August 20, 2022

Buckle Up

When opening the Blogger interface, I am struck by how much things have changed. Hello, hello out there. Is this thing on? I think, as well, about my footprint of "SBeasley" and "SandraBeasley" across the web. If the internet is around in a hundred years (assuming civilization as we recognize it is around in a hundred years), generations that come after us may consider it wildly shortsighted that we were allowed to claim whole internet domains and social media spaces simply by way of being the first person, with a particular name, to think of seeking ThatName.com. 


Or maybe the point is that there will always be newer platforms that create space for the next generation to stake their unique claim. 


I try to be reasonably tidy in terms of my internet presence in terms of website, Facebook, and Twitter. The two outliers are Instagram--newest platform for me, and I'm not sure how I want to use it--and this blog, oldest platform for me, and I'm not sure how I want to use it. (In this respect, Janet Fitch is a kindred spirit.) Today, I'm just bulletin-boarding my 2022. 


In order to explain 2022, I have to rewind and explain the years prior, specifically the academic years. The simple version of the story is that I got to serve as American University's Visiting Writer in Residence for AY 2020-2021, and 2021-2022. What I loved about my time was leading the graduate workshops in creative nonfiction, advising MFA students on their thesis work, teaching a LIT 215 undergraduate course called "Writers in Print and Person" (a class I've had an adjunct relationship with going back to 2014), and learning to teach LIT 107, the "Intro to Creative Writing" class that spans all genres. 


I have never had the security of a multi-year contract in teaching, much less a tenure-track job, which makes it harder to measure pedagogical growth. But I used this sustained appointment to adopt a contract grading policy for undergraduate teaching, with an emphasis on equity; to re-invent my workshop technique with graduate students, abolishing any "cone of silence" tradition; and to conceptualize a 300-level literature class, "The Ethics of Writing Creatively," which was ultimately approved to fulfill AU CORE's Ethical Reasoning requirement. 


Wait; I came here for a chick who digs poetry, not a chick who digs teaching. 


Teaching fuels the poetry, I promise. But it's also true that publishing a book of poetry during a pandemic is really hard! I haven't gotten to do many readings for Made to Explode since it was published in February 2021. The paperback edition of Made to Explode will be out in December of this year, and I hope that gives the collection a second chance to make it into reader's hands, and maybe even people's classrooms. In the meantime, my spirits were considerably lifted by learning that the Library of Virginia has named the book one of three finalists for the 25th Annual Literary Awards, in the poetry category. Alongside books by Tina Parker and Rita Dove (mentor & hero, no pressure). 


The pandemic has made it difficult to think expansively over these past few years. Our emphasis has been on hunkering down and surviving. But I came into the summer with something like Big Hope, in part because a next nonfiction book (a collection of essays in unconventional forms) has been coming into focus. After the brief spring "tests" of driving first to AWP in Philadelphia back in March, then a literary festival at Clemson University, I lined up substantive summer travel in the form of two residencies--first ten days at A.I.R. Studio in Paducah, Kentucky, and then all of June at the Storyknife Writers Retreat in Homer, Alaska. Both offered responsible options for quarantining (if needed) and staying safe, while also furnishing the community I've craved.


Those residencies were amazing. Full stop. Storyknife, in particular--we were on the Ring of Fire, with volcanos on the horizon! in the solstice season, meaning, 20 hours of light a day! six women writers, gathering around a dinner table!--took my breath away. 

Wooden rail in foreground, as part of back patio view; Alaska landscape with waterline and pine trees, bright sun mid-sky.
8 PM Sky in Homer, Alaska (July)


Office view, showing a small desk pulled to a window--vase with flowers on the sill. Window view shows Alaskan landscape at mid-day, water and pines. Office decor includes roller chair, lamps, and purple comfy chair..
Evangeline Cabin Studio Desk

View of a back patio to main cabin, with six green adirondack chairs and empty planter boxes. Two green cabins with white trim and brown roofs in mid-background. Landscape of pines in distant background.
Residents' Deck of the Main Cabin

Dining table, modern, with six chairs. Flowers on the table, persian rug beneath. Windows behind chairs show view of Alaska landscape, with pines, at mid-day.
Communal Meal Table in the Main Cabin

Evening sky, sunset colors ranging from pinks to blues, Alaskan landscape with pines and mowed grass in foreground.
8 PM Sky in Homer, Alaska (July)


I used my time at these two residencies to read, write, and refresh. So there's no easy way to segue to what came next: on my last full day in Alaska, I got the call that my husband was in the hospital back in our home of Washington, D.C. He spent most of July in the ICU. Now we're wrapping our heads around what comes next. I had to resign my Visiting Writer-in-Residence position at American University for Fall 2022. I had to defer a plan to join the faculty of the University of Nebraska's low-res MFA. I have no choice but to slow down, to be present in the moment, and to be grateful for the company I'm keeping. (And, in a brief nod to the fickle cruelties of the American medical system: to remember, money isn't real.) 


