August 29, 2011

"Projecting Your Voice on the Page" in VA

Many of my events coming up this fall will follow a traditional rhythm--I read from a book, I take some questions, etc. But a few of the events have a wildcard format, something for me to get excited (and slightly nervous) about. I need to put together a Powerpoint presentation on the history of allergy for an audience of doctors. I'll lead a seminar on the sestina for the Poetry Society of South Carolina that's in Charleston on Saturday, September 10. And then there's this Friday....

This Friday (September 2), I'm avoiding Labor Day traffic and getting on Route 7 to drive to Leesburg, Virginia. 

Now, an aside. Route 7 holds a special place in my heart. Many associate it with the Gordian-knot nightmare of Tyson's Corner. But for me it is the winding stretch that goes from my grandmother's house in Seven Corners, out to my family's house adjacent to the Wolf Trap National Park and Filene Center, and then all the way out into the rural areas around Harper's Ferry. It was the first road I ever drove, and it took me everywhere a high schooler could need to go (except, er, my actual high school--had to use the Beltway for that). 

Anyway, I'll hop into the car with my mom and drive out Route 7 to Leesburg to be part of the "First Friday" entertainments in their historic and walkable downtown. This is a really cool mix of live acoustic music, wine tasting, art gallery openings, letter press demonstrations, even a comedy hour called "Last Ham Standing." So even if you're not a writer, there will be lots to do. But if you ARE a writer, you might consider joining us for this... 

"Projecting Your Voice on the Page" with Sandra Beasley

Northern Virginia Writers First Friday ~ September 2, 2011 ~ 7:30 PM
in the Leesburg Town Hall, 25 W. Market St., Leesburg, VA 20176

Voice: It is perhaps the most elusive element of strong writing. In this presentation, award-winning author and poet Sandra Beasley will discuss how to develop a voice that is immediate, compelling and precise.

Beasley is author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her debut, Theories of Falling, was selected by Marie Howe as the winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. In July of this year, Crown published her memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, which offers a cultural history of food allergies in America and was declared a great summer read by Health magazine. Sandra also is an essayist whose work has been featured in The Washington Post Magazine. She serves on the board of the Writer's Center. 

Cost: $4 for members of The Writer's Center and residents of Leesburg; $6 for the general public. For more information, visit or call #301-654-8664.


I'm going to offer a mix of practical tips and observations that will apply to working in both prose and poetry. We'll look at some great examples of clear and forceful voices of authors past. If you've ever found yourself frustrated by a slow opening to your essay--all background, no hook--or a poem idea that feels so alive in your head but falls flat on the page, this seminar is for you. And we'll have fun. It's a Friday night on a holiday weekend! We're going to make this Friday-night worthy.

August 26, 2011


On my most recent endless drive, I stopped off to buy a bottle of wine for the couple that would home-host me that night. While up at the register, I saw a little basket of bottles of absinthe (or rather, "Absente"..."now with wormwood"). I thought "Hell, why not?"

Impulse buys under $10 are probably a bad idea when at a liquor store in Tennessee, but there you have it. 

So here I am, back at home in DC and readying for Hurricane Irene with bags to unpack, books to read, peaches to eat, and absinthe to drink. Here is my Vincent-Van-Gogh-inspired still life.

The taste? 110-proof licorice. Plus two varieties of food coloring, Yellow #5 and Blue #1. Can't say I love it, much as I love fennel. I'm probably doing it a disservice by trying it straight. I've had enough Sazeracs in my day to know it can be an excellent sweet grace note to an otherwise merciless rye drink. 

Hemingway had one of the great absinthe recipes: "Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly." He called it "Death in the Afternoon." 

And this is what Oscar Wilde said of the drink: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

Of course, absinthe is primarily known as a poets' vice: Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Marie Verlaine, two of the major Symbolists, drank it like water. Extremely corrosive water. The love story of Verlaine (young at 27, with a pregnant wife from a well-to-do family) and Rimbaud (younger still--still shy of 17) is an untamed tale that culminates in a gun going off--but not before one of the two had first been slapped in the face with a fish. If you're curious about the whys & hows I recommend the biography Rimbaud, which Graham Robb published with W. W. Norton in 2000.

Here is a video of the poet Christian Bok presenting and then translating Arthur Rimbaud's poem, "Vowels," which many believe to be a poem inspired by absinthe:

...Okay, okay. I confess: I may not be inspired to write a poem by this little bottle. I'd settle for being inspired to empty my suitcase. 

August 20, 2011

Foxfire Ranch

This snapshot was taken a little over a year ago, on one of my first weekends in Mississippi. My friend Jeff and I had driven out from Oxford to Foxfire Ranch, which is just south of Holly Springs. His girlfriend Nikki (on the left) was coming from Memphis and met us there. 

I didn't know what to expect, but I soon realized this was one of my favorite places on earth. During the rest of the week, Foxfire is a working cattle ranch owned by Annie and Bill Hollowell. But on Sundays they let folks come and camp out in their open-air barn out back to hear bands play--usually three sets between 4 and 9 PM. People bring a picnic cooler (BYOB) or take advantage of the BBQ and collards Miss Annie herself cooks on site. Kids run around with their dogs. Little Ole Miss girls get going in their hula hoops. You come out with the sun still blazing; you leave long after it has set. 

As for the music, it's where pros come out to  jam, from Kenny Brown to Revered John Wilkins to all three Burnside brothers. The vibe reminds me a little of a good late-night on U Street, after people have finished their paying gigs at Blues Alley or wherever and want to do a little pick-up playing. And there is dancing. Sometimes, everybody up on their feet; sometimes just a few brave souls doing their thing.  

A year later, I made a straight drive from DC to catch the Saturday night show of the annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. I arrived about 4 PM, having left my apartment at 9 PM the night before, and realized there was no option other than to fill my flask, slip on some gold Mardi Gras beads, and catch a second wind. This was one of the headline acts--Garry Burnside playing with Cadillac Funk. That's Andrew in the hat and sunglasses on the right, the frontman for CF. I'd heard them play a few times, but never got to talk to them before. I stayed out as long as my tired body would let me.  

I'm typing this from Andrew's kitchen at the moment. Tomorrow I'll be at Foxfire again, wearing my favorite black skirt for dancing (not so short as to be scandalous, with a bit of a flare if I'm twirling). Cadillac Funk will be up on stage, with Garry on guest guitar and Bill Perry, Jr. on keyboards. I'm hoping Jeff and Nikki can make it out to join us. They are engaged now, living together in Memphis. 

A lot can happen in a year.  

August 12, 2011

Away Games

Since my last post was about home fires, seems only appropriate that this post be about away games. I have spent the last three days hammering out my Fall 2011-Spring 2012 book tour schedule, which I will share in every conceivable outlet (including this blog & over the weekend. A few immediate highlights:

Reading at the AJC Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, GA, on Sunday, Sept. 4

Reading at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA, on Sunday, Sept. 11

Reading at New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville, VA, on Thursday, Sept. 29

Panel on persona poetry with Stephen Burt (swoon) and panel on memoir at the Boston Book Festival in Boston, MA, on Saturday, Oct. 15

...and that is just for starters: about 30 events in all. If you should happen to see a date that is close to your public library, book club, or PTA meeting, please let me know. I'm driving 99% of the time, which means my schedule is flexible. The more people I get to meet and share my books with, the better.

While I am being all self-promotional, I should say that it has been a really nice week for grass-roots blog reviews of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. Thank you, Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, for calling my book "eye-opening." Thank you, Nina the Cooktivist, for letting me change the menu for your birthday party--and assuring you that you aren't alone. Thank you, Shelly Bowers, for assuring me I wasn't crazy with my Richard Scarry "Busytown" conceit in the closing chapter. Thank you, Kalen Landow, for saying "Most books I read require only a simple few sentences or maybe a few paragraphs, but sometimes a book hits so hard, so close to home,  that I feel compelled to say more. Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is one of those books." That made my day.

I'll be running away from home again soon (damn you, Mississippi, and your siren call) but it has been a good week. Waking up to see rainbows splashed across the wall of my apartment courtesy of my sister's solar-powered prism; an amazing cocktail at P/X (gin, tequila, basil coconut water and turmeric) with Leslie; a familiar meal of sweet potato salad and tea-cured salmon at Teaism; lounging in the pool with Hailey; the ease of a post office within walking distance; the fun of stopping off at Politics & Prose to pick up my copy of Meg Waite Clayton's The Four Ms. Bradwells (is that a stunning cover, or what?). Funny that I've reached this point where being in one place for over a week feels like a luxury.

Someone asked me the trick to being on book tour. I said that I always unpack fully between each stop, even if in one place for less than 24 hours. True. Also: travel with your own towel--whether you need it to wash your face, or just to create a cozy texture on an unfamiliar pillow. Also: no matter small the town, look up the one hippie cafe with coffee + WiFi beforehand. There is always one. Also: figure out the magical technology to fit the ones you love in your suitcase. Still working on that last part.

My patron saint of writerly traveling is Naomi Shihab Nye. A favorite of hers:


Letters swallow themselves in seconds.   
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,   
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,   
lists of vegetables, partial poems.   
Orange swirling flame of days,   
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,   
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.   
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,   
only the things I didn’t do   
crackle after the blazing dies.

-Naomi Shihab Nye

August 05, 2011

Home Fires

So it has been a quiet week on the blog, but not a quiet week in real life. After a great day at Politics & Prose, I zipped down to Mississippi to wrap up my book launch with readings at Square Books in Oxford (you can see a full video here) and Lemuria in Jackson. Then I promptly returned to DC to tape an hour of live conversation on The Diane Rehm show this morning for NPR & WAMU (archival recording here)--which was such a thrill. I remember hearing an American University MFA professor, Kermit Moyer, wax poetic on her show many a morning. 

Oh: my book was picked as a "Great Nonfiction Read" in the August 8 issue of PEOPLE. Doesn't get much more surreal. Amy Winehouse is on the cover, for goodness sakes.

But if you asked me what I spent the last week doing, here's what I'd say: I was tending the home fires. Because while this book launch is a thrill, the roller coaster ride to end sometime. (Uh...ignore the mixing of those two metaphors.) If you haven't put some time into developing real connections with real people, you're going to end up at the amusement park alone after closing time. And that's a lonely place. 

Here's what tending the home fires looks like...

Cooking dinner for new friends and adored ones. Menu: lemon chicken with olives, parsley, and red onion, herbed couscous with stir-friend portobello mushrooms and spinach, carrots glazed in ginger ale & chile powder, and fresh fruit with peanut brittle (the only store-bought indulgence) for dessert.

Adding a day to my return drive to DC by first driving down to Jackson, Mississippi, to see my beloved former boss Mary Lynn Kotz receive an award at the Mississippi Museum of Art for her contributions to the arts (among other things, she wrote an incredible biography of Robert Rauschenberg).
Finding this package leaned against my door in DC, sent by a young woman I met at my Lemuria reading. Now, by all standard accounts that was the least successful of my launch readings--teeny-tiny crowd. But that meant I had time to connect and really talk with Rachel, a talented teenager who at first claimed she came only to get out of family cleaning chores at home. But her attentive questions made me suspect otherwise. So I bought  her a copy of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. And receiving one sincere thank-you makes the reading worth more than 50 books sold.
Opening my package to discover a copy of her school's literary journal, which she had a hand in editing. Editors of little journals, unite! I particularly love how she signed the masthead page.

...and discovering that she, like me, is fascinated by the Orpheus & Eurydice myth (I have several poems that reference it in my first collection, Theories of Falling). Editor and poet. Go, Rachel, go!
...As for today, a confession: what I should have done, after The Diane Rehm Show, was rally for a high-powered happy hour downtown with literary types. But I was exhausted. So you know what I did instead? Curled up in bed with Molly Birnbaum's book Season to Taste--a memoir about being a chef-in-training, then losing one's sense of smell in a freak accident--which I have loved for its smart writing, vivid imagery, and sensitive blend of memoir and science. I finished the book. And I took a nap. I am tending the home fires. I am tending to my heart first, my career second.