July 16, 2015


Last week, I did a quartet of readings for Count the Waves in Virginia and North Carolina. The thing about working at home is that you almost never take a "day off." But on the road for a reading, you can explore a new town's shops, restaurants, and people, and still feel like you're putting in a day's work. It is work. You gotta be on time, have book stock in hand, give a good reading, and be ready to answer any question. 

But it's a lucky kind of work, and makes up for many days spent stressing over bills and freelance deadlines. Being a writer is a way to explore the world. 

Whenever I get back from one of these trips, my mind is brimming with ideas. Then someone asks "How was it?" and I never know where to start or what to say. I take snapshots, whenever and wherever I can, as a way of shaping the story.

In other words: Hi Mom! This is for you. 

First stop: Richmond, Virginia, home to Plan 9. They opened as a used record shop back in 1981, and it's lovely to see the focus come back to vinyl--they celebrated their "33⅓ birthday" this year. Since Champneys couldn't come with me, I went album hunting on his behalf. The haul: Darol Anger's Fiddlistics, Flatt and Scruggs covering Bob Dylan, and "Cajun Swamp Music Live: The Clifton Chenier Band."

World of Mirth in Carytown is one of the best children's stores in the country--with a focus on handcrafted, environmentally responsible, and just plain joyous toys. There is a sad story behind the shop: WoM was the vision of Kathryn Harvey, who was tragically murdered, along with her musician husband and their two daughters, during a 2006 New Year's Day home invasion. That crime spree shook the community; if you've ever heard "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," from the Drive-By Truckers' album Brighter Than Creation's Dark, it is about the Harvey family. But the dream lives on, and thrives. You can find every variety of creature, costume, puppet, or brightly colored goo. I'm a first-time aunt, so I went to town. (Let's hope Rhoda-Jane likes the sippy cups made to look like Ramen cups and Sriracha bottles.) 

The moment the register finished ringing, I dashed down the block to Chop Suey.

My reading companions were Simeon Berry & Cecily Iddings, en route to The So and So Series in Raleigh. We were greeted by the bear hug of Ward Tefft, the man behind the bookstore. Simeon read from two new collections; Cecily shared a long poem from Everyone Here, out from Octopus Books, one of my favorite indie publishers. 

There were local friends in the audience, folks from the Blackbird community, an old UVA workshop buddy, and Kent Ippolito, husband to the late great poet Claudia Emerson. When I shared the title poem from the book, the sestina "Let Me Count the Waves," I mentioned that she had seen the very first draft (we were both at the Sewanee Writers' Conference at the time). 

Afterwards, all three poets signed books under the watchful eye of WonTon, House Supercat. We headed to dinner across the street, at The Daily. 

…and later, thanks to poet-Goddess Emilia Phillips and her partner Jeremy, there was pinball. And wine. And more pinball. 
The next morning, I ventured on to Chapel Hill by way of Durham, where I hit another record shop. I also shamelessly offered to sign a copy of Count the Waves when I found it on the shelf at The Regulator, and I bought Jim Fusilli's 33 1/3 guide to Pet Sounds.

There's a shop in Durham that carries Effie's Heart, a California label. I would live out of Effie's closet if I could (the actual designer is named Kimo Frazzitta). Dresses with sleeves! Skirts with pockets! You can never go wrong with pockets. This was my splurge purchase, but it has a practical side: since I'm teaching in an actual classroom this fall (American University), I will have to put on actual clothing. 

By 5 PM I had made my way to the strip mall in Chapel Hill that houses Flyleaf Books. I was intrigued by the restaurant next door, Lucha Tigre. 

The kitchen has a crazy premise of Mexican-Asian fusion, but it sent out the best posole I've had since visiting Santa Fe. With a side of wok-seared bok choy. And a jalapeño margarita. While I ate, I browsed one of three back copies of The Sun that I'd brought down with me. Though I'd read it before, I came across David Hernandez's poem "We Would Never Sleep."  (Pause. Go read this poem, please. This post will wait.)

Afterwards I slipped next door to meet the series hosts. I balanced out my bloodstream with a lemonade, and an espresso, and we headed into Flyleaf. I knew the face behind the register: Jake Fussell, formerly of Oxford. Second shock: Travis Smith, also a friend from Oxford days, also on staff. Their faces made me feel welcome and very nostalgic for Square Books. I can't wait to be back in Mississippi on August 20

I've known Dan Albergotti for years, always admiring his work, but we'd never read together before. The selections from Millennial Teeth were dark, but stunning and timely; it's an helluva collection. One of the poems he read, "Holy Night," won a Pushcart Prize this past spring. 

