May 27, 2011

Still Life with Poets

Ever since I got home from April's travels, I have been living quietly--enjoying the calm before the storm of DKTBG's July publication. So it was a real treat to take a Tuesday afternoon and drive up to Silver Spring to visit my friend Hailey Leithauser's house. Well, okay, driving on the Beltway at 3 in the afternoon was not a treat. But everything that followed was--seeing her chic new bath (she's redoing the house a room at a time); assembling a light dinner of smoked salmon over seaweed, sides of antipasti (marinated elephant garlic and cherry peppers: who knew they were so good together?), and quick-grilled corn on the cob; splitting a lovely bottle of a chardonnay/viognier blend; chatting as we watched her hound dog, Folly, chase rabbits in the backyard. 

But Hailey's not just a friend--she's a poet. A really good one. As much as I love her for her Hawaiian shirts and vintage pin-up art collection, I love her more for her gift of wordplay. She's the kind of woman who riffs off obscure dictionary definitions, or gets interested in complex palindromes and goes "yep, I could do a book's worth of those." So we looked at a poem draft, traded Bread Loaf gossip, talked about places to send. This is such an isolated and isolating art sometimes. Having friends, local friends, who are writers strikes me as an incredible gift.

And the funny thing is, we kind of keep pace for each other. We were both in Best New Poets 2005, which for me felt like a big break--probably less so for Hailey, because she'd already won the Discovery/The Nation award the year before.  We end up as neighbors in a lot of journals (Meridian, Cave Wall, AGNI online).  Below is Hailey's poem from The Best American Poetry 2010, "The Old Woman Gets Drunk with the Moon," which first appeared in Pleiades. I also had a poem in this volume, "Unit of Measure," which was first published in a July/August 2009 issue of POETRY that had, yep, poems from Hailey too. We were both thrilled to be chosen for BAP by Amy Gerstler; I remember back to 2006, sitting on a couch in my studio at the Millay Colony and finding inspiration in the poems from Gerstler's Bitter Angel. This poem is part of a series of Hailey's that deserves to be published in a full-length collection. I wish I could wave a magic book-wand and make the right things happen for deserving people.


The moon is rising everywhere--
The moon's my favorite rocking chair,
My tin pot-top, my green plum tree,
My brassy buttoned cavalry
Tap-dancing up a crystal stair.

O watch them pitch and take the air!
Like shoo fly pies and signal flares,
Like clotted cream and bumblebees,
The moons are rising.

How hits-the-spot, how debonair,
What swooned balloons of savoir faire,
What purrs of rain-blurred bright marquees
That linger late, that wait for me,
Who'll someday rest my cold bones there
In moons that rise up everywhere.

~Hailey Leithauser

For more info on her work, check out Hailey's page at the Poetry Foundation.

May 24, 2011

DKTBG Love on

Thanks to Katia Hetter and for publishing "Don't Kill the Birthday Guest," an article on hosting allergy-friendly parties that draws on tips and experiences I discuss in Don't Kill the Birthday Girl as well as this list on hosting allergy-friendly parties for kids and this one on hosting allergy-friendly gatherings for adults. I love that Katia's last article for was on the rising-star "bedtime" book Got the F**k to Sleep. (What author doesn't dream of creeping up the bestseller list before the book is even out?) Anyway, here is the opening of "Don't Kill the Birthday Guest":

The job of a children's birthday party host seems straightforward: Thomas the Tank Engine or princess theme? Traditional yellow cake with icing or ice cream cake? Jelly beans or arts and crafts in the gift bags?
To which we suggest a modern twist: Don't kill any of your guests.
For the gracious host, it's simply good etiquette. Sandra Beasley, author of the upcoming "Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life" (Crown Books, July 2011), had to refuse most childhood birthday cakes because they could have killed her.
She stood on the sidelines at her best friend's 10th pasta-making birthday party when she saw that the ingredients included eggs, which make her throat swell shut.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is that people with food allergies want the whole event to accommodate their allergies," Beasley said.
"We will martyr ourselves rather than eat anything. A lot of people don't consider how socially embarrassing it can be. When I get hives around my eyes, people think they've made me start to cry. It doesn't make for a fun picnic."
You can read the complete article here.

