Monday, August 31, 2015

“The Bright Particulars of the Situation”: An Interview with Poet Sandra Beasley

By Lisa Hase-Jackson

Because Sandra Beasley’s newest collection of poetry, Count the Waves, arrived within the slim period of time between the end of the spring semester teaching and the beginning of my summer graduating residency, I had to relegate it to a stack of books for later reading. Before doing so, though, I glanced over the dust jacket notes to get a sense of the book’s focus. I was struck by a line in the third paragraph suggesting that the poems in Count the Waves “illuminate how intimacy is lost and gained during our travels.” Since my own travels these past ten years have led me from the Midwest to the Southeast United States by way of New Mexico and South Korea, both gaining and losing friends with each move, I felt certain I would find resonance within the collection’s pages. At least, I reasoned, I had something good to read when I returned home. When Leslie Pietrzyk later approached me about interviewing Beasley, I was happy for the opportunity to get to know the poet behind the poems knowing that the encounter would also enrich my reading of the book.

As is often the case for writers in the summer, Beasley and I had a number of obligations to juggle, but she was eventually able to carve out time to graciously answer my interview questions. I found her responses insightful and enlightening and am happy to share our exchange here.

1.     Titles are often tricky for writers, especially when it comes to entire books or collections. Can you speak to the significance of the title “Let Me Count the Waves” and what connection it has to the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet quoted at the book’s beginning?

The phrase, "Let me count the waves," first appears in I WAS THE JUKEBOX in "Love Poem for Oxidation." In that incarnation, the "waves" literally denote the movement of water. As a child, when I was out bodysurfing with my dad in Florida or North Carolina, you had to "count the waves" in order to catch one big enough to carry your body to shore. By the time the phrase was re-appropriated as a poem title, I was paying attention to secondary connotations: the iterative patterns of "counting" required by a sestina's repetitions, and the "waves" of third- and fourth-wave feminism. That poem is very much about struggling to position myself as a poet versus being a "woman" poet. I was trying to figure out whether that demarcation is trivializing, or productive. 

In choosing what would provide the collection's title, I wanted something with bravado, and in the imperative tone. I also got back to questioning why the phrase "Let me count the waves" had lodged so firmly in my head in the first place: the answer being, a ghost-memory of reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…." back in high school, and perhaps mishearing it to suit my own purposes. When I looked a little more deeply into Browning's life--in which a long-distance love inspired an overturning of everything, flight from an oppressive household, and eventual happiness--I knew I'd found my inspiration point. 

2.     Many of the poems in this collection are titled after specific lines in The Travelers Vade Mecum, which is an important influence in this collection. So many, in fact, that it is a little surprising to find poems that are not overtly related to that compendium. Can you provide some insight into how you decided which poems to include and your method for ordering them? Are the “non-numbered” poems related to those which are numbered?      
The Traveler's Vade Mecum series began as the solicitation for a single poem, for an anthology that will be published in 2017 by Red Hen Press. I usually hate prompts, but I loved the exercise as a way of thinking about intimacy over long distances, so I just kept going and ended up with over two dozen poems, most of which are in COUNT THE WAVES. The inspiring book exists, so my titles are a straightforward representation of A. C. Baldwin's lines and the numbers assigned to them. But I didn't want those indexing numbers to control my sequence, so the challenge became to find an internal "order" that respected the individual poems. It's not as simple as saying that the TVM poems are of one world, and the non-TVM poems are of another. About half the poems in the collection speak to a discernible, personal--I stop short of saying "confessional"--narrative, and that category that cuts through both groupings. 

3.     Though they do not announce themselves, there are six varieties of sestina in your collection. Besides an organizing pattern, they share inventive language and common themes, almost as if they are part of a larger organization. What attracts you to the sestina, and what other elements of form are at play in this collection?

The sestinas aren't so much different varieties as different stanza arrangements; I've kept the pattern of end words entirely intact, with an approximately ten-syllable line, and always opted to include the envoi. At one point, they were all formatted in the traditional sestets. But my early readers were experiencing visual fatigue. They'd spot the shape of the poem on the page, know "Oh, a sestina," and it would temper their subsequent engagement. I understand the phenomenon, because I do the same thing; you start looking for the tricks of the form, instead of absorbing the content. I changed the stanza breaks as a way of tricking the eye. 

I love sestinas because they channel the energies of two modes I am also drawn to, parallel structure and anaphora, and lexical repetition that approximates rhyme. The "Valentines" build upon the interest in dramatis personae that I raised in I WAS THE JUKEBOX. The best examples of the form, with Miller Williams' "The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina" coming to mind, feel playful and absurdist right up until the moment they break your heart. 

4.     Like many of your poems, “The Wake” incorporates really wonderful details, like “dovebelly brown,” “caress the bend of waists slendered by work,” and (my favorite) “still the silk jutting from his pocket matches / the band on his hat,” all of which lend a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude to this reimagining of Whistler’s life. Each line contributes to the poem’s dimensionality yet maintains a very satisfying pace that leads the reader to the poem’s conclusion. It made me feel as if I gained some insight into Whistler’s experience of the world and especially made me wonder how you were able to create that impression. Do you have a background in art history, or does Whistler hold particular importance for you?

I'm thrilled to have you focus on "The Wake," which is probably the oldest poem in the manuscript, though I did revise before adding it in. The text takes many cues from a Washington, D.C. exhibit on "Whistler and His Circle in Venice," which resulted in a 2003 book of the same name curated by Eric Denker. I had recently been to Venice when I saw the show at the Freer Collection, and the delicate pastels and works on paper made an indelible impression. Whistler is an interesting figure because of his ego, his personal life, and his eye for the possibilities of mass reproduction and distribution; he was the Charles Dickens of the art world. I have always been drawn to ekphrasis and the visual arts. My mother is a painter and a collagist, and my husband is a painter and photographer. In another life, I could have happily worked in a museum to the end of my days. 

5.     The title poem, “Let me Count the Waves,” includes the epigraph “We must not look for poetry in poems” from Donald Revell. While there is more than one way to interpret this aphorism, can you talk a little bit more about where, for you, poems come from?

In fairness to Revell, his suggestion is reasonable: Poems should not be overly self-referential. They should not be smug in their own performance. A poem should not reach for the low-hanging fruit of what has already been deemed "poetic." Read in that light, I can agree with him. But at the other end of the spectrum, and historically, one way upstart voices have tempered the privilege and power of others is through enacting verbal fireworks. So there has to be a place for a showy and brazen. There has to be a place for that which will not be denied.  

For me, most poems begin in the struggle to identify something. I operate from an emotional or philosophical perception, an instinct, without quite knowing what I'm trying to say. The irony is, once I decide what I am trying to say--and the poem is not a mature work until that happens--my craft is to articulate as thoroughly as possible. I thread a needle with what I refer to as the bright particulars of the situation. Bonus points if there is an opportunity for humor. 

6.     This is your third full-length collection of poetry. How did your approach to this book of poetry differ from your approach to your first book?

In assembling a third book, I was aware from the outset that the pile of pages could be a manuscript. That is both a strength and weakness. On one hand, I knew to avoid repeating the same images or stylistic moves, because what provides satisfying closure in one standalone poem will fail when you attempt to use it on three poems in a row. On the other hand, I may have prematurely curtailed some ideas of drafts because they felt too far outside the growing body of work. But overall, this is the biggest and rangiest collection I've ever done. Though the theme of adult love is unapologetically singular, that still leaves a lot of ground to cover.  

7.     What projects are you working on now?

Well, to be fair--an author isn't "done" with a book once it is out in the world! I'll be pursuing whatever combination of readings, classroom visits, and other opportunities that I can find to get the word out about COUNT THE WAVES. 

But in terms of new directions, I have a proposal for a nonfiction project, which I'll convert to a long essay if it does not find a publisher. I am writing poems commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance, in anticipation of an October gathering in my beloved town of Oxford, Mississippi. I'm also in my second year of teaching with the University of Tampa's low-residency MFA program, and I am really appreciating the opportunity to mentor in both poetry and memoir, not to mention the appeal of getting to know a new town with visits twice a year. And meanwhile, I'm settling into a new neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with my husband. Life is busy, but it is the best kind of busy.

~Buy Count the Waves on Amazon or through an independent bookseller.



Lisa Hase-Jackson holds an MFA from the Converse College Low-Residency program and teaches poetry and English Composition at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. Her current projects include an anthology of poems celebrating New Mexico’s 2012 centennial and a manuscript of her own poetry. Her work has appeared in Midwest Quarterly, Kansas City Voices, Pilgrimage, Jasper/Fall Lines and elsewhere. She is the Review Editor for South 85 Journal and keeps a poetry blog at


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.