Reading List: December 2014
I have been writing on a biography on Black Mountain poet Larry Eigner for the past four years. What this entails, mostly, is reading “private” letters, primarily from Cid Corman to Eigner (and vice versa) but also from and to Olson, Creeley, and David Gitin.
In one such letter, Corman writes, “The most effective way to bring poetry and modern poetry to bear is to bring the poet immediately into contact with his (or her) audience. Many people think of poets as being somehow ‘dead’ figures, as always of a past….it helps to bring them into its living presence.” One cannot live on Maximus alone, so in keeping with this, I have been reading the work of contemporary poets:
Whose Place by Lydia Cortes
Geode by Ona Gritz
School for the Blind by Dan Simpson
Prelude to a Bruise by Saeed Jones
Wen Kroy by Sheila Black
Atmosphered by Eléna Rivera
The Beautiful Contradictions by Nathaniel Tarn
Forthcoming, I’m keen on Connie Voisine’s Calle Florista, Kathi Wolfe’s Uppity Blind Girl Poems, and Andrea Baker’s Each Thing Unblurred Is Broken and graphic memoir Famous Rapes.
One more book that has a constant in my education is Talking Poetry by Lee Bartlett (University of New Mexico Press, 1987).
Talking Poetry has taken on a magical quality for me. When my father’s book was published, I was finishing high school, and at age 17, I found it impenetrable. When I picked it up again to write my graduate thesis and later (in my forties) to reread the series of interviews with Anne Waldman, Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, and Diane Wakoski, I realized how important these poets had become and how forward thinking my father was in his choice of poets, questions, and ideas. Talking Poetry, whether through poets’ discussions of “The Workshop” (Tarn) so-called Language Poetry (Palmer), music (Coolidge), or the Beats and performance poetry (Waldman) was the “predictor” for late twentieth/early twenty-first century poetics. I say this without exaggeration, and I hope someone will republish it soon.
John Lee Clark
When I was asked to contribute to this feature, I felt wistful and frustrated. There are so many wonderful manuscripts by Deaf authors that I love but which are as yet unpublished and may never be published. In the old days, the printing departments of Deaf schools would produce books, which were sold mainly within the signing community. No more. During the Deaf Pride movement, starting in the early 1970s and ebbing in the late 1990s, there were several Deaf publishers. We now just have one, a micropress.
To name just two buried-in-the-sock-drawer gems: Melanie Bond’s Black Turtle Lady is a lovely collection that tells the story of how a DeafBlind Asian-American single mother and survivor of domestic violence finds new love and her identity. Karen Christie’s powerful chapbook Deaf Awareness is one of only two poetry books ever to make me cry, it’s so beautiful and true.
Two Deaf poets have recently taken courage and turned to self-publishing: The Deaf activist Alison Aubrecht writes poems that are deep and heartbreaking. Her book is called Almost and is available from Lulu. Curtis Robbins, who will finally appear next spring from iUniverse with In Spite of Everything, deserves much more recognition than he has. Many of his poems are absolute masterpieces.
I was thrilled when Raymond Luczak brought out a tenth-anniversary edition of his This Way to the Acorns (Handtype Press, 2012). His latest, How to Kill Poetry (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013), is genre-busting in more than one way. But one of his most important collections, Pronkings, is still unpublished.
Blind poets have been doing well in the publishing arena lately. This year has seen the publication of Daniel Simpson’s School for the Blind (Poets Wear Prada Press) and his brother David Simpson’s The Way Love Comes to Me (Mutual Muse Books), as well as Kathi Wolfe’s chapbook The Uppity Blind Girl Poems winning the Stonewall Competition and is forthcoming from BrickHouse Press. All of them are funny, poignant, and, fittingly, accessible. From the larger disability community, I am especially fond of Ona Gritz’s Geode (Main Street Rag Press, 2014).
One more: A big event for me as a reader this year was the publication of Paul Hostovsky’s Selected Poems (FutureCycle). He’s hearing and sighted but is a member of the signing community. His work is simply delightful!
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how race, disability, poetry, and cultural identity might swim together. Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip challenges the futures commonly imagined for disabled people and the present that those futures prescribe. (If you’re never going to be able to hold a productive job, for example, what is the point of education?) Disability is not a pre-determined limit; Kafer not only critiques the ableist assumptions that underpin much of contemporary society but also suggests alliances that could open more accessible futures.
