Sean Bentley in conversation with Judith SkillmanSpring 2023
Beth Bentley was an award-winning poet and educator who lived and worked in the Pacific Northwest and whose work appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Poetry, The Atlantic, Paris Review, Poetry Northwest, and The Nation. The author of numerous collections, she taught poetry for over 30 years, including at the University of Washington, Kirkland Arts League, Tacoma Public Schools and Lake Washington School District, and at the Cornish College of the Arts. She passed away in 2021.
Earlier this year, the independent press Pleasure Boat Studio, located in Seattle, published Missing Addresses, a long-awaited collection of Bentley’s poetry and the final manuscript she assembled. The wide-ranging poems of this volume reflect on Bentley’s deep love of art and philosophy, crystalline remembrances of family, and on the lives of cultural figures from history. They explore her Jewish heritage, her fierce feminism, and her perception of herself from an early age as an “outsider.” The collection was edited by Beth Bentley’s son, Sean Bentley, who is also a poet.
On the occasion of this publication, Sean Bentley spoke with Judith Skillman, a poet and a former student of Beth’s. Skillman is herself the author of more than twenty full-length collections of poetry, most recently, Subterranean Address—New & Selected Poems.
Hi Sean. It’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to ask you some questions about your mom’s—Beth Bentley’s—poetry collection, Missing Addresses, which I found very moving. It turns out that I am a beneficiary of Beth’s teachings, since I took classes from her at the University of Washington during the early eighties through 1990. What a long time ago that was, and yet I can picture her at the head of the long table as if it were yesterday, shepherding us through exercises and poems.
Many of the observations in this volume are those of a painter. “Light in Autumn” is a painter’s study of reflection. One of the questions I have pertains to your mother’s love of visual art, and her engagement with art as an artist and art historian. Can you tell me more about the classes she took, and whether she talked about her own work with you and other family members?
But I think that she, despite being extremely language-focused, had a strong visual way of learning and appreciating the world. Even in the poems that don’t deal explicitly with an artist or piece of art, she uses a vocabulary of color, light, texture, and shadow to fill out a rich, complete, and nonabstract picture, if you will, of even the most abstruse subject.
How interesting that she didn’t talk to her family about work in progress! One of the things I most admired about Beth is that she listened more than talked. That is a stoic facility, and she was stoic in the virtuous sense of the word.
There is an ekphrastic poem, “The Blind Botanist,” after a lithograph by Ben Shahn, and other pieces whose subject matter is art, such as “Two for Magritte.” Some of my favorite lines in the latter are: “If a violet grew here, it would be stone, / mud-yellow like a dusty star.” (The Song of the Violet). Are there poems about visual art that you recollect her working on, and, if so, was the artwork in your original home?
Although not technically an art historian, Beth had an intense interest in all sorts of art, from Egyptian and Etruscan to impressionism, art nouveau, surrealists such as Rene Magritte, and Jewish art. Our house was full of Klee, Schiele, Kollewitz, Baskin, and Ben Shahn framed prints, among many others. The artwork stood for, exemplified, those periods of history and the people and occurrences that populated them. Although I think she read little history per se, she read biographies of artists and writers, and many of her poems were based on quotes from, incidents in the lives of, and the works of, artists and their coterie—written, not infrequently, as dramatic monologues in the artist’s voice.
So, her “painting” poems typically don’t simply describe the piece, as many ekphrastic poems do, but root around in the experience of the piece—her own or the artist’s; they use the art as a jumping-off place for further exploration and association. In most of her work there are multiple layers playing off each other.
Yes, association is certainly Beth’s strong suit.
I was really taken with the heron—with its view as it rises in “Sighting.” This poem has such a conspiratorial opening, and then there is the signature Bentley shift in perspective, until “extended like a sensor, / sussing out the slightest modulation / of the water, a shadow, a scent….” Sibilance. Music is everywhere in Beth’s verse… what an ear she had. Did she play music?
I know she was conscious of how a poem sounds; along with my father, she stressed that young writers read their own work aloud to hone the power of their language. She did not play an instrument, but was a huge classical music aficionado. I remember being fascinated by the many 78 RPM albums she’d bought in college, huge, heavy things; she and my father went to string quartet concerts often. Her tastes were broad, from Mozart and Chopin to Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, and Bartok. Interestingly, she didn't seem to get as much poetic inspiration from music as from visual art, except for the odd oblique reference, as in the operatic epigraph in “Lucia.”
Can you give us an idea of the period during which these poems written? I think of hearing Beth read “To D. In Invisible Ink,” either to one of our classes or perhaps in a meeting at Patty Cannon’s home in the U District. But the majority of these I had not heard or read.
That's a tough one. She published books so infrequently that unpublished poems kept disappearing and reappearing in her revised manuscripts for years. I’d say that Missing Addresses contains work from the last twenty years at least. During that period, say starting in her late 60s, she continued to teach small poetry workshops. She never slowed down writing, even though she found it harder and harder to publish; she felt like the poetry market had become too competitive and commercial, and that in any case poetic tastes had moved beyond her—but she refused to compromise. She has a huge number of uncollected or unpublished poems still, which some day may make it into a Selected Works.
What was your process in putting the manuscript together? Did you have copies of these or did you have to go searching? I think I already understand the inspiration behind having this body of work published. There is no question that Beth was a consummate poet, even while married to your father Nelson, another famous poet.
This was an easy collection to edit because she’d already put it together. She worked on a “last collection” for years, swapping out poems as her tastes changed or certain works were published in magazines, and as each version of the manuscript was rejected. I and my wife also helped her proof her work as she entered poems in her computer over the years, a new system that was very challenging to her.
Was there any rivalry between Beth and your father? Did they share and/or edit one another’s poems, in your recollections?
That’s an interesting question. My father was always very supportive and proud of her work; however, they rarely shared their writing, at least in the years I was living at home. They ran on parallel tracks. I would have to say that she was technically the better writer, but perhaps not “populist” enough to reach the masses… if poetry readers are numerous enough to be called a mass!
Beth felt that male poets got all the attention, and my father’s local stature, compared with hers, didn’t contradict that. His popularity was primarily centered on his teaching, though, and evangelism (hosting poetry readings, TV and radio shows, editing the Seattle Review and Seattle Times poetry features) rather than his poems.
Beth writes a lot about her Jewish heritage in this collection. There is the penultimate line of “Dying In Paris,” in which she addresses Proust: “My Jewish brother, I scan the want-ads. / I’m still looking for my one-room flat.” Can you address this? Were her parents Jewish? I recall that at one point she mentioned having converted to Christianity and then going back to Judaism.
Beth’s parents were second-generation, non-observant Jews—they cele-brated Christmas!—but her maternal grandparents, born mid-1800s in Latvia and Lithuania, were relatively traditional, not to say Orthodox. Her father’s parents were Ukrainian Jews. Growing up in a predominantly Christian part of Minneapolis (as described in “Short Trip Back”) and a brief stint in Dallas, she experienced some discrimination early in life, and by her own account always felt she was an “outsider.” She writes in earlier poems of her sense of alienation even from the Jewish traditions. She was caught between two worlds. She finally converted to her husband’s Protestantism when she married, having been steeped in Anglican literature and music during college. She stuck to that religion, albeit abstractly, and raised us kids in the Episcopal church. (My sister and I rebelled against that as early as possible!) She does use a bit of the Old Testament with “He Hath Broken My Teeth with Gravel Stones” (Lamentations) and “Thou Art Weighed in the Balance and Art Found Wanting” (Daniel).
However—and I realize there are those sticklers who would say it’s nonsense—despite her nonconformism, she always considered herself a Jew. For example, “Letter from Amsterdam” describes her paranoia as a Jewish woman in a modern German train. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was able to research the large number of her parents’ family members who were murdered when the Nazis overran Riga in 1941, which the title poem alludes to.
This helps clarify some questions about your mom; questions I didn’t have words for when I was young and taking classes. I felt a kinship with her. As a third generation Jew, I was shielded by my parents from the Holocaust. They became very secular and atheistic; science was their religion.
But to move forward, what were Beth’s other influences from prose and poetry? I know she was a scholar on the Brontë sisters. She’d read every single book by each one of them. And often her poems begin with an epigraph and build, such as the title poem “Missing Addresses”: “I’ll pain my way through this.” / “Come on, my boy. / How dost, my boy? / Art cold? I’m cold myself,” from King Lear. Also, the two sections of “Prague Winter” each have an epigraph from Kafka’s Diaries.
She wrote a play about the Brontës as well. She was a voracious reader, an addiction I and my sister inherited. She’d go through binges, obsessions… she might focus on Chekhov’s plays (referred to in her poem “Trigorin”), or philosophers Buber and Heidegger, or psychologists Jung, Maslow and Ronald Laing, or novelists Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, and Henry James. She also read popular contemporary fiction from the likes of Louise Penney and A.S. Byatt, and a lot of nonfiction as well; and aspects of whatever she read would usually end up in her own work.
She also read a lot of poetry, of course, from Gerard Manley Hopkins (whose line “over Goldengrove unleaving” she uses as a title in this collection) to Theodore Roethke, who was a colleague of my father’s, and (my personal favorite) Albert Goldbarth; and of course she championed women poets: Adrienne Rich, Plath, Sexton, Moore, Jean Garrigue (memorialized in “An Ordinary Sunday in Seattle”), and many, many others. She studied the early Northwest poet Hazel Hall and published a book about her.
The poem “Creature” is fascinating. Beth read this one at a workshop. Of course, I’m much older now and there are many more twists and turns when I read this as a grandmother than when I first heard it as young mom of three. To quote:
“Recent arrival. Ruddy from the passage,
eyelids enclosing lost warmth.
Like a train in the hold of a ship that has moved
across the channel from shore to shore,
she emerges from the rocking darkness into light,
shields her eyes from the glare, from our
The way Beth captures aging is magnificent. There is a turn, and at the risk of quoting almost the whole, it ends:
“…we claim her, each
crowding around, murmuring, touching.
Then go off feeling larger, better,
comforted somehow in our inelastic
skins. We come up for air. We breathe.”
Is this poem about Piper, your daughter? And how do you read these lines, midway through:
it is a marvel to us who thought
we had finished with planting, with harvesting,
putting something new into motion.”
As a mother, wife, and writer, how did your mom navigate daily life? Was it difficult, do you think, for her to wear these different hats? She did mention once, in a class, that one of the best times to think about writing was while doing dishes. Do you think this is true or was she, in her stoic fashion, putting a good spin on it?
Beth started out as a novelist; she won the Michigan Hopwood Award for fiction. But she found that having a baby (at 33) didn’t allow you the required vast amounts of time to write fiction, and she took to poetry instead.
I think that her writer hat never came all the way off, just was tilted catawampus a bit by home life; she spent a lot of time in her study when she wasn’t reading on the sofa. (This was before she ramped up her teaching career: both at college level and for kids. She touches on this in her poem “I Gave My Students a List of Words.”)
So, I don't recall her being a particularly hands-on mum. And father taught double-time during the school year and full-time every summer for 37 years without a vacation. Actually it was Nelson who had the dish-washing line—it was his only down-time! Poetry was their life and to a certain extent poets (or students) were their real family.
Ah, yes, now I remember she talked about switching from prose to poetry due to being interrupted a lot! And I could tell travel was a passion for Beth. I remember one story she told of being in Rome. She was on a bus and a priest flirted with her. That is my memory—it could be wrong. But how did she decide where to go, and when, and were her journeys deliberate forays into the making of poetry? Or was that secondary? This collection contains Paris, Prague, and Amsterdam. Yet she treated her home territory of Seattle, Michigan, and other local places with an eye for detail.
I don’t think she’d traveled abroad before the mid-1970s, so in her 50s. Her first explorations were in Paris: she’d been reading Proust and studying French impressionists. I believe she was also feeling the first stirrings of feminism, and decided she needed some time away from her husband (and, I hazard, a feisty teenage son). She met friends and her cousin there, made new friends, and, in learning the language, discovered many French poets who were women (past and current), prompting her to start a translation project.
The poems she wrote during and after these trips were a natural fallout from the new experiences, the immersion into such different cultures, the real sense of a much vaster and varied history than you get in the States. Her trip to Prague was inspired by her love of Kafka, and she also was very moved by the fact that 50,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps from Prague alone during World War II (she alludes to this in “The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague”). She later visited my sister in Milan, when she was teaching there (as a teenager, my sister had also accompanied her to Paris at least once).
As to the priest anecdote, Beth was a very reserved person, and was somewhat taken aback by the more earthy nature of some European men, whom she felt were preying on her daughter, and to some extent on her as a woman traveling without a male escort.
But yes, she also vividly captures both her Seattle environs and her memories of growing up in the Midwest (for example, “In the Intense Latitudes.” I remember her telling us that after she and Nelson got her car right-side up and out of the ditch, they drove back to town, roof dented in, where they found a witness describing the accident to someone; he suddenly spotted their car and shouted “And there it is right now!”).
The love of planet earth and its diverse ecology, as well as her knack for gardening, is evident in the work throughout this collection. Beth was a very strong woman, and this shows up in the first poem, “Over Goldengrove Unleaving”:
“As she begins to clear it, the garden
itself flaunts its decimation.
Bent pale stalks and crumpled husks
bow over mounds of ragged leavings,
discarded shells, gloves, clenched fists…”
Can you address this passion to bring order to home(s)? Did you notice it growing up?
We had a nice yard when I was growing up, but her gardening really took off after my father passed away in 1990 at 70. She was hardy, working long hours in the garden and walking miles nearly every day. I don’t think it was bringing order (she was a decent housekeeper but her office was piled with books and papers) as much as it was the sensual pleasure of surrounding herself with life and color, the assorted textures and personalities of flowers and shrubs, herbs and trees. This was a lifelong habit; her books were filled with pressed flowers, often from decades past.
In her last years, one of her favorite activities was to be driven around Mercer Island simply looking at the spring blossoms or autumn leaves. She would wander her neighborhood gathering spectacular fallen maple leaves and creating bouquets of them. She loved the Japanese cherry grove in the University of Washington quad, and my sister and I have placed a memorial bench there for her and Nelson.
How do you interpret the poem “The Portioning”? There is so much foreboding in its beginning and ending. It’s as if your mom is an archeologist of the heart, and a master of loss and grief:
“Children, now we’re under one roof,
by chance, gathered at home,
draw near. I’ll unlayer
the story of my life.
In the center of this room
I’ll dig a trench; you’ll smell
the clear ambiguous freshness
of turned earth: compost, moisture,
I remember she developed an interest in Native American art when we visited the UW’s Makah archeological dig at Cape Alava in the 1970s; she collected baskets and Inuit carvings. Again, she was fascinated with history and prehistory both from an artistic and, I guess I’d say, psychological viewpoint, and I daresay saw herself in an historical context. She was a realist. Quite early on, she prepared for her own demise, listing bank accounts for us, marking her possessions, inventorying her book and art collection. She did not go gently, she went like the Energizer Bunny, continuing to take long walks every day around Seattle’s Green Lake and fending for herself as long as she could.
Indeed. She was a force! I will never forget her eightieth birthday party, which was quite magical. She was glowing. Yet there are a lot of instances of the word “dark” and “darkness” in this work.
Well, I don’t think she’s alone in that regard. It’s a very apposite concept in these times! But seriously, she was a very serious-minded poet, despite showing an occasional sly wit. But take a poem like “Travellers”: the word “dark” doesn’t appear, but I interpret that poem as a very dark meditation indeed, on her being raised by her harsh mother (her beloved father was a travelling salesman) and her premonition at this late date of meeting him again soon in some afterlife. Of course, I know the backstory, but I think anyone would get a frisson from that piece.
Or a contemplation on old age like “La Salle Des Pas Perdus” (the Room of Lost Causes), which also emanates a chill darkness without using the word.
There are formal poems in this collection as well as free verse. Do you see your mom as a formalist, a free verse poet, or other?
She was not nearly the formalist that my father was, but she liked a challenge on occasion, such as the ten dizains of “The Purely Visible” (that is, ten rhyming ten-line stanzas of ten syllables each).
Form was one more tool in the box, and sometimes, most times actually, I’d venture that she felt it was a hindrance rather than a help. But maybe that’s me. She did assign formal poems to her students to teach them discipline.
Finally, Sean, you are an accomplished poet, musician, and visual artist. How did Beth influence you? Do you still feel her presence in your life?
My sister and I were steeped in poetry from the word Go. So much so that it did not seem a strange thing to do ourselves, writing poems, or having parents who did; even though none of our childhood friends did. Enrolling us in a private arts-heavy school for the first few grades helped grease the wheels in that regard, although I have to say the transition to public middle-school was a slap upside the head!
Reading her oeuvre as I go through her papers, her early work, her later unpublished poems, her fiction, I am fascinated by how much her writing acts as a very telling documentary of her whole interior history. You can see what she was reading at any given point, what she was thinking about and feeling, experiencing; how she incorporated her past into her current life. It’s perhaps more revealing than a diary. You can see with what care she revised her work draft after draft after draft to get the words and flow just right. And she was not afraid to make references that a reader might have to look up… for example, she mentions Thérèse Desqueyroux in her poem “The Expatriate,” and I had to dig up the fact she is a character in a novel by François Mauriac.
This collection showcases her later concerns: facing old age, the death of friends as well as her husband and parents, and her explorations of what is left to her: memory, art, literature, history, and the life of the mind. I think she was constantly revising her own life, remaking herself as a mother, a professional writer, a teacher, a woman of the world, a gardener, a visual artist, a grandmother. Even at the end, as she gradually lost her abilities, her jottings show her mind was still churning on poetically.
I remember visiting her at Sunrise of Mercer Island with two friends who were also fans and former students. She’d just been outside collecting leaves. It was late autumn. She showed us some tree litter, and it immediately took on poetic significance. We stood and marveled over this one particularly large maple leaf.
Sean, thanks for your insights. I am grateful for the teachings this formidable poet imparted to her students. Her understanding of the associative process and the role of the subconscious in creating verse is a unique treasure. I find in Beth’s steady attention—in her questions that lead to more questions—a kind of freedom. I am honored to be part of the conversation about Missing Addresses.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.