Julie Ann: As the 4th Summer Poet-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, you passed the sultry months of June and July in the former home of Faulkner’s mistress. How did that context, historical or otherwise, influence or inspire you?
Sandra Beasley: Having spent my undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, this wasn't the first time I had lived in William Faulkner's shadow. Luckily it's a big, deep shadow with intriguing depths: no one understood the need for solitude even among a crowd--especially among a crowd--better than Faulkner. I loved seeing the town through the prism of his experience (hard to believe he used to work nights at that old power plant in the middle of Ole Miss's campus) and I so enjoyed getting to know Dean Faulkner, Elizabeth Shiver, and others who had known him in life.
It's true that Joan Williams was Faulkner's mistress. But she was also a writer, a Memphis novelist, who found a whole other identity in a companionship with Seymour Lawrence that lasted until his death. Lawrence was the distinguished independent book publisher who bought the house across the street from Rowan Oak that is today known as Grisham House. So I'd like to think of the house as a home to second chances. That's what it was for me.
JA: Your popularity in Oxford was undeniable. Cool local characters extended countless invitations to happenings – from Sunday blues at Foxfire and the Rhythm Festival to coffees and whiskeys at all the best haunts in town. How has your social life been different since leaving town?
SB: That's too generous to call my popularity "undeniable"; it may just be that I knew to have good beer and bocce available at all hours. Still, I'll take it, just as I tried to take every invitation that came my way as the summer-poet-in-residence. Oxford's local unofficial ambassadors--Ron Shapiro, Richard Howorth, and Chico Harris all leap to mind--are rightfully proud of your town and the neighboring Delta culture, so I always had something to do on my radar. I was very lucky to find so many friends so quickly.
Since returning to DC, what I've missed is the organic texture of that social scene. It's not that Washington doesn't have its own great oysters or live music, but it doesn't have them on the simple scale of knowing where to walk and find folks on any given night. In DC it takes umpteen emails to arrange to hang out with someone--and you know you probably won't manage to get together again for another month. I treasure the critical mass of the crowd at Square Books, City Grocery, and the Blind Pig, and I miss the ease of spending an evening wandering from place to place.
JA: You graciously opened your home to Ole Miss MFAs and alums, offering literary salons in the Grisham-house living room (with a feast and bocce afterwards, to boot). During the salon, you discussed Gregory Orr's essay “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry” (found in the book Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, edited by Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryan Voight, 1996). How has this essay informed your own work? When you think of who teaches you, is his work chief among them?
SB: Gregory Orr was an important teacher for me at the University of Virginia, and he continues to be a dear friend and mentor. At first, what drew me to his workshops was the frank way he approached the drafting and critique process; I think of them as "black-coffee workshops," meaning that there was no sweetener of false (and ultimately unproductive) flattery. There is a real potency to the rigor and curiosity with which he approaches poetic craft, though his own experiments in form, his theory of the four temperaments, and other approaches discussed in Poetry As Survival. The older I've gotten, the more I appreciate his larger story as well. Greg has led a rich, complicated life that includes a difficult family history and harrowing service to the Civil Rights movement, and he has done so in a way that has always honored his determination to act as a poet. Read his memoir, The Blessing--it will take your breath away. If my career in any way resembles his thirty years from now, I would be thrilled.
JA: What received form have you worked with most recently?
SB: For a while I have been playing with sestinas--a complex and acrobatic form in which your first six-line stanza determines the endwords for six subsequent stanzas, to be used in a prescribed order, not to mention incorporating an approximately iambic pentameter line. The form lends itself to poems of meditation, obsession, even a rant in the voice of an angry mama platypus (e.g. "The Platypus Speaks"). More recently, I've been indulging in sonnets--somewhat in secret. Why in secret? There is an odd divide in contemporary poetry between the "free verse" poets (a term that would describe both of my books) and the "formalists" (where my work is leaning now)--in which they have different magazines, different book prizes, different summer conferences. It is scary to switch sides, so to speak. But I say whatever intrigues you, go for it, so I'm going for it.
JA: Your non-fiction memoir Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life is on its way to publication. When you were writing the “Allergy Girl” series in your first book, Theories of Falling, did you ever think you would approach the topic in a non-fiction book? How was the process of writing non-fiction different from writing poetry?
SB: I never expected to step into the realm of non-fiction; but then, I never dared dream of supporting myself full-time with my writing. The two opportunities came hand in hand. I'm glad I have gotten to revisit the "Allergy Girl" material in prose, because it was somewhat unwieldy in poetry--too much backstory was required, too much technical detail. Writing Don't Kill the Birthday Girl has offered a wonderful chance to research quirky tandems of medical science and food culture, to reach out for other people's stories, and (I expect) to meet invested readers who will bring their own experience to the table.
JA: What are your favorite things to eat? What would you love to eat, but can't because it would send a sensitive body like yours to the emergency room?
SB: When I was younger I would get cravings for Cinnabon cinnamon rolls, based on the smell alone--and yet I have never eaten a cinnamon roll, or any pastry like one. That was really vexing. (For the record, my allergies include dairy and egg, not to mention cashews, mango, shrimp, beef, cucumber, soy...you get the idea.) But there are plenty of things I love to eat. Sushi is a favorite in restaurants, both because of the taste and because of the consistent elegance of the way the "recipes" are approached. Octopus! Mushrooms! Eggplant! All things I didn't have the guts to try until I was in my mid-20s. And I love to cook--curry-roasted vegetables, quinoa, chicken simmered in salsa or roasted over apples and leeks. There is a real pleasure to making friends with food, after having so many years of having to treat it like my enemy.
JA: In your writing and in person, you have a tender, sweet, inquisitive and strong voice. You are also capable of humility, humor, fierceness, and grandiosity, particularly when you inhabit other voices, as you did in your second collection, I Was the Jukebox. What is it like to make a conscious effort at balancing all these stances?
SB: Oh, goodness. I don't know that I really pull off that balancing act, though I'd like to. The key for me is clarity: articulating an experience in as clear and unsparing terms as possible. You can get away with describing things that are surreal, heretical, even cruel, as long as you describe them clearly. I hate it when poets hide between obtuse wording, and get away with it because society considers them the gatekeepers for ornate language. Poets should be idea-makers, trying for a new truth even if that means risking failure. The poems that work in I Was the Jukebox work because they took that risk. The ones that failed, well, that is an honorable kind of failure. I don't think I'm the only emerging poet out there striving on these terms. Matthew Zapruder, Michael Dumanis, Mathias Svalina, Valzyhna Mort, Zachary Schomburg--all poets I've really come to admire, writing brave and groundbreaking poems. Historically, Eastern European poets (Czeslaw Milosz, Miklos Radnoti, Charles Simic, Wislawa Szymborska) have held the banner high.
JA: The poem “The Angels,” from Theories of Falling, crosses the incorporeal world with a social science approach to humankind. The final stanza, “Every night they listen to the click of our million keyboards,/ toasting the sound American souls make as they collide” is such a poignant way of expressing how the need to share things like emotion, music, ideas, and poetry quietly prevails, albeit in a disconnected and intangible space. How does the internet inform your writing, or your presence in the world of poetry? Which are some of your favorite places for poetry online?
SB: I like your phrasing of the "social science approach." it's true that the third and final section of Theories of Falling lifts into a birds-eye view of our society, and the internet--the sense of community it provides, both false and true--is a big part of that society. The web and tools such as Wikipedia have changed our individual knowledge base forever. So much is accessible in so little time. As an artist, that is both a great blessing (say, when you sit down to write a poem about capybaras and need facts about capybaras) and a great peril (say, when you sit down to write a poem about capybaras and instead browse Lord of the Rings trivia for two hours).
Some of the best poetry publishing is taking place online these days. There are magazines that take full advantage of the web format--DIAGRAM, Linebreak, Anti-, Blackbird--and other journals that mimic traditional formats, such as AGNI and POETRY, but seem genuinely dedicated to broadening their readership through searchable databases and podcasts. I start most days by taking a quick look at Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, which strike me as modern-day commonplace books for poets.
JA: Have you discovered any new poets lately?
I discover new poets every single week--one of the great pleasures of reading, reading, reading, and sifting through blogs. I highly recommend recent books from Heather Hartley (Knock Knock), Ada Limon (Sharks in the Rivers), and Allison Titus (Sum of Every Lost Ship), as well as Lisa Fay Coutley's forthcoming chapbook with Black Lawrence Press, In the Carnival of Breathing. I'm also always excited to see the direction that longtime favorites like Erika Meitner, Kyle Dargan, and Thomas Sayers Ellis are taking with their latest work.
JA: Most intriguing factoid?
SB: Hmmm. Not sure it is THAT intriguing, but I still have one of my baby teeth.
JA: Most transcendent moment?
SB: There have been moments in these past few months--dancing in the field at Pott's Camp while T Model Ford played blues, sitting by a pool in a backyard of Oxford with a homemade margarita and good company, riding around the hills of The Plains, Virginia, surveying an old boss's cattle stock on a sunny day--when I have been dangerously close to being both relaxed and happy. Poets are generally wary of such conditions, fearing them antithetical to creative success, but those moments transcended that fear. The rumor is that's called "Having a Life." I plan a rigorous further investigation.
Julie Ann is an MFA student at the University of Mississippi. Born in Independence, Missouri, she studied psychology at Elizabethtown College and Auburn University. As an emerging poet and freelance writer, her work appears in a number of publications. Julie Ann thrives on travel and resides semi-permanently in Oxford.
Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox (W. W. Norton, 2010, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize) and Theories of Falling, (New Issues, 2008, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize). Other honors include the 2010 University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, and fellowships to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, VCCA, and the Millay Colony. She lives in Washington, D.C., and her forthcoming non-fiction book Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life will be published by Crown.