September 24, 2013

A Minor Manifesto on Readings

This photograph is from a wonderful evening I had with the Poetry Society of South Carolina, during a 2011 reading in Charleston. I've had a few conversations lately about literary tours, and it reminded me of a piece I wrote for SheWrites, "On Arranging Readings," as part of my 2010 "Countdown to Publication" for I Was the Jukebox. I used the same philosophies in touring to support Don't Kill the Birthday Girl. When I find myself demoralized, or a reading goes poorly (I have those nights too) it is usually because I've violated one of these tenets:

1) Don't fixate on a cross-country "book tour," or multiple stops in the same city.  
2) Embrace the idea of a "book stop" in tandem with non-literary travel. 
3) Reach out to friends--but forgive them if they do not help. 
4) If you hope to feature in a series with an open mic, take part in the open mic some earlier week.
5) If no one shows up to your reading, it doesn't mean you're a bad writer. 
6) Be prepared to be your own cashbox; carry small change. 
7) For particularly young or elderly audiences, be prepared to mix in the work of famous authors.
8) Don't go past your allotted timing just because you came a long way. 
9) Use your curriculum vitae as the basis to brainstorm reading venues. 
10) Don't give away a copy of your book just because you want someone to host you.

If any of those seem strange, or need further explaining, check out my original post. But in thinking about my subsequent experiences, I would add this:

Take the word "favor" out of your vocabulary. 

This feels counterintuitive, because we think of the poetry world as a close (some say incestuous) community that constantly trades on favors. This dictate is not meant to negate generosity. We're all doing this on limited budgets, usually volunteering our time. We do these things for pleasure, and because we're part of a social pact. And yet.

When it comes to the practical details of your event, nothing corrodes a reading experience faster than the belief that someone is doing someone a favor. If you can't approach the event in good faith and true enthusiasm, it's not gonna fly.

The guest who thinks he is favoring the series with his presence often reads too long (or occasionally, too little) and fails to engage the audience. 

The host who does the author a favor by fitting her in, after the umpteenth query, tends to do a lackluster job promoting. (One thing I've learned: when I have to pound down the door of the bookstore or club, it's rarely worth it. Even a great or fabled venue is no fun, if you don't feel truly welcome or championed.)

When you're doing someone a favor, you're not acting in a professional mode. That's when the requested bio, hi-res headshot and cover art, and contact for book stock comes in at the last minute or, though sent in promptly, is never used. That's when people get frustrated because it's unclear who is processing sales, or collecting emails for the list, or where the suggested cover donation is actually going. 

Sometimes there's this queasy moment at the end of the night. Maybe you've seen it. The reader and the host are standing together. The reader is thinking Dammit, I owe the host a copy of the book--though, between gas and time off from work, he's already losing money on this gig--and the host is thinking Dammit, I need to buy his book--though, between dinner and time off from work, he's already losing money on this gig--and whether money changes hands or not, the poor book gets handed over like a sprouty potato. 

That's what gets to people, when their work is bargained down to nothing more than a token. Resist. Dinner or a couch to crash on; these can be favors (and hey, if you're the guest, buy your host a drink). But your reading or series--that audience, your time, your stock--these are not to be offered up as favors, or treated as such. The trick is to conserve precious resources, on both sides, while keeping one's ego in check. 

I'm not saying I get the balance right all the time. But I'm trying.

September 17, 2013

For Your October Consideration

I am ready for fall. I am ready for three-quarter sleeves, bowls of bean soup, and hot drinks spiked with bourbon. I am ready for the air to sweeten with chimney smoke. 

I want to send off this dang manuscript, for better or for worse. I already have the next poetry project in mind. And I'm even ready to be on the road again. 

October will bring some lovely happenings, and I want to be sure they're on your radar.

"House of Suffering American Tour"
with Beasley, Dove, Schoonebeek, Schweig, and Zingg
Sunday, October 6 - 7 PM - The Black Squirrel (2427 18th St NW)
Free & open to the public

I'll be reading as part of the fifth stop of Danniel Schoonebeek’s tour ("so come on out and bring him an extra pair of socks"). The other writers include:

Michelle Dove, whose fiction appears or is forthcoming in New South, The Southeast Review, Passages North, Barrelhouse, PANK, Pear Noir!, and elsewhere. Her work received the John Steinbeck Award for the Short Story and the Fiction Prize from Style Weekly. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Danniel Schoonebeek, whose first book of poems, American Barricade, will be published in 2014 by YesYes Books. A chapbook, Family Album, is forthcoming from Poor Claudia this fall. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Boston Review, Fence, Guernica, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, jubilat, BOMB, Verse Daily, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. He writes a monthly column on poetry for The American Reader, hosts the Hatchet Job reading series in Brooklyn, and edits the PEN Poetry Series. Find him at

Sarah V. Schweig, author of the chapbook S (Dancing Girl Press). Her poems and reviews have appeared in Black Warrior Review, BOMB, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Verse Daily, among others. A graduate of the University of Virginia and Columbia University, she lives in Brooklyn. Find her at

Matthew Zingg, whose work can be read in The Awl, Sink Review, The Madison Review, Muzzle, Blackbird, HTML Giant, The Paris-American, and The Rumpus, among others. He received his MFA from Adelphi University and currently lives in Baltimore where he curates the Federal Dust Reading Series.

"Shrinks On the Page, Pen in the Hand": Readings and Conversation with Mary Kay Zuravleff, Lisa Gornick, and Judith Warner
Wednesday, October 9 - 7 PM - Arts Club of Washington (2017 I St NW)
Free & open to the public

I'll be hosting this, in a welcome return to co-chairing Literary programs at the Arts Club. Novelists Mary Kay Zuravleff and Lisa Gornick read from their latest books, and talk with journalist Judith Warner about their work and the writing life.

Two new books by noted fiction writers trace the effects of trauma on contemporary families. In Zuravleff's MAN ALIVE!, all it takes is a quarter to change pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Owen Lerner’s life. When the coin he’s feeding into a parking meter is struck by lightning, Lerner survives--except that now all he wants to do is barbecue. What will happen to his patients, who rely on him to make sense of their world? What will happen to his family? 

In Gornick's TINDERBOX, Myra is a Manhattan psychotherapist who hires a new nanny, Eva, who cleans like a demon and irons like a dream. Eva forms an immediate bond with Myra’s grandson. But once Eva, a Peruvian immigrant, settles into Myra’s patient chair to share her story, their relationship intensifies. Myra soon learns that even a family as close-knit as her own can have plenty to hide.

Each writer will share a brief passage from their books, before being joined by Warner for a moderated conversation. Warner, the author of We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication, will explore how each came to center a book on a psychologist as protagonist, and other common themes. The three will also discuss the realities of being modern writers, particularly as women navigating the publishing industry. 

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of Man Alive! as well as The Bowl Is Already Broken, which The New York Times praised as “a tart, affectionate satire of the museum world’s bickering and scheming,” and The Frequency of Souls, which the Chicago Tribune deemed “a beguiling and wildly inventive first novel.” Honors for her work include the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.

Lisa Gornick is a clinical psychologist and writer living in New York.  She is the author of two novels, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin) and Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  She earned a doctorate in clinical psychology at Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia.  A collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, is forthcoming with Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Judith Warner is best known for her New York Times bestseller, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead, 2005), and for her New York Times column, “Domestic Disturbances.” She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, an opinion columnist for, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her latest book, We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication (Riverhead, 2011), received an Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

A signing and light reception will follow, with books available for purchase.


Annual Chapbook Reading 
Friday, October 11 - 6:30 PM - Center for Book Arts (28 West 27th Street) 
Suggested donation $10/ $5 members

A reading to celebrate my 2013 chapbook, "None in the Same Room: Poems from the Traveler's Vade Mecum," winner of the annual contest, with judges Sharon Dolin and Harryette Mullen, and Honorable Mentions Sheila Carter-Jones and Alexandra Regalado. Chapbooks and broadsides will be available for purchase.


"Make Lit Happen: Journeys Through the MFA and Beyond"
Saturday, October 12 - 10 AM-3 PM - The Writer's Center (4508 Walsh Street) 
Registration is $50, $35 for TWC members, $20 for full-time students

I'll still be in New York, unable to attend--but this should be great! 

This one-day seminar will examine the value of MFA programs, the differences between low-residency and traditional MFA programs, and alternatives to the MFA. The seminar will include two panels focusing on MFAs and alternatives. Panelists include Kyle Dargan, David Everett, David Fenza, Joshua Weiner, Jill Leininger, Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli, Sara Taber, Tim Denevi, and moderator Nicole Idar.

