Today, TLY has the distinct honor of interviewing poet Beth Copeland, author of the recently released Blue Honey, which won the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. The daughter of missionaries, Beth grew up in places far and near, and in Asia in particular. We are so glad she agreed to chat with us.
Beth, here at the blog, we love to hear stories about people’s travels. Do you enjoy traveling either in the States or abroad?
BETH: Traveling is stressful for me. I travel to visit my children and other family members and occasionally take vacations with my husband, but I’m more relaxed at home.
TLY: You were raised in Japan and India, for the most part. You may have returned to either of those countries. If so, where to? If not, why not?
BETH: I traveled to Japan with my sister Rebecca Copeland about ten years ago. As a professor of Japanese literature, she travels to Japan frequently and is fluent in Japanese, so she was my tour guide as well as my companion. It was the first time I’d been back to Japan since I was 13. Returning to my birth place helped me reconnect to the child I’d been when I lived there. I lost most of the language when we moved to the United States, but the words sounded familiar and comforting. I’m grateful I had an opportunity to go back.
I haven’t been back to India since I left at age 13. I’m 67 now and doubt I will ever return.
TLY: One of the themes of your work is feeling alienated from the United States because you were away so often as a young child. What is it like to feel like a foreigner in your own country?
BETH: My older sister tells a story about a bon voyage party a missionary woman gave for my family when we left Japan. The woman said, “The Copelands are going home,” and I responded with, “But this is my home.” In Japan, I was a gaijin, a foreigner, but it was the only home I knew. We moved to a small town in North Carolina where I looked like the other children, but I didn’t feel as if I belonged.
When I was in 7th grade, we spent a year in Varanasi, India. No one prepared me for the culture shock I would experience there. In the United States, I was used to riding my bike by myself, coming and going with freedom, having friends over for sleepovers, and so on. But in India I didn’t go out without a chaperone, and my attempts to socialize with Indian girls my own age were not successful. To be honest, it was a pretty miserable year for me. I was depressed by the suffering I saw—hungry children begging and sleeping in the street—and frustrated because as a child myself, I was powerless to help them. At the time, I was too young to appreciate the opportunity I’d been given to immerse myself in another culture. I yearned for what many 7th-grade girls want—friends, activities, school—so I looked forward to going “home” and resuming the life I’d left.
When we returned to North Carolina, I experienced reverse culture shock. It was 1964, and I didn’t know who the Beatles were. I’d been isolated from other American teens and from Western popular culture during the year abroad. I didn’t know what the new slang expressions meant, my clothes were out of style, and I was behind in math because I hadn’t attended school in India. Reentry was more difficult than the culture shock I’d experienced when I went to India. I discovered that the “home” I thought I had was no longer my home.
A few years later, the Beatles went to India and, suddenly, Indian music and culture became popular among people my age. Who’d have guessed I was cool before it was cool to be cool? Ha, ha, ha.
TLY: There is a lovely quote in Blue Honey from E. Luther Copeland, which reads: “All you pray for at this age is a peaceful hour in which to change worlds.” Who is E. Luther Copeland? What did he hope for in this world and the next?
BETH: E. Luther Copeland is my father. That quotation is from a memoir he wrote when he was in his 80s. He was thinking about his death and the afterlife. As a devout Christian, he believed he would be reunited with God and with loved ones in heaven. Maybe the transition he anticipated would be like traveling to another country, one he hadn’t visited yet.
TLY: “Sandhills Gold” is a remarkable poem; it is based on a memory of the poet’s father, who was a beekeeper and his daughter, who recalls in the first lines: “The year Daddy died, beekeepers found blue/honey in their hives.” Would you mind telling us what is it about blue honey that resonates so deeply in the poem?
BETH: Blue honey is in the poem for several reasons. First, it’s found only in the region of North Carolina where I currently live—the Sandhills—and I wanted to ground the poem in the place that has become my home. Second, it’s mysterious and rare. Third, I like the pairing of “blue” with “honey” because it’s unexpected and because the two words reflect the mood of the poem. “Blue” because it’s an elegy, and “honey” because the memory is sweet.
TLY: You write unflinchingly about childhood, family, marriage—and all in a quite personal way (stylistically as well as concerns the content). Some would categorize your work “confessional” for this reason. Do you think of yourself as a confessional poet?
BETH: I’ve never cared for the term “confessional poetry,” because to me, “confessional” suggests that one is seeking forgiveness or atonement for a sin or a crime. I don’t think the so-called confessional poets—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass—were seeking absolution in their poems. They were telling the truth about their lives. Some of the poems in Blue Honey follow that tradition—“What I Remember When He Dies,” “Pretty,” “Cleave”—but in others—“Mnemosyne’s,” “Lost Rings,” “Release”—the “I” is absent. I write about my experiences, but I also write about other people’s lives, nature, and ideas.
TLY: Memory figures widely throughout the poems in Blue Honey because it is a book that deals with Alzheimer’s disease. Did you feel that because so many memories were being lost that it was important to preserve them?
BETH: When I was writing the poems, I was processing what was happening to my parents and grappling with how their memory loss affected my relationships with them. I was also aware that not only were their memories fading, but my memories of them were slowly fading, too. I was going through a prolonged grieving process as they slowly disappeared. I wanted to preserve whatever I could before it was too late.
TLY: As mentioned, you were raised by missionaries. How has being the child of missionaries affected your world-view?
BETH: I was fortunate to grow up with an awareness of the global community. Because my family had close ties on two continents, I learned to straddle those worlds at an early age, never fully belonging in either culture but having a foothold in both.
On the other hand, the religiosity of missionary culture was confusing. I was taught to be respectful of other faiths and met many non-Christians who were ethical, compassionate people. Therefore, the presumption that people in other countries should abandon their own religious traditions and accept Christianity seems arrogant to me. I’ve given up my childhood faith. I’m no longer a religious person.
TLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Your work is poignant and memorable. Before we let you go, would you care to share any future projects you are working on?
BETH: Recently, I wrote a stage play based on Blue Honey. Some of the poems—“Sunrise: Lunch,” “Dial M for Memory,” and “Kintsugi”—have conversational passages that were easily transformed into dialogue. Currently, I’m working on some poems about sight that were inspired by my cataract/glaucoma surgery last summer. It’s still too early to know where those poems are going. For now, I’m just along for the ride.
Beth Copeland is the author of three full-length poetry books: Blue Honey, recipient of the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize (The Broadkill River Press 2017); Transcendental Telemarketer (BlazeVOX books 2012); and Traveling through Glass, recipient of the 1999 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award (Bright Hill Press 2000). Her poems have been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies and have been featured on international poetry websites. She has been profiled as poet of the week on the PBS NewsHour website. Beth teaches creative writing at St. Andrews University and lives in a log cabin in rural North Carolina.
for purchase Blue Honey
for purchase Transcendental Marketer
for purchase Traveling Through Glass