Sandra Beasley is the author of four poetry collections—Made to Explode, Count the Waves, I Was the Jukebox, and Theories of Falling—as well as Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a disability memoir and cultural history of food allergies. She lives in Washington, D.C. Learn more at SandraBeasley.com.
Get to know Sandra in this Q&A and then join us on Thursday, April 22 at 12 PM ET as part of our Shelf Life series of virtual events to hear her discuss her work in SHELF LIFE—Worlds within Words: A Poetry Reading.
Festival: What motivated you to become a poet?
Beasley: Poetry became my “escape” very early on, though I’d later consider going into science or law. In Fairfax County’s elementary schools I was given the opportunity to join a poetry workshop that met regularly, which got me out of class. Who would say no to that? I credit Rose MacMurray every chance I get for modeling what it meant to be a poet, by taking great joy in the art and giving her young students imaginative, sophisticated exercises that emphasized soundplay and imagery. I used my Scholastic Book Fair money to buy an edition of Piping Down the Valleys Wild, an anthology edited by Nancy Larrick.
Who or what are some of your creative influences?
My mentors at the University of Virginia (where I was an undergraduate, class of 2002) remain foundational for me—including Rita Dove, Gregory Orr, and Lisa Russ Spaar, who germinated what became the Area Program in Poetry Writing—and I continue to be challenged and inspired by the work being done by poets I workshopped with during that time, including Kyle Dargan, Kiki Petrosino, and Maureen Thorson. Maureen actually came up with the title of Made to Explode (or, to be precise, plucked the phrase from the manuscript’s pages).
What was your favorite part about writing your latest poetry collection?
I’m thrilled whenever my writing prompts me to learn something about the world around us. Drafting these poems introduced me to the origin story of Ore-Ida tater tots; Albert Einstein’s invention of a new type of refrigerator; the mythology of the Roman god Dīs Pater; and that time astronaut John Young snuck a corned beef sandwich from Wolfie’s deli onto a Gemini mission.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?
This will seem counter-intuitive because it is not “butt in chair” time, but nothing’s better for my writing than a long road trip by myself. Something about being behind the wheel for a few hundred miles of driving unlocks my ability to get perspective on a project. If I’m working on a sestina, that might mean figuring out my endwords; if I’m working on an essay, that might mean reconceptualizing the sequence of scenes. When I’m staying local to our home in southwest D.C., my meditative space takes the form of a two-hour ramble along Hains Point, making a big pot of soup from scratch, or heading a few blocks north to the National Gallery of Art.
What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers?
With poetry, any “takeaway” is always variable and variegated. If someone reads this collection and what resonates for them most is an ode to pinto beans or my grandmother’s gift of a card table, I am grateful for that. But this collection also draws on my personal reckonings with growing up in Virginia, living in D.C., and constructions of whiteness. If a reader has their own reckonings due along those lines, I hope that this book invites them into that process.
What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?
Although I had been appreciating Victoria Chang’s individual “Obit” poems for several years prior, as they appeared one by one in magazines, I was still deeply surprised and moved by their cumulative force in Obit as a collection. Two absolutely superb essay collections that I read over the winter holiday are Jennine Capó Crucet’s My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education, and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. The very last book I finished was Teri Ellen Cross Davis’s terrific A More Perfect Union, where one can find the Prince poems they didn’t know they needed.