Welcome to the Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.
Today, we’re talking with Jan Beatty!
Hey Jan! What’s new with you?
I recently found out that I won the 2018 Paterson Poetry Prize for my book, Jackknife: New and Selected Poems. I’ve been directing the MFA program at Carlow University, and we’ve just come back from Dublin for our 12-day residency, which was terrific. With the summer break, I’ve been working on a new book and submitting a chapbook manuscript—but it’s the time for reading, the ocean, the mountains that are giving me that precious door to writing which is the key to everything.
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write?
I’ve written poems since I can remember, and I won the poetry contest in first grade for a poem about floating away on a cloud. As time goes on, I realize that I’m still writing poems about escape. I wrote all the bad break-up poems in locked diaries that I hid under my bed in high school. But, I started studying and writing seriously in the early 80’s. The poets who first made me want to write were Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Phillip Levine, and Gerald Stern.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
I have written many things that I was afraid to share. I was also afraid to think about them, to feel them, and to write them down. I think that these have become some of my strongest poems. My students and I talk about this idea of writing what scares you—it takes courage to be a poet, and more courage to share those poems. Yet, there is so much energy around what is withheld. What is it that we’re really afraid of? Judgment? Rejection? Hurting someone with our words? These are necessary things to process and consider, yet we need to push through moments of fear. As poets, it’s part of our job to dig deep into emotion and to surface with hard-fought material. I’m still working to write the things that scare me, the things that I’m afraid to share.
What are you looking forward to most at this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival?
I’m looking forward to high school day. The energy of that day is mind-blowing, with students from all over the country who are wild for poetry! At my last Dodge Festival, I was lucky to read to students, along with the poets Richard Blanco and Robert Pinsky, and I was stunned by the raw enthusiasm in the concert hall. All during the festival, I had memorable moments of conversation with students—on the sidewalk outside venues, in the hallways, in Q&A sessions, or just running into students on the way to lunch or dinner. Those unscripted, unexpected conversations were some of the best moments of the festival for me. I’m looking forward to meeting more students and maybe seeing some of the same faces from years before.
Jan Beatty’s fifth full-length book, Jackknife: New and Collected Poems, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press and won the 2018 Paterson Prize. Her last book, The Switching/Yard, was named one of …30 New Books That Will Help You Rediscover Poetry by Library Journal. The Huffington Post named her one of ten women writers for “required reading.” Her poem, “Shooter” was featured in a paper delivered in Paris by scholar Mary Kate Azcuy: “Jan Beatty’s ‘Shooter,’ A Controversy For Feminist & Gender Politics.” Other books include Red Sugar, Boneshaker, and Mad River, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. For twenty-five years, Beatty was host and producer of Prosody, a public radio show on NPR affiliate WESA-FM featuring the work of national writers. Beatty worked as a waitress for fifteen years, and as a welfare caseworker, abortion counselor, and a social worker and teacher in maximum-security prisons. She is the managing editor of MadBooks, a small press that published a series of books and chapbooks by women writers. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University, where she runs the Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops and directs the MFA program.