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The MFA writing workshop is only part critical feedback, and those enrolled in the Rutgers-Newark program know that I’m big on citizenship–on reading poetry books and reporting back with recommendations and reviews, on sharing the book-love online. Poets have to talk about the work of other poets. It’s like that in the literary community at large. Rare is the fiction writer who reads and appreciates poetry. At multi-genre readings I see them politely zoning out when the poets stand at the podium. When I teach multi-genre workshops or literature classes, I trust the poets in the room will know how to navigate fiction because our literary education since high school is mostly the study of the novel or the short story. Fiction writers on the other hand, never have to study or consider a single poem if they don’t want to. They faintly remember that experience from that other era they were exposed to poetry–elementary school. Okay, so I’m being a bit harsh, but this is National Poetry Month and it’s my poetry party and I can cry if I want to.
I frequently ask my students what they are reading. I don’t care what it is as long as they’re reading, and they can tell me they’re reading graphic novels or memoirs or how-to manuals or field guides to New Jersey flora and fauna. One never knows what shape the next muse will take. I like to recommend books and poems, but I also talk about documentaries (thank you Netflix!), I also talk about art exhibitions at the NYC museums (thank you Whitney, thank you Guggenheim), and I most definitely I talk about the profession, demystifying everything from the cover letter to the blurb.
In the past, I used to resist that last activity since my belief was that these young poeple were in the MFA program to become better poets, not to become self-promoting professionals, but I found a happy medium: I simply answer their questions. If it’s something they need to know I will provide a thorough answer, if it’s not worth a discussion I will keep my response succinct. That I learned at the podium, during the dreaded Q&A session.
And so, in the spirit of sharing, I asked my students to recommend a book to Harriet readers, to highlight a recent title since it’s part of their responsibility as a poet of today to be reading poets of today. I promised my students I’d put their names in lights, but the best I could do is bold. (Holla back, kids!–they cringe when I try to be hip…)
You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake
Coffee House Press
Rec by Armin Tolentino
Evoking an old logic exercise, Anna uses this title poem as a springboard to confront the challenges of overpopulation and diminishing resources. If posed with the scenario of four people, two canoes, a tent, and axes, Anna makes it clear how our civilization would proceed: wage war and support over-consumption. This book is a fascinating tangle of logic twists and contradictions, the same power-structure that allows us as a culture to support a system that deprives its weakest the canoes necessary to survive a night on the lake.
Pretend the World
Holy Cow! Press
Rec by Marina Carreira
Balancing the delicate acts of loving and grieving, Kathryn Kysar microscopes the world of modern woman/motherhood. Kysar’s ability to politicize parenting and gender offer a gripping but blunt way of seeing the lives we create, the wars we wage, the things we consume, and the connections we make without overbearing sentimentality or righteousness. Pretend the World is a searing testament to being a mother in a world filled with monsters.
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands
Rec by Paula Neves
Venturing from the personal to the political, these heartbreaking poems chronicle everything from absent fathers, to an indifferent God, to the brutality at Abu Ghraib. Their lyrical integument both covers and cracks to reveal personal fragmentation and general inhumanity, and one’s inextricable relation to the other. Flynn’s vision is, thankfully not entirely bleak. After the cruelty, “First thing we should do / if we see each other again is to make / a cage of our bodies—inside we can place / whatever still shines.” Long after reading, these poems still shine.
Carnegie Mellon U Press
Rec by Sarah Grossman
We should care about Rachel Richardson’s first book Copperhead because it shows us that the past is a place full of longing. Richardson’s poems live in the rich and traumatic histories of the American South, and Richardson knows that these histories ache to be told, unwound, and made in this present.
U of California Press
Rec by Roberto Santiago
Challenging and inspiring, this is a book of poetry I could revisit multiple times and feel as if I am truly discovering something new with each reading. Voyager is divided into four unique parts situated on very different lands conveyed through the employment of distinct languages, strikeouts and a variety of experimental forms. In addition to the traditional book format, Voyager is also available for digital download.
Song For His Disappeared Love
Translated by Daniel Borzutzky
Rec by Chris Caruso
Zurita’s latest book translated into English builds on his belief that the poet is a channel for those who suffered under the Pinochet regime in Chile, and cannot speak for themselves. Mixing lyrical and confessional approaches, unknown “I’s” expel the horrors of a dictatorship through remembrance of disappeared lovers. Zurita shows a path through which scars and trauma are able to heal.