Sandra Beasley won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize for I Was the Jukebox, selected by Joy Harjo. I Was The Jukebox is out 5th from W.W. Norton. I saw a prominently displayed copy in DC's Politics & Prose bookstore. Her first collection, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize judged by Marie Howe. It has already exhausted its print run earlier this year, and New Issues should be reprinting very soon. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Slate, and The Believer; she will also be featured in The Best American Poetry 2010.
Awards for her work include A DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She has received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, VCCA, and Vermont Studio Center.
Sandra lives in Washington D.C, where she serves on the Board of the Writer’s Center. Her nonfiction has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine and she is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life, forthcoming from Crown.
Vrzhu has been paparazzing Sandra Beasley for while now, hoping to interview this engaged and active DC poet. We’ve been a fan since having her read in the Brookland Poetry Series, and other venues. When her first book came out, Theories of Falling, we read it avidly and with delight.
Sandra asked if we could ask questions she doesn’t normally get, and we have tried to accommodate her. She has only herself to blame.
Since we finished up the interview during February’s record-breaking snowstorm here in DC, imagine us sitting at a small bistro near Dupont Circle, warming ourselves with a couple snifters of 1968 Darroze Armagnac Peyron.
Vrzhu: Before we ask some more, ah, non-normative questions, let’s start with some poetry GPS. During the VRZHU interview with Kathleen Rooney and Elisa Gabbert, Elisa mentioned that she finds herself liking books that were too “avant” for her before, and being less interested lately in more “traditional” books.
How about you? How have your poetry tastes changed over time? What poets, poems, and kinds of poetry excite you these days? Do you find yourself liking a greater variety of poetry, or getting tired of some of the well-trod poetry paths? Do you see yourself somewhere along the poetry spectrum, or do you feel that’s too confining, and inexact?
Sandra Beasley: If anything, having avalanched my home with the pages of contemporary journals, I swing the pendulum all the way back to the poets who first brought me here--Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins--returning to their work, enjoying it more deeply than I did before. I read the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell. I understand them now to be poets in dialogue, part of a complex community of artists driven by travel, attraction, depression, misunderstandings, petty needs, grand aims; before, they seemed almost fatally deadpan on the page.
I also find myself open once more to formal verse. A lot of it's dreary. But then, a lot of free verse is dreary. You gotta be willing to read a lot of bad poetry if you want to find great poems in the wild.
Over the years, I've become a better (or more capacious) listener to poetry. It used to be that I tuned out if I could not immediately discern a narrative. But years of going to readings around Washington, DC--not because I know the author but because I trust the host, or am intrigued by the venue--have introduced me to a whole other spectrum of styles, many of which demand a different mode of listening. Not too long ago, at Bridge Street Books, I was entranced by Kenneth Goldsmith's recreation of the media broadcasts of 9/11/2001. Keep in mind that in the moment, these broadcasts were not fully cognizant of what we now understand to be a national tragedy: real-time reporting on a mysterious set of incidents is peppered with the minutiae of advertisements, weather forecasts, traffic jams, etc., all transcribed by Goldsmith word-for-word. Listening, I could hear the poetry in these strange juxtapositions. Would I study it on the page? Nope. So I think the evolution of my ears needs to be treated separately from the evolution of my eyes.
Poets who excite me nowadays: Erika Meitner, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eric McHenry, T. S. Eliot, Denise Levertov. That's today. Ask me again tomorrow.
Vrzhu: I like the going back to older poets you mentioned. Who's the earliest poet you find yourself going back to, or sympathetic with? Besides just experience, is there some way you have these poets (like Hopkins or Eliot) come alive for you?
Sandra Beasley: In Fall 2009 I taught a writing class at the Corcoran College of Art + Design; teaching is an exception, rather than the rule. I soon realized that contemporary poets who I found interesting, based on the ferocity of voice, did not engage the students; what they liked were poets who offered something structural they could unlock. William Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney. On one hand, they disdained the technical terminology of meter and rhyme; on the other hand, they sat up in their chairs when I could prove that the craft techniques served a higher thematic purpose. The week we looked at elegy, we considered poems by both Dylan Thomas and Marie Howe. Thomas's villanelle is all about thundering imperative; Howe's is all about ambivalent dialogue. I love Marie Howe, but they preferred Dylan Thomas. It was a challenging dynamic, and it made me think a lot of which "older" poets I loved, and why. I think T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams have a lot to offer with repeat visits. They also have just enough texture in their biographies to provide grit, without so much drama (a la Anne Sexton or Ted Hughes) as to be distracting.