That's the thing about life--it keeps changing, right out from under us. 









January 11, 2022

January Jump

When I opened my laptop at the end of December, determined to post to this blog once more before the close of the year--well, that's how I found out Betty White had died. I thought, Nope, see you in 2022. I closed the laptop's cover. If you've struggled with social media for this past year, I get it. I've needed to go silent for long periods. That's particularly painful when the pandemic hasn't given us a chance to connect in other ways, because it can feel like damned-if-you-do, erased-if-you-don't. But I'm grateful because when I look back at the second half of 2021, I spot bright glimmers of living, of pleasures taken, seized in a time that felt dark. 




I went to Nationals games, mostly with my dad, and we cheered when the team was good and hung on even when they were terrible, having traded away almost all our star power. The cactus in our bedroom bloomed a half-dozen times. Sal the Wonder Cat kept us amused, though for a stretch we had to refocus on his critical care--a crisis he came through thanks to Marshall Veterinary Clinic and VCA SouthPaws. 






We took advantage of the post-vaccine, pre-variant lull to visit friends in Maine; one of them, Maureen Thorson (pictured distantly on the shore), has a great poetry collection coming out next month called Share the Wealth. We went sailing and ate many oysters. Their house backs up against a stunning Audobon preserve. 





The day before fall classes started at American University, my husband and I day-tripped down to the Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Arts Center--the planned part--and added on a dusk hike to Calvert Cliffs--the unplanned part. My semester was good but busy. I instituted contract grading, which is a larger conversation I'd like to have; not sure if this blog is the place to do it. I had very few chances to gather in-person with writers, which is usually a big part of why I teach, but we did have a lovely reading at GoodWood on U Street. That doubled as a chance to say goodbye to longtime local fiction writer Leslie Pietrzyk, who moved down to North Carolina. Fortunately I think she'll be back to visit because her new story collection, Admit This to No One, is all about DC.




My one bit of book-travel was for Lit Youngstown, and poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis was a much-needed passenger for the long drive to Ohio. I got to give a lecture on the golden shovel as a form, and introduce Jan Beatty for the closing night reading. The unexpected gift was a painting by Kelly Bancroft inspired by my prose poem, "Cherry Tree Rebellion."




Our neighborhood is right by the water, and I've tried to take advantage of that--there's no quicker lift to my spirits than a walk along Hains Point, and for many months a free jitney ran back and forth across the Potomac Channel for the sake of the neighborhood. The Wharf restaurants are too expensive to visit regularly, but one quiet afternoon I treated myself a a Vesper and worked on an essay collection. 

I'm very ready for the new year. Let's be honest, that exactly what I said at the end of 2020. 2021 did right by me in many ways. I put out my fourth collection of poems, Made to Explode, and had work appear in three anthologies. My family got to celebrate my sister's wedding in October at Glen Echo, and we managed to safely host my husband's family for Thanksgiving; these are immeasurable gifts. And yet I'm ready, I'm ready, and daring to be optimistic. I hope you are too. 

June 12, 2021

Still a TJ Kid at Heart

Have you come across the pseudo-fact, circulating recently, that claims 72% of all American adults live within 20 miles from where they grew up? I don't trust that as a statistic, but its true that the when I map the driving distance from my home in SW Washington, DC, to my family's home in Vienna, VA, the distance comes up as just 17 miles. Though I'd note that distance still takes more than a half-hour to travel thanks to Beltway traffic. 

There are moments when I nourish the instinct to get away, and moments when it feels incredibly rewarding to have stayed so close to home for so long. Evidence of the latter has been a recent dialogue with Fairfax County's Public Libraries, which provided refuge on many a day growing up. Our conversation has resulted in both an hourlong "Meet the Poet" event recorded online last week (which you can view here) and an upcoming July seminar, free, on "Narrative Strategies and Truth-Telling in Nonfiction," intended for folks interested in self-mentoring themselves toward writing a memoir. 

On the heels of a virtual 8th Period visit with the TJ Poets Club for National Poetry Month in April, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology asked me to speak at their graduation ceremonies. As an alumna, I couldn't imagine saying no. But as the date neared and it got really real, I wondered how I was going to use this chance--all six glimmering minutes of it.

The actual morning of ceremonies was a flustered affair, because the administration had only gotten the green light for an in-person gathering less than two months prior. My husband and I trekked out to Woodson High School in Fairfax on the first blazingly hot day of summer. A bunch of us tried to access the football field one way, then turned around and got told we would have to backtrack. I realized I didn't have a contact phone number for anyone. Seconds were ticking down to the 9 AM start time. 