The first panel, "MA and MFA Nuts & Bolts"–consisting of directors of local MFA and MA programs–will meet from 10 am to noon. The second, "Personal Journeys," from 1 to 3 p.m., will consist of individuals who’ll relate their particular journeys as writers and the role the MFA played, or did not play, in the process. 

The day includes a 1-hour break for lunch between the two panels, and a wine and cheese reception after the second panel. There will also be light refreshments (muffins, orange juice and coffee) at 9:30 a.m. before the first panel meets.

Morning Panel:

Kyle G. Dargan is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Logorrhea Dementia (UGA, 2010). His debut, The Listening  (UGA, 2004), won the 2003 Cave Canem Prize, and his second, Bouquet of Hungers (UGA, 2007), was awarded the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry. Dargan’s poems and non-fiction have appeared in publications such as Callaloo, Denver Quarterly, Jubilat, The Newark Star-Ledger, Ploughshares,, and Shenandoah. He is the founding editor of Post No Ills magazine and was most recently the managing editor of Callaloo.

David Everett is the academic director of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and is responsible for the day-to-day direction of students, faculty, and the curriculum. He teaches nonfiction, science-medical writing, and the program's thesis course, and has been involved in the design of nearly all program courses. His reporting and writing have won many awards, including the highest honor for Washington Correspondence from the Society of Professional Journalists; investigative awards from the University of Missouri, the Associated Press, and various other organizations.

David W. Fenza, Executive Director of Association of Writers and Writing Programs, has taught creative writing, literature, and composition at Johns Hopkins University, Old Dominion University, Essex Community College, and Goucher College, and he has served as editor for numerous literary magazines. He is the author of a book-length poem, The Interlude. A graduate of the writing programs at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Iowa, he earned his Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His poetry and criticism have appeared in The Antioch Review, Poet and Critic, and many other publications.

Joshua Weiner is author of three collections of poems, The World’s Room, From the Book of Giants (2006), which received the Larry Levis Award from Virginia Commonwealth University, and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish, all published by University of Chicago Press. He is also editor of a book of essays, At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn.  He is on faculty of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland. 

Afternoon Panel:

Tim Denevi received his MFA from the nonfiction workshop at the University of Iowa.  His work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Hawai’i Review, Wag’s Review, Denver Syntax and Hobart. He currently teaches in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland and at The Writer’s Center. His first book, Freak Kingdom, a memoir/history of ADHD, will be released in 2014 by Simon and Schuster. 

Jill Leininger earned her MFA in Poetry in 1999 from The University of Oregon, where she was also an instructor of poetry and an associate editor of the Northwest Review. Her second poetry chapbook, Sky Never Sleeps, was selected by Mark Doty in the Bloom Chapbook Contest.

Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli is a graduate of Seton Hill University (B.A., Studio Art) and Warren Wilson College (MFA, Poetry). She has been a Fellow at both the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Ragdale Foundation. She is a recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist's Grant in Poetry and is a poetry workshop leader at the Writer’s Center.

Sara Mansfield Taber is the author of Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter (Potomac Books), as well as two books of literary journalism: Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia (Henry Holt) and Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf (Beacon). She was a past William Sloane Fellow in Nonfiction at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and has been awarded residencies in creative nonfiction at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Moderator: Nicole Idar's stories have appeared in World Literature Today, Rattapallax, and The New Ohio Review, where she was as a finalist for the 2009 Fiction Prize. She holds an MFA in Fiction from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University. She was an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida spring 2012, and was in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the fall of 2012.


Mark your calendars, friends--lots of exciting things coming up. I'd love to see you.

September 12, 2013

An Open Letter to Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees; Or, "What now?"

[[Note: this letter was also sent via email to]]

Dear Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees,

First: Thank you. You are volunteers, appointed because our elected officials respect your judgment and your history of action. You serve the Fairfax County Public Library system, which spans nine districts, in an age when we all feel over-scheduled. Your time is valuable, and we thank you for it. 

Recently, the Board has received a great deal of criticism for actions pertaining to the Library's new organization model. In August, Mary Vavrina, vice president of The Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library, wrote an essay decrying potential outcomes of the implementation of the "Beta Project"--including staff reductions that would eliminate children/youth services librarians, and no longer require any employee to hold a Masters of Library Science (MLS) Degree. This week, the Washington Post described the creation of the "floating collection," ending the assignment of books to specific branches, as well as the mass disposal of what may have been as many as 250,000 books. Public response was immediate and fierce, and at a crowded September 11 Board meeting, you opted to reconsider your strategic plan

What now?