The authors whose work is collected in Criptiques are not about to wait for an accessible future. They swagger into the sunlight not just to claim but to proclaim crip culture, as editor Caitlin Wood writes in her introduction (entitled “Criptiques: A Daring Space”):
Uppity crips are defying mainstream culture’s insistence on our subordination and doing it with style and humor. We don’t shy away from the realities of our nonconformist minds and bodies – we flaunt them. And in this daring space of shameless flaunting we find fellow crips who affirm and reflect our originality and beauty back at us, just as we affirm and reflect back to them. It’s here where internalized ableism begins to crumble.
Crumbling oppression has long been a project taken on by African-American poets. Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till was written for younger readers, but no less powerful for being written to be accessible to readers close to Till’s age when he was lynched. Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah is a nuanced and complex evocation of the lives of her maternal grandparents, and it suggests a powerful path for engaging our past. Nikky Finney’s Head Off and Split provides other ways to engage and claim a usable past. And Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric – well, I can hardly wait for my copy to arrive.
With wonder and delight, I’ve been reading Steve Scafidi’s brand-new book of poems, The Cabinetmaker’s Window. I’ve cherished Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer and For Love of Common Words for years, and had been awaiting his new collection with delectation. His are poems which, once read, I carry with me.
Cathy Wagner’s Nervous Device makes my brain skip a beat. Take a look at the memorable closing of “Unclang”: “Writing a poem is like reaching two prosthetic limbs out as far as you / can on either side to grab something in front of you. You can’t grab / it but maybe you’ll take flight. // But I’m not trying to grab anything in front of me when I write a / poem. GET that kitty.” One clicks one’s heels with glee.
Poets’ language coursing through my brain right now:
Mónica de la Torre’s Public Domain and Talk Shows.
G.C. Waldrep’s remarkable chapbook The Batteries and the urgent music of Archicembalo.
Rosa Alcalá’s Undocumentaries
Geoffrey Brock’s Voices Bright Flags
Justin Quinn’s Waves and Trees and Fuselage
Frédéric Forte’s Re-
Andrés Neumann’s Decada (Poesía 1997-2007)
Two novels I just read and found deeply compelling: Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine, an absorbing and very provocative book about race and identity, set in Baltimore. And Ben Lerner’s 10:04, which (like his first novel Leaving the Atocha Station) is written with an invigorating disregard for the edge between poetry and prose, as it worries about how to connect with other people and how to make art.
Exciting hot-off-the-press scholarly books about poetry I’m currently reading and exclaiming over: Pablo Ruiz’s Four Cold Chapters on the Possibility of Literature (Leading Mostly to Borges and the Oulipo) and Gillian White’s Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. Also Paul Grimstad’s Experience and Experimental Writing.
Fresh books I can’t wait to get my mitts on: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout. Daniel Borzutzky’s In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy. César Vallejo’s Vallejo: Heraldo de Madrid.
My graduate work tends to dictate a solid chunk of my reading; that being said, I’ve made some neat discoveries this fall, particularly in my game studies course—we’ve read a lot of folks like Alex Galloway, McKenzie Wark, and Johan Huizinga. It’s been interesting. My larger project for the semester explores the relationship between digital poetry and games—it’s been a whole lot of fun digging through things like Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry, Ma’s Poetry as Re-Reading, and Glazier’s Digital Poetics. At the moment, I’m trying to stitch a relationship between more traditional poetry reading strategies and those required by digital poetry. The work of Jackson Mac Low, Jim Andrews, and Jim Rosenberg has proven useful (and quite fun).
Outside of gamer-poet explorations, I’ve just reopened Osip Mandelstam’s Selected Poems—I’m susceptible to linking literature with particular seasons and the wintry character of these poems brings me back just about every year. Mandelstam’s work is at once somehow bleak and revelatory —I never tire of his stones, nor his apples and his snow.
In terms of more contemporary work, I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my copy of C.S. Giscombe's new book, Ohio Railroads, and I have read and re-read several Action Books releases this year, including Don Mee Choi’s The Morning News Is Exciting and Raúl Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love. Both works are pretty staggering to me—I never stray far from Zurita’s insistence that we—as poets, readers, and thinkers—ought to keep on proposing paradise, maybe even especially if the evidence insists that such a pursuit is folly (rephrased from Zurita's Purgatory).
