Monday, April 20, 2009

On the Lookout for Falling Pianos: An Interview with Sandra Beasley

Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Joy Harjo and forthcoming from W. W. Norton. Her first poetry collection, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize judged by Marie Howe. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she writes for the Washington Post Magazine and is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, forthcoming from Crown. She blogs at

First, congratulations on winning the Barnard Women Poets Prize. I Was the Jukebox will be your second book of poetry (following Theories of Falling). Can you tell us what it’s like to win this prize and to publish with W.W. Norton?

Who gets this kind of luck? I am on the lookout for falling pianos. I don’t know much yet about publishing with W. W. Norton, but there is much more machinery for design, marketing, and publicity than with smaller presses. My contract is three times as long as the last one. When I first got the news I sifted through my poetry library and plucked out every Norton title I owned. I stroked the hardcovers. I surveyed author photos. I scrutinized the inside jacket box where the layout people tuck one more blurb. The roll call of Norton Poets: Rita Dove, Marie Howe, Kim Addonizio, Stephen Dunn, Stanley Kunitz, e.e. cummings—is staggering. I’m honored and flustered.

You’re definitely on a roll lately. In addition to the Barnard Prize, you’ve recently sold a book of nonfiction (Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl) to Crown. Readers might like to know: What are the challenges you face in writing your manuscript now that you’re on deadline?

Like many writers, I work well under pressure, but that has always been on projects where short and frantic bursts of drafting could sustain the task at hand: the poem, the 750-word column. I’m now looking at a 60,000-word project that needs to have a consistent emotional tone throughout, and strike a balance between memoir and a cultural history of food allergy. It’s a bit daunting. On the other hand, I now have days when I can sit down in front of the laptop and think Today it is my job to write, and my mind doesn’t question that as a priority. Book advances are just a way to ensure that the writer gives herself permission to do what, really, she wanted to do anyway: get lost in the flow of drafting. Ideally while still in my pajamas.

How has your experience editing literary journals shaped your writing?

On a micro level, working at the small office of the American Scholar cultivated my eyes for line edits. There’s no point of rushing past sloppy writing because sooner or later—before I can sign off on each issue’s blueline—it has to be fixed. It’s not enough to flag a rough spot with “this isn’t quite right”; you have to be prepared to suggest a specific correction. This all adds up to being a fierce reviser, and making those revisions as I go along, which saves me a lot of time.

On a macro level, serving as the editor of Folio (the literary journal of American University) cultivated my understanding of trends and clichés. When you’re reading two hundred poems in one sitting and eight of them use flowers as a metaphor for cancer, the bane of cliché takes on a more tangible quality. I became less likely to indulge in familiar language because not only did I suspect it was being said elsewhere, I knew it for a fact. The evidence was in our slush pile. But I also saw a lot of wonderful things come across the transom—fresh work using styles I’d only been barely aware of, stars on the rise. I’m proud to look back and see some of the people I published before they were “known.”

Along a similar line, how would you say writing workshops have helped you develop as a poet, editor, and teacher?

Here’s my basic take on workshops: what you’re cultivating is not really the individual pieces—a piece can be workshopped to competence, but never to brilliance—or even your ability to critique the work of others. What you’re developing is the ability to critique yourself. 85% of workshop comments I hear are not about the draft on the table, but about the speaker’s larger craft concerns or his hopes or frustrations with his own work. And that’s okay—once you’re outside the constant feedback loop of an MFA environment, the ability to revise is more critical than the ability to critique.

During the workshop itself, it’s important to remain in good spirits, indulge in bagels, and always feel free to crack a joke—especially one that breaks the tension. My favorite workshop bonds, and I have some very important ones, are all with the people who were able to do that. At the end of the day we’re all in the same mucky trenches.

Many young writers—of all genres—sometimes make mistakes when submitting to journals or book contests. In your experience, and as a prelude to your upcoming one-day workshop on book contests, what would you say are common errors young or inexperienced writers absolutely must avoid when submitting their work?

Don’t summarize the work or instruct me as to why I should admire it. Better to use a generic “Dear Editors” than to make a personal address to an editor who no longer works there. Don’t cop attitude—cute, sarcastic, sycophantic—in the cover letter. It’s not that we don’t want to see your personality; we do! But that’s what the manuscript is for. This is all welcome-mat advice, getting your foot in the door. But once a full-length manuscript is in an editor’s hands, strong individual poems are not enough. There are higher-level questions to be asked. For some insight on those…come to the workshop.

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