July 28, 2006

...And the Spaz Rats

In happy news, my redesigned website is finally up, after several days of earthlink limbo. Still some pages to be tweaked and expanded, but the basic concept is in place.

For those who gave positive feedback on my original site, many thanks. I'm especially happy to know I motivated a few other folks to getting their name into dot.com stardom. That old design just became unwieldy to update: too many boxy frames and columns, too many small niches of detail. This feels less claustrophobic. I'm hoping to add back some of my original photographs, eventually, once I secure the server space.

When I launched a site under my own name, it seemed arrogant: I didn't have a book out, didn't have a publicity photo, didn't feel comfortable referring to myself in the third person. What compelled me to go online was simple: Sandra Beasley and the Spaz Rats.

Mind you, this is not a Sandra Beasley I know. This is a woman who lives in Canada (I think) and specializes in...alternative medicine for rats. She is the queen of the pet rat scene and man, is she a prodigious poster.

I am slowly but surely chipping away at her hit count, but for YEARS if you googled my name you got not poetry but: Sandra Beasley and the Spaz Rats. The best case scenario was people thinking that was the hip, alternative name for some crazy rock band of mine. The worst case scenario...well, you can go see for yourself. The "Sandra Beasley Independent Living Center" wasn't helping me either.

Anyone else out there have a crazy doppleganger story?

July 24, 2006

Sides that are Tiny in Nature

Ooooh, my goodness. When my thick envelope arrived from Big Game Books, I had no idea what I was in for: 5 magnificent tinysides, the first in a cavalcade of a series from one Maureen Thorton, resident book-binder and awl-victim of Capitol Hill. They are handmade! They are 4-color gorgeous! They are only $4.50!

They are already sold out. Begin your envy.

"butterflies" by Jessica Smith (pictured above) has the most substance per square inch. Each poem sprawls and loops across the square pages. The immediacy of the butterflies in the natural landscape intersects with a hinted-at emotional landscape of the speaker, who revisits and reconnects wordings in gestures of reconciling the two. My eyes enjoyed roaming these poems.

Mark Lamoureux's "Acheron Census" features this lovely small lyric:

Jaffrey, NH

They walked there,

from Noone Falls Mill.


Each of the short poems has the title of a town, tweaking the "Census" theme.

"The Archivist's Log of Interpersonal Experiments," by Stephanie Anderson, takes the prize for best cover (clean lines in pine green and ruddy orange), and consists of 26 four-line sections, interrogating actions described in the (alphabetically sequenced) titles: Handling the Juggler, Bickering with the Kiln-Stoker, Kissing the Literalist, Riding Sidecar with the Motorcyclist, etc.

In other news, the latest first-book interview at Kate Greenstreet's site is none other than...Frannie Lindsay. Worlds collide! Go check it out.

And, exactly one week from today I will be taking it off at Burlesque Poetry Hour.

Also, a trip to Baltimore left me obsessed with moving to Tindeco Wharf (waterfront, right between Fells Point and Canton). Anyone up there want to hire a poet? It's a restless time of year.

July 19, 2006

Opening Pandora's Book

First off, a quick congratulations to Paul Guest, who just revealed that his book Notes for My Body Double has won the Prairie Schooner Prize. This puts him in an elusive club, joining my friend Frannie Lindsay, of poets who have had both their first and second books published via prestigious contest wins.

Frannie's first book, Where She Always Was, won the May Swenson Award; her second book, Lamb, is forthcoming as Perugia Press’s 2006 Intro Award winner. I'm a big fan of the cover, pictured here.

I've been thinking a lot about first books lately, when and how to take the plunge: it's an overlooked fact that the odds of someone's manuscript being ready for publication, and the readiness of that poet to be the author of his/her first book, are extremely unlikely to happen at the same time. I've been following Kate Greenstreet's terrific series of interviews with poets on how their first book did (or did not) change their lives.

One recurring theme in the Q&As is that the poets who made the happiest transition beyond initial publication were those who were already actively invested in another phase of writing when the first book finally made it into print. Which makes sense...except, in practice, until that earlier collection receives the outside validation, I suspect we continually ask ourselves: is this my real first book? Is this my new, better self? Shouldn't these shiny new poems squeeze out those dusty old ones? If I just shuffle and reshuffle and pay my $20 fees and hold out another 8 months, will Louise Gluck recognize my singular genius?

Just keep writing, I know. A friend was warning me, just the other day, to not throw the baby out with the bathwater just because I was excited with some new work. Then she admitted that she, too, was thinking about reincarnating her first book manuscript--allowing only a few core poems to survive from the previous version. Shut up. Keep writing. I know. I know.

