The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Sandra Beasley about her new book Count the Waves, sestinas, Goober Rigs, and how actions can serve as signposts in the time stream.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So first question: is the sestina your favorite form or your most favoritest form of all time forever?
Sandra Beasley: Sestinas! If my cat weren’t named Whisky, it would be named Sestina. It is the ONLY received form that I love with such intensity that it makes me understand poets who chose to work in form for all their lives. I find it liberating.
Brian S: I ask because I know there are a bunch of them in your first collection as well. Do you start out thinking “I’m going to write a sestina” or just check in after 6 lines and see if you can make one work with what you have already?
Mark Folse: ”Without structure there is no mystery” says the Turned Down Corner and underline.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: I remember having my entire class of intro to poetry students write a collective sestina. It was a bit of an adventure.
Sandra Beasley: I Was the Jukebox has three. Little known fact: when the manuscript was chosen for the Barnard Prize, that version had none. When they contacted me to take the book, I was working with a version that had six… maybe seven. So I had to strike a balance between the two visions. I wasn’t sure Joy Harjo, the judge, even liked sestinas. Would have felt like bait-and-switch to leave them all in.
I commit to the form at the outset, usually because I’ve fallen in love with the lexical and linguistic potential of a few end words.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: So you pick out the six and work from there?
Mark Folse: Or does a stanza come and the rest comes from that?
Sandra Beasley: I actually used to use my longer drives for sestina-ing—I have Mapquest pages with end words scribbled in the margins. I would pick six and play out how the last two stanzas would look, first. If they don’t work, you have to redo the whole thing. You don’t have to know precisely what the poem is going to say, but you have to know it is landing well.
So I’d say I typically draft the first two stanzas of a sestina, in terms of particular exciting wordplay—then the last two, in terms of ideas only—and then I play with what comes in the middle.
Mark Folse: Your poems generally land like cats. You clearly give a lot of care to the end lines.
Sandra Beasley: Mark, I take that compliment about endings to heart. At the graduating ceremonies for the MFA program in Tampa where I teach, a student quoted me talking about poems in terms of gymnastics: you gotta stick your landing. I see so many poems end in pretty, but weak observation. The poem has to go somewhere; otherwise, it is just decoration on an already bright world.
Brian S: I’ve never tried that before. Miller Williams‘s sestina “Love in the Cathedral” has end words that, in the sixth stanza read “come here let me love you,” which, once you notice it, gives the poem an extra air of creepiness given the voice of the speaker.
Sandra Beasley: Molly, I think writing a collective sestina can work quite well! Not that different from Exquisite Corpse, really.
Brian S: Does that mode carry over into your non-sestina poems? Do the middle parts last?
Molly Sutton Kiefer: It wasn’t—we did it slightly exquisite corpse style. We picked out the six words in a shout-a-thon method, and then they had to pass the papers around so they didn’t have one sestina to work on.
Brian S: Might use that in a class this fall, Molly. That sounds like a fun exercise.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: Something about taking the pressure off that makes form liberating.
Sandra Beasley: Brian, it’s funny you mention Miller Williams—I think he was an extremely strategic sestina master. most obviously in the “Shrinking Lonesome Sestina.” And totally unafraid to be creepy! He was a kindred spirit to my mentor, Henry Taylor… Who wrote an amazing poem about skinning cats, both literarily and figuratively.
Brian S: Miller is the reason I got my MFA at Arkansas.
Sandra Beasley: Aw. I love finding out who people studied with—you can never anticipate the routes of influence.
Dana: Can you speak a little on the inspiration you got from The Traveler’s Vade Mecum? I noticed in the acknowledgements that it was sparked by an anthology solicitation, but would love to hear what inspired you to run with it.
Sandra Beasley: Dana, welcome! The anthology will come out with Red Hen Press in 2016, as it turns out—I didn’t know that at the time the text was finalized, but I will be very excited to see what other poets wrote.
Brian S: Just what I was going to ask Dana! (I love it when y’all beat me to my questions.)
Sandra Beasley: But to get specific to my inspiration… I was in a period of life where I was more often traveling than home, and really struggling with how that re-coded my relationships, even ones that had previously been very steady.
Dana: I need to put that on my TBR…
Molly Sutton Kiefer: Oh, I love Red Hen Press!
Sandra Beasley: Yes, I love the idea that there are all these poets out there in conversation—I hear that Frank Bidart has already included one in a book. The TVM titles gave me a space to explore the truths I was experiencing, but didn’t want to frame as confessional poems. I also loved that they connected me with the era of the 1850s—that technology, those tensions. In some cases, such as “Flour is Firm,” my efforts to better understand the TVM lines required both research (thinking in terms of stock commodities) and invention (speaking in terms of hardtack).
Brian S: So was the anthology centered around the TVM?
Sandra Beasley: Brian—Yes, the anthology solicitation was just for one poem; me alongside sixty-some other poets. The full TVM text is available online, so one is free to browse it. Then I wrote one more… and suggested to the editor, Helen Klein Ross, that it might work as a preface poem. And then I just kept going! By the time I got to a dozen, I knew it needed to be part of a book of my own.
Brian S: Okay. I saw something similar happen with a prompt called “For the City That Nearly Broke Me.” Barbara Jane Reyes turned that into a chapbook, I believe. And Reginald Dwayne Betts has some coming out in his next book this fall.
Mark Folse: I don’t generally care for list poems (although these are better than most) but will skip to “The King and the Emperors Valentine,” where an embedded list (ok, in the King the extended metaphor of the monkeys) suddenly explodes on the page. The monkeys who “refuse to butler”, the King in the land of the blind who, among other things, “deciphers elephants.” These are like Pop Rocks for the brain. What do you think makes a good list poem really work? How do you approach them?
Sandra Beasley: Mark, I completely understand your hesitation about list poems. Which is why when I write one, it is never because I set out to write one! Sometimes, the premise is so strange that the only way to fill it in is with vivid particulars. I think that happens with the Valentines.
Jenelle D’Alessandro: Hello from Los Angeles, Sandra! (Land of Red Hen Press—good people, they are.) I’m anxious to hear your answer to Mark’s question. I’m slightly infatuated with list poems—and you knock them out of the park.
Sandra Beasley: Hi Jenelle, thanks for joining us. I’m curious, who do you think does list poems really well? I think Erin Belieu has some great ones in Slant Six. And, of course, Dean Young takes the crown.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: I don’t know if this quite counts as a list poem, but I’ve always loved the delivery and form.
Sandra Beasley: Oooh, and my all time favorite list poem is “Creed” by Meg Kearney.
Molly, I think that is a great poem, and king of a list poem—but kind of a lyric essay, as well. Reminds me of Mary Ruefle’s piece for the Poetry Foundation a few years back. And also an amazing piece by Priscilla Long called “Genome Tome,” which uses numbered sections but falls squarely into the category of prose. We published it while I was at The American Scholar.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: Yup. That kind of writing gets me weak in the knees.
Jenelle D’Alessandro: I think I’m drawn to the way some of the newer translations of epics (like The Iliad) accidentally bring out the same tension-bearing quality of list poems. I know that says more about the artful work of the translator, but still. Some of Pound’s Cantos feel similar.
Brian S: You mentioned your efforts to better understand the TVM lines. Did you spend much time reasearching in order to make those poems? And if so, did it affect your writing style at all?
Sandra Beasley: Brian, what I didn’t do was research much into A. C. Baldwin, his life, or the book’s publication history. I thought of it as much as a conceptual object as a historical one. What I mainly researched was the nuance of individual words, in the context of the time. For example: did “Pacific” most likely refer to a time zone, or pacifist tendencies?
Jenelle D’Alessandro: Sandra, how long did you work on TVM as a conceptual framework? Are you still writing them? (I hope so.)
Mark Folse: On another subject, I want to ask about “The Wake”—if there is a painting or sketch “The Wake” the Googles fails us. But I love the way you take what starts out soundling like an ekphrastic poem about a sketch and turn it into a sketch of the artist. Can you talk about about how that poem came about?
(Speaking of epics, an epic confession: I gave my club copy of The Inferno to Mary de Rachewitz on her birthday during my month’s descent down the steep Via Ezra Pound last summer)
Sandra Beasley: Jenelle, what a beautiful point: translation has to do not only with the individual word choices, but the distribution and pacing of language over lines, e.g. Robert Pinsky’s decision to translate The Inferno observing the terza rima, but in different proportions to the original. I wrote an essay for the Academy of American Poets a couple of years back, called “Kilroy Was Here,” in which I explored how usage of the epic simile was a way that classical poets could make their mark on a familiar story. Lists accomplish that same thing. And as for your follow-up question, about writing more TVM poems… for now, no, just because I don’t want to be haunted by the thought, “This should have been in Count the Waves!” But wouldn’t it be fun to return to a decade from now?
Jenelle D’Alessandro: Mark—that sounds extremely epic! Wow.
Sandra Beasley: And Jenelle, about timing: I think I was writing TVM poems for about two years. Maybe two and a half. The very fin alt two I wrote both ended up being formatted as prose poems, but one is at the very beginning—”Nothing But Cash Will Answer”—and one is at the very end, “I Have Decided”.
Fin alt = final two… what a poetic mangling!
Jenelle D’Alessandro: Yes! Pinsky’s Inferno is a great example. I need to return to that. AND I am looking forward to trying to find your essay. Thanks so much!
Sandra Beasley: Mark, I am SO glad you asked about “The Wake.” That is the very oldest poem in the book; I wrote the first draft of it in 2005, I think. And it was inspired by a show at the Sackler / Freer galleries in DC, and in fact a specific set of images that includes one of Whistler’s wife. You can find them in a book called Whistler and His Circle in Venice, edited by Eric Denker.
Jenelle D’Alessandro: Fin alt sounds like a flarfy slip.
Sandra Beasley: The first time I was ever published in Poetry it was part of a summer issues that featured a portfolio of Flarf. I always wondered if “Let Me Count the Waves,” which was taken (alongside “The Piano Speaks” and “Unit of Measure”) felt like a bridge between my work and theirs.
Mark Folse: I’ll put that on my Venice Reading List before I go back. We got a side trip as a reward for a month’s marginal transcriptions of Terrell between classes.
Brian S: If you can remember, what was the spark that ignited “American Caution”? I love thinking about things that way—actions as signposts in the time stream, and the bit about how if you purchase a Celestial Registration Kit for someone just jumped out at me, in part because I also thought “that star could already be dead and we don’t know it yet” and what kind of a shitty gift would that turn out to be.
Is that a trip to Venice, Louisiana, Mark? 🙂
Sandra Beasley: Oh, I know exactly what inspired “American Caution” (a somewhat rare occurrence): I pitched a short piece to the New York Times Magazine about the weirdness of cautionary street signs. There are often very precise guidelines for how they go up, none for how they come down.
Brian S: I wonder if there’s a mechanism to check on whether they’re still needed before they’re replaced (if say one is knocked down or something).
Jenelle D’Alessandro: I’d love to know more about that opening piece in TVM / Line #907 / “The Exhibition Was Very Beautiful.”
Sandra Beasley: Maybe. Maybe not. Beyond that, the poem dips into the well of real life material: I have seen that “Turn lights on in clouds” sign while driving up a volcano in Maui. I once gave a friend a star via a Celestial Registration Kit. And I won three goldfish with the toss of a ping-pong ball while at the Millay Colony in upstate New York, writing the poems that ultimately became my first collection (Theories of Falling). I wouldn’t say it is a biographical poem, but I dip into the well.
Mark Folse: People have started putting up impromptu Dip signs in honor of our legendary potholes.
Jenelle D’Alessandro: Do you happen to remember what issue of Poetry that was? I’m into flarf artifact-als.
Sandra Beasley: Jenelle, it would have been around July 2009. There are some really fun Flarf poems in the portfolio! One of my friends here in DC is Mel Nichols, who also appear in the issue (we used to live in the same building); a local bookstore, Bridge Street Books, serves as a hub for people interested in that mode of writing poems.
Mark Folse: The image of the moon descending on the goldfish takes me back, briefly, to The Well: did he really omit his wife’s face from the piece? (Flashback to Gaudi’s erie, faceless Veronica on the Sagrada Familia. Sorry. Just ADHDing around in my head).
Jenelle D’Alessandro: Found it!
Sandra Beasley: As for “The Exhibition Was Very Beautiful”… I think I flagged that line, early on, as one I wanted to play with. When I was looking to get started on a new poem, I would browse through the full, original TVM as a source of inspiration. I am the daughter of a visual artist, and I’m married to a painter I met at VCCA. In another world, what I wanted to do for a living was to write the copy for museum exhibitions and catalogues. So I think my attraction to the phrase was very organic, prior to where I took it by personifying the exhibition as a “her.”
Hailey Leithauser, a wonderful poet (author of Swoop) deserves credit for telling me it would make a great opening TVM poem in a book-length collection. I was very unsure how to integrate those alongside non-TVM poems.
Brian S: Do you play ukulele?
Sandra Beasley: Brian, I am embarrassed to admit I do NOT play the ukulele. But I fully expect to answer that question. This is kind of like when I was reading from I Was the Jukebox, and if I got to the poem “Vocation,” people would subsequently ask if I really spoke Tlingit. Twice, I had people approach who were super excited to be finally meeting another person who spoke Tlingit…
Brian S: Ha! That’ll teach you. Or maybe not. 🙂 My fingers are too fat for it. I have to stick with guitar.
Sandra Beasley: I did hear a beautiful cigar box/ukulele-based performance in Oxford, Mississippi, in the months before I wrote this poem. And the bluesman of line three may or may not hail from Mississippi as well.
Mark Folse: Reader can’t help but inject the poet into the poem. Reading “The Exhibition” I thought: book tour, the artist on exhibition…
Brian S: A bluesman from Mississippi? Will wonders never cease? 🙂
Mark Folse: Hush, Brian or we’re going to buy you a one way ticket to Venice. Louisiana.
Brian S: I’ve been there, along with a side trip to Empire, in my Jehovah’s Witness youth. It was not a high point in my adolescence.
What are you working on these days, writing-wise, Sandra?
Sandra Beasley: Current writing projects: I am writing some food poems (!) on strange topics like oyster counters and Goober Rigs, for a fabulous journal put out by the Southern Foodways Alliance, called Gravy. I am their poet-in-residence for the 2015 conference, which is particularly delightful for someone who wrote a whole memoir about food allergies. And I am working on some essays that balance memoir and craft elements, following in the tradition (I hope, I aspire) of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: Sounds delicious, Sandra.
Brian S: There’s a journal named Gravy? I have to find this thing.
Dana: *Googles Goober Rig*
Mark Folse: Ah, does that mean you’ll be back in NOLA for a bit?
And what, in God’s name, is a Goober Rig?
Sandra Beasley: Brian, I will send you a Gravy! Dana, Goober Rigs are peanuts stuffed into the mouth of a coca-cola bottle. Slightly soppy. Amazing.
Mark Folse: I think that would be better with an RC Cola, sort of like Moon Pies.
Sandra Beasley: Mark, that response tells me you would appreciate a Goober Rig. You’re probably right. In my poem, I theorize that the shape name (“rig”) goes back to the idea of oil wells.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: I google image searched it and you get plenty of regular rigs before you get what looks like ice in a soda neck.
Sandra Beasley: If y’all can’t tell, I love poems that have a slightly research-based element of weirdness. On a syntax level, I value clarity above all. But I truly appreciate that one cultural reference that makes you go, “Huh?” and look it up.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: YES.
Mark Folse: I am chauvinistically not Southern but Orleanian. But then my ‘Bama girl has taught me to love biscuits and gravy, so stranger things have happened.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: (I, too, like it. And I like weaving in the new and old.)
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Anyone/thing we should be on the lookout for?
Sandra Beasley: So many! I just judged a contest for AWP where I discovered the work of Emily Yoon.
Molly Sutton Kiefer: Yes! We published her in our first issue of Tinderbox Poetry Journal! She’s fantastic! (Or second issue, maybe.)
Brian S: We published Danez this past April. Yes, he’s blowing up all over the place.
Dana: Thank you, Sandra!
Molly Sutton Kiefer: And this one is in Best of the Net too.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight Sandra! And thanks for writing such an interesting book.
Mark Folse: Yes, a true pleasure. Hope the residency with Gravy brings you this way.
Jenelle D’Alessandro: Yes, thank you for spending some time with us, Sandra! Please write that friend/companion to Bird by Bird soon.
Sandra Beasley: Thank you! I am thrilled to bring Count the Waves out into the world.