Knowing vs. Showing: an Interview with Nicky Beer

If you couldn’t guess from the title, The Octopus Game, Nicky Beer’s second poetry collection contains a lot of octopuses. So when I sat down to talk with Nicky, the first question I had to ask her was, “Why the octopus?”

Well, it started with the first poems when I went to the Tennessee Aquarium back in something like 2005, ’03 or ’07 (whatever it was it was way back then), and there was a really terrific octopus habitat in there. With octopuses it can be kind of hit or miss in their habitats, you know, they’re always hiding, they’re rather shy—but this particular octopus habitat was really set up so the octopus was out and about, splayed up against the glass. There was a Mr. Potato-Head doll in the water that the octopus was playing with, and it was just so (for lack of a better term) charismatic. It really caught my attention, and so even after quite a bit of time since we’d gone to the exhibit I found myself thinking about the octopus. I’ve written poems about animals before, so I thought I should write something about the octopus. The really neat thing was that even after I wrote the first poem—which ended up being the first poem of the book (“Octopus Vulgaris”)—I still didn’t feel like I was done, I still had more things that I wanted to say. It wasn’t that the poem needed to be longer, it was just that there were other approaches or other techniques that I wanted to take. And I said, “Oh what the heck—I’ll just write a sequence of octopus poems!” I had the good fortune to have the poet Carol Phillips around who was doing a short residency at the University of Missouri Columbia, which is where I got my PhD. When poets are doing short residencies at programs, you get to sit down and talk about your work with them. And I remember saying, “Oh, I’ll probably turn this into a sequence of eight, you know, eight legs on an octopus, eight poems.” And he just said, “Why stop at eight poems?” It was such a simple thing to say but it really never occurred to me that I could go longer and I just immediately agreed with him. So that was really how the idea of writing a book of poetry about the octopus came about.

You have a lot of other themes (like the erotic and film media) that the octopus works very well with. Could you tell me more about how you see the octopus working with the other themes in this book?

I think for a lot of those it has to do with the octopus’ capability for physical malleability (it can bend its body into different shapes, it can squeeze into very small areas) as well as its ability to camouflage (changing the color of its skin, the texture of the skin—there are certain species of cephalopods that can emit light from their skin). And so in terms of being able to alter one’s appearance and take on different forms, for me, that had a strong relationship with the film media and film actors in particular. I really see actors as analogous to the octopus because so much of what they do is about changing shape or altering themselves.

Another reason the two work so well together is because the film media is all about really manipulating reality and presenting this one vision of the truth that requires just so much to accomplish, like jump cuts and voice-overs and mise en scene. On one hand we notice them, but we are ultimately not supposed to see them. So it’s just another interesting form of aesthetic manipulation that I see in relationship to the octopus.

And as far as sexuality goes, I’m really interested in meditating on representations of sexuality that don’t necessarily fall into clear categories of behavior or desire. I’m interested in looking at sexuality and sexual expression as a kind of continuum. So the idea about the octopus’ body being very changeable fits in with how I would like to view sexuality in my work—as something very flexible and changeable, and not necessarily in these rigid categories but something that is open to change.

What was your writing process like? I know you were inspired by the octopus, but when you sit down to write anything (not just something for the collection), what is your process like?

I think I have maybe a collection of processes, but one thing that is pretty essential is that I’m always trying to take in information—you know, I must have data! So when I’m reading I’m not necessarily just reading fiction and poetry but I’m also trying to read nonfiction texts as well. So for The Octopus Game I was reading nonfiction texts about octopuses. I’m really interested in reading about food. I also go to museums, zoos, aquariums, places where I’m going to take in new information that’s going to surprise me. And I never know what’s going to stick, and that’s the thing: that something could interest me and I won’t know how to write about it for maybe a couple of years. And I have sort of learned (more or less) to trust the process and that eventually it’s going to show up. For example, the poem “Phlogiston Footage” took years to show up and to take shape. So I have to just not panic, that if I’m taken by something I’m not just going to immediately produce something. The gap between when I first went to that exhibit and when I wound up writing about it was a good year, at least. So I have to just be constantly reading all kinds of different things and trust that what I learn will turn up in my writing. You know, it’s like an iceberg, where the poem is just the tiny little bit sticking up over the surface but there’s this whole world underneath of things that had to happen in order to get to the poem.

