The disaster that war causes is far-reaching and enormous in scale; rather than give us aerial views of this trauma, Beers’s poems zoom way in, and tell the individual and fragmented stories of how children process loss, pain, and helplessness.
I love what these poems do, and find them tremendously protective and empathetic.
(NOTE: After the interview below, read “Little Amira Honors Her Cat, Pepa,” and “Love Poem for the Other Woman” both of which appear with permission of the author. Also, be sure to check out the video beneath the poems, featuring The Portland Cello Project’s performance of original music composed to the “Little Amira” poem. Order a signed copy of the book here.)
Q: While reading The Children’s War and Other Poems, I noticed how intensely personal each of these poems feel. The bulk of these poems borrow from the lives of others (as many poems do), and I admired how you maintained such an intimate, authentic voice throughout the collection. When you write, how do you relate to the personal? How does your own experience get translated or transformed by writing?
A: I think a lot of writing and a lot of empathy, actually, is about acting. About putting yourself into the character of the other person. How would I feel if I were a woman with a missing child, or how would I feel if I were the child who has lost not just her family but her beloved pet in a grenade attack, or in another poem in the collection, how would it feel to be Marilyn Monroe?
There’s a saying that writers are the only adults who get to stay in their pajamas all day and play with their imaginary friends. I think that’s true to an extent. I mean, I have a full-time teaching position which pays the bills, but I think a lot of what writers do is “play pretend.” In fact, I don’t think I so much teach creative writing at the college level as I un-teach adult-type thinking. A lot of children are naturally great writers because they just pretend. It’s sad that so many people have lost that by the time they become adults.
The very first college class I took was actually a summer theatre course I took when I was a junior in high school. I learned so much about examining others’ objectives and motivations and just trying on their mannerisms and habits. A lot of the writing exercises I give my students are the same ones that actors use – what would this person carry in their purse or wallet? What recurring dream does he or she have? What would he or she want no one to know about him/her?
As far as my own experience being transformed or translated by writing, there are two types of transformation, conscious – where I might change the sex of a character if I’m basing it on something that happened in real life. Or if I’m basing it on a real-life situation, maybe in the situation I was the child, but I rewrite it from the mother’s point of view… Then, there’s subconscious transformation, which we all take part in every day. To us, when we’re speeding, we were running late, we had to be somewhere. When someone else is speeding, they’re a reckless jerk who doesn’t care about the safety of others. It’s all about perspective, and most of that, we do subconsciously.
Two poems from The Children's War and Other Poems
Little Amira Honors Her Cat, Pepa
Fourteen in hiding in a basement
and we all need something to protect.
The men guard the door, the women guard
the children. Grandma holds me, and I hold
Pepa. Pepa himself was love. So when I draw
him, his face is an orange heart. He is smiling
with his mouth and his eyes and his whiskers.
He wears a blue flower as a collar. When
the grenade blew open the shelter, the world
became only Lejla and me. No Mama, no
Grandma, no Jusuf, no Pepa. No Pepa.
I draw Pepa over and over. No one else
because he was mine to take care of.
When I grow up, I will own a pet store.
I will have ten cats named Pepa.
I will do a better job because
I will be bigger.
Love Poem for the Other Woman
The way sapphires and rubies are both corundum.
The way when we first saw each other, I blurted,
You’re beautiful! The way she came with me
to confront him. How he was telling me nonchalantly
that the dog had gotten into the garbage. How his eyes
clouded over when he saw us both there in the kitchen.
I don’t have to stay here for this, he proudly puffed,
then, got into the truck with his name painted on the side
and drove away. How we both kept taking him back
despite the danger.
The way I still went to my classroom to teach King Lear
after I got her email. The way he accused us of ganging
up on him when we were both Cordelias. The way we never
knew how tight the noose really was. How her daughter
had the name I’d wanted to name a daughter. How she drove
the same car I had wanted to buy. The way when he put
his guns away after doe season he left one bullet out
and said my name was on it. How in the hardware store
when we were looking at hammers, he looked at me and said
One blow is all it would take.
How this could have been a fairy tale with two princesses.
The way no one gets to live happily ever after. The way
she still lives a block away from me. The way she puts
her hand on my shoulder when we run into each other
in the street. How years later, we still feel bewildered.
The way there is no name for what we shared.
Shaindel Beers with The Portland Cello Project:
Shaindel Beers with The Portland Cello Project: