The Power of “What the Hell?”: An Interview with Nicky Beer

Nicky Beer in Conversation with Day’Shawna Courtney

Nicky Beer is a bi/queer writer, and the author of Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes (Milkweed, 2022). Her first two books, The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010) and The Octopus Game (Carnegie Mellon, 2015), were both winners of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. She has received honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, the Poetry Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, where she is a poetry editor for Copper Nickel.

Day’Shawna Courtney: The title of the book, Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes, is intriguing in its dichotomy. The poem “Drag Day in Dollywood” opens the book, and speaks to both the cover and the title. How and when did the inspiration for the title, cover, and opening poem come to be? And how does Dolly Parton represent the atmosphere of the book as its starting point?

Nicky Beer: The epigraph for “Drag Day at Dollywood” was what started it all! I remember reading the interview it came from in the New York Times in 2016 and was struck by Dolly’s observation about her drag imitators that “some of them look more like me than I do.” The meta-quality of that statement, and its implications about drag, performance, and identity epitomized so many thoughts I’d had scurrying around in my head about the book, which, at the time, was only beginning to take shape. The poem wouldn’t come for another year and a half, but the idea of writing about a whole crowd of drag queen Dollys was always on my mind. When I finally wrote it, I knew it had to be the first poem of the book—its mix of fantasy, playfulness, seriousness, and strangeness were exactly what I wanted to set the tone for the rest of the work.

As for the cover, Milkweed Editions was kind enough to ask me for suggestions for book covers when we first started working together, and one of the mock-ups I sent was a Warhol-esque rendition of Dolly that I’d found online. At the time, I’d thought this was too much of a long-shot possibility for the cover, but hoped that the image I’d sent at least conveyed the spirit of what I hoped it could be. To my surprise, Milkweed and legendary book designer Mary Austin Speaker were happy to run with the idea, and the rest is history!

In terms of the dichotomous nature of the title, the reason is a little dull, I’m afraid. I was wavering between Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes, and after poking around online and seeing that there were already books out there with those discrete titles, I decided to smush the two contenders together as a solution.

But I think the title also stems from my own admiration of authors who’ve used long-assed titles for their books: Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, Matthea Harvey’s Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, Catherine Barnett’s Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced. I love the audacity of commanding that much space for a poetry book’s title! Even though Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes isn’t nearly as long as these, it’s still more of an expansion from the taciturn-sounding titles of The Diminishing House and The Octopus Game that came before, and I enjoy that.

DC: At the beginning of the section for stereoscopic poems, there is the epigraph that defines the stereoscope as producing a three-dimensional illusion. This tells me that I can read the poem as a tri-dimensional creation and interpret it in three different ways, or as a story with three parts. Poems often have multiple hidden meanings and interpretations, but I found this invented character particularly unique. How and when did the idea for this first come to you? How fulfilling was it to explore it through this specific form? 

NB: I talk about the origins of the poem in a recent interview with Rebecca Morgan Frank in the Adroit Journal:

I’ve been a fan of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte for a long time—his oeuvre is a treasure trove of visual oddities and interrogations of reality very in keeping with Real Phonies. In 2013, I saw a Magritte show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I became fixated on his 1927 painting “Portrait of Paul Nougé” (Nougé was a poet in Magritte’s circle). It’s a double image of Nougé in owlish glasses and tuxedo, in which he appears to be opening a fragment of a door for himself. There was something about the stiff formality of the Nougés in this otherworldly context that made me want to write a poem that takes on their paradoxical nature: a single entity that is also twofold. 

Using the two-column form to explore the nature of the Stereoscopic Man was delightful, strange, and a bit nervous-making. I’d never written in this form before, and as I was working with it, I wasn’t sure if I was pulling it off. I nearly scrapped the whole thing a couple of times, wondering, “What the hell am I even doing here?” But over the years I’ve found that this “What the hell?” thought is usually a sign that I’m headed in the right direction with a piece—the feeling that I’m in a little bit over my head means that I’m probably taking risks that are teaching me something useful.

DC: The epigraphs in Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes often specify location or setting and makes references to other works, but in the last section of the book, they disappear completely. This leads me to wonder about the many purposes epigraphs can serve, both in their presence and in their absence.  Do you see them as preludes or introductions to a piece, and how do you choose to include or exclude them from work that is specifically inspired by something?

