September is back-to-school month. And while “back to school” is never really much fun for any of us, it could actually be something we’d all look forward to if we knew that Sandra Beasley was going to teach the class.
I first became acquainted with Sandra last October when a fellow poet and friend who lives in Japan called my attention to her ‘Net publication – “The Natives Are Restless.” I was indeed impressed and wrote her a congratulatory note. She had the graciousness to answer in her characteristically modest, almost self-effacing way – and so, here we are today.
As she would never think of doing it herself, allow me this brief introduction:
RRB:Sandra, how did one so young become so wise in the ways of the world? I realize my question may be a bit off-putting, but I have to confess: when I first read some of your stuff – and long before I saw your picture – I thought you were a much older woman. And probably British, by the way.
SFB:Well, my young life wasn’t a Dickens novel; I didn’t have to pick pockets or beg for another bowl of gruel in order to survive. So my knowledge of the ways of the world certainly isn’t complete just yet. Driving a stick shift, for example, mystifies me, as does completing my Schedule C tax form.
That said—and I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I work on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, which is partially autobiographical—having a complex and life-threatening medical condition as a child makes for a preternatural maturity. If you have a situation like mine (food allergies), you can’t flake out on the details when casual exposure to so many things might kill you. You have to pay close attention to your environment, and you become a quick study to human nature.
I had great developmental opportunities as a child. In the house: an artist mother who encouraged my creativity and my eye for image; a lawyer father who showed me that intellectual precision is a mark of craft. A much-younger sister who made me pay close attention to the precious rhythms (and occasional perils) of family life. Outside the house: poetry workshops offered as early as the third grade. A rich, gifted and talented program at school, with engaged teachers and even chess classes.
I mention chess because my embrace of it was a tip-off to my competitive side—which drives me even today. The publishing side of writing is what you make of it, and there’s no shame in being ambitious. But the ambition should feed risk-taking, not curdle it. It’s not enough to aim for safe competence.
RRB:In that case, Sandra, I’ll open with “K. P. two” and see if I can catch you in a Scholar’s Mate in four.
On second thought, it sounds as if you’re operating with the equivalent of a genetic Long Island Iced Tea, so I might just quit the field and cede victory without offering even this little gambit.
Why don’t we instead look at your first piece “Cherry Tomatoes” and let you give us a bit of background to its inspiration and composition?
SFB:As I mention sometimes at readings, this poem originated with a prompt from the poet Dana Roeser during her Jenny McKean Moore Workshop at George Washington University. She had covered the table with objects from the natural world—shells, rocks, dried flowers, fruit—and asked each student to take up an object as the subject of an ode. Since I tend to be a little rebellious when it comes to prompts; what I wrote was the anti-ode of “Cherry Tomatoes.”
In first approaching the draft, I simply fixated on the bilious properties of tomatoes: the way they go bad, their squishiness even when good, the liminality of being both fruit and vegetable. On a craft level, I wanted to see if I could use enjambment to recreate the momentum of biting into a tomato—the eruption—and also, explore how many different metaphors the object could occupy without overcrowding the poem. (Pablo Neruda had a really good eye for such balances.) The disposable container became a coffin; the guts, “blood of a perfect household”; each globe, a skinned sunset.
But as I started to think about how I came by those impressions, and about how so often eating habits and biases are inherited traditions, the domestic drama came into focus. For so many families, food becomes a meeting ground (or, for some families, a battleground). “Cherry Tomatoes” felt like the right lead-off to the first section of Theories of Falling, which focuses on childhood and utilizes a fair amount of autobiographical material.
RRB:In one fell swoop, Sandra, you’ve sold (at least me) on buying your book and introduced a new word into my (non-working) vocabulary: “liminality.” And what was I saying just a few minutes ago about “back to school?”
The next piece (“The Natives Are Restless”) we’re going to look at won you a bit of fame, did it not? Well, if not exactly “fame,” then at least recognition. What’s it like to have to dodge the paparazzi from dawn till dusk? And while you’re at it, please tell us how this piece came about.
SFB:Oh, to be plagued by paparazzi! Or even pestered by them a wee bit. Honestly, I’m not sure there is any such thing as fame or fortune in the poetry world. There’s only the slow haul from readings you go into debt to give, to readings where you break even, to readings that cover your dinner, to readings with reimbursement for airfare, to readings where maybe, just maybe, someone else picks up your mini-bar tab. That last stage would be my nirvana.
But I have been very fortunate that the publication of a few poems, such as this one, has brought mail from strangers. Given how often we feel like we are labouring in a void, who doesn’t love to hear from a gracious reader? I would be remiss in not thanking the editors of Linebreak for plucking this one out of the slush pile. I love their publication schedule, in which each selection is the lone poem for the week – not to mention their sleek web presentation.
“The Natives are Restless” began in absurdity. I could not shake this mental image of a suburban front door swinging open to reveal a pack of brightly painted tribesman, goats and all. Since at the time I was doing a draft-a-day project, I couldn’t afford to discard any kernel of poetry that might help me make my daily quota. Starting with that image, no endpoint in mind, I let the narrative unspool—which turned out to mean following the thread of the woman who opens the door and goes from being hostess, to goddess, to sacrificial offering.
In my initial draft, I thought of this as a goofy little thing – primarily as an opportunity for play. Some might recognize that final moment, the house turning on chicken legs, as a nod to the Baba Yaga folktales. Yet when the poem came out, it seemed to really speak to people.
I was searching through online responses, and I found one woman’s explanation of why she loved the poem: she said it captured the all-consuming nature of motherhood. I embraced her reading (granted, you have to think of children as strangers at the front door, a leap I had no problem making) and when I went back to the text, sure enough, those seeds of domestic pathos were sown throughout. Though I wasn’t fully conscious in that intention at the time of drafting—blame a midnight deadline when you have to let your demons have the run of the page—her gloss of the poem is authentic and justified.
The experience was a humbling, invigorating reminder that I am so lucky to have good readers in this world.
RBB:Sandra, I know you have to run, so I won’t keep you. Instead, I’ll let one last piece speak for you on your way out the door. I found “Orchis” online on DrunkenBoat.com before we started our interview and quite liked it. I’ll let it speak for both of us in saying “g’night.”
Imagine having one good leg and keeping
your ovary in it. You grow tired. You grow
fickle. You grow on corpses.
You are secretly excited when trees catch fire.
Your mother lives in New Guinea and weighs a ton.
In the cloud forests of Costa Rica your smallest sisters
mutter Bite me through purple lips seen only
with a magnifying glass. In the 1800s,
scientists claimed you could not be grown in a lab;
so you did, just to spite them. Now
every year brings some humiliating study
on the aunt who reeks of carrion, or the uncle
in the Yunnan who won’t stop fertilizing himself.
You swear you won’t be another table pet.
Sometimes at the Farmer’s Market
a woman with yapping dogs looks at you
and all you can do is droop. God, no.
You dream sometimes of Greece, two legs,
the festival where you drank too much wine.
When the priestess said Come here, you came.
When she said Stop, you kept coming. The guests
made a red circle around you. They grabbed your hair,
your arm, chanting, your other arm, pulling,
clawing the skin until it surrendered from muscle,
the unbearable tearing, and you wake—
unable to scream with your lush, exploded tongue.
Of course you invited them in: faces painted
like trick-or-treaters, carrying pointy spears.
The youngest clutched his goat, the tallest
her stack of bowls, and you had rooms to spare.
They fill the house with song and drums;
they show you the dance for morning, the dance
for evening, the dance for mowing the lawn.
They yank the dust covers off your heart.
Now you have sheets to iron, skirts to mend.
You wish your husband was here to see this:
You are useful. You are adored. They want
marrow for breakfast, pancakes for supper.
They like to watch you work the griddle.
You try to teach the youngest to play checkers,
but he wants to play Tied to the Stake, Capture
the Blonde. Some nights they get a little loud
in their chanting, and you worry where the cats
disappeared to. But then they show some
unexpected kindness: a vertebrae necklace,
a cool compress, a broth of leeks and onion.
They need your gentle hand, your quick stitch.
They need for you to live, at least until they need
to kill you. Some nights the house rises up
on chicken legs and turns in circles around you.
You are their egg — their center, the warmth
and flutter. They will wait as long as they can.
Little bastards of vine.
Little demons by the pint.
Red eggs that never hatch,
just collapse and rot. When
my mom told me to gather
their grubby bodies
into my skirt, I'd cry. You
and your father, she'd chide—
the way, each time I kicked
and wailed against sailing,
my dad shook his head, said
You and your mother.
Now, a city girl, I ease one
loose from its siblings,
from its clear plastic coffin,
place it on my tongue.
Just to try. The smooth
surface resists, resists,
and erupts in my mouth:
seeds, juice, acid, blood
of a perfect household.
The way, when I finally
went sailing, my stomach
was rocked from inside
out. Little boat, big sea.
Handful of skinned sunsets.
Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Joy Harjo and forthcoming from W. W. Norton. The prize is for the best second collection of poems by an American woman poet. Her debut book, Theories of Falling, was selected by Marie Howe as the winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2008). Recent work can be found in AGNI online, Blackbird, Barrelhouse, and Black Warrior Review, which published Bitch and Brew: Sestinas in their chapbook series. Her work has been anthologized on Verse Daily and in 2005 Best New Poets, Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel(Second Story), and the forthcoming Online Writing: The Best of the First Ten Years.
Beasley contributes columns to the Washington Post Sunday Magazine as part of their “XX Files.” In 2009 she signed with Writers’ Representatives. She is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a nonfiction book forthcoming from Crown.
Awards for her work include the 2008 Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets and Writers and the 2006 Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize from Passages North at Northern Michigan University, as well as seven nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Residencies and fellowships include the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.
Beasley lives in Washington D.C., where she earned her MFA at American University. She also serves on the Board for the Writer’s Center and as the Literary Chair of the Arts Club of Washington, where she hosts a reading series.