1. Let’s start off by congratulating you on your new book Theories of Falling. Tell us a
little about what went into the process of writing these poems and getting this book
In 2006, two years out of my M.F.A. program, I had a first book manuscript—“The
Reveal”—and a serious case of Bridesmaid Syndrome. I’d been a finalist at Tupelo,
Carnegie Mellon, New Issues, Utah State…I had all these signs that I was doing
something right, but I didn’t know where to go from there. During a September stay at
the Millay Colony, I decided “to hell with it” and dissembled the book, purging any
lingering traces of my grad school years (the token sestina, the sonnet sequence, etc.). I
thumbtacked the poems I really DID like—about 20 pages worth—to the walls of my
studio, and set about drafting a poem a day. Make it a lean book, I told myself. A mean
book. I had a collection of Diane Arbus’s photographs with me, and I collaged some
Xeroxes amidst the poems pinned to the walls. I wanted to echo Arbus’s slightly askew
version of humanity. I wanted to give myself permission to say anything.
By the end of the month I had a new manuscript, complete with new title poem. I’d
been home for only a couple of weeks when I shoved it all into an envelope for the New
Issues poetry contest. While the dominos were falling—the editors passing it along to
Marie Howe, Marie Howe, narrowing it down to four, then picking me—nine months
were passing. In many ways, I’d backed down from the intensity of my Millay vision. I
had returned to the old title, restored some old poems that had strong publication
credits, and written some new things I was excited about fitting in. But when I heard
that I’d won, I decided to honor the manuscript as it was when I submitted it. Future
books may be more polished or better capture a philosophy of craft; but this book will
always have my heart, and the raw energy of a lot of late nights in a borrowed room.
I got the news as I limped off a nine-hour flight from Switzerland, where I’d been for a
whirlwind three-day trip. The editors had been looking for me by phone and email—the
one time, wouldn’t you know it, when I was truly out of reach. I was so jetlagged that all
I could say to Marianne, my wonderful soon-to-be-editor at New Issues, was “Really?
Really?” Then I jumped around my mother’s house a bit, before kissing her smack on
the lips. Then I had a drink. Then I slept for about 14 hours. I kept waiting for them to
call back and say “We’re so sorry, there’s been a mix-up.”
2. As an editor at The American Scholar, do you get to read a lot of poetry submissions
and if so how does that inspire/influence your writing?
Actually, I don’t have any input into poetry submissions at The American Scholar. We
have an outside editor who does that, Langdon Hammer up at Yale; he solicits longer
selections from poets such as Louise Gluck and Frank Bidart. He does a fine job, but I
wish we considered submissions in-house. It’s intriguing to realize how many
experienced prose editors balk at judging poems. A lot of general interest magazines—
Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The Believer, and the Scholar—struggle with how to use
poetry on their pages. No one wants to treat the genre as “filler,” but it’s hard to resist
when placing something that lays out on only one page. One-page pieces are valuable
currency, in layout, when you’re trying to control whether a longer piece starts on the
right- or left-hand page. Not a very romantic way to think about ordering, is it? I’ll also
say, from secondhand observation, that experimental fiction and poetry suffers—and is
less likely to be chosen—when it is bookended by journalistic nonfiction in the final
product. A lot of editors find the collision between experimental language and “proper”
syntax, grammar, and narrative logic to be unpleasantly jarring. It will be interesting to
see if Paul Muldoon bucks that trend in The New Yorker.
All that aside, I always worked on literary magazines in school and yes, I loved (and
took a lot of inspiration from) the unsolicited poetry that came my way. There’s
something magical about slicing open an envelope and seeing what’s there. I discovered
Frannie Lindsay, Martha Silano, Kristy Odelius, and Pat Rosal from their work that
came into the Folio office at American University.
3. Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has influenced your writing?
The first four poets I read and loved were Emily Dickinson (“My life closed twice before
its close…”), Langston Hughes (The Panther and the Lash), Sylvia Plath (Ariel), and
Sandra Cisneros (“In dreams the origami of the brain / opens like a fist, a pomegranate,
/ an expensive geometry…”). Looking at that list now, I see a primer for loving language
that is sad and wild and most of all, direct. While I love poems that take risks, I am
primarily engaged when the risk is taken in content rather than form; formal
obfuscation and mishmash syntax annoy me. As I’m working on my new manuscript I
find myself drawn to contemporary writers who write with great clarity about cloudy
situations: Dean Young, Josh Bell, Sarah Manguso, and Erin Belieu.
I’ve been really fortunate to work with some great poets over the years, too many to
mention them all. But I will say: Gregory Orr taught me how to approach revision with
rigor and purpose (I always called his classes the “black-coffee workshops”). Rita Dove
taught me about striking the balance of being a great poet and a joyful person. Lisa
Russ Spaar taught me to revel in experiment. Henry Taylor taught me about writing as
part of a tradition. Richard McCann taught me about probing the darker corners of
memory. Myra Sklarew taught me about looking beyond the borders of my person, my
country, and into the larger world of poetry. Myra is really an unsung hero of poetry.
