Jan Beatty has been one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent poets for two decades. As longtime host and producer of WESA 90.5 FM’s weekly show Prosody, she’s also been one of poetry’s most visible advocates here; at Carlow University, she directs the creative-writing program, teaches, and leads the long-running Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops.
Now the critically acclaimed Beatty, 64, has her first career retrospective. Jackknife: New and Selected Poems, on her longtime publisher, the University of Pittsburgh Press, contains 22 new works and 54 from her four earlier collections dating to 1995’s Mad River. Beatty has worked jobs including waitress, abortion counselor and teacher in maximum-security prisons — all experiences reflected in her work. Jackknife, a project originated by Pitt Poetry Series editor Ed Ochester, features poems that highlight Beatty’s artistic journey as well as such recurring themes as the body, sex, violence, adoption and parentage, and working-class life. The new work includes powerful poems about a young girl getting an abortion (“The 12-year-old walks thin, like a child …”); dealing with poverty; and discussing a birth father with an ashamed birth mother.
Beatty sat down with CP in advance of her March 11 book launch.
How did you pick the poems for Jackknife?
I made some choices and I worked with people who help me. Judith Vollmer, who I’m lucky enough to have as a reader, and also Aaron Smith. They didn’t agree with me! As usual. And so I changed some things.
They wanted some family poems that I had cut. Some more maybe softer, sentimental poems that I cut. Which is my habit: I want to make a tough, strong book. Sometimes I forget to put in the softer stuff.
One older one is “A Waitress’ Instructions on Tipping …”: “Overtip, then tip some more …”
It’s [my] most anthologized poem. That poem has traveled around the country. ... It started showing up in bus stands, in restaurants. People were posting it, because it was really popular with waitresses and waiters — of course. But non-poets. So that was kind of cool. It made it into the community where I really want poetry to be: out of the university, into the community.
Another key poem is “Shooter,” a catalogue of abusers whom the speaker would shoot.
When I first wrote that, that was kind of frightening for me as a writer, because it’s a very intense poem about abuse that women suffer on a daily basis. And it’s misread often, and I’ve gotten a lot of flack from men about it. In public, at readings — men who think it’s hate speech, or that I’m saying terrible things to young girls. They just don’t get it, obviously. What happens with women, is women wait and talk to me after the reading, and there’s a lot of crying and talking happening — like “This happened to me, this is my story.” It has a lot of impact that I didn’t anticipate. So I try to read it, because people respond to it.
“Red Sugar" also tackles a lot of your familiar themes.
That one has a lot to do with blood and the body and looking for the birth mother. That’s that moment of the speaker thinking she finds the birth mother, and how to relate that to standing on solid ground. Which I think I write a lot about, as a woman, as an adoptee, how to walk around in your own body, when you leave it and when you come back. There’s also a lot of women who talk to me about leaving their bodies, that disassociation because of trauma.
A lot of this was surprising to me, like with my second book, Boneshaker, I had this psychiatrist come up to me — people used to come up to me, social workers and psychiatrists, after my readings, and say, “Do you know there’s a lot of abuse in your work?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know that.” And I guess they were being nice. They were just checking. And the psychiatrist asked me if I’d speak to a convention of psychiatrists. This is years ago. And I said, “Well, I will, but only if I’m not considered some kind of weird subject or something.” It was in Morgantown, strangely enough. And I went down there. I have some poems that make fun of shrinks, and I read those and they just thought they were the funniest things. ’Cause I guess a lot of people don’t make fun of them to their faces! It was fun for me.
You often address adoption and parentage.
I’m not sure who said it, but writers have two or three obsessions that they go back to forever, and I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s definitely a defining thing for me, being adopted and how that relates to the body. I didn’t know my real name until I was in my 30s, so that dislocation was primary for me, and I think for anyone who’s adopted.
In making your selections, did you note any trends in your work?
[Laughs] I did think, “Oh, my god, I’ve been writing about this stuff for 20 years” — I mean the body, and blood, dirt and the West. It just is what compels me. …. Looking at it all at once was kind of frightening, because I thought, “Oh my god, what am I doing?” … This is not a grand plan. It’s just from my gut, so it makes sense that it’s going to continue. It’s not like one day I’ll figure it out and it’ll be over!
