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An Incomplete Guide to the Poetry Books I Currently Have on Tap (or, When and Why Networks Work)

All the “best of” or “holiday gift” lists come out in December and January, when books that had our attention in the early (still chilly, here in New Jersey) days of spring have gotten buried beneath . . . let’s say autumn leaves and winter snows.  Here’s a quick list of newish poetry books currently or very recently on my mind, for those looking for something to read or give someone else right now.  This list takes a form suggested by my college journalism course, in which I was taught that readers of newspapers (remember those?) want to know the gist of a story immediately.  The first paragraph (or was it the first sentence??) must include the answers to all the reader’s basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how.  My fast-and-loose take on that imperative (which, it must be said, ran me away from journalism forever) structures the following list (in alpha order, by title).

Who: Evie Shockley, (Aspiring) Reader

When: From early March to the present date (nearly eight weeks, give or take)—books read, acquired, or ordered.

What: Cineaste, A. Van Jordan
How: Online order (Indie bookstore)

Why: All his previous books, especially M A C N O L I A.

Where: “The road ahead will offer more questions / as answers. I welcome the Midwest smog / as clarity of where I am for once. Snow / makes Lake Erie look like a painting. / What I mean to say is how it looks matters / less than how I feel standing before it.”


What: Descent, Kathryn Stripling Byer

How: At her first reading “up North” in a long while.

Why: Because “the good old South I love to hate” that she writes about in this book is one I recognize.

Where: “Sometimes those dirt roads shocked / me, where they ended up: I watched a dog die / in the ditch. The man who shot him winked at me.”


What: domina Un/blued, Ruth Ellen Kocher

How: Online order (Direct from publisher)

Why: Because of all the things she writes in spite of; because Cave Canem is the gift that keeps on giving.

Where: “Near the teatro di Marcello noon on a very hot June day / A man on a vespa attempted to steal me. Ciao     Bella.”


What: From the Warring Factions, Ammiel Alcalay

How: Sent by the author

Why: Because Diane di Prima’s introduction says: “This book forced me to redefine my life,” and just 60 pages in, I already get it.

Where: “O ROMEO // where art thou / if I kiss this wall / does it not stain this soil / these bricks my palestine / these bricks my olive-trees these / bricks my figs these bricks / my wild thyme.”


What: The Government of Nature, Afaa M. Weaver

How: Hand-to-hand transfer

Why: Because a strong mix of time, experience, craft, and Tai Chi makes for sensation-al poetry.

Where: “My chest has a diamond / where my heart should be, a puzzle’s pieces.”


What: Grace Period: Notebooks, 1998-2007, Aaron Kunin

How: A Kickstarter campaign subscription perk from one of my favorite small presses, Letter Machine Editions.

Why: Because he and I were in grad school together and because reading smart, honest, witty sentences is a delight.

Where: “Because we don’t know where thought takes place, we can put it anywhere.”


What: Hemming the Water, Yona Harvey

How: Online order

Why: Because I stupidly let it sell out at AWP before I picked up a copy!  Oh, wait—wrong question.  Rather: because I’ve been standing (im)patiently in line for her book since I workshopped with her at Cave Canem years ago.

Where: “Four tickets left, I let her go— / Firstborn into a hurricane. // I thought she escaped / the floodwaters. No—but her // Head is empty of the drowned / For now—though she took // Her first breath below sea level.”


What: History, Brenda Marie Osbey

How: Direct-mailed from publisher

Why: Because the best part of blurbing is getting a copy of a book by a poet you have long admired.

Where: “and so we arrive at last in our native land— / the earth itself marked by slavery. / up there, in the open air, the stink, the hot funk of hot blood / the rowdy rebel-niggers of the past.”


What: Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy

How: If memory serves, I picked up this hotness in one of the Indie bookstores where I tend to shop (McJ’s or St. Mark’s)

Why: To be collegial (she teaches in the Rutgers-Newark MFA program) and—honestly—because I was moved and intrigued by the Poets & Writers story that introduced the book last fall.

Where: “Now and then, will you help me belong / here, in this place where you became / my child, and I your mother / out of some instant of mystery /of crash and matter / scattered through the cosmos, / God-scooped and poured toward / our bodies.”


What: Proxy, R. Erica Doyle

How: As part of a subscription to Belladonna* Books’ current run—and at one of the poet’s launch readings.  (Ever been so excited about a book you end up with two copies?)

Why: Because this sexy book made me fall in love with the prose poem all over again.

Where: “In this fairytale, too, there is a castle. On a rise above a river. You enter in a cycle. The dew is come in words.”


What: Rhyme Scheme, Tracie Morris

How: SPD Books

Why: Because she has an infinitely fascinating mind—and you can hear it in her work (CD included!).

Where: “I think of you and I think home. Thick man of gristle, bone, fiber, strick of fat, skin. Like Jesus’ feet: Burned brassy, slick God’s fire. Samson cinch, entwined pillars. Turn out, smite severity, brawned. The bad in me gone, heart-made haven, you.”


What: Sacrilegion, Lamar Wilson

How: Handed over by our mutual publisher, Carolina Wren Press, at AWP.

Why: Because a first book of beauty is a joy to be holding . . . and reading.  (See also notes on blurbing and Cave Canem above.)

Where:Jesus, Jesus, Jesus . . . By the time I hear it, / I have passed the beggar by three long strides,/ sashaying in low-rise jeans like Tudda taught / me, accenting the hips Mama brought me. Soon, / I will bask in an estrogen sea at the House of Blues.”


What: Three Count Pour: 2013

How: Surprise from the publisher, Fred Moten (Look for this collection on SPD’s website in the next few months!)

Why: Because I don’t underestimate the power of a good chapbook; and because a well-curated set of chapbooks is, like a top-notch wine flight or tasting menu, not to be passed up.

Where: “This, America, is where we invisibly began,” “You’ve fallen / into a dark pool,” “each small dark place a receiving / area: first word then tongue,” “Woods that were the world under / her dress he dreamt he woke lost / in,” “see bottle / see birdcage / see dresser drawer / see pillow / see rug / see windowpane.”


What: This Isa Nice Neighborhood, Farid Matuk

How: See Letter Machine Editions above.

Why: Because “liminal” is the new normal.

Where: “Here are my young Italians / who won’t buy the Kleenex / though one woman takes me / for a beggar and I get a half Euro— ‘not bad,’ I’d / have said in Tangiers on my way out / of Africa (aren’t we all moving out of Africa?) / and nothing, not the dry grass of Sicily, reminds me of it.”


What: TwERK!, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

How: See Belladonna* Books above.

Why: Because this book is a survival guide to the future—I mean, the present.

Where: “I shuffleboard smooches in the land of the rising sun’s cosplay, papa.”  (Say again?) “I’ll Tilburg to Finland all over her miffy.” (One more time?) “Sweet Toledo, no relation to Speedo. / Vanilla Ohio pickpocket picket fence.”


You will have noticed that instead of answering the question “why” any of you might seek these books out, I offered the reasons why they found their way into my hands or onto my radar.  Letting the “where” (place-based quotations from the books themselves) locate you all as potential readers, I thought of the “why” as a further consideration of the question of audience that has been my theme this month.  Why do I purchase, receive, or read some books as opposed to others?  Looking over my list, what seems clear is that networks rule the day.  I lament the fact that I can’t read all (half!) the books I’d like to read; that said, the books that reach my desk and nightstand most readily are those that travel via channels already carved out.  There are many of them, though: networks of poets I’ve workshopped with; networks of poets at my current and former academic institutions; networks of poets with whom I share a publisher; and networks of poets who share a publisher I’ve come to trust to put out interesting work.  Only somewhat represented here are three channels of acquisition that at other moments play a larger role in my reading life: books purchased because of an exciting reading (which is a lovely way to be introduced to a poet’s work), a compelling review, or an oral/blog/social media recommendation by a reader/poet/critic whose word I trust.

These patterns are fairly different than those I used to have a few years ago.  I took up poetry books much more often simply on a chance recommendation, some name recognition, and/or a very intriguing blurb.  One reason things have changed is that I browse bookstores less often, sadly.  It is easier for me to decide to try a book by a poet with whom I’m less familiar when I can flip through it and get a real sense for whether I want to invest my time in it.  Another reason is that I know more about what I most enjoy in poetry—and know from experience a lot more about poets who are likely to deliver the goods.  Still, I’m always on the lookout (or listen-out) for poets, established and emerging, whose brilliance will light up some previously dark corner of my mind.  And I take the opportunity, when I can, to spread the word to my various networks about books that interest me.  This month, Harriet readers, that includes you!  Here’s hoping that you will find flashes of enjoyment and more in some of the books above.

Originally Published: April 29th, 2013

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, poet Evie Shockley earned a BA at Northwestern University, a JD at the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English literature at Duke University. The author of several collections of poetry, including a half-red sea (2006) and the new black (2011), Shockley is...