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The City and the Writer: In Washington, D.C., with Sandra Beasley

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.                         
                                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Washington, D.C., as you feel/see it?

Mark Twain in an interview in 1889 said, “My doctor told me that if I wanted my three score and ten, I must go to bed early, keep out of social excitements, and behave myself. You can't do that in Washington. Nobody does.”

It's five in the morning as I write this from my one-bedroom apartment in Southwest, which is on the sixth floor of a charming but severe 1960 building designed by I. M. Pei. Through one window, the freeway hums with the earliest of commuter traffic; through another window, the last lights of Nationals Park are dimmed after last night's loss to the Orioles. If I crane my head, I can see the Capitol. A few blocks from here, the sellers at the fish market are setting up displays of crab and oysters, and a mile away, the Secret Service is setting up checkpoints for the traffic surrounding Pope Francis's visit. 

D.C. is not always partying but it is always awake, always on the cusp of Some Important Thing. Unlike New York City, we're never quite cool enough to take it in stride. 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I've lived in D.C. proper for over a decade, so Washington has been the setting for any number of personal heartaches. But my thoughts go to being in the car with my father, shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and having him drive by the Pentagon, where he had been that day. He didn't attach any false ceremony to the trip. He just wanted me to see how it looked before the construction scaffolding went up and the power washers cleared away the soot. I knew in that moment that the city would change, and it has; a slow violence beyond the initial loss of life. Barricades went up where there had been none. A presumption of concern replaced an atmosphere of trust. 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

In 1894, architect Thomas Franklin Schneider's vision of a “residential skyscraper,” The Cairo, went up in the Dupont Circle neighborhood and towered over all at 164 feet. By 1899, the Height of Buildings Act determined that no edifice could exceed 110 feet. That has since been amended to 130 feet for commercial buildings, but we still have one of the least fettered skylines of any city. You might tend to forget it, in going about everyday business, until you catch sight of the Washington Monument from all the way up Sixteenth Street NW.  

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Being “from” here is tricky business, because of our proximity to Virginia and Maryland. The communities are enmeshed, but try to claim you're from here to a native and the question comes back quick: “Which quadrant?” To visit the Smithsonian on the weekends is not the same as watching your neighborhood burn during the 1968 riots, or hearing Chuck Brown in your teenage club days. Sterling Brown, Edward P. Jones, Thomas Sayers Ellis, George Pelecanos, Elliott Holt—they are truly from here, and the city's blood flows under the surface of their words. 

That said, we have a richer literary community because of authors and teachers like Myra Sklarew and Richard McCann, both from Maryland, and transplants such as fiction writers Susan Coll and Mary Kay Zuravleff. Rod Smith might have been born in Ohio, but he does triple service as a poet, editor, and manager of Bridge Street Books, which has the best poetry section in town. I'm particularly glad to be here at the same time as poets Kyle Dargan, Natalie Illum, and Maureen Thorson. 

Is there a place here you return to often?

I could eat every third meal at 2 Amys. The National Gallery is a go-to way to spend a Sunday afternoon—particularly when my husband, a painter, is free to join me. I love walking through the FDR Memorial on a spring night when the quarried stone glows with reflected cherry blossom blush, and I visit the United States Botanical Garden every December to see their holiday model train display.

I miss Town and Country, the old piano bar at the Mayflower Hotel. Sambonn “Sam” Lek poured a cocktail called the Smoke Out, which married scotch and gin, vermouth, and a twist of lemon. Another spot that's gone but not forgotten is Visions, an indie movie theater just north of Dupont Circle. Visions was only open for four years, but two of those happened to be my first years in the city. I went for midnight screenings of Donnie Darko and French pornography. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Anyone is free to visit the Library of Congress, whose Jefferson Building has a magnificent atrium. The building might feel like an empty icon if the current staff at the Poetry and Literature Center, led by Rob Casper, didn't do such a great job hosting vital and contemporary events. Earlier this month, I attended a noon lecture by Srikanth Reddy on ekphrasis, as well as Juan Felipe Herrera's inaugural reading as Poet Laureate. He introduced us to his third-grade teacher, who had flown in from California. He performed a corrido dedicated to Sandra Bland. He got a Washingtonian crowd to chant, “We want the tuna.” What more could you want? We gave him a standing ovation. 

Or . . . Langston Hughes’s room at what used to be the Twelfth Street YMCA. The apartment that Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein shared at The Ontario. St. Elizabeth's Hospital, where Ezra Pound was imprisoned for twelve years on the grounds of treason. Congressional Cemetery, where Walt Whitman's lover, Peter Doyle, is buried. Whitman met him while riding the streetcar line Doyle conducted, which passed by the Treasury Department where Whitman clerked; some scholars believe “O Captain! My Captain” was inspired, in part, by Doyle’s experience of seeing Lincoln assassinated at Ford’s Theater. This city is teeming with literary history. 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Three times I have lived within walking distance of the National Zoo, which inspired Randall Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo.” We have a troubled zoo—frankly, we don't compare to San Diego or St. Louis—but it’s ours, it’s free, and I am loyal to it. When five cheetah cubs were born in 2005, I made a stop by their enclosure as part of my daily post-office runs. When I was recovering from a Mississippi-bred break-up, I spent hours watching the peacocks in the open-air aviary. I notice when the elephants need a bath. I get defensive when the tourists only care about the pandas. When you make a lunch date with an octopus named Pandora, you know you’ve created a neighborhood within your neighborhood. 

Where does passion live here?

Call us names all you want: we're nerdy, we're verbose, we're not the most fashionable. But the residents of Washington, D.C., are pretty damned passionate. That's in a city where key decisions are being made in every imaginable field of science, technology, domestic policy, international relations, medicine, and art. I'm proud of that. We're also a city of fierce readers, as a visit to Politics and Prose will prove on any given day. 

What is the title of one of your works about Washington, D.C., and what inspired it exactly?

My poem “One-Tenth of the Body,” which appears in the collection Count the Waves, was inspired by the June 2009 Metrorail collision that claimed the lives of eight passengers and the train operator. I was at an artist residency in Wyoming when the accident occurred, and yet I felt physically wrenched by the news. The Red Line? That was my line. The mountains of Sheridan were beautiful, but what I wanted, in that moment, was to be home. 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Washington, D.C., does an outside exist?”

Sometimes people try to say they are “outside D.C.” as a way of saying they are outside politics. People spend a lot of time on defining boundaries here: insider, outsider, underdog, overlord. Perhaps because I grew up in a military family, I always cultivated an ambivalence toward those qualitative categories. Administrations come and go; you do what you do. Sometimes you ally. Sometimes you resist. Either way, you stay in the mix. One of the most maddening things I ever heard someone say was that our city inherently inhibited poetry, that there was too much “static” overwhelming the poet's “antennae.” That strikes me as an aesthetic that produces a very pretty landscape with no real people. Give me a little complication, please. My antennae can handle it. 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves, which was published by W. W. Norton in 2015. She won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize for I Was the Jukebox, and the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize for Theories of Falling. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, AGNI, Blackbird, and Virginia Quarterly Review, and was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2010, as well as several other anthologies. Beasley is the recipient of a 2015 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2013, she served as the Distinguished Writer at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, and the Writer in Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, Norfth Carolina. Other honors include the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, a University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, two DCCAH Artist Fellowships, and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She has received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, VCCA, and Vermont Studio Center. Her nonfiction has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Oxford American. In 2011, Crown published Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life, her memoir and a cultural history of food allergies. Beasley teaches in the University of Tampa low-residency MFA program and lives in Washington, D.C.

Published Feb 24, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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