June 24, 2011

New Issue of Blackbird!

Announcing Blackbird v10 n1 | Spring 2011

Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts published by Virginia Commonweath University, announces its new Spring 2011 issue featuring:

-A new translation and the original versions of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s 1996 book Sorrow Gondola, with an introductory essay by David Wojahn, a letter to Tranströmer by Jean Valentine, audio readings of three of the poems in Swedish, and video of Franz Liszt’s “Lugubre Gondola No. 2” that inspired the poem by the same title

-Audio of Victor Lodato, winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Kathleen Graber, Jean Valentine, Kate Greenstreet, Jake Adam York,
Mathias Svalina, and Allison Titus

--I praised Mathias Svalina's Destruction Myth and Allison Titus's Sum of Every Lost Ship in a previous issue of Blackbird; they're great evidence of the important poetry being published these days by Cleveland State University's Poetry Center--

-Poetry by Norman Dubie, Dave Smith, Jennifer Chang, Victoria Chang, Yu Shibuya,
Brittany Cavallaro, Jenny Johnson, Eve Jones, and more

--What a rockstar line-up!...watch in particular out for up & comers Brittany Cavallaro (whose poem I read for Linebreak) and Jenny Johnson (a friend from UVA days who has been studying with the fabulous Gabrielle Calvocoressi)--

-Fiction by Kelly Cherry, Steve Yarbrough, Victor Lodato, Adrian Dorris, Julie Hensley,
Darrin Doyle, Aurelie Sheehan, and Chris Leo

-Reviews of Joshua Poteat, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Keith Montesano,
and Sandra Beasley*

-In gallery, plays by Victor Lodato and Yasmine Rana, an audio essay by Jeff Porter, a video essay by Nick Twemlow and Robyn Schiff, and the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration’s 1951 “Duck and Cover”

*Me! This turns out to be a lovely review of I Was the Jukebox by Laura Van Prooyen, in which she says "Reading I Was the Jukebox cover to cover can hypnotize you."

Read the whole issue online by visiting http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu

June 21, 2011

Very Special Delivery

So, after an 18-hour drive that took me straight from Mississippi to DC, followed by a belated Father's Day dinner with my folks (Ardeo's scallops and octopus over black lentils), followed by a knock-out Rob Roy perfectly mixed by the owner of the Black Fox in Dupont Circle (oh, I have missed my town!), I was sleeping in this morning. 

A knock on the door at 9:10 AM woke me up. Who was it? Why? Would I have to put clothes on? I walked to my door and peered into the hallway. Nobody there. Whew.

Then I noticed the package someone had left behind. 

My heart skipped a little. I grabbed the scissors and carefully sliced open one end.

My first thought was: Yay! Yay! Yay! (Eloquent, right? That's why they call me a poet.) My second thought was: Funny, I had never thought about my book's physical color...

...and that color turns out to be a lovely robin's-egg blue, with a goldenrod spine. 

No other way to say it: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is here. Oh, sure, you won't see it in a store near you until July 12. But in this moment, a book has been born.

Even though I've reviewed how it would look a hundred times--from text to cover art to even, yes, my own flap copy--I had never imagined this moment. 

Stand up, baby. Shake your tail feathers. Let's dance. 

(Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is available for pre-order now from Barnes & Noble and NOOK, Amazon.com and Kindle, iTunes/iBook, IndieBound, Borders, Powell’s, Politics & Prose, Teaching for Change, and Square Books. Or you can come to my place in DC and try to steal one of these five copies. But be warned: I'll fight you.)

June 16, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as a Sixth Grader

One of the nice things about having stayed in the same area I grew up in (compounded by the power of Facebook) is that I've stayed in touch with old, old friends. Such as my friend Tricia, whose parents live across the street from my grandmother. Every time I went to see her in McLean, Virginia, I hoped I would get the chance to go to the Kuzmack's house and play with Tricia and her sister Steffie in a backyard that had a great big vegetable garden and a playhouse with hippie love beads hanging down in a curtain across its doorway. 

Tricia emailed me the other week to report that her parents, in cleaning out the attic, had run across some old things from Haycock elementary school. Among the papers that had been packed away? "Literature Delight, Volume #6." Our Paris Review. Within the day she'd sent photographs. A rather snazzy-looking compilation, I must say. Check out the brilliant blue of that cover! Check out the apple-dotted i's! I remember lunchtimes in the school library with books ready to be bound--punching the paper holes, lining up the slots, pulling the lever to clamp on the black plastic binding. Breathing in the hot plastic smell of the nearby laminating machine. 

And then...there were the poems. 

