Nicky Beer is the author of Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes (Milkweed 2022). She is a bi/queer writer, and the author of two other collections of poems, The Octopus Game and The Diminishing House, both winners of the Colorado Book Award. Her awards include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a MacDowell Fellowship, a fellowship and a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a Mary Wood Fellowship from Washington College, a Discovery/The Nation Award, and a Campbell Corner Prize. Her poems have been published in Best American Poetry, Poetry, The Nation, the New Yorker, the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor at the University of Colorado – Denver, where she is a poetry editor for the journal Copper Nickel.
Rebecca Morgan Frank: Film characters, ranging from Duckie from Pretty in Pink to Batman, and film stars, such as Marlene Dietrich, populate your new collection, Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes. What impact has film had on your work?
Nicky Beer: I really admire the compression that the film medium can have, particularly when it comes to certain shots or scenes. The efficiency that a few moments of film can have, in terms of communicating things about narrative, character, context—this is also what my favorite poems do. There’s a scene in Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994) that gets stuck in my head like the chorus of a pop song: Natalie Portman plays a child hanging out on the landing of her apartment building, her nose bloodied by her piece-of-shit dad. Jean Reno, her neighbor and a professional hitman, arrives home, sees her, stops, and hands her a handkerchief. She asks him, “Is life always this hard, or just when you’re a kid?” The camera cuts to a medium close-up of him. He looks directly at her for five seconds before answering, “Always like this.” He never breaks eye contact. There’s a whole world in that pause, and his answer. He may be the first adult who’s ever been truly honest with her. If I can write lines that come anywhere close to being that rich, I’m happy.
RMF: Can you talk more about Marlene Dietrich, who has a significant presence in the book? What draws you to her?
NB: I need to celebrate my bisexual icons whenever I can! But seriously—she was in one of the last poems written for my previous book, The Octopus Game. In that poem, she’s vacationing on the Lido beach in Venice in 1937, thinking about an interaction with a Nazi officer who was trying to convince her to return to Germany and make films in the service of the Reich—this may or may not have actually happened to the real Dietrich. It was research for that poem that got me interested in her life—I’m indebted to Donald Spoto’s excellent biography The Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich. And yet I love how unreliable many of the facts about her life are, due to the half-truths and fibs that she freely circulated about herself during her career. She was a problematic person, to say the least, but fascinating in her unknowability. And I think she, the Hollywood machine, and her fans all built this enigmatic, impossible image together—she was a collaborative piece of art, in a way. (Amanda Lee Koe has a fantastic fictionalized account of her—featuring her later years as a recluse in Paris—in her novel Delayed Rays of a Star, which also features Chinese American film star Anna May Wong and Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl.)
RMF: This book offers a journey from performance to authenticity, while continually interrogating both: it begins with a beehive at Drag Day at Dollywood and ends in the world of grief, of bodily abandonments and remainders, of mortality, yet, as the speaker says, “maybe not / the creepshow I think.” At what point did you know the direction this book was taking?
NB: Thank you so much for seeing that in the arc of the book, which definitely came to me late in its evolution. As I was assembling the poems and potential poems for the manuscript, I was surprised to see how many I had that addressed mortality and grief. This was territory that I’d covered in my first book, The Diminishing House, which is informed by the death of my father. But in that book, I think I was holding the grief more at arm’s length, working more self-consciously to put metaphors between myself and the reader. And it sounds a little funny to say that I’m doing that less in Real Phonies, since I have a poem that is literally titled “Because my grief was a tree”! But to be explicit about the anguish I was feeling at my dying grandfather’s bedside, to have a first-person speaker say bluntly to Bruce Wayne, “My parents are dead, too,” to write a poem in which I directly address that I don’t believe in ghosts—this makes me feel much more exposed than my earlier work. So to me it made sense to put these poems in the last section. But I also wanted to end the book in a place of—not optimism, exactly, but a kind of gratitude for life’s richness, despite all the loss that may come with it. It’s not an accident that the last words of the last two poems—“Specimen #17” and “Revision”—are “yes” and “again.”
RMF: You created a figure called “The Stereoscopic Man” at the center of the book. Can you tell us about him?
NB: I’ve been a fan of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte for a long time—his oeuvre is a treasure trove of visual oddities and interrogations of reality very in keeping with Real Phonies. In 2013, I saw a Magritte show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I became fixated on his 1927 painting “Portrait of Paul Nougé” (Nougé was a poet in Magritte’s circle). It’s a double image of Nougé in owlish glasses and tuxedo, in which he appears to be opening a fragment of a door for himself. There was something about the stiff formality of the Nougés in this otherworldly context that made me want to write a poem that takes on their paradoxical nature: a single entity that is also twofold.
I realized that the oddness of the character I had in mind was going to demand something formally different from anything I’d ever written before—hence the “stereoscopic” form of the poems on the page in two short columns of about identical width. When it came to putting Real Phonies together, I loved the thought of this poem being a stereoscopic entity for the book—that is, it brings the two sections on each side of it together to form a whole, just as stereoscopy brings together two slightly different images to form a three-dimensional visual illusion.
RMF: Let’s talk about “Exclusive Interview.” Did you originally have questions in place as you drafted the poem, or were they always an absence?
NB: I love that you’re asking that! In the earliest draft, the first question I wrote was, “Would you like to xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx?” But I abandoned any specific language for the questions after that, and they all became strings of x’s that I subsequently blacked out. I love erasure poems in general, and I was tickled by the possibility of erasing something that wasn’t actually there. Ocean Vuong does this with footnotes, to a very different and devastating effect, in “Seventh Circle of Earth” from Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016).
RMF: This book is overflowing with vibrant with multi-sensory imagery, from the vomit and grease and glitter in Drag Day at Dollywood to all the synesthesia in “Heart in Tumeric.” What are your sources for your imagery?
My first impulse is to say, “Being a human being in the world!” But this makes me think about the pre-vaccine days of Covid, when my life was largely confined to my house, and if I left it, it was usually via excursions that were meticulously planned to protect against the threat of other people’s bodies. I hate putting it like that, but that’s how it felt: every other human being was a potential vector for disease, and therefore frightening. So it seemed like all of the kinds of human-driven spontaneous and accidental sensory experiences that used to characterize the day for me—bus rides, crowds on campus, grocery shopping, etc.—largely disappeared. During this period, I’d take long walks alone through my neighborhood, and any time a surprise smell would reach me—someone cooking a steak for dinner, a waft of laundry in a dryer—I’d start to tear up. The sight of a green lampshade in a window stayed with me for weeks.
All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that, when writing, I’m at my happiest when I’m finding a place for the daily sensory experiences which relentlessly nag at me to make a space for them on the page.
RMF: Lies and plagiarism find their way into this book: as subjects, of course. So answer this one truthfully, or not. What is the role of truth in poetry? And what is the role of the lie?
NB: Poetry needs to strive for an emotional truth, though it doesn’t need to be factual—and for me, it’s a hell of a lot more fun when it’s messing with facts. And I love research-driven poetry that seriously complicates historical “fact,” particularly in books like Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, and Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard. I think it’s useful to be reminded that our idea of history is significantly shaped by whoever possesses the power to record the narratives and preserve the artifacts.
As for the role of the lie in poetry (barring situations where the lie does actual harm), I want to paraphrase philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit: a liar cares very much about the truth, and therefore works hard to conceal it—i.e. a lie affirms the value of truth. A bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about what the truth is; he says whatever he needs to in a given moment to further his own ends. So poets can be liars in their work, but they should never be bullshitters.
RMF: This book is lively, and full of the unexpected, and it is also deeply lyrical. Who are some of the poets, beyond ones who appear in these poems, who have shaped your approach to the poem, to the lyric, even to the elegy?
NB: Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things (2015) was a huge influence on Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes—I read it while I was trying to figure out what the direction of my third book would be. The way that she marries vulnerability and craft in that book completely knocked me over. Her ruthless self-interrogation alongside her masterful lyricism in made me ask myself “Could I do this? Is something like this possible for me as a writer?” Her work made me willing to write about grief and mental illness in a way I’d never been capable of before.
This question made me look back through my lists of what other poetry I was reading as the book was developing, and my dear friend Catherine Pierce’s The Tornado is the World (2016) jumped out at me. Her capacity for mixing tenderness and humor in her poetry always makes me wildly jealous, which is to say, absolutely inspired. I also found a quote I’d written down from Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s “Fifteen Elegies” in Cenzontle (2018). “These are the rules you’re expected to follow: // Either praise the beautiful / or praise what is left over. // Choose the one that is most like a bridge. // Soak your hands and face in it.” This idea of interrogating the “rules” of the elegy, and allowing room for the transgressive was definitely on my mind in poems like “The Poet Who Does Not Believe in Ghosts,” and “Elegy,” where the first line is “I never liked the dead boy.”
RMF: Who are your favorite Real Phonies? What about Genuine Fakes?
This is where I need to make my customary shout-out to Tom Waits, whose 40+ year music career is full of tall tales, shaggy dog stories, personae, and shape-shifting. I’m resisting the urge to tediously enumerate a litany of his songs that exemplify this, so I’ll just recommend “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” and leave it at that. I wouldn’t be the poet I am without the influence of his work.
And I know that the heyday of molecular gastronomy has largely passed, but I still love the sheer playfulness of chefs who use illusions in their dishes. I went to a Michael Voltaggio restaurant years ago, and I still think about being served what looked like a pile of charcoal lumps, which were actually roasted potatoes colored with squid ink. Or the pintxo I had in San Sebastián that looked like a giant lemon, but was a lamb meatball wrapped in a saffron-tinted dough.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Macrocilix maia, a moth whose wing markings have evolved to look, from above, like two flies eating bird shit. A fakery legend!