American Rome

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


Sandra Beasley is one of Washington, D.C.'s, most acclaimed and beloved poets. Image-1-crIt is, therefore, most appropriate that her latest and perhaps best collection, Made to Explode, is centered on the capital of our declining empire, American Rome as she aptly names it in a poem about D.C.'s most colorful and controversial mayor, Marion Barry Jr.:

"The truth is, presidents/come and go, four or eight years at a stretch./Barry said, I'm yours for life Washington;/Emperor Marion…." Barry was loved and hated equally in the city but was a giant force to be reckoned with:

"For city miles, Barry's motorcade stretched./We laid him among vice presidents, down/where the dogs seek congress in Washington."

This poem concludes a section of prose poems depicting a Washington largely unseen by the tourists who throng it every spring and summer, what might be called the human side of D.C. life:

Damage to the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral caused by an earthquake that originated deep in rural Virginia near the home of an elderly relative evokes an ancestral past. ("Weak Ocean") The fear and alteration of habits triggered by random sniper attacks in 2002. ("The Sniper Dance") Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the theatre. ("Kiss Me") Various monuments and tourist attractions. After a meditation on the contradictions in the character and actions of Thomas Jefferson, the poet describes spiders falling from the ceiling of the Jefferson Memorial at night. "Guards call this the spider rain." ("Jefferson, Midnight")

The reflections on Jefferson regarding race and slavery are an element of one of Beasely's major themes, racism and White privilege. Similarly, in "Self-Portrait With George Catlin," Beasley explores the work of the celebrated photographer who simultaneously celebrated and exoticized Native Americans, admiring and at the same time paternalistic. This leads to a meditation on the irony of White Americans'  appropriation of Native culture and the desire to claim some small percentage of Native ancestry. (The poem starts with a headnote defining the term Generokee: "one who claims a distant and unsubstantiated relationship to an American Indian tribe.")

The book contains a number of themes that relate to each other, such as food and its connection with culture (Beasley edited an anthology of poems from the Southern Foodways Alliance). For example "Mobile Bacon":

"If Marc Chagall's father/had hauled fish in Mississippi/instead of Vitebsk, //in his paintings/holy mullet would/wing over his rooftops…." Another poem is an ode "In Praise of Pintos," referring to the bean so valued in southwestern cuisine.

Love poems to the poet's husband, a fine visual artist, are sprinkled throughout, some also involving food. ("Still Life With Sex," "Little Love Poem").

As the book nears its conclusion, one discovers a powerful and masterful Golden Shovel entitled "Non-Commissioned: A Quartet," a poem too rich and complex to be quoted without doing it serious injustice. I mention it here in order to encourage the reader to read it slowly several times so as to savor the richness of its language and ponder her thoughts on masculinity and gender relations.

Sandra Beasley is a teacher, memoirist (Don't Kill the Birthday Girl), editor, but most importantly, a poet. With Made to Explode she has presented us with what will be one of the year's essential poetry collections but also a book that one will return to many times to discover new pleasures and thought-provoking writing.

Sandra was kind enough when I reached out to her to take the time to answer a few questions about her book and her writing life.

Thank you taking the time to answer a few questions about your book.

Made to Explode contains a number of themes—race, Washington, D.C., as a city where actual people live vs. monumental/Nation's Capital Washington, food, autobiography—yet it coheres beautifully. At what point did you decide you could construct a book from these poems? Or were you writing toward a collection from the beginning? How do these themes fit under the book's title?

In 2017 and early 2018, I was focused on editing Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. Naturally this led to thinking about my relationships to place and from that, to history. I had written a fair amount about my parents but not, I realized, about my grandparents, the last of whom passed away in July 2018. This collection demanded to be written if I was going to keep writing at all. I took a few formal risks—prose poems, Golden Shovels—and I wanted, generally, to write poems that felt accessible in their narrative style.

This book depicts many facets of life in Washington and its environs. You're a native who lives and works here. What does Washington offer an artist that other places don't? How supportive is the community?

First, I'm not a native! I have to be prompt in correcting that, because the next question should be, "What quadrant were you born in?" I grew up just outside the Beltway in Vienna, Virginia, where my parents still live. We also have ties to Seven Corners and McLean. I first moved to Dupont Circle in fall 2002, when I started my graduate studies at American University.

Washington, D.C., offers permeability and therefore a freshness of culture because people cycle through for opportunities attached to diplomatic outposts, non-profit and advocacy work, and politics. The good news is that there is always plenty going on, and an unusually high percentage of our programming and museum access is free. We have a fantastic
theater scene .
Local grant support for practicing artists is solid, and I particularly appreciate the administrative work done by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The challenge is that we're a fragmented city, the calendar is crowded, and there's not as much cross-genre arts support as one might experience in smaller towns. We also need our mayor to appoint another poet laureate.

You teach writing at American University and lead writing workshops here and elsewhere. How does teaching affect or enhance your poetry? What are the specific joys and/or difficulties that you derive from teaching?

Teaching requires us to articulate realities that we might otherwise operate on intuitively and somewhat fuzzily. I'm a devourer of books who tends to not make the time to read when I'm stressed by my to-do list. To counteract that self-punishing impulse, my syllabi regularly cover texts I haven't read yet—ensuring that time with the page. I also love the simple interactions and performative impulses of being in the classroom; the chance to get to know my students. I'm an introvert when drafting a given poem, but I'm an extrovert at heart.

This question may be a bit off the wall. Your husband is an excellent visual artist. Do you influence each other or offer feedback on each other's work? Is it helpful to have an artist as a partner?

I met my husband at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and we might never have met otherwise, so there's no question that being artists offers a unique bond. We're careful about in-house critique of projects or proposals—it has to be explicitly requested—but Champneys is an ace reader for my freelance nonfiction pieces, so that has been a real gift. I think we share a general understanding of sleeping odd hours, needing isolated creative time, and an aptitude for shared expeditions to museums, openings, and readings. Fortunately, we both love to cook.

Finally, you've written a memoir about your food allergies. Are you planning to write prose work(s) in the future? What comes now that Made to Explode is in the world?

Swinging the pendulum from poetry to prose is a healthy exercise for me. I'd originally planned to focus on a collection of personal essays after Count the Waves, which was published in 2015. But the 2016 elections and months subsequent caused me to set it aside. I sensed the market and my attitude toward the material would change. I'll either go back into that book, which uses unconventional and lyric forms, or plunge into a researched work on train songs.

I know you're very busy, so thank you profusely for taking the time to respond.

Thanks for the good questions!



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Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of four books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA. More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives

©2021 Gregory Luce
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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