I first met Sandra Beasley when she came to Miami for LegalArt Miami, a residency dedicated to providing artists with a support structure (or legal art?). We met in real life and and ate real food at Wynwood Kitchen, a cool place with fun graffiti murals but okay food ( 2.5 stars). We met again during Wynwood Art Walk and had a nice pre-Walk dinner at Joey’s, (5 stars) a yummy northern Italian restaurant in the Wynwood Art District. During our dinners, we spoke about life, love, robots (or maybe I just mad made that up), jukeboxes, love again, poetry, traveling through space & time, bungee jumping out of airplanes and Beasley’s soon to be released memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. No, we didnt’ talk about bungee jumping but it would have been a fun topic of conversation. Sandra Beasley is a mighty human who uses language to illuminate and elucidate the nature of human nature. In this interview, Beasley reveals what she wants to be when she grows up and other glorious things–like the identity of “Floof”.
Almost Dorothy: What is a poem?
Sandra Beasley: A poem is an idea, anchored by figuration and heightened into revelation. A poem’s dominant strength should be verbal (in other words, a visual artwork is not a “poem” just because it incorporates text). A poem should be an act of exploration, something that asserts a new truth about the world. I am not interested in passive observation, no matter how artfully constructed. A poem is a tough shard of a thing.
AD: After reading your book i was the jukebox (W.W. Norton & Company, April 2010), I was left wondering what you were before you were the jukebox. Care to explain?
SB: So much of the attention we give to emerging writers is focused on cultivating voice. Make it distinct, we say. Make it yours and yours alone. Naturally, this concept of a unique voice gets conflated with all the biological and cultural things that define the writer as a person—gender, race, age, slang, class—so it’s no great surprise that many first major works adopt a veiled but heavily autobiographical point of view. That’s mostly true of my debut collection, Theories of Falling.
But then I think it is important to step back and think of all the other ways a voice registers: level of formality, pacing, an ear for sound, a style of syntax. These are the truly defining characteristics of one’s voice on the page. In my second collection (i was the jukebox) I wanted to write about worlds and perspectives wildly different from my own, whether an orchid or a platypus, and have faith that the poems would still “sound” like me (as the author) in a way that provided cohesion. After all, the best jukeboxes don’t hold completely random songs—you need a sense that someone’s aesthetic curated the catalogue.
If you’re looking for a great jukebox in DC, by the way, I’d point you to the Red Room Bar at the Black Cat.
AD: I’m not of age but I’ll check it out once I turn 16. Sandra, are you still the jukebox?
SB: You got a roll of quarters that you’re looking to spend?
AD: No, but I have sliced pickles. When I read i was the jukebox, I wasn’t expecting any potty mouth language coming out of your jukebox. In your poem, “In The Deep” you write: the “boys are fifteen/and fuckwild:/Fuck the glass fish…/fuck the nautilus…/fuck her blue rings./fuck her three hearts.” What is it about cursing, especially using the f-bomb, that activates a poem?
SB: Diction is a tricky thing. This poem has two engines: the octopus, all elegance and intelligence, and the brute energy of fifteen-year-old boys. I wanted to get in all those rich anatomical details, but I didn’t want the poem to become a nature study. So I put the observation into the mouths of the boys, complete with their litany of introductory fucks. I’m sure anyone who has ever overheard a teenage conversation that appears to be entirely composed of “Fuck, yeah” can relate.
AD: Fuck,yeah! I love to say that word.
SB: The irony is that while the boys emanate aggression with all those f-bombs, that’s an empty threat. It’s really the octopus, with her quiet handling of the baby doll, that could do some damage.
AD: When doesn’t fuck or cursing work in poet-tree?
SB: Most of the time. There are exceptions: Ntozake Shange‘s “crack annie” comes to mind. But if a poem goes for shock value that isn’t grounded in a particular character or social condition, that poem is going to have a short shelf life. I may be sipping coffee out of a Rumpus mug that reads “Write like a motherfucker,” but the truth is that I hardly ever swear. Nine times out of ten, there is a better and more original way to get your point across.
AD: In the poem “My God”, you write that your god is short, likes bacon, and never flosses. That sounds like my ma. I’m wondering if she’s god. Anyway, what kind of god does this? And don’t say my god.
