After an impressive poetry reading last year, the YMCA Writer's Voice of downtown Phoenix invited East Coast poet Joshua Beckman back to the Valley, this time with an offer to act as the program's writer in residence for the fall. He accepted, and this Tuesday, Beckman will read from and sign his book Things Are Happening at the main branch of the Tempe Public Library.
The first poem in that book is dedicated to a man named David Adivan. Beckman's father? A dear friend? Neither, exactly, but both in a way. A quick ride on Yahoo's fabulous search engine reveals Adivan to be a prolific Israeli poet who began publishing in the '50s -- a man Beckman never met.
Yet he had read two of Adivan's books (translated from Hebrew) and thought they were "crazy and really beautiful" and couldn't believe that Adivan had never been published in the U.S. Beckman found the elder poet's address through a connection in Israel, but unwittingly let the information sit on his desk for two months. Then, an obituary -- Adivan's -- crossed the same desk. With that bit of off timing and lost opportunity, the poem "Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter" was born.
And so begins Beckman's distinguished collection (winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize) of his own poetry. When pressed for a common theme among the six longish compositions, Beckman offers "interpersonal relationships in family -- almost a paternal longing." Okay. Children do figure prominently in the poems, as do father figures and elusive women, as lovers, daughters, sisters and mothers. But is Beckman the child, or the father? Did he once walk out on a marriage? Is he a single parent? Wait, is he the child again? Just who is Joshua Beckman?
The beguiling Beckman, who embodies comic timing and philosophical wisdom, admits that his poems are vaguely autobiographical. "We all come in and out of these roles that are theoretically very specific," he says, pointing out that a review once cast him as a failure as a husband and a father, when in fact he's never been either. Yet, in an expanded, nonspecific way, he has lived both roles, as a boyfriend and a caretaker.
Asked about the meaning behind his compelling poem, "Watermelon Hands," Beckman is politely unwilling to disclose plot points. Frustrating, right? Beckman agrees sympathetically. "It's very hard. How often do you go into something and not want to completely get it?" Still, he defends his belief that readers need to be open to losing control and letting themselves go in a poem. Meaning will follow, he assures.
While elements of Beckman's poetry are head-scratchingly curious, his poems aren't intentionally abstract. Rather, they are narrative and conversational -- familiar and reliable. "One of the great joys of poetry, or writing, is that it is something completely intimate. You take the book to bed with you at the point when you are most comfortable, most open. Good writing wants you to be this living person who interacts with the writing."
Things Are Happening is rife with good writing, like this, from Beckman's lovely and gripping poem "My Story":
My sister's story is that she fades away like something that started out of sight and continues to drift. In conversation, she will absentmindedly take more than one side and in bath tubs she will displace only the smallest fraction of water.
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After wolfing down the pages of Beckman's book, you can't help but want to hear him read his poetry in person, to know him more. This because you laughed out loud in "Redwoods: A Tragedy," and because tears stole from the corners of your eyes before you even realized you were crying during "My Story." Beckman, through his own truth and the unique expression of his words, reflects the whole of life -- his, mine and yours.
His affinity for the genre is apparent as he thoughtfully suggests poets that readers might consider exploring: Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley. And what about Adivan, the obscure Israeli poet in the dedication? "He didn't change the way I felt about poetry. But this human's voice has accompanied me on very important journeys in my life," says Beckman. "People ask me who are the people I care about, my best friends. And when I really feel the list out, it's a bunch of dead poets."
Joshua Beckman is scheduled to read from and sign his book Things Are Happening at 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, at Tempe Public Library, Rural and Southern in Tempe. A reception will follow. For more information, call the YMCA Writer's Voice at 602-528-5543.