Darrel Alejandro Holnes
Racial tensions in the United States are at an all-time high because of much-needed national attention to violence against young Black men and boys like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
The heart of this conversation in poetry right now is happening around Claudia Rankine's book, Citizen (Graywolf Press, 2014). I'm thrust towards this book by my eager conscience to examine and interrogate this problem and other issues of race, authority, agency, and identity in our nation. The collection packs a poetry punch in the shape of a Black fist. Her "American Lyric" tells the untold story of prejudice in the shadows of this nation's "greatest institutions", namely the institution of white supremacy. 1 Tweet for this great book of poetry: #fearless #truth is true #poetry #rankinesetsmefree
Now, I've always loved reading Black Automaton by Douglas Kearney (Fence Books, 2009), this book inspired me greatly when I was a student. Poetry like Kearney's and work by media artists like Thylias Moss are cutting edge, forward thinking, and hopefully the future of poetry. Kearney's work also examines black masculinity and race in the United States. 1 Tweet for Black Automaton: #werealcool in this #negrorefuge #whereat? #inthemiddle #poetry
And then there is Call and Response by Glenn Ligon at the Camden Arts Centre in London, the first exhibition in a UK public gallery of the celebrated American artist. Go see the show, read his work on the gallery walls. 1 Tweet for Call and Response: #taxrefund #christmascash #arttrip #londonhereicome #timetousemymiles #artispoetry
I’ve been enjoying Laura Kasischke’s The Infinitesimals —a book whose title stretches well beyond its dictionary meaning. I like the way her work leans to the lyrical but also lets things go clunk if and when they want to. Some of her rhyming makes my body ache: “someone’s // skull opened to an awful kiss, or poor prognosis.”
I’ve also been reading through the poems of the late Hone Tuwhare, wondering what a tightly edited selected poems for an international audience might look like. Tuwhare was praised by Clive James in the TLS recently—the sort of thing you tend to notice because (like another much loved New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt) he is so little known beyond a local readership.
I once studied Old English and Old Norse, so have been getting particular pleasure from J.O. Morgan’s At Maldon and Caroline Bergvall’s Drift (a work I would love to catch in its performed version). But my current reading excitement is Penelope Fitzgerald, whose charming, ruthless novels have just been republished in paperback. She feels like Chekhov, but with added recklessness. What Sebastian Faulks once wrote is entirely true. Reading a Fitzgerald novel, he says, is like going for a very strange car-ride. “Everything is of top quality – the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window.” There are several books Penelope Fitzgerald planned but never wrote—the one I miss most is a “biography” of Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop (the four publishers to whom she pitched the idea all turned it down).
I had a reading at my daughter’s previous elementary school. I read from Dog Songs by Mary Oliver, and the kids (including myself) fell in love with it. Only genius poets can write poetry that’s good for kids and adults alike. Currently I am enjoying reading Judith Butler’s Frames of War. Butler challenges us with this very essential question: “When is life grievable?” Her essays don’t give you definite answers but offer intellectual analysis of human insecurity and reactions. Butler is one of my favorite philosophers.
My teaching is my reading during term time, and sitting down to assemble my Reading List on this first day of my Thanksgiving break fills me with gratitude for my students who enthusiastically and curiously engage so many extraordinary works with me, among them: Francis Ponge’s Soap; On Immunity, by Eula Biss; Readings in World Literature, by Srikanth Reddy; David Trinidad’s Peyton Place; Testimony by Charles Reznikoff; Black Automaton, by Douglas Kearney; Anne Sexton’s Transformations; Dance, Dance Revolution, by Cathy Park Hong; The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore; and the essays of Virginia Woolf.
Fall is a busy time, and when I’m not teaching I’m co-editing Canarium Books with my dazzling friends Nick Twemlow, Lynn Xu, and Josh Edwards. Together we’ve been editing forthcoming volumes by Ish Klein, Tod Marshall, Michael Morse, and Emily Wilson. Editing makes for exhilarating reading, and I am grateful for my Canarium family.
Looking forward to my winter break, and the return of reading for the sheer pleasure of it, I’ve got books by Sasha Steensen, Sandra Lim, and Anthony Trollope piled beside my reading chair.
Assumed Knowledge and the Knowledge Assumed from Experience (Catenary Press, 2015) is a chapbook by Jessica Laser that begins with this provocation:
Everything you say is wrong
Everything you say you do
You don’t mean what you do
Not at all
The chapbook nods at Nietzsche, who rarely gets anything “wrong,” unlike Aristotle, who thought men’s voices were so low because of the tension placed on the vocal chords by their testicles, which he thought functioned as loom weights! I don’t read Aristotle. But