September 27, 2010

I Like the Way It Hurts

I am Best American Poetried! I sat next to Sharon Olds (sweetheart) and Thomas Sayers Ellis (sweet shoes). I experienced the verbal cat's cradle that is David Shapiro. I was hidden from the audience by Gerald Stern's hat. Here is a video of Amy Gerstler's intro to the evening, followed by my reading of "Unit of Measure."

Beforehand I was lucky enough to be treated to dinner by a quartet of fellow writers--Dylan Landis, Janice Shapiro, Susan Coll, and Joanna Smith Rakoff. There is something very special about women turning out to support each other. (They even sat together in the auditorium, cheering me on.) Afterwards, poet Tom Healy hosted a kickass reception in his Fifth Avenue apartment. I asked him if he'd been able to make the reading, having a vague sense that he'd just been...on the road. Somewhere.

"No," he explained apologetically. "I didn't make it. I just got back from mountain climbing with Russell Banks." All righty then. Best get-out-of-jail-free card, ever.

Now I am back home in DC, and up to my knees up to my neck over my head with edits to Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. This is the nature of it; trying to return to a text and tweak the rendering of facts and metaphor, all while maintaining tone. I feel so lucky Crown is excited about the memoir. While in for a meeting last week, my editor sent out a call ("Sandra Beasley is here--stop by and say hello--") that elicited appearances by five staff-members in the space of five minutes. Still, oof. 200 pages of edits I have to feel confident in by Wednesday.

So I am doing what I often do in moments of crisis: perusing music videos on YouTube. Lately I'd have an affinity for Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie," featuring Rihanna. I don't know which pains me more: that Megan Fox looks so young (she's six years younger than me) or that Dominic Monaghan looks a bit old (and he's only four years older than me). It's the eyes that give him away. "If you've lived well, your smile lines are in the right places, and your frown lines aren't too bad," Sophia Loren once said. But when you're an artist, what equals "living well"? 

September 23, 2010

BAP 2010 Launch Reading in New York

A year ago, I sat in the audience for the launch reading of the Best American Poetry 2009; tonight I'll be on the stage. Sometimes you just gotta pause and say Wow. I'll be reading "Unit of Measure," which also appears in I Was the Jukebox. 

The Best American Poetry 2010 launch reading 

Featuring guest editor Amy Gerstler, series editor David Lehman and a line-up of contributors that includes Sandra Beasley, Mark Bibbins, Peter Davis, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Lynn Emanuel, Elaine Equi, Jill
Alexander Essbaum, Amy Glynn Greacen, Kimiko Hahn,
David Lehman, Jeffrey McDaniel, Eileen Myles, Sharon Olds, Gregory Pardlo, James Richardson,
David Shapiro, Gerald Stern, Dara Wier, Terence Winch and Matthew Yeager. 

Thursday, September 23, 7:00 PM (Doors open at 6:30)
The New School - 66 West 12th Street (between 5th & 6th)
Free and open to the public

Publisher's Weekly had this to say about the 2010 edition:

This year's annual roundup of poems published in literary magazines includes the usual big names (John Ashbery, Billy Collins, Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic) and a sampling of lesser known, newer writers (Sandra Beasley, G.C. Waldrep, Mark Wunderlich) as well as a few true newbies like Matthew Yeager, whose talky excerpted long poem asks some laugh-out-loud-funny questions: "Do you eat the crusts of pizza, or only/ when they're excellent or you're hungry?" James Richardson's aphorisms, fifty of which appear here, will quietly blow minds: "My best critic is me, too late," reads number 40. Lucia Perillo's "Inseminating the Elephant" describes exactly what the title suggests. James Tate takes a rambling walk in prose that amounts to a meditation on what depression really means. In her introduction, Gerstler extols poetry's capacity to serve joyful as well as "darker, maybe more complicated needs." As usual, this anthology has something for every kind of poetry reader, and serves as a helpful introduction for newcomers curious about the contemporary poetry landscape. (Sept.)

