I have the closing of Borders Books to thank for my first encounter with Sandra Beasley.
During the last week of their Going-Out-of-Business sale, when you could pretty much just walk out the door with books, I thought I’d go on a shopping spree through their poetry section. I picked up some Charles Simic, some Charles Wright, half a dozen other collections I’m forgetting right now, and Sandra Beasley’s i was the jukebox, all for about the price of dinner.
[Sorry, Sandra! I'm sure your distributor will pay you full price...]
As I was skimming through new books, a poem from i was the jukebox called “Another Failed Poem About the Greeks” caught my attention. It begins:
His sword dripped blood. His helmet gleamed.
He dragged a Gorgon’s head behind him.
As first dates go, this was problematic…
A kind of doomed blind date at an amusement park with a dead Greek hero? I had to keep reading– and kept reading all that weekend, taking the book with me on a trip to Block Island where I read it twice.
i was the jukebox has been deservedly praised by many a’ fine peep (can “peep” be singular?), including Marie Howe and Gregory Orr; and for it, Sandra Beasley won the Barnard Women Poets Prize.
One of her bio notes says that she keeps her groceries in Washington, DC, and her heart in a suitcase. And this week seems no different, as Sandra is currently staying at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts finishing her manuscript, so it was kind of her to take a few minutes away from her work to answer these questions.
8 Questions for Sandra Beasley
Did you ever date a dead Greek hero? Or maybe a better way to ask this question might be “How much are YOU in your poems?”
SB: Nope, never had any blind dates out of Clash of the Titans. But as was pointed out by a student at the Naval Academy in Annapolis (when I visited their class to talk poetry), the amusement park rides I name are specific to Kings Dominion in Virginia, the state in which I was born and raised. It’s funny how our personal identities and biases sneak into poems without even knowing it.
Are you sick of being asked, “How do you know when a poem is finished?”
SB: You can abandon poems and move on, or you can go the Whitman route and continually re-issue your Leaves of Grass. Just don’t get too hung up on publication in book form as a way of knowing poems are “done.” There is nothing sadder than an MFA-er who is still carrying around a thesis’ worth of poems ten years after graduation, an albatross around his neck.
There is an underlying question here: why do we care if a poem is “finished”? I’ve read many a poem that was thrilling and successful, and probably incomplete. Yet I’m glad it got out into the world when it did.
How do you know when you’ve finished revising a poem?
SB: I’ve edited poems in between journal publication and book publication. I’ve edited poems after book inclusion, by consistently tweaking a line or two when they’re read aloud. Charles Wright once told us (in his undergrad workshop at the University of Virginia) that “Life is a big black dog, and poetry is the shadow of the dog.” In other words, there is real life and there is poetry–a poor but honorable approximation of real life. I don’t worry if that shadow shimmers around the edges a little. Pristine definition is overrated. No poem is ever perfectly revised.
What is your greatest difficulty as a writer and how do you deal with it?
SB: My greatest difficulty is trying to balance the down time and mental space needed for writing new work with the travel and ambassadorship required to support the work I’ve already written. It is a luxury challenge to have, but it’s still a challenge. So I swing the pendulum between being the life of the party and a total hermit… to say I “deal with it” might be a misnomer.
Yankees Vs. Red Sox; Beatles Vs. Stones; Beasley Vs. _________________?
SB: To honor the “Allergy Girl” in me (my most recent book was a memoir– Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life), the answer would be “Beasley Vs. Milk.” It does NOT always do a body good. Sometimes it does a body anaphylactic shock.
What experience or aspect of your identity has had the most influence shaping your poetic voice/tone/style/content/etc?
SB: Hmmm. We should be wary of that kind of pigeonholing. I’m the daughter of an Army general dad and a visual artist mom–a great combination of creativity and drive, perhaps, that has greatly influenced my career path. But that’s not the same as typifying a poetic style, which I’d hope would consist of curiosity, curiosity , curiosity.
If the last surviving anthology had one of your poems in it, which one would you pick as proof that you were here? (and why?)
SB: On this particular day I’d pick “Osiris Speaks,” from I Was the Jukebox. Though based in Egyptian myth, the poem carries a personal reference to riding the 42 bus line in DC. I’ve lived in NW going on a decade now, so that’s a bit of a “Kilroy Was Here.” But more importantly, those closing lines approximate some central truth to my work and philosophy. Every king IS, in the end, his only audience. Every queen picks up the pieces.
What advice would you give to a kid who is just starting to write poems, or who says “I wanna be a poet when I grow up?”
SB: Read, young poet–not just poems but the New York Times, street signs, Discover magazine, and the backs of cereal boxes. Be gracious and say “yes” every chance you’re given. Aim high or go bust; prove that the office of Poet Laureate is in your grasp. If you decide to teach, do it because you love teaching and not because you think it’ll be the thing that best lets you write poetry on the side. Dance really hard. Dance every chance you get. ~SB ***********
Sandra Beasley’s most recent book is Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir and cultural history of food allergy. She is also the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Other honors for her work include selection for the 2010 Best American Poetry, the 2010 University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She lives in Washington, D.C.