Beyoncé Didn’t Really Write That Poem, Everybody

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 29 2014 5:55 PM

Forrest Gander, Beyoncé Poet, Explains His Poem “Bey the Light”

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Beyonce, literary muse.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for MTV

I love poetry. But presented with a poetic “remix” of Beyoncé statements—even one done by acclaimed poet and translator Forrest Gander—alongside a photo-spread of Beyoncé looking gorgeous and ferocious in wild outfits, I am likely to just look at the pictures. Sorry, muse.

That said! CR Fashion Book has decided to accompany its Issue Five cover story on Beyoncé with a loosely rhyming poem called “Bey the Light.” Forrest Gander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist known for his experimentalism and ecological focus—he has degrees in geology—has collected spontaneous wisdom from the lips of Beyoncé and arranged it into 13 three-line stanzas, or tercets. (There is a three-ness going on in this poem that to me evokes both Beyoncé’s divine mystery and her much-scrutinized family life.) I talked to Gander on the phone on Friday to ask how the poem came about.

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First thing to note is that Beyoncé did not actually write these stanzas. I asked Gander what attracted him to the project of compiling, arranging, and versifying her words for a fashion magazine, and he replied:

I like collaborating with people and have done it before, with musicians like Vic Chestnutt and Brady Earnhart and visual artists like Raymond Meeks and Anne Hamilton, my favorite living artist. One of the editors at CR I have worked with before, he did an interview with Beyoncé, but she’s done so many interviews. There ends up being a kind of interview-ese, where you’ve been asked every question a zillion times. Dominic [Teja Sidhu, the editor] had the intuition to try something else with her responses, to ask what we could do that opens up new territory for Beyoncé and expands her boundaries into a new theater.* And I’m very interested in formal exploration, in using others’ voices. I have a long poem in my last book that’s just the voices of people who live in utopian communities.

“Bey the Light” opens, as the Cut’s Maggie Lange smartly observes, with a traditional invocation of the Muse: “It’s my daughter, she’s my biggest muse./ There’s someone, we all find out soon,/ More important than ourselves to lose.” (Did Gander do the Muse opener on-purpose? “No,” he said. “Er, yes.”) Then the poem discusses Bey’s “deep bond with young children” and with the spirit of her grandmother, whom she never met. I suggested to Gander that one could infer from the poem that Beyoncé’s grandmother finds expression in Sasha, the star’s alter ego, though this leads to a strange moment in which Sasha/Grandma guides Beyoncé “even in bed.” But Gander told me I’m wrong. “Grandmother got left behind two stanzas before.”

The best part of the poem, I think, comes in the next six lines. They describe a specific childhood memory that gains symbolic power by uniting Beyoncé’s religious faith, the charge she gets from her art, the deep reasons she seeks out that art (to dispel “bad dreams”), and the sense of transmitting a force from one person to another—through the telling mediation of a TV screen.

I saw a TV preacher when I was scared,
at four or five, about bad dreams,
who promised he’d say a prayer
if I put my hand to the TV.
That’s the first time I remember prayer,
an electric current humming through me.

These are the only stanzas in actual Dante-esque terza rima. When I asked Gander if he did that because they are the most explicitly religious, he answered: “Yes! That’s a key moment of hers. I wanted to give it increased intensity and formality, to heighten it. Other moments in the poem almost achieve that rhyme scheme, but not quite.”

Then comes the thesis statement: that Beyoncé is not just a singer but a “vessel for all that isn’t right.” “I sing into the vessel a healing light,” the speaker continues, “to let go of pain that people can’t bear. I don’t do that myself, I call in the light.”

Hmm. Does Gander really believe that about Beyoncé—that she is a transformative vessel of light and healing?

He told me:

The figure of the healing and visionary poet has been in every culture from the beginning. When artists are effective, they do transform other people, and I think Beyoncé does in particular. I wouldn’t have taken on this project with just any artist. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening with her music and lyrics. She has an incredible palate for different types of language and is full of terrific demotic expressions. Like me, she likes to remix and explore: She will drop out of singing to speak, or throw in a French phrase, or sample an author’s TED talk. She has some great lines too. “See me up in the club with fifty-eleven girls.” “Yonce on his mouth like liquor.”

But Gander says he doesn’t want to compete with what Beyoncé already does in her lyrics. He’s interested in adding formal elements to her naturally spoken voice, giving it a poem’s “tension and concentration.”

In the final two stanzas of “Bey the Light,” the Beyoncé-speaker insists—surprisingly, given her lacquered and perfected image—that “Utopias, they don’t much interest me. I always mess things up a bit.” When I register my skepticism, Gander points out that “it’s ridiculous to think any of us aren’t working on our presentation, especially when we’re being judged by others. Authenticity is a construction.”

People who do a lot of interviews often dislike how others bend their words, Gander points out. He says he believes Beyoncé especially feels victimized by this, and that, for him, the overriding tone of the interview he heard was one of genuineness. “It really impressed me,” he said. “There seemed to be a kind of utopian hope connected to sincerity, and connected to her child’s future.”

Indeed, the Beyoncé-speaker closes with a wish for her daughter, à la Shelley (“Frost at Midnight”) and Yeats (“A Prayer for My Daughter”).

“But for my daughter I dream of a day
When no one roots for others to fail
When we all mean what we say.”

A lot of people are probably rooting for a Beyoncé poem to fail. But you could dream of worse than this.

Correction, Aug. 31, 2014: This post originally misspelled the first name of Dominic Teja Sidhu.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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