My life is a little ragged right now, but you know what? I'm sharing a pair of parentheses with G. C. Waldrep and Mark Wunderlich. I have no excuse not to smile, none. Time to put a fancy dress on and climb on stage. If you're in New York City, I hope to see you there!

September 20, 2010

John Lee Clark and "Deaf American Poetry"

In March I received a query from a man named John Lee Clark, asking for the Microsoft Word versions of my two poetry collections. After some hesitation--publishers don't love it when you unleash texts into the electronic sphere--I said yes. I was intrigued by his motives: he needed to feed the texts to his book-reader. Having first read my work in the Braille edition of POETRY, John had mail-ordered both Theories of Falling and I Was the Jukebox, only to find that his scanning program ignored my linebreaks.

"I think line breaks are important," he wrote, explaining he'd hire someone to replicate them in a pinch, "and just having all the words isn't it."

I should have known that since a sensitive request was coming from not only a reader, but a writer of poetry as well, and one who has labored mightily to come to his art. When I wrote John back, encouraging him to come to a reading--I promised a vivid interpretation of the poems on the page--he replied that it might be tricky, since he is deaf as well as blind. Whoa. This led to a fascinating discussion of the nature of ASL-interpreted events, and the challenges of "translating" back and forth between ASL and English, as well as this virtual introduction:

"In the DC area, there are four notable deaf poets," John wrote. "Christopher Jon Heuer, Curtis Robbins, Willy Conley, and Abiola Haroun. And to give you an idea of how little we've been able to participate in the poetry world in the past, none of them has given a reading before."

When someone from St. Paul, Minnesota, is telling me something I don't know about my hometown poetry community, I am intrigued. And while it wouldn't be appropriate for me to further quote from John's emails, I can steer you to a fascinating interview John did for Issue 14 of Wordgathering: a Journal of Disability Poetry, online here. One fantastic excerpt below, on how being deaf-blind affects one's handling of craft:

WG: How do you think that being deaf and blind has affected your development as a poet? I'm thinking about Dan Simpson's essay "Line Breaks the Way I See Them" in which he describes how he was asked by the poet Molly Peacock why as a blind poet he was worried about visual line breaks in his poems. Does being blind affect the kind of poetry you write or the way you write it?

JLC: From my birth, it was ordained that I would approach writing a bit differently. I was born deaf to an all-deaf family. My native language is ASL. I did not begin to read until I was twelve years old. Until then, I always got poor grades in school. You probably know how it is in any branch of special education: They move you up the grade levels no matter what. I have old documents here stating that, in sixth grade, my English literacy was at the first grade level.

When I did start reading, though, it was a natural process picking up English. Unlike many deaf students who come from hearing families and who did not have ANY language until they went to school, I was fluent in a language. So it was only a matter of learning a second language.

In poetry, the first thing that is different for me is that I do not recognize rhymes or syllables. They don't exist to me. But one shouldn't assume that this means I wouldn't enjoy reading formal poetry. I have many favorites in traditional verse. I think that poems are often better when they are wrestled into place within a form--the very process of working and re-working the poems makes them stronger.

I do recognize line breaks. For me, they are about pausing and also suspending meaning. Take what James Wright wrote on a notepad to Donald Hall when Hall was visiting him in the hospital. Wright had throat cancer and could no longer speak, so he was writing notes like a deaf man. "Don, I'm dying," Wright wrote on one line, pausing before moving his pen to the next line, "for ice cream." I love it when poets use line breaks in this way, shifting the meaning, giving things double meanings.

Another thing that I recognize is repletion. When a poet repeats the same words in a poem, it does have what I think is a musical kind of effect on me.

