The Project of Making
Poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont
Beaumont grew up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1960s, a place and a time she admits she hated, feeling stifled and rebellious. Her father sold cars and her mother was a homemaker. She was neither encouraged to write nor discouraged from it, but her working-class background gave her, she says, at least a sense of discipline. She was always interested in arts and crafts (the source of her constant desire to collect and assemble), but in her teens she began reading seriously the poetry of Emily Dickinson as well as the plays of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and other playwrights. Both of these genres created in her a single-minded desire to start writing.
During the summer between high school and college, Beaumont discovered the work of Sylvia Plath, a writer with whom she says she found an immediate affinity. Like Plath, Beaumont had struggled with depression as a young adult, and she found a resonance with the mental landscapes Plath evoked. Plaths work also led to a discovery of the poetry of Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell 69HON. But Beaumont resisted the obvious trap of confessional writing. Rather, she took from the work of these poets what she calls their emotional extravagance, or stylized seeing with emotional charge, in order not to write about her latest heartbreak but to put that intense interiority to work for her back out in the world.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in English from Eastern College just outside of Philadelphia, Beaumont worked in publishing, editing, and eventually advertising, which brought her to New York in 1983. Those jobs, she admits, made her miserable. She wanted to turn her life in the direction of something creative, so she quit work and began an intense period of reading, writing, and, as she puts it, re-claiming poetry. Living on freelance work and her dwindling savings, she applied to and was accepted into the Writing Division at Columbias School of the Arts in 1988.
The MFA program at Columbia exposed her to the poets and writers who shape her work now. For the first time, she read Elizabeth Bishop, a poet whose sense of place became immensely important to her. Beaumont discovered Italo Calvinos work; his interest in folk tales and fairy tales influenced her aesthetic of quickness and play. Poets fascinated with the transformation of the ordinary, such as Wislawa Symborska and Francis Ponge, as well as Freud on the interpretation of dreams, all gave Beaumont what she calls permission to experiment in her poetry with material she might otherwise have left out.
In her recently completed collection of poems, Curious Conduct, Beaumont takes on the twentieth century and the poets relationship to history and time, stopping along the way to incorporate key literary events, such as modernism, surrealism, and theater of the absurd, into the discrete, formal space of individual poems. These new poems, Beaumont says, are bigger in that theyre able to embrace more, yet without giving up her signature heightened attention to objects and personas.
It seems appropriate that in talking about poetry with Beaumont she would come back around to her insistence that poetry is always about making. Closing a black, tomelike sketchbook full of handwritten drafts of poems and found epigraphs, she adds to a question on the physical labor of writing: Once, when I was watching the construction of a new building in my neighborhood in New York, I realized that the men up there bolting together all that iron were risking their lives making something. Thats where my poem City came from. Poets are always being told to take risks, but so few can say they actually risk their lives each time they write. Making poems has become, for Jeanne Marie Beaumont, part of that human need to make something in as well as of our lives, whether or not we risk them, from what we have at hand and what has been handed down, and always, as she writes in City, with The courage to build slowly / in the determined Roman way / to knock off at sundown, / return the next day and the next.
Andrew Krivak 90SOA