As the author of three books, with a fourth forthcoming, I'm invested in your decision. More importantly, I still carry my Fairfax County Public Library card. My family still lives in Vienna. I spent long hours reading while curled up in a beanbag chair at the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library, from Beverly Cleary to Stephen King. In the summer, I checked out books 50 at a time. I got a sticker or a stamp for every book I read in July. Remember the guinea pig you used to keep in a big fish tank by the windows? I do. I read my first issue of The New Yorker in your periodicals section. Your shelves are where I found my very first copy of Poet's Market, and dreamed of where I might publish someday. 

I once wrote for W.W. Norton about my love of public libraries, articulating the community values they entrench. For many children, a library card is their first experience with the social contract: e.g., shared possession of an item they must be trusted not to mangle or lose. Seeing a book that is particularly well-thumbed connects us with the scores of people who chose it before us; we browse not only with our eyes, but with our hands. The matrices of the Dewey Decimal system orders books in a way that is both logical (by category of topic) and arbitrary (by letter of last name), creating powerful juxtapositions; we discover new authors by fate, by chance, by feel. 

You'll notice that everything I mention above emphasizes the physical presence of the book. But in your strategic plan (which I read, twice), here's what's missing: the books. The word "book" appears an average of less than once per page. In your conclusion passage, "Moving Forward," the word appears only in this context: "Libraries are changing, the library profession is changing, and the very definition of a 'book' is changing." Hmmm. Though throwing away thousands of books may not have been explicitly mandated in the strategic plan, there's no denying that it's an organic outcome of the plan's priorities. 

Funny how this is how that same paragraph ends: "We all need to be on the same page in order to move forward together." Though this plan devalues books over and over in favor of "information," it can't resist using the symbolic rhetoric of the artifact. Even in this age, the book is powerful. You've got to give us a plan that recognizes that. 

I've served on boards. I've read a lot of strategic plans. When I see illustrations like this one, on page 18:

...I see a generic plan, devoid of attention to what library should do. I see the word "customer" and shiver. Though I admire how libraries have absorbed the role of a traditional neighborhood rec centers in recent decades, let's be clear: FCPL is charged with cultivating readers, not customers. Tying community functions to literacy and the dissemination of the written word should be at the core of what FCPL does. Someone's coming in for a flu shot? Your job is to make sure they read the pamphlet. 

I remember gathering with other kids to watch Misty on VHS at the library in a darkened side-room, peeking through my fingers during the scary parts where I worried the horse might die. Yes, I was there to see a movie on a June day, but the librarian used the subsequent discussion afterwards to steer us toward Marguerite Henry's novel, Misty of Chincoteague, which I then read. Same with Black Beauty. That's the "extra step" that strategic plans exist to ensure, so each activity or expenditure ultimately fulfill one's mission. Yeah, the arc of planning those hours is more work-intensive than popping in Battleship. But if you cultivate smart, motivated staff--rather than driving away those with higher degrees--you'll see such programs happen. 

In recent years, libraries have become a prized resource for wireless internet and eBooks. I don't object to that, particularly in the spirit of free access to information for all. But I notice that in diagrams such as this one, on page 10, under "Cornerstones and Guiding Statements":

...a corrosive distinction is being made between books, viewed as the library's past, and the library's future. Books are a form of technology. If you don't believe me, ask Johannes Gutenberg; ask Tan Lin. I don't argue with the observation that books have drawbacks compared to other modes of access to creative and scholarly work. But books have unique advantages, too. Books are not a defunct precursor to "technology." Scrub that thought from this plan, please. 

One of the sore points of discussion has been that the Fairfax County Public Libraries have gathered insufficient feedback from their constituents. I am sympathetic to the frustration of having little attendance at the town hall meetings that were held. But I'm wary of the proposed means of future feedback, e.g. the 900 respondents also volunteered to become FCPL Customer Advisors by "providing input to online queries three to four times each year." Not everyone is comfortable with the format of receiving and responding to online queries. That's the realm of the tech-savvy. Has anyone noted the inherent bias that will enter the data, if there isn't a counterbalancing survey of people via hard copy written forms? 

When I called my mother to share my distress over the news of recent FCPL trends, she put it best. All the emphasis is on cultivating people's connection with a screen, she said. Instead of our connections with each other. 