We had a substantial Open Mic peppered with tributes to James Tate. It's striking to realize how many readers'  lives he touched. The originals were one poem, one page. I particularly liked the chutzpah of Liz--a new transplant from Chicago--who delivered her poem despite having broken off a tooth in the hour before. Ouch. She read a persona poem dealing with domestic violence, re-claiming the absence as dramatic gesture. 

Weird coincidence: I'd lost my own fake tooth in the hour before. It fell irretrievably through gap in the plastic casing of my car and will now forever, creepily, ride along on these road trips. Luckily, I'm due to get the permanent on Tuesday, bringing my expensive and yearlong "damn you, baby tooth" saga to an end. 

Not glamorous to share that, but a poet's days aren't all pinball and shopping. 

Afterwards, I got to chat with folks including Abigail Browning, the founding force behind Tate Street. How did I not know she was in Chapel Hill? I visited with her at AWP, where I talked about my love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee?" for their Favorite Poem Project, an offshoot of Robert Pinsky's initiative. 

Being home-hosted is strange and lovely. You're thrust into the intimacies of a life--you see inside the fridge, you hear kids playing through the wall, and on this particular night, you arrive right as someone's grandmother has passed away. But one thing I admire in so many writers is their resilient flexibility, our recognition that life is nothing but juxtapositions and we grab at what we can--in this case, a conversation over a glass of water, before she headed to the airport to fly home to her family. 

My host suggested I check out Open Eye Cafe in nearby Carrboro. Intriguing little town, with crops and flowers in every yard. I browsed my way through Fifth Season Gardening and almost bought an air plant. (Tillandsia is pretty much the full extent of my gardening; we already have one, named Sangria.) The store had a generous section devoted to growing your own hops. I hit another record store, got a snack, finished another issue of The Sun. 

On the way to Greensboro, I made notes toward a new book idea. Vague, I know. Sorry; that's all I'm going to say about it for now. 

My host in Greensboro was Rhett Iseman Trull, editor of Cave Wall, her husband Jeff, and their young daughter. I've been a reader of Cave Wall since the earliest issues, and they published selections from both I Was the Jukebox and Count the Waves. I'd brought little Audrey a stuffed fox from World of Mirth, inadvertently channeling the mascot of Scuppernong Books

Dan and I had promised each other that we'd change up our sets. I learned a lot from hearing him read two nights in a row. Friday brought out his more playful poems, the ones that use rhetorical structures to riff on relationship dynamics. 

Here we are--Jeff, Rhett, Dan--friendships that, before I know it, will have spanned a decade. One person missing: Terry Kennedy. He's up in the mountains, writing in his cabin. We texted a questioning, "Where the hell are ya?" photo to his cell. Then I discovered he'd left a gift certificate for me at the register, with the invitation to have a Gibb's Hundred on him. Dammit! People that nice take all the fun out of being mean. 

We headed to the Gibb's Hundred tap room and Yes, Terry, the Pale Ale was amazing. 

After doubling back to Scuppernong the next day for lunch and to buy Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station--which I started reading while gnawing on my salmon "bacon" BLT, with squash salad and pickled green tomatoes--I headed Pittsboro. My soundtrack for the drive was Jake's new album ("Jake Xerxes Fussell"), traditionals, and I think PopMatters got it right: "Even with all the history built into these songs and this record, Fussell still emerges as a fresh and vital new voice, as a singer, a musician and a torch bearer for every true sound he’s come across to now." 

I wasn't sure what to expect in Fearrington Village. I found cows. 

Specifically, Belted Galloway cows. Goats. A donkey. And McIntyre's Books. 

When you have three readings with big crowds, three days in a row, it is the will of the gods that you will have all of three people at the fourth reading. 

But what people! A student from the University of Tampa's low-residency MFA program drove into town from his temporary home of Chatham, Virginia. The other two were strangers to me, a young couple visiting Fearrington Village from Norfolk in celebration of their anniversary. I gave an abbreviated reading and then we talked, eventually winding around to a potent coincidence: the woman had studied poetry at Mary Washington with Claudia Emerson. Claudia, whom Gordon, my UT student, is writing a 25-page essay about. Claudia, who I'd already been thinking about since Richmond, the very first one to lay eyes on what became this collection's title poem. 

