Sandra Beasley on Exploring White Privilege, Disability, and History in Her Poetry Collection ‘Made to Explode’

In Sandra Beasley’s fourth poetry collection Made to Explode, the first poem, “Heirloom,” introduces many of the central themes of the poems to come, with a nod to history, reconciling identity, glistening heirloom tomatoes, and the origin of tater tots. 

“It’s important to know the fundamental hub for this book is food,” Sandra told me after she kindly agreed to a Zoom interview recently. With food as the connecting force, Beasley, who grew up in Virginia, unabashedly tackles themes of race, national and regional identity, and disability with a large helping of wit, compassion, and masterful technical proficiency. 

Can you tell me what led you to these specific explorations?

After I had worked as editor on a food poetry anthology (Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance) I was thinking about my allergies, and things I wouldn’t necessarily get to taste myself. I thought about to what extent my inherited food traditions kind of anchored me, but I also had this kind of melting pot of influences with family from generations back, and that related to living in D.C., which is itself a melting pot. So, for me, there are a few different themes going on in this collection, but food is where they intersect in some ways.

Several of the poems in this collection tackle head-on the idea of white privilege, how it played out in your own life, and how it is seen now through hindsight. In a previous interview you said, “the toughest material in the book is confronting a culture of self-congratulatory, self-segregated, white liberalism where it’s pretty common to see certain reactions of shock and performative anger.” Can you talk about this and how you see that your perspective has changed?

I grew up in a time that in many ways was being praised by some as a “post racial tension.” We were part of a generation of children where it was enforced that to be “color blind” was a positive approach that ushered in a more integrated future. As such, there were a lot of micro and probably macro aggressions that got kind of glossed over by this supposedly enlightened stance, that I then was able to recognize much more clearly due to my own growth and the events of the past 10 years, particularly the last 5. 

I think it’s important to say that the incidences that some of these poems capture would not come as revelatory surprises to readers of color. They are not the ones who need for me to mention these incidences. I hope these poems will engage white readers or white identifying readers in an effective way and I hope in a sharply effective way for some other readers. I want people to have to deal with a creeping sense of “Oh, wait. I did that.”

I think it’s important to remember that the purpose of these poems can’t be to get a gold star for confession or allyship, because that kind of undoes the very work I’m trying to do. I would say that I had to constantly remind myself to hew to the most honest line possible in terms of framing, which meant sometimes having to figure out language that made me uncomfortable, but did not commit violence against those reading it. I would emphasize that, sure, I have managed to make mistakes in these poems, as I do with every poem, but I really, really thought and re-thought the phrasing. The poems have gone through countless edits, and these poems are accompanied by poems that did not see the light of day, did not see print, because I just could not find the right balance.

History, both personal and general, is infused in many of your poems. In this collection you have a series of prose poems about the monuments in Washington. Can you speak to these poems and this interest?

I love to prompt myself to learn about the world around me as part of my writing process. What was exciting to me about the monuments and memorials series was that it gave me reason to research my surroundings more deeply. I grew up in Virginia, adjacent to D.C., and the memorials were the main reason we came into the city. My father was in the military and retired a Brigadier General, so we would come in and have these kinds of patriotic celebrations, and then of course, we all revisited our understanding and enthusiasm for patriotism in the last 5 years, seeing how much it has been weaponized by folks. I needed to revisit some of these shiny childhood memories with a more discerning eye, and in particular focus on how captions and inscribed text created an edited version of history, that is the one that the next generation might just take for granted is the accurate one. 

I think the decision to frame these as prose poems was in part a nod to the resistance to decorative instincts, and pulling away from trying to make it the most flattering version. It’s funny how prose poetry does not let you off the hook for rhythm or musicality. If anything, the tension for the line has to be at its absolute height, without the help of lineation. I wanted the first visual encounter with them to be blocky and kind of flat on the page. Also, so many of these monuments start off being carved from a raw block of marble or granite, so I was also thinking about a sort of pre-carved state of poetry.

I am curious about your use of poetic forms in this collection. Can you talk about your use of form in general? And, specifically from this book, “Non-Commissioned: A Quartet” written in the “golden shovel” form, and based on a Gwendolyn Brooks poem?

The most evident formal play in my books is the sestina, so I knew I was drawn to form where the end words were the driving engine of the technical craft. I used 6 sestinas in my previous book (Count the Waves), but found myself drawn to the “golden shovel” form pioneered by Terrance Hayes. Gwendolyn Brooks was a really important influence for me personally, and I have seen some great examples working with partial texts of hers. I wanted the most ambitious possible interpretation of the form, which meant the full text, so that means the 2 “golden shovel” poems in this collection are also the longest. 