"The Storyteller" has to be a nod to L.M. Montgomery's The Story Girl, which is about a group of cousins growing up on Prince Edward Island. "Cecily" is an odd name for me to use--whereas I had Jessicas and Adams in my classes, I can't recall a single Cecily. But one of the children in Montgomery's book is named Cecily King. In Montgomery's book, the "Story Girl" Sarah Stanley is the same age as the other children. But I remember always thinking that she seemed preternaturally old in spirit, destined to stay alone with her stories while the others went on to marrying, having children, and moving away. So in the world of my poem, I projected a future of telling stories to the children of friends who were playmates. Oh my. Twenty years ago, and I was already drawn to this notion of a woman choosing to be "the storyteller" even if it set her apart from the pleasures of a normal life.   

Then there is this poem, which won the school's creative writing contest that year. (I also took third place...and I placed in the nonfiction category too, with a humor essay about having a little sister in the house. I was overzealous.)

OK, I was a somewhat melancholy kid. But I will own these poems, if only because in seeing them again after all these years I still have such fresh, sharp memories of their conception. In sixth grade, just as now, I was a girl with brown hair and brown eyes. I remember that being the first year I felt envy of the girls with exotic coloring--and the opening lines of "The New Me" gave me a chance to imagine that doppelganger, prettier Sandra. I'm not sure what it was that I thought would embittered and harden me down the road, but I do know that I was interested in the iterations of language: seeing how much I could advance the story with just tiny changes to the phrasing. And I knew I could get away with dropping down that last standalone line if, rhythmically, it completed the line before it. 

Thanks, Tricia, for this trip down memory lane. I suppose posting juvenilia for the world to see could be a bad idea. But often, when I answer the question of "how long have you been writing poetry?" with "since elementary school," I see a flicker of disbelief in people's eyes. Here you have it, folks. Proof! 

June 13, 2011

In Which I'm a Bit of a Potty Mouth

During my time in Miami earlier this year, I was thrilled to finally meet up with writer and Almost Dorothy author Neil de la Flor. Neil was fabulously generous in showing me around town. He snapped this photo of me one night when we were out for an art walk in Wynwood. We also went to a dance performance that culminated in someone standing on their head--with that head being in a toilet bowl--and singing. You really don't have better bonding experiences than that. 

I was happy to take part in the Potty Mouth series of interviews for Neil's blog. By "happy" I mean "nervous." The man knows how to throw a curveball. Like all good interviews, the topics ranged from jukeboxes to swearing to setbacks to scotch. 
Here's an excerpt:

AD: When I read i was the jukebox, I wasn’t expecting any potty mouth language coming out of your jukebox. In your poem, “In The Deep” you write: the “boys are fifteen/and fuckwild:/Fuck the glass fish…/fuck the nautilus…/fuck her blue rings./fuck her three hearts.” What is it about cursing, especially using the f-bomb, that activates a poem?
SB: Diction is a tricky thing. This poem has two engines: the octopus, all elegance and intelligence, and the brute energy of fifteen-year-old boys. I wanted to get in all those rich anatomical details, but I didn’t want the poem to become a nature study. So I put the observation into the mouths of the boys, complete with their litany of introductory fucks. I’m sure anyone who has ever overheard a teenage conversation that appears to be entirely composed of “Fuck, yeah” can relate.
AD: Fuck, yeah! I love to say that word.
SB: The irony is that while the boys emanate aggression with all those f-bombs, that’s an empty threat. It’s really the octopus, with her quiet handling of the baby doll, that could do some damage.
AD: When doesn’t fuck or cursing work in poet-tree?
SB: Most of the time. There are exceptions: Ntozake Shange‘s “crack annie” comes to mind. But if a poem goes for shock value that isn’t grounded in a particular character or social condition, that poem is going to have a short shelf life. I may be sipping coffee out of a Rumpus mug that reads “Write like a motherfucker,” but the truth is that I hardly ever swear. Nine times out of ten, there is a better and more original way to get your point across.

& later on in the interview...

AD: How’s the memoir coming along? It should be out soon, correct?

SB: Yep, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl will be out in July. Writing a memoir (or any nonfiction book) is very different from the organic process of assembling a poetry collection. In poetry, there is only a minor distance between the Platonic version of a poem in my head and what makes it onto the page. But the gap between a Platonic understanding of my life to date (not to mention all the attending science of food and allergies) and what one “memoir” can capture—that gap seems so big and messy in comparison. I took some risks; I think they were good risks. I just can’t wait to see the damn thing in print.

AD: Can you reveal a morsel from it, a blurb, a line or two, or make an oblique, cobwebbed reference to what it may or may not be about?

