December 31, 2010

Happy New Year, Nick Demske

I'm in Hawaii. Specifically, I'm in a Bali Hai Villa on the island of Kauai. It's a long story. No, actually, the story is a short one: I have amazing and generous friends. In this surreally lackadaisical and sunny setting, where palm trees sway and roosters run wild (liberated from farms by the hurricanes of '82 and '92), I'm trying to keep a vague handle on life at home. In DC, there is ice on the ground and first-pass proofs of DKTBG are waiting to be returned by January 11.

Must... maintain... writerly... discipline. Must stay on top of emails. Must continue to arrange spring readings. Must try, and fail, to tan. So as a symbolic gesture I brought along my copy of the latest Poets & Writers, "The Inspiration Issue." Yesterday, while watching a light rain fall and sipping a pineapple cocktail, I turned to the 6th Annual Debut Poets Roundup.

As Kevin Larimer's intro mentions, the roundup has a familiar rhythm by now: always a poet whose book got picked up on a first send-out, a poet whose MS was chosen after decades of submitting, one poet who focuses on craft, one who treats verse as play, and so on. I always read the feature with a mix of nostalgia, envy, and nausea. I remember the bridesmaid years. Trying different styles, different niches, ordering and re-ordering, waiting for that first big break, watching as others got theirs: God, how awful it was. And yet, how liberating--but appreciated only in hindsight.

Anyway, one of this year's profiled poets is Nick Demske. I've never met him. To be honest, never heard of him before. Age: 27. Residence: Racine, Wisconsin. Graduate Degree: MA in library and information science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Job: "I mostly shelve books and do other menial circulation tasks at the Racine Public Library." Award: Winner of the 2010 Fence Modern Poetry Series, selected by Joyelle McSweeney. Publisher: Fence Books.

These roundup profiles are not long or substantial texts. Yet there is something about his Q&A on inspiration and advice that is so winning, so poignant, and so simple and honest, that it makes my whole heart smile; it makes me fall in love with poetry all over again. There is importance to this thing we do--and how it affects the lives we live--and I can see it in his answers.

So I'm going to re-type his P&W profile here (with the caveat: go buy a copy of the magazine!), and I'm sure as heck gonna track down his book to read.


Time Spent Writing the Book: Two Years.

Number of Contests Entered: "About ten. I feel lucky the number is so small."

Sample: "In every sumo, there's a little bulimic awaiting a glorious purge." ("Tragic Songstress")

Source of Inspiration: "My mother died of breast cancer before I was half done with the manuscript. That was a big inspiration. The book is, in part, about bad form. The most blatant way that's enacted in the book is through the form of the poems: They're all loose sonnets--love poems, but their content actively resists the form. Words are cut in half to meet rhyme schemes. The line lengths themselves are so long that the book has to be printed sideways--in landscape, rather than portrait orientation. On many levels, the book is many repetitions of forms that are inappropriate for their contents. My mother dying, my lovely mother dying, was largely the inspiration for this. She had a spirit like wildfire, which could brighten anyone she came in contact with. She was smart, insightful; she loved the natural world and she lived the healthiest life of anyone I have ever met. And yet here she was, incoherent, unable to get off the toilet independently, her very own piss a biohazard. She eventually drowned in fluid in her own lungs. The form--her invalid body--was an inappropriate match for her content, that wildfire, her beautiful spirit. It was after this I realized that, in general, the human body is bad form for the human spirit. Bad form. Bad form."

Advice: "Any advice I give in terms of writing could only be the same advice I would give in the more general terms of life: Enjoy yourself, treat people well, don't take writing too seriously, don't take writing too lightly, make friends and loved ones and spend lots of time enjoying that community. Keep your priorities straight."

The photo shows Demske leaning against an anonymous brick wall, in a plain navy t-shirt and a knit green & turquoise cap with Heidi-yarned tassels on either side. Bright smile. He looks a little incredulous at this whole turn of events.

Here's to new authors, new books, new hometowns, new hopes.

Here's to the staff at Poets & Writers for continuing to put out a great magazine, even in an age when magazines feel imperiled.

Here's to 2011, dreams and all.

And here's to you, Nick Demske!

December 24, 2010

Apply! (Also: Fitch on Franzen) (Also: List-age)

Thanks to Leslie Pietrzyk for a reminder to spread the word about the Jenny McKean Moore FREE Community Workshop, which will be led by Tilar J. Mazzeo in the coming spring semester at George Washington University. Mazzeo, an associate professor at Colby College, is the author of the New York Times bestselling biography The Widow Clicquot and The Secret of Chanel No. 5.

Here's some boilerplate info on the workshop, courtesy of Leslie's blog:

Jenny McKean Moore Applications Due 1/10/11

Come and take part in a semester-long workshop in creative non-fiction—the art of using the strategies of fiction to tell true stories about history, place, and biography. To apply, you do NOT need academic qualifications or publications. The class will be a craft-based workshop that focuses on different approaches to writing biography and autobiography, and it will combine readings, writing exercises, and peer-review of the writing of participants. There are no fees to participate in the class, but you will be responsible for the costs of some photocopies. Students at Consortium schools (including GWU) are not eligible. The Workshop is not open to those who have participated in more than one Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop.

The deadline to apply for the spring session—Tuesdays, 6-8 PM, January 18-April 19, 2011—is Monday, January 10, 2011.

To apply, please submit a letter of interest and a detailed personal narrative in which you describe your writing projects, your goals for the seminar, and how you hope to benefit from the workshop. A 5-10 page work sample may also be included. Include your name, address, home/work telephone numbers, and email address.

All applicants will be contacted by email by January 14.

Send your applications (by Monday, January 10, 2011) to
JMM Creative Nonfiction Workshop
Department of English
The George Washington University
801 22nd Street NW (Suite 760)
Washington, DC 20052

Personal testimony: I took a JMM workshop with poet Dana Roeser, the 2005-2006 resident, and had an incredible experience. Many key poems from Theories of Falling were conceived in that class--including the leadoff poem, "Cherry Tomatoes," "You," and "Drink"--and made connections with fellow DC poets that sustain me to this day. Having graduated from American University with my MFA in 2004, that was my first year of withdrawal from the structured feedback of university-workshops. This is a vital opportunity and a gift to the community--take advantage of it!


Through some random blog-hopping I came upon Janet Fitch's blog. I'm always delighted to find a high-profile author making the time to write online. But in particular, Fitch's entries are substantial and insightful. Check out one September entry, reviewing a Los Angeles reading and Q&A featuring Jonathan Franzen. An excerpt:

The selection he read was funny and mean… his tools for understanding where we are in America in our time are the satirist’s… and whether this is my favorite kind of writing (it isn’t) or not, the suppleness of the prose and the precision won my admiration.

Then afterwards, he settled down to an interesting, awkward conversation with Meghan Daum, author (Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House) and columnist with the LA Times.

I would not have wanted to change places with her. He is a difficult interviewee–though I don’t think he means to be, he just very clearly struggles to speak with precision, authenticity and honesty, and is embarrassed and uncomfortable with anything that would tempt another writer to cozy up to an audience or be a “good boy” for the interviewer–the very trait that caused his Oprah troubles to begin with.

We are not used to seeing difficult, authentic, often awkwardly honest writers on the national stage. We expect prominent writers to be performing seals to a certain degree, dealing with interviews and audiences with the confidence and aplomb of pitchmen selling miracle floorwaxes at the County Fair. So to see someone struggling to be honest and authentic, rather than charming and appealing, is a lot like catching an appearance of Hailey’s Comet.

Find the rest of the post here.


I was so happy to see I Was the Jukebox show up on a few more end-of-year lists, including one at The Millions (thanks Danielle!) and on the blog of Brian Spears, poetry editor for The Rumpus. And you can never go wrong with a thumbs-up from the Literary Mojito Society.

Miami! New York! Dallas! Germany! Pondering a heckuvalotta travel in 2011. Announcements soon~

December 15, 2010

New York, New York

Drive to the city through Saturday's sunrise--my dad behind the wheel, my mother with her cooler of sodas and berries, my sister asleep in the backseat beside me. Check into the St. Giles, up by Lexington & 39th, with its view of the Chrysler building. Gawk at the fossils and geodes of Astro Gallery. Follow the storylines of window displays at Macy's, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue (which for once really is on Fifth Avenue). Prowl the holiday shops in Bryant Park, watch the ice skaters. Drink margaritas made with hunks of watermelon and split the marinated-eggplant and lentil entree at Toloache. The Lion King, complete with an elephant clambering down the theater aisle. The Abstract Expressionism exhibit at MOMA. More walking Fifth Avenue, this time with a bag of roasted chestnuts in hand. Rockefeller Plaza. "A Tuba Christmas." Convince my mother to try a martini at the Algonquin Hotel. Break the news to my dad that I'll be in Mississippi come December 25. Max out on the luxury of a television in the room: watch The Town, then Inception. Snack on hunks of Zabar's sesame-coated baguette, purchased at Grand Central Station and slathered in harissa and balsamic vinegar. Take my mother up to Crown's office and introduce her to my editor, then the head of publicity. Watch as my mother deftly finagles a copy of a Frances Mayes book instead of the tome with a pink breast-cancer ribbon embossed on the cover that they are trying to give her. Head down to Union Square's farmer's market. Slivers of upstate apples. Tea to sniff. A bouquet of dried blooms to brighten my studio in the coming weeks, when I won't be in one place long enough to buy fresh flowers. The long drive home, sun blazing through the windshield as we race down the turnpike, my sister once more curled up and asleep in the backseat beside me. There's never time to make these trips. There's always time.

December 10, 2010

Great Writers of DC

As I write this I am listening to the Schubert Ensemble of London play Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet #1. Sipping Pumpkin Spice coffee. Watching, through the glass doors of my balcony, the first snows flurry sideways over the neighborhood of Woodley Park. Everyone's chimneys have come to life.

Last night I heard Dana Gioia read at the Phillips Collection. He was clearly delighted to get to be a poet again, instead of having to shoulder the burden of being an Official Government Representative. I've always had a soft spot for Gioia's work. He started a lot of great programs during his tenure at the National Endowment for the Arts--including Poetry Out Loud, The Big Read, and Operation Homecoming.

It's easy to make the snarky presumption that those who come to poetry from successful business backgrounds (like Gioia, who most famously worked for Jell-o) prize polish over aesthetic grace. I don't think that's true; I think you can be savvy without being a sell-out. Ron Slate spent years in corporate communications, and his work in The Incentive of the Maggot and The Great Wave is incredible--supple, engaging, philosophically bold.

The strongest poem we heard from Gioia last night was "The Angel with the Broken Wing," which first appeared in the September 2010 issue of POETRY.


I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.

Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.

I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.

I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.

For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.

There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

-Dana Gioia

I was a little dismayed by his answer to the final question of the night, though. Someone asked if he had written about Washington, DC. No, he said. [Long pause.] But he might once he got back to California. To paraphrase, he said that DC is a bad place for poets. His theory is that our job is to be hyper-attuned to the world around us, and in a city so obsessed with political power ("60,000 alpha males, and 30,000 women who want to be alpha males"), our aesthetic antennae are overwhelmed by the static of constant wheeling and dealing.

"In a capital city this great--and it is the greatest in the world, I think--no great writer has come out of Washington. Now, you have to ask yourself, why is that?"

