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Career Make-Over

Poet Hopes Necessity Won't Smother His Inventions

February 18, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Serious poets accept early in their career that they will not make a living from their art. Though they may spend years studying literature and honing their skills, their career will have few monetary rewards and, typically, scant recognition.

Dan Beachy-Quick, 27, has accepted this fact, because, since age 15, poetry has been his obsession. He attended the University of Denver, where he established himself as an "extraordinary" talent, according to his former professor, Bin Ramke, who also is editor of the Denver Quarterly. Beachy-Quick then received his master's from the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop.

By the age of 20, the Iowa City resident had two poems published in the prestigious Paris Review.

His poetry also has been accepted by the Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Nimrod, Ploughshares and the Western Humanities Review. He continues to write and submit poems to literary journals and has sent a publisher a collection of poems based on Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

"So, presently, I'm waiting," he said. "I'm walking to the mailbox and being mortified about what I might find."

To make money, Beachy-Quick teaches poetry at Grinnell College and works at the Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City. Because he hopes to continue teaching, and perhaps one day become a full professor, he has applied to four doctoral programs.

"Ideally, I'd like to have as varied a professional experience as possible," Beachy-Quick said. "I'd like to teach, work on a magazine of poetry, perhaps work in a museum with art history, and I'm hoping that those things will intersect."

Beachy-Quick talked to Stanley Kunitz, the nation's poet laureate, for advice about his poetry and future. Kunitz agreed to review three of Beachy-Quick's poems. Two that he selected from Beachy-Quick's poem collection, titled "Hariot's Round," described the experiences of 16th century explorer and scientist Thomas Hariot in early America. A third, called "Psalm (Galileo)," depicted Galileo's musings over his quest to learn the truth about our heliocentric universe.

Kunitz first asked about Beachy-Quick's inspirations and motivations.

Beachy-Quick said he took his inspiration from John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Traherne, George Herbert and Emily Dickinson. Kunitz said that as a young man he too was influenced by Donne, Traherne and Herbert. "They had a considerable influence on my work," Kunitz said.

Beachy-Quick said he is writing poems that allow him to "see through historical figures' eyes." "It is oddly freeing and somewhat addictive," he said. However, he said, lately he has been having difficulty getting his thoughts on paper.

"It's somewhat of a challenge," he said. "I feel almost emptied out, and I haven't been able to write a single line of poetry for over two months."

"Oh, that happens to all of us," Kunitz said. "Sometimes those fallow periods are very helpful. You may not be writing now but the poems are breeding underground, and when they're ready, you'll write again."

At Kunitz's request, Beachy-Quick recited the three poems.

"There are all sorts of moments in this poem that strike me, in fact, excite me," Kunitz said of the first one.

But Kunitz said Beachy-Quick's poems have some challenges. Their references are oblique, and, to Kunitz, their images at times seem unconnected. Beachy-Quick should be careful in his word selection, Kunitz said. Difficult phonetic combinations--such as Beachy-Quick's "glass shard"--can cause readers to stumble. And abstract words such as "quantity" can leave readers searching for meaning.

Kunitz wondered whether Beachy-Quick was relying too heavily upon the language and idioms of centuries past and not sufficiently personalizing his poems.

Poems shouldn't arise only out of intellectual musings, Kunitz said; they should come from the poet's heart.

"I was looking through the batch of poems you sent me for one that stemmed from your own experience, one that reflected the kind of person you are, the feelings that enlightened you, the experiences that stimulated you," Kunitz said. "In other words, something that flows directly from the self.

"You raise in the 'Galileo' poem the question of 'where am I?' But I think the more important question for a young poet is 'who am I?' . . . I am hoping you will turn inward and work directly from your own experience and sensibility."

As for career steps, Kunitz acknowledged that American poets have had limited options available to them.

"I think that poets in this country, in this century, in general, have had little recourse but to become academics simply out of economic necessity," said Kunitz, adding that it is important for such university-employed poets to make sure they are able to express themselves freely in such settings.

"I'd like to think that poets can disturb the universe without fear of losing their jobs," he said.

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