Through a series of coincidences, 2009 was also a year of Emily Dickinson for me--scads of exposure to her biography--which makes me newly aware of her feistiness, her pride, her calculations of correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She was no fool and no simple recluse. Those short, lyric poems must be understood as telegrams, composed in the Morse code of a rock skimming along the surface of a much deeper lake. Whitman, on the other hand, took some basic philosophical beliefs and stretched them out on the loom of societal experience. I think he was as savvy as he was smart. It's funny how often these two poets are paired in literary critique as an asexual Odd Couple. They come alive to me in the sense that the older I get, the more I understand their writings in the context of biographical pressures. Some days it feels like a great insight. Some days it feels like a terrible fallacy.
Vrzhu: It sounds like you've become a better reader, too--going back to poets you encountered earlier and getting more out of them, including a deeper enjoyment, as well as the sense of listening in to them talking to each other through their poems. Getting a sense of that conversation is thrilling.
How do you handle the page and the reader versus speech and the hearer in your poems? Do you sometimes foreground one over the other? Is one more important to you in writing than another (for instance Dean Young says he is all about the page, and Robert Pinsky often talks about poetry as a bodily, aural art)? Could you recommend some good examples of one or the other to look up and at?
Sandra Beasley: You know whose work really flourishes off the page? Patrick Rosal, who has two books out with Persea. His work is great on the page, too, but that man gives a killer reading.
My poems favor the page, because I like wordplay; sestinas, which I've been obsessed with over the past year, just don't work when read aloud. You have to have the lungs of an Olympic swimmer just for the reading of each stanza, and even then the end-words--in their many variations--don't shine through. When I read, I'm quite strategic in alternating short, accessible poems with longer and more abstract ones.
There are a couple of poets who come to mind for giving truly compelling readings despite authoring books that are, according to the page, experimental and fragmented, only barely narratives: Kate Greenstreet, and Kristi Maxwell, both Ahsahta authors. They make it work. It is a tribute to the force of their imagery and imagination.
Vrzhu: Tupac or Biggie?
Sandra: I've got no dog in the Tupac versus Biggie fight. I know Tupac was the ostensible soulful poet, and I respect anyone who made Janet Jackson look like a good actress. I know Biggie was revered as a producer of talent, and I respect anyone who brought business sense to a risky business. What do I listen to when I'm cooking? Kanye West. Even after the unfortunate Taylor Swift incident.
Vrzhu: So imagine your poetry is going to be made into a movie, or, in addition, the poetry of any of these:
or any other poets that strike your fancy.
Now, what genre film would it be in? Who would direct? What would be the soundtrack? Hollywood, independent, mumblecore,foreign (French, Swedish, Italian, Iranian), Bollywood? What character actors would get small parts in it? If could make up an award at Sundance, what award would it get?
Sandra Beasley: I keep trying to place Ewan McGregor in a poem of mine. Any poem. Because I adore him: him as a person, him as an actor, him as a concept. It keeps not happening.
Honestly, I don't think poetry translates well to film, and so it doesn't give me any pleasure to theorize these combinations--not because it isn't a fun question (it is), but because no poet would be served by the translation. There's a great poet I studied with at the University of Virginia Gregory Orr, who has a theory that all poetry operates using four temperaments: the "limiting" principles of story and structure, which are intensive, and the "limitless" principles of music and imagination, which are extensive. I think the point of poetry is to privilege extremes among these four temperaments. I think the point of film is to balance these four temperaments. That's why Charlie Kaufman (who prizes story) fails when he directs his own scripts, as was the case with "Synecdoche, New York"; but he succeeds when paired with Michel Gondry (who prizes imagination), in the case of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Of course, I'm revealing my bias with this theory: in poetry, because I am a practitioner, I seek brilliance. In film, because I am an audience member, I seek something to enjoy. Nonetheless, what makes a great Henry Taylor poem would make for a dreadfully boring film. What makes a great Elizabeth Bishop would make for a dreadfully boring film. What makes for a great Kim Addonizio poem would probably turn into a borderline-porno starring Monica Bellucci.
Vrzhu: Well, you make a good point that poetry doesn’t translate well into film. I appreciate your fairness to the poets mentioned and not wanting to do them an injustice. Your idea that poetry brings one of Orr’s four temperaments to the fore as opposed to a film, which must balance them strikes me as a good distinction to make between the two arts. Perhaps there is an ontological gap between film and poetry that can’t be bridged without doing violence to one or the other.
I want to get back to the page versus the voice for a moment. It’s interesting to me that you say your poems are weighted more to the page, because I think you give very compelling readings of your own work. One quick follow up: When you’re writing, though, do find yourself saying the lines, or some lines, out loud, or maybe subvocally, in your head? Or is the look of the page more of a guide for your hand and ear? I think either works, I’m just curious.
Sandra Beasley: Thanks for the compliment to my reading style. That goes back to college days, when I competed in a number of oratory competitions, and coached others in speech and debate. Super dorky, right? But really fun. One week it would be Clarence Darrow's defense of Leopold and Loeb, then an Edgar Allan Poe short story, then Emma Goldman on anarchy, then a fellow UVA student's treatise on the Smurfs. Because I was wrestling with other people's words, I approached the text as blindly as the audience--and had to enunciate and emphasize in order to get a foreign meaning across.
Sometimes I think, as authors, we are so overwhelmed by our familiarity with the text that we lose track of what's going out to the room. I always rehearse my poetry aloud as part of the drafting process. I don't get much out of reading a line or two as a time; I read the whole poem through, many times over, no matter what the hour (though I feel a little guilty when it's 3 AM, and I'm chanting in my office, just outside my bedroom). I'll edit depending on where my vocal rhythm stumbles, and change words I find myself contracting or dropping.
The look on the page guides my hand, too, but that may not always be a good thing. I admire the tradition of poets who compose in wildly varying line lengths, and I'm wary of my tendency to pace myself toward an even-length line. That's something I'd like to push against in future projects, in the same way my second collection pushed against the first collection's tendency toward autobiography.
Vrzhu: Going back a bit--this interview seems to be semi-recursive--it’s fascinating that your writing class seemed to prefer older, more formal, poetry. It is always revelatory how the craft of the poem, as it makes meaning, shows up for a reader. It kind of restores my faith in those poems to know that people can still latch on to them. And thanks for you insights contrasting Whitman and Dickinson. A rock skimming a deep lake, or a walk over a sudden trapdoor? Anyway, If you had to propose two alternative founding parents for American poetry, who would you choose?
Sandra Beasley: What's tough about that is that naming any two poets would seem to discredit those that came before them as being something other than "American poets." Let's suspend our fidelity to time for a moment, so I can say William Carlos Williams and Gwendolyn Brooks, without discounting the many fine poets that came earlier. I like their combined attentions to both form and free verse, larger society and the interior landscape. Plus, that would be one hell of a wedding party.
Vrzhu: What’s your process for picking titles? Before or after the poem? How important is a title to you for kicking off the poem? Any opinion on untitled poems?
Sandra Beasley: I get very fussy with people who haven't titled their work. It's not practical--we always need a shorthand way of referring to things--and it implies a disrespect for the poem. On the other hand, I choose very simple titles that either cite the central object ("The Angels," "Cherry Tomatoes") or set up a premise for a dramatic monologue ("The Sand Speaks," "Love Poem for Wednesday"). I might commit to a title at the beginning of a draft, in the middle, or at the end--it doesn't matter when. Some people do a lot of work with their titles, particularly visual artists, but I'm not one of them. I'd rather reserve that kinetic energy for the poem itself.
Vrzhu: Truth and poetry. Laura Riding famously gave up poetry in part because she felt it couldn’t tell the truth. Obviously, we know that the voice in and of the poem is not the same as the poet, or least is not co-extensive with the poet, but in a larger sense, how important is capital T Truth to a poem or poetry? You said above that in poetry you seek brilliance. What makes up the brilliant in poetry?