Ouch. Sterling Brown? Edward P. Jones? Ann Beattie? George Pelecanos? I suspect he realized mid-comment that he may have been a little harsh. He clarified; there's no writer to DC as Faulkner was to Oxford, Mississippi, he said. Aw, to have Oxford used as the contrast. Salt in the wound!

He clarified again; it isn't that there isn't great writing going on now, he said, it's just that all that energy goes into journalism.

I like it when someone says something strong enough to be agreed OR disagreed with. That's why I think an essay like "Can Poetry Matter?" is valuable, even if I take issue with some of its premises and conclusions. But honest opinion is a double-edged sword, and last night, sitting in the audience of the Phillips, I felt cut in two.

No great writer has come out of Washington?

December 07, 2010


I have water again! Laundry! Clean dishes! And that's all we'll say about that. 

Thanks to Kristin Berkey-Abbott for including I Was the Jukebox in her year-end list of "Favorite Poetry Books of 2010." Kristin was kind enough to say the book offers "poems that animate the inanimate, from sand to eggplants to jukeboxes, poems that took my breath away, so unique was the approach of this volume." I'm proud to be listed alongside fellow Norton-folk Beth Ann Fennelly and Kimiko Hahn. 

My friend Bernie Geyer is leading workshops at the Writer's Center in early 2011. So if you have some downtime and want to treat yourself, I highly recommend working with her. She's smart, practical, fun, and savvy about moving your writing forward on both the craft and professional levels. A rundown of her classes can be found here. 

Now, as the cover of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl:

Crown has done a great job. I've gotten a sneak peek at the innards--the font choices for headers and body text, the formatting--and the pages, while easy on the eye, have such exuberance in their design. And yep, it's up on Amazon too

2010 has held travel and adventure and personal earthquakes, heartache and heart renewal. I've lived five years in one. Somehow, amidst it all, this book came to be. In the coming months you'll see shifts in my website and blog, as I open the doors a little wider and welcome the communities of memoirists and those affected by food allergies. 

This Chick will always Dig Poetry, first and foremost. But here's to change...

December 06, 2010


If I've been quiet, it's because I am experiencing the grim reality of DC's public utilities: 72 straight hours of no water (an intensification of a week's worth of low pressure and brief outages), and WASA doesn't seem to be treating it as any real kind of emergency. We've had a steady stream of workmen, each starting from scratch on their level of info, each progressively more shocked at how long we've been waiting.

When a WASA truck pulled up in front of our building last night, an email went out to everyone saying, in essence, "Anybody home--go outside! Surround 'em!" As I stood by with my fellow seventh-floor residents, the guy pleaded into his phone, "Look, you gotta do something for these people. They look like they want to stab me right now."

It would be comical if it weren't gross. I've lived in the city long enough that I can survive the occasional dry spell. You buy a jug for the kitchen, a jug for the bathroom, you put your hair in a ponytail and you deal. But this is somewhat frightening, to be so at the mercy of the system and to have the system just not give a damn. Many of the building's residents have fled to other homes, which I'll be doing soon. But, oh, how I wanted to be able to nest after so many weeks on the road.

In brighter news, I sent off edits for the book. We're at the stage of making changes only to the hard copy of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, and the next time I see the text it should be as a bound galley. Hooray! I'm going to share the cover art tomorrow, since I'd prefer it not get conflated with the post in which I bitch & moan about being grimy.

This, on the other hand, can overcome even the grimiest of moods:

November 28, 2010

The Shackles of Meat

Day four of waking up and going to sleep in the same bed, for the first time in over six weeks: home sweet home. I am slowly weaning myself off the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers. One lone slice of turkey waits in my fridge, with its bed of quinoa and a handful of spicy salad greens; one peanut-butter cookie is left, wrapped in tinfoil. Then it's back to the off-the-road diet.

A trio of poets came over last night, including one we needed to toast for his recent NEA fellowship, and a few loved ones. Given the perpetual email/phone-tag associated with getting together in DC, it was nothing short of a miracle to have a half-dozen people gather around a table with no fuss. I used to live in a dramatic two-story apartment in Dupont Circle, and one of the hard things about leaving was feeling like I was giving up the ability to host. But with enough candles lit, a few extra folding chairs, and a pot of apple cider on the stove warming with cinnamon and spiced rum, this place has the potential for its own (little) parties. It's sappy, but it's true: what matters is the intimacy and good nature of the people at hand. And hey, my headboard makes an excellent coat rack.

Being in one place has given me back the luxury of reading, and so I wolfed down the July/August, October, and December issues of POETRY. Though the July/August issue includes some good poems (I was pleasantly riled up by this one by Arthur Vogelsang), anytime your "Letters to the Editor" are from Stephen Burt, Terrance Hayes, and Daisy Fried, the prose is where it's at. There's a potent "The View From Here" portfolio in which people from fields outside literary academia reflect on the power of poetry within their lives. The standouts are by cartoonist Lynda Barry ("Poetry Is a Dumb-Ass Spider")  and Burundi Parliamentarian Etienne Ndayishimiye ("Dust and Stones," translated by David Shook); plus, there is probably someone in your life who loves sports, is trying to love poetry for your sake, and would welcome seeing the contribution from basketball coach John Wooden ("The Great Scorer"). Michael Dirda's long review of Michael Donaghy's Collected Poems and The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions was a truly thoughtful look at Donaghy's legacy, and illuminated his appeal in a way I had never fully understood before. I hope Dirda, whose work usually turns up in places like The Washington Post and The American Scholar, visits these pages again.

Also in the July/August issue, Robert Pinsky's "Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant" was...well, it wasn't my favorite. This futuristic robot-themed libretto was written in conjunction with composer Tod Machover, who is at MIT's Media Lab; I gave up when Simon proclaimed "Yes come to the light from the meat!" It was as if Ray Bradbury had dropped acid. I did appreciate the revelation, in the follow-up Q&A, that Robert Pinsky wrote for Broderbund Software in the mid-'80s. I suspect his work was limited to Mindwheel, but I'd love to think the former Poet Laureate gave us those ACME-Detective-Acency dialogues in Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Or that he's the mastermind behind Myst. (Admittedly, storylines were less extensive for Lode Runner and Mavis Bacon Teaches Typing.)

Anyway, Pinsky says he's drafting an adaptation/translation project in blank verse for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, here in DC. I'd be interested to see that, when the time comes. I do admire his work, but this piece--a strange mix of satire and melodrama, in which the literal trade of flesh for machinery symbolizes our larger surrender of humanity, with Greek-chorus cameos by the United Way and the Untied Nations--just wasn't doing it for me.

The editors consistently do a great job with their Q&As; the questions are usually insightful, and do not pander. The brand-new December issue is entirely devoted to them, an annual feature, and I really got into the dialogues with Michael Robbins, Jane Hirshfield, and Sine Queryas. That has nothing to so with which poems I liked best--I think my favorite was Charles Baxter's "Please Marry Me," which is exciting since Baxter's usually a fiction writer. And in the case of Robbins, it's not as if we're simpatico in worldview: his tone and politics can veer toward the grating. ("Whole Foods, that union-busting paragon of "new age" liberalism, is a metonym for an entire parascientific culture that makes light of transcendent experience." Oh. Good to know!) But so often poem-specific Q&As feel like nothing more than a defense or decoding of the text at hand, and all three authors escape that. Queryas makes some lovely points about the nature of elegy and asking questions in poems.

All right all right all right, back to work. Getting dressed would be a good first step.

November 24, 2010


New York City was lovely but oof, oof, the return trip was brutal! I left my friend Carly's Brooklyn apartment at noon. Once you added up the walk to the subway, the transit to Penn Station, boarding the BoltBus, holiday/rush hour traffic, metro-ing from the DC bus drop, and walking home from Cleveland Park...well, it was eight hours later. All the while hauling a suitcase that has no rolling wheels. Time for a little R&R.

But one of the advantages of sticking around an extra day to hear my friend Erika Meitner read at louderARTS's Bar 13--and she did a fantastic job--was that I also got to have an marketing session with the folks at Crown. There will be news on the DKTBG front soon, including the unveiling of the cover and a book trailer. In the meantime I've got 210 pages of copyediting to do between now and Monday.

Congratulations are in order on two fronts:

1) The amazing DC foodwriter Tim Carman (longtime reporter and "Young and Hungry" blogger for the Washington City Paper) is making the jump to the Washington Post. Yay, Tim! Some of my favorite essays of his include a tribute to the handcraft of dim sum, an investigation on how not to hire a chef, and an ode to intelligent drinking.

...also, of course, there's a lot of buzz in the poetry world right now over the announcement of the latest round of NEA Fellowship winners. I’m particularly thrilled to see Jericho Brown, Blas Falconer, Anna Journey, Joshua Mehigan, Thorpe Moeckel, and Allison Titus make the cut.

Are you feeling generous because of the holidays? Check out Todd Boss's MOTION POEMS project ("Where big poems meet the big screen"), here, and consider contributing to the cause of supporting artists and videographers in their creative work devoted to the interpretation/promotion of poetry.

& Have a fabulous Thanksgiving! My cousins will be frying not one but two turkeys--one Cajun-spiced and one, er, classic. As classic as a deep-fried bird can be.

November 21, 2010

Tonight - Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City!

From our listing in (sweet!) this week's issue of The New Yorker...

Goings On About Town: Classical Music

Inna Faliks: “Music/Words”

The pianist begins her third season of concerts with poetry, presenting an evening featuring readings by the poets Sandra Beasley and Oni Buchanan as well as music by Sofia Gubaidulina, Liszt, Ravel (“Gaspard de la Nuit”), and Augusta Read Thomas.

Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia St. 212-989-9319. Nov. 21 at 6 PM.

I have to admit, I am a little starry-eyed to read with Oni and Inna. (And as I confessed to a friend, "never before has my name seemed so...uninteresting.")Here is a clip of Inna Faliks at the piano:

There is a lovely extended rumination on Inna's musicianship, and the philosophy of the Music/Words series, courtesy of Chris Kompanek ("The Avantgardist") over at the
Classical TV Blog. An excerpt:

Faliks got an early career start, making her professional debut as a concert pianist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when she was just fifteen and has played all over the world since. In that time, she’s developed a love of literature and poetry that informs her musical choices. It’s not a coincidence that she discovered Pasternak’s compositions. While Verse is a completely instrumental album (despite its title’s suggestion), the liner notes contain poems by Pasternak and Edgar Allen Poe along with Aloysius Bertrand’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”, which inspired Maurice Ravel’s piece of the same name.

By keeping the music and lyrics separate, Faliks forces the listener to make decisions about the connections between the two. Does the poem move at a pace directly correlated with the music or does it exist in a more abstract realm to be read and digested at the listener’s leisure? It all depends on how you approach it. This is particularly true of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 36, which Faliks pairs with Poe’s “The Bells," a whimsical and gothic poem divided into fours sections that detail sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and finally, the tolling of the bells. Rachmaninov’s sonata has just three movements, so we immediately have to make a decision of where the break should occur. Should wedding bells sound ominous or cheerful? Should they be frantic or slow-paced. Quiet or loud? The piece and poem can be paired to reflect the listener’s outlook on life or contrast completely with it.
You can read the whole piece here, and I hope to see you tonight...

November 12, 2010

Profanity, Peanuts, and the Peach of the South

For years I didn't swear. For years, much to the amusement of longtime friends. Sure, as a non-religious soul I used "goddamn" pretty freely, but that was it. On the occasion of my 20th birthday, it was noted that I'd yet to have been observed using "the S-word," and I'd admitted to using "the F-word" only once--seconds before being hit by a car, while crossing a turnpike near my high school. (I figured if I was going to die a virgin at the age of 16, I should at least get a little sinning in before I departed this earth.)

But poetry changed all that. In "The Fish," a poem in Theories of Falling, I was trying to describe a certain variety of fornication where only a coarser word would do--an issue that came back with "In the Deep," in I Was the Jukebox. Up until that point, even during singalongs I would respond to profanity with an abrupt beat of silence. But I couldn't very well do that when reading my own poem. So I came around. 

The truth is, fuck is a delightfully flexible, satisfyingly Saxonic word. Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse" wouldn't be the same if it started with "They screw you up, your mum and dad." Which is why I felt comfortable belting out this song for the whole length of I-85 yesterday, en route to Atlanta:

Life is too short to mouth the words. 

While passing through South Carolina, I stopped off at a roadside stand that had been tantalizing me, eight billboards in a row, with the promise of apple and peach products fresh from the orchard. I tried the free samples, but nothing was quite right. The chow-chow was too vinegared, the apple butter too sugary, the peach-pecan preserves lacking in identifiable pecan texture. There I was, feeling guilty with a half-dozen empty sample cups in hand, yet nothing I could get excited about buying.

Then I saw the sign: BOILED PEANUTS. I'd heard about them many times over the years, but usually in the context of "Ew." (And having seeing the swollen, bulbous goobers, boiled for 10 hours straight and bobbing in tubs for sale in various gas station Quick-E-Marts, I wasn't sure I could disagree.) But these were local peanuts, fresh cooked, the long drive ahead was an argument for protein, and they were only $2 for a pint bag. After having checked to confirm nothing had been added but salt, I figured What the hell?

They were good! In a sense, the perfect road food: the process of splitting the shell and scooping out the soft innards with one's teeth is just complex enough to distract you from monotonous highway driving, but there's no powder or sauce to be spilled all over your clothing if you drop a peanut. Mind you, I'd only eat them driving alone--I've never figured out how people romanticize that kind of messy, hands-on consumption. Henry Taylor has a poem that frames the whole artichoke as a sexy meal, but somehow my table manners didn't get the memo. 

Upon arriving in Atlanta I remembered, with a rush of emotion, just how much I love this city. Some places you like to visit; some you know you could move to without a second thought. And I now have a favorite place to roost--The Highland Inn, a kind of Chelsea Hotel of the South, which sits between Emory University and the Little Five Points neighborhood. A tapas place to the right; a boutique/gallery to the left; a "Ballroom Lounge" club and recording studio underneath, with a bar that serves until 2 AM; and a pretty black cat roaming the hallways. Clean sheets, continental breakfast, and free WiFi, all for $80 a night. Take that, Holiday Inn Express.

For those who made it out to the reading, with Chad Davidson and Alka Roy, hosted by the amazing Bruce Covey, many thanks--we had a big, attentive crowd that spilled over into the various side-aisles of Emory's new Barnes & Noble. (Isn't it weird that somehow, along the way, B&N went from being "the bad guys," to "the lesser of two evils vs. Borders," to bankrolling some really good programs?) Beforehand the poets had dinner at Doc Chey's, a restaurant I remembered from previous visits for its generous portions and chill vibe. I had  a divine spicy ginger/garlic stirfry of asian eggplant and chicken, with brown rice. (Following Thai in Greensboro and the peanut gamble, it's been a great trip for food.) We opened up a rather perverse set of fortune cookies--Bruce's warned him "You can't win them all"--and giddily resolved to incorporate the fortunes into the night's readings. 

Afterwards we went to Manuel's, a dive that shows off one of Atlanta's odd fascinations, the blended beer (Pale Ale & Guinness, Cider & Guinness, Lager & Cider, etc.). It's odd, given the affection for house concoctions, that when Chad ordered a "hot toddy" for Alka she ended up with a mug of hot water, a teabag, a packet of honey, and a shot of Jameson's. Somehow the small group of us polished off a platter of french fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings and two platters of potato chips. Poetry works up an appetite. There was some hollering related to a football game (I think Atlanta pulled off a win over Baltimore), which we ignored. At the end of a long evening Bruce and I retired to the Ballroom Lounge for some serious talk of life and pages. Over the local Sweetwater brew for him and tumblers of Red Label for me, we closed the place down.

Good lord, I love Atlanta. But I love Oxford, too--so, onward. Six hours of driving ahead of me, some sweet memories behind me, and more to come. 

November 08, 2010

Nesting & a Poet Lore Gem

Home for a precious few days, which have consisted of: sleeping for 10 hours straight, Netflixing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, watching my sister work the silks at Trapeze School, seeing the new (and gorgeous) Arena Stage for a play with family, eating chicken with leeks & hot peppers at the suspiciously named "Jenny's Asian-Fusion" on the Waterfront (but actually, it was quite good!), seeing friends visiting from Seattle and Princeton, laundry, restocking my home scotch bar, and trying desperately (and failing) to catch up on all the poets to whom I owe feedback on poems. 

On Wednesday I hit the road again. Two readings coming up--Atlanta and the Emory Poetry Council's Series on Thursday (November 11), New York City and Cornelia Street Cafe two Sundays from now (November 21). Would love to see you if you're in the neighborhood. I think the evening at Cornelia Street, which will feature pianist Inna Faliks and poet Oni Buchanan, will really be something special. 

Also, earlier today I ran across a fantastic poem in the new Poet Lore. Poet Lore is the oldest continuously operating journal of literature in the United States--founded in 1889--and we are proud to host it out of the Writer's Center. You can always count on each issue to be jam-packed with work by a refreshing mix of emerging and established voices, as well as a reviews section. Enjoy this sneak peek from the Fall 2010 issue:


It is puzzling--no one sees the snow falling
in the field. I am all alone, the field must
think. Except for the snow, of course,
which is a companion only in the sense
that it comes down silently. The sadness
of a field is commensurate with the way
the shortleaf pines or the junipers
or the paper birches offer their bodies 
as boundaries, which is another way 
of saying they exist as contrast. 

My father wrote two books about New Zealand,
one about Abel Janszoon Tasman,
one about Hongi Hika. He wrote them
on an enclosed porch that overlooked
our Michigan back yard, and our one strict rule
was that if he was sitting before
his typewriter we were not allowed
to be anywhere he could see us.
So that is why, of course, my most vivid
memory of early childhood is of knocking
one evening on the porch window to show him
how many fireflies I had collected
in an old pickle jar. My mother told me once
that in every moment of his life
my father was half listening to us
and half to a little dog of anguish.
My father typed and typed and did not
seem to hear that I was knocking,
and the expression on his face
was like the snow that drifts down
to this field tonight and covers everything. 

-Doug Ramspeck

I'm really interested in this poem's balance between the generalities of landscape in stanza one and the swerve toward precise, yet conversational diction that opens stanza two. Plus that gorgeous ending! I actually knew Doug Ramspeck's name because he won the 2007 John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, which led to his collection Black Tupelo Country being published by BkMk Press. That press is always on my radar, and I'd even applied for that prize with what became Theories of Falling. Always funny when you read the work of someone who "beat" you and think Damn, he deserved it. 

November 04, 2010

Goldilocks Syndrome

Three days, three towns, three different beds I've woken up in--none of them my own, none just right. Now I'm just one high school class visit away from DC. Oooh...make that one class visit + one Bodo's bagel lunch. If my biggest dilemma of the day turns out to be whether to get a cinnamon-raisin bagel with peanut butter versus a BLT with avocado on sesame, I am a lucky girl.

Yesterday was a lovely visit to the University of Virginia, where I read from Theories of Falling and took questions from Lisa Spaar's APPW (Advanced Poetry) thesis class. Hard to believe that the popular and growing APPW concentration, in which undergrads can complete a full-length creative manuscript for honors credit, grew out of a pilot experiment that began with our Class of 2002. Hard to believe I was workshopping Kyle Dargan's then-thesis Chronografia, eventually-to-be the Cave-Canem prizewinner The Listening, on the bare floor of Room Eight East Lawn those eight years ago. Hard to believe the "Happy Halloween" that I foolishly chalked on the invaluable historic brick outside said Lawn Room still lingers. The students were bright, fun, inquisitive, and just as overwhelmed as we were by the prospect of navigating post-grad life.

Even after the greatness that will be Story/Stereo this Friday (see you there, I hope?), there are two readings coming up in DC that I'm sorry to miss. One I'll miss for my own reading in Atlanta; the other because I'll be at Oklahoma! with my grandmother. But just because I'm being deprived doesn't mean you must be. Details and my annotations ("Why You Should Go") below...

Open Door Reading with Susan Coll and Josh Weil
Sunday, November 7, 2010 - 2 PM 
at The Writer's Center (4508 Walsh Street, Chevy Chase, MD)

Josh Weil reads from The New Valley: Novellas. Weil is currently serving as the fall 2010 writer-in-residence at The James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut, where he is at work on a novel. He is joined by Susan Coll, who reads from Beach Week, her most recent novel. Susan Coll is the author of four novels, including Rockville Pike, Acceptance, and Beach Week.

Why You Should Go: Susan Coll is one of those hidden treasures of DC--a smart, insightful writer who is tuned in to the minor dramas and contemporary humor of American family life. Over at, book critic Lizzie Skurnick called Beach Week "hilarious and witty." And Josh's work is haunting--I had the pleasure of being with him at the Sewanee Writer's Conference when he read from The New Valley. There's something very old school about the way he develops his Blue Ridge landscapes and his complex voice; something that reminds me of Breece D'J Pancake, which is high praise indeed. If he reads from his next novel, know you'll be getting a sneak peek at something big.


Barrelhouse Presents Reading Series with Adam Golaski & Sherrie Flick of Rose Metal Press, and John Cotter & Maureen Thorson of Open Letters Monthly
Thursday, November 11 - 7 PM
at Black Squirrel (2427 18th Street NW, Washington, DC)

Two Rose Metal Press authors--Adam Golaski and Sherrie Flick--will be in D.C. reading their flash fiction and small stories. Golaski is the author of Color Plates, "a museum of stories" that take their starting points in Impressionist paintings, but then spread out in wildly unexpected directions. Flick wrote an essay for RMP's Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction; she is also the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness.

They will be reading with two Open Letters Monthly authors, John Cotter and Maureen Thorson. Cotter has a new novel out (Under the Small Lights) and has been on a joint tour with Adam Golaski. Thorson is the founder of the D.C.-based Big Game Books and is the author of Applies to Oranges, a full-length poetry collection forthcoming from Ugly Duck Presse.

Why You Should Go: This night is going to be a LOT of fun, as well as supporting and recognizing the power of small presses. The Barrelhouse folks know how to host a good shindig, and they've lined up a quartet who all give energetic, often funny readings. As an art lover, the premise to Golaski's book intrigues me. And I just finished John's book Under the Small Lights while lounging in a friend's backyard in Oxford, just down the road from the football stadium...listening to the roar of carpet-bagging Auburn fans as Ole Miss lost yet another game. For those imbibing, I'd recommend pairing a bourbon with Sherrie Flick's work--or a tequila & cranberry cocktail with John Cotter's--or a robust draft porter with Maureen's poems; nota bene, Black Squirrel has a stellar beer collection.


November 01, 2010

This Friday!

After two weeks on the road--which can be broken down to three campus visits, two readings, five days camped out at Main Squeeze, and a busted headlight later--I'll be coming home to DC. And what a welcome day to arrive...just in time to host the third (and final) Story/Stereo of the fall~featuring musician Devin Ocampo and Emerging Writer Fellows Doreen Baingana and Alison Pelegrin. Ocampo is yet another in the long line of local legends lined up by our curators, Chad and Matt. He's currently in Medications, but he'll be performing his own songs (hence "Devin Ocampo Sings Devin Ocampo"). You can get a sneak peek of his music via the free clips on his MySpace page, hereDoreen Baingana is the author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, and Alison Pelegrin is the incredible poet behind Big Muddy River of Stars

It's going to be a great night.

The details:

What: Story/Stereo: A Night of Literature & Music
When: Friday, November 5, 8:00 P.M.
Where: The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815
Admission: FREE
Contact: 301.654.8664 or visit

October 30, 2010

The Trick of Treating

In honor of Halloween weekend--a time when sweet treats are on everyone's mind, even that of an allergy girl--I'd like to a few posts from my friend Meaghan Mountford's blog, "the decorated cookie." Meaghan and I have been friends since we shared workshops in the MFA program at American University. She's pretty much one of the most creative--not to mention funny, kind, and grounded--women I know. She's also the only person outside Crown who has read all of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, which kinda makes her My Hero/Goddess/Savior/Etc.

For the last few months Meaghan has been a successful competitor over on Project Food Blog. As they go into challenge #7 of 10, Meaghan took a risk--and I think, a successful one--by showing her "food network star" skills via a stop-motion video of a marshmallow playing dressup. If you're a fan of the work, consider casting a vote when it opens up on November 8.

Check out these links to the decorated cookie's "All Mason-Jar Meal" (aka P.F.B. Challenge #6):

...the aforementioned "Marshmallow Dressup" video short:

...and a "Zombie Marshmallow" extravaganza:

[Images credited to M. Mountford. What else can I say? She is profoundly awesome.]

October 29, 2010


For 48 hours I holed up in a friend's living room, working on new poems to read at Thacker Mountain Radio. What a great show--stellar house band (The Yalobushwackers), warm and witty host in Jim Dees, a crowd so big and enthusiastic the Fire Marshal came along and hassled us. They even turned on the disco ball quietly ensconced in the eaves of Off Square Books. Made me proud to be part of something in Oxford. Yet again.

Seemed like the new work went over well. One was inspired by the fact that the show will be broadcast on Mississippi Public Broadcasting this Halloween weekend. I'll share the poem here, at least for a little while...

* poof *

October 26, 2010


My laptop is busted. As in, physically broken--one thin strip of the bottom-casing has stripped away, revealing an unfortunate (and I imagine, extremely water-vulnerable) crevice leading to under the keyboard. I've only had this iBook for a bit beyond a year! Part of me thinks This is happening WAY too fast. Part of me thinks This laptop had a whole book written on it, and I feel a perverse twinge of pride for actually wearing the darn thing out

Either way, though, the money to replace it is lacking. And that's very scary. As a writer, when you don't have a "day job" office with a secondary computer system (or even a cell phone that can receive email), your computer IS your career. 

All my worrying will have to wait, though. The week holds two readings--tonight's gig at Davis-Kidd in Memphis, and a small guest spot on Thacker Mountain Radio this Thursday. I've been working on something new for Thacker Mountain, but we shall see if it feels ready to debut. It's so tough when you're part of a larger line-up (four poets is typical or, in this case, a couple of other writers and some musicians). For those who have heard you read before, you want to offer someone new. For those who might otherwise never hear you, you want to break out your "best," most failsafe work. 

Plan B: A little harmonica, perhaps some tap-dance. Though tap-dance might not be the best plan for a radio show. Sigh. 

October 24, 2010

On the Road Again

From Washington, DC, to Charlotte: 7 hours. (Leading into a sublime day-and-a-half as the Visiting Writer at Charlotte Country Day School.)

From North Carolina to South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi: 10 hours. 

Sodas consumed: 5. Almonds consumed: 63. Small McDonald's fries (with ketchup): 1.

Now I'm in Oxford. Things I've missed: walking around the Square, Snack Bar oysters, drinking Red Stripe in a scenic backyard. New things: the Motel Art Show, and making friends with writers even newer to the Ole Miss community. How funny that on the day I arrive in town an interview should be published in which I talk longer being in town. Nonetheless, thanks to Julie Ann and Danielle Sellers over at the Country Dog Review for the feature, which just went live as part of the Fall 2010 issue. The opening questions:

 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. 

...all true. Which is why I came back to Mississippi. Read the full interview here.   

October 20, 2010

P&W! Folio! Road trip! Many exclamation points!

Some months ago, Poets & Writers interviewed me in celebration of its 40th Anniversary; apparently, I am their featured clip of the week. Happy Birthday, P&W! You just get prettier with each passing year. Here I am, waxing, um, poetic-ish. 

I try not to be vain about these things, but why does YouTube always choose a screen grab of me with my eyes closed? 


Today I get on the road--first to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I will spend a couple of days as the visiting writer at Charlotte Country Day School. After that is is on to Oxford, MS, where I'll daytrip for a reading at the Memphis Davis-Kidd on Tuesday, October 26, and record a small guest spot for Thacker Mountain Radio at Square Books on Thursday, October 28. Pause for small-town Halloween interlude, ideally involving vast quantities of pumpkin cremes (like candy corn, but so much better). Then I'll stop off on my way back to DC for classroom visits at the University of Virginia and a high school in Woodstock, Virginia. Five gigs. Two weeks. Lord, I hope I packed enough clean laundry.


What I am listening to right this very second: Peggy Lee's "Why Don't You Do Right?"


Oh, and before I forget--start readying your drafts. FOLIO has a literary contest coming up, and the judge is no other than the fabulous Naomi Shihab Nye. I edited FOLIO eons ago, while an MFA student at American University. I'm proud to note that their pages still use the fonts Paulette and I picked out. Anyway, send in! The details:


FOLIO, a literary journal at American University, is celebrating its MFA program’s 30th anniversary with a poetry contest that will be judged by award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye (author of You and Yours, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, among others).

Entries must be postmarked by Monday, February 14, 2011.

Please observe the following:

• Submit up to 3 poems, a brief cover letter containing your name, address, email address, and day and evening telephone numbers, as well as a list of the submitted poem in the order in which they appear. Do not include your name on the poems themselves, only on the cover sheet;

• You are welcome to submit more than once, provided you do so under separate covers, and pay a reading fee per entry (up to three poems);

• Send with your submission a $10 reading fee (check or money order and include a SASE to Folio, Department of Literature, Attn: Poetry Contest, American University, Washington, D.C. 20016;

• Current AU students are not eligible. Please do not send previously published poems.

Every contestant’s reading fee gets him or her a copy of the issue in which the winning entries will be published. All contest entries will also be considered for publication in FOLIO.

1st Prize: $500 / Honorable Mention: $100 / Honorable Mention: $100

It's a great magazine, and a great opportunity to have your work read by a contemporary poetry goddess. Please spread the word~

October 18, 2010

10 Small Forms of Wonder

Some days you have to pause and recognize that, for all its flaws and exhaustions, it is an amazing world we live in. Need specifics? Here we go~

-There are people in this world whose livelihoods are based in the industries of windchimes, DJ'ing, and peanut butter. 

-Wombats are categorized in two main categories: common, and "hairy-nosed."

-Waggle your fingers in some random/rapid range of motion you haven't otherwise used this week. Hadn't you almost forgotten your hands COULD do that?

-Someone bothered to define the anapest.

-You will someday love someone who, when they first came into the world, was a complete stranger whose birth meant nothing to you. Imagine all the things that had to line up for you  to know each other now. 

-A healthy birch tree can produce as many as a million seeds in a single year. 

-Eva Cassidy's vocals--live, mygodshecoulddothislive--on "Autumn Leaves":

-Tater tots.

-Any and every day, people can make videos like this...all it takes is a high altitude weather balloon, a camera you're not afraid to lose, and a dream.

High Altitude Balloon from David Stillman on Vimeo.

-Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia: 18 spires, three grand facades, Cubist and Symbolist detailing. Still a work in progress, to be completed in 2026--a full century after the death of its architect. Of the construction time for the Catholic cathedral, prolonged even in Gaudi's life, he said only..."My client is not in a hurry."

October 15, 2010


Lovely: I am profiled as the "October Spotlight" over at Write From Wrong.

Lovely: Martha Silano writes about teaching "Cherry Tomatoes" over at Blue Positive.

I am just returning from a dash to the post office, to make a 5 PM postmark deadline on a fellowship application. The October wind has blown my hair into total disarray, I'm wearing a favorite shirt that has a bleached spot on it (damn kitchen cleaner!), and--given I never got around to making myself up in the first place today, other than putting my contacts in--I'm feeling a bit ragged.

Ah well. Today is a day to recover. Yesterday I drove to Annapolis for a visit at the Naval Academy, a respite at B B Bistro that featured a bowl of amazing homemade soup (chickpeas, spinach & sundried tomatoes--support your independent coffee shops), and a cozy evening reading at The Annapolis Bookstore (support your independent bookstore, too). The audience at the academy was fantastic, including a classroom of students who had NOT chosen the major of English, not one of them. So I had to seduce them with a "Love Poem for Wednesday" & a "Love Poem for College," and break down the myth of the Minotaur beat-by-beat so that "The Minotaur Speaks" made sense...which is as it should be. Poets should have to work hard.

One of the students pointed out something I'd never thought about (at least, not consciously): all of the amusement park rides in "Another Failed Poem about the Greeks" come straight outta Kings Dominion. Which ideally gives the biographer something to play with someday, should I be lucky enough to merit one. But will anyone merit a biography, in the age of blogs and Facebook updates and aggressive self-reflection?

Ah well. Today is a day to recover. And watch as the wind blows the leaves against my balcony window again, again, again.

October 13, 2010

The Unemployment Show!

On Friday, October 1, I had the pleasure of driving up to Pittsburgh to be a guest on Dave English's "The Unemployment Show," which is hosted at the Schmutz Lodge on 5405 Broad Street (Garfield neighborhood, for those who know the city). 
We had amazing craft services via "The Goodie Truck," which pulled up to the Lodge an hour before the show to sell sweets.  
The three-story Lodge, which has uneven stairs, squeaky floors, a demonic resident cat named Toots, and a lot of charm, doubles as Dave's house. Dave--an incredibly talented puppeteer and artist in his own right--has generously turned his space into an artist-residency, meaning there was plenty of amazing work on display, both his and that of others. Like cork people. 

Or a chair-cum-attack dog. 

Or an embroidered tank. 
As for the show itself...We laughed, we cried, we gave away some strange prizes. We had a band playing over our heads. The full show can be viewed via the series of YouTube clips below. Enjoy!