Form, Desire, Closure & the "Love Poem" with Sandra Beasley
Sarah Marcus: In the poem, "The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #7671: 'It Is No Secret Here,'" from your third collection of poetry, Count the Waves, you write: "You want to kiss my mouth, but not / the teeth inside my mouth. You want / to hold my hand, but not the blood / within that hand." I love this poem, and I'm so interested in the connection between rejection and desire within this book. How does the idea of acceptance or lack thereof play into your writing? This collection also seems to contemplate what is human. What is the role of "the body" in these poems?
Sandra Beasley: To begin, thank you for saying you enjoy the poem—that means a lot to me.
The body is an access point for sublime pleasure; our instinct is to measure beauty by it. But what a ridiculous vehicle to get around in! Sure, we kiss, and taste, and dance. But we also cough, and reek, and grow hair in unexpected places. We work, we sweat, we drop things. We drink and smoke. We run perpetually late. The collection has a kind of arch posture—because I am interested in elaborate received forms such as the sestina, and in the conceit of the Traveler’s Vade Mecum—but coursing under the skin of that poise is the riot of humanity. These are orderly poems about disorderly impulses.
A notion I've held dear in heart-aching moments of my twenties and thirties has been “Every romance has to end, en route to the one that is meant to keep going.” There’s nothing wrong with relishing a sorrow; the danger is wallowing in it. Rejection and desire are intertwined values. As verbs, what they have in common is that they both have dual engines. One is rational logic—you decide to pull away, or you decide to come closer. The other is immutable chemistry—we pull away or come close for reasons we cannot articulate. A mature relationship, and I consider this book’s concern to be mature love, contains both temperaments.
SM: Do you have any advice or encouragement for poets who wish to write in form? I know that you've spoken about the false dichotomy in contemporary poetry of poems being labeled as strictly formal or free verse. In your experience, what is the benefit of a more formal approach to the page? Is that even a helpful concept?
SB: At the most elementary level, we use formal cues to signify beginning and endings. So there is no such thing as a form-less poem, unless you’re talking about some strange word-splooge that defies even the bounds of a page. All poems engage elements of form; the only question is whether one actively channels their language into a received, a contemporary, or a nonce form. I’m an advocate for experimenting with form on basic principle, with analogies to playing sports or music, because the practice builds muscles that benefit craft. I don’t have any particular attachment to classical end-rhyme and meter, but I certainly believe in the value of sound-play and rhythm. The key is to not be afraid to fail. Failure is useful. Failures seed the ground for success. To quote James Cummings, “Maybe a hundred sestinas must die, so that one may live.”
SM: I am particularly drawn to the closure in your poems. How do you know when your poem "ends"? Does a poem end?
SB: About a week ago, I had a late-evening conversation with a few colleagues at the University of Tampa, where I teach in their low-residency MFA program. Over beers and whiskey, we talked about the mega-poem: James Merrill’s "The Changing Light at Sandover,” or Anne Carsons’ “Nox.” With such works, one can argue that the poem merely approximates an idea or emotional process, with a somewhat arbitrary beginning and endpoint. Later work by Gregory Orr, Li-Young Lee, and Matthew Zapruder all share that interest in text as a temporal sampling of the larger consciousness.
But our discussion also turned to the poem-as-sculpture, with Anthony Hecht offered up as an example. I’d add to that list Kay Ryan, Wisława Szymborska, Rita Dove, Martin Espada, Zachary Schomburg, and other favorites. There is an elegance to the individual poem as a shaped and finite thing, and I strive for that in my own work.
Or to put it simply, as I say to students: a poem puts you on the balance beam. You gotta stick your landing.
SM: In an interview you did for "Largehearted Boy" you wrote, "At readings, I introduce Count the Waves as unabashedly full of love poems. Not to seduce, but to record: 'Here's who I am, and here's how I got here. Can you love me on those terms?'" Can you tell us about the act of writing love poems and recording love. It could be argued that "love poems" written by women have been largely dismissed as a solely female experience and their merit generally brushed aside by the literary community. Why do you think that is, and what can we do to liberate the love poem from the pejorative?
SB: My first collection, Theories of Falling, was framed by many readers as expressing my coming of age. I can’t deny that, and I’m grateful for the attention. But my second collection, I Was the Jukebox, rebelled against any presumption of poet-as-speaker—titles such as “The Sand Speaks,” “The Minotaur Speaks,” “The Platypus Speaks.” For this collection, Count the Waves, I gave myself permission to return to the well of the personal. I wrote love poems because that’s what I had in me to write.
