Thursday, June 26, 2008

Guest-blogger Sandra Beasley on 5 Poets Turned Prose Writers

One of the myriad delights of a stay at an artists's colony is meeting the other artists. A couple of years ago, I met Washington DC-based poet Sandra Beasley at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (aka Not the Real World). Sandra gave a reading of her poetry--- such brilliant work that I was not in the least surprised when I later learned she'd won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize for her book, Theories of Falling. Read more about her poetry on her website, and check in with her doings and thoughts and recommendations on her blog, one of the best "po-blogs" in the Blogosphere, Chicks Dig Poetry. Over to you, Sandra!
In mid-July I will be making a foray into the world of prose writing when my column, "The Art of the Bluff," appears in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. This new feature in the magazine, called "The XX Files," will be comprise short essays written by a rotating set of urban, female writers. During my initial drafts I found myself struggling to develop the "muscles" it takes to turn life material into a 750-word essay instead of a lyric poem. I turned to other poets-turned-prose-writers for inspiration. So I would like to use this space to share the work of 5 poets who have branched out into writing elegant, funny, scorching, or heartbreaking works of prose as well.

#1. Alfred Corn
I met Alfred during a stint at Virginia Center for Creative Arts. I was impressed by his thoughtfulness and his ability to discern and articulate both the legacies and the failures of his fellow poets. Listening to his stories as we wandered the grounds of Sweet Briar, I realized that he is one of those rare souls who understands a poetry "community" in the real-time context of everyday interactions, travels, loves. Most of the poet-bloggers I know are still in the "building" stages, and their blogs become a platform for their careers; Alfred, with ten books to his name, certainly doesn't need the exposure. Instead, you can enjoy his blogposts as complete mini-essays--most recently on trips through Budapest and Warsaw.

#2. Lucia Perillo
With her fourth collection, Luck is Luck, which won the Kingsley Tufts Award, Perillo vaulted to the forefront of contemporary poetry. But only those with the opportunity to meet her in person realized that her success came while she was confronting the severe wheelchair-bound stages of Multiple Sclerosis-- a particularly painful diagnosis given her previous identity was as a park ranger in the Cascade Mountains, a lover and wanderer of nature in all its rigors. In her 2007 essay collection I've Heard the Vultures Singing, Perillo confronts the hard truths of living with chronic illness in spare, unsentimental essays that should be read by anyone who has considered writing about medical issues.

#3. John Lundberg
I have no idea how John (who I have a faint but fond memory of from UVA days) ended up writing for the Huffington Post. But ever since discovering his work there, I've been fascinated. Lundberg spins off minor pop-culture references to poetry (as in when Obama was accused of being "a poet, not a fighter," or when teenage vandals broke into Robert Frost's home) into full-blown discussions of the myths, trends and politics that constitute today's poetry world. I wish more of the bloggers at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, took up the challenge to write such complete and timely essays.

#4. Katha Pollitt
Pollitt also writes in a political sphere, as a longtime contributor to The Nation, and she is known primarily for her views on feminism. She has a knack for expressing a distinct and persuasive opinion in a brief space-- of all of these writers, she is the one with the power to Change Your Mind on a pressing issue. But the poet lives: her 1982 poetry collection from Knopf, Antarctic Traveller, has a cult following and she continues to be a lively contributor to the Women's Poetics Listserv. She has also branched into straight memoir, with the fall 2007 release of Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories.

#5. Richard McCann
Richard is That One Professor--the one who pokes and pokes at your work until the truth comes out of hiding. I came to my MFA program at American University infatuated with Ghost Letters, his poetry collection that won the 1994 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, only to realize that Richard had found even greater impact as a prose writer. Mother of Sorrows, a 2005 collection of short stories, gave hope to DC writers that there was still a market for lean, witty, sensitive tales of childhood. His individual essays from The Resurrectionist, a manuscript-in-progress on the topic of living with a liver transplant, have made appearances in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine and elsewhere.

--- Sandra Beasley

---For the archive of Madam Mayo guest blog posts, click here.