Do you worry about repeating yourself?
I’m really concerned about that. With each new book, I want to make sure I’m doing something new craftwise … but that’s where I use my readers again. I can’t tell you how many times Judith Vollmer has said, “You already did this.” … I always think, “When I’m finished with this, no more father poems.” But I just deal with whatever comes up, and see if there’s something significant.
Are there poets who don’t write from the gut?
There are many poets who are project-driven, who talk about themes when they’re starting a book. … I run from the narrative arc. The narrative arc makes me want to die. It makes me feel like I’m limited, like it’s all set in motion.
Jim Morrison shows up a lot in your work, like in the new one, “The World Between Jim Morrison’s Legs,” inspired by the famous Venice Beach mural.
Maybe it doesn’t need an explanation.
I feel like a cliché talking about it. But he’s just a sexual animal, and he was important. He made an impression. He went for it. He took off his clothes. He pissed on the audience. He broke down boundaries which I really appreciate. He was basically saying ‘Fuck you’ to everybody. … When I was in high school — I think it was probably where it started — Soft Parade came out and I loved Soft Parade, and I was trying to break out of a lot of things myself at that time, and I think it was a convergence for me personally. I’m like: “This, whatever this is, this is what I’m gonna do. Whatever this is.” And it couldn’t articulate it at the time but I’m like, “Yeah.”
… Now it’s more a pop-culture icon. But back then, for me, I saw him in concert, at the Civic Arena, 1970. … He was just defining in some ways for me.
Venice Beach appears more than once also.
You go there and you see people from many places and decades, and anything could happen there. … It’s not what it was in the ’60s, of course, but it’s a remembering and it’s a sadness of things gone. It seems to be a loaded place. ... I love California, period. … I go out West every year at least.
Why do so many of the poems take place on trains?
I love trains. I like to be in transit more than being somewhere. I just like to be going somewhere all the time. That’s when I feel really happy, being suspended. I do a lot of writing when I’m moving. As soon as I get on a plane, I start writing. So on a train, I’m in really good shape. It’s a four-day trip. It’s just so great for me, because it seems like nobody can get to me, nobody can stop me. … It feels like freedom on the train to me. Which is ironic, because you’re shut up in this little container.
Do you write at home at all?
I do. But not as much. I don’t think I would have any of my books without leaving.
Talk about the new poem “Stricken,” about a mentally disturbed friend who wants a gun.
It was sort of like some of the prison poems I’ve written, that sort of terrifying place where you know something and it doesn’t match up with the world and there’s no ground. And how do you handle that? And I think for me it related to being a woman because I think historically for me it’s been a long journey, with all women to be heard and to be believed, even though you know a, b and c, having other people hear you is a whole other world that often doesn’t happen. … That horrible aloneness, but you can’t make anybody else know it.
In “Set Me Swimming,” you write” “If you want to do a good deed / tend to the monsters inside you …” Can you elaborate?
I guess I get really irritated with do-gooders — I think because I used to be one. I get irritated with people whitewashing things, “Oh do this, do this.” And I’m like, “Why don’t you fuckin’ take care of yourself? Straighten out your own shit?” That’s what that’s about. [Laughs] It was just about a lack of patience with people’s lack of awareness.
You have poems here in which the speaker is working do-gooder jobs.
And failing at them terribly.
Did you just outgrow do-gooderism?
I realized, probably not enough yet, but I realized my limitations and how ill-equipped I was to deal with intense situations and huge issues, and lowered my expectations. I guess that’s just getting older. I’m still an optimist and I still believe in a lot of things. But small, small victories. That’s where I am. A small victory is a big victory. … I don’t think I can save anybody. That’s that “Stricken” poem, I guess.
You write about the body so much. How has your relationship with the body changed as you age?
I’m not sure I’ve dealt with that question. I think I’m in denial about my own mortality. I mean, I know I’m gonna die. … Maybe that’s the next [book]! I don’t know. … I don’t write about aging, I don’t think. Do I?
You wrote about your father dying.
I think there’s a maturity in the poems hopefully, with [the] writing. … I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that one.
Sometimes I forget how old I am. Sometimes I look at my students whose parents are around 40, and I think I’m the same age but I’m not!