John Beer

recorded in Chicago, IL

 

A Step Away From Them by Frank O’Hara

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John Beer

I am John Beer and I live in Chicago, which is a little surprising. I am originally from, or grew up in, upstate New York—which is where I’m going tomorrow—near Syracuse. And when I was growing up Syracuse was actually kind of The City, sadly enough. I think it was always in the back of my mind, you know—the expectation was always that I would end up in New York. And so how I ended up in Chicago is that I—first of all, I ended up in the Midwest ‘cause I went to graduate school in Iowa. And surprisingly found it congenial. It was really nice, I liked being in Iowa City, and when I graduated from there, I first went—I spent two years living in Greece, working for a poet named Robert Lax—who’s got the dedication, or one of the dedications, in the book. And when I came back from Greece, and this would be in ’98. Ugh. [Laughs.]

I didn’t have anything in particular to do, or it was fairly open as far as where to go or what to do. And the only plan I had at that point was I was gonna go, you know, get a day job and be a writer. Which is kind of what I’d been doing for the last couple years, so it didn’t seem that unrealistic necessarily. And I was sort of thinking that I would go to either New York or San Francisco ‘cause those are the places that you really should go [laughs] if you’re gonna—to be around a lot of poets. And um, but that was, it wasn’t just me making that decision, and so my girlfriend at the time, you know, sort of said, “No, we’re not gonna—I won’t go to either of those places,” and so we sort of settled on Chicago as a bit of a compromise. ‘Cause it’s a big city, and we knew people ‘cause some people had, you know, I think every year some people move from Iowa to Chicago, it’s so close. Um…is this boring? [Laughs].


The Knox Writers’ House

[Laughs.] No, no, no, no, no. This is exactly what we want.


Beer

[Laughs.] It seems a little boring to me. But so we moved here and fairly quickly, surprisingly quickly, we both got jobs teaching at a college in town—a place called Robert Morris College, which has a campus downtown. So that seemed pretty good.


KWH

Yeah.


Beer

It was composition and it was very heavy teaching load, but still. I had thought it’d be a lot harder to get a teaching job. And then it turned out I really liked teaching. I had taught at Iowa and had been a little lukewarm about that whole experience, but for some reason this clicked much more. Maybe I was older or it was a different kind of student body, too. At any rate, I decided after a year or so that if this was gonna be my career—which, you know, when I first came back here, as  a bit of a digression, there was this very weird month or two and you know, this is what happens, as you know, or will soon find out, I guess, you know, you graduate from a program, from college or from graduate school and if you don’t have something set up, you go through these sort of weird, transitional phases. So I went through this period where I was interviewing for all kinds of strange jobs. Like, I had met this guy in Greece whose brother-in-law has a trading company here and he set up an interview with me but it was sort of weird ‘cause I felt it was too awkward to even ask him for a job, it was so strange, and he was sort of like, “What are you doing in my office?” But there was this terrifying experience, actually. He saying, “What do you want to do, blah, blah, blah” and ultimately, I sort of ended up saying I wanted to, you know, make it into advertising. And so he gets on the phone and calls the president of some ad agency and is like, “You go there tomorrow; you’re gonna talk to this guy.” And it was actually very generous, he was really nice.


KWH

Did you actually want to go into advertising at the time?


Beer

You know, yes and no. I mean, in some ways, obviously, it’s very—it’s good money. And I was thinking I didn’t want to just—you know it’s such a, almost cliché, to do to do the academic route that I…But there’s a lot of reasons not to do advertising too. But yeah, he was a very generous guy and he actually spent a lot of time, we went through like two or three meetings where I made up this fake portfolio of ads and he critiqued them. And then I got this teaching job. So anyway, I was doing a lot of that kind of weird exploratory stuff, then I got this job. Then I decided I should go back to school and get a PhD—if I’m going to be an academic, actually be an academic, you know. And that’s been a process that’s still continuing. I think this is year nine in my program at Chicago. I’ve been ABD for a while but I’m wrapping it up. So that, in a very very long form, is the story of how I came to Chicago. I did move away for a couple of years, recently. I was in New York from 2006 to 2008 and I came back. And I have a day job here too as a theatre critic—that’s where I was today and yesterday.


KWH

Do you work with a specific paper?


Beer

With TimeOut Chicago, yeah.


KWH

I think Nick mentioned that.


Beer

Yeah, I was a freelancer for them for—they’ve been around for five years—except for the time in New York I’ve been freelancing for them from the start and then I got hired onto staff last year. So as far how it affects my writing or what’s the influence on it, I think it definitely makes a difference. Two things I would say, initially, then maybe open it up, but number one is the landscape. As with anything, the landscape of your environment is gonna, hopefully—at least I’m the sort of writer where that’s important. Even though I think I’m, not necessarily a traditionally descriptive or, you know, “Here I sit in my yard and let me think about things that matter,” still, I think that various landscapes are really significant to me and bubble up in the writing in different ways. Like the wintry environment of upstate New York and the months and months of snow and grey sky is always there, and the rock and the water, the real sublimity of the Greek landscape which, I was only there for two years, but you know, it makes an impact.


KWH

Yeah.


Beer

And then the Chicagoan, the particular sort of urban environment of Chicago, which is…vastness. The scale, in the sense of it just spreading out in all directions, the broadness of the avenues, things like that. And yeah, that matters. So that’s the first answer. Then, as far as the actual writing community in Chicago…

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