May 05, 2015

Leaving the Aviary

I turn 35 today. Slipping out the back door of our building in workout shorts and sneakers, I was weighed down with one thing: a copy of Count the Waves, which I had signed for my old boss, mentor, and now friend. She lives on the other side of the National Zoo. When I used to make mail runs for her, I would stop off by the cheetah enclosure en route to the post office. I fired up my iPod to a random album: Old 97's "Fight Songs." 

I thought it was a random music choice. But as I paced up the paved hill toward elephants, I remembered the many months I walked through the zoo in the afternoons, pumping my arms to distract from the larger confusions of my life. The life I had dismantled, moving into my little studio; the life I tried to live in Mississippi from afar; the life I wanted to share with someone who was pulling away from me. I should have suspected when he gave me the Old 97's album that February of 2011. Cue the opening lyrics to the closing track, "Valentine":

Heartbreak, old friend, goodbye it's me again
Of late, I've had some thought of movin' in
Of all the many ways a man will lose his home
Well, there ain't none better than the girl who's movin' on

The National Zoo is not the finest or fanciest of institutions. Today, the sloth bear exhibit was bordered with caution tape, and I could not find one working water fountain. But I have always been loyal to this zoo, the way one is loyal to that slightly funky, odorous coffee-shop with the chipped mugs and diffident staff. 

The 8.5 ounces of a book was not the only thing weighing me down. Now that these poems are in the real world, I have to explain them. I recorded a radio interview yesterday, and at a few key moments I panicked, Can I create a narrative that honors what the book captures, without exploiting it? 

On so many days, the aviary--open until 4:30 PM in winter, 5:45 PM in summer--has been my refuge. After it was closed, I'd wind past the other bird enclosures. The opening poem features a flamingo. The closing poem features a peacock. 

I found a wonderful man. I married him. I'm grateful for every moment that has led me here, even the painful ones. I dropped the book off at my friend's place and kept walking, across the Ellington Bridge and back towards what has been home. Tomorrow, we hope to sign a lease on a new place down by the waterfront, in a different quadrant of the city. For the first time in ten years, I will have to find a new refuge. Maybe these next few weeks are not about constructing the perfect, gilded cage. Maybe it is about setting these poems free to fly. 

April 06, 2015

Spotted: Count the Waves in American Poet!

April is always 30 days of crazy, and not just because of National Poetry Month. It's the month taxes are due; the month students panic about the final projects looming ahead; the month when warming temperatures inspire a smile--that quickly turns into a sneeze, a sniffle, then a wheeze, as all my pollen allergies kick in. 

This year, April includes the lovely madness that is the AWP Conference. If you're going to be in Minneapolis, please consider joining us at the Best New Poets 10th Anniversary Reading on Friday morning. I'm also excited to take part in Tate Street's extension of the Favorite Poem Project, part of the initiative launched by Robert Pinsky during his tenure as Poet Laureate. I'll be talking about Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)."

Browning's sonnet--or rather, a purposeful mishearing of it--gives Count the Waves its title, and the opening line serves the book's epigraph. With June 1 publication on the horizon, I'm trying not to fixate on the fact that a handful of Advanced Review Copies are out in the world. My poems are in the hands of some powerful writers and editors, who might like them (or not), who might take them on for review (or not). Will the Traveler's Vade Mecum series make enough sense? Are the acrobatics of a sestina too irksome? Did I get the order of those last five poems right?

I'm trying not to fixate on it, but I'm failing. So it is an incredible gift to see my book given an advance mention in the summer issue of American Poets (the handsome pub of the Academy of American Poets). Here's the item:

by Sandra Beasley
(W.W. Norton, June 2015)

Sandra Beasley's third collection negotiates a tense interplay between intimacy and distance, the gloss of fable and the coarser edges of lived experience: "What the parable does not tell you / is that this woman collects porcelain cats….This man knows they are tacky. Still, when the one / that had belonged to her great-aunt fell / and broke, he held her as she wept … // The parable does not care about such things." Ostensibly conversational in tone, Beasley's lines are crisp and propulsive with verbs, as they examine beauty in a new way: "No one // ever praises the ass of the peacock, grin of quills that does the heavy lifting." Such whimsical turns belie a spiritual devotion and the overall effect is suggestive of an illuminated manuscript: "The seams of our gold world weaken … Steady the hand that dares mend a sky." Beasley's poems also examine the notion of sacrifice, and look beyond easy or pleasing endings.