July 13, 2006


Last night I was at a mothertongue reading at the Black Cat here in DC (yes, Tara Betts was *amazing*). A woman was preparing for her open mic stint by running her fingers over lines scribbled in a journal. The journal's cover was ornate, red leather molded with the Sacred Heart of Jesus (you know, the flaming one). "That's a nice journal; I bet that's from Florence," I said, and it was--a gift from the woman's friend. "But," the poet confessed, "I had it for months, and I never actually wrote in it. It's so fancy. It just didn't feel like...me. So now I use it for the dirty stuff." Sure enough, the poem she read from it was a sinuous erotic encounter--thumb licking, head turning, sighing and sweating. She had a little black notebook tucked in her jeans pocket for the more straightforward stuff.

I sympathize. To give a journal to a writer is safe, like giving something adorned with an apple to a teacher. But really, we tend to be very picky about where we write and what we write in. I have stacks of untouched journals from well-meaning friends. I bet I'm not the only one.

Cornelius Eady finally convinced me to keep a notebook; for every previous professor I had just created a mock-journal at the last minute, scribbling out retroactive drafts from the poems I had created on a computer. The magic book, for me, had a hula girl on the front who danced when you shifted the cover in the light. Today, I can thumb back through it and see the antecedents of poems that have long since evolved into print. I love that. But sadly, I wrote out the last page a few months ago and have yet to find a suitable replacement. I'm looking for decent heft, a line wide enough and tall enough, a cover that is colorful but not distracting. There have been a few contenders but nothing quite right, and now there's growing pile of orphaned journals with just two pages used.

Too hot! Too cold! Where's the one that is just right?

July 10, 2006


I have always been a predominantly narrative, predominantly biographical, poet. Polished. Reliable. If you think I'm being arrogant, here's my outside reference point: Charles Wright described my work, years ago, as "often good, always competent."

I am not suggesting he meant it as a high compliment.

A few months ago I began working toward poems that spun off the energy of a dramatic speaker and a defined motivation, without having a particular "story" to tell. The decision sprang from some of poets I was reading--Sarah Manguso is one--who navigate emotional space as if it were a metaphysical matter, and give themselves over completely to the voice, rather than a discernible setting. There's something risky about that. I wanted to give it a shot.

This has caused some consternation in my writing group, a group of a half-dozen accomplished local writers I have been working with for over a year. I took a bit of a beating last time around over a draft that was too opaque in places. I can take that--it was a draft, after all, and I've worked on it since, taking into account their comments. Some of the metaphors are unruly, outright strange. Here's an excerpt:

I took him in, and the bitch in me begs you for eviction:

Turn loose my eyes, let my jaw drop. Tongue like a leash
on the bad dog. Marble knuckles, fatty and loud.

Punch the sweat from my collarbone—
rainwater off a cheap awning. Blood untunneling.

I am stubborn with tenants that no one will miss.

I am a bathtub of dumb machine parts, sometimes mistaken for a plan.

That last line "just didn't work for me," said one poet--who also said he likes poems constructed "brick-by-brick," with a foundation and a clear rhetorical conclusion--and though it was hard to hear, I can respect it, because he expressed it as a preference based on his own writing style.

But one poet made the global observation, about my writing, that "because the language and images are so consistently strong," I was letting the voice make connections that the explicit structure and narrative of the poem "didn't support." Symbolic leaps were being taken that couldn't be rationally justified by the given story. That it was something I ought to "watch out for"--to curb against in the future. This was offered in the mode of a workshop, so I didn't rebut. And I keep trying to absorb it as just another facet of critique, and find a way to make it serve the development of my poems. But after three weeks it is still gnawing at me.

If a poet makes a move over and over, based on her strengths, isn't that...her style? What makes her poems distinct? Isn't that where we locate the tension?

Don't get me wrong. One of my day jobs is in journalism. I'm all about clarity on the sentence level. If my writing is cluttered with a dangling modifier, a sloppy word choice or a vague pronoun, I want to know. I don't want the whole poem to be derailed because I didn't make it clear who the "she" was in the opening line.

But I don't owe the reader something that goes down easy. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of clarity as applied to the total poem. I know a lot of good poems with diamond-cut, absolutely clear meanings, systematically derived from a sequence of observations. I know a lot of truly great poems with no such thing. And though my workshop was frustrated by moments in the poem that they couldn't explicate, they were able to talk about the emotional stance of the speaker, the relationships being explored. So something fundamental was working.

I'm going to go back to Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, who I think made an excellent point about clarity in the introduction to Legitimate Dangers, using these lines from Joyelle McSweeney's "Persuasion":

"Others were more economical than I. but I / had my red marble."

Okay, the syntax is clear. No confusion on the sentence level. But no, there's no easy origin for the red marble. The speaker is not in a school yard, playing. She isn't a glass blower. And yet, the covetous specificity of the "red marble" is such that you grasp the contrast to the world of bland, ephemeral economy. The confidence of the voice carries the moment.

At least, for me it does. Maybe I'm being whiny; I'm sure I'm being defensive. But it's not always easy, in the workshop world, to sift out the comments that sharpen from the comments that dilute. A few years ago, a poem of mine described "the window slow-hunkering down upon itself, molecule upon jukebox molecule, toward the hungry earth." My entire MFA workshop voted to cut the word "jukebox." The setting was modern Pompeii, the speaker a lover, the other metaphors bridal in theme--the jukebox was deemed "out of place" and "random." Myra Sklarew, the professor, was the only one to defend it.

"Sometimes the inexplicable," she said, "is where the true poetry is happening."

Check Baby Check Baby 1234

***Self-deprecating announcement: Okay, you know that whole "moderated comments" phenomenon? Didn't realize I A) had it turned on, and B) that it then required review and "publishing" of comments. Didn't even know where to look for responses. I figured the radio silence had just been a function of being a new little fish in a very big pond. So, for the dozen or so people who have taken the time to comment on my blog since I started posting--thank you! And I'm sorry about the inadvertent censorship! Consider yourselves liberated.

And to think, I went to a high school for science & technology.

***DC-centric announcement: For those in the area, two poets reading in town this week who I highly recommend: ERIKA MEITNER of Charlottsville (Tuesday, Miller Cabin Poetry Series) and TARA BETTS of Chicago/Brooklyn (Wednesday, mothertongue at the Black Cat). I heard Tara (pictured at the right) read on Sunday at Busboys and Poets and the woman blew me away. Total control of the stage, the pace, the tone. Very strong blend of political, activist intent with narrative structure--the story doesn't get drowned by The Message. Def Poetry Jam was lucky to have her. And she was the best random AWP Austin roommate ever, courtesy of a Wom-Po list hookup (I feel like a giddy high-schooler with a yearbook and a sharpie pen, scribbling away, but that doesn't make it any less true).

July 05, 2006

Scenic Carbondale, Home of the Soybean

This last week was a bit of a blur, as it included a whirlwind trip (30 hours, 6 hours driving, 6 hours flying) to Carbondale, IL, where I picked up my sister from the Young Writers Workshop. Christina attended on the first annual Younkin-Rivera Scholarship--and with her long hair in braids, her flowing skirt, her dimples and her slightly sexy/slightly moody poetry, she is definitely a Beasley girl. It was funny (and a bit creepy) to sit near the back, and listen as the boys in front of me whispered "She's REALLY good" (with an implied "REALLY hot" in there somewhere). Ah, youth. Lock 'em up while you can. Miraculously enough, I don't think the late-night hijinks got much worse than marathon games of UNO.

Allison Joseph (of CRWROPPS and Crab Orchard fame) has put together a wonderful program that brings together 28 poets and fiction writers, aged 15-18, for a week of writing workshops, teaching sessions, and open mics. For some, my sister included, this was a first chance to be away from home, living in a dorm with a group of dynamic and talented teens. In particular there was a standout group from Oak Park High School, just outside Chicago, who had clearly had a lot of practice on the slam scene. Oak Park has a history of poetry, actually--Charles Simic was a longtime resident. I give credit to Allison for fostering such a supportive atmosphere, which was palpable the moment I walked in for the awards ceremony and reading. You can't help but bond with a teacher who swears freely and will show you how to make jewelry from wire and crystals in her spare time. And who gets up and stomps a rather noticeable cockroach making its appearance onstage, right in the middle of one girl's reading.

A random aside--a few prominent contemporary poets, such as Denise Duhamel and Nick Carbo and Joy Katz, appeared in the program as sponsors of scholarships. The young writers may not have known who these people were, but I did, and I was amazed and grateful that that they had reached out with their support. We all know, the wallets of poets are not padded. But if you happen to have a hundred dollars to spare in theis year's budget (tax refunds? skip a week of eating out?), consider contacting Allison and making a donation. I can tell you firsthand, you'd really be making a difference in these kids' lives. Christina is already talking about next year.