SB: The first chapter includes the following references: Mickey Mouse, small town waitresses, malnutrition, a pink polka-dot dress, needles, Reader’s Digest, milk (bad), avocadoes (good), Hippocrates, Red Rover Red Rover, and Russian roulette.

AD: I love hippopotamuses and corn on the cobweb. What do you want to be when you grow up?

SB: A writer. If that doesn’t work out, I’d love to perform trapeze. That’s one art blessedly unchanged by modern technology.

You can read the whole thing here. 

The whole Potty Mouth series is great--other authors featured include Michael Klein, Jericho Brown,  and Emma Trelles, in addition to Lolo Reskin, who runs the very cool Sweat Records and its famous Vegan Waffle Brunch. Neil has a collaborative chapbook coming out with Maureen Seaton, another Florida poet I adore. (I studied with her way back when, at the Indiana University Writers' Conference.) The chapbook is called Sinéad O’Connor and her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds, and the cover art by Suzanne Sbarge is absolutely swoon-inducing.

June 11, 2011

She's a Beauty

Last night a dear friend visiting from Birmingham invited me to tag along on a trip to Water Valley, about twenty minutes outside Oxford. The key to vagabonding, I've found, is to say "Yes" to any and all invitations. You never know what you're going to discover. 

Water Valley is a small town--the main street is named Main Street, the one Thai restaurant fills the exotic culture quotient, and everyone looks forward to the annual Crappie Fest. But there are a ton of artists and musicians living there, and damn if they don't know how to have a good time on a Friday night. A band was playing downtown, and both Bozarts Gallery and the newly opened Yalo Studio had their doors open. We stayed in Yalo for quite a while, lured in by the works of John Henry Toney, Coulter Fussell, and Megan Kingery Patton and the buzz of lively conversation. It didn't hurt that they were serving champagne punch, homemade guacamole with chips and spicy salsa, and great juicy slices of watermelon. 

The moment I saw Megan's work, my hunch was confirmed. This was the woman whose work I had fallen with a year ago, when I visited Taylor Arts. The series I'd seen was from her graduating show at Ole Miss, where she earned her BFA in 2002: a series of haunted and haunting images of girls. Christine, the owner, had explained that the canvasses were inspired in part by the premature passing of Megan's mother, the girls she left behind. 

Megan also happens to waitress at one of the local hangouts, Ajax Diner. On my many trips back to Oxford, I'd always wanted to introduce myself and say I was a fan of her work. But I can be shy sometimes, believe it or not. 

I walked to the very back of the long shotgun space, where a big portrait of two girls sat on an easel. "That's her and her sister," a man standing nearby said to me, before introducing himself as Megan's father. And then I looked down and--on the floor, leaned modestly against the easel's legs--there it was. The painting.

If you've ever been to my apartment, you know I only hang original work on the walls: my mother's prints, things from local DC galleries, work by friends I've met at art colonies over the years. For each of my first two books, I bought a work of art to celebrate publication. But I've been living so lean these past two years--ever since I quit my job and began to rely on my writing--that I haven't been able to buy anything. And I couldn't imagine being able to afford something to celebrate the release of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl come July. 

I asked to be introduced to Megan, who is beautiful--tall, slender, with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. I nervously asked about the little painting at the back. Was it still for sale? How much?

"Oh, that old one? I'll give it to you for a hundred dollars."

"Really?" I said. 

My heart bobbled up in my chest like a balloon. I could have kissed her. $100? I'll take it. I'll take it even though that's half of my whole Kroger budget for my time in Oxford. I'll take it even if it means I end up paying the interest to float it on my credit card bill until the next book payment arrives in July. I'll take it, I'll take it, I'll take it.

So here she is. My painting. My girl. My celebration of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl

Thank you so much, Megan, for trusting me with her. 

June 07, 2011

Summer Reading

One of my priorities for this time in Oxford is to catch up on real reading: not blogs, not Twitter, not Gawker, but real books, damn it. Usually if I am going through a drought in my writing, it is because I have not been reading enough. So here's the first round of books I pulled out and stacked on my windowsill:

Big World by Mary Miller - Compact but powerful short stories. This was the first book I read here--devoured alongside a dinner of oysters, beet salad, and the biggest pour of Macallan's I have ever been served in a bar. Here is the typically strong opening to "My Brother in Christ":

"You're wearing Coco Chanel," he says to the girl at the bar. She was watching him. They all watch him. The pills he takes makes this pleasant, like he's a scuba diver and they're a school of fish. 