But somehow (after being yelled at for accidentally stepping on the track), we found our way to the incoming march of TJ faculty. I felt tremendously relieved to spot Marianne Razzino--fellow member of the Class of 1998, now mathematics teacher--who was holding a black robe and generic regalia to throw on over my dress. Next thing I knew, I was sitting on a stage facing the Class of 2021.


Here's what I had to say, opening with a few ad-libbed observations as I eased into the strangeness of the task at hand~

Thank you for that wonderful introduction; thank you for choosing me to be here; thank you to my own former classmate, who made the regalia sit on me. I'm really honored. I'm glad to be here at Woodson, site of many a Thomas Jefferson High School Homecoming victory, and in the company of...cicadas. 

I know that you are a good, honorable group of people, because during this time I have watched multiple cicadas land on you, and you've found gentle ways to--[hand gesture]. I haven't seen a single one swatted or squished yet. I appreciate the pacifists among us. 

Years ago, I actually auditioned to be the graduating speaker for the Class of 1998. I was not chosen. So I thought about digging up that old speech. Pulling it out, tearing away the dot-matrix feeder strips; if you don't know that reference, ask your parents later. But the world that we lived in, in 1998, is so different from the world we live in now. 

I wanted to speak to you all as an alumna. I wanted to give you the most direct and hardest-earned knowledge that I could offer, and I'm following some amazing comments that have been made already. Forgive me that, in typical TJ fashion, I working on these comments 2 AM on the day they were due. 

I’ve got five minutes and I've got three things to tell you. 

First, I want to talk about a honey fungus in Eastern Oregon, Armillaria Ostoyae. I know. Stay with me. It's the largest creature on earth—it's the size of sixteen football fields—and it lives mostly underground. The bad news is this mushroom isn’t allowing the coniferous trees above to grow. But the amazing news is that parts of the organism are 8,000 years old. 

And then, I want to talk to you about the octopus, and the fact that it has three hearts and dark-blue blood. I want to talk about how capybaras are the friendliest creatures on Earth. I want to talk to you about DNA, and black holes. 

Science is the language that humans use to articulate wonder and curiosity, and it is beautiful thing that every one of these students, every one of you, speaks that language of science. You can go into any number of professions—you can become lawyer, restaurant owners, even a poet—but I can guarantee that your success in whatever field you choose will be enriched by continuing to learn about the science and technology of this world. So please, always hold space for that.

Second, I know I am talking to a crowd that is expert at cramming, at acing, at burning the candle at both ends, whatever metaphor you want. I say this with love: please, now, if you aren't already, think about your mental health. Think about taking care of yourself. Build your reserves. Recognize that the You who gets a B is worth just as much as the You who gets an A. 

And I love that I wrote this message to you all last night, but I've already heard it echoed today. I heard your principal say it, and I heard your classmates say it, and that tells me that you all are thinking about these things. Because I have been where you are. And, trust me, there will come a time when all-nighters are no longer an option, okay? All the caffeine in the world will not allow you to activate the way that you're able to activate right now. In addition to being brilliant, high-achieving performers, you might want to be good partners, loving parents, or simply people with lives outside your work. 

You are more than your productivity. To loosely cite Voltaire—whose Candide I read in Ms. Curtis’s AP Literature class—do not let “perfect” be the enemy of good. 

The third thing I want to say is that you are so fortunate in the company you have kept for these last four years, even when it was over Zoom. I move among artists, who tend to congratulate themselves for being interesting. And they are. But honestly, person-for-person, your classmates at TJ are the most interesting cohort of people you’ll ever meet, and their names will constellate the sky of every imaginable profession, every geographic location, in the years to come. So keep track. Don’t disappear on each other. 

Doesn’t mean you have to say these were the best years of your life and, in fact, I hope aren’t. I hope the best is ahead of you. But trust me when I say that the bonds forged in the fires of this high school mean something. 

I look out and know that I am looking at the people who will shape our world in the years to come. The great part is, I trust you with that world. I have seen so many signs that this generation is talented, adept, inclusive in your social values, generous with your spirit. I ask only that you take care of yourselves, and take care of each other. Thank you. 

As the ceremony shifted into presentation of diplomas, I realized that my placement--you could draw a straight line from the photographer's camera, to the principal, to my chair--meant that I'd be photobombing graduates as they received their diplomas. Sitting and smiling through 400 names is no joke. But it wasn't hard to smile, watching their individual energies as each person cued up to cross the stage. They fussed with their tassels, they stood on tiptoe, they double-checked which hand they were supposed to extend. "Whatever feels good to you, man, just go with it," one of their faculty advisors said, clapping his hand on the back of a student.

Watching a wave of blue caps flip into the air, what I felt was gratitude. And hope.