Another part of the process that is important is reading poets who I find aesthetically interesting or pleasing. A lot of my poems will start out when I’m reading someone’s book and I get an idea for my own poem, so I start scribbling on the blank margins and just going along and engaging in this sort of back and forth thing. I’ll write something down and then read more and then go back and add to my notes and so on. And eventually I look at everything I’ve written and say, “Okay, I think it’s time to move over to the computer.”

Sometimes I’ll even come up with a few good lines but I don’t know what to do with them, so I just put it on a Post-It note and stick it above my desk (so now I have a lot of colorful sticky notes floating around above my head).

What was it about “Phlogiston Footage” that took so long to form?

It took so long because I was trying to force the poem to be something that it wasn’t, Originally it was going to be about Jacques Cousteau, and now he isn’t in the poem at all. I read one of his books about octopuses and I really enjoyed it, so there are a lot of things in that poem from his work. But I think when I first started writing it, I was trying to take this really direct route: “Okay, now to write the Jacques Cousteau poem!” Because of course he is the expert, this is about underwater animals, of course there will be a poem about Jacques Cousteau in here! But I think I was putting an unnecessary amount of pressure on myself to write that poem when it just wasn’t happening. At the same time as the book was developing, I was realizing that because I’m writing so many poems that are informed by actual scientific facts about octopuses, I wanted to try to write a poem about a species that didn’t exist. So I knew I wanted to write that poem and I wanted to write about this fake species in this straight-faced way. What better way to legitimize this completely made-up species than to take on the most legitimate voice there is!

We’ve gone through your scientific influences. Can you tell me about some of your artistic influences?

Oh gosh, where do I start? Elizabeth Bishop, definitely, Mark Doty, a fiction writer named Jim Crace, David Mitchell, Kevin Brockmier, Linda Bierds—and then there are also artists like Tom Banks, too. I like them specifically because they are trying new things, taking on new forms, writing in new genres, taking on different voices, different perspectives, personas and so on. So the fact that they are always trying new things aesthetically is something that I really admire.

It’s interesting that you pull from so many different mediums to inspire you and help shape your work. Are you involved in any way in some of those mediums like visual arts, theatre, music, ect?

Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by “involved.” I am definitely a very active audience member for those different areas, but I don’t really practice any of those arts myself. I used to sing in choir when I was a kid and when I was in high school, so in terms of my relationship to poetry, I write and read poems that are very sonically driven. The language is very ornate and I think it definitely comes from having that kind of relationship with language very early on. You know, when you’re singing, you are really feeling it in the body and having this very pronounced sonic presence. But of course, I stopped singing after high school, and as I get older and grumpier I go to live music shows less and less.

Since you started this book in 2007, what else have you done to put the book together? Has writing some poems informed others? Did you find it challenging to order the poems within the book?

Putting together a book of poems is very challenging. Because with, say, something like a novel, there is a clear narrative trajectory that you have to follow. And of course, fiction writers are always carefully arranging the plot and their events and things like that, but there is still this unified narrative that’s being followed. Poetry books don’t usually have that explicit, unified narrative. So to try and arrange the poems in a way where they still make some kind of sense for the reader, even though there’s not a plot, but the reader still feels that the poems are developing and informing one another, that one poem is contextualized by what came before it and the poem after is being contextualized by it and so on—is very complicated and can be very tricky to do.

I think I had a somewhat easier time putting together the order of the second book (The Octopus Game) than the first book (The Diminishing House). Because with the first book, even though I was done with it, it took about four years to hit upon the right order of poems and get it sent off to my publisher.

