Sandra 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.
Nikki Ummel: Talking to you right now feels like a dream. Thank you for meeting with me.
Sandra Beasley: I think a lot of my ethos in how I teach, read, and interact with poets is that I always remember being on the other side of it. I always remember being at the conference as a student versus a teacher. I just can’t help but try to treat people as I know I wanted to be treated.
NU: Tell me about the process of publishing a book during a global pandemic. What’s that been like for you?
SB: I really miss being in crowded rooms filled with friends. I can still do readings. I can engage people who I wouldn’t otherwise get to reach. I’m doing a reading that will be broadcast through University College Cork at the end of March, and that’s wonderful because those are people I got to meet when I was there on a fellowship. It would be unlikely that I would fly to Ireland just for a single reading, so I love that we have cultivated this increased understanding of what we can do remotely. I hope that stays for many reasons, especially as a disabled writer and advocate for those for whom this is the better system going forward. But gosh, I miss being surrounded by people. I miss the conversation. I miss the collegiality of it.
NU: What about your actual creative process during this time?
SB: I don’t worry too much about writing new poems. I am not a poet who writes every day, or every week, or every month. I can go several months without working on any poems. With I Was the Jukebox, I did a poem a day, for a month at a time, and just a few of those months gave me enough baseline pages to put the manuscript together. I love to revise. That is one of my enduring strengths as a writer: I never get tired of revising. But I don’t always love that initial drafting. I will put it off if I can.
So the simple answer is, I have not asked myself to do a ton of writing this year. I’ve tried to read and really love reading. And I think of that as sowing the fields for the future. In fact, the next project that I do I believe will probably be nonfiction, so I’ve been reading as much nonfiction as poetry in order to get ready for that.
NU: Outside of the pandemic, what was the most challenging aspect of publishing Made to Explode?
SB: I wanted so desperately for it to feel like a fun book, a lighter collection, and part of my entry point to writing it was that I had finished working on an anthology of food poems. I thought, well, terrific. I will write my own food poems. I’ll write into the interstices of what I didn’t find for Vinegar and Char, which is, in some ways, a celebration of Southern culture. But very quickly writing about food led me to write about history, which led me to write about geographic identity, which in the Virginia/D.C. area is very much fraught in its tension between Northern and Southern instincts and cultural traditions. And sure enough, I found myself reconsidering things that 20 years ago I had a much more reductive take on at the time. I grew up in a city where I was excited to hear about the founding fathers, to go to the memorials, and now to realize that’s such an under-informed take… you can have excitement and respect for things, but you’ve also got to question them. It went from being a book that I really wanted to feel lighter to a book that was containing some really difficult material. I had to make peace with that.
NU: Sometimes when I’m reading your work I see a clue as to place or time and it feels like a gift. It feels like a little treat in the middle of a poem to have a reference that feels familiar.
SB: It’s one of the pleasures of incorporating research into the work. I do think that my poems constantly look outwards—they have a really active curiosity about the physical world around us. Even when they are in some ways coded, I’ll look up for a capybara or a passing car, and that allows readers access points and that’s important. I say to my students over and over, “Why did you come to this workshop to seek publication of the work? Are you willing to transition from being a writer to being an author?” And by that I mean, are you willing to prioritize the reader’s experience of the poem over your own? That’s something that, for me, I still think about. My speakers are not the same as me, even when they’re very similar. I really believe you have to be willing and able to alter the texture of a poem for the best reading experience.
NU: Tell me about the prose poems in Made to Explode.
SB: There’s a series of prose poems in Made to Explode, many of which are pitched as being around national monuments and memorials. There is a kind of implicit surveyor/speaker of those poems, the person who is there at midnight, but the actual textures of the poems don’t use a lot of first-person narrative. They’re really pastiches or collages of various facts that swivel between the figure in real life and the making of the inspiration for the memorial, and then what got curated and edited for the public version of history.
NU: In your other collections, you include some prose poems, but in Made to Explode, it’s an entire section of the book.
SB: That’s one thing about Made to Explode that is different from my other collections: it has four sections. I was very hesitant to do four sections. My three previous books all have three sections. I like symmetry. I am absolutely someone who kind of seeks those internal balances right down to the fact that if you look at I Was the Jukebox, the sestinas and the “failed” poems and the “love” poems are all equally sprinkled throughout. So it was a challenge for me to commit to the asymmetry produced by doing four sections instead of three, because it meant I was going to clump the prose poems together. I also gathered the disability poems into a suite that registers really strongly at the beginning of section four. And I chose to put the poems that interrogated race together and up front, versus almost hiding them in unexpected places throughout the manuscript. There’s a certain strategy to placing them up front in the book, in the first section. Those are things that I thought about a lot when I was ordering it.
To me, the collection feels thematically focused and, in some ways, like a personal collection in a way that has the most in common with Theories of Falling. I worked on I Was the Jukebox while I was writing a memoir, so I was desperate to get away from the personal. I did not want those poems to be read as me describing my life on the page. Count the Waves was about iteration, about repetition and ritual. That was written during so much travel. It was a period of really thinking a lot about the sestina and about how many times you could repeat a pattern and have that feel nourishing rather than exhaustive. That’s also the collection about the complications of love. But it really kind of hides its autobiographical elements; it’s pretty coded.
NU: For me, these lines from “My Whitenesses” encapsulate the ethos of the whole book: “Virginia, my ghosts / need gathering. / Come to the table / and sit, goddamnit. Sit.” When you wrote the first section of poems, who did you envision reading them?
SB: There is a very worthwhile cultural conversation going on around race. I think that the call has been put forward clearly by Claudia Rankine and others that what white writers need to be writing about is whiteness, not Blackness or other racial experiences as they’ve been inflected by whiteness. We don’t need persona poems appropriating Black pain. I think that the people who most need to hear some of those poems are white folks for whom it sneaks up on them. So why am I writing poems about that versus essays about that? Because I believe I can get at more people in ways that their defenses are less prepared for, by approaching through poetry. What I’m trying to say is that I welcome all readers. I really want whoever is drawn to the work–but for the pointed edge of those poems, the people who most “need” it are probably the people who see themselves reflected in the work.
NU: Made to Explode is such a unique title that manifests throughout the collection in many different ways. How did you come to choose this title?
SB: We are in a moment where publishers really need a book to kind of do its own best advertising. We need a book to announce its themes. Made to Explode is a title that speaks of capacity for violence and for celebration in equal measure. I love the fact that, in the poem “Einstein, Midnight,” it doesn’t even refer to fireworks or gunpowder, it refers to yarn-bombing. So there’s also embedded in there this idea of making art out of anything in any context.
NU: How do you handle rejection? Do you have advice for young writers in regards to rejection?
SB: My students just asked me about this last night. You have to surround yourself with folks who you trust–with whom you can be petty, joyous, unapologetic, and vulnerable. I don’t mean it has to be a physical surrounding; it can be whatever communication works for you. But you do have to build a bulwark of community to endure the relentless rejection and moments of vulnerability that are embedded in trying to publish. It never stops. I genuinely believe that the people who succeed in the literary world are very talented, but more important than that, they’re stubborn. I have to, almost selfishly, believe that it is worth it, even on the days that it really drags me low.
The one other thing I’ll say is that to be a writer is terrific protection against all of life’s other heartbreaks. I have many times said, “you know what? I will someday write something better or more beautiful or weird because of this experience.” And it has helped me get through a lot of moments that otherwise felt unbearable.