Beasley graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Earned a BA degree in English from the University of Virginia, and later received an MFA degree from American University. For several years, she worked as an editor for The American Scholar before leaving the position to write full-time.

Beasley is the author of the poetry books; Theories of Falling (New Issues, 2008) and I was the Jukebox, (W.W. Norton, 2010), as well as the memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown, 2011). Her poetry has been rewarded in The Best American Poetry 2010, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Best New Poets 2005. She has received fellowships to the University of Mississippi (as the Summer Poet in Residence), the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (Walter E. Dakin Fellowship), and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (two Cafritz Fellowships), among other honors. She serves on the Board of the Writer’s Center and is also a member of the Arts Club of Washington.

Dear Sandra Beasley, firstly I would like to thank you for accepting to have a conversation with us as a part of the journal Helezon’s “five continents five poet project.“ I would like to start our conversation with this question.

Handan Tunç: In one of your interviews you made a reference to the importance of opening a self-expression area. What is your best self-expression area, do you think that the poetry gives you the freedom of self-expression?

Sandra Beasley: If asked to describe what my poems speak about most “freely” over my entire collected works, I would say that I try to be very honest about the fickle and flawed aspects of the human heart. That’s no great surprise; most poets write about that. As topics go, love and family dynamics are both entirely subjective and oddly universal. 

What’s probably more distinctive about my recent work is examinations of disability politics, whiteness as a cultural construct, and the perils of American patriotism. In taking on those topics in poems, I push myself to speak as freely and frankly as possible. That often means voicing difficult truths about my personal experience, and our larger culture. 

H.T: Do you sometimes have a vicious circle of delaying writing? How do you motivate yourself in order to get rid of this?

S.B: I do not ascribe to the advice, “Write every day, for the sake of writing.” That kind of routine can work for some, but for others—especially those who take care of others, or who work grueling jobs, or who live with illness—that advice can be stifling. I may go weeks without creative drafting, or even months. In the meantime, what matters is doing other things that will ultimately feed my creative work. For me, those things include reading; looking at art in museums in the company of my husband, who is a painter; and traveling, especially by car. 

That said, I understand calling it a “vicious” cycle of not-writing. I can sympathize with writers who are craving tricks to get themselves out of what might feel like a dry spell or a writing block. So I’ll share two of my favorite approaches. 

One approach is writing what I call a “doorstep” poem: Imagine a door opening. The door can be personal to you, part of a room or a house you recognize, or it can be something entirely made up. What’s the creature or danger or discovery waiting on the other side of that door? Wherever you go from there, it’ll be an interesting journey. 

The other approach is writing what I call a “failed” poem. Put the word right there in the title: “A Failed Poem About [X].” Worst case scenario, you write something that fails. Just maybe, you write something that succeeds. Have fun with it! You’ve taken the pressure off yourself, right? Frequently, we worry a poem will fail because it is about a familiar topic, one many have written about before: music, or love, or death, or the rain, or the moon, or birds. But there are very good reasons poets turn to these topics over and over. They are inexhaustible. Write a “failed” poem about one of those topics, then find out what you’ve now given yourself permission to say. 

H.T: You say, ”Poetry is real poetry when it arouses curiosity, not just enjoyment.” What is your criterion for arousing curiosity by poetry?

S.B: In praising poems that arouse curiosity, I encourage writers to research the literal world that informs verse—usually by educating themselves about science or history relevant to what their poem captures—instead of simply reflecting their first, immediate level of observation about the subject. Don’t merely show me how beautiful the bird is; explain to me why its beak is shaped that way, or the ritual it uses when mating, or how its feathers were used as a form of currency back in 1743. Help me appreciate that to live in this world means being constantly surrounded by the astonishments of natural and invented bodies, and the visceral passage of time through the Holocene Era. Direct images are important, and a poem that delights is fine, but I’m most excited to read a poem that makes me wonder and question.

H.T: Can we call your books, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl and Tales from an Allergic Life, literary struggles against increasing illness and allergies in the USA and world? 

S.B: I try to avoid characterizing my experience with allergies as a “struggle,” in a literary context or otherwise. In my community, we emphasize understanding a person as a whole and disabled person, without regret. I can’t imagine who I would be without my food allergies, nor would I accept a cure for them if you offered me one tomorrow. 

Not everyone approaches disability on these terms. For example, I realize that in a larger society, it can be a useful organizing tool to “fight” certain chronic illnesses in terms of fundraising and research. We need to critique socio-economic and environmental decisions that are causing a rise in allergies and asthma, especially since that increase is disproportionately felt in certain communities. But as an individual, it is important to model that I’m someone who thrives with my allergies, not someone who “suffers” from them. 

H.T: Some poets have unique habits. For example, T.S. Elliot used to paint his face green while writing, Maya Angelou used to write in a hotel room, Virginia Woolf used to write standing. Do you have any habits while writing your poems?

That doesn’t mean I don’t carry medicines, or what I don’t do everything I can to avoid reactions or mitigate their severity; I’m not foolhardy with my life. But I embrace who I am, as I am. 

S.B: Wow, not sure I can measure up to those examples! I need to have an uncluttered surface, a desk or table, that is facing a window. Hmmm…I’ll have to invest in a face-painting kit. 

H.T: What inspires you while writing your poems? Besides, are there any important poets that contributes to your inspirations for poems? 

S.B: Anything, any sight or sound or moment of dialogue, can become the catalyst for poem. In recent years I have drawn on the scenery and politics of my home regions of Washington, D.C., and Virginia, where I was raised. I’m particularly fond of writing about food traditions, animals, and the codification of monuments and memorials. 

In terms of poets who are important to my work, I return again and again to Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop. I’m fortunate to have been mentored by extraordinary poets during my time at the University of Virginia, including Rita Dove, Lisa Russ Spaar, and Gregory Orr; as well as during my MFA program at The American University, where I workshopped with Myra Sklarew, Cornelius Eady, and Henry Taylor. Their words echo in my head every day. 

H.T: Does the digital world have contributions of spreading the poem to larger masses? Do you think the virtual world is the enemy or the hero of poetry? What would your thoughts be on this?

S.B: The virtual world is a facilitator of poetry, especially in a pandemic-shaped era when readings can be distributed via livestream internet. We can and should do better in terms of embedding sign language interpretation, CART, captioning, and other accessibility tools. 

My capybara-themed poem, “Unit of Measure,” has been read by people who never may have read it otherwise—thanks to social media, being hosted at the Poetry Foundation’s website, and the undeniable charm of capybaras. My disability-justice poem, “Say the Word,” was emailed to the inboxes of thousands thanks to the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. 

I don’t use all the digital platforms, but I don’t disdain them. Anyone who begrudges the power and potential of the digital world is waging a larger, embittered battle against time. 

H.T: What do you think makes a person a real poet? Innate talent, reading, traveling, and/or writing insistently? 

S.B: A real poet is someone who loves reading poetry as much as they love writing it. Here’s what I don’t think matters to being a “real” poet: record of publication.

H.T: In your opinion, could translated works have the same effects as the original in poetry? Do you think translation is a disadvantage in literature, especially poetry? Would you share your favorite foreign poet with us?

S.B: Translation is an astonishingly important, difficult, and gorgeous art. Is encountering a translated poem the same as encountering the original poem, as a speaker native to the language in which the original poem was written? No. But that’s beside the point. 

The more international the dialogue is in poetry, the better, particularly if you understand your responsibility to learn more about the place and era that yielded the poems in question. Valzhyna Mort and Ilya Kaminsky have been very helpful in guiding my thinking about this. 

I am always embarrassed to admit that I am not fluent in a second language. The non-American poet who has most influenced me, in the canonical sense, is Wisława Szymborska, thanks to her translator Clare Cavanagh. I enthusiastically steer people toward the work of two younger, contemporary poets who work nimbly as both translators and poets: Ron Winkler, of Germany, and Senem Gökel, of Cyprus. I also admire the translations of Polish poet Tomasz Różycki by American poet Mira Rosenthal, and the translations of Albanian poet Moikom Zeqo by American poet Wayne Miller.

H.T: In your opinion, is there a way to reach a universal language and themes in poetry that goes beyond cultures and borders? For example, how effective is poetry in regards to freedom and human rights? 

S.B: Don’t worry about writing a universal poem. Write a poem that means everything to you, in the brightest and most specific language that you can. People will connect with that, across languages and across eras. The fight for freedom and human rights is big and ongoing. For as long as poetry gives people energy to live and love, poetry is contributing to that fight. 

H.T: Dear Sandra, Thank you so much for your warm and sincere response to my interview request. We would like to thank you as Helezon Journal for having a conversation with us.