The Delivery Man by Joe McGinniss Jr. - This was the second book I read here, finishing it in the charmed setting of the balcony at Square Books. The author (son of THAT Joe McGinniss, yes) sought the help of Bret Easton Ellis to shape the manuscript, and the influence shows. But I liked it, and I thought there were some really interesting craft techniques at work. When this book came out, my friend Mark Athitakis did a great interview with Joe for the Washington City Paper; you can read it here

Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room by Kelli Russell Agodon - "My husband asks for a poem. / I have many, but none // to share." I have a feeling reading this is going to make me want to write poems, and that's so exciting. 

The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception by Martha Silano - One of the only books I went to the AWP Conference determined to buy. Her work always has great energy and lush detail of color and taste; her voice just hollers from the page. 

Native Son by Richard Wright - I'm embarrassed to have never read this.

History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky - I've heard this is great, but I confess that I'm steeling myself to tear up more than once. Jill is my editor at Norton, just a lovely woman, so I know her story of losing a sister will hit me hard, especially as someone with a fiercely loved sister of my own.

Tourist in Hell by Eleanor Wilner - When Eleanor Wilner came to Cafe Muse, I was dumbstruck by how good her work was. I've been reading it on the pages of POETRY for a while now, so I don't know why I had never thought to get a collection before. 

If you're looking for something for your summer reading list, my friend Carolyn Parkhurst's third novel--The Nobodies Album--is coming out in paperback. I heard her read from it at Square Books last summer and bought two copies: one for myself, one for the shelves of Grisham House. Here's her very funny "trailer" for the book:

June 02, 2011

Poetry in Motion

Friends know that my daily walk often takes me through the National Zoo, where as of late I've become fascinated with the aviary. One of the things I love is rediscovering animals that had been reduced to flat icons in my head--e.g., the peacock--as living, unpredictable, and slightly haughty creatures. We all know what the feathers look like from the front...but did you ever think about what they look like from the side? From the back? Me neither. I'll be spending the next couple of days driving to Mississippi, but I think I might have left my heart with this peacock in DC.

June 01, 2011


In their June 1 issue, Booklist offers a lovely and descriptive review for DKTBG:

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life.

Beasley, Sandra (Author)
Jul 2011. 240 p. Crown, hardcover, $23.00. (9780307588111). 362.196.

Imagine a birthday cake made without dairy products or eggs. That’s what highly allergic author Beasley faces every year—hence her friends’ and relatives’ constant refrain, “Now, don’t kill the birthday girl.” As she notes, she’s hardly alone: more than 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with food allergies. She worries about whether she’ll add to that tally when she gives birth. Her book is full of interesting (and potentially lifesaving) tidbits: Play-Doh contains wheat. Tempera paints often contain egg. Moisturizing soap may contain soy proteins or cashew oil. Borden used to make Elmer’s glue with a milk derivative, casein. And French fries are a good choice for the highly allergic. (There are no hidden nuts, dairy, or eggs in them.) People with wheat allergies need to be careful at communion: A decade ago, Boston’s Roman Catholic Church affirmed its decree that rice-based wafers were an unacceptable substitute for the regular wheat-based variety. This information- and anecdote-filled book will be a welcome antidote to the worries and fears endured by families with food allergies.  — Karen Springen  

One thing I've loved about these advance reviews is seeing people respond to the research as well as the personal anecdotes. Though I wanted it to be a fun read, I wanted it to have nonfiction substance as well; a sense of "wow, I didn't know that." Maybe it's the teenage nerd in me but I'm fascinated by the medical dimension, the science at work. And I needed to incorporate the stories of others. Though food allergies are incredibly widespread, each individual's experience of allergies--between one's particular combination of allergens, the timeline of how they were discovered, and the style of physical reaction--is as unique as a thumbprint. 

Booklist is published by the American Library Association. (See that weird number after the ISBN, "362.196"? That is the Dewey Decimal coding for the section of books that offer "Services to patients with specific diseases.") I've written about my love for public libraries before, and I hope my book lands on shelves across the country. Sometimes people say they'd like to support my work, but they don't have the money to buy books right now. Hey, I write for a living. I completely understand empty-wallet syndrome. But if you can, ask your local library to order the book (my book, or books by other authors you love). That's truly a gesture that keeps on giving. 

What I like to imagine: a woman walks into the Tysons Pimmit regional branch (the library by my family's house in northern Virginia)--finds a plastic-slip-covered copy on the "New Release" shelf--and picks it up so she can tuck it into her summer tote bag. Maybe she's the mother of a kid with allergies. Maybe she's looking for a twist on her usual "food history" reading (Cod, Salt, The Zen of Fish). Maybe she couldn't resist the cupcake on the cover. For whatever reason, the woman I have been checks out a book by the woman I have become. This is my dream.