In a related post on CNN's Eatocracy blog, I share the "Chocolate Love" recipe that made it possible for me to share in the cake experience at a friend's wedding despite my allergies to egg, dairy, and soy. This vegan recipe comes from Sticky Fingers Bakery, an amazing locally owned business here in DC. You can find them in Columbia Heights, around the corner from the plaza with jumping fountains. They catered my friend's wedding, and owner Doron Petersan (shown here) was super-helpful in sharing her recipe when CNN came calling; she even recalled the specific ceremony. You might know them from the season finale of the Food Network's Cupcake Wars--they won!

May 23, 2011

In Memory of Sabrina Shannon

You probably don't know who Sabrina Shannon is, and I never had the pleasure of meeting her. Ten years ago this May, Sabrina was a precocious 10-year old girl who made a documentary for CBC Radio (Canadian Broadcasting) on life with severe allergies, called "Sabrina's Nutty Tale." Despite missing out on some basic pleasures--whether having a pet dog or sharing in the food set out at a Baptism party--Sabrina was clearly whip-smart and creative. In the radio broadcast, she has her friends "interview" her about her allergies. 

"Have you ever taken a Lactaid pill?" one friend asks.
"What's that?" Sabrina says.
"It's what helps you when you can eat, like, stuff with milk in it."
"Um...Life isn't like that," Sabrina replies, audibly irked. "You can't do that." 

How many times did I have similar conversations with well meaning friends who had heard about lactose intolerance and thought it the same thing as my allergies? Or friends who had heard Cool Whip was the "non-dairy" option (though it contains skim milk) and wanted me to try some, just a little? 

Yet despite all the inconveniences of her condition, Sabrina kept her sense of humor. Another friend asks what allergies she'd be willing to keep, if she could lose the other ones. Sabrina replies, "I'd prefer to be allergic to spinach, and broccoli. And cauliflower. And that's about it."

Later in the broadcast, a friend asks what she would do if she had a sleepover with only one other person--someone who knows nothing of handling anaphylaxis--and had a reaction. You can hear, in this question, the friend's own fears; I wonder how many sleepovers Sabrina was invited to?

"Oh, I wouldn't really care because I know all about allergies," Sabrina answers, going on to detail how she would get our her EpiPen, take off the safety cap, "stab it in my thigh, count to seven Mississippis, and phone 911" to report an anaphylactic reaction. 

The friend presses the point, asking what would happen if she didn't know how to operate the EpiPen, or if she didn't know the number 911.

"Well, I don't think about those kind of things, 'cause I know I know the number," Sabrina says confidently. 

In 2003, Sabrina died after eating french fries in her school cafeteria. She had been responsible as she always was--choosing a "safe" food, making sure the potatoes had not been fried in peanut oil. But she did not realize that the tongs used to serve her fries had also been used to serve poutine, in which the fries are topped with cheese curds and gravy. Soon after lunch she began to wheeze but, believing she had steered clear of any allergens, she mistakenly attributed it to her asthma. She collapsed with cardiac arrest before before the ambulance arrived, and before anyone thought to administer the EpiPen she had left in her locker.

When researching Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a tip from Maria Acebal at FAAN caused me to order the National Film Board of Canada documentary that introduced me to Sabrina's story. Though I've heard a lot of tragic stories associated with allergic reactions in children, this one stays with me. 

She was so ahead of her age. She was trying so hard. You can hear the household's love in the conversation she has with her mother while making Sabrina-safe french toast (er, pancakes) in the kitchen, the careful reinforcement of smart allergy practices. They had all the latest understanding of the issues. She had her medicines, she knew what questions to ask. This time, it just didn't save the day. 

So often I venture into the world assuming that because I trust myself, because I "know" my body after 31 years of living with these allergies, I'll be fine. But the truth is I just don't know. There's only so much you can plan for. 

Later, the Shannon family crusaded to improve anaphylaxis and cross-contamination allergen awareness in Ontario schools, resulting in "Sabrina's Law." Take a minute and listen to Sabrina's broadcast. In her short time on this earth, she lent us so much light. I wish I could have met her. 

May 20, 2011

Friday Still Life

When I mentioned on my Twitter feed (@SandraBeasley) I was breaking out this mug in celebration of getting work done on a Friday, I was asked for photographic proof that such a mug exists. As lovers of Dear Sugar at The Rumpus know, of course it does! You can read the column that inspired it here, which includes this great passage:

But the best possible thing you can do is get your ass down onto the floor. Write so blazingly good that you can’t be framed. Nobody is going to give you permission to write about your vagina, hon. Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.

