I recently wrote a brief appreciation of Dan Beachy-Quick’s Moby-Dick-inspired book, A Whaler’s Dictionary. Dan’s not only a Moby-Dick enthusiast but is also a widely-published poet whose work has appeared in magazines (e.g. Poetry and The Paris Review) that many talented poets would sell limbs and family secrets to appear in. He’s published four full-length collections of poetry, two chapbooks, and the aforementioned collection of essays about Melville’s classic novel. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he now teaches English at the University of Colorado. He has graciously put up with my nagging him off and on for the last few months and has been kind enough to return thoughtful answers to a few questions I sent his way.
Infinite Zombies: You mention having spent a decade reading Moby-Dick. At what point did you begin to realize that you were going to write a book of your own? How did the idea germinate and blossom? Did you read the book straight through a bunch of times or did you find yourself spending more time on certain chapters?
Dan Beachy-Quick: I first read Moby-Dick after graduating with my BA, feeling cast out of the comfort of the classroom, and more poignantly, feeling that I’d learned enough only to gain some sense of how vast was my ignorance. It was in recognition of how uneducated I felt that I picked up Moby-Dick, feeling I had no right to consider myself a student of American Literature without having read it. I worked at a little café unsupervised by any manager, and drank coffee and read for hours. Moby-Dick became for me the first reading experience in which my only resource for thinking about the book was what I could think myself—there was no class conversation, no teacher as guide, no test to prove to myself I’d understood what I was supposed to understand. It was my first experience of reading as a form of Self-Reliance.
I think it is exactly in that sense of needing to find what work I must do in order to be close to that book, to put myself within its issues more than to understand it, that I first gained the sense of wanting to write about it. That next leap occurred in graduate school, during my MFA, where I began reading M-D again, privately, and quite privately, began writing poems located within the characters and crises of the novel. That book is titled Spell, and it is, in my mind, in the light of how I felt it failed, that I began the work that became A Whaler’s Dictionary. Some six years passed between those projects, maybe more. Writing poems about Moby-Dick took me away—or so it felt—from the questions that I most wanted to address. The poems in the end had to pay heed to their own formal life, to turn toward themselves and away from their original intent. I had hoped that A Whaler’s Dictionary might act as a remedy to the way in which my initial attention swerved.
The idea for the latter came from teaching a graduate seminar at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago on M-D. My effort in the class mimicked my own effort of reading-writing: to find a way for us to put ourselves within the squall of possible meaning, and so within the realm of doubt and inquiry and necessity, rather than to find any objective grounds to form a so-called judgment of the book.
I’ve both read the book through many times—I don’t know how many, as well as returned to certain chapters whose nature particularly compels me. My tendency, though, is to read whole, and to respond in writing as a kind of immediacy to the direct experience of thinking within the work I’m reading. I prefer thinking to having thought, thinking to having had a thought, and want the essays to record the strangeness and difficulty of how thinking undermines certainty even as it tries, valiantly if futilely, to create it.
IZ: Can you say a little bit about how you conducted in-depth reading and annotation of Moby-Dick? Do you dog-ear your books and scrawl in the margins, or do you keep tidy notebooks? Any quirks or peculiarities in (or madness to) your method?
DB-Q: I am not tidy—in part, because I’m not a scholar. I’m a poet, and my copy of Moby-Dick bears the traces of my enthusiasm, a kind of archeology of enthusiasm, marked in creased pages and marginalia in a vast spectrum of ink. Put my copy on its spine, and it will open to certain chapters all of its own—a kind of charmed insistence. The cover is half off, repaired poorly with tape. I make notes in the book as I read, and then go back through the chapters to create a set of notes to put myself more firmly within thinking before teaching. The writing emerges to some degree from both of these processes, but is also a process that drives itself. It is all a very unanchored process, more a devotion than a discipline, and so records a different sort of rigor than more academically oriented work. My method is a kind of madness. Or, as Ishmael has it, “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.”
IZ: If you had to pick a handful of A Whaler’s Dictionary entries you find the most vital, or that you’re the most proud of, or that address things in Melville’s book that really speak to you, which ones would you name?
