By Nikki Ummel & Michelle Nicholson
Photo by Andrew Lightman
This year’s judge for the Kay Murphy Prize in Poetry is Sandra Beasley. Beasley is the author of four poetry collections: Made to Explode (W. W. Norton, 2021); Count the Waves (W. W. Norton, 2015); I Was the Jukebox (W. W. Norton, 2010), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Theories of Falling (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008), winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. In 2015 she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Washington, D.C.
In October, Bayou Magazine’s Associate Poetry Editors had the opportunity to interview Beasley about her work, projects, and processes.
Each of your collections is distinct from the other. Your second collection, I Was the Jukebox, is deeply immersed in persona poetry. Count the Waves focuses largely on intimacy and on The Traveler’s Vade Mecum. Where do you see your fourth collection, Made to Explode, in your evolution as a poet?
Just to rewind all the way—my first collection, Theories of Falling, has three sections that follow a pretty typical Bildungsroman arc: the self as child, the self as young lover, the self as she enters the public sphere. Made to Explode picks up that task of navigating the public sphere; a narrator is present and largely sustained across the poems, though her consciousness is not always in the foreground. My initial entry point into Made to Explode was poems about food traditions. To write about food quickly became writing about history, and family, and disability, and cultural inheritance.
As you mentioned, many of the poems in Made to Explode feature descriptions of food and meals. How is this an important element of the landscape of the South, the one that you aim to depict (and critique) in the collection? Does it hold some other position in your body of work?
Food is so powerful as a source of ritual and an engine for labor. How many of our most important conversations take place over meals? In 2017, the Southern Foodways Alliance asked me to serve as the editor on what became Vinegar and Char, a collection celebrating two decades of SFA symposiums. I was tasked with honoring past poetry collaborations, which comprised about half the Table of Contents, and in curating the other half; I took the charge to honor Southern tropes while also updating and complicating them. The task was fun, but it wasn’t all beans and barbecue. I had to think deeply about my own relationship to being Southern—having grown up in Virginia, and then having spent a lot of time in Mississippi during the past decade. I can remember a few conversations early on, when traveling, someone would suggest to me that Virginia didn’t “count” as Southern, especially northern Virginia. But the last few years have shown that it’s a state very much mid-reckoning with its history, and particularly with the figure of Thomas Jefferson, who still looms very large there.
Speaking of Jefferson and other looming figures: several poems in Made to Explode communicate an unreconciled tension between the speaker and the setting in the D.C, Maryland, Virginia (DMV) area. In “American Rome,” you write, “Each time I sit down / to try and say goodbye, all I write down / is Dear City.” The end of “The Vow” seems to echo this sentiment: “I take joy in choosing you again and again.” Why have you chosen to remain in the DMV area?
Everyone encounters critical junctures where you have to make commitments to a job, or a place, or a partnership. I find it helpful to characterize the ensuing years as a re-making of that choice, rather than a prescribed duty. This city isn’t the easiest place to live—it’s expensive, the arts scene is incredible but fragmented, and everyone’s calendars get booked three weeks out. We’ve come close to moving. That said, there are pleasures that could not be recreated anywhere else. Catching a few innings of a baseball game with my dad at Nationals stadium, or a spontaneous walk up to the Hirshhorn Museum on a Saturday afternoon, or driving home past the monuments late at night; these things are precious to me. What helps is that we are also a hub for travel to elsewhere via three robust airports, Amtrak, and quick access to the interstate. So staying here, ironically, enables going away with some frequency. I grew up in the suburbs, but I’ve also crossed a threshold where my institutional memory of D.C. is sometimes the oldest in the room, and that does feel valuable. The Taurus in me craves a sense of “this is home.” I’ve fallen in love with Southwest as a quadrant, and I think it’s possible that we’ll stay here a long time.
I’m sure being in the DMV area also lends itself to being research-minded. Research seems to be a key component of your poetry, expertly woven into narrative and detail. Ada Limón writes that your poems “glow with a historian’s exactitude and a poet’s lyrical heart.” Can you articulate the process you go through to incorporate research into your poetry?
I’m lucky that Ada lent such kind words to my work. I’m curious by nature, and I have strong perfectionist-procrastinator instincts, so research is a doubly convenient way of putting off actually writing the poem. But once I have a critical mass of found knowledge on a topic, the secret is to make sure it is not choking off the lyric intensity of the underlying subject. You can’t get carried away by the desire to “show your work.” Sometimes that’s a matter of making bold structural decisions, which is why I so often reach for anaphora. Usually I have to keep half of what I’ve learned about a subject off the page.
Your previous collections—I’m thinking primarily of I Was the Jukebox—lean heavily on persona, and the details in your poems are so fine-tuned. How do you write so authentically about experiences that are not your own?
Persona is a tricky topic. The personae of the “Speaks” series in I Was the Jukebox is really about giving voice to objects, animals, and mythologies: a piano, an orchid, a platypus, Osiris or the Minotaur. Though pointedly non-human in origin, those poems often end up floating thematic concerns that are closely intertwined with human anxieties. The personae I use in Count the Waves are all archetypical: sword swallower, grave digger, emperor. Their different “professions” add a varied texture of imagery, but at the end of the day they’re all pining for love.
I consciously rejected any impulse toward using persona in Made to Explode. That doesn’t mean I can’t exaggerate or conflate on behalf of the “I” in these poems, because poems are not an act of nonfiction. But channeling a historical persona would have felt like a safer vantage point to examine race, and I wasn’t going for safety in this collection.
As accessible and grounded in the quotidian as much as your poetry is, the poem “Winter Garden Photograph” is in direct conversation with Roland Barthes—which is very exciting. Can you tell us what inspired this poem and how you intend to enter into the critical discourse through it? Are there other poems in the collection that are also, perhaps more subtly, engaging in more philosophical discourses?
If I hadn’t been scared off by the required psychology lab hours in college, I would have double-majored in literature and cognitive science. One of my favorite classes at the University of Virginia was James Cargile’s course on epistemology. Another was a photography class taught by J. David Sapir that asked us, often, to think about socio-anthropological issues and introduced me to Roland Barthes’ work. So that’s a sensibility that quietly infuses all my poems, occasionally surfacing explicitly. There’s a poem in the “Traveler’s Made Mecum” series that riffs on social anthropologist Mary Douglas’s theories on purity and danger. Even my most playful collection, I Was the Jukebox, is constantly thinking about taxonomies. I graduated with my MFA in 2004, and sometimes in that era people would speak dismissively of poems trying to make truth claims. I never understood that. Why wouldn’t you go big, in your poems? Why not try to forge a new understanding of the world around you?
I have often been delighted by the humor in your poetry. Is this an element you come by naturally or have you honed it over time?
When I was young, I would write Very Sad Poems, and then the occasional essay in which a whole other side of my personality would come out—sarcastic, playful. People responded to those prose pieces. I realized an artificial divide in the two voices did not serve me. I’ve read a lot of poems at open mics over the years, and a punchline is one thing that can cut through a noisy bar crowd. You have to get them listening before you can break their hearts.