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Alumni Success Story

MFA Alum Reveals Writing Process, Inspiration

By Staff, In Capital Letters

Writer Sandra Beasley, MFA creative writing '04, spoke at AU last September as part of the 2008–09 Visiting Writers Series. Her debut collection of poems, Theories of Falling, received the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize, selected by Marie Howe. She is also the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egan Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the Millay Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Beasley currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she is the book editor for the American Scholar and is affiliated with several local organizations, including the Arts Club of Washington, and the Writer's Center in Bethesda.

Below, the AU alum shares her thoughts on the writing process, her evolution as a writer, and where she finds inspiration for her work.
What authors/poets/books/poems/stories/writing do you return to again and again?
I like to read single volumes of poetry, not collected works or anthologies. Some favorites are Loose Woman, by Sandra Cisneros; Some Ether, by Nick Flynn; Ariel, by Sylvia Plath. A poet can read and reread The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, looking at different craft aspects each time—I particularly love the facsimile version, with handwritten edits from Ezra Pound.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process?  The most surprising?  The most challenging?
There's a moment when the "flow" of solid, engaged writing kicks in—and then two hours pass before you even look up from the work. You're not hungry, you're not thirsty, you don't yawn. Usually this happens for me around 1 a.m., when the last of the emails has arrived in my inbox for the night. Writing can carry an incredible sense of momentum.

I love to edit on a word-by-word basis, tweaking and refining as I go. But I'm not great at the kind of sweeping overhauls that some great revisionists can execute. If a poem doesn't fundamentally "work" after the first draft, I'm likely to just abandon it. I'm not the type to put it in a drawer and re-attack it after a month, though I admire those who do.

What was the first piece of writing you ever wrote, and when?
My first poem was a glorious four-line ode to crows sitting on a fence. The wind was blowing. The sky was blue. (In the poem, anyway.) I was in second grade and never looked back. Doctor? Lawyer? Hmph! A writer. I was going to be a writer. 

Are certain techniques central to your writing?
Right now I am very interested in repetition, incantation, and surprise. I like the challenge of injecting humor into a poem, without letting the reader simply shrug it off as a "funny" or "light" work. Juxtaposition in lieu of explicit equation can be a very powerful tool in poetry; too many thoughtful, determined poets want to explain, explain, explain. Sometimes you just have to jump.

Are certain themes central to your work?
My current manuscript is overrun with mouths, mythological figments, and military culture. I don't know why. Freud would have a field day.

How have those themes changed over the years?
In my first book, Theories of Falling, I was writing from a much more biographical place. Accordingly, the poems are rich with family and relationship motifs. The "Allergy Girl" sequence would be an example of a theme I was able to fully explore over a series of poems that have, for now, exhausted the topic in my mind.

How do your poems come to you?  For example, is it by an image, character, line, phrase, idea?
A phrase will rattle around in my head for a week or so, devoid of context: I'll just like the surreal image or the language rhythm. Then it will gestate into an idea. Then I'll find my first line—usually at night, as I'm getting ready for bed—and instead of sleep, I'll sit down to the computer and start writing.

Do you have a set writing schedule/any writing rituals?
Nope. Sometimes I sit on my balcony, hand-scrawling on a legal pad; sometimes I'll type away in my studio, or in the rocking chair in my bedroom. Mostly I draft at night, but sometimes in the morning, or at work. When I was doing poem-a-day drafting I resorted to working in the South west Airlines Lounge of LAX. A writer will write anywhere, everywhere, and usually when they're supposed to be doing other things. Always honor and prioritize the impulse to write.

If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
"Fidelity," by Regina Spektor.

Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.
I never mastered the "th" sound so if you listen closely, I wish people "Happy Birfday."

What projects are you working on right now?
One book called I Was the Jukebox—it is done, just looking for a publisher. One book that has a substantial portion of sestinas, some of which will be in a Black Warrior Review chapbook out soon. Reading a lot of manuscripts for friends trying to get their own books out into the world. Columns for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, where I am a contributor to the "XX Files." Running a series of readings for the Arts Club of Washington, where I am the literary chair, and working with the Writer's Center as a new member of their board. In other words, bless my friends and family for tolerating my constant craze. I drink a lot of caffeinated things.

If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
I'd like to be a casting director for films. I have a fantastic memory for the names of obscure actors, which is strange because I am horrible with names in everyday

From In Capital Letters, September 2008