by Morgan Davis
W.W. Norton, 2015
Sandra Beasley author of the award winning poetry collections, I Was The Jukebox, Theories of Falling, and of the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, was recently corresponding with us on the subject of her most recent book of poems, Count The Waves (W.W. Norton, 2015). Sandra Beasley received a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She was also winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize and the New Issues Poetry Prize.I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sandra this December. Count The Waves, was hailed by Jane Hirshfield as “Inventive, ingeniously fitted, musical, precise,” and by Jill St. John on Booklist, as “alarmingly fresh… Beasley knows just how to push the poetic envelope.” Rachel Carsten’s review in jmww journal described it as, “engaging, sharp, and playful. Beasley’s third collection is composed of poems that merge continents and centuries, folk tales, myths and historic narratives from which sometimes anachronistic speakers explore intimacy and longing, probing each situation or place until its dark underbelly emerges.” Sandra discussed with me the ideas and moments that inspired some of the poems in the collection, her style and craft in both poetry and nonfiction, and her plans for her future work. —
Tell us a little bit about the new collection. Where does Count The Waves stand in terms of your evolution as a poet? How does it follow or build on your previous collections?
Theories of Falling draws deeply from the well of personal experience, whereas I Was the Jukebox resists the conflation of poet and speaker with a series of dramatic monologues. Having swung the pendulum between the two extremes, I wanted Count the Waves to fall somewhere in the middle—exploring a range of intimate stories in a conceptual way. One access point for this was taking the titles of a series of poems from The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, a quirky 1853 compendium of numbered phrases intended for communication over long distances. These lines provided the grist of outside context, historical and strange, while allowing me to riff on “inside” experiences.
What was the most interesting challenge for you as you created this collection?
Many poetry collections succeed because they were written in a coherent fit of inspiration, driven by a particular emotional dynamic. These poems span ten years, which means they span many different dynamics. I felt a tipping point, once I engaged The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, that a collection was at hand. But I still wanted to write later poems that “spoke to” earlier poems, in order to create an overall balance, and that wasn’t easy to do. So for example, “The Wake” was written in 2005, and is a longer poem that follows an episode in the life of artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. “The Circus” was written in 2013, and is a longer poem that follows an episode in the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Both poems required research, and an immersion in images by the artists. I’m actually rather proud of those poems, though they don’t lend themselves to being shared at readings. Do you have a favorite poem in the book? I hesitate to name a favorite poem. You can’t extrapolate anything about my aesthetic from “favorite.” But I’ll say that “Grief Puppet” was one of the last poems I wrote for the collection, and it came with a kind of ease I wish I could replicate at will. The night before, I had hosted a lecture on the work of Jim Henson. I awoke early the next morning, from a dream that featured a surreal puppet creature, and finished the poem within an hour or two.
You open with the poem “Inner Flamingo.” What was your intention for setting it apart from the others?
These poems were accumulated over a decade of travel and relationships, many of which ended in loss. “Inner Flamingo” celebrates finally finding someone I would marry—and for that reason I debated whether to put the poem first in the collection, or last. But the latter would have framed the collection as building up to a culminating happiness, and that felt forced; no one strategizes journeys so neatly. The collection leads off with a promise: not an outright vow of commitment, but one of attention. Subsequent pages show how long and winding the path to such attentions may be.
You wrote poems about Southern traditions. Do you have a particular tradition that sticks out for you, over others, that inspired this?
The poems about Southern food are as much from research, and traveling with open eyes, versus what we do at home. “Heirloom,” a poem in which my grandmother makes a cameo, is in praise of “the foods our parents / cook to mush, pepper to ash, / flavors forever rendered to chore; / that this too was a form of love.” The only thing served up by the end of that poem is a tray of tater tots. This doesn’t mean we don’t have our traditions. My family always eats black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s Day, ideally with simmered with a ham hock and with a side of spicy greens. Some years I’ve been on the road, my mother has sent along a little tupperware container of black-eyed peas, just to be sure. But I haven’t written a poem about that—yet.
You often utilize the sestina, in this and other collections. Is there any particular reason why this form speaks to you?
When I talk about the sestina, I call it a “gyroscope of form.” The spin of end words generates energy, and the necessary cycling encourages wordplay. People often criticize received forms, such as the villanelle or the sestina, as being artificial. That’s only a matter of finding an organic narrative that lends itself to repetition, and massaging the flow of syntax. The sestina isn’t an easy form to work in, but it’s an immensely rewarding one.
What is your preference when you write poetry? Do you insert line breaks as you compose the poem’s first draft, or do you prefer to add them in later?
In my first draft, what I keep an eye out for is the balance between endstopping and enjambing. Enjambment runs rampant in contemporary poetry, including my own. Line breaks are a key component of rhythm; one should always be open to experimenting with multiple rhythms. So my revision process usually includes several radically different sets of line breaks, in which I bring the text back up into a prose-paragraph before re-breaking. Reading drafts aloud, listening for where my breath falls or where I stumble, helps determine the final form.
Elizabeth Lund described your style in glowing terms in a recent Washington Post review, saying, “[Beasley uses] humor and surprise like a scythe, cutting to the root of a matter in ways that may make some chuckling readers think, Did she really say that?” What do you think, personally, best characterizes your voice and style?
Writing should be curious and honest, compassionate and yet merciless. Poems and essays should be filled with glimmering and undeniable particulars, the macroscopic located in the microscopic. Sometimes, poems create a conversation across generations. They should howl and skitter and blaze. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I am the one writing these poems.
What subjects, for you, offer the most compelling stories to tell?
We all have private obsessions. I like how Gregory Orr put it in an interview for Writer’s Chronicle: “If you’re a lyric poet you believe in the passions and the mysteries, especially sex and death. And you also believe that you compress language as much as possible until the process reverses, and all that concentrated energy radiates back out.” That said, I advocate for bright specifics in verse. We should look to science and history, and not just in the metaphorical sense. How did I end up with a poem about peacocks? Because I was walking through the zoo, watching peacocks. When lost for ideas, find inspiration in the natural world.
Not so long ago, you also published Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, (Crown, 2011) a memoir about the many daily challenges that your severe allergy to dairy products create in your life. Did you intend the memoir as a point of connection and shared experience with those who also suffer with food allergies , or were you writing to a general audience, to help raise awareness?
For many years, there was a dearth of accessible, narrative accounts of what it is like to live with food allergies. There was also a need for someone to synthesize the available science into layman’s terms, and make sense for how such knowledge could be applied from day to day. The generation behind me was the boom for allergy prevalence in American children, which means there are a lot of parents—who probably themselves do not have allergies—anxious and trying to relate to their kids’ experiences. I was glad to be able to offer a look at not only living with allergies but thriving, and exploring the world, and having a sense of humor about it.
How does working in both poetry and prose influence the way you approach both forms?
Sometimes, my instincts for working in poetry and prose are at war. I like to write poems late at night, over a glass or two of scotch, whereas my strongest nonfiction is usually written after an early morning’s rise, stone cold sober. Neither genre thrives on the interferences of email and social media. But poetry and the personal essay are both driven by structure, juxtaposition, and the well-chosen image; both require research, at least as I like to write them. My understanding of one is increased by the time I spend crafting the other.
What can you tell us about your next projects?
In October, I went to Oxford, Mississippi, and presented a new set of poems on Southern traditions that I’ve been writing for the Southern Foodways Alliance. You can find many of these in Gravy, the SFA’s quarterly publication. The concepts I have for the poems are completed by the wonderful illustrations of Atlanta artist Natalie K Nelson—which is a collaborative mode that I hope to continue. I’m also working on nonfiction essays, blending craft and memoir, but that’s a long-term project.
Sounds exciting. Tell us a bit more, please.
I’m really inspired, as many have been, by Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Even though her words have now taken on totemic power, she published that book when she was only 40 years old. So there is room for younger voices on craft, combined with memoir; and I’m excited to come at it from a foundation in poetry, rather than prose. I’ve gotten my feet wet by publishing essay on regionalism (“Prioritizing Place,” for the Poetry Foundation), the difference between poetry of witness and documentary poetics (“Flint and Tinder,” in Poetry Northwest), and the “secret life” of a poetic sequence (“Mermaids and Matryoshkas,” in Poets and Writers).
For many years you have worked as an editor and freelance writer. You are now teaching at the University of Tampa in the MFA program. What made you decide to take on that position?
I love working with “low-residency” students because they’ve had life experiences outside academia, and they recognize that their practice is being integrated into their larger lives. The twice-annual residency has the same level of intensity as a writer’s conference—many hours of seminars and lectures—and like my students, I benefit from the perspective offered by visiting writers. Teaching is a rewarding practice for me, but it’s important that it never outweigh my own work, even though that comes at a sacrifice to my financial security. I can mentor though the University of Tampa’s program while also traveling, and freelancing, and pursuing my own creative career, which ultimately is to the benefit of everyone.
With the explosion of social media, writers now find themselves able to access everyone’s opinion readily, which means that they are also more exposed and in some ways, more vulnerable. Do you read your reviews? Do you have any advice on how to deal with reviewers, especially the negative ones?
Any review, even a negative one, is a compliment: a review says Your work is of note. Your work is of influence. Your work gives me substance to comment on. That can be hard to keep in mind if the review is negative or, worse yet, when the review gets things wrong—which has happened to me—yet you cannot fixate on it. This is also a good reason to prioritize writing reviews, if you’re looking to build a clip portfolio and find your way into the freelance world. Reviewing and commenting on the work of others is a vital part of good literary citizenship.
What would you say to writers who are afraid to put themselves out there for publication? How do you suggest handling rejection from publishers?
Rejection is part of the process for everyone. Writing is a volatile process; editing and judging are volatile processes, as well, and seeking publication marks the intersection of the three processes. My first collection is full of poems that were rejected many times before they were accepted—in a collection that ultimately, in and of itself, won a prize. Rejection can also be a significant incentive for improving one’s work. You just have to figure out which raw edges should be refined, and which are facets of your signature voice as a writer.—For more information on Sandra Beasley’s work, visit www.sandrabeasley.com, or her blog, chicks dig poetry