Friday, July 22, 2011

Sandra Beasley

Sandra Beasley is the author of the poetry collections I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, which won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Her honors include a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in Washington, D.C., where her prose has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine.

Her new book is the memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life.

A few weeks ago I asked Beasley what she was reading. Her reply:
Usually, when an old friend says “Oh, I know another writer; I have to introduce you!” I groan inwardly. All writers do not get along, any more than all lawyers or all veterinarians. But I agreed to show up at the Big Hunt—a DC bar where he was scheduled to read—reasoning that the skeeball and $4 drafts were reason enough. And in this case, my high school friend’s sister’s new husband turned out to be not only a compelling writer, but a very cool guy: Joseph Riippi.

The Orange Suitcase is described in terms of “stories,” but many of the sections have the brevity and lyric intensity of prose poems. In a series of snapshots that move back and forth between modern day and a grandparent’s generation, Riippi creates a portrait of young man’s ascent from firing BB guns to exchanging I Dos, interrogating along the way what it means to live and to love in New York. A collage of memories, dreams, and non sequiturs, there is not a boring page in this collection. Even as I write this, I’m thinking Gosh, I need to read it again. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing from this guy for years to come, and that makes me very happy.

An $8 remaindered hardback of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances was an impulse buy as I roamed the tables of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ve been a fan of Alexie’s ever since I first encountered his nimble sestina “The Business of Fancydancing,” but I had not sat down with much of his prose. What I found was a rangy, funny, delightfully idiosyncratic hodgepodge anchored by two stunning stories: “War Dances” and “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless.” Though much of the attention given to Alexie over the years has focused on his Native American identity, he is a master at the hybrid voice with seamlessly integrates tribal references and mainstream culture. A healing song and a paean to Trader Joe’s are equally at home on these pages.

When my mother gave me the pairing of Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye and Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide as a May birthday gift, she purposefully wrapped the package in paper strewn with flowers and smiley faces. “To counterbalance the mood,” she admitted. And it’s true: Bialosky’s History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life is a devastating read, particularly because I share her 10-year gap with a younger sister. As I turned the last page, I had to fight the impulse for a midnight call to my sister in Beijing, just to tell her I love her.

But to respond to the story’s raw emotional potency would be to shortchange the book’s craft: this is thoughtfully constructed, researched, elegant meditation on the origins of a suicide and the impact it has on a family. Though Bialosky’s identity as a poet and an editor shapes her thoughts—authors ranging from William Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath make cameos—she wears her literary expertise lightly, refusing to over-romanticize or retreat into figurative language. As a reader, I was deeply moved. As a fellow memoirist, I was inspired.
Learn more about Beasley and her work at her website and blog, Chicks Dig Poetry.

Writers Read: Sandra Beasley (Febraury 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue