by Shana Thornton
Sandra Beasley shakes loose of the obvious roles, in favor of poetic, dramatic monologues. She’s fast on the road, literally driving around the country at writer’s residencies and reading events. Her latest collection I Was the Jukebox (W.W. Norton & Co, 2010) won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, judged by Joy Harjo. In these poems, Beasley courageously embodies animals, ideals and an inanimate object or two.
Over the summer, Beasley was a writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi. One afternoon in July, she drove up the Music Highway to Nashville for a poetry reading, where I was lucky enough to hear her recite some of her poems live. Before the reading began, Beasley sat folded over her papers, away from listeners. She tucked her brown hair behind her ear, sneaking glances at passersby as she decided which poems to read. Certainly, she wasn’t the same poet who wrote the poem “I Don’t Fear Death” that I had listened to on YouTube. She looked quiet and much too nice to speak as an angry platypus who, in a sestina from the collection, doesn’t understand why the adjective “duck-billed” is required and declares, “A beast should be/her own best description. I deserve that”.
Then, standing behind a small podium, Beasley’s voice arrived and her presence took shape. Her full, but hungry poems called in patrons wandering around the magazines and note cards; it tugged at those placing orders at the coffee bar of the bookstore. From “The Sand Speaks”, she read,
“I’m fluid and omnivorous, the casual
kiss. I’ll knock up your oysters.
I’ll eat your diamonds. I’m a mutt, no
one thing at all, just the size that counts”
Visitors escaped the summer heat outdoors as Beasley lured in not only the easy, word-starved shopper, but also the word-greedy book browser lurking in the back corner of a favorite section. Using the voice of the sand, she invited them, “and if you’re animal small enough, come;/if you’re vegetable small enough, come;/if you’re mineral small enough, come.” With poetic soliloquies, she bribed them into the few empty chairs that remained in that small setting.
Among other themes, I Was the Jukebox emphasizes identity and pushes war into a vocalization. During the reading, Beasley told us that her father had been a General, stationed in Iraq during Desert Storm, and that she had been fascinated by the soldiers who mailed small bags of desert sand back home to their families. In a commentary about the reproduction of war, she writes in “Cast of Thousands”,
When they make a movie of this war
I am minute ninety-seven, soot tears
applied with a Q-tip, the one whose roof
collapses on her head before
her pie is done. Look how I look at you—
the apple and the apple’s knife still rolled
into my skirt, eyes wide as gin. The blast,
then ash. The director cried Cut!
More ash, he said, and they bombed me again.
Beasley does not forget the domestic, the families who are not the bi-products of war, but the war itself. The direct elucidation of that is heard in the poem, “The World War Speaks” when the war recalls its childhood:
“Every morning my mother boiled
a huge vat of mustard greens,
steam drifting over to my crib and
after a few hours, souring into gas.
I breathed it all in….”
Corresponding via email after the reading, I asked Beasley if war had been an intentional subject, or one that she discovered drifting to the surface. I also wanted to know what provoked her desire to speak on its behalf.
She wrote in answer, “I come from a tradition of government service, including my father’s retiring rank as a Brigadier General in the Army. My family has always lived in proximity to the Pentagon, which makes it natural to be attuned to issues of national identity, and disagreements over what it means to be patriotic in certain eras and conflicts. So often, to write poetry about wartime is automatically conflated with writing ‘anti-war’ poetry. I wanted to put aside that value judgment, and focus on the nuances and traumas of militarized culture.”
Beasley’s collection defies categories and pushes beyond the limitations and definitions of self.
“My first book, Theories of Falling, sheared close to the bone of my life,” Beasley writes. “After that collection, I wanted to push away from the biographical focus. I didn’t want to be one of those poets who wrote through the same concerns over and over.
“There’s a strong history of dramatis personae in poetry—from Chaucer to Robert Browning to Ai—and occupying the voices of inanimate objects or mythological figures gave me a fresh entry point into this tradition. There was something funny and intriguing and delightfully maddening about occupying voices that were not only not my own, but that were not even human. The project was like a briar patch: the more I tried to shake loose, the deeper my subjects bit into me.”
I asked Beasley if performance was a necessity to her poetry. I wondered if she felt complete after writing a poem, or if reciting it, for a live audience or in a poem-video, actually breathed life into the work.
“Readings are a critical part of my investment in poetry,” Beasley writes. “When I was young and envisioned being a writer, it was all about the solitude of a room of my own. But the reality often has me on the road, and I welcome those opportunities to connect with crowds and bring the work alive. Sometimes, in order to make something clearer off the page, I’ll have to edit on the fly. That can be tricky—re-establishing pronouns for clarity, using body language to signal a shift in speakers—and I fear the craft of my line breaks sometimes gets lost in the process. But when a poem hits home with an audience, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Beasley is not only trying on different forms and personas, but also experimenting with new forms of virtual media. Like so many women creating art on the virtual page, Beasley is doing it on her own, adapting, and learning new technologies and skills.
“The poem-videos were a welcome distraction from counting down the months until I Was the Jukebox was published, long after the text was out of my hands,” Beasley writes. “I chose the images from online stock resources, hunted down royalty-free music clips, and recorded and pieced everything together in my dining room. I’d love to have the money to hire a true artistic collaborator—Billy Collins set the gold standard for that with the work he has done with JWT-NY, which has recruited artists to make video animations for ‘Forgetfulness,’ ‘The Dead,’ ‘The Country,’ and many other poems. Someday!”
Beasley also points out that “poem-videos” are a “much more controlled environment.” She writes, “No worries that the reader before you is going to put everyone to sleep, or that (the) audience is going to be drunk and rowdy. What I do worry about is the opinion of my neighbors as I repeat the same lines of poetry over and over and over, struggling for the right take. They must think I’m nuts.”
Certainly, no one in the Nashville audience wanted to fall asleep or become rowdy. We laughed often. We sighed in unison. We were intensely focused on hearing the sharp, actuated voices in Beasley’s poems. After an hour, we could have easily listened to another reading of “Another Failed Poem about Starlings” or the Greeks. We would have brought food and created a picnic if Beasley could have stayed on to read into the night, but she needed to start driving again in order to reach her next destination.
I Was the Jukebox, published by W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., is available now.
Buy the book Amazon
Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Other honors include inclusion in the 2010 Best American Poetry, the University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, forthcoming from Crown.
Photo of Sandra Beasley by Matthew Worden.
Shana Thornton serves as Managing Editor for Her Circle Ezine’s Books and Literature section. In addition, she writes interviews, features and fiction. She also teaches composition and literature courses, chases her husband and daughter, and runs trails with her dog Mojo.