DB-Q: I don’t have the book in front of me, but the entries that I tend to think the most of are centered in strange ways around the work of writing, feeling, generation, thinking: Wound, Tattoo, Child, Writing, and Silence.
IZ: In the front-matter of your book, you mention a book of Charles Olson’s. I hadn’t known until I began doing my own research for this group read that Olson had been a Melville scholar early in his life. I’ve always known him as a poet. As a widely published poet and a writer with a demonstrable obsession with Moby-Dick yourself, do you have any thoughts about that leap from obsessive Melville scholar to obsessive composer of poetry? Is there a kinship at play here? Do you know of other poets who share the obsession? (Stanley Kunitz comes to mind as a potential candidate.)
DB-Q: Charles Olson has been, and is, a poet very much on my mind—both in terms of his own work on Moby-Dick, Call Me Ishmael, which I have read and taught many times, as well as his Maximus Poems, and the large project of unearthing the mythology and cosmology of a given locality. My process has been somewhat the reverse of Olson’s, concentrating on poetry, and from poetry, turning to the work of writing essays on Moby-Dick. As to what to make of the leap you mention, I do think there is an element in Melville’s novel that encourages—even if in an underground, mostly unconscious way—this risk of radical approach. The novel itself is cobbled together in a dizzying variety of vocal registers and literary approaches, a kaleidoscopic quality that also suggests no one voice is able to bear the weight of the whole project. It is a novel that always seeks to trespass into itself. In some sense, the relation of poetry to scholarship is also involved in such trespass, refusing a descriptive approach in favor of an approach that enacts the issues it describes. I’d love to claim a kinship, but perhaps that is a young poet’s wishful thinking. Olson’s work is work that has imprinted me. There are other poets doing interesting work in and of and around M-D: Deborah Meadows comes immediately to mind, as does the critic K.L. Evans.
IZ: After the miserable reception of Moby-Dick, Melville faded into obscurity, writing just a few more unsuccessful books and resorting at last to poetry, largely unpublished. Do you make anything of this?
DB-Q: I don’t have any unique take on this, save the glib observation of how failure seeks out a respite in poetry—or, that poetry has a more accommodating relationship to failure than does the grandeur of the novel of genius. There is in the story for me—well, the history, really—a kind of Icarus-like parallel. Melville in Moby-Dick, as Olson so vividly points out, is driven not by Daedalus’s inventive heights, but by Shakespeare’s heights and depths, brightnesses and darknesses, and in seeking for himself the same audacious genius, and in accomplishing it, suffered a kind of fall. Here the source isn’t the sun’s heat, but the opposite, the crowd’s freezing indifference, which suffices just as well for the crash. Melville, it feels to me, was writing not only in his time, still so close to the large industry of whaling, but was also writing before and beyond his time, breaking through the cultural confines of his contemporaries in ways either unrecognizable or frankly bewildering to the reading public. But it seems to me that genius works this way—always forcing one to the outside of whatever one is in, be that oneself or one’s time. Genius is a peripheral art, or says the center is elsewhere. Perhaps that center ends up in poetry, that art of the margins.
IZ: I began indoctrinating my children into the church of Moby-Dick from as early in their lives (in the case of my daughter) as the womb. Although it’s a bit bloody, I’ve brought both of mine up on Allan Drummond’s short illustrated adaptation of Moby-Dick. How has the book figured in the reading life of your daughter? (Stated another way: Please tell me I’m not a weirdo.)
DB-Q: Well, you are probably a weirdo, but so am I—and, I suspect the same of pretty much everyone obsessed with this book. My daughter, now 5, has an amazing pop-up version of Moby-Dick that we often read at night. She knows of my love for the book, which instills in her a kind of love. My wife and I are soon expecting a new baby, and Hana makes joke after joke of naming her Ahab, Ahabetta, Ishmaela, and Queeqega. Then she laughs and laughs. I think I’ll wait a little longer to read the whole novel to her—or maybe, I can’t decide, let her discover it for herself, and see if it can be for her what has been for me, the book the showed me the way to the necessity of learning to think for myself.