In the spring of 2014, Devin Becker, digital initiatives and web services librarian for the University of Idaho Library, Moscow, was recognized as an LJ Mover & Shaker for his “transformative” work with the University’s digital collections. Shortly afterward, his debut poetry collection Shame | Shame was selected from a field of 500 manuscripts as the winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Prize from publisher BOA Editions, Rochester, NY. Published in April 2015, the collection has been described by poet Michael Ryan as “a drop-dead funny book about desolation.” LJ recently caught up with Becker to discuss his debut.
LJ: How did you become interested in writing and poetry?
Devin Becker: I had been interested in poetry since I was in high school, and then [as an undergrad at Williams College, MA] I was lucky enough to get to study with Lawrence Raab and, later on, Louise Glück. So I had some really great professors who were difficult, in a good way, in that they really challenged you to think about what you were writing, and the audience that is receiving your writing. That has been a theme throughout my educational career, continuing through my poetry MFA [at University of California, Irvine] but also in library school and the work I do now–the focus on the audience, or user in library terms…. At UC Irvine I studied with Michael Ryan and James McMichael…. During the time I’ve been a librarian I’ve continued to write. That’s one of the reasons I chose [a career in] the library world. There’s lots of people with lots of different passions, who seem to be able to continue to do [creative work]. There’s a good life balance to library work.
Did any of these teachers or mentors offer advice or insights that have stuck with you?
DB: Anyone who teaches has their maxims, the things they say, and it’s interesting to play off of those as a student…. The real thing that I learned, and the one thing that all of them harped on, was the importance of considering the reader. Thinking about how the poem was going out into the world, and not keeping it for oneself…. That’s the goal. That’s the community you want to create—the reader-writer dynamic—and that’s what I’ve found is easily the most rewarding part of [writing] the book. Finding people who really like it and want to talk to you about it.
What inspired this collection?
DB: Many of the poems in this book came out of directed, practiced writing…. A lot of the things are mundane. Me and my coworkers sitting outside of a building having coffee, or my wife and I at a smoothie joint in a nearby town. And I think I started really paying attention to those moments that I hadn’t ever paid attention to before. Something awkward happens. Not terrible, but just a little bit off. And I would come back and really want to write about that. That’s the “Shame” part. Some sort of invisible social cue being played. I thought that was an interesting way to write. To really describe, in minute detail, that moment…. And then the way the book came together was that I wrote [the poems], and then rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it until it was really condensed.
Critical reception of Shame | Shame has been excellent. David St. John describes it in the foreword as “a brilliant debut collection. Here, the prose poem has been reimagined as a cinematic vignette, yet rooted as deeply in the American Northwest as anything in Richard Hugo and David Lynch.”
DB: The prose poem has often been cinematic in my mind, but [this collection] is to an extreme extent, if that makes sense. It’s so focused on describing, in detail… what are very mundane moments that still have quite an effect on the speaker or on the environment of the poem. Giving expansive, detailed attention to those moments…. It was such a great foreword. I was like “wow!” (laughs).
Other critics have praised the collection’s sense of humor. Why do you think it’s important to include humor when writing about serious or difficult topics?
DB: At the good readings people have laughed a lot. It’s self-deprecating, and at times sarcastic or ironic…. That has always been something that I like in other books, a sense of humor. [Kurt] Vonnegut, who was one of the first writers I ever saw read, said that comedy delves the depths that tragedy dare not acknowledge. And I do think comedy can get at some things, in a kind of sideways way, and give a reader a deeper examination of life and the different ways of being that people have.
With this being a debut, what was the process of selecting poems and ultimately getting the collection published?
DB: After I finished my MFA, I had a different manuscript that I sent out [for publication] for several years. I look back on it now, and I don’t think it was particularly that good…. During that time, I started writing this second book, and it came together much more quickly…. Many of the prose poems that make up the book were written together during the same period of time, and so the whole book started to cohere…. The themes were kind of popping all around the book. Poems were playing on poems that came earlier, and back and forth. That was something that had always been described to me as what happens when a book really coalesces….
I had a couple of writer friends help me construct the book and figure out which poems to include. While I was writing it, I had a huge Word document called “cuts,” and it was just versions of poems or whole poems that I was deleting from the manuscript…. I kept building it and building it and building it and then taking things out and throwing them in there. Sometimes I would go back through [the cuts] and salvage material or revise something. It was a gradual, organic process…. Then I worked with Peter Connors at BOA to clean it up and copy edit. We cut some poems that weren’t fitting as well with the book, and he made some really great line edits. And then you keep reading and proofreading it, check over galleys, and then eventually you get a big box of your own book at your door. That was a great day. It happened around the same time our daughter was born, actually.