So then how do you see the narrative and thematic arc of The Octopus Game? For example, the first section has much more to do directly with the octopus than the second section, and in the third, there’s even some violence against the octopus.

The first section, I think, does a lot of establishing the rules of the book. It says, “Hey, this book is going to be largely about octopuses, and here are the ways that I’m going to talk about them.” So that’s why I think the first section is so octopus heavy. It says, “Okay, reader, this is where you are.” But it also introduces some of the non-octopus poems, such as “Please indicate the total number of sexual partners male and/or female” as well as “Annotations” that give the reader a taste of the sexual elements and playful forms.

And then I think, after establishing all that, I push into riskier, stranger territory in the next section, where I have a bunch of film poems together. It does something different from the first section, but it also establishes its own theme and introduces the very strong film element and develops that more.

And then because I have these really strong octopus elements in the first two sections that in the third section, I can move away from that a little, give the reader kind of a break from it. And a break really was needed before the final section, when I dive back into the octopus. That final section also kind of serves as a counterweight to the first, bookending the collection with two octopus poems. Overall, there’s an ebb and flow to the themes being presented and used throughout the book.

Once you have the book finished, how do you get a book of poems published?

Well, it’s much different from getting a novel published. The Octopus Game came out of my last book deal with Carnegie Mellon University Press. And that first deal came from a more traditional route. Not a contest like many do but just an open reading period where the press says that they are looking for any book of poetry (first, second, posthumously published, whatever) for this period of time. So I sent The Diminishing House in and landed a deal with them that had what’s called a “right of first refusal.” A right of first refusal says that if the author should come out with a second book, their publisher gets to read the book first and decide if they want to publish it. Now, if you want to publish with a different house you can still refuse their offer, but you do have to send it to them to be looked at first. And they can also refuse you, but luckily that didn’t happen, and Carnegie Mellon was delighted to publish this book.

How do you market a book of poems? Is it up to the publisher or the author to do the advocacy work for the book?

It depends on the publisher. There are certain publishers that are very small and don’t necessarily have the resources to do a lot of publicity and marketing for the book. Carnegie Mellon was in the middle. They had a list of dedicated reviewers that they sent copies to and got some of the word out about the book. But regardless, I think it does often fall to the poet to promote him or herself too. Something that Carnegie Mellon did for me is they asked if there was any publisher or person that would be really interested in seeing my work—maybe journals that have published my work before this, or a reviewer who has always been into my style.

What I think has been a really, really big boon for poets who want to promote themselves is actually Facebook. It allows you to maintain relationships with writers in other cities, and if, say, you happen to be going to some city for any reason you could contact other people in the area and see if you can set up some casual readings. You can also easily spread the word if there’s an interview or a review going up online or a link to the publication.

Why do you write poetry? What drew you to this form?

Well, I was about five or six, and PBS was the only thing my parents would let me watch. One day there was this little commercial for a National Geographic special on the tiger, and they used an excerpt of William Blake’s “The Tyger” as the voice over. So I’m sitting in front of the television listening to this voice read, “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” When I was five or six I didn’t really understand what poetry was, but I had this moment where I understood that this is language being used in a different way, this heightened way that really got my attention. That was the first time I remember poetry appearing to me as poetry in my life, that there’s this other way of using language. And it wasn’t just rhyming, it was this intensified expression of language.

Nicky Beer, Words by Alison Auger

Nicky Beer is a bi/queer writer, and the author of The Octopus Game (Carnegie Mellon, 2015) and The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), both winners of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Her awards include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a MacDowell Fellowship, a fellowship and a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a Mary Wood Fellowship from Washington College, a Discovery/The Nation Award, and a Campbell Corner Prize. Her poems have been published in Best American PoetryPoetryThe NationThe New Yorker, The Southern ReviewKenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where she co-edits the journal Copper Nickel

Her third book of poems, Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2022.