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. 

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.