Sandra Beasley | Writer-in-Residence
Award-winning author Sandra Beasley to serve as writer-in-residence and guest faculty for new creative writing MFA.
- Creative Writing (MFA)
- English (B.A.)
- English & Communication Arts
Sandra Beasley is an award-winning author, editor and educator based in Washington, D.C. Her output includes four poetry collections—Made to Explode (W. W. Norton, 2021), Count the Waves (W. W. Norton, 2015), I Was the Jukebox (W. W. Norton, 2010) and Theories of Falling (New Issues, 2008)—and the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown, 2011). Beasley is the recipient of a 2015 NEA Literature Fellowship, the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, the John Montague International Poetry Fellowship and six DCCAH Artist Fellowships. She has published prose in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and, most recently, The American Scholar.
Teaching has taken Beasley throughout the country, with visiting faculty stints at Wichita State University, Cornell College, Lenoir-Rhyne University and Davidson College. For many years, she taught at American University, and she served as their visiting writer-in-residence from 2020-22. She currently serves on the faculty at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s low-residency MFA in creative writing and regularly teaches at the Writer’s Center and Politics & Prose. In spring 2024, Beasley will join Hood College as the Nora Roberts Writer-in-Residence, and in the summer, will be a guest writer for the inaugural residency of the new low-residency MFA in creative writing.
Beasley sat down with us to discuss the relationship between her poetry and creative nonfiction, forging a career in the arts, her plans for the residency at Hood and the benefits of the low-residency model.
How did you get your start with creative writing?
I was fortunate to be exposed to reading poetry from a young age and to have the chance to write poetry in Fairfax County Schools. I also had parents who were supportive of the arts. My mother is a visual artist, and my father is a lawyer and former military officer but always a longtime patron of the arts. They embraced me finding my way to loving language, loving performance, loving the possibility of a creative path. Though they did worry about how I would keep a roof over my head and health insurance and food and all the things that any parent would worry about. But for me, it was a passion and a goal from the get-go to make a living in the arts.
What attracted you to poetry in particular?
I was a bookworm, which is pretty typical of writers. I was also the only child in my household for the first 10 years. I mention that because books were not just a kind of comfort, but they were also a way to entertain myself. I didn’t just read poems, I recited poems. I brought them into an out-loud space that, for whatever reason, made me feel a little bit less lonely. Also, for a perpetual book carrier, there was something appealing about the ways that poems could be picked up, put down, brought out just for the length of a car ride or the wait in the doctor’s office. I feel like to some extent, your genre chooses you. Since then, I’ve come to love nonfiction as well, but poetry was my first love.
How has your poetry influenced your memoir writing, and vice versa?
My voice is my voice, so there’s always going to be attention to rhythm and lyric phrasing. There’s always going to be an obsession with bright, nerdy details. There’s a lot of research in everything I write, but at a point, I did find that poetry was not giving me the right amount of space for certain life stories I wanted to tell. One of the main areas early on was writing about food allergies, which I then ultimately wrote the memoir about. I just couldn’t do the exposition and the kind of setup for a broader cast of characters and settings that I needed for the storytelling. It didn’t fit in poetry, so the subject matter pulled me into the realm of nonfiction.
I found that was a good space for me. It was also a space where my humor could be more easily appreciated. I think people are more comfortable calling prose “funny” and not seeming like they’re diminishing it. Whereas, I feel like a lot of times in poetry, people worry that if they find something funny, they’re almost insulting your poem, which is weird because I love it when an audience reacts with laughter. Sometimes people have a hard time feeling like they have permission to respond that way.
What are you planning for your residency at Hood?
I will be teaching an undergraduate class on creative nonfiction. I am delighted to extend a formal conversation that I’ve been having with the essay for some time now, which is my great interest in unconventional shape—essays that use flash, essays that use braiding, essays that occupy what we might call “hermit crab” forms, forms that look like something else. I have found that undergraduate students are really excited and engaged by the playfulness of these forms. It sometimes allows them to approach material that is otherwise a little raw or too immediate to their lives to write about directly.
In terms of my own work, I have a mostly completed essay collection that is playing with unconventional forms to talk about thorny, difficult subjects. I’m also going to be following up on a book that is currently on proposal, which is the next memoir. Basically, I’m just excited to be in a creative nonfiction mindset, although I’ll always be happy to talk poetry on the fly.
What are the benefits of a low-residency model?
My relationship with low-residency programs began when I was invited to join the faculty at the University of Tampa’s low-residency program in 2014. I noticed right away that I was encountering students who were further along in their life journey—students who were thinking of writing as a second career, students who were juggling writing with a full-time career, students who were caregiving and students who live with disability—and those are all identities that I can relate to my own MFA program at American University, which did have, at the time, a disproportionate number of students who were older or in their second-phase career. I knew to appreciate early on the variety of stories and groundedness of how they would approach the academic side of the work. There’s also a significant number of military veterans who do low-residency programs, and that was another set of values I was open and excited to work with.
A low-residency program gives a very authentic sense of what it means to be a working writer, which is that you have to steal time. You have to juggle the academic needs with trying to stay creative and loose. In some ways, the inevitable struggle that happens post-MFA program is much more manageable for people who did it in the low-residency model because they have built a community that was always used to supporting each other long distance. They’ve developed habits that fit into a schedule that they’re maintaining, rather than being a reversion or a major shift.
How can students utilize an MFA within their career path?
You can absolutely leverage the degree toward making a living, but that is not the same as counting on making a living as a writer. It’s also not the same as counting on the degree to secure a teaching job. Where the time in a program becomes useful is in thinking about professionalizing your skill set—reading and thinking critically, communicating clearly, developing a signature voice that can be used in your creative pursuit, and creating the structures that are going to sustain your life as a writer.
All of those are very different from the “golden rings” of a two-book deal with a Big Five publisher, a tenure track job, or a series of paid appearances on a speaker circuit to promote your book. Those are all stories that we hear about, and in my case, these are stories that I’ve occasionally figured into, but even under the best circumstances those types of things don’t last. The contract closes, the book tour ends, the job either turns out not to be tenured or the whole gosh-darn school closes.
You have to be realistic. You have to think about it as you are learning how to fuel your creative fire. You have to take full advantage of mentorship and professionalization opportunities—that is the big thing. I think a lot of people come into an MFA obsessed with workshopping their particular book into fruition. That’s great, but if you actually want to make this degree earn its way out, then you have to take full advantage of the mentoring and professionalization.
Don’t be afraid to ask what your CV should look like. Don’t be afraid to ask what a good writing sample would be for a non-academic job versus an academic job. Don’t be afraid to get your foot in the door in terms of requesting recommendations before graduation, while the instructors’ memory of you is still fresh. Give them things to talk about in their letter besides the work that you turned in, so that if you are applying for a non-academic job down the line, they have something to cite that’s relevant.
What do you see as the value of studying the arts in a climate where the humanities are frequently under attack?
I don’t think that the love of the arts is in any danger of going extinct. There is a very lively engagement with television, movies, music, theater and museums, that speaks to the arts. Our love for the arts isn’t going anywhere, but we have to keep critical thinking about the arts also on a public stage. I cannot overemphasize how much pursuing your own creative degree in the arts should not only result in a draft that you’re excited about, but it should also result in a sizable capacity to think critically about other people’s artwork.
We owe it to each other to keep that discourse in the sphere, to not have everything devolve into “thumbs up, thumbs down” and hot takes in response to the things that we’re passionate about reading, listening to and watching. You don’t have to get a full-time job as a book critic somewhere to bring intelligent, meaningful tenets of book criticism into how you read, how you write and how you talk about books. That’s part of how we continue to keep ourselves relevant.
Learn more about Sandra Beasley at her website.