INTERVIEW WITH EBEN E. B. BEIN
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “Missed calls,” we’re intrigued by the emphasis of the number eight. Does that number represent something specific in the speaker’s relationship with their mother?
Eben E. B. Bein: At first glance, the number 8 feels arbitrary to me—there just happened to be an eight sitting in some of the life events that prompted me to write. But numbers are curious things in poems. I think poets have a sort of duty to honor and reinforce the mystical properties of their subjects as they write and edit. Our brains are always grasping for meaning. A number seemed an important psychological lifeline for a speaker who is trying to find meaning in a disorienting moment of being estranged and also missing their parent.
Also, my phone number has five 8’s in it. And I love spiders.
RR: We enjoy the emphatic fragmentation in the very short stanzas. What inspired the decision to keep them so brief?
EEBB: I’ve heard it said of couplets that no sooner has the stanza started, then it’s ending. This poem explores what ends and what doesn’t end in relationships—I think that’s part of why the fragmentation feels so right.
That said, I don’t like to pretend that I knew short, fragmented couplets were “the answer” going into the poem. The stanzas first came out more chronologically and in multiple lines. But as I edited I noticed individual lines were tugging to get free of their stanzas and stand on their own. “I liked that” & “I have never stopped calling” left a lump in my throat that I wanted to honor with white space. I ended up following that tug to its conclusion, pulling stanzas apart until a pattern started to develop—couplets and single lines in tension with each other like people separated.
Lastly, it became clear that the poem was calling for the same pattern on a larger scale—a memory-like sense or order that flashes around rather than something rational and chronological. The result, I think, reads like a person alone unable to have a complete conversation with the person they miss.
RR: In addition to your poetic endeavors, you are also a climate justice advocate. How do you feel those two areas of your life intertwine with one another?
EEBB: I admit that I often think of my artistic endeavors (poetry, music, art, etc.) as counterpoints to my “work” and a chance to rest, disrupt my own patterns. And—communication is the centerpiece to anything I do.
Both in organizing and in poetry, I’m interested in language that opens and complicates a narrative without paralyzing people. The speaker of the poem is wrestling with drawing a boundary with a parent—a fraught action that can be necessary but still has its consequences. While writing, I felt the poem (re)teaching me that a single action in a relationship never fully erases the history or fundamental structure of that relationship. Life is too complex for us to affect that completely. And still we should try.
In climate justice organizing, this looks like surrendering to the ecosystemic nature of solutions. We are all tugging on and supporting and overlapping with one another as we fight for climate justice—there aren’t “right answers,” “good tactics,” or “bad people.” On the other hand, there are real consequences to every tactic we use in organizing—just as the poem tries to face exactly what the Mom character said, what the child did, and the consequences of their language and actions.
RR: In your bio you mentioned that you are currently finishing up your first full-length collection From the top of the sky. What has this experience been like for you?
EEBB: It has been a necessary, beautiful, and transformative part of my own grieving process around parental estrangement. Like with many pieces of art, the creation process has been a strange blend of play, craft, and therapy. I often find myself asking which parts of what I create are for me and which parts can be of service to others.
But the boundary between those parts is not always clear. So I often turn to art that moves me for discernment. For instance, Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, about surviving divorce, has been a life-changing piece of art for me. I so hope that this collection, when it’s finally done, will offer the sort of alchemical healing to others that Olds offered to me—a refusal to see things as a single person’s fault, a tenacity to survive and make one’s own meaning, and a willingness to look at pain for so long it turns beautiful.
RR: Can you tell us more about your ivy plants?
EEBB: Honestly, they struggled this winter and are looking a little yellow even since repotting them. But they are not dead yet and, thanks to my husband who tends all multicellular life forms in our apartment, our bonsai are flourishing.
Read “Missed Calls” by Eben E. B. Bein.