Others have said this more eloquently, at length, but I’ll reiterate that for men writing about one’s personal identity is perceived as addressing the state of mankind. For women, writing about one’s personal identity is framed as being confessional or, worse, decorative. How do we liberate the love poem from the pejorative? One poem, one poet, at a time. We write smart critical essays about love poems. We mention them and their authors as favorite influences. We take care, in praising love poems (and especially love poems by men), to parse out when the “object” of affection is being treated as just that—an object—versus when he or she is being brought into real, fully dimensioned life.
This is a time of healthy upheaval in the literary world, as attention increases to previously marginalized voices, and I hope the celebration of women’s contributions to literature is part of that.
SM: On social media, you have recently called into question the way we introduce, describe, and define women writers. For example, women are often times referred to as wives or mothers in professional settings, labels which are disproportionately applied to women. Why is this so problematic and how can we eradicate this inequity?
SB: First, as a matter of aesthetics: I find someone’s status as a partner, spouse, or parent entirely irrelevant to their ability to write poems about the state of being a partner, spouse, or parent. Second, as a matter of history: someone’s status as a partner, spouse, or parent is just as likely to be grounds for disenfranchisement as for empowerment. So to use that identity information in formal contexts (reviews, critical essays, introduction to readings) is sloppy at best and undermining at worse. There are obvious exceptions to this, e.g. if someone writes a memoir about mothering, it’s fair to mention she is a mother. But you get the idea.
What’s unfortunate is that the best corrective to such contextualization is prompt, firm, and on the spot—which can feel ungracious. Instead, what we often do is simmer now, boil over later. We have got to overcome our instinct to err on the side of silence. Diplomacy and criticism are not mutually exclusive. I can admire and agree with you overall, while still pointing out your use of assumptive terminology. I’ve received some keen call-outs myself over the past year—and what stayed with me was the understanding that those critiques came from allies, not opponents, and could not be shrugged off.
SM: As an educator, what role does feminism and inclusivity play in your pedagogy?
SB: I look over any reading list on a syllabus, or handouts for an individual seminar, to be sure that I’ve included voices from multiple genders, sexualities, and ethnicities. I’m embarrassed that I have to explicitly check myself on that; I’d love to say that my selections are naturally diverse, and sometimes they are. But we gravitate toward teaching what we were taught, and for me those readings foregrounded Western, heterosexual, and masculine perspectives. Diversifying my texts for study does nothing but increase their quality. The defensive, conservative outcry that we are somehow compromising the canon is pathetic.
The MFA program in which I teach uses the framework of being a “mentor,” rather than a professor, which resonates for me. I welcome that my role as educator represents less than 50% of how I spend my time; it’s important to me to be a writer first. But because I’m not part of a tenured or salaried system, things I do for former students—whether career counseling, or letters of reference for fellowships, or manuscript advice—consume hours that actively cut into my livelihood. Will I say Yes to requests for help? Any time I can, to anyone I can. To whom will I offer help, unprompted? Emerging women writers.
SM:. What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
SB: After completing the manuscript for Count the Waves, I took up writing a series of poems about food traditions as a palate cleanser (no pun intended). You can find these in Gravy, the quarterly journal of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Through SFA’s editors I found Natalie K. Nelson, an amazing artist with whom I hope to keep collaborating.
I’m also working on essays that blend craft and memoir. One of these was published in Poetry Northwest under the title, “Flint and Tinder—Understanding the Difference Between ‘Poetry of Witness’ and ‘Documentary Poetics.’” Even though I already have a nonfiction book to my name, I find that I have to give myself “permission” to adopt the tone of authority necessary for these essays, a forceful rallying, just as I had to “permit” myself to write about love. Every time I see a new book on poetry come out—I can name three off the top of my head, all published within the year, all by men—my confidence wavers a bit. When I first heard the phrase “Imposter Syndrome,” a concept that has been around since 1978, I dismissed it. Not me. But I get it now. Imposter Syndrome is at the core of my procrastination tendencies, which are my greatest flaw as a professional. Imposter Syndrome is what holds us back when we could be busy running the world.
This life is short. I’m done kowtowing to anyone else’s vision of what I should do with it.
Sandra Beasley is author of three poetry collections: Count the Waves; I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Honors for her work include a 2015 NEA Literature Fellowship, the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, and two DCCAH Artist Fellowships. She is also the author of the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa.