By Anita Malhotra
Sandra Beasley’s poetry is striking, surprising, clever and funny – and often inspires the reader to learn more.
Based in Washington, D.C., Beasley is the author of three poetry collections – Theories of Falling (2008), I Was the Jukebox (2010) and Count the Waves (2015).
Her poetry has been published in dozens of magazines and journals, including Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird and Oxford American and she has won numerous awards, most notably the New Issues Poetry Prize and the Barnard Women Poets Prize.
In spring 2019, she held the John Montague International Poetry Fellowship sponsored by Ireland’s Munster Literature Centre and University College Cork.
Beasley, who holds an MFA in creative writing from American University, is also a non-fiction author and book editor.
Her memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life was released in 2011, and she is the editor of Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance (2018), an anthology of poems about Southern food. She is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Tampa’s low-residency MFA program.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Beasley, who was at her home in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 2019.
AM: What are your earliest memories of being drawn to the written word?
SB: Probably the simple request to be excused from dinner early at my grandmother’s house.
I would usually beg to get away from the adult conversation and they’d send me downstairs. And downstairs usually meant picking up one of the books, or one of the Reader’s Digests off the table, and reading.
For many years my favorite first poet was Emily Dickinson, in part because there was a brown softcover reader of Emily Dickinson’s poems – I think it was one of my uncle’s college textbooks. That was the first one I would go to when I got away from the dinner table.
AM: How about writing your own poetry. Did you start early?
SB: I was really fortunate in that my school system in Virginia was very supportive and nourishing of the arts, including being able to participate in in-school poetry workshops – gosh, going all the way back to elementary school.
So being able to get out of class once a week, which automatically made it a fun, good thing, and meeting up with a woman named Rose MacMurray. She led us through all kinds of creative exercises and really made it feel possible to be a poet in the world.
AM: Did you have any fears of revealing yourself through your poetry when you were younger?
SB: I have always written poems that have used persona, and have used fictional premises, and have been set in places I’ve never been.
One of my first published poems was about a wife who seemed to be experiencing some kind of abuse, and – depending how you looked at it – either a goat or a unicorn that she kept in the barn.
I’ve come to accept over the years that invariably what I’m thinking and feeling kind of rises to the surface of my poems, even if I’m writing about something very far from my own existence.
So I think it’s really important that we give people space to express themselves, and also respect a distance from assuming we know someone just because we’ve seen their poems on the page.
AM: Many of your poems relate to the natural world or historical figures. Were these early interests of yours?
SB: I was always an avid student, and particularly drawn to the sciences. I went to a high school geared specifically towards science and technology.
The immersion into facts and images required to write about science or about natural history is fun, and it also gives me confidence that the poem is doing something important in the world. To me, a poem has really succeeded if it not only provides pleasure during the experience of reading the poem, but if it sparks curiosity.
AM: You do a lot of research for your poems. Can you tell me a bit about that?
SB: In terms of the physical process, our house is full of books. I’m married to a visual artist who also loves books. Our house is full of maps, full of paintings, a lot of art on the walls.
There are a lot of visual stimuli. I think the only danger is, like many poets, I love to procrastinate, and I would rather spend more time thinking about the poem I’m going to write versus actually hunkering down and doing the hard work of writing.
So I have to be careful that my instinct to research doesn’t become just a rabbit hole of procrastination.
AM: You did an MFA in creative writing at American University. How did that tie into your path to becoming a poet?
SB: When people talk about the MFA experience, there’s a lot of romanticism around getting the full ride and moving somewhere for the program, and surrounding yourself with writers and only writers.
That was not the case with me. My reality was I wanted and needed to be close to my family, so I stayed pretty much in the area in which I’d grown up.And I didn’t get a full ride, so I had to work full-time while I was there.
I live in D.C., which in many ways is a creative community, but if you’re striking up a conversation in a bar, it’s probably not going to be with another writer – it’s probably going to be with a lawyer.
I think it prepared me really well for a writing life that continued after the MFA – a writing life where no one was standing around with a deadline, looking forward to reading my poem for a workshop. Because it was already integrated into where I was living and the larger community, I think it helped me keep up that momentum.
AM: You’ve published three books of poetry. Can you tell me briefly about each one?
SB: Theories of Falling represents the culmination of my decision to become a poet. There are definitely poems there that draw from the well of biography and first-hand experience, perhaps more than any other collection.
I Was the Jukebox was in some ways a reaction against that. I was also starting to realize that I would be writing non-fiction as well.
And since I was going to be getting that space to talk about things like food allergies or my family, I really wanted that book to be about play and wonder, about inhabiting experiences not my own. A lot of mythology, a lot of music. I was writing the poems often at the rate of a poem a day for these intense, one-month bursts.
Count the Waves was thinking much more consciously about pattern and structure. And that’s reflected in a few different ways. Using the sestina – that received form – as much I do. Working through the Traveler’s Vade Mecum series, which was related to a solicitation for an anthology edited by Helen Klein Ross. What was really meant to be a one-off prompt just lit a flame, and I kept writing them.
It’s also the collection that eases into thinking about love on the scale of a longer lasting commitment. I got married the year before that book came out, and so I was really thinking about life shifts.
AM: One of the things I love about your poetry is the different points of view that you adopt – even of inanimate objects or mythological characters. What led you to take this approach?
SB: One thing that comes to mind is those periods when I tried to write a poem a day – largely in concert with the NaPoWriMo [National Poetry Writing Month] poets.
When you’re writing a poem a day, you get sick of your voice and your point of view very quickly.
So that was a way of really prompting myself to stretch, and not recycle the same vocabulary, and not recite the same set of concerns with every poem.
I was talking about writers block with some middle-schoolers this past week. We discussed the music that we play and I said, “What if, instead of trying to write a poem inspired by your reaction to the music, what if you thought about a musical instrument that’s being used to make that music – and what would its reaction be to what you’re listening to?” And they kind of lit up.
Some of that’s goofy, like, “What does it feel like to be hit, if you’re a drum” or “If you’re a flute, what if the person playing you has bad breath?” But with silliness comes joy, and that’s ideally what gets us choosing to spend our time writing poems – the chance to be surprised and excited.
AM: What is the role of sound in your poetry? Do you read your poems out loud when you’re writing them?
SB: Reading out loud is a huge part of my drafting process, and it’s something that I really emphasize with students as well.
Even though I don’t usually use end rhyme, I trained in traditions that use end rhyme. I think the ear often seeks a certain amount of closure that’s offered by hearing rhyme, so that manifests as internal rhyme and consonance and assonance.
Anyone who has been in a close reading or a session of poems with me knows that I really, really emphasize the aural texture of the poem.
AM: What are your ideal conditions in which to write poetry?
SB: I think that one reason people gravitate to writing residencies is that it allows them to reset their daily schedules and find for them what is actually the most fruitful, natural writing time. In the absence of other responsibilities, I love to be writing in a quiet space near an open window or sky view, between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m.
Now that can be hard to do if it’s at the end of a long day, or if the next day is going to be long and I get anxious about being rested for it. So as much as I like to romanticize that as my ideal writing time, the reality is the poem’s got to get written whenever I can get it written.
AM: What are some of the high points and low points of being a poet?
SB: I truly enjoy the act of reading and that audience connection. When you’ve got a poem that’s successful and you get to have that experience of sharing it with someone in real time, and hearing them react to it, it’s incredible.
That said, when I’m making a turn in the style of poems I’m writing, that is a scary time because all those people who loved and reacted to the poems I’ve been sharing up until that point are going to start having different reactions.
I’m proud of the fact that all three of my books are different from each other. But what that means is that right when everyone’s like “You must be so excited about how this book did” is usually when I’m starting to get all the rejections for the poems that will become the next book.
One thing I learned from my college days was that the people who made it as poets weren’t the people who were the most naturally gifted. I went to school with people who had a more immediate touch for what made a poem work. But the people who make it as poets are the people who are just stubborn. Perseverance is nine-tenths of it.
AM: Is it difficult for you to write poetry that might reveal things about yourself and the people close to you?
SB: I definitely have had personal dramas that have come about because someone who learned through a poem how I felt about something, but people have largely been generous in giving me permission to write.
When I was in high school, I was supposed to sing in that year’s talent show. And instead, I walked out on stage and I read three poems. I was very proud of myself, and people were cheering in the audience.
But one person who was not cheering was my poor mother, who had gone there expecting to hear her daughter sing, and instead got confronted with a poem that was largely about frustrations in the mother-daughter relationship. And even though I know I needed to do that, there’s a part of me that still looks back in time and winces, and just wants to hug my mother and apologize.
AM: What are you currently working on?
SB: I have a fourth collection of poems that’s close to complete. They are getting into the details of American history, particularly from my inheritance – my Virginia-raised identity and also living in Washington, D.C. for a number of years.
I have one sestina, but what I have the most of, on a formal level, is prose-poems. There are also a lot of poems about food traditions, and that’s in part coming out of my experience editing Vinegar and Char. When you put together an anthology of everyone else’s food poems, you’re invariably going to write your own.
AM: How do you see the role of poetry in North American society now?
SB: I think that at the end of the day we all individually connect with a single poem in a single moment for any number of reasons. We turn to poems to celebrate, to grieve, to seduce, to express anger. Not all poems have to serve all purposes.
I do think that we’re in an amazing time where poetry’s concision and its ability to play with form means that it can cut through a lot of the noise that is going on with, frankly, awful trends in social attitudes and political decisions.
A really great poem can cut through all of that and can spread. It can get shared among 200 people in the course of one day. It’s hard for a novel to do that.
Ross Gay has a beautiful poem – “A Small Needful Fact” – that periodically makes the rounds. It’s about the death of Eric Garner, who’s an African American who died under unjust circumstances, in part due to brute police force.
By the end of the poem, Ross Gay has taken has taken the simple fact that Eric Garner, who died struggling for breath, spent earlier years of his life cultivating trees and saplings to make the air better so that we could all breathe.
That’s what a poem can do. It can cut through all of the disagreement and the politicking over a set of facts and say, “Look – if this doesn’t wring your heart, you don’t understand what’s going on here.”