April 24, 2012

Write What You Know...Kinda

This past weekend I took part in both the Bethesda Literary Festival and the Annapolis Book Festival. At the latter I got to take part in two panels. One was on "The Politics of Food" (super-interesting, and nice to draw on the science/policy research I did for DKTBG) and one that asked "Can Creative Writing Be Taught?"

This is invariably a rhetorical question when five writers who teach weigh in (the event was hosted by the Writer's Center). There was still enjoyable variety in what we had to say. I particularly loved hearing from Ron Capps, who works with veterans who are often coming to the table without even -wanting- to write. But at one point the old saw of "Write what you know" came up, and because of time constraints I didn't speak up to complicate that advice. I regret not doing that, so I'll do it here. 

Write what you know, yes.
But know things beyond your own navel. 

Too often we use "write what you know" to justify solipsism, an indulgence of the "I,"a family story or personal narrative offered without context in the larger world. 

When I sit down to write, it is often in the key of loneliness. So I could write about what's right in front of my face: a failing relationship, a 14-hour drive, a warm scotch on a cold night. All things I know. But I am also lucky enough to live near the National Zoo, where I take weekly walks to clear my head as I ruminate on these things. There I visit with platypi, capybaras, peacocks--creatures whose habits and personalities I perceive in a visceral way that is then expanded by a few hours of research into their genetic lineage, their anatomy, their role in human history. In sitting down to write a somewhat confessional poem, yes, I'm writing what I know. But in sitting down to write an ode to peacocks--which you will find in your May issue of Poetry, such a huge thrill--I am also writing "what I know." 

My point is, what you know extends far beyond internal monologue. Write about the history of a Shenandoah National Park trail, not just a fight you had with your boyfriend as you hiked it. Write about how to make a perfect pie crust, or how to dock a sailboat with one knot. Write about fights your parents had over money when you were a kid, but look up what the actual state of the economy was at the time--how much did a loaf of bread cost? a house? what was the living wage?--and include that too. 

I'm not preaching from on high; I struggle with this. As a memoirist, part of me wanted to curl up in the safe zone of my own story, which couldn't be easily contradicted. But I knew my book had to look to the larger realms of science, cultural analysis, and public policy, even at the risk of getting something wrong or entering an argument. I wrote a chapter on peanut allergies although I'm not allergic to peanuts. I interviewed allergic women my age who decided to become mothers because, though I have not, that is an important part of the story.  And I think (I hope) it's a better book for all that. 

Tomorrow I head up to New York for back-to-back readings in Brooklyn: the paperback launch for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl at BookCourt on Wednesday, April 25, and a reading with Yusef Komunyakaa and Thomas Sayers Ellis to celebrate the redesign of American Poet at the DUMBO powerHouse Arena on Thursday, April 26. Then I dash to make an afternoon flight on Friday out of BWI; from there on to the "Experience Poetry in Vicksburg" festival--a return to my beloved Mississippi!--on April 28 and a reading at SCAD's Atlanta campus on Tuesday, May 1. Home just in time for a Vienna memoir conference on May 3. I might just barely break even on all this. Oh: and then we throw a reading/extravaganza/birthday thingie on May 5. You should come.

In another news, my sister is awesome. She is truly a friend to the sea turtle, both the fleshy and beanbag variety. And she'll be bartending at Cinco de Sandra.

April 19, 2012

Where You Should Be in DC on April 30

So, here's the thing: I was already going to tell you that this reading coming to the Folger on April 30 is the most important poetry event to go to in DC in the remaining days of April. I'm so sad I don't get to go. I'll be en route from the "Experience Poetry in Vicksburg" festival to a reading at SCAD's Atlanta campus. As I said to a friend: remind me, this time next year, to leave days free to go to readings instead of giving them. 

At least I'll see Thomas Sayers Ellis in New York. He is joining me and Yusef Komunyakaa for a reading to celebrate the redesign & release of American Poet on Thursday, April 26 at the DUMBO powerHouse Arena. With that lineup, it's gonna be epic. 

Anyway, back to DC and April 30. A funny thing has happened ...Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer for Life on Mars. Go Tracy! So not only is this the place to be, you better get your tickets in advance. If you want a sneak peek of what you might expect, here's a report from their initial reunion reading in Chicago. 

