June 30, 2009

A Confusion of Cottonwood

One day past the half-way mark of our time at Jentel, the cottonwood tree behind the artists' studios has surrendered the majority of its blooms to the air. White fluff everywhere, alighting on the pines, gathering into puffy clumps, and it really does look like snow.

Some of the other residents went tubing today in the creek around our house, only to discover that with the water this high and running this fast, those who miss the very improvised "end of the ride" mark go headlong into a barbed wire fence. They regathered, got into cars, and headed out for the lake. I'm a little sorry to not be along for the ride (well, the non-barbed portion), but on these overcast days I find myself able to get a bit more work done than usual.

I've written a 2,000-word essay here, which feels like a useful bridge between a typical Post column (750 words) and the 5,000-word chapters that will make up the book. Funny to admit that when I consider places to send it, my mind goes immediately to mainstream venues. If I'd studied CNF as part of my MFA program I would be thinking about Witness and AGNI. Instead, I'm thinking about Slate and "Modern Love."

The difference is not just one of visibility, though that's a big factor; I'm still learning to accept the jaw-clenching exposure of the personal that comes with an "XX File." There's a difference in pacing, too. When I read Mark Doty's Firebird I was struck by the indulgences of "literary" nonfiction--the amount of time spent on constructed metaphors, analytical projections, background info worked in via artificial prompts (anyone who was ever told to "write in response to a family photo" in workshop recognizes these). On one hand I envy the beauty of the writing. On the other hand I think You've got these compelling events; you don't need all this embroidery.

I feel like one of my principle tasks, in writing nonfiction, is to get out of the story's way. Did I somehow turn into a journalist when I wasn't looking?


The good:

(This bunny lives on the grounds right by the house, and can be seen almost every dusk.)


The bad:

(One of four--update! five!--I've seen so far. I don't fear snakes, so it's not really a "bad" thing. Just causes the occasional double-take when I'm walking back to the main house in the dark.)


The Minty:

(We tried venturing into Sheridan one night to meet the locals, but it was a bit of a bust. Was it the skirt and high heels that screamed "carpetbagging citified writer"? Still, I'd like to go back...superb draft amber ales--Alaska, Fat Tire--for $3.15. That even beats Charlottesville.)


Even in a household full of women, it soon becomes clear that there are varying levels of domesticity. I'm shocked to find myself on the homemaker end of the spectrum. Buying flowers, closing cabinet doors, clucking over the misplaced cordless phone, cooking big pots of things and leaving them out for the taking. Of course, maybe it's not so much "domestic instinct" as "control freak." Hmmmm.

June 25, 2009


Looking for the Jentel Tour? Here is part one, and then part two. Thanks for the link, Eduardo!


June 24, 2009

June 23, 2009

June 22, 2009

Snippets from Jentel

The new (July/August) issue of Poetry is making its way into the world--complete with three of my poems--but I haven't seen it yet. My subscriber's copy is sitting, forlorn, in my mailbox at home. Thanks to anyone who wrote to tell me they like what they read. I actually got a lift into Sheridan on Friday to record readings of those poems, that just might be featured in the upcoming monthly "editors' podcast" distributed through the Poetry Foundation website. Fingers crossed.


Last night there was a wicked and glorious lightning storm. We turned off all the lights in the house, sat and watched.


A big pleasure has been switching from junk-food reading to real, nourishing literature. I find it impossible to write unless I am reading voraciously. I've found the perfect leather-couched spot to sit and, when needed, rest my eyes on the mountains of Wyoming. Read or re-read so far: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Please by Jericho Brown (a fellow New Issues poet!), The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham, Normal People Don't Live Like This by Dylan Landis, Parallel Play by Stephen Burt, Firebird by Mark Doty.


I'm embarrassed to admit I prefer the movie adaptation of The Painted Veil.


Shopping for nine days in one swoop is hard, especially if you are used to the accessible grocery stores of city life, and you're in an unfamiliar kitchen with unknown "staples." The salad greens and tomatoes barely survived six days. Our little band of artists has discovered we have too much rice, too much olive oil, and a ridiculous amount of cherries. But too few onions, and no tin foil. Or cardamom.


On the upside, I will be ready for some serious cooking when I return home. Not just stir fry!


There are no squirrels in Wyoming. There are fireflies--I think. It may just be reflection of my optical mouse against the studio window, catching my eye when I accidentally lift it off the desk.


I have found a comfortable walking path. I don't aspire to power-walking; I plug into Neko Case, or Patty Griffin, and swing my arms at a corresponding pace. I have to wear a bright orange vest so as not to be shot by a hunter, or run down by a passing truck. So stylish. On my way back home today, I came across the usual countless antelope, the alpha bull of the Daly Angus ranch, and--whoa--two dung beetles, rolling their treasure across the road. I leaned down, fascinated by the choreography of their work, the perfect brown sphere, the way they took turns rolling backwards. Took me a good two minutes to realize that I was leaning toward dung.


Today we had a random black dog on grounds. Friendly, well-behaved enough (clingy but didn't try to follow us indoors). No tags, just a flea collar. I hope he's sleeping at home tonight.


Tomorrow will be the first day I wake up with only new writing projects ahead of me. Nonfiction. Sestinas. This first week has been spent on little things, projects that followed me from DC. They're not completely off my plate but they are at rest pending feedback. Free to tackle bigger things...That's gonna feel good. And terrifying.

June 18, 2009

A Visual Tour of Jentel: Part Two

...also known as "Soon I'll start writing, I promise."

Welcome to Main House!

When you step inside the house, the first thing you notice is all the visual texture. Original art and international antiques are scattered throughout the house, curated by Neltje (our benefactor; "Jentel" is a namesake). To be honest, the very first thing I noticed was the stack of hula hoops in the mud room. They prepare you for every occasion.

Hard to imagine a kitchen big enough to fit six residents, each with their own groceries and recipes, but here you have it. One glory of a newer facility: efficient gas burners and fridges, plenty of place settings, and a general lack o' grunge and grease scum. I love you, VCCA, but your kitchen leaves a lot to be desired in comparison.

The living room is home to Scrabble, thunderstorm-watching, and a wood-burning stove. The leather couch is especially comfy and capacious. The smartest thing they did was build a house big enough to accommodate 10--and then house only six people at a time.

Mid-climb up the stairs, you get a sense of the tall ceilings and general airiness.

This is the entertainment room--complete with DVD, VHS player, and what looks like the entire VHS stock of a Tower Records bought on closing discount. Last night we inaugurated this room with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I bring it to every residency; it is my favorite contemporary movie.

A lounge in the upstairs library, which looks out onto a balcony. With this photo, we enter a second phase of the house tour: the nooks. This is the land of a thousand reading nooks.

Under the stairs: the overpillowed nook. Kind of looks like a Mediterranean casbah. (Where's the Jentel hookah?)

The south-by-southwest nook, just inside the front door.

"Lawdy, I'm feeling too faint to even make it down this hall. If only there were a settee for me to rest my tired, artistic feet...."

A brief detour: even the bathrooms are scenic.

This is kind of a funny nook. It makes me think of Tom Sawyer, assigned to whitewash that fence. Or dunce caps.

The red chair nook. Every colony should have a really red chair.

The rocking chair nook. Although I wish this was an outside rocker, they gain many points for the sink-turned-planter.

My nook! In my room. I always wanted one of these chairs, growing up. My friend Ashley had not one but two in her downstairs basement, which I took to be irrefutable proof that her family was rich.

As in my studio, even the functional--shelves and a dresser--are transformed into an art installation. I call this "Still life with towel, shawl, and bottle of Glenlivet."

Each room is named after an artist or writer; I am in the Henri Matisse Room, which is surely the inspiration for this bed. Lush, bright, and thoroughly floral.

..And finally, the back view, as you leave the house. But why would anybody ever want to leave this house?

June 16, 2009

A Visual Tour of Jentel: Part One

Welcome to the Jentel Artist Residency in Wyoming...

...also known as "Sandra forces herself to learn how this damned digital camera works."

Here is the home stretch of the long and winding road to Jentel--about 10 miles outside Sheridan, population 10,000. On the drive out one is like to spot deer, elk, cattle, horses, eagles, and prairie dogs.

As one comes up the driveway, the naturally scenic landscape becomes a bit more arranged. The immediate grounds are kept trimmed and gravel-pathed. But out back is "The Thousand Acres," a fenced off property that is perfect for wandering, as long as you don't need a trail. The residents are invited to access this property by using a specially built staircase that hops a fence.

Example of careful arrangement: There are these gorgeous irises everywhere. Probably not native to the plains, but they seem to thrive. The weather this time of year can vary by as much as 50 degrees (!) in a given week.

The first building you might spot is the office, with "J E N T E L" spelled out in big black letters that dance along the log siding. We're given all the privacy we need, and I admit that I welcome having some people who come to work at Jentel each day. Later in the month I'd love to stop in and learn more about the business of managing a colony. In many ways Jentel is unique, because it is the result of a single living benefactor--who lives just down the road.

This building houses the artist studios. There are four visual artists in residence at any given time. They have beds in their studios, and a lot of floor space, but the surfaces and furniture are pretty spartan to make cleaning easier.

...on the other hand, there are only two writers. We hide out in this cozy little cabin next door, brimming with fabric and color.

In so many colonies the door to one's studio is industrial-strength, impenetrable, bland blonde wood. Not here. Just translucent enough for a view to the outside world; just crimson enough to feel curtained from spies.

Every desk that has ever suited me was pulled up to a window. Better yet: these windows can be opened for a proper breeze. For the record, this is about as cluttered as I allow a desk to be. I keep my clutter elsewhere.

Even the shelves--usually a ramshackle hand-me-down at a colony--are engaging to the eye. There is one red wall, one white wall, and thankfully the red wall is at my back when I'm writing. Red is my favorite color, but it is potent; if I was every going to write a horror book, I would do so in an all-red room.

This is where I could happily spend the rest of my life, or at least many a night at Jentel. The chair fully reclines. The stove works year-round, and is controlled by a thermostat particular to my studio. So I don't have to worry about making anyone else overly toasty. Those are my books on the shelf--for once I brought as many prose books as poetry. What I read determines what I write, and I want to push through on some significant writing for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life while I'm here.

Beyond the window of my studio runs a creek that encircles the residency. It is deep enough and fast enough for tubing, though we'll have to steel ourselves for some icy water. At night the crickets and frogs gather to the creek bank, and I can hear them calling to each other from my studio.

In lieu of garden gnomes, the grounds are dotted with vintage farm implements, each well into the fourteen rainbow shades of oxidation. Just on the other side of this artfully placed plow: The main house! The main house!

Up next: The Main House, a.k.a. the land of a thousand nooks...

June 14, 2009

Born to Run

...And then, sometimes, you quit your job. Even in a bad economy. Even when it's a good job. This book won't write itself!

Tomorrow I am on my way to the Jentel Artist Residency outside Sheridan, Wyoming, sharing a house with five other artists for a month. I've already shipped myself a box of books, oatmeal, a handful of DVDs (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; A Room With a View; Born Into This). I'm packing binoculars for birdwatching. I'm packing this darned digital camera with the intent of learning to use it. I'm packing tank tops for the days, sweaters for the nights, and the only pair of strappy high-heeled shoes ever designed by Tevas (practical soles! I swear!). I'm tucking a small bottle of Glenlivet deep into the depths of my checked bag as a reward for surviving the two flights and two-and-a-half-hour shuttle from Billings, Montana.

Once settled I will launch headlong into outlining, drafting, and (I hope) a little poetry-ing. I can't wait.

A snapshot of Jentel, courtesy of their website:

June 11, 2009

Onwards, Upwards, and with a Little Shimmy

New York was lovely--thanks to everyone who attended, and to the folks at louderARTS for bringing me on as a featured reader. Mazz Swift, the featured electric violinist, was amazing. (I originally typed that as "amazon," and that's kind of true as well. She's an outrageously awesome presence.) Every time I go to New York I feel a bit more oriented; the city becomes both smaller and denser, as I start to understand that two different worlds can be as close as parallel blocks. This trip's discoveries included Trinity Church (I'm not always inclined, but this one is has the perfect size and intimacy), the waterfront cafe near the office of Poets & Writers, and the fact that my sister lives practically on top of the KGB Bar.

The reading below, tomorrow at Art-o-matic, will be my last appearance in the DC area for a while. I'm gettin' out of of dodge for a month, for a Jentel Artist Residency stint just outside of Sheridan, Wyoming. I'll have internet access and I'll be blogging from the colony--in fact, I'll probably be blogging more, since my last two weeks have been preoccupied with readying for the trip. But if you're in the area, I'll hope to see you one last time before I go, at the reading listed below. It's going to be a party.

June 07, 2009

Live in New York

louderARTS: the reading series

Sandra Beasley and Mazz Swift

Monday, June 8th at 7:30pm

13 Bar Lounge at 35 East 13th Street
corner of University and 13th
(all trains to Union Square)
$6 ($5 for students with ID)


...Mazz Swift, by the way, is an electric violinist and the mainstay of the fusion duo Brazz Tree. Hang onto your knickers, kids. It's gonna be pretty damn cool.

June 04, 2009

Lucky Stars

I've made peace with the fact that I never take photos--even now, with my shiny new digital camera--but I wish I'd captured a frame or two from last night, when I hosted an absolutely delightful reading at the Arts Club of Washington with poets Jessica Garratt and Lisa Russ Spaar. Beforehand I had dinner with the two poets and Kriston Capps, a friend of Jessica's from grad school days and a writer who is making important contributions to deepening arts journalism in the DC area. In the typical big/small world connections of the literary scene, we soon uncovered a network of connections ranging from "oh, your editor's wife is my professor" to "oh, you know her? I was best friends with her in middle school."

The theme of the reading was "Flirting with the Master" Emily Dickinson, and thanks in part to generous coverage in the Washington Post Book World calendar, we had big crowd that dashed in between rainstorms. My hope with these readings is to bring people in with the attraction of a canonical writer, and send them out with an appreciation of contemporary talents. Mission accomplished last night, as both Jessica and Lisa read unforgettable work threaded through with connections to the Belle of Amherst. Jessica shared an anecdote that I had not heard before, in which an incomplete childhood lesson on telling time had left Dickinson, for years, without practical comprehension of a clock or the passages of minutes into an hour. Lisa read snippets from ED's Master letters, and ignited our appreciation of her as "not the lady in white, lowering a basket of gingerbread to the neighborhood children," but as a writer of "erotic majesty."

Who doesn't need a little erotic majesty come June?

Because we had such skilled featured readers, and because last month's ACW event also offered a dose of Dickinson biography, I was able to relax a bit. I used my slivers of introduction to tell the story of memorizing my first poem at the age of nine, Dickinson's "[My life closed twice before its close...]," by reciting it over and over to myself while pacing the floor of my grandmother's living room. I was a melancholy thing at nine. Without having planned to tell the story, I was still able to fetch the poem from memory on the spot.

Because the evening had been such a success, the reception ran a touch overlong, and the last small group of us were trapped in the Club by a resuming rain. No, that's not the right word; a resuming monsoon. We braved the elements just long enough to run next door--back to Primi Piatti, where we had had dinner--and as we stumbled in soaked, laughing, shaking out our umbrellas, I recognized the owner from long-ago days a Dupont Circle bar, Savino's. He's the proprietor of many places in the area, but that brief-lived bar had been his baby, a pet project given his first name. On a few nights after work (at my first "big city" job) he had given me an extensive tour of the cocktail menu, stocked with all his recipes. (I'll never forget him pointing gravely to the sprig of rosemary atop a pear liquor "martini" and shaking his head solemnly. "You will not like. Too strong for a lady such as yourself." He then poured me straight-up vodka with maybe a kiss of lemon.)

Maybe it was our bedraggled spirit that charmed him, or my flash of recognition. But after the first drinks had been ordered he came over with...a deck of cards. And proceeded to perform some genuinely awe-inspiring tricks. A card changed suits without ever leaving one writer's hand; another writer pulled out her card--first picked, then missing--from a gum wrapper in our host's coat pocket; one writer watched as her card was identified in blacklight scrawl.

The evening, from beginning to end, was filled with magic.