Thanks to the generosity of the crowd, I somehow sold four books, meaning one more book than audience members. I call that a successful reading. 

I lingered on my way out. I had a long drive home to DC ahead, with a stop off in Richmond to sign Emilia's copy of Count the Waves and to pick up take-out ribs from Fat Dragon.  This will probably be the closest I get to a vacation this summer. It didn't help my tan one bit. But it helped my heart. 

June 04, 2015

A Book Is Born

…and a kitty has landed.

On Sunday, we brought home Whisky (a name her foster parents wisely adapted from the original name, "Whizzer"). This sweet Tortie was brought to a shelter after her owner for the first eight years of her life passed away. Whisky is a Hemingway cat, polydactyl on all four paws, meaning I'm going to have to figure out how to clip 22 claws every six weeks. She's worth it. 

On Monday, Count the Waves was officially released into the world. 

When I first drafted "The Wake" at Virginia Center for Creative Arts back in 2005, inspired by the Venetian prints of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, it felt like The Little Poem That Could. John Poch awarded it the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize from Passages North, which was a breakthrough for me. The $1K prize came at a critical time, and helped me convince my family that writing could be a career as well as a creative outlet. Yet I knew the poem didn't fit in with the searing biographical material of Theories of Falling or the funny, freewheeling poems that would become I Was the Jukebox. I resisted shoehorning it into either book, and told myself, "the right manuscript will come along to hold this." 

It would take a decade of life experiences--some thrilling, some fraught--several heartbreaks, and thousands of miles of travel in order to create that manuscript. 

It wasn't until 2013, when I was living for a semester on the campus at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, and began working on another multi-part poem, "The Circus," this one based in artwork by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, that "The Wake" found its counterweight. Then a series inspired by The Traveler's Vade Mecum won the 2013 Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, thanks to Harryette Mullen and Sharon Dolin. Shuffling and re-shuffling the pages, I began to understand how these disparate elements were strangely necessary to one another. 

The "waves" of the title--a mishearing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways"--refers to the Adriatic Sea coursing under the Ponte di Rialto, to the generations of women writers and feminists that have come before me, to the oceans we put between us, to the currents off the shore of Kauai, to the iterative energy of a sestina's endwords. Thanks in particular to my patient preliminary readers Maureen Thorson, Kyle Dargan, Hailey Leithauser, and John Casteen. They watched me wrestle with how to, as one poet put it, "braid a series of series." 

Count the Waves ultimately embraces its pairings, such as "The Wake" and "The Circus," but isn't afraid to displace them slightly, which is why "Fidelity (II)" comes before "Fidelity (I)." If there's one thematic through-line, it is the journeys we take toward pairing with each other. And how we dis-place ourselves along the way. 

If you like my work, if you believe in my voice, please support this book. Here's how:

  • Buy it from your local independent bookstore OR from one that ships across the country, like Elliott Bay Book Company
  • Catch me at one of the launch readings at Politics & Prose in DC (Sunday, June 5, with Kyle Dargan), or at BookCourt in Brooklyn (Friday, June 12, with Rosie Schaap), or at one of the later events listed on my revamped website, SandraBeasley.com
  • Don't see anything near you? Invite me to come to your town. If it's within six hours of driving distance and there's a couch to crash on, I'm in.
  • Ask a library to order the book. WorldCat tells me that this title is only on the shelves at four libraries--whereas I Was the Jukebox is on the shelves at 201 libraries, and Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is on the shelves at 560. 
  • Assign poems from the book to your students! I'm happy to answer questions about process over email, or Skype with your class.
  • If you're reading Count the Waves, let people know. Want a review copy? Just ask. I'm available for interviews for online, print, or radio. 
Publishing a poetry collection is not unlike giving your heart to a cat. You buy the healthiest food, the softest bed, the trendy water bowl with circulator. Everyone offers all kinds of advice. You put forward your affection, and you wait. Sometimes you're rewarded with attention, purring even. Other times you get a diffident stare.  You sigh, because you're learning that there is only so much you can control in this life. Tomorrow is another day. 

If there were magical literary catnip that I could sprinkle over these pages, I would. But all I can do is trust the poems--and you. I hope you enjoy Count the Waves.

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.