Sandra Beasley is the author of four poetry collections—Made to Explode, Count the Waves, I Was the Jukebox, which won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling—as well as Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a disability memoir and cultural history of food allergies. She served as the editor for Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. Honors for her work include the 2019 Munster Literature Centre’s John Montague International Poetry Fellowship, a 2015 NEA fellowship, and five DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities fellowships. She lives in Washington, D.C.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I have a life inflected by publishing books, and I am incredibly grateful. Yet I’m wary of defining a book as a “life-changing event.” What changes your life most are the choices you make, how you spend your time and who you spend it with, that gets those pages written. What can also change your life is the travel or conversation you activate once you have a book—but not everyone can do that, for reasons ranging from finances to health to caregiving responsibilities to, well, a pandemic. And the work isn’t devalued by those realities.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poems drew me in before anything else had a chance. I was fortunate to encounter Rose MacMurray, who was known as the “Poetry Lady of Fairfax County,” and who volunteered her time for many years to teach workshops to elementary school students in northern Virginia. She was a bombastic presence, who gave sophisticated assignments in ekphrasis, soundplay, and concrete poems—and she rewarded every student’s effort with such warmth. I looked forward to those sessions every week.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I tend to hold the idea for a project in my head for a long time before setting it down on the page. My strength is that I love the revision process—chopping and pasting, the tweaking of phrasing—usually with a significant amount of reading aloud. What is ever “final,” really? Sometimes I shift the point of view and pronoun usage in between publishing an individual poem and putting it in a manuscript, for the sake of the larger book’s cohesion. Sometimes I’ll improvise when reading the poem for an audience, adding helping language for clarity. When working with a translator, I have to be comfortable with the poem changing yet again. There is no “final shape”; there’s the Platonic form of the poem, and the best approximation of it at any given time.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I get an idea or a phrase stuck in my head. What follows from there is like oyster making a pearl: a messy mix of nacreous juices, accumulating one layer at a time. My experience is that I have to write at least twenty poems before I can start to perceive a critical mass of a collection. I used to have to write well beyond “full-length," then cut back based on what seem to be the strongest work. Now I can write into an open space with greater intentionality.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love giving readings! I’m an extrovert, so meeting new people and performing for them is a recharging experience for me. The best readings are ones designed with a spirit of inclusivity, with translators, and staged in accessible spaces.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Writing should incite change. For some writers, it’s enough if that change is internal, and I respect that. Other writers try to shift an aesthetic or a culture. There has been a frank call to white American writers to write about whiteness, and I do some of that in Made to Explode, which results in poems that exist in an uneasy space of witness and shame. Placing those poems alongside poems of joy and reverence, temperaments that come naturally, was hard. But writing should be hard.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does she/he/they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’m open to any writer's “purpose” that isn’t merely decorative.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
You have to be your own best and most rigorous editor. At the same time, trusted readers represent my readers and can notice things I do not, especially in terms of backstories or connective reasoning that I take for granted. Working with Norton has given me a particular appreciation for the elegance of their editorial work at multiple levels: order and sequence, fact-checking, proofing. As someone who writes poems entrenched in detail, I need help herding the minutiae.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Also, one piece of advice I’ve learned the hard way: beware situations where each party thinks they are doing the other a favor.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?
Before I pursued creative writing in college, I’d attended a high school for science and technology, so writing a memoir specifically focused on food allergies called on my vocabulary of medicine in a satisfying way. I don’t think of toggling between the two genres as a particularly firm boundary, because many of my poems are grounded in “nonfiction” research and historical anecdote. There’s a section of Made to Explode that is mostly prose-poems on monuments and memorials; before they coalesced into that form, I wondered if they might come together in a segmented essay. But I do think that working in prose permits a different, more leisurely and potentially digressive pace of telling a story.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My writing routine is incredibly idiosyncratic, but here’s what I need: a clear surface, and a view of the outside.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My most self-destructive habit is that when I feel guilty about not writing, I punish myself by not reading. That’s a terrible instinct because reading is what gets me most excited to write. That, and a hot shower in which I hash out a few opening lines.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My husband and I both love to cook meals from scratch, so it’s ironic that what comes to mind is the simplest of "scent-recipes": a tray of Ore-Ida potatoes, hot and crispy in the oven.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Oh, my gosh, all those things. My mother is a visual artist, as is my husband (Champneys Taylor), so I can’t imagine navigating the world without visual art. My poems teem with animals and trivia drawn from the sciences. In terms of music, I’m most moved by bluegrass and blues. There's something very satisfying about dropping the name of a particular composer into a poem; many readers will glide right past it but for the right reader, it opens a whole other door.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The poets I felt most deeply inspired by early on—and ever since—are Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, e.e. cummings, and Sylvia Plath. In terms of my own style and approach to craft, I am deeply in conversation with Elizabeth Bishop and Gregory Orr. One of the honors of working with W.W. Norton is that they are publishing such an important cohort of contemporary American stateswomen; the fact that I’m on the same press as Joy Harjo, Marilyn Chin, and Rita Dove means the world to me.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to make a road trip clear across the country, with San Francisco as my destination city. Like many, I’m dreaming of travel these days.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
As a teenager, I took a medication for my allergies and asthma that gave me a shake in my hands, so I put aside any thoughts of being a surgeon early on. I’d have been an excellent forensic psychologist, but it might be a chilly and isolating profession; I worried about the stories I’d be bringing home at the end of the night. If I were choosing now, I’d go into arts administration—but only with an organization where I believed deeply in the mission and constituency, because that’s a 24/7 job.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I became a writer because I couldn’t not be a writer. In my late twenties, I quit a great editorial job because I signed a contract with a one-year deadline to write 60,000 words. I’ve been crazy-quilting a living ever since.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I read half-dozen essay collections over the winter break, two of which stood out: Jennine Capo Crucet’s My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education, and Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno. The last great movie I saw was Uncut Gems, yet I should admit that’s different from saying I “enjoyed" the movie, which was relentlessly tension-inducing. Still, I couldn’t help but admire the craft and the pacing. For the sake of genuine pleasure, we have used the pandemic time to delve into Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work, and I delighted in Spirited Away—in part because our cat, Sal, has an uncanny “No-Face” expression. Two of the best poetry collections I read in 2020 were Nate Marshall’s Finna and Kiki Petrosino’s White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m thinking about train songs.
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