SB: I was raised without the reference frame of religion. Maybe my parents thought that would leave me free to choose (or not choose) a faith later. As it turns out, it is really difficult to relate to the concept of “God” unless there has been some groundwork laid in childhood. This poem tries to articulate an understanding of God in the same way I understand myself and the people around me—in details and contradictions, in everyday mess, with both love and resignation.
I’m always surprised by the number of high school students who read that poem and assume it’s about my father.
SB: Yep, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl will be out in July. Writing a memoir (or any nonfiction book) is very different from the organic process of assembling a poetry collection. In poetry, there is only a minor distance between the Platonic version of a poem in my head and what makes it onto the page. But the gap between a Platonic understanding of my life to date (not to mention all the attending science of food and allergies) and what one “memoir” can capture—that gap seems so big and messy in comparison. I took some risks; I think they were good risks. I just can’t wait to see the damn thing in print.
AD: Can you reveal a morsel from it, a blurb, a line or two, or make an oblique, cobwebbed reference to what it may or may not be about?
SB: The first chapter includes the following references: Mickey Mouse, small town waitresses, malnutrition, a pink polka-dot dress, needles, Reader’s Digest, milk (bad), avocadoes (good), Hippocrates, Red Rover Red Rover, and Russian roulette.
AD: I love hippopotamuses and corn on the cobweb. What do you want to be when you grow up?
SB: A writer. If that doesn’t work out, I’d love to perform trapeze. That’s one art blessedly unchanged by modern technology.
AD: Favorite curse word & use it in a sentence.
SB: I was serious about not cussing much. Ever since I was a kid I’ve used “Foof!” as my go-to expletive of surprise. If I do happen to truly curse, I tend to look upwards (as if toward some holy audience) and apologize under my breath afterwards. Ridiculous, especially since I don’t practice a religion and use “goddamn” freely. But there you have it—my inner puritan.
So I will hearken back to the great Redd Foxx, a better man than I, or at least a saltier sailor. He said this: “I say ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ for one reason: people do. If you ain’t fucked, shit. And if you ain’t shit, fuuuck.”
AD: Ohmygod. I’m going to chruch or church now to repent for Mr. Foxx. What was your biggest-giantest breakthrough.
SB: I feel like the answer should be when my first book won the New Issues Poetry Prize in 2007. But it was really the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, which I received in 2008. In part, because I got to carry out the prize of that award (a weeklong trip to New York and a reading at Housing Works) with Theories of Falling in hand, which put it on the radar of those it might have never reached otherwise. In part, because that trip was when I got introduced to the man who became my agent, who eventually landed the nonfiction book deal that allowed me to quit my job. In part, because they bought me sushi and put me up in the Library Hotel and let me dream that my talent could actually make a way for me in this world. I will always love Poets & Writers for that.
AD: Biggest setback.
SB: Once upon a time, I was devastated to be rejected by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But in hindsight, I am profoundly grateful I came home to Washington, DC, and received my MFA from The American University while staying close to my family in Virginia. Artists tend to regard regional history as either a burden or an inheritance. In my case, it has been a gift.
AD: If you could be any beverage, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, what would you be and why?
SB: My love is scotch: strong, tied to the land, sometimes smooth, sometimes smoky, improved with age, warming on a cold night. I could think of worse things than being a neat pour of scotch.
AD: How will it end?
SB: I don’t know. But if it turns out we’re all a dream in someone’s mind, I hope that mind belongs to Jim Henson. I’m flexible on whether that leads to The Dark Crystal or The Muppets Take Manhattan.
AD: Maybe it will lead us to the The Dark Crystal Muppets Take Manhattan.
Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Joy Harjo and published by W. W. Norton. Her debut, Theories of Falling, was selected by Marie Howe as the winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008). Beasley is also an essayist whose work has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine. In July of this year, Crown will publish her memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, which offers a cultural history of food allergies in America. Awards for her work include a 2010 Individual Artist Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the 2009 Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and a 2008 Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets and Writers. Residencies and fellowships include a 2011 LegalArt Residency in Miami, the 2010 Summer Poet in Residence fellowship at the University of Mississippi, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and fellowships to the Jentel Artist Residency, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. Beasley lives in Washington D.C.