Thanks to her I became interested in translation, working word-by-word through the
“Eclogues” of the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti; I even wrote entries on Pablo
Neruda and Czeslaw Milosz for the Facts on File Companion to Twentieth Century
4. Living in the D.C. area, how would you describe the poetry “scene” there?
Vivid, but fragmented. The readings at the Folger Theater is probably the best big-name
series in town; the Library of Congress and the Lannan series at Georgetown bring
some fantastic writers in, but they are both under-publicized. I wish there were a bit
more social glue in DC. I go to too many readings where no one has the time or energy
to grab a beer and hang out afterwards. That was true even when I was going to the
Visiting Writer Series at American University, as a grad student. Whatever happened to
the honorable tradition of poets loafing about?
Yet we’ve got some great pockets of energy. I think of it as a constellation of people
rather than institutions, so forgive the name-dropping: Rod Smith (Bridge Street
Books), Richard Peabody (Gargoyle and Paycock), Maureen Thorson (Big Game
Books), Sarah Browning (Split This Rock), Kim Roberts (Beltway), Ethelbert Miller and
the whole Busboys & Poets crew; I could go on forever. We’ve even got Deb Ager of 32
Poems and Reb Livingston of No Tell, though each is tucked away in the suburbs. Two
regrets: I miss Burlesque Poetry Hour—that ran for less than two years but they were a
crazy and wonderful two years—and I miss Chapters bookstore.
5. When did you start writing poetry and why?
It is an oddly discrete memory: in third grade our class had a poetry assignment, during
which the teacher walked around the room and, reading over our shoulders, singled six
of us out. For the rest of the year we got to miss class once a week for workshops with
Rose MacMurray, a local poet. Rose was resplendent in her scarves, her perfume, her
eyeshadow, her big blond hair, and her honeyed tone of voice. She was a truly epic
presence and I remember thinking “Wow, I want to be a POET when I grow up.”
Luckily, years would pass before I ran into the people whose job it is to tell you how
impractical your plans are—and by then it was too late to dissuade me.
6. One of the themes in your poetry that I have noticed is your ability to write about
experiences that may seem exclusive to one person or group of people, but actually
people anywhere can relate to those experiences. For example, in your poem “The
Puritans,” you describe a scene from a childhood that is set in New England, but can
really apply to almost any child of that generation. I grew up in California and
remember on days when an eclipse would occur our class would go outside with similar
“pinhole viewers.” And one of the things that attracted me to your poems and defines
your style of writing is that you give those experiences a unique twist as in “The
Puritans” when the poem ends with the narrator contemplating the eclipse as the fist of
God. Having said all of that, do you make a conscious effort to include certain themes
in your poems?
Thematically, my evolution is pretty organic. I go through periods of being interested in
family memory, in childhood, in spirituality, in sex, in American culture. Like anyone
else, I’ll be wasting time some morning at work, stumble across a strange Google-fact,
and think “Damn! I’ve got to house that somewhere.”
“The Puritans” was written during a period when I was really interested in creating
super-metaphors, conceptualized vehicles strong enough to drive a whole poem (the
“Allergy Girl” series was also written in this time). The best metaphors are ones that,
when pushed to their logical extreme, introduce something new to the poem—
something the poet didn’t quite know was there. I recall the seeing an eclipse as the “fist
of god” from my childhood; I don’t remember thinking it through to the point of
articulating where the “punch” was headed. But when I recall the odd wonder and dread
of that moment on the blacktop…some part of me understood.
7. In your poem “The Orchard,” you set up a scene that is profoundly influencing the
relationship between 2 people in a way that it seems they would never have imagined.
And then you hit us with the language, descriptive words such as orchard, basket,
cherries, pale, skins, hemorrhaged- all words that when used together highlight the
story within the poem and make it all that more real. This poem really builds as it goes
along and I am curious about the writing process for this poem and your writing
process in general, how do you go about “building” a poem such as this?
“The story within the poem”…it’s funny you phrase it like that. When I’m working on
something as short and as singular in moment as “The Orchard”—and I have five or six
pieces in the new manuscript that fit that description—I actually think of it as finding
the “poem within the story.” In other words, how much narrative can I strip away, while
delineating that one lyric moment that captures an emotional dynamic? In an earlier
version, the couple had a dog with them; I took the dog out, you don’t need the dog. For
while, they talked more; I took the talking out, it was a distraction. The poem is in the
way she touches his back. That’s the poem. It could probably be a haiku, if you front-
loaded the title.
Gregory Orr does this to great effect in his Orpheus & Eurydice sequence, which Copper
Canyon published in 2001…that really is one of my favorite books, ever, because of
poems like this one:
When Eurydice saw him
huddled in a thick cloak,
she should have known
he was alive,
the way he shivered
beneath its useless folds.
But what she saw
was the usual: a stranger
confused in a new world.
And when she touched him
on the shoulder,
it was nothing
personal, a kindness
To guide someone
through the halls of hell
is not the same as love.
Damn. That’s one of the poems we all wish we’d written, right? Stories, and particularly
third-person narrative, are largely undervalued in today’s poetry.
8. Anything else you want to say?
Only thank you, for these thoughtful questions and the chance to answer them. And: if
you’re going to drink scotch, I recommend a Glen from the Highlands rather than that
peaty, nasty stuff they’ll sell you from Islay.
Also, Charles Wright once said to a group of us (apropos of approximately nothing):
“Life is a big black dog, and poetry is the shadow of that dog.” That sounds about right
|Interview with Sandra Beasley
February 27, 2008
This interview was done through email. Answers and
questions have only been edited for spelling, grammar, etc...
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