how did you decide between different forms (e.g. free verse, ballad, sonnet, etc.). What do you believe is the relationship between form and content?

I’ve written a number of sonnets and fixed forms, and I like to rhyme, but this poem, I knew, had to be written in free verse to put in the details that were meaningful to me and my father, and that would, I hoped, be meaningful to readers. I couldn’t get “Koch-Schenken-Grunewald-Beck reunion” into rhymed verse. Maybe Morri Creech could, but I think even he would have had some trouble with that combination. For gritty, sometimes awkward details of everyday life, I find free verse works better. There is certainly a place for formal verse and songs, but this poem wasn’t it.

While reading your poem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s definition of poetry (“Poetry: the best words in the best order.”) stuck with me. Could you discuss your thought process and goals behind your poem’s subtle rearrangement of words? 

I structured the poem around the idea of my father’s voice as it sounded in my voice mail, and so the two sentences in the poem both describe his voice. The first sentence is quite long, as it mimics my dad’s tendency to protract telephone conversations to maximum length. The second sentence is much shorter and more meditative, showing how much I miss hearing that voice that I once felt was so exasperating.

Are you currently working on any projects that you would like to share with our readers? 

I keep revising and submitting poems, and I’m working on a manuscript entitled Travel Kit for Odyssey for publication as a book. I’m also writing essays about poetry—I have one called “Ted Kooser’s Art of Waiting,” for example, that is forthcoming from Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and more are on the way.

 The Worcester Review would like to thank Jeffrey Beck for contributing to volume XXXV and for participating in the online blog series. 

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