Sandra Beasley: Capital T Truth is only recognized in hindsight. So I agree, it is important--but you have to have a certain amount of arrogance to keep writing without knowing if what you're getting at is Truth, or just a convincing facsimile, or utter hyperbole. You'll never know for sure, and maybe Riding grew weary of that doubt. There's no shame in deciding you have better ways to spend a life,
Trying to define brilliance in concrete terms is going to make me sound like an ass. I know; I've tried. All I can say is that you have to try something new. You have to enter a poem without being confident that the subject or language at hand can, in fact, constitute a good poem. Taking the risk is critical--and when you read it, you know it. Some contemporary poets I've read whose work carries (for me) that spark of genius are Bob Hicok, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Matthea Harvey, Josh Bell, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi. But don't tell them I said that. You'll freak 'em out. I suspect it's a terrible burden, brilliance.
Vrzhu: Related question: Plato put forth two famous statements about poetry. In the Ion, he said that poets do not contain the genius that writes the poems, but are possessed by the Muse who works through them, in the same way that a paperclip held by a magnet becomes magnetic itself. In The Republic, he banned poets from the Just City because they lied about the gods: they did not tell the truth. Agree, disagree, or something else with these two views?
Sandra Beasley: This is the stuff of dissertations, not interviews! I like that you're asking the question, I just wish I wasn't the one charged with answering. The Muse is a potent and unpredictable force, and I know that favorite poems of my own tend to be the ones somewhat untraceable in their origin. I assume that's the Muse at work. And of course, poets lie. Rampantly. Mercilessly. All the while justifying it, in pursuit of the Capital T Truth. Can't live with us, can't banish us from the Just City without a fight.
There's a gap between the way we're talking about poets, in these last few questions, and the everyday reality of writing poems and moving them out into the world. We're supposed to honor being possessed by the Muse, and write accordingly--yet also get kids to school, make a stir-fry for dinner, work, pay our taxes on time, and love the people around us. That doesn't even touch the professional side of submitting and publishing, all the while trying to maintain your integrity and passion. Let's not even pretend there's a Platonic balance to be attained; there is only the joys and sorrows of the act of balancing. To be a poet is to be a zebra standing on a marble, trying to make it look like it's all going according to plan.
Vrzhu: "To be a poet is to be a zebra standing on a marble, trying to make it look like it's all going according to plan." Nicely put, and a valid point.
So, one more quick question: what is your favorite current font?
Sandra Beasley: I'm a lover of Garamond.
Vrzhu: Please fill in the blanks:
1. A poem should not ____ but _____
2. If ____ be the ____ of ______, play on.
Sandra Beasley: A poem should not describe, but invent.
If writing senryu be the duckpin bowling of poetry, play on.
Thanks, Sandra, for being such a good sport in entertaining our questions. For more of Sandfra Beasley, check our her blog at Chicks Dig Poetry, or one of the following readings coming up soon:
UPCOMING READINGS IN 2010**
Friday, March 26, 2010 - 11 AM - Reading at Marymount University in Arlington, VA
& Friday, March 26, 2010 - 3 PM - Reading with Deborah Ager and Valzhyna Mort at
Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
Thursday, April 8, 2010 - 9:30 PM - Reading with the Typewriter Girls (offsite AWP
Conference event) at the Mercury Cafe in Denver, CO.
Friday, April 9, 2010 - 3:30 PM - Booksigning with Joy Harjo, hosted by W. W. Norton
at the AWP Conference in Denver, CO.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010 - 7 PM - Reading with Joy Harjo at Barnard College in New
Thursday, April 15, 2010 - 7:30 PM - Reading with Jason Koo at Washington &
Jefferson College in Washington, PA.
Sunday, April 18, 2010 - 2:30 PM - Reading with Dora Malech as part of the Frequency
Series at Four-Faced Liar in New York, NY.
Thursday, April 29, 2010 - 5:30 PM - Reading at New Dominion Bookshop in
Sunday, May 2, 2010 - 1 PM - Reading (and launch party!) at Politics & Prose in
Sunday, May 16, 2010 - 4 PM - Reading with Susan Settlemyre Williams at Chop Suey
Tuey in Richmond, VA.
Friday, May 21, 2010 - 8 PM - Reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables, FL.
Friday, May 28, 2010 - 6:30 PM - Reading at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010 - Reading in the Word for Word Series at Bryant Park in New
Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - 5 PM - Reading at Square Books in Oxford, MS.