Monday, March 16, 2009

Sandra Beasley

Sandra Beasley won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize for Theories of Falling, selected by Marie Howe. Her poems have also appeared in Verse Daily, Slate, The Believer, AGNI online, Blackbird, and the Black Warrior Review Chapbook Series. Honors for her work include the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, and VCCA. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the Writer’s Center and periodically contributes to the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. She is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir forthcoming from Crown.


For Big Ryan

I didn’t know you’d left grad school,
joined up, didn’t know your first name

was really Donald. Came under
heavy fire in Ubaydi
. I read fire

& think absurdly of a red blanket,
as if the insurgents tucked you in,

& though I know you have died,
how you must be hating the desert.

When your dorm room had no A/C,
you declared Rogers 100 was Hotter

than two rats fucking in a wool sock
How many years? Five? Seven?

I was nothing to you, the girlfriend
of a friend. Already the you I picture

smudges, stenciled over by the Marine
you became: hair clipped at the temples,

a ROTC t-shirt you probably never wore.
You are quoted, months ago, as saying

Dad, if I die, I did it doing my duty
and protecting my country
. History

is a hand folding over you,
a magician stealing the coin.

November 18, 2005

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem started in the Metro Section. On page four. “Marine from Va. Killed in Iraq Firefight.” I’m not usually so literal in my titles, but there you have it. My first hint of Big Ryan’s death came from my ex-boyfriend’s (this will date me) AIM away message, which included his proper name, what looked like birth/death dates, and four or five classic quotes including the one about Rogers 100. I dismissed the away message as some sort of weird joke—Ryan had gotten hitched, maybe, and his life as a “free man” was over. But less than an hour later I was reading the Washington Post, and there he was.

I wrote the poem within the day. The misreading of “came under fire” as a “red blanket” came first, within the moment. Between that and the two direct quotes—one from the article, the other courtesy of my ex—I had the poem’s arc in place.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Gosh...maybe three revisions, over the course of a week. With a meeting of my then-writing group during that week, which helped. My poems go from first draft to final draft in relatively short time. I don’t say that to mean I don’t revise: I revise voraciously, word by word, but I tend to integrate it in the initial drafting, which often involves a four to six hour burst of attention to a poem that fits on a single page.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

When you’re working in the mode of elegy, crediting your own sweat and tears feels
pretty crass. On a craft level, I suppose I was fortunate in that the death was of someone close enough to register, but not of such an intimate relation that raw grief obscured my job as a poet approaching the topic. On a personal level: aw hell. Big Ryan, the best lines are just things you said in the first place.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

One of the first things I do after drafting a free verse poem is take out all the line breaks—moving it back up into prose—checking that the syntax and grammar work, then re-breaking it all over again. The editor in me won’t tolerate a lot of indeterminate pronouns or tense confusion. The line lengths, the voice, came very naturally.

The closest thing to a poet’s indulgence here is the use of ampersands in lieu of “and.” You can find this affect in other poems from Theories of Falling (“The Puritans”), all composed at about the same time, all some of the earliest work in the book. The ampersands are a nod towards momentum. I felt that it was important for the poem to move fast: to try and capture the speaker’s growing understanding of what has happened in something like real time.

The hardest part for me was having the speaker tackle her own credibility and ask herself if what she is really mourning is the man, or her image of the man, a romanticized connection to a part of her life now past. But that was where the risk was, so that was where I had to go. An elegy without risk borders on exploitative sentiment.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Well…funny story. Shortly after I won the New Issues Prize in 2007, a friend solicited some poems for an online journal she was working with at the time. I sent this poem along, and the editor wrote to say he would like to run it in his Autumn issue. In the meantime the frontmatter for my book was due, so I dutifully entered it as a “first appeared in” credit. Autumn came…autumn went…no publication that I ever saw.

I wish I could say it was the only such case—in my book, or in the books of many other poets I know. I welcome the notion of poetry as a gift economy, but I think it’s a shame when editors use that to absolve themselves of accountability. Dream big, solicit widely, but back it up at the end of the day.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I submit for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is at the request of an editor; sometimes it as the reading period closes for a brass ring of a journal; sometimes it is a journal that feels like a safe port for a well-loved but hard-to-place poem; sometimes it is just for immediate gratification, that momentary mood lift as I press a stamp to the envelope.

I don’t hesitate to send out a brand-new poem if the opportunity seems right. Some of my poem-a-day drafts have been revised and accepted by journals in less than a month’s turnaround. My chapbook of sestinas for Black Warrior Review, Bitch and Brew, was being written right up to the deadline. My work right now celebrates the values of speed, clarity, humor, music; I think these qualities thrive when writing under pressure. There are modes I will return to sooner or later—meditative poems, ekphrasis, multi-sectioned sequences—that will require longer gestation periods. I’ll honor that.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

For this poem I’ve completely torn away the fictive veil that protects the poet from accusations of autobiography. (Though note how I still carefully differentiate between “the poet” and “the speaker”—years of workshop experience on display!) I hope I did justice to the people whose opinion on this poem really matters. . . . I’m not one of them. When I read this poem at Busboys & Poets, a venue in Washington, D.C., I was approached afterward by a William & Mary graduate who recognized Big Ryan. She probably knew him better than I did, and she liked the poem. That was good.