It is rare for me to write a poem that announces mid-draft that it wants to be a sestina. I will carry around a blank template paper that just has the formula of the sestinas repetition on it. I will just scribble in playing with different combinations of end words. The narrative really often becomes reverse-engineered from my love affair with language, which is a great change of pace for me. It’s a kind of puzzling energy that for me is really refreshing compared to some of these poems that start out in this incredibly organic place. 

Changing the subject, your deadly food allergies are the focus in much of your writing. Can you tell me about your history with allergies? You also broaden the lens into the wider world of disability. Can you speak to that as well?

I have lived with pervasive and life-threatening allergies from birth on, so I think what is interesting for me is how my relationship to my allergies has changed over the years. Understandably, early on, I was focused on coping, with trying to create independence from my parents and trying to expand my food palette in my twenties. Having grown up on a repetitive diet that included very few restaurant meals, I then moved to D.C. for graduate school, and it would’ve felt criminal not to take a chance on some of the food available, so I just had to take the risk.

I’ve written about my food allergies in my first poetry collection and my memoir, but my feelings toward them have continued to change both in prose and in poetry. I’ve tried to get more into the politics at what I now identify clearly as a disability, and understanding that although there is danger embedded in my immune system’s reaction to food, there’s also danger inherent to society’s reaction around me. I think that for all the damage allergic reactions have caused to me physically over the years, there has also been less immediately apparent damage from people’s attitudes, language, the sense of being othered or excluded, and that’s what I think is worth writing about now. 

The irony is that literary culture in contemporary American circles, which prides itself on its care and delicacy of language, routinely is ableist in its appropriation of disability as a metaphor. Any given day you can find so many examples of “deaf,” “blind,” “allergic,” “missing limb,” and these very legitimate identities are attached to derogatory notions for the sake of someone else’s aesthetic. It’s everywhere. It is a very fraught thing to bring to people’s attention, especially when they are priding themselves on their “diversity”, including those of different sexualities, faith, and color. And yet they are hosting their diverse event in a venue that’s up a steep flight of narrow stairs. 

The technical craft in this collection is mesmerizing and superb, like an intricate chain reaction ending with the ball popping into the hole.  Can you share some about your technical process, and writing process in general?

I genuinely love revision. I use an approach I call targeted revision, where I intentionally sit down for a given session and pretty much restrict myself to playing with only one aspect of the poem. I’ll do a revision specifically devoted to tense, point of view, or lineation, and as I accumulate a critical mass of poems, I will do this on the level of the manuscript. In the early stages of a draft, I force myself to take out all my line breaks, stanza breaks, and relineate. I find the right and true breaks for the poem will reannounce themselves, and sometimes other ones that I’ve gotten falsely attached to just fall away. I’m willing to be pretty radical and deconstructionalist in my approach to language and the idea, and I think that helps me a lot. 

I’ve never been someone who gets up early to write. I’m a consummate night owl and in my best stretches there is a window between midnight and 3:00 that I can use for my creative projects. In my worst stretches I use it for grading and it’s stressful. One thing I’ve really missed about the past year is that in my normal way of making a living I travel extensively and usually by car. I’ve come to realize that those hours behind the wheel are a real germination time for me. I think I’m willing to sustain the kernel of idea and to kind of work it, and rework it, and code it with ideas or imagery or language for several weeks before I ever set a word down. That’s helpful because it helps me keep the faith that the next poem will come, or the next essay, or book. I’ve always tried to carve out one time a year that feels like a concentrated opportunity to produce a spurt or run of drafting, either through a residency or conference.

Wow. Midnight to 3:00! What advice might you give your pre-publication self about the practice and/or business of writing?

I find it helpful to submerge myself in comparable work, both in terms of theme and formal mode, that echoes what I’m doing. I think sometimes people are afraid of “crowding out” their creative inspiration by reading work that’s comparable. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it can be quite liberating, because if you are inspired by a book and want to do something similar, it can very quickly get put on a pedestal in your head where you picture it as a perfect text. A lot of times actually rereading the book reminds you “oh, I can see the scenes here, the strengths and also the weaknesses.”

Finally, what is something you want to talk about in interviews, but never get to?

Great question. One set of instincts is to think of a handful of hobbies, to think of baseball, or bluegrass music, or origami. I recently teamed up with some folks for the origami poetry project (in partnership with OMiami and SWWIM) and our mode of distribution involved folding printed poems into a simple origami shape and, much to my shock, I realized I was the only person on the team that regularly practiced origami or had any enthusiasm for it. One thing I’ve learned over the years is the things I’m most passionate about in my head I assume everyone else secretly wants to do them or is already doing! I ended up folding all the pinwheels myself and shipping them down to Miami, which gave me a really lovely sense of being hands-on in the project. 

Sandra, I have thoroughly enjoyed our time together and learned so much. I look forward to seeing what comes next for you, and in the meantime, I’m going to get some paper and start folding. Thank you for your time and generosity. 

Made to Explode
By Sandra Beasley
W.W. Norton & Company
Published February 9, 2021