I realize that there is a certain beleaguered mindset at work. Funding cuts have been merciless. As evidenced in the strategic plan: "In FY 2011 Fairfax County faced a budget shortfall of $257 million and the library’s budget was reduced an additional 6 percent. Additional staff were lost and operating hours reduced again by 9 percent." Yet the plan goes on to declare, "With a more stable budget outlook, the focus has shifted from survival, to becoming as vital to the lives of Fairfax County residents as possible." 

That's wonderful. That also means that you're committing to a higher standard to engagement between librarians and readers. I'm concerned that in asking every staffer to be fluent in all on-site duties--from opening and closing, to check-out, to web guidance, to reference database searches, to recommending titles from the children's section and adult thrillers alike--you're squeezing out the dedicated talent that makes for great service. The conversations people remember from visiting their library come from vibrant, learned recommendations by people with areas of expertise. Specialization is not a bad thing. 

I'm not a nostalgist. Much as I could wax poetic about the days of chatting with the librarian as she stamped the card in the back of my latest Encyclopedia Brown or Hercule Poirot title, I accept the expediency of putting scannable codes on the spines, and of self-checkout options. Change is good, and normal. But in response to the question of "Why does FCPL exist?," the current strategic plan's answer--to “educate, enrich and empower our diverse community”--is boilerplate jargon. Perhaps “to provide books, storytime programs and Internet access” insufficiently describes what the library does, while the larger list that includes "a clean, safe space" and "an app for handheld devices" is overwhelming. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Your mission is in the spirit of that litany. 

I live in DC now, and so in a sense I am commenting as an outsider. But my connection to home is strong. Growing up where I did was a privilege (for all the reasons celebrated on page 8 of that strategic plan). I became a writer because of Fairfax County, and I want others to have that opportunity. Your public library system has every potential to stand out on the national landscape, and you have received a mandate from your constituency to make that happen. Start with a new strategy. In Latin, liber as an adjective means "free." As a noun, "child." Romans used the word to describe the bark of a tree--and therefore, for "book." Could there be any more perfect constellation of meanings?

Sandra Beasley

September 05, 2013

The Other Self

We glimpse our Other Selves, from time to time. The actor/actress/porn star who has your eyes and cheekbones, causing the cashier to double-take. Seeing a younger brother playing with his son, while you have chosen not to have kids. Passing a trimmer version of yourself on the sidewalk; eyeing her work-out clothes, the racquet she's carrying, and thinking I never should have given up tennis or Gotta get a haircut.

I've been thinking of the ways we determine our lives. (Photograph of "Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967" by Diane Arbus.) There are subjective choices--things we could have done differently, but much the same end. For me that includes choosing a graduate program in Virginia or DC, either of which fundamentally returned me to this literary community. Or working things out with men who, let's face it, sooner or later would have imploded no matter what I did. But then there's the life-changers, like passing up on a magazine job that would have moved me to the Berkshires when I was 24. Or, five years later, saying Yes to living in Mississippi for a month. 

There is a time when I considered enrolling in PhD programs. But I didn't apply for a couple of reasons. First, I always worried I was a bit uptight--a brittle perfectionist--and six years of scholarly study seemed like it would only compound that personality trait. Second, I was utterly embarrassed at my lack of a second language. (I'd studied Latin in high school, but dropped it before the AP level.)

My MFA gave me everything I needed to embark on a creative writing career. But sometimes I wish I'd done a doctoral program for two specific purposes: I'd love to write a collection of craft essays, and I'd love to edit an anthology. I'm enough out of the PhD loop that I don't actually know if either track is honored, as opposed to writing critical essays--but if not, they should be. Making time for either feels so unlikely in this stage of my life, in which I often have to take a crass dollars-per-word approach to writing--that's the trade-off of being a "full-time writer." Poetry is my indulgence, my pleasure; feels like I can't afford a prose one. Travel is hard on the scholarly brain. 

But Daniel Nester has done what I have not. (Translation: He is amazing.) His Incredible Sestina Anthology is going to be a beyond-smashing collection--the table of contents includes everyone from Sherman Alexie to Elizabeth Bishop to John Ashbery to Anne Waldman. I'm honored to be included; I hope there are whole courses built around it. That's another craft essay that I keep making notes toward in my head..."Confessions of a Sestina Addict." The book is going to be out from Write Bloody in October, and you can pre-order it here

A question, particularly if you're still a student: what is the most outlandish dream you have, in terms of your craft? What is the location/program/career that makes that feel most possible? The Other Self always seems to have a bigger life, and of course that's not true; don't be seduced by that. But don't minimize your options, either.