So much of this review gets at the heart of what the book is about; I particularly love the idea of an "illumined manuscript." Deep breath. It's foolish to be in a hurry for the finished book to arrive, because there is so much to be done between now and then. I've got a tour to plan, and a website to redesign. But my heart's a racin' towards June 1. 

March 18, 2015

Four By Two

I have been to California exactly twice. The first time was for a road trip with my dad that began in San Diego and ventured up Route 1 for four days. We rented a yellow Mustang, which we drove with the top down whenever possible ("I like it when you let your hair whip into knots"). I insisted we visit the Beverly Wilshire hotel, but was disappointed when it looked nothing like the scenes from Pretty Woman. Every restaurant we sat down in, I ordered the sashimi salad. 

In 2007, I flew out again for a two-day work trip that was memorable for three things: the plush bathrobe at the Omni, blooming bougainvillea everywhere, and hearing poems read in the voice of Dr. Spock, a.k.a. Leonard Nimoy. 

In a lifetime in which I am constantly grateful for travel, I know better than to complain. But I would really like to spend more time in the Golden State. In the meantime, I'm thrilled when someone sends me a snapshot of my book on the shelves of City Lights, or mentions spotting my work on a UC-Irvine professor's desk. It's a reminder: poems are not bound to their authors. They get around without our help. 

When Kurt Lipschutz (who publishes as klipschutz) sent me an email with the subject line "greetings from san francisco, and…" I knew that, however random it was, it was going to be good. Turned out to be great: an opportunity to be featured in Four by Two, which he called a "mini-mag quarterly"--low-fi, high-concept--published in hand-numbered editions. No submissions process; poets are selected through a combination of shared interest, referral, and lightning strike. The print run of the first issue was 150 copies. They have now doubled that to 300, and counting. 

As the name hints, each issue consists of four poems by two contributors. Want a year's worth, by mail, sent in a spiffy bespoke envelope? Just $20. 

When the three previous issues arrived, I gasped. You can see by the picture above--these things are gorgeous. I was grateful for a chance to group some poems by theme, without having to worry about previous publication. We decided to bring together two from I Was the Jukebox, and two from Count the Waves, for a portfolio of love (and love lost, and love disrupted) that we named "Arrhythmias." More emails. Proofing.

Then, lo and behold, the box arrived….

I knew that Kurt's collaborator, Jeremy Gaulke, would create art specific to each layout. But I couldn't have dreamed he would come up with an image that takes its cue from "Parable," in which one's worries "take his insides as their oyster; / coating themselves in juice--first gastric, / then nacreous--growing layer upon layer." 

If you could see this up close, you'd note how the heart is a properly organic organ, complete with the labeling of superior vena carta and the pulmonary artery. 

This kind of project is designed for eccentric makers and passionate readers; it is not a strategy to harvest media buzz. Kurt has a lot of other irons in the fire, including his ongoing songwriting with Chuck Prophet. Still, Zouch magazine has noticed, first with a review and more recently via an interview with Jeremy for their "Spatial Relations" series, and I suspect more press is on the horizon. 

Most poets are swamped with journals that accumulate, untouched, into a source of guilt. But Four by Two is a breath of fresh air; something you can unfold, read/enjoy/puzzle over, pin to your bulletin board for a week, and then move on. If you want in, subscribe here. One of the issues in this next season will feature the work of Sarah Hannah, a personal favorite who we lost far too soon--including, I hear, a never-before-published poem. 

This last month has been a blur of work, more work, stressing over buying our home, a flu, five days of teaching poetry to 10th graders, and now a cold. I hope, if I ever get out to San Francisco (maybe for Count the Waves? maybe?), that I get to shake klipschutz's hand and thank him for reminding me how far a poem can travel--even when its author is hunkered down, sniffling and sipping her umpteenth bowl of collard soup. Though for what it is worth, if you're going to binge on soup, collard soup is the way to go.