Poets in Conversation: Craig Beaven
How did the poem “Portrait of My Daughter in Repose” come into being? Tell us a little about the origin, inspiration, or circumstances surrounding it.
I think the poem is completely tied to the date in the epigraph: everyone was waiting for the verdict on the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, and it came out, and was one of those gutting moments like when Trump won the presidency, just a horrible feeling that evil was taking over—that the culture was skewing evil and taking power and institutionalizing it. My daughter—who, as the poem states, is Black—fell asleep in my arms while I was reading the news on my phone. It was a horrible experience, and the concept arose like, she’s too young now, but I will need to explain this to her and warn her one day, and the poem, with its semi-ghazal phrase, came to me super quick and the next morning I wrote it down.
Repetition is so important to the shape and music of this poem. How did it arise and become central to the poem?
The wonderful poet Talvikki Ansel taught me the ghazal, and I used her great ghazal “Periodic Table” as a model in my first book. I don’t often write strict ghazals. But there was a phrase after Breonna Taylor was murdered—say her name—and I thought of it like a ghazal phrase, something that is emphasized over and over. I like having a chime or talisman to carry me through a poem—it relieves the stress of needing to have a plan, because every stanza is going to end in the repeated phrase. And when you are explaining things to your children, especially difficult concepts, you end up repeating things over and over, and saying things over and over, so it just made sense. It’s absolutely true that poems for me can take up to a year of discovering, changing, revising, typing, rewriting, etc., but this one was truly made almost in situ. I’m a super narrative poet, so if I’m going to do something different than the immense heavy-lifting of story, I’m going to need a form with repetition to disrupt my normal habits.
What’s something you wish you knew when you first began writing?
Well, it’s probably true that you have to learn it all, that no one can warn you. You have to discover it on your own. So, I did not know how hard it would be. At least for me, it’s really difficult to get a poem, and then the incredible effort involved in getting your work out there. And I thought I would feel very satisfied about milestones, like publishing or awards and things, so it was surprising to me that when these things happened, I was glad and grateful, but also, it doesn’t change you or make anything easier. You’re still back in the grind the next day. And there’s no plateau. Someone actually did tell me that—“there’s no plateau’’—but I didn’t believe them!
If you could have a conversation with any musician, writer, or artist (past or present), who would it be and why?
I miss all my friends in the writing world. I don’t have a writing community in Tallahassee. And I think that kind of loneliness can be useful in a way, or generative in a way, because you only have yourself to rely on. You have to go with your voice and no one else. But also I love hanging out with my writing friends, and hearing their work, and their ideas, and what they’re reading. So, if I could talk to anyone, I would hang out with my Sewanee friends and my Houston friends and my Richmond friends, as scattered as we are across the continent. I’m lucky because my new book took me to some venues just recently where I could hang out with my people. Those relationships… Outside of family, my writing is the most important thing in my life, so having friends that you can share that with is so nourishing.
When the BPJ editorial board gathers for selecting poems, it has been our tradition to cook and share soups and stews. Do you have a favorite comfort food (or food tradition) that sustains you? Would you be willing to share a recipe?
So, lentils are my all-time favorite food, and if I could eat lentils every day I would. We make a wide variety of lentil soups, curries, dals, etc. This one I made on the fly the other night loosely based on a recipe my wife cut from a magazine a million years ago and it was amazing so please try to recreate it and let me know how it goes.
A lot of garlic—4-5 cloves
1 large onion, diced
Three carrots, sliced
2-3 stalks of celery, sliced
6-8 cups of vegetable stock
28 oz. can diced tomatoes
2 cups lentils—I did a cup of red and a cup of green
1 cup of dry short pasta—I used bowtie last week
Cook the onion, garlic and carrots in oil for 5 minutes
Add everything else—except for pasta—and boil
Add noodles, simmer until softened
My kids are averse to anything spicy, so, although this soup could probably use some heat, I garnished my individual portion with a few Trader Joe’s “Hot Hot Crispy Habanero Peppers in Olive Oil.”