COUNTDOWN TO PUBLICATION: Here! (On Writing as a Woman)
Written by
Sandra Beasley
April 2010
Written by
Sandra Beasley
April 2010
Thank you for helping me welcome I WAS THE JUKEBOX into the world. Since I introduced myself to the She Writes community with a story, I thought I'd close out my "Countdown to Publication" posts with another story. There are three poems in this book called "Signs"; together, they form a triptych of small, intimate scenes of domestic grief. In one of them, originally titled "After Miscarriage," a woman struggles with the loss of a first-trimester fetus. While everyone expects her to move forward--whether by getting angry, or getting pregnant again, or getting back to whatever constitutes "normal"--she wonders: ...How, then, to explain that for weeks her baby had been a trout, a nesting of cool bones and pale flesh sewn to the bottom of a muddy river? She compliments the peach cobbler. She feels. She does. And she has always known her fingers to be a net she could not lace tight enough. [from "Signs," I Was the Jukebox] This poem is older is older than most in Theories of Falling, my first collection. When I wrote "After Miscarriage" I was just out of graduate school, fumbling to find my writing self without the constant feedback loop of an MFA program. I was writing, sending out, getting generic rejections, writing more, sending more, being rejected again. Each day I went to a nonprofit job that felt like an ill-fitting jacket; each evening I went to a different local bar to hear some band (any band) and drink too many watery scotch & sodas; then I'd come home to my tiny apartment in the city, where the occasional roach and an overgrown trailing jade plant were the only signs of life, and stare out a window overlooking a gas station. On one hand, it was a time of terrible loneliness. On the other hand, I was free to write whatever I wanted, doubting it would ever see a printed page. "After Miscarriage" was a poem of tangled provenance--inspired by the experience of a friend of my mother's, something overheard--the kind of penny you drop into a deep well, expecting to never hear it land. Then it landed, in a California annual called Reed. Then is landed in Best New Poets 2005. This was a breakthrough poem. But I never honored it as such. I didn't use it in applications, telling myself that at 12 lines, it was too short to be worth one page of a five-page writing sample. I didn't bring it to readings, telling myself no one wants to hear about miscarriage on a Friday night. I didn't include it in my first book, telling myself that it couldn't sit alongside poems with "truly" biographical elements ('Allergy Girl,' anyone?). The truth was that the poem made me uneasy. As an English major, I'd noticed some clearly defined paths to recognition for female writers. To have a chance of being recognized in the mainstream canon, gender needed to take a backseat in your poems--perhaps to travel (Elizabeth Bishop) or formal invention (Emily Dickinson) or politics (Denise Levertov). Or you could write poems that focused on the personal with such fiery intensity that the gendered elements were folded into the larger confessional instinct (Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath). The moment you started documenting the lives of women around you, you got shelved under "Women's Studies." So I put the poem back in the drawer. I forgive myself for not understanding, back then, that to be a woman and a writer is to be a woman writer. That said, I owed the poem a home. I owed it to my mother's friend. And I owe it to myself, and you, to promise that I will never put aside a topic because I fear "losing" half my audience. That's not how great literature works, and it never was. The voices in I Was the Jukebox are varied--across era, across gender, heck, even across species--but they share a common refrain: the struggle to connect. We cannot connect without saying what seems unsayable. We cannot clamber out of the margins without sinking our fingers deep into the flesh of the page. Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, selected by Joy Harjo as the winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and published by W. W. Norton on April 5, 2010. * For those of you attending the AWP Conference in Denver this year, please join me at W. W. Norton's bookfair booth for a 3:30 PM booksigning this Friday (April 9). I'm honored to be appearing with Joy Harjo. We will be toasting the birth of my book! I will also perform as part of the TypewriterGirls' cabaret line-up (poetry, burlesque, and whiskey games) on Thursday night (April 8) at the Mercury Cafe. If you're not attending AWP, please consider joining me for one of these upcoming readings: Tuesday, April 13 - 7 PM - Reading with Joy Harjo at Barnard College in New York, NY. Thursday, April 15 - 7:30 PM - Reading with Jason Koo at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA. Sunday, April 18 - 2:30 PM - Reading for the Frequency Series, with Dora Malech, at Four-Faced Liar in New York, NY. Thursday, April 29 - 5:30 PM - Reading at New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville, VA. Sunday, May 2 - 1 PM - Reading and launch party at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC. Sunday, May 16 - 4 PM - Reading at Chop Suey Books, with Susan Settlemyre Williams, in Richmond, VA. Friday, May 21 - 8 PM - Reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables, FL. Friday, May 28 - 6:30 PM - Reading at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD. Tuesday, June 8 - 7 PM - Reading in the Word for Word Series at Bryant Park in New York, NY. Wednesday, June 30 - 5 PM - Reading at Square Books in Oxford, MS. * And in closing, a photo of my poem "You Were You"--which lends the title phrase to I Was the Jukebox--which was hand-scrawled and posted in the window of Square Books in Oxford, MS, in celebration of National Poetry Month.

Onward! And with thanks to you all...

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  • Victoria Mixon

    Congratulations, Sandra! Thank you for reminding us we don't write what we think we should, we write what we know .(Although we can never really know what we know until we see it on the page.) I won't be at AWP this year, but Lucia Orth, the author of Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, will be, and I'll mention your booksigning to her. Good luck on your book tour!

  • Lisa Rivero

    Sandra, congratulations! Thank you for sharing your journey here. This is a beautiful way to end this series of posts (and I love the photo of the handwritten poem in the window). Your thoughts on your breakthrough poem are poignant.

  • Michelle Hoover

    Congrats Sandra!