Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sandra Beasley

Sandra Beasley works on the editorial staff of The American Scholar.

Her poems can be found in recent issues of journals such as 32 Poems, Slate, RHINO, Blackbird, New Orleans Review, Poet Lore, and Meridian. Her work has been featured on Verse Daily and appears in the 2005 Best New Poets anthology and the Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel (Second Story); work is forthcoming in the Outside Voices 2008 Anthology and Online Writing: The Best of the Frist Ten Years (Snow*Vigate Press). Her full-length manuscript, Theories of Falling, received the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize, selected by Marie Howe, and will be published in March 2008.

Earlier this month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Jennifer 8. Lee (Twelve Books) - I'm always working my way through an "oatmeal book," usually non-fiction, that I read while stirring my steel-cut oatmeal each morning for the 20 minutes it takes to cook. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles follows Lee as she tracks down the origins of many flagship Chinese food dishes -- fortune cookies, chop suey, General Tso's chicken -- zeroing in on the ways in which Chinese immigrant culture has commercialized (and often corrupted) itself to engage American tastes. The tone is witty, the writing well-paced, and Lee is confident in her evocations of old New York and mainland China, where many of the stories -- often spanning generations of family, multiple ethnic cultures, and various lawsuits -- take place. This book is a perfect follow-up for those who enjoyed Trevor Corson's The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket, which came out last year. Did you know that some of the most valuable black market exports from the U.S to Japan are chicken feet, pig ears, and cow stomachs? One culture's trash is another's treasure.

Most of what I read is paperback poetry books. American Music, by Chris Martin (Copper Canyon Press), is something I picked up after hearing (and enjoying) Martin read in New York City. It's a challenging book, an aural montage and a true love letter to American "music"; Martin credits the influences of everyone from Ingmar Bergman to Robert Creeley to William Faulkner to Modest Mouse to Bob Seger. There's a thin line between surreal humor and non sequitur, and sometimes Martin's investment in the first person seems to foster permission to leave the "I" -- and the reader -- hanging in an overly hip malaise. But when the poems are good, they are very very good, as seen in the opening of "There Will Be a Very Meaningful Picture Here": "In the recurring caveman / Dream I wear my meat vest / And I love you, the whites // Of our eyes gleaming / Like cleanly picked bones as we sit / Beside our fire, the one that // Allows us to think / Outside predation and weather / And I wonder // If I would have the time / To love you otherwise, a thought that / Unsteadies me horribly...."

Another poetry book I'm reading is Oliver de la Paz's Furious Lullaby (Southern Illinois University Press -- worth noting that most of the important poetry books come out with smaller independent or university presses). I like the lush language and the sincere heart in de la Paz's work. There is a series of "aubades" with intriguing titles, including: "Aubade with Scorpions and Monsoon," "Aubade with Doves, a Television, and Fire," and "Aubade with Bread for the Sparrows" (which includes some of my favorite lines: "the sparrows with their hard eyes / glisten in the difficult light. They preen / their feathers and chirp. It's as though thy were one / voice talking to God...Don't hurt for the sparrows, they love you like a road"). An aubade is a morning song, a song of goodbye; Juliet offered Romeo one, after their only night together.

As a former litmag editor, I can attest that producing a literary journal is a thankless business. No bookstore distribution, the Quark layout is always crashing, and the only letters you get are from people who want to be published. But these journals are where young voices are nourished, and more established voices freed to experiment. Three journals that have been on my bedside stand this month: Barrelhouse (out of Washington, DC), Barn Owl Review (out of Ohio), and Zone 3 (out of Austin Peay State University in Tennessee). Physically beautiful objects all, and in each I found some jewel of fresh content -- something I'd have never read otherwise. In Barrelhouse, I was hooked by a short story called "Hair University," from Patrick Somerville, which opens with the sentence "I'm embarrassed to admit that I live in the same area as Nick's brothers." Issue 5 features a rich portfolio of essays dedicated to Dive Bars. Every issue has a theme ... Previous theme: Patrick Swayze. Next theme: roller derby.

Barn Owl Review is just getting started -- this is their very first issue (and in full disclosure, I'm a contributor). It's intriguing to watch a journal organically develop its aesthetic tone. Since I'm biased by knowing many of the writers included, there's just one poem I want to mention: "The Boxes," by Richard Garcia. I don't know Garcia at all but the poem is playful, transformative, and deeply strange. Damn near took the top of my head off. Zone 3 has the most regal air of the bunch, and offers the chance to really delve into a writer's work by including, in each issue, a long interview and work sample. The subject of Vol. XXII is poet David Keplinger. I really enjoyed his answers on topics as various as traveling around the Czech Republic as a musician, seeing a diapered man fold himself into a box in Boulder, CO, and the elusive arcaeopteryx. Curious? Make an editor happy, and go track it down.
Learn more about Sandra Beasley and her work at her website and her blog, Chicks Dig Poetry.

--Marshal Zeringue