Bruce Beasley talks walking as writing, prayer as evoking, and artistic doppelgangers with associate editor Laurel Roth. 

Bruce Beasley is the author of nine collections of poems, including most recently Prayershreds (Orison Books, 2023) and All Soul Parts Returned and Theophobia, both from BOA Editions.  He has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Artist Trust and three Pushcart prizes.  He recently moved to Asheville, North Carolina and is an emeritus professor at Western Washington University.

Laurel Roth: I wanted to begin by asking you if you could tell me a little bit about how the project of Prayershreds began. What was the seed that germinated into this collection? 

Bruce Beasley: Prayershreds started during quarantine in 2021. I was teaching a Zoom poetry class, and we were talking about metaphor and self-portraiture, and I gave the students an impromptu assignment to define themselves in a single image. So, the prompt was, “I am____,” and they had to fill in the blank not with a discursive statement but with a metaphor. I told the students, “Try to surprise yourself. What are you at your core? What are you that people don’t know you are?” Well, I did it with them, and I wrote, “I am words in a language I don’t speak.” And that became the first line of the book. I get most excited when I’m surprised by what I’m writing, and, at the time, I had no idea what I meant by that, though I sensed in some way it was important, and true. I wanted to figure out, “What does that mean?” Looking back, I think that became the initial moment where I felt the book coming to be right in front of me. 

And so, the first poem in Prayershreds, “Self Portrait,” came out of that—the idea that we don’t know ourselves, that we’re strangers to ourselves and that we’re always in the process of trying to make sense of who we are, why we’re here, and what we mean. “I am words in a language I don’t speak//a dead one//Are/they even words?” (2). And how can you read the world when you don’t know how to read your own self? So, it began as a book about that feeling of estrangement from yourself and other people, which certainly had a lot to do with quarantine and Covid. During that time, I felt so many millions of miles away from anyone else except my wife Suzanne, almost never seeing other human beings in person. There was a feeling of forgetting how to talk to people, forgetting who I was in relationship to other people, and a feeling of distance from myself and from God. That all started to cohere for me with the other poems I’d been writing, the ones in this book—a sense of reaching. How do you reach into yourself enough to know yourself? How do you reach out into the spiritual in order to feel a meaningful connection with a god?  

LR: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about the concerns of this collection as a lens through which to think back on quarantine. I’m fascinated by what you’re saying about trying to find ways to both connect to other people and also to connect to yourself, because that feels so tied to the idea of prayer which is obviously a central theme in the book. And I’m curious—what role does devotion, if that’s the right word, play in your life as a person and as a poet? What ways do you connect to yourself, particularly during a time when you’re isolated? 

BB: Yeah, that’s a great question, and “devotion” is exactly the right word for me. It’s interesting—a lot of the poems in the book concern that sense of being radically alone, as we all were during quarantine, but also that sense of being alone with yourself, your own mind, your own thoughts, your own understanding of the cosmos. It’s an odd thing to do, praying. I prayed more regularly during quarantine than usual for me, and it made me realize that when you’re praying, you’re doing some weird things. For one, you’re evoking a God who in many religious traditions is everywhere, is omnipresent. And why do you have to invoke something that is always in front of you? Why do you have to call into being what’s already there? And I was thinking about how it’s not so much calling up God’s presence as bringing yourself into awareness of that omnipresence. It’s changing yourself to pray, not changing God. There’s a spiritual reality that’s always there, but we’re usually too busy or distracted to pay any attention to it. 

LR: Would you say that’s part of what calls you to write poetry? Does poetry feel like a form of prayer to you? 

BB: Absolutely, yes it does. In an odd way, I feel most spiritual and most joyful when I’m writing. I think it has to do with the fact that, for me, writing is such a spiritual practice, so self-anchoring as a way of calling myself into something more than the moment to moment. Flannery O’Connor, who’s one of my favorite writers, said something like, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are astonished at the fact that the universe exists and those who aren’t.” Something to that effect. And I think prayer brings me back into that state of, “Oh my God, I exist! The universe exists. There’s consciousness. There’s awareness.” At this moment, my cat is rolling on his back and purring wildly, and there’s such a thing as a cat—it’s incredible! I mean it really is incredible that there are beings at all, but we’re usually too busy to be in that state of radical awareness of existence. 

LR: Yeah, a sort of “wonder.”  

BB: Yeah—even the fact that writing exists when it could easily have been otherwise. That’s another thing to think about in terms of that line—“I am words in a language I don’t speak.” What would it mean to be words? Words are these vessels of communication, but they’re also marks on a page or sounds in the air. They are so replete with possibility, but only if you learn how to read them. A word in a language you don’t know is a word devoid of meaning in a sense. It’s pregnant with meaning, but you don’t have the means to bring that pregnancy to term in a way. That’s a feeling that often haunts me about language—every word, every syllable is a container of intense possibility. When I’m writing that possibility starts to bloom in front of me, and I love that feeling.  

LR: Yeah, that was actually a question I had for you because there’s something that seems almost playful about your writing to me in certain ways. It’s dealing with very heady and serious ideas, but it’s also not afraid to experiment. I’m thinking about your illustrative use of the page in poems like “Disconnected Limbs Wandered Seeking Everywhere for Union” or the way you juxtapose those close homophones, “clef” and “cleft” or “hymen” and “hymn,” in “And Though This World Should Threaten to Undo.” It really does feel like you’re always aware of language as this material thing. And so, I guess I’m wondering if you could speak more about that and also if that does feel like play to you. Does play have a role in your writing practice?  

BB: I’m glad you said that. “Playful”—I like that, and I very much feel that way. It’s a serious kind of play for me but definitely a form of play. And that “Disconnected Limbs” poem is actually an older one that I wrote around 2015, which I hadn’t been able to fit into another manuscript. But after I got the idea for this book, that it was going to be about prayer as a form of reaching out to God, to yourself, and to other people but also about language itself being a kind of prayer, the words reaching out for meaning and meanings reaching out for the words, I thought “Here, finally, is the place to put this poem.” The idea of the poem comes from that Empedocles fragment, which imagines that, in the beginning, bodies were just made up of stray parts that found themselves coming together. And I thought, what if I did that with words? What if I started with single syllables that had no significance but gradually turned into words? And then the words turned into phrases that turned into sentences that turned into lines and gradually groped their way toward meaning? Once I realized that, this poem came to embody a lot of the concerns of the rest of the book. The assignment I gave to myself in this poem was to start with single syllables and riff on words and other syllables that sounded like them, and every syllable I used had to occur elsewhere in the poem in a different combination. Looking at the opening lines, I wanted to start with the idea of being on the verge of language, on the verge of meaning, on the verge of the creation of the universe: 


vir urge  e ve merge vermerge virurge  gorge a 

rose er roserosar   y se 

 er            searsere 


 searose arkdark                 (27) 

I just let the words grope toward each other to see if they can find a way of getting along and making sense. A lot of them are rhyming one syllable with another like “e” and “se.” Then “rose” starts to grope toward “rosary,” “se” and “er” toward “sear” and “seer,” “sea” calls up “ark,” and, all of a sudden, we’re in a kind of Noah’s ark of syllables. And that for me was a form of linguistic play that was kind of thrilling to work with—the sense that syllables could come together by sound and form bodies of unity that eventually became words. 

LR: Yeah, I’m really glad that we dug into this poem a little bit more because it’s wonderful to hear you talk about the collection as a macrocosm, but then the structuring metaphors of the collection are so present in the microcosm as well. One such metaphor that I feel so much in this poem is the idea of fragment. The first way I encountered your writing was actually through your 2017 collection, All Soul Parts Returned, and it’s interesting to see you revisiting some of the themes that you explored in that book here but in very different kinds of formal engagement. Could you tell me a little bit about your understanding of fragment as it connects to both language and spirituality, since it seems like those ideas are closely tied together for you? 

BB: Yes, that’s a wonderful question, and I’m glad you connected to All Soul Parts Returned. Those poems are pushing at the shamanist notion of the soul as fracturable as opposed to in Catholic traditions where the soul is unbreakable. I think there’s all kinds of fracture that we live with and make our lives out of linguistically but also emotionally and spiritually. I was talking before about that sense of groping toward other people, groping toward God, groping toward ourselves, but I’m also interested in the idea of language groping toward other words, because a poem, whatever else it is, is always an affinity between sounds, of sounds gravitating to each other out of resemblance, through homophones, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance. So, for me, it’s always like lines of a poem are a pulling together of things that are similar and want to be matched with their like.  

The title of this book, Prayershreds, actually came out of a series of wordplays. While I was writing the poem “Loathsome Repetitions,” I was looking at various translations of the same passage in one of the psalms: “I cried unto the Lord with my voice, with my voice unto the Lord did I make my supplication.” There were about thirty different translations of that same line, and they were all completely unique. For “supplicate,” another translation had “I poured out my troubles” or “I poured out my complaint,” and one of the older translations read, “I shedded out my prayer.” I thought that was so beautiful, and it’s also the way I feel about prayer sometimes—like it’s a part of me that’s just got to go and pour itself out, drop itself off like a snakeskin. But then, playing by sound, allowing the sounds to suggest other sounds, I came from “shedded out my prayer” to “prayershreds.” And that’s how the title of the book came into being. I think it gets at the idea that, whether you’re praying to a God or to somebody you love, there’s always this attempt to wholly understand the object of your devotion, and that’s a very difficult thing to do.  