Anyway, here's a still life from my writing desk (a.k.a. my kitchen table). May your Friday be similarly productive--and if you're in the area of DC, I hope to see you at Story/Stereo tonight, which the Washington Post's Going Out Guide just called "one of our favorite local events." That's right--they dared use the other f-word...

May 19, 2011


It's surreal to spend days writing about a book I've already written, proposing discussion questions for a readership that has yet to hold the book in its hand. I'm so impatient for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl to be out! Preparing a Reader's Guide for nonfiction is different from answering an MFA class's questions about a poem; the focus moves from technical craft to real-world impact. All of the sudden I find myself wondering: just how big a difference could reading this make to someone?

When you tell people you've written a memoir, it feels like talking about the book means talking But that's not the conversation I'm interested in, trust me. What I want to talk about are the quirky tangents through pop culture and food history, the medical mysteries and treatment quandaries, your own stories. I want to hear opinions about handling food allergies in today's world, knowing they might differ my own, knowing there might be better solutions found in the exchange. 

I am crazy about TED Talks--I link to them often--and I'll put it out there for the universe that I dream of being on the TED stage someday. Some authors get shy and modest about their dreams, whether it is winning the Pulitzer or being appointed Poet Laureate. It's true that these are honorariums, not accomplishments, and we have to focus on the page itself.  But there's nothing wrong with wanting your voice to be heard, not just by book-lovers who seek out literature in their everyday lives but smart people in other arts and sciences who are open to new ideas and approaches to creativity. 

That said, you also can't take yourself or your legacy too seriously. In this TED Talk, visual artist Vik Muniz takes us through his creations, from a found/assembled "clown skull" from his Relics series, to soft sculptures that evoke cotton and clouds in equal measure, to images rendered in chocolate. He's working with a sophisticated palette of influences--but it's not as if a velvet-cushioned chariot ferred him to the TED audience. Born in Brazil to a bartender father and a mother who operated switchboards at work, his opening anecdote talks about going into advertising...and getting shot. 

Muniz has said "I am a photographer when I photograph, and a draftsman when I draw, but an artist is what I am always becoming." Take 15 minutes out of your day and enjoy this video of someone in the prime of his career--curious, funny, ambitious yet modest, happy to try on different modes without losing faith in his voice. While you're at it, take a minute and let yourself dream about where you and your work can go. Dream big. Dream of changing someone else's world as well as your own.

May 16, 2011

Friday: Story/Stereo at the Writer's Center

This Friday I'll be hosting Story/Stereo 13 (lucky!) at The Writer's Center, which will feature Emerging Writer Fellows Merrill Feitell and Susanna Lang, and musical guest The Cornel West Theory. The show will start at 8 PM, and is free and open to the public. In celebration that this night will mark the close of our second full year of Story/Stereo (we do three events every fall, then three in the spring) afterwards there will be food and beer available for folks. 

Merrill Feitell is the author of Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, which won the 2004 Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in many publications, including the Best New American Voices series, and have been short-listed in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Awards. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.

Susanna Lang’s first collection of poems, Even Now, was published by The Backwaters Press in 2008. In 2009, her poem “Condemned” won the Inkwell competition, judged by Major Jackson. Her poems have appeared in such journals as New Letters, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Baltimore Review, Kalliope, Green Mountains Review, and jubilat. She lives in Chicago, where she develops curriculum for the public schools.

I have heard Merrill read before--smart, funny, excellent pacing--her book is on the shelf by my bed right now. And I'm always excited to learn about another poet in the world. The Emerging Writer Fellowships recognize those in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction who have 1 or 2 full-length single-author books published in a single genre, and no more than 3 books published to their credit in any genre. We take nominations twice a year on April 15 and September 15 (details here). A committee comprised of TWC board members, workshop leaders, and members then judge submissions on behalf of our community of writers. Thanks to the support of an NEA grant, we are able to give the Fellows an honorarium to cover the expenses of coming to Bethesda and reading in our Story/Stereo series. 

The theme of the series is about creating a dialogue between different art forms--so our "story" wouldn't be complete without our "stereo." We work with two renowned local musicians, Chad Clarke (Beauty Pill) and Matthew Byars (The Caribbean), who bring in locally based acts with a following and a talent that extends far beyond the geographic boundaries of Washington, DC. They never let us down, and Friday will be no exception.  

The Cornel West Theory is a Washington, D.C. based hip-hop band. With the blessing of Dr. West, the Princeton University professor, the band takes its name from his writings and philosophies. Their sound, filled with drums, bass, piano, and electronic sounds, contains elements of Go-Go, jazz, and rock--resulting in soulful music that entertains, informs, and provokes awareness. Winners of the 2008 Wammie for Best Hip-Hop duo or group, the Cornel West theory will release its debut album “Second Rome” this fall.

And afterwards...good craft beer! Things to nibble on! A chance to relax with friends on a Friday night! There's a reason why the Washington Post calls this series "consistently excellent," and why we regularly make the weekly Arts Calendar at the Washington City Paper. We have a good time. You should come. 

The Writer's Center is located at 4508 Walsh Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland--walking distance from the Bethesda metro (red line), and with a metered parking lot across the street. For questions you may call #301-654-8664 or visit our website

May 13, 2011

Brew. Slurp. Caffeinate. Repeat.

Rainy, foggy, dreary. This is the kind of day that demands coffee and more coffee; I might even break out the gingerbread variety of my K-cups (yes, I have a Keurig, which makes a lot of sense when you live alone). Since my brain is being slow to warm up to the notion of complete sentences today, let me offer up some links. 

"That Crazy Little Thing Called Disappointment" - This blog post from novelist Kim Wright, author of Love in Mid-Air, articulates the ambivalences of bringing a book into the world. "Publishing is one long exercise in learning to get over yourself," she writes. I loved this little essay for its honesty and its specificity, but also for its tough-love statement that, despite the exhaustions of the ups & downs, you have to find ways to always celebrate that you have gotten a seat on the rollercoaster in the first place. 

"'Don't Let That Man Eat Your Career,' and Other Preparations for Hitting the Road" - Another blog post from a great novelist, Tayari Jones, who is about to set out for a book tour in support of her third novel Silver Sparrow. She affirms the importance of learning to enjoy the ride but also has practical tips about practicing interview questions and trial suit-case packing. Note that this post is hosted on SheWrites, which is a fantastic resource for women writers looking for mentorship and networking. 

"Sandra Beasley and Food Allergy Awareness Week" - Now for something completely different! Thanks to The Recipe Club for recognizing Food Allergy Awareness Week by featuring my favorite allergy-friendly quinoa recipe. What makes something "allergy-friendly"? This vegetarian dish doesn't contain any of the Big Eight allergens--dairy, egg, fish, shellfish, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, or wheat. It's ideal for picnics, buffets, and big events where you are not familiar with everyone's dietary issues. 

The Recipe Club is hosted by Crown, which has done so much to lay the groundwork for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl's launch in July. It's a standard trope to bitch & moan about one's publicity team, but you won't hear it from me. They are awesome. 

That said, in order to hold up my part of the bargain as an author, I have to provide a lot of content--not just the book itself but Facebook chatter, guest blog posts, questions for a reader's guide. All week I've been working on chapter "takeaways," 1-3 sentence summaries for each chapter. You'd think it would be easy, right? I should know this material better than anyone. During the drafting of the book, I would routinely churn out 3,000-5,000 words in one day; 30 sentences should take no time at all. 

It has been slow going, and last night I realized why: I'm afraid to re-read my own galley. This is the limbo stage where it is too late for me to change anything--anything I find wrong or missing or underdeveloped--and yet I have not yet heard the world's reassurance that, even if the book isn't perfect, it is pretty damn good. Maybe I'm not supposed to admit this. Maybe I'm supposed to say I am nothing but confident & excited. Some days I am! But other days I wake up to thoughts already crowded by deadlines and worries and imagined criticisms. Some days I wake up and I need twice as much coffee as usual. Brew. Slurp. Caffeinate. Repeat.

May 11, 2011

826DC Love

If it has been a little quiet here at the blog, that's been in part because I'm tiptoeing into the world of Twitter and working on a Facebook "Author" page--and in part because I've been, well, living. This is such a great city, and I've missed it while I've been gone. 

On Saturday, my sister and I kicked off a lovely afternoon at the grand opening of the 826DC Cave, which is located at the Museum of Unnatural History--proud purveyor of such products as Koala Containment Units, Primordial Soup, Missing Links, and "Wood in Personal Crisis." The 826 empire started in San Francisco when author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Clements Calegari founded 826Valencia in 2002. These nonprofit 826 centers offer tutoring, writing, and publishing opportunities for kids 6-18 in eight cities around the country; DC is the newest addition. 826's signature elements include having a top-notch crew of local authors involved hands-on in the learning process, a lot of one-on-one attention to young writers, and a quirky sense of humor. 

