His author’s bio reads: “Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poems, most recently ‘Circle’s Apprentice.’ ‘A Whaler’s Dictionary,’ his celebrated collection of meditations on Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick,’ appeared from Milkweed Editions in 2008. Beachy-Quick teaches at Colorado State University, and lives in Fort Collins.” The Chicago-born Beachy-Quick, most recently the author of “Wonderful Investigations,” is an author willing to scrutinize his interests—both academic and aesthetic—in a way that many writers of nonfiction seem afraid to try.
Beachy-Quick spoke about his “Wonderful Investigations”—about his willingness to look deeper and closer and further into the things that make him want to read and write.
Why publish criticism? What inspires you to write it?
I’m not sure I’d exactly consider the essays in “Wonderful Investigations” criticism, at least not in the typical sense of the word. I find myself, the more I think about a given text, less and less able to judge it, as if the work of writing critically undermines its own intentions, and some other quality emerges—not definition or claim, but a sense of wonder, a suspicion that entering into a work requires the mind to enter the heart’s labyrinth, or the heart’s step into the mind’s maze.
I love the moment when thinking becomes a feeling work, when thinking gropes and reaches. My highest aim is to offer such an experience—to offer the experience of reading back to a reader, a kind of gentle, if bewildering, accompaniment. What inspires me are the books and the writers I think about, and all the work is, in many ways, a form of gratitude, of recognizing debt, and of offering something back to those whose words have given me so much.
You wrote: “To read is also this work of being turned around. The turned-around poem reads the reader. Reading is a work done to us before it is a work we do.” What turns you around as a reader? What turns you on as a reader?
I’m addicted to the moment when reading turns into something unexpected—that is, when the poem feels as if it is reading me as much as I am reading it, when the poem knows something about me that I don’t know about myself; and to read is to discover some form of otherness that includes “me.”
I seem to require some things for such work to occur: a sense of line, of sentence, in which thought and beauty are simultaneously doing a similar work and a different one, by which I mean that somehow beauty and thought join together in their work, and at the same time, each has their own force, one not wholly in sync with the other, selfish to its own nature even as the nature drifts into the work of the other. I love the moment when, as Keats has it, “beauty obliterates all consideration,” or elsewhere, how “beauty teases us out of thought.” I like feeling the damage beauty inflicts on the mind as it thinks, and how the mind must relearn how to negotiate what had before seemed so familiar to it—how to make sense of the word, and through the word, the world.
How do you know when you’ve reached the moment when “beauty obliterates all consideration”?
Well, the thing of it is that one doesn’t “know it,” for the experience is something that frustrates knowing as its measure. I suppose I’d retreat again to Keats, and say one feels it when one is within it—that half-lit realm in which we see dimly but we still see. But there is no certainty in the experience, just a surplus of uncertainty that results not in inertia, but again as Keats might say, has pulling through it some “Loadstone Concatenation.”
What was the last thing you read that turned you around?
The last book to turn me around most fully was Paul Metcalf’s “GENOA.” It’s a strange collage of Melville’s entire body of writing (and Metcalf was Melville’s great-grandson), a murder mystery, a family drama, a war story, a history of Christopher Columbus, and a perusal through medical literature. I’ve never encountered anything like it—how it builds emotion by charting out the mind as some form of archive, reading what in it is stored.
You wrote that “Language’s gift to us is its failure.” When do you feel that you’ve failed with language?
I seldom feel anything but that I’ve failed with language.
Do you feel that because you’re always failing with language, that it’s become some kind of gift?
Maybe. I think much in terms of gift whenever I think of art and poetry and writing. I suppose I feel the failure because language is a medium dependent on various forms of flaw, none more pressing than how the word never becomes the world it names and mimics. In some sense, language’s very gift is how it displays to us its failures—a generous gift that returns us to the actuality of the world with a renewed vigor of sense, a gift that gives to the nerves a capacity for intensity that before this wordy failure we might not ever gain.
You wrote about heroes, who could also be called “champions.” What, within writing, do you champion?
I suppose, most basically, I champion a form of experiment that refuses to turn away from tradition, but instead, holds fast to the radical belief that tradition and experiment are one. I love writing that doesn’t assume it knows its own ends, but that becomes conscious of its nature as it moves across the page to the margin, a mirror to the same effort in ourselves. I champion a writing of necessary confusions, for the page seems to me bewilderment’s last refuge, and then we find ourselves in a culture of mere bafflement, of petty distraction, and telling the difference between a true confusion and a shallow one leads us to living a more ethical life—well, a life where aesthetics and ethics are entwined.
What do you feel you sacrifice when you’re writing?
It’s not exactly that I feel I’m sacrificing anything, but that the poem is itself a kind of offering, the work one must do to be let in to the rites of that world one most wants to dwell in. It’s a way of seeking to be worthy, a humble work, not to “see what I’ve made,” but another kind of value that, once accepted, or acceptable, mends your words to the words of others, those inspiring ones, whose books led you to write in the first place. I feel as if I must make an offering to be part of the conversation that matters most to me—and so I write.
“Wonderful Investigations: Essays, Meditations, Tales”
By Dan Beachy-Quick
Milkweed Editions, 352 pages, $20