LR: Yeah, like you said at the beginning, how can we expect ourselves to understand the world and other people if we can barely understand our own being? 

BB: Right. So, the concept of the book I was beginning to work with when I wrote “Loathsome Repetitions” was that our prayers are always in shreds. Language itself is shredded into words, into syllables, into phrases, even into letters or sounds. And, especially in poetry, we’re so attendant to the atoms of language and what a sound is—like the word “sea” or “see” or “c.” That sound is multiple and shredded into pieces in a way. How can we take the material of ourselves, of our emotions, and of language and form something coherent out of it? So, these poems are sort of oblique prayers I guess that acknowledge their own brokenness. 

LR: I love that. And I think that we need to acknowledge our own brokenness in order to really see ourselves, so it’s great that you’re doing that work in so many ways in your life. It certainly comes through in the poetry, and I did notice how sonic your poems are. They really live not just on the page but also in the realm of the auditory. How does that play into your practice of poetry? Do you find that you read your poems aloud to yourself a lot while you’re writing them?  

BB: Yes, I always speak every line I’m writing aloud because, to me, a line of a poem has as a dual existence—the silent reading and the vocal reading. Poetry’s so much about the music of syllables and stresses and rhymes. I always know I’m getting close to the final draft of a poem when I can recite it from memory without having tried to memorize it. I write a lot when I’m walking, and, when I walk, I recite poems I’m working on out loud over and over. Something about the rhythm of walking and the rhythm of the lines together is really useful to me. But I’m always having these weird experiences. Like I was walking my dog late one night on a really dark street, and as I turned a corner, I almost bumped into this other couple walking their dog, saying something like (quoting Kierkegaard) “The whole of existence frightens me, from the smallest fly to the mystery of the Incarnation….” Whoo! God knows what those people thought. 

LR: Hah! That’s amazing. One thing I kind of miss about wearing masks all the time is that you could mutter to yourself without getting strange looks. But it’s cool that you have that practice of recitation—that’s something I very much relate to. I have one last question for you. I was really interested in the way that you included the sculptor Bruce Beasley in this collection. Throughout the poems, you have these homophones or close homophones in the language, and he feels almost like a personal homophone for you. What was it like initially finding out that you had this artistic doppelganger in the world? And why did his work feel important to include in Prayershreds? 

BB: Well, I first discovered his work when a colleague of mine knocked on my office door with an Art in America magazine in his hand and said, “I didn’t know you were a sculptor,” and he showed me this feature on Bruce Beasley. I loved his work as soon as I saw it. After that, I had this long-standing idea to write a poem called “Doppelganger Self Portrait,” where I would begin with the fact that the words that formed his identity, Bruce Beasley, and the words that formed mine were the same words. And, speaking of being words in a language I don’t know, his sculpture became a kind of version of me that I was unfamiliar with. So, the idea was to read my self-portrait in his work by looking at the things he was doing with abstract shape. It felt natural to me to try to write a series of poems based on the forms and the structures of his sculptures. I actually took a trip to California and drove around to look at several of his most monumental pieces—some of his work is absolutely enormous. But I didn’t have the nerve to introduce myself to him. Then, one day, I got a huge package in the mail, and it was from Bruce Beasley. And I thought, well, this is a package that’s been returned to me, but it turned out it was from him. He wrote and said, “I don’t know how you feel about sharing a name with a sculptor, but I love sharing my name with a poet,” and he sent me this huge retrospective of his work. So, we started corresponding and then working together, and it’s been wonderful. 

LR: What a great story. 

BB: So, anyway, thinking about the otherness of self, I believe I have an epigraph from Carl Jung to that poem “Not Easily Pulled Asunder” that speaks exactly to what I was trying to get at with these Bruce Beasley poems: “…where I am indivisibly this and that; where I experience the other in myself and the other-than-myself experiences me.” So, in these poems, I’m reaching toward a Bruce Beasley who is not me but still contained in the syllables of the name “Bruce Beasley.” 

Laurel Roth (she/they) is a poet from Albuquerque, New Mexico. As of now, she is an MFA candidate in poetry at CSU, an editorial assistant for Colorado Review, and a composition instructor. Their work has appeared in or is forthcoming in F(r)ictionThe Imaginable, and Passengers Journal. She has attended Tin House, Aspen Words, and the Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference.