Exclusive Interview With Poet Sandra Beasley

This interview has been a work-in-progress since May of this year, even if Sandra Beasley wasn’t in the loop on it. When I was in Los Angeles earlier this year for BookExpo America, I brought along a copy of Hotel Amerika for reading purposes and was floored by a poem about a translator by a poet I’d never heard of named Sandra Beasley. I even read that and another Beasley poem to my wife Tammy over the phone that same morning and mentioned that I need to hunt her down for an interview. But then I got busy and kept not getting around to it until Martha Silano mentioned Beasley in a recent Poetic Asides interview. That gave me the extra shove I needed, and so there’s the history leading up to this posting.

Sandra Beasley won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize for her book Theories of Falling, selected by Marie Howe. It was released in April of this year by New Issues and has already received much praise. She received her MFA from American University and serves on the staff of The American Scholar. Beasley has also won numerous awards, including fellowships to Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Jenny McKean Moore Workshop, the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.

Here’s the opening poem to Theories of Falling, which was also cited by Martha Silano in her interview with Poetic Asides (and originally appeared in 32 Poems):

Cherry Tomatoes

Little bastards of vine.
Little demons by the pint.
Red eggs that never hatch,
just collapse and rot. When

my mom told me to gather
their grubby bodies
into my skirt, I’d cry. You
and your father, she’d chide–

the way, each time I kicked
and wailed against sailing,
my dad shook his head, said
You and your mother.

Now, a city girl, I ease one
loose from its siblings,
from its clear plastic coffin,
place it on my tongue.

Just to try. The smooth
surface resists, resists,
and erupts in my mouth:
seeds, juice, acid, blood

of a perfect household.
The way, when I finally
went sailing, my stomach
was rocked from inside

out. Little boat, big sea.
Handful of skinned sunsets.

*****

What are you currently up to?

 

As readers of my blog know, a few months back I began writing sestinas, invariably between the hours of midnight and 5 AM. I’ve always had a soft spot for the form, and the drafts were a way of giving myself a break from my second book manuscript. What started as mere linguistic jigsaw-puzzling has now taken on a life of its own: in October Black Warrior Review will publish Bitch and Brew, all sestinas, as part of their chapbook series. So now I am putting together two manuscripts—one in free verse, I Was the Jukebox, and a formal one called (for now) Count the Waves. Both will circulate to publishers beginning this fall.

 

I’ve lived in DC since coming up for my MFA at American University, and I grew up in northern Virginia. This is home. So I’ve taken on service commitments to the Writer’s Center, and the Arts Club of Washington, to host readings and improve outreach. There’s something immensely satisfying to me about connecting people with common goals and a love of poetry. I’ve also been thrilled to start contributing to my hometown paper, the Washington Post, as a periodic columnist for their “XX Files” feature in the Sunday Magazine.

 

You’ve had fellowships to Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Jenny McKean Moore Workshop, the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. First, what’s your secret to success? Second, how have these fellowships benefited you and your work?

 

A lot of the opportunities I have had come from just putting stamps on envelopes and getting the darn applications out there. Relentlessly, and with cavalier disregard of the (many, many) rejections that will come your way (or at least, they come my way). You have to make the system as assembly line as possible—go ahead and prepare a generic bio note, c.v., cover letter, project description—though, of course, tailor to the individual application before you send.

 

Whenever I get the slightest inclination to actually fill out an application (or for that matter, send out a journal submission), I drop whatever else I’m doing and honor the impulse. Even if I’m at work. Even if I’m on deadline. You always have to prioritize the poetry, because no one will do it for you.

 

Theories of Falling was pretty much born at the Millay Colony—at least twenty of the pages were written there, and I moved thumb-tacked copies around on the wall of my studio until I found the manuscript’s order. I love a colony atmosphere: the escape from the city to a rural setting; interaction with fellow artists (painters tend to be my favorites); the fact that you can spend a day going barefoot, reading, and drinking red wine, and that’s accepted as part of the process. I would be a colony-hopper if I didn’t love DC so much. 

 

Do you have any sort of routine to both your writing and submission efforts?

 

I try to be as systematic as possible in terms of sending out, by conceptualizing “submission packets” of 4-5 poems each: poems that offset each other well, that advance a certain theme or stylistic gesture. I’ll match a packet with whatever I think the editors at that particular magazine will like best. It makes me nervous if I don’t have things out at at least three journals at any given time. As you can probably guess from that statement, I prefer places that consider simultaneous submissions. As someone who has worked at a number of magazines, I just don’t see any reason not to be open to simultaneous.

 

As for a routine to my writing schedule…can’t say I have one. Sometimes I draft every day for a month, sometimes I go three months without writing a thing. Mostly I draft on my laptop, but I use longhand and legal pads too. I like a variety of settings, so I might start work in my downstairs studio and then move to my bedroom rocking chair; sometimes I write on the balcony, sometimes in a bar. I am 100% night owl, though, and would happily always write between midnight and 3 AM. It’s a shame that schedule isn’t compatible with the rest of the world.

 

The poems in Theories of Falling often feel embedded in relationships, either between family members or lovers. Do you find digging into relationships makes for more engaging reading?

 

Mining what’s around you is practically inevitable, particularly for the first book. Young writers have been using the same bildungsroman arc since the days of the German enlightenment, and one of the things you hear over and over in MFA programs—”write what you know”—does nothing to challenge that. Which is just fine, as long as the craft is there and the writer has the discipline to then move on. I love Theories of Falling, but it would be a disappointment if I were digging into those same emotional dynamics three books from now. You do what you can with the material, and then you find something new. 

 

Included in Theories of Falling is “Allergy Girl,” a long poem (or series of poems?), about your real-life experiences growing up with chronic and severe food allergies. Could you discuss your feelings on how autobiographical you like to make your poems?

 

“Allergy Girl” offers the most-straight fact of anything in the book. I’d feel comfortable calling them autobiographical, which I would hesitate to do for any other poems. I think fidelity to fact in poetry is overrated, a belief that is to the unending consternation of my loved ones. Poets are always heightening and fracturing facts to get at a lyric or philosophical “truth.” But judging from reader response—and when the book came out, I heard over and over about this series in particular —it is useful for the “Allergy Girl” poems to be understood as “truthful,” because they offer perspective on a medical condition that might be of comfort or liberation to someone else trying to write about their health issues. Plus, how could I pass up the chance to say yes, I really was the girl in that bed-of-nails episode of Mondo Magic?

 

My new work is flagrantly un-biographical, playing with persona and surrealism. The jukebox speaks. The orchid speaks. The world war speaks. I go on blind dates with dead Greek heroes. My family much prefers these poems.

 

You recently hosted a poetry reading in your apartment. An interview you conducted with Henry Taylor while you were at the University of Virginia led to you being invited to get your MFA at American University. How important do you feel community is for a poet?

 

I respect the specter of the hermit-poet, who does not want to do any meeting or greeting. But I can’t empathize at all, and there is a very proud tradition of poets who cultivate community. Henry Taylor fits that mold, as does Ethelbert Miller here in DC, or Lisa Spaar at the University of Virginia. So often we send our work off into the void, publishing in little journals no one ever sees. If I can make the void a little less echo-ey, whether by hosting readings in my living room or introducing people, I will. And I wouldn’t give up those 3 AM conversations on the last night of the AWP conference for anything.

 

You have a very nice website and blog. What do you see as the main benefits of having these?

 

Honestly? My website started because of “Sandra Beasley and the Spaz Rats,” my internet doppelganger who is a renowned expert on alternative medicine for rodents. I am not making this up. Her name was already all over the web, and I knew unless I actively established my own identity, there were going to be some confused Googlers in the poetry world. So I use a very rudimentary WYSIWYG editor, and try to update the site two times a month with readings and recent publications. I haven’t gotten any inquiries about using magnets to treat a rat with a sprained ankle, so I guess my initial goal has been met.

 

The blog began on a whim, because the aforementioned very rudimentary HTML editor makes casual website updates a pain. I wanted to be able to easily post news, random thoughts in the first person, snapshots of inspiring visual art, etc. It amazes me that totally organic, active, palpable communities of poet-bloggers have formed just in the last three years. In most cases I have “met” poets I never would have known otherwise, leading to some invaluable connections in the real world at conferences or colonies. In some cases fellow bloggers are local folk that I never get a chance to see; at least we can keep tabs on each other, and trade a periodic encouraging note.

 

Who are you currently reading?

 

I came back from the July Sewanee Writer’s Conference with a stack of books by fellow participants. Fiction by Margo Rabb and Jason Ockert; poetry by Cecily Parks, Katrina Vandenberg, Kimberly Johnson, Philip White. Mark Strand’s essays on the paintings of Edward Hopper. And, um, eight more. Outside those: Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, by Darcie Dennigan—that is what I am literally reading this second, and it is knocking my socks off. Also sestinas, wherever I can find them.

 

If you could pass on only one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?

 

Read your contemporary poets, ideally in the venue of literary journals. That’s where the heart of today’s work is beating. So often poets decide a particular school is “not my thing” based not on what this generation is doing with the tenets of that school, but based on what the canonical style has been. The poetry world should be a lot more permeable than that.

 

*****

 

For a lot more on Sandra Beasley, including information on her book Theories of Falling, her blog, other interviews, reviews, etc., I suggest you check out her website at www.sandrabeasley.com.

 

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2 thoughts on “Exclusive Interview With Poet Sandra Beasley

  1. shirley brown

    monkey the cat
    monkey see
    monkey do
    monkey is always in a stew
    when she comes
    and when she goes
    monkey is always on her
    tippy toes!
    written by
    shirley brown
    go to xlibris.com check out
    shirley brown
    book of poetry

  2. Amy Barlow Liberatore

    Sandra and Robert,

    Great interview, rich in advice. Sandra, I’m so thankful you put out the names of so many contemporary poets! Your "batching" of poems to send out is something I’ve tried (still waiting for word…!). I agree that simultaneous submissions are the way to go. Really helps your feeling of progress, of getting your work out there.

    I’m somewhat isolated as a pastor’s wife in Attica, NY, so Robert’s blog has been a Godsend; I have also added your blog to my list, which is indeed beautifully crafted. Thank you both so much!

    Peace, Amy (Momskas)

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