Tough Love: University of Chicago alumna Shaindel Beers celebrates the publication of her brutally honest poetry

"A Brief History of Time," by Shaindel Beers

"A Brief History of Time," by Shaindel Beers

Shaindel Beers is a complicated poet–tough and fragile, fierce yet gentle. In her writing, she blends disparate elements together, fashioning a voice both candid and complex. Her poem “My Love, A Partial Explanation” encapsulates these qualities. Beers writes, “I’ve been told that loving me is like loving a guard dog,/you’re never sure if it’s love, or if you’re just grateful/that you’re the one thing it won’t kill.”

Beers tells stories about her own life, captivating the reader with emotional insight. She says, “I look at life as the raw material of poetry. I want people to know that I really felt that way. When I wrote it, I meant it.”

Salt Publishing released “A Brief History of Time,” the 31-year-old’s first book, on February 11. She composed the poems over a ten-year period and sought a publisher for five during that time before inking her two-book deal with Salt. The second book is already underway and tentatively titled “The Children’s War.”

On Febraury 12, Beers traveled to Hyde Park to give a poetry reading at the University of Chicago, along with three other alumni poets. She read eight poems from her new book, including “Rewind” and “Summer 2000 Sestina,” among others. Beers graduated from the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in 2000 and earned her Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Vermont College in 2005.

“It’s pretty surreal,” said Beers, reflecting on the whole experience of ending up as a UofC-educated poet. “I doubted whether I would ever get in here. My grandfather had a sixth-grade education. I grew up in a town with one stoplight, you know?”

Elizabeth Helsinger, professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, concedes that Beers’s rural background probably made her path to the University more difficult. “It’s not the background of most of the writers that we’re used to reading. As she reminded me, she grew up in a very rural town in Indiana, and that’s a long way from here in some ways.” Helsinger insists that it also made her the tough writer that she is. She says, “One is always interested in what makes writers and good writers out of those who don’t seem to come from a milieu where that was an obvious possibility. It takes something extra to become that.”

Beers now resides in Oregon. Besides teaching seventeen English and creative writing classes per year and writing poetry, Beers also finds times to work as a personal trainer (drawing on her undergrad dance minor), work at a farm on Sundays, and host an online radio show called “Translated By.” She is the poetry editor for “Contrary,” an online poetry and fiction magazine started by UofC alums, and a poetry reviewer for “Bookslut,” a monthly web magazine devoted to literature.

But for now, she is anxiously awaiting her reviews for “A Brief History of Time” and keeping her fingers crossed. “Part of me is ready for it and part of me is afraid,” Beers said. If reviews don’t go well, she has a back-up plan. “I have warned people at work that I might take up drinking and not come back,” she laughed.

Helsinger certainly believes in her. “She is a strong storyteller, and she knows how to pick the moment, the incident, and make it into a short but powerful work. She’s a combination of a story-telling gift with a gift for a certain kind of condensation.”

The ending lines of “My Love, An Explanation” reflect careful choice of image within story. Beers writes, “giraffes/are my favorite animal, not only because they’re so gentle,/but because a mother giraffe can decapitate a lion/with a single kick if it threatens her calf.”

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