Local Author Interview: Sandra Beasley

Author Sandra Beasley has long been a friend of 826DC, and we were thrilled when she agreed to sit down with Emily to chat about our most recent Young Authors’ Book Project, Spit Fire, and what it means to be a poet in Washington, DC, now.

Emily Moses: First of all, thank you for meeting with me today. I want to talk to you about your life as a writer and what it means to be a writer and artist right now, the piece that came to mind was actually the first piece of yours I had ever read, in the Washingtonian from March of 2015–which feels like lifetimes ago now! But, the piece you wrote: “People Say Washington DC Isn’t a Creative Place for Artists and they are Wrong.” In the piece, you discuss the tension between politics and art and how—I think you called it a ‘nerdy city’—actually feeds creativity. So I am interested in knowing about what inspiration you find here in the city, because the students we are working with in DC, their feet are on the ground, they’re here. This is where they live.

Sandra Beasley: It is funny when you mention that piece, one of the first things I remember is all the things I wanted to put in there that because I was dealing with a very concise word count I couldn’t. There were all of these exemplars of particular artists, particular movements, particular music moments, you know, DC as a bluegrass town. There is a long history, for example, of Southern artists who kind of try to go up to New York, but find New York inhospitable and they end up coming back to DC as kind of a northernmost southern town. I remember the inspiration point for that piece and me thinking about DC as a literary city was hearing someone who was here for a brief time for a political appointment argue that he had been unable to write poetry while he was here, that he found the static of political discourse overwhelming and I just thought what a shame that you are thinking of that as a stifling thing rather as an opportunity. I am a nerd at heart and I am tremendously curious, and you see a lot of textures of research in my poems and so for me, a place that acts as an intersection for so many different types of knowledge, historical, contemporary, forward-thinking just makes it a really productive place to look around and to process all that on the page.

EM: I am also thinking of how this relates to what the students who were published in Spitfire are kind of coming to terms with or grappling with. You wrote, “Those who live here experience potent, organic juxtapositions.” You said, “I’m not an artist despite this town, I’m an artist because of it.” I’m interested in hearing maybe some specific ways that you have found yourself inspired by the setting of DC specifically.

SB: When I think of some of the poems I wrote in my first and my second book, There is a Falling and I was the Jukebox. I had just come out of my graduate program, I was living in and around DuPont Circle and Adams Morgan. And I remember the DuPont Circle fountain and the plaza around it in particular as the type of place where, you know, I was a 20-something working at a nonprofit: I had lunch hours, I had time after work where I would just sit and watch. And you saw things like the guy who was gutting a fish that he had probably caught earlier in the day, three feet away from the upscale couple picnicking, four feet away from the folks practicing juggling. I mean that is just a typical park scene in DC. And those types of images did show up particularly in the first two collections. So that is a case of juxtaposition.

As I take a step back and think about DC as a culture, in particular, its effect on the shaping of historical memory, I’ve got a series of poems in the book I am working on now that are all set in this idea of a monument or a memorial at midnight. So this kind of liminal hour where you are both appreciating and also questioning the way that history is expressed in the form of a sculpture, a wall, a fountain. And, kind of looking at what’s not being articulated in that moment as well as what’s being said. So, when you look at the book I am working on now, you see Roosevelt midnight, Einstein midnight, Washington midnight, and so very much the texture of the city is informing what I am writing.

EM: In February of this year you wrote about going to a poetry conference and about political tension, and about what it means to be aware as an artist of your political moment in time. One thing I was interested in is the way that you wrote about needing to “shock the language,” and about using poetry as a way to think through a situation. I think that is something in this particular book project, the students were using poetry as a way to try to come and understand themselves. Most of the writers in this book, I would say, were between 14 and 16. I am interested in hearing you talk about how you use the space of poetry to contend with difficult political or personal questions and as a way of understanding your identity?

SB: I always grew up in a household that was heavily informed by what was going on in the larger country. I had one grandfather who was a naval doctor, who among other things, attended to the astronauts on some of the mercury flights. Like he was John Glenn’s physician. I had another grandfather who was one of the supervisors on the civilian side of nuclear security at Los Alamos. My father, on one hand, was a general in the United States army, but, on the other hand, in his personal life as a civilian, he did, and continues to do, civil rights litigation. Serving the government, but also suing the government, right? And, of course, I had very strong female figures in my life as well, even though everybody I have mentioned so far has been the men.

But the point is, for me to interrogate my personal identity and the inheritances in my family were always inextricable from our national history and what we were doing. So, I was tasked with thinking about that really early on. To grow up in the DC area, you can kind of go one of two ways. You can become very political in how you carry yourself, or you can become very apolitical, meaning you develop this understanding that administrations come and go but we stay. And I had always tended towards the latter, but particularly the events of this past decade and me growing into my adulthood and taking responsibility for how the government can affect my life and my decisions, really made me aware of becoming more vocal.

Check out Sandra Beasley reading 826DC student work:


Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections: Count the Waves; I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Honors for her work include a 2015 NEA Literature Fellowship, the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, and three DCCAH Artist Fellowships. She is also the author of the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, which engages living with a disability. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa.

Meet the Staff: Emily Moses

Chances are, you’ve already met our new 826DC Publication Programs Manager, Emily Moses. If you haven’t, though, you’re in for a treat!

She started her 826DC journey as a Publishing Intern in the spring of 2016. She continued working with us as a volunteer in the years following her internship, in addition to stints as the 826DC Interim Programs Coordinator in 2017 and the 826DC Public Programs Coordinator in 2018. She’s done it all—from bringing student publications to life and running various on-site writing programs to facilitating community workshops and curating “the lowercase,” 826DC’s monthly reading series.

We’re thrilled to finally welcome Emily as a full-time member of our staff! We recently sat down with her at Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Co. to learn a bit more about her:

What first drew you to 826DC, and what’s kept you involved?

Back in January 2015, I stumbled into 826DC’s old space, The Museum of Unnatural History, at the exact right moment. At the time, I was considering dropping out of grad school and high-tailing it back to Texas because nothing in DC felt right, nothing here was coalescing the right way. However, after learning about the programming at 826DC, and after finding the exact place where my skill set met some of 826DC’s needs, I was hooked. Immediately, 826DC became a place where I could connect with and invest in my community, the place that transformed DC from being simply the city where I lived into being my home.

What’s one unusual thing on your desk right now?

When I moved into this office last week, my desk contained, among other things: six pairs of binoculars, a bowl full of screws, a roll of caution tape, a jump rope, and several cryptic notes, like, “Get crazy with the cheeze wiz,” and “Life is like a big mountain,” so it’s going to be really difficult to narrow it down to just one unusual thing!

What’s your favorite character or setting from an 826DC program?

I am particularly sentimental about the first student text I ever read at 826DC: “It was a normal Monday morning on Planet Drool and the evil Ice Witch, Mrs. Right, was eating ice pancakes when she looked up and saw that the sun turned into seven suns.” There’s a lot to unpack here, but suffice to say that I think Mrs. Right and Planet Drool are an unbeatable combination.

If you were a magician, what would your stage name be?

Naming can be a very literal act for me (my laptop is named Lappy), so my stage name would probably be “Girl in a Cape,” or “Girl With a Wand.”

What inspired you to get involved with this kind of work, and why do you think it’s so important?

When I was a kid, I taught my toys a lesson every afternoon. I used to line my Barbies and stuffed animals along my bed, facing forward with little packets of blank computer paper set in front of them, human-sized pencils in their hands and paws. I would pretend to teach them how to do my homework assignments, how to write in cursive, how to read a poem the right way. This is to say I have always been drawn to the specific intoxication of learning new things, of collaborating, and every step (and sidestep) in my education and professional life has been an investment in this kind of work.

I believe that contributing to your community in whichever ways you have the capacity to contribute can be a deeply impactful way to move about the world, and I believe that choosing to do so is a radical act. Now more than ever, it feels paramount to be thoughtful about the ways we spend our time, and I think there is no better place to be thoughtful and radical than 826DC.