While we waited for the crowd to gather, my sister took advantage of the $1-a-piece "build a creature" display. Here she is with her flying something-saurus.

The cave, which like our National Zoo's panda bears is "on loan from China," was introduced by famed and fearless explorer Montana Smith--or rather, by his slightly less-famed and less-fearless son, Toledo Smith (played by friend and humor writer Sean Carman). Though he was slated to read a letter from his father, with a dramatic flourish Cleveland tore the paper in two and spoke from the heart. Here's some of what he said:

My father told stories of the early days in his career, when he was bullied by other archeologists for his unorthodox sketches of pre-historic animals. Some of my father’s sketches were based on his practice of assembling fossils in ways that defied standard archeological methodologies. [[Ed note: He and my sister think alike, apparently. Great minds.]] Other sketches were of animals he envisioned first and discovered later, when he happened upon bones he could assemble into their imagined forms. None of my father’s sketches were particularly well received.

Ever since those early days, my father wanted explorers of all ages have a space to think creatively, a place where they could create a world that they imagined, where they could dream their own discoveries.

And he wanted that place to have a cave. The cave was very important to him. I cannot emphasize this enough. A cave would symbolize the constraints of some ways of thinking, and exemplify nature’s wonders. His dream was that the cave would hold exactly 12 children at one time, 13 if they squeezed.

Today that dream is a reality. The cave is perfect. It is just what my father would have wanted. Thank you all for making his dream come true.

A cute kid cut the ribbon with appropriately huge scissors. Inside: chalk for wall drawings, a to-do list with one column for Hunt and another column for Gather, a surprisingly chic chandelier, and Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. One of the photographers (Diana Bowen, Nevin Martell) must have been in the cave, because here's a peekaboo shot of me with my trusty POETRY bag. 

If you're in Columbia Heights, be sure to drop by; they're open from noon to 6 PM every day of the week and the address is 3233 14th Street NW, smack dab in a thriving development of stores/restaurants/a fountained plaza. The Museum shop has all manner of unique artifacts and gifts--at reasonable prices--and all proceeds benefit the center's programs. You can also "Like" their page on Facebook for all the latest updates, or follow them on Twitter @826DC. They run some of the best readings and most fun fundraising events in town, not to mention the Mustache-a-thon. Congratulations to all at the Center for pulling off yet another feat of, well, amazingtude. 

May 08, 2011

Once Upon a Time...

...I came into the world a very lucky baby--with a very unlucky set of food allergies. My mom became a quick study in all matter of ingredients and recipes. She taught me how to navigate the world safely, yet without fixating on my allergies as what defined me. She inspires me every day with her own artistry, not just on the canvas but in how she approaches everyday matters, with grace and balance. And when the time came for me to share my story, she gave her blessing so I could write what I needed to write. 

Happy Mother's Day, Mom! You're the best.

May 05, 2011

This Pilgrim Soul Turns 31


When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

~William Butler Yeats

Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

May 04, 2011


I was third in line. Third! I'm never third in line at the signings for Library of Congress readings--I always get waylaid by a friend, or a glass of wine, or those perfect baby carrots they serve with the fresh fringed tops. But this time, there I was, in front of W.S. Merwin while the official cameras were still clicking away. I introduced myself, and as I said my last name his eyes brightened.

"Yes," he said. "Sandra Beasley. I've read your poems."

I was the one thing I never am: speechless. I shyly handed him my copy of The Folding Cliffs, which he read from tonight. I stuttered out a few sentences about the time I'd spent on Maui, on Kauai, the importance of telling the stories that live in Hawaii's soil. I thanked him. "We are so lucky to have you here," I said, and I'm not sure if I meant tonight, or in DC, or on this earth--probably all three.

He signed it to me by name, with all good wishes, and dated it. Looking at what he'd written, he said, "That can't be right. It's the 24th, surely," and then he added a 2 before the May date.

For few seconds I stayed quiet, not wanting to embarrass him. Then I imagined the embarrassment that would accumulate if he signed everyone's book that way.

"Um," I said, "it IS the fourth. You just transported us forward in time by 20 days."


Gesturing at the line that stretched behind me, I said, "But you can't. We need all the days we can get."

The 83-year-old poet looked up at me and smiled. "Indeed," he said.