O.B. Hardison Poetry Series presents
“Nothing Personal: The Dark Room Collective Reunion Reading Tour”

Renowned African American Poets Look Back on 25 years

(WASHINGTON, DC)  The O.B. Hardison Poetry Series at the Folger Shakespeare Library presents an evening of poetry with The Dark Room Collective on Monday, April 30 at 6:30pm. Nothing Personal features Collective members Tisa Bryant, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Major Jackson, John Keene, Tracy K. Smith, Sharan Strange, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young. In 1996 The New Yorker deemed them “…a group that could turn well out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem Renaissance.”  The evening will also include a discussion moderated by Meta DuEwa Jones and a reception with book sales and signing. Tickets are $15 for adults and $7.50 for students and may be purchased at Folger box office, 202.544.7077, or online at www.folger.edu/poetry.

Founded in Boston in 1987 by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange, The Dark Room Collective began as an informal community of African American poets. Poet and member Major Jackson described the Collective as “a group of aspiring black writers and artists who spanned outwards with large arms to embrace any black writer who had a sophistication and commitment to art and artfulness.” The group has gone on to distinguished careers, winning awards and marking literary achievements for their exuberant works.

Tisa Bryant works with innovative hybrid formats, including essays, prose poetry, cinematic novels, and ekphrastic writing. She explores the relationships between artist, art, and viewer with a focus on ethnicity, sexuality, identity, and myth. She wrote Unexplained Presence and Tzimmes, and is co-editor of War Diaries, an anthology of black gay male desire and survival, which was nominated Best LGBTQ anthology by the LAMBDA Literary Awards. She is a faculty member at California Institute of the Arts.

Multi-talented Thomas Sayers Ellis is a poet, photographer, and co-founder of The Dark Room Collective. “The fine and noble tradition of protest poetry is in safe, strong hands with this latest collection,” wrote the New York Journal of Books about Ellis’ recently published SKIN, INC.: Identity Repair Poems. Ellis is the author of The Maverick Room, which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and was a recipient of a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writers’ Award. Ellis is an assistant professor at Sarah Lawrence College, a faculty member of the Lesley University, and a Caven Canem faculty member.

With his story-telling poetry, Major Jackson celebrates the complexities and subtleties of the American landscape, its people, and their environment. He has written several collections of poetry, including Hoops and Leaving Saturn, which was winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Jackson is a professor at University of Vermont and a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars. He serves as the poetry editor of the Harvard Review.

John Keene explores identity and its many facets, from race and social class to sexuality, with the rhythmic craft of his poetry and prose. He is the author of the award-winning novel Annotations and of the poetry collection Seismosis. He has received many fellowships, a 2005 Whiting Foundation Award in Fiction and Poetry, and a 2008 Fellowship for Distinguished First Collection from the inaugural Pan-African Literary Forum. He is an associate professor of English and African American studies at Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Northwestern University.

Tracy K. Smith’s poetry questions love, loss, and social justice, as well as examining God, death, and the impact people have on each other and the planet. She has written three books of poetry: Life on Mars, Duende, and The Body's Question. Smith is the recipient of the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a 2004 Rona Jaffe Writers Award, a 2005 Whiting Award, and the 2006 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, and was Literature protégé of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. She is an assistant professor or creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University.

With Southern wit and direct eloquence, poet Sharan Strange describes the beauty and pain of life, family, neighborhood, childhood wonder, and innocence lost. Strange, a co-founder of The Dark Room Collective and a contributing and advisory editor of Callaloo, is the author of Ash, a collection of poems. Strange has been a writer-in-residence at Fisk University, Spelman College, the University of California at Davis, and the California Institute of the Arts. She is a professor of English at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga.

Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey writes about the working-class in the South, showing personal journeys in the landscape of history, and drawing on her own experiences for enrichment. Her first collection of poetry, Domestic Work, was the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet and won both the 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Trethewey’s other works include Native Guard, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Bellocq's Ophelia and a book of creative non-fiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She is a professor of English at Emory University.

Kevin Young draws inspiration from African American music and American history in his poetic tales full of sorrow and insight. The New York Times Book Review described his book Black Maria as “highly entertaining, often dazzling, and, as book reviewers like to say—but rarely about contemporary poetry—compulsively readable.” Young has written seven books of poetry, including Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebellion and Jelly Roll: A Blues, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize. He is a professor of creative writing and English, and curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University in Atlanta.

Moderater Meta DuEwa Jones, Ph.D specializes in poetry of the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly in relation to gender, sexuality, performance, and music. Her book, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry From the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word, was noted as “an important addition to the growing literature about jazz poetry” by Choice. Jones is co-director of the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies, as well as an associate professor of English and African American studies at University of Texas at Austin.

DATE & TIME: Monday, April 30 at 6:30pm
LOCATION: Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC
TICKETS: $15 adults / $7.50 students 
Purchase at the Folger box office, 202.544.7077, or www.folger.edu/poetry
METRO: Capitol South (blue/orange lines), 4 blocks
PARKING: Street parking in neighborhood

April 11, 2012

Cinco de Sandra & the Joy-Schmuck Club

This is me. I like birthdays.

But without going into too much detail: I did not have the best birthday last year. I was nursing a broken heart (from just a week before, no less, which had meant a looong drive back from Mississippi). I didn't treat myself a fancy sushi dinner. I didn't get a good glass of wine with a friend. I walked the grounds of the Hillwood Museum, stopped to sniff every flower I saw, and stayed very very quiet.

That's not gonna be the case this year.

Because this year, my friends, we are having an extravaganza. You are invited. And through no fault of my own, we are calling it...


On May 5, 2012, an all-star lineup of DC and NYC storytellers will come together to blow your mind with live performances of poetry, comix, and stories at the Hillyer Art Space in Dupont Circle. Venues represented include Trip City, ACTIVATEcomix, and Barrelhouse. After that? We'll get the music spinning.

CINCO DE SANDRA’s lineup of performers includes:

Dean Haspiel 
Emmy winner for BORED TO DEATH title sequence, artist of THE ALCOHOLIC w/Jonathan Ames and THE QUITTER w/Harvey Pekar, creator of BILLY DOGMA

Cartoonist of HIT BY PITCH, FROG & OWL

Comics writer, SAM & LILAH, CRAZY PAPERS, others at ACTIVATEcomix

DC-based storyteller, author of YOU’RE NOT PRETTY ENOUGH

Spoken word poet, mothertongue organizer

BARRELHOUSE contributor and co-editor of Flying Guillotine Press

& yes, little 'ol me, quite possibly in Modern Alice mode*

The whole shebang will be hosted by man-about-town Brandon Wetherbee (of YOU, ME, THEM, EVERYBODY) and featuring the sweet sounds of DJ P-Vo (Hometown Sounds DC). 

We will have a merch table. We will have beer and non-beer. We will have a helluva lotta hijinks. We're asking $5 contributions at the door to defray the cost of the space, and to keep an eye on the head count, we're asking that you RSVP here (feel free to invite friends, too!). Beyond that, the only thing we're asking of you is to have an awesome time. 

*Don't tell my mom.

This event is hosted and coordinated by International Arts & Artists, LLC. Anyone familiar with the Hillyer Art Space (9 Hillyer Court NW) knows this is a FABULOUS venue--right off Dupont Circle down the alley from the Phillips Collection, accessible to metro and bus lines. Seriously, if there's one thing you go to in May, make this it. Doors open at 8 PM.
And while I have your attention, this contest should intrigue TRIP CITY fans...


Send your schmuckiest, most happless, awkward, embarrassing and/or clumsy personal story, 800 words or less, by May 7. 

Seth Kushner will pick the top three, which will then be read by a jury comprised of Emmy Award winning cartoonist, Dean Haspiel (Bored To Death, Billy Dogma), Eisner award winning cartoonist Nick Abadzis, (Laika, Hugo Tate), and poet/author Sandra Beasley (Don’t Kill The Birthday Girl, I Was the Jukebox) who will pick the first, second and third place winners. All will be published on TripCity.net, one per month, from least schmucky to most schmucky, between June and August.

The following prizes will be awarded:

1st Place – Signed copy of Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics by Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner

2nd Place – Signed copy of Seth Kushner’s limited edition CulturePOP Photocomix

3rd Place – Signed copy of the TRIP CITY Visitor Guide

Please, amateur schmucks only—no pros!!

PLEASE EMAIL ALL ENTRIES TO: tripcityinfo@gmail.com


Emmy-award-winning artist Dean Haspiel created the Eisner Award nominated "Billy Dogma," and illustrated for HBO's "Bored To Death." Dino has drawn many superhero and semi-autobiographical comic books and graphic novels for major publishers, including collaborations with Jonathan Lethem, Harvey Pekar, Jonathan Ames, Inverna Lockpez, and Tim Hall. Dino won the 6th Anniversary Literary Death Match in NYC with his "brute charisma" and curates cool multimedia at TripCity.net

Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox (winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize), Theories of Falling (winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize), and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir. Her essays have appeared in the Oxford American and Washington Post Magazine. Her poetry has turned up in such venues as The Believer, Slate, and The Best American Poetry 2010. She keeps her heart in a suitcase and her groceries in Washington, DC.

Nick Abadzis is a cartoonist, writer, graphic novelist and editor of international renown who has been honored with various awards including the prestigious Eisner in 2008 for his graphic novel Laika. He recently relocated from London in the UK to New York City where he continues to work both as a storyteller and editorial consultant. His next major project is a revamped and digitally-restored collection of his first ever strip Hugo Tate, originally published in legendary UK music and comics magazine Deadline. This will be published by Blank Slate Books in 2012, and other graphic novels are in the works.

Seth Kushner’s photography has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, L’Uomo Vogue, The New Yorker and others. He was chosen by Photo District News magazine as a three-time winner of their Photo Annual Competition. Seth’s first book, The Brooklynites (with Anthony LaSala) was published by powerHouse Books in 2007. His next book, Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics (with Chris Irving) will be released in May 2012.


...who knows? Get crazy on May 5 and it might just give you a story for May 7...

April 06, 2012


Last night I heard Kevin McFadden and Angie Hogan read at Cafe Muse. It had been far too long since I got to be in the audience for a poetry reading; a very weird side effect of giving them so often. Thanks to Kevin and Angie for coming up from Charlottesville and joining me and Cafe Muse host Hailey Leithauser for a drink afterwards.

I loved Angie's work, particularly "Apologia at Clinchfield Yards," which you can read here thanks to Poetry Daily (it first appeared in The Threepenny Review). The poem pulls no punches; the Clinchfield Railroad Yard near Erwin, Tennessee, was the actual hanging site of Mary the elephant. There's a photo you can find online, but I can't bear to post it here. "Apologia" now ranks alongside Dan Chiasson's "The Elephant" in my kingdom of favorite pachyderm poems. 

When Kevin McFadden's HARDSCRABBLE first came out I know I got a copy, but I lent it to a friend and never got it back. I was happy to reunite myself with a second copy last night. These complex, acrobatic, language-obsessed poems are not only smart but fun. As Hailey said in her introduction, Kevin is a "word-drunk," the best possible kind. Here is one of his anagrammatic poems from the book, which opens with a line from Langston Hughes and then plays with different incarnations of the text in provocative and meaningful ways:


Let America be America again.
Ice-age ambiance. Later a mira-
cle air: a meat mania, ice-barge,
ice-amble. A tie. Agrarian came
later, Inca came, a bare image I
bear. An Eric came, agile at aim
(let America be a maniac, I rage).
Italian came--macabre, I agree.
Came Iberia, came Angle, a rat I
Rate, a marine bilge. Came a CIA
angelic era, a tame iambic ear.
Bacteria came in a mire, algae
era. Militia came, began a race,
a crime, eager aim, Cain at Abel.
At Abe L. Imagine a ceramic era,
ceramic ear: I am it. A lab. A gene
I age. A meme trace. A bicranial
air age, a bicameral cinema, et
cetera, a manic beige malaria,
a carnage. American I let be. I am
a cameraman, I create a big lie
(let America be a camera I gain),
I am a cabaret emcee, a girl in a
Miami tribe, an eagle, a car, ace
Airman. Elegaic America, a bet:
let America be a magic arena I
anagram. I bet I care (came a lie,
a clear image), I bet America an
animal acreage, I bet America
beer I can amalgamate air, ice-
berg. An ale. Ace-at-ear, I mimic a
man (bare me) I glaciate Americana--
I’m a rain. Let America be a cage;
I remain a gate, a Mecca. I blare
Niagra, I accelerate, maim, be
a beam, I emanate a grail, Circe
mirage. America, a neat cable I
tie in. America, a gala embrace.
Let America be America: a gain.


April 02, 2012


Yesterday I spent many hours snaking down Route 15 south--from the Finger Lakes region of New York, through western Pennsylvania, on my way back home to DC. The signage along the Susquehannah River was not like anything I had ever encountered. This is coming from a girl who has spent a lot of time in the deep South, which I had always thought had the monopoly on memorable signage. A few favorites:

-"Nipple Convalescent Home"
-"Green Shingle Inn" (not an inn at all, but a restaurant)
-"Chipmunk Pistol $139.95" 
-The oddly poetic McDonald's sign asking:
Do not go ordinary-- 
Try our spicy chicken--
-"County Line Beverage" (points for honesty!)

Also, this friendly sea dragon. 

He lives next to the Burgundy Steakhouse--which is not, as far as I can tell, dragon-themed. 

I have named him Lester.