Is this a narrative poem?

Sure. It’s an unusual variant on narrative, because the story follows the speaker’s developing cognition of an event that took place outside her knowledge. I don’t relate the timeline of the attack in Ubaydi, which could be called the driving event of the poem.

On the other hand, a definition of “lyric” is a poem that privileges the speaker’s mindset over the external world. If this poem starred a fictive soldier and a generic “she” as speaker, without factual antecedents, and I was a critic, not the poet, I might call it a lyric.

In the wrong hands, the narrative/lyric divide is one of the great straw men of lit-crit. The great poems have both. Even in The Iliad, Homer was careful to build in descriptive passages that worked as mini-lyrics and proved his value, amidst all that marshalled history, in the role of delivering poet.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences
you’d care to disclose?

Blame those ampersands on Nick Flynn and Some Ether. That’s a book I turn to again and again when I’m trying to rally in my writing. And in the process of answering these questions I’m remembering a Sharon Olds poem in which she recounts learning of an ex-boyfriend’s death from the radio, as she’s reading The New York Times. “First Love (for Averell)” appears in The Gold Cell. If I loved the poem enough to remember it now, I’m sure it influenced me then.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Do I want the careful reader, spectacled, savoring these poems by the fireside with a tumbler of rye? Do I want the excited undergrad with a well-creased book, gulping poetry down by the mouthful between bus stops? Do I want the powerful reader/editor who can pick up the phone and say “Sandra Beasley, send me your next book manuscript! I must have it!” Do I want my aunt, who doesn’t read much poetry, to say “Now that. That I get. That’s pretty good”?

I want all those things. I’m greedy.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

As I mentioned, at the time I was meeting once a month with a small writing group. But I quit the group soon afterwards. I felt like the group’s feedback clung to the tenets of the poems I had been turning in, and resisted principles I wanted to explore—using more surrealism, more associative leaps, abandoning a coherent and personifiable speaker.

Marie Howe told me I needed to find some good readers, some trusted readers, and I guess I’m still looking. Part of the problem is that my cohort of poets is still moving around—changing jobs, homes, getting married, having first children—and asking for them to read even one poem feels like a rare favor, not part of an ongoing ritual.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

The ending of the poem takes an unusually large leap into metaphor; usually my endings are a bit more organic, often offering some kind of narrative conclusion. But how does a poet create closure in the wake of the death of someone interrupted mid-stride? Endings are always problematic in the elegiac mode.

Mentions of stage-magic show up throughout Theories of Falling: Houdini makes a cameo in one poem, and a tasseled girl loads a gun with blanks in another. Maybe the ending is lazy, drawing upon a comfortable body of imagery, the poet’s security blanket. But I don’t think so. The magician who steals the coin—not to re-appear it behind your ear, necessarily, but to tuck in his pocket before moving on to the next mark—that feels very indicative of this particular war. To close your hand over something, to pin a medal on it, to sign proclamation #1,001; as if any of these things could vanish a loss.

What is American about this poem?

This poem is in the last section of Theories of Falling, “This Silver Body,” a section of what I think of as entirely American poems, bird’s-eye-view poems that take a look at culture beyond the self. Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are onto something with their celebrations of America’s plurality, its sweats and sacrifices and foolish moxies and sad, incremental epics. This poem has two sister poems, “Theories of Non-Violence” and “My Los Alamos,” that can be found in Theories and elsewhere on the web.

Death in wartime is not uniquely American. But this is an American death, and this is an American elegy—self-aware, regretful, littered with the mundane. Coming from a military family myself, I find it strange that our culture has taken to talking about “America” versus “America at war in Iraq.” It’s the same country. You can’t dissociate yourself just because you voted for Barack Obama and you wish it wasn’t still going on. It’s only when someone “unlikely”—an upwardly mobile student with a lot of options, well on his way to a Ph.D.—joins up voluntarily, and is killed, that some folks are faced with this reality.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. How could I not finish it? Who are these ego-less poets who can claim to abandon their poems? They seem like they’d be good drinking buddies.


  1. I really appreciate you calling out the lyric/narrative binary fallacy. I still have a hard time seeing much narrative in this, though--beyond the basics, it doesn't seem like the story itself is really the point here. To me, it's much more like a meditation, to use another term that's probably freighted with too much stuff already. :-)

    Nice insightful interview. Thanks!

  2. Steve:
    Thanks for your comments. I agree: I wouldn't call Sandra's poem a "narrative poem," either. I'd just call it a poem. This sounds insanely simplistic--calling a poem a poem. But so is the "lyric/narrative binary," as you put it!

    More than any other, this question ("Is this a narrative poem?") seems to provoke some really quirky responses. Which is exactly what I hoped it would do.

    Thanks again!


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