NB: That’s a great observation—I never noticed that about the epigraphs in the last section! But it makes sense; the last section is where the speakers are dealing with grief the most directly, so they don’t enjoy the kind of cushion that epigraphs can provide. Epigraphs can often act as mediating forces, placing the work in relation to a cultural object, place, or moment in history. They’re like an explicit anchor that tethers the poem to the world the reader lives in. There are still sneaky signifiers I’m using in that last section via the titles, as in “Dear Bruce Wayne,” or “Nessun Dorma,” but there’s no epigraph acting as a stepping-stone between the title and the body of the poem. So the title of a poem without an epigraph could be like a dock the speaker is diving off of directly into the current of the poem.

DC: In many of your poems, you create intense and exciting images that feel very color-driven. For example, I really enjoyed “The Benevolent Sisterhood of Inconspicuous Fabrications,” with language like the yellow/tan of “linseed oil” and “baroque marble,” the black of milking ink from a cuttlefish sack. A yellowing folio through a “blue monocle,” and a “butter-colored python.” Is the creation of color and image like those intrinsic to you as a writer, and how does it open the space for the story as a whole? 

NB: In the late ‘90’s, when I was starting to take my poetry more seriously, I do remember a certain kind of thrill about consciously, strategically including color in my poems. There was a power in realizing I can put blue here in this line, and green over there in this one, and gray over there, and so on. This was also around the time I was falling in love with writing ekphrastic poetry, and the conversation that the poet could have with a work of art. Even since then, color in poems has always given me an intense pleasure as a writer and a reader.

For “The Benevolent Sisterhood of Inconspicuous Fabrications” in particular, I loved the thought of not only having to get the color of a forged work of art just right, but likely being obliged to use historically-accurate materials to render them as well. So I imagined this house where all of these women forgers live as being a kind of hive of artists that are especially obsessed with color. I enjoyed the opportunity the poem gave me to stick my head nosily into their various rooms and report on what I saw.

DC: In “Exclusive Interview,” it’s exciting how the black-outed sections create space for the reader’s imagination to cycle through questions that complement how that answer came to be. I’m curious about the process of writing this piece. Did you initially have questions that you used as prompts, or is it possible you started with the answers or an idea of them mentally? And if so, did it work better for the poem to start off with answers to hypothetical questions or just to start stand-alone statements and let the questions be up to interpretation?

“Exclusive Interview” came right after I’d drafted an erasure of a National Geographic article about dinosaur feathers; it was a total failure! I still wanted so much to engage with that presence of the redacted text on the page, so eventually I hit upon the idea of not using a pre-existing text, as erasures often do, and instead creating my own text to then “erase.” Nicole Sealey does a version of this in Ordinary Beast, in which she takes a poem from the book (“Clue,” a double-fucking-sestina!), and has a poem right after that’s an erasure of it (“Cue”).

When I was writing the actual poem, I got as far as “Would you like to” for the first question, before I realized I wouldn’t need to write the “real” texts of the questions at all, and then erase them. I saw that it would be more fun to write the answers without having a complete idea of what they’re responding to. I also had in mind a speaker who would be, at times, a little tedious and full of themselves, and would only be half-listening to the questions they were asked anyway; they were more interested in just talking about themselves than actually giving the interviewer the answers they were looking for.

NB: Lastly, what work has notably inspired you recently, and do you have any recommendations for our readers?

I recently read two short story collections that are brain-meltingly good. Lydia Conklin’s Rainbow Rainbow is a collection full of queer/trans/nonbinary characters rendered with extraordinary craft, risk, and compassion. Kate Folk’s Out There is demented and weird, a mix of magical realism, speculative fiction, and a secret third thing, as the Twitter meme says. And these are both books I took out of the library and wound up buying copies of before I’d even finished reading them—I love it when that happens. I’m also reading Emily Pérez’s new poetry collection, What Flies Want, and these poems are literally sharp—the acuity of their observations have made me write “ouch” in the margins. She’s got a poem called “Dinner Conversation” that deals with mental illness, medication and heredity—all things I’m trying to address in my own work, so it’s incredibly galvanizing to watch her write about them with such deftness and heart.

Day’Shawna Courtney is a creative writing student and McNair scholar at the University of Central Missouri.

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