When I wrote in large print, I sought out impromptu forms. Most often it would be using stanzas with the same number of lines. It's not a heavy, line-by-line scheme, but it would still require some struggle. It would require me to re-think all sorts of things in different drafts before a poem comes to rest. Some poems would yield themselves better to two-line stanzas than to four-line stanzas. I would need to make sure each stanza made some sense as an unit unto itself, that each would help unfold the poem in meaningful ways.

But when I started writing in Braille, stanzas no longer made much sense. Why? Because the Braille display shows only one line at a time. Sighted people can look at a page and know how long a poem is, that there's another stanza coming up. But in Braille, I have no way of knowing if there is more. So each blank line at the end of a stanza could be, possibly, the end of the poem. I do go on to the next line to find out if there's more. Often I can tell that a poem is not finished, and I'd expect there to be more. Sometimes I'd think a poem is finished, and I'd think, Wow, what a great poem! Wait a minute! There's more. In such cases, I'd often be disappointed by what follows. One poet who does this to me more than any other is Billy Collins. I love his work, but many of his poems are one or two stanzas too long. I think he knows it. He told an interviewer that his wife helps him by telling him where a poem should stop, because he can run away with a poem.

It is logical, then, that I would abandon stanzas and also try not to go on too long in my poems. While I am not particularly interested in line length, I do keep all of my lines within forty-four Braille characters. This is the length of my Braille display. When reading, I hate it when another poet's poem has lines going over this limit, requiring me to move to the "next" line which would only have a few words before the end of that line. This breaks up the experience of that line.

One last thing about Braille: It has many contractions, such as "rcv" being short for "receive" or a single character, "k," when standing alone, meaning "knowledge." This does influence certain word choices I make. Misreading print or typos have produced some famous poems, and my misreading or typos in Braille have given me happy accidents, too. For example, "quick" is "qk" in contracted Braille. The character "Q" is one dot shy of the full cell of six dots. The full cell itself is short for "for" and consequently the word "quick" can feel like "fork." When I misread "quick-tempered" for a split second, I thought it was "fork-tempered." This, in turn, made me think of my mother. She has this way of being kind and mean at the same time, or lofty and base at the same time. Like being two people at once, having two heads, as if her personality is "forked." Soon I had a poem about her that used "fork-tempered"!


Again, I really encourage you to check out the entire interview. And thanks, John, for opening my eyes.

September 18, 2010

The (Art) Beat Goes On

Sweet things: Square Books just put on sale 100 signed, numbered broadsides of "The Piano Speaks," which was designed in conjunction with my stint as the 2010 Ole Miss Summer Poet in Residence. The PBS News Hour's Art Beat blog featured "Antietam" as this week's featured poem. And Shana Thornton-Morris was kind enough to interview me for the Her Circle Ezine, which resulted in a profile ("On the Road and In Character") that just went live. Often these Q&As run without much introduction, so I was intrigued to see this generous characterization:

Over the summer, Beasley was a writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi. One afternoon in July, she drove up the Music Highway to Nashville for a poetry reading, where I was lucky enough to hear her recite some of her poems live. Before the reading began, Beasley sat folded over her papers, away from listeners. She tucked her brown hair behind her ear, sneaking glances at passersby as she decided which poems to read. Certainly, she wasn’t the same poet who wrote the poem “I Don’t Fear Death” that I had listened to on YouTube. She looked quiet and much too nice to speak as an angry platypus who, in a sestina from the collection, doesn’t understand why the adjective “duck-billed” is required and declares, “A beast should be/her own best description. I deserve that.”

That's me, "quiet and much too nice." Well...up until I open my mouth and start talking. Read the whole article here.

September 12, 2010


Yesterday included a round at the White Oak Duckpin Lanes. Duckpin which would seem like an easier variation on classic bowling--three balls instead of two, lighter-weight pins--but it is actually far more difficult to get a strike. I've always been fond of it because I can hold my own against stronger-armed men, whereas in classic bowling I tire after only a few frames of throwing a 9-pound ball.

Hailey broke out a Hawaiian shirt ideally suited to the occasion, complete with sequined embroidery, which should have given her some kind of magical powers. But two poets and a novelist racked up a combined score of only...199. Ah well. I blame the fact that our beer supply was a mere watery pitcher of Yuengling; clearly, such athletic challenges require more potent lubrication.

On the upside, there's gotta be a poem embedded in a game whose vocabulary includes "strike," "spare," and "deadwood."

September 10, 2010


I'm listening to Mazzy Star as I type this. So good. Hope Sandoval's voice = a bow being pulled, slowly, carefully, across the violin of a dream. She lent vocals to everyone from Air to Massive Attack to The Chemical Brothers to Jesus and Mary Chain, back in the day.

A few weeks ago I signed on to work with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (formerly WILLA), which is run by the indefatigable duo of poets Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu. I will be one of several "sheriffs" of a new blog, "Her Kind," which will be launched in October. The goal of the blog will be to pair writers (ideally from different genres and cultures) for the purpose of moderated dialogues--probably 10 days to two weeks in length--over major issues facing women today. One of the inspiring features for "Her Kind" can be found here (a conversation between Erin and Cate hosted by She Writes, another vital community-building site for women writers).

I'm a little terrified of taking on a new project right now. But as someone who has reaped the benefits of programs and institutions striving to empower women--it is the Barnard Women Poets Prize, after all--it's my responsibility to give back. And it helps when you admire your new colleagues. Just reading Erin's fierce and illuminating essay, "Full Disclosure: I Was A Teenage Poetry Bride," reminds me of the importance of speaking out/up for the generations that will come after us.

Interested in finding out more? Check out VIDA's brand-spankin' new website, or this essay, posted over at Slate, which ties into a VIDA project called "The Count." "The Count" evaluates statistical evidence for what otherwise might be dismissed as generalizations--or even fear-mongering--about gender disparities in publishing. I there wasn't so much data to be gathered, but the numbers are (sigh) a bit damning. Between June 2008 and August 2010, of 101 books that received The New York Times' one-two punch (review in both the daily edition and the Sunday Book Review section), 71% were written by men. 71%!

September 08, 2010

Flights of Fancy

Thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts, Virginia Center for Creative Arts is offering two special residency opportunities right now. One is for those of "Limited Economic Means," and one of those is for those of "Minority Ethnic Heritage." All the usual amenities, but absolutely no pressure for a daily contribution--in fact, a $200 stipend. There are four slots for each category, and the deadline is September 15. Apply, apply, apply! VCCA will change your life.

On the schedule for today: working on edits to the memoir (due back to Crown this week, ooof), showing a friend around town--the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery--and then meeting with another friend at Teaism to get his report from Bread Loaf.

Then...Big Boi at the 9:30 Club. I was browsing through the new album on iTunes, really liked "Night Night' and "Daddy Fat Sax," the tickets were cheap and still available and...well, why the hell not?

This kicks me back to college days, when I was part of a literary and debating society at the University of Virginia. One semester I was charged with coaching a class of probationaries into regular membership (yes, really: I was their pledgemaster). That meant encouraging them to confirm to all kinds of arbitrary rules of protocol, all of which they knew I abhorred, all of which were rules they were forever breaking. At parties when Outkast's "Ms. Jackson" came on, they would surround me and sing "I'm sorry Miss Beasley--"

You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can't predict the weather.

September 06, 2010


Labor Day: a day in celebration of the "strength and esprit de corps" of trade unions. And to honor the occasion, "Vocation" is the poem o' the day. Apparently, someone at the Academy of American Poets thinks there should be more celebration of Baccarat dealers, waitresses, and, er, serial killers. 

Speaking of noble work, a few musician friends are funding their latest albums through Kickstarter, a cool way of crowd-sourcing financial support for creative projects.

Shannon McNally plays a mean guitar and wields a bluesy voice in the tradition of Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris. About "Western Ballads," she says "My dear friend Mark Bingham and I wrote all of the songs with exception of a traditional hobo song called 'Little Stream of Whiskey' and the title track 'Western Ballad' penned by Allen Ginsberg."

Valerie June is a Tennessee-born talent I've been raving about since I heard her play (not only guitar, but banjo!) at the Oxford Rhythm Revival Festival; I'm not the only one, as major acts such as Old Crow Medicine Show have taken her under their wing. Of "Manifest," she says...

What will it be like to be 80 years old, looking back at my life as a singer-songwriter and having to say to myself: “I never had the funds to be able to afford to work in a studio with a capable producer who could help me capture the magic my music gives when I perform live.” What will it be like to only leave behind a stack of old, rough and tumbled “bedroom recordings”? While the thought of dusty treasures of old recordings being found beside a woodstove in a cabin sounds nice, I’d like to try my hand at one of those shiny, new gems that sparkles in the storefront display case. I’d love to see a community of folks come together to help me and other artists generate enough funds to create and continue not just my artistry but, of other artist hungry for a chance at being heard, seen, touched and felt. Oh, how sweet and what a dream it would be to perform a show & have a new recording for fans to take home that truly represents the scene they just witnessed and to unleash the sounds that have spent years brewing up and around in my soul…I need your support!
Now that's some honesty. I love this woman. 

There is a time-sensitive element to these fund drives--if the artists do not reach a certain goal by a certain date, no funds are disbursed. So if you are interested in supporting rich, homegrown, original music, go check it out today.

Another day of being housebound, in an effort to force myself to work. Who are these people who can take a break for lunch or coffee, and have any hope of returning to an earlier focus? I envy them. But at least the door is wide open to the outside, and the breeze is bright.  

September 04, 2010

The Nest

It's been three weeks of packing boxes, cleaning, unpacking boxes, rolling with the punch of water damage, cursing Comcast, hanging pictures. Home. The pine table, bought second-hand from Miss Pixie's for $85, almost did not fit through the door. I assembled two of those dining chairs one night with the help of an allen wrench and a lot of scotch. With my father's help, I assembled the bed as well. Bedspread: new. Sheets: new. Some things are constant. The rocking chair is the same one I had in my Lawn room at the University of Virginia. That's my grandmother's pier-glass; I always think of O'Henry's "Gift of the Magi" when I look at it. 

The poetry and art books collection eluded storage (well, most of them), but for now all is sorted by author rather than spine color. Debating whether to return these books to their former ROYGBIV glory. 

From my balcony, I can see the National Cathedral (and, beyond view here, the Capitol Building--and the Shrine adjacent to Catholic University). I can lose hours tracking how each variety of bird has its own method of flock and swoop. I can hear the carillon playing several times each day.

These photos were taken with a camera that I was sure I thought I lost in the move, but mysteriously re-materialized--under the passenger seat of my car--this week. Finally, a merciful twist of fate! Most everything else that could go wrong has in the past month.

Last night I hosted the launch of Story/Stereo's fall series at the Writer's Center. As a Board member for the Center, I am focusing on the promotion and coordination of this series in the coming year. We had amazing, haunting poetry from Allison Benis-White; discerning, funny fiction from Aryn Kyle; a great crowd, especially for Labor-Day-weekend Friday; and a historic moment in which John Davis--in addition to performing songs from his new project Title Tracks--reunited with former bandmates from Q and Not U. If you're of a certain generation of DC music (o, Dischord Records! o, Grog and Tankard!) you know: that's a big freaking deal. 

Come to the next one, October 8. This is a special thing.

I Was the Jukebox has been getting mentioned here and there: RATTLE, The Cafe Review, and (oh my goodness) POETRY. I am really grateful for the attention, and the kind words. NB: If you publish a review of my poetry in your journal, know your circulation will go up by 10% for that issue, based solely on copies purchased by my proud parents.