August 30, 2009

All Good Things Begin with Coffee

I'm writing this from the Crazy Mocha Coffee Company in Pittsburgh's Bloomfield neighborhood--a few doors down from Howlers, where I'll be performing with the Typewriter Girls. Burlesque, fiction, and whiskey madness await. The special coffee of the day here is golden pecan, which seems like a good omen; 99% of all flavored coffees are gross, and pecan is the exception.

My week has been preoccupied with setting the syllabus for my Corcoran course. To save the students some money I'm going the handout route, versus one big anthology/reader. (Although if I HAD gone with a reader I highly recommend Portable Legacies--thanks for the suggestion, Amanda!) I now realize the secret attraction of anthologies: they ease the teacher's burden by artificially narrowing the focus of what texts can be used in lesson plans. Because at the end of the day, you have to pick something. And when the floodgates are thrown open, where do you begin?

I decided to stick with what I was excited to read, and what worked in a short format--nothing over 20 pages, many prose excerpts under 6. Each seminar (we only meet once a week, for three hours) is oriented toward a theme rather than a genre. So rather than doing three weeks of fiction, journalism, poetry, then memoir, we're going to have a week of food writing, travel writing, writing about music, writing about death, etc., with sample reading from all genres each week. I hope this creates more footholds for the students--I don't want someone to think "well, this week is poetry, and I don't get poetry, so I'm just going to lay low in class." It's also a philosophical statement of sorts, shifting the focus from the artifice of genre divides and looking instead at how writing intersects with the material of the real world. Taking a note from Denise Levertov--I believe in organic form. I believe in cultivating something true and compelling to say, then finding the genre that holds it best.

The good news is that the authors are a stellar constellation of modern and contemporary voices including Junot Diaz, Paul Bowles, Tillie Olsen, Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver, Li-Young Lee, Sandra Cisneros, Pablo Neruda, ZZ Packer, Martin Espada, Sylvia Plath--even a little Gerard Manley Hopkins for good measure. The bad news...well, there's no bad news during this halycon lull between the frying pan of selecting texts and the fire of learning which ones engage the students and which ones flop.

It was a long week. Teachers of the world, I salute you.

A syllabus is a personal thing. It's not just where you lay out a grading rubric and set deadlines. It's where you express your tone as a teacher; it's where you reveal what interests you; it's your first conversation with the student. I'm amazed that syllabi aren't guarded more closely and treated as intellectual property. There vulnerability in writing out what you hope is a flawless mathematical equation of X short assignments + Y major papers + Z participation points = A Fair Grade, then seeing how it works in the real world. It's the difference between designing the plane on paper and actually flying the damn thing.

Maybe after a few years the attachment eases, or maybe it's balanced by the pay-it-forward principle. I've been encouraged by the generosity of friends who are quick to say "Oh, do you want to see my syllabus?" and I'd want to do the same for someone someday. But for now it's like a newborn baby. I'm cradling it to my chest.

Oh oh oh, before I forget. One of the books I looked though for fiction was Bestial Noise, an early reader of short stories from Tin House. I remember reading it while sprawled in a long chair by the riverbank at Vermont Studio Center. I quickly found a story I'd liked at the time, "Rana Fegrina," and thought "Oh, yes! I have to teach this." Then it clicked--the short story is by my now-friend Dylan Landis, and it is part of Normal People Don't Live Like This, coming out from Persea in October. How surreal to remember loving the story, now knowing she would move to DC and we would meet, not knowing that it was on its way to anchoring a book whose characters were called "blessedly extraordinary" in Vanity Fair's "Hot Type" column.

Dylan had a flourishing career writing about interior design back in the day, and she just wrote a post over at C.M. Mayo's blog on "Magnetic Spaces." Go check it out. Be on the inside track--read Normal People Don't Live Like This before everyone else starts telling you to read it. Because they will. I was lucky enough to have a galley with me at Jentel, and I have to say: she's going to become a very big star very quickly.

...Okay, my coffee's cold. Time to stretch my legs from the four-hour drive and walk up the block to grab some Thai food, flip through a stack o'poems and try to pick out things I did not read when I was here in May for the gig at Gist Street. Wish me luck! Luckily I brought my dancing shoes.

August 20, 2009

Eyeing One's Upper Arms

Last night I went to a mothertongue reading at the Black Cat. Oh, my god, it had been too long! The house was full of American University folks--Venus Thrash, Derrick Brown, and Natalie E. Illum, a founder of mothertongue. Congratulations to Danielle for hosting a vital, crowded evening. When one of several killer chicks on the mic came up to me later in the Red Room Bar and said "Are you Sandra Beasley? I love your book." I felt thrilled. And old. Thrilled and old. For chronological perspective, I remember debuting this poem on the open mic. And getting in trouble afterwards because I had run over my five minute time limit.

There's a moment that comes with attending MT readings. I experienced it in years past, and I had it last night. At some point during the slew of readings, I cross my arms over my knees and let my head hang down. It's not boredom, it's contemplation; and at some point this contemplation always includes my upper arms, which are A) in view only in this particular posture, and 2) a spot of sore I-wish-I-were-thinner vulnerability. But by the time I enter this zone, I am not feeling vulnerable. I am listening to some amazing, often amazingly seductive poetry; I am remembering that I am part of a community of women larger than any one relationship; I am part of a community that thinks a curve is something to be valued, not shaved off.

And my upper arms are awesome, damn it.

The teaching stint at Catholic University was scotched--budgeting cuts forced the department to cancel six classes. Thank god it wasn't income I had counted on earlier this year. It's honestly a blessing in disguise. I still have the Corcoran gig, which offers the outside structure I need, and there is no point in quitting a full-time job only to commit to a plethora of part-time jobs that devour too much of my time. I have a book due in less than a year!

The fates are telling me it is time to write for a living. Or, as my friend Steph says, People who fly don't need safety nets.

August 15, 2009

"That's a human ear, all right."

Tonight, we are watching Blue Velvet.

Tonight, my dress is spotted with bleach.

Tonight, I devoured what had been a large dish of quinoa mixed with diced zucchini, yellow squash, orange pepper, corn sliced straight from the cob, onions, and cilantro. Highly recommended--you can use any variation on this recipe. But use "Inca red" quinoa; it makes a huge difference in terms of the color and taste. And make the ration of water to quinoa = 1 3/4 to 1, not 2 to 1.

Tonight, I am worried about Red Morning Press. Anyone know what's going on with those guys? They've published some good books in a very short period of time, and I want to root for any DC-based indie press. But they seem dormant.

Tonight, I learned all about Wales. And spices. And Agatha Christie.

Tonight, I wish I had golden rum to mix with this coconut water. I'm attempting to go the icebox-gin-and-olive route instead. Once you've gone Bluecoat, other brands just don't compare. (That's if you like the floral, juicier gins; I hear Leopold's is good too, but haven't tried it yet.) I'll have to just keep the Bombay on hand for guests.

Tonight, I am toasting my friend Erika Meitner, whose poetry collection Ideal Cities was named a winner in the National Poetry Series. Couldn't have happened to a more deserving poet!


My friend Eric, who keeps the awesome blog "Evan Said It," let me know that "Let Me Count the Waves" had been quoted in the Arts Beat blog of The New York Times. I'm so honored--and caught off guard. I have to say that the July/August issue of Poetry has introduced my poems to a whole other audience, and I'm nothing but grateful.

I wish this period of readership was concurrent to a period of drafting, but the truth is that I haven't been doing much drafting lately. Even a one-a-day group of extraordinarily talented poets wasn't able to get me in gear. It's all part of the process, though. There's time.


Besides, my mind has been productive elsewhere. I've agreed to teach a few classes this fall, at the Corcoran College of Art + Design (Introduction to Writing, as part of their "Freshman Foundation" program) and the Catholic University of America (undergrad poetry workshops). Those close to me know this is a somewhat unexpected move, since I'm openly skeptical of entering the world of full-time teaching, at least until I've got more life experience under my belt. Plus, it was only a couple of months ago that I quit my job to work on the nonfiction book full-time. What gives?

A few things. Psychologically, I'm amazed by how quickly I have slipped the leash of a desk job. It's great to be able to honor an instinct to write first thing in the morning, or late into the night. But I kind of miss the concept of weekends! With nothing to pace me, I can't remember what day it is. Also, even though I know I have enough in the bank to keep me afloat, there's something reassuring about having checks come in, no matter how minor. It lets me grant myself permission for the occasional sushi dinner, or new dress (given this one is spotted with bleach) that brightens a week.

And I can only write so much nonfiction in a given stretch. When I draft, I draft with focus--usually about 1,000-1,800 words in a day, most of which end up being usable in the final draft. But it's emotionally draining, with breaks required between sections. I like having something fundamentally different to do in the meantime.

So I have been syllabizing, thinking about the poems I love best, poems I want to share with these students. Henry Taylor's "Artichoke," Sandra Cisneros's "Night Madness Poem," Jack Gilbert's "Tear It Down," Li-Young Lee's "Eating Alone," Gwendolyn Brooks' wartime sonnets (which bear the unfortunately dated title "Gay Chaps at the Bar," which is not a phrase you want to casually Google), Meg Kearney's "Creed," Natasha Trethewey's "Miscegenation." Nothing like reading to get a girl to writing.


Isabella Rossellini in her underwear. Oh my.

August 07, 2009


What is this, you are wondering? Well, it's an entrance to an aviary. With a very particular piece of paper taped to the pole visible on the left. All will be revealed soon enough; just keep reading.

Earlier this week I had a wonderful poetry-evening with Mark Dawson. He's a former BWR editor, a talented formalist, a Westchester regular, and an all-around good guy. We sat on my Dupont Circle balcony, taking in the city view and sharing pinot noir, a couple of good cigars (his), some fresh-baked peanut butter cookies (mine), and tumblers of Aberlour scotch to finish.

At one point Mark took out a sonnet, one he's been fiddling with all week. He read it and--just on that raw reading--I could admire the clever sestet, the humor. We discussed a couple of particular word choices, and the possibility of tweaking the tense momentum in the opening octet. That was it. No tit-for-tat. No overworked explication of what the poem was trying to do. A perfectly organic workshop moment. I love DC.

As some of you may remember from my May reading at Gist Street, I also love Pittsburgh. Though it's a much more rapid-onset kind of love. Lust, really. I'm headed back there for a reading on August 30 with the Typewriter Girls!

So I was honored when the Gist Street crew invited me to take part in the Pittsburgh incarnation of isReads, which was launched at the end of July. The project was founded in 2006 by Publishing Genius Press; Adam Robinson and Peter Cole are the editors. You might remember a spiffy profile that was in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers. Previous installments were in Nashville and Baltimore. The idea is to place poetry and fiction where people would not expect it: at bus stops, in grocery carts, under rocks, and in doorways.

A trio of innovative arts organizations--Gist Street, isReads, and Open Thread--came together in collaboration for this project. Each solicited five poems or short-short stories for this issue to represent local, national, emerging, and established writers. Gist Street’s other contributors are Benjamin Percy, Aaron Smith, Chauna Craig, and Neno Perrota. Open Thread (which establishes frameworks for artistic discovery in Pittsburgh and the surrounding tri-state area) brought on the contributors Matt Anserello, Noah Falck, Sophie Klahr, Colin C. Post, and S.E. Smith. isReads contributors to the Pittsburgh issue are Virgil Brower, Brian Foley, Elizabeth P. Glixman, Joseph Goosey, Jac Jemc, and Justin C. Witt.

As a feature of Open Thread’s new small press festival, SPF, volunteers will post isReads contributions on surfaces across the city, identifying the locations on a google map (with photos!) at the isReads site (which will hopefully be updated shortly). The organizers obtained official city support in the form of a July proclamation sponsored by City Councilman Bill Perduto, which guarantees the creative works will be unmolested during the duration of their posting. Installation sites vary, from Lawrenceville’s Pavement Shoes to Councilman Peduto’s office door.

Here's Ben Percy's poem in its (truly congruous) habitat of Frick Park dog run:

And here's a closer view of "Another Failed Poem About Starlings," lurking outside a condor cage:

August 02, 2009

Project Procrastination

I was honored to spend a long weekend with the Week 7 Project Verse competitors and their work. The assignment was the pantoum, and it was a wonderful opportunity to talk about the strategies of the form as well as the individual poems. My comments, along with those of the judges, are here.

I've spent the last three hours trying to do one writing thing...which would be honorable if there weren't so many other writing things that need doing. Anyway, I'll let this draft hang out here for a while, but not for long:

* poof *