Arts » Cover story

Author Sandra Beasley's lines are worthy of scribbling down

Writing on the wall



A few weeks ago, Amy Bagwell was having lunch with a well-read friend. Bagwell was excited: she had booked Washington, DC poet and writer Sandra Beasley for New Frequencies at McColl Center, of which Bagwell is the literary events curator. Bagwell excitedly pulled up some of Beasley's work on her phone and handed it across the table.

"My friend read the poem 'Proposal,' and she looked up, tears falling down her cheeks," says Bagwell. "She looked at me and said, 'How? How does she do this?'"

"I don't know," Bagwell confessed.

Within the next few months "Proposal" will adorn an Uptown wall, thanks to Bagwell and Wall Poems of Charlotte partner Graham Carew's efforts: anyone walking by this wall, then, will have a chance to respond to its dozen lines. Bagwell, arts and literature booster and CPCC English teacher that she is, lives for this kind of egalitarian public art, and finds Beasley the perfect person for it.

"She's an incredible ambassador for gorgeous language," Bagwell says. "She's unbelievably smart and erudite, but she doesn't have an ounce of pretension."

Friday night, Beasley reads at the McColl Center, with Bagwell excitedly starting the evening with a poetry reading of her own. Saturday, Beasley is teaching a master class on voice at Charlotte Lit: she lends two respectable skills, those as a poet and those as a teacher, to the Queen City. The author of poetry collections like Count the Waves and I was the Jukebox and the memoir Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life balances rigorous attention to form with rich imagination, all in approachable, accessible language.

Her approach requires discipline, attention, research and time. Her result is poetry so masterful and approachable Bagwell wants to paint it on the side of a building.

"Being an artist requires strategy. It requires tactics," Beasley says. "You have to have a certain amount of discipline to get things done that keep the career of being a writer going and also make time for the new drafting and the experimentation."

Her poems purposefully look both inward, toward emotion, and outward, toward the world she shares with others. The stereotype exists of the navel-gazing poet, she says, but she actively draws from the world around her. She devours nonfiction — nature, history, science — and builds her poems from these sources. Beasley craves specificity; she likes to give proper species names and explore the properties of the real world, so this kind of research naturally fits into her life as a poet.

"Early on I realized that a goal with my poems was going to be writing about other lives and to capture just the strangeness of the world around us," she says.

A lifetime spent in Washington, DC prepared her for this mix of practicality and verse. When Beasley picks up the phone on a warm Tuesday morning, she mentions that her southwestern DC apartment is only a few miles from where she grew up. True, Beasley, 36, was born in Arlington, Virginia, but she moved with her family to suburban Vienna by the time she was 5 or 6.

Mom was a visual artist and dad worked in the military, retiring as a brigadier general in 2005. It sounds like a dramatic binary or even a folktale setup from the outside — a child raised by an artist and a general — but Beasley, in her fashion, explains the real-world complexity of her parents' personalities, dashing stereotypes before they form. Beasley's self-discipline and flexible thinking, for example, are both present in the general.

"His job required creativity," she says. "It was not a matter of blunt force." His specialties were in psychological operations, usually known by the acronym PSYOP, and civil affairs, which involves getting resources to civilians despite the interference of conflict or war. These duties couldn't simply be bulldozed, but required innovation.

He traveled for work, but Beasley didn't live the "Army brat" lifestyle: she, her artist mother, and a little sister ten years her junior remained in DC. They were immersed in the vibrant cultural scene, and young Beasley attended her share of concerts, plays and museums. Beasley absorbed art, but developed a love of form and structure through her dad. She grew up equal parts artist and general: the halves complement and strengthen each other.

Through high school, college, and grad school, she was driven: she studied under poets Rita Dove and Gregory Orr and she was able to keep her momentum going. When she finally finished at American University, she found herself out of the suburbs and in DC proper. And there she remains: she's compelled by the city's energy, which is all its own.

"When you use that rhetoric of the city that never sleeps, you're usually talking about the social side," Beasley explains. "That's not the way in which DC is 24/7." Sure, people are up at all hours, but not to party; DC is full of people of national and international significance, and they're constantly doing essential work. It's the little things, Beasley says: sometimes the president has to go somewhere, so her drive home is interrupted by a police barricade; once she stopped by George Washington University and the surgeon general happened to be filming an announcement in the lobby; appropriately, it's a great coffee town.

It's what she's known her whole life, and it excites her far more than a healthy nightlife would.

"I get frustrated when people say that the arts struggle to breathe in DC or that it's tough to be creative in this town," she says. "That, to me, is like arguing that we can't be at the top of our field in the same way."

Yet she resists drawing a hard binary or casting her lot completely with urban life: that would be too simple, too jingoistic for Beasley. She craves quiet, too, which leads her to writing retreats in Wyoming, in Florida, or in western North Carolina.

It's Wednesday evening, and Rand Brandes just got back into town. The English professor at Hickory's Lenoir-Rhyne University had been in New Orleans, where he'd gone with his 92-year-old mother-in-law to visit her siblings. If he's tired from the trip, it doesn't show: he's chipper and full of praise for Beasley, both as an artist and as a person.

"There is an illusion of stream-of-consciousness, but it's highly constructed," Brandes says. Beasley loves form and structure; really, the ease in reading comes from careful research and drafting on her part.

In spring 2013, and at Brandes' invitation, Beasley was Lenoir-Rhyne's writer-in-residence. The college gives their visiting writer an apartment in a house on campus, Beasley says, and she relished in the semester-long change of pace. At the time, she was finishing up her most recent book, 2015's Count the Waves, and slower, quieter life in Hickory gave her the mental space she needed to go outside her comfort zone.

"The Circus," a long poem about the life of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, was written in that on-campus house where, downstairs, groups of gifted high school students played ping-pong. She was the grumpy writer in the attic, she recalls with self-effacing fondness, the college's pet poet. It was a good semester.

"She was young and fresh and seemed like someone our students would enjoy and learn something from," Brandes says. He, his wife and Beasley ate together and the three bonded over Lebanese food.

"We try to keep our poets happy, fed and hydrated," Brandes says.

During that semester Beasley traveled to Charlotte, where writer and poet Nick Flynn was reading. There was an excellent crowd, Beasley saw, and one of Bagwell and Carew's first wall poems had just gone up. She was impressed by the apparent depth of the larger North Carolina cultural community.

"She makes me really, really hopeful for poetry," says Bagwell, who met Beasley during her 2013 trip to Charlotte. Bagwell rejects the idea that poetry is over the heads of the average person. Rather, she thinks there's just not enough access — one reason she and Carew work to paint mural-sized verses across building facades. She likes that Beasley's poems are straightforward, human and accessible; She commands the English language, but doesn't lord it over her readers.

"We rarely get to rewrite ourselves. We say what we say," says Davidson College English professor Alan Michael Parker, Beasley's friend and colleague at a low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa. Beasley, though, has the awareness and quick intellect to edit herself while she talks. And she thinks about what it means to be a woman and a woman writer, but lightly, she says: readers should hear the poet's voice first and realize it is an outspoken female voice second.

"She lives and writes the kind of feminism that is aware of and inclusive of desire as well as agency," Parker says.

"For a woman writer, the assumption is, 'oh, this is going to be lots of lush observations on the beauty of the world,'" Bagwell says. She loves that Beasley writes powerfully and with practical, researched detail. And the poems are hungry: they don't just catalog the world around, but reach out into it.

As a person, Beasley is sure to reach out, too, and mentor young women poets. They're not always as aggressive as their male counterparts, she's noticed: they'll take one wave of feedback and not follow up. So she keeps the line of communication open: if she's sent suggestions to a young poet, for instance, she'll reach out again to check on her progress. Women don't always ask for more from established poets, and she wants to close that gap.

"We have to ask for more," Beasley says.

If Beasley gives back to younger, newer poets, it's likely because she's always learning, too; always seeking new skills, new data, new details, new facts about the world around her. Once upon a time she stubbornly insisted she was only a poet, just to prove herself wrong when she realized she had stories to tell that were too big and complicated for verse. And there were imposing poetic forms to tackle, like The Golden Shovel: a hundred-line poem in that format recently won her the CP Cavafy prize. What she seeks, in all this, is the junction of creativity and strategy, of ideas and structure.

"It never gets easier. It never gets faster," Beasley says. "I get excited about unfettered creativity that at the same time has rigor."

Add a comment