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Interview with Leah Beckhoff

Leah Beckhoff resides in the mountains of Vermont but is originally from Northeast Philadelphia. Every morning she digs a notebook out from under her pillow and records her dreams. “Abandoned Art,” in the Spring 2019 issue of Contrary, is her first publication.

Bridget Bradshaw: First, congratulations on your first publication! How does that feel? Did you submit much before submitting to Contrary?

Leah Beckhoff: Thank you! I feel very lucky.  Sending “Abandoned Art” to you folks was the first, and thus far only, submission I’ve ever made. I am an avid diarist at heart, and it’s only been in the last couple years that I’ve dedicated myself to actually creating “finished” pieces. It took me a long time to gain the courage to step out of the private space of my journal. Having “Abandoned Art” published (and so quickly!) seems to speak to what you can manifest when you push yourself outside your comfort zone. That said, it feels a little bit like a fluke, too. I’m plagued by the notion that I need to “know” more before I’m allowed to use my voice. I wrote this piece all in one breath, only half-aware of what was coming out, which was a new experience for me. Publication of this piece also seems to confirm that my best work doesn’t come from knowledge so much as my unconscious, my core self, my soul, the muses, whatever you want to call it. It’s a relief.

Bridget: “Abandoned Art” is about differing points of view and miscommunication; do you think writing, or art in general, can help bridge gaps like that? If so how?

Leah: Absolutely. If art didn’t bridge the gaps found between us, I don’t think humans would create. There is a limitation to its effectiveness though. If there wasn’t space between us, if we didn’t feel lonely or misunderstood sometimes, there’d be nothing to bridge in the first place. Both are wholly necessary (the gap & the bridge). Or not even necessary, just a fact of our human form. I’m not sure how art does it, but I do believe that those bridges are only made when we’re receptive to them. So much of being human is about choosing what we will and won’t digest. I’ve always perceived open-mindedness to be a virtue. Calling someone close-minded is never a compliment, though there are some subjects I refuse to be open-minded about, like our imperative need to dismantle systems of oppression or that olives are absolutely disgusting (not on the same level, of course). It becomes complicated. In the case of the girl (who I should really be calling a woman, I need to reflect on that diction) and I, I feel closer to her now that we don’t talk to one another, which is painful. I could feel then and I can feel now how similar we were in our own ways, but we couldn’t seem to figure out how to make it work in physical/intellectual/emotional proximity. I think that part of that, on my end anyway, is that at the time of our relationship I believed that communication could solve any and all gaps. It can’t, but we have to try. I suppose that’s why I wrote this piece. To create a bridge that couldn’t be lived out.

Bridget: The girl you talk about never puts her name on any of the things she’s made, is it important to you to claim your work? What is the effect of claiming vs not claiming your work; what does it mean to you?

Leah: When I was only writing in my diary, I dreamed of publication as a sort of salvation. It’s funny to look back at that time now, and realize that I was actually terrified of being seen/heard. I was talking a lot and writing a lot but most of it was disembodied. It wasn’t connected to my gut or my uterus– my intuitive, feeling self. It’s something I’m still working through. I would be lying if I said my ego didn’t want to be the hottest shit there ever was, and gets mighty high when she receives recognition. At the same time, the more I get in touch with who I really am, with the space that lives beneath ego, the more terror I feel at being exposed. In that way, attaching my name to a piece of writing is an act of bravery. I am both. In the case of the girl, I think she liked being anonymous because she could see herself having an effect on the world without the world seeing her. I suppose I romanticized it because at the time I wanted to be seen. I thought it was virtuous, or something. I still see it as beautiful, but in a different way. It was all very earnest of her.

Bridget: You talk about your relationship with words, using them to get to other words; would you say that factors into your writing process?

Leah: Of course! That’s editing. That’s revision. I totally abide by the “stick it in a drawer” advice for first drafts. I find that when I come back to a piece, what I really needed to say still resonates, and what I wrote just to keep my hand moving becomes more obviously unnecessary. I’m still newly acquainted with the revision process, but enjoying it. What’s interesting is that the version of “Abandoned Art” that y’all published is essentially my first draft. You could say that I wrote it once, and now I am done(Is it lame to quote your own piece? Probably).

Bridget: What literary influences do you draw from and see the most in your own writing?

Leah: Oh man, this is such a difficult question. I was just rereading an unfinished short story I wrote about five years ago, and it was so embarrassingly obvious how much I was trying to be like Jack Keruoac. Its rhythm and its overuse of the world holy– not to mention its content (I was hanging out with a bunch of homeless street kids at the time). It’s easier for me to see specific influences in the writing itself in hindsight. Right now I’m obsessed with contemporary poets like Ocean Vuong and Bianca Stone. I suppose I’m interested in the mother wound. I’m also finding myself writing a lot of pieces that are influenced by biblical stories and other kinds of myths. I grew up going to Hebrew school and so those stories are a part of me that feels like it’s always existed. Maybe they’re tied up in the same space where the mother wound lives. In general, I tend to find myself drawn to writing that is personal, confessional. Anything sensuous, embodied. I’m not aware of my exact critical “lineage,” though it’s something I intend to educate myself on.

Bridget: Is there any one thing, a book, a poem, or even a moment that made you want to be a writer?

Leah:In first grade, my teacher, Mrs. Levy, saw me become so engrossed in a writing project that she let me sit in the back of our class and keep working while she went on teaching the rest of the students. This is the origin story I always tell about my beginnings as a writer, but I’ve only really traced it back to that moment in retrospect. At the time the only thing I knew was absorption. Though I wasn’t even aware of myself as absorbed, or even aware that, apparently, I had a lot to say. I just wrote. In 8th grade I read On the Road, and the very famous “only people for me are the mad ones” line killed me. It was the first time I saw my own depths reflected back to me in words. It was a high, the same one we all discover as readers and writers and search for, again and again. In 9th grade a similar experience happened when I read Song of Myself, specifically Section 52: “…If you want me again, look for me under your bootsoles.” It outlined the edges of a mystery I wanted to spend my life solving. In both instances, their words showed me that writing isn’t just about self-expression, but about a kind of transcendence. Words could be a portal to something larger than the words themselves. I feel like a basic bitch for saying that Walt Whitman and Jack Keruoac made me want to be a writer, but it’s how it happened.

Bridget: Are you working on anything now?

Leah: Yes! Right now I am working on starting a blog called “The Body that Writes” (as inspired by a Roland Barthes line from his essay “The Death of the Author”). It will essentially act as a public diary of my process as a writer, reader, and thinker. I’m not sure how to describe it beyond that yet. I’m letting it come together slowly. I have also been writing quite a few poems, and I wouldn’t mind putting together a chapbook in the next year or two.

Bridget: What are you currently reading or what is something you would recommend?

Leah: If you haven’t already, please read Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, specifically his essay “The Guardians.” It articulates the relationship between trauma and art for the artist in such a beautiful, subtle way, that it still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. Chee’s language is stunning, but so much of what he says lives between his words. It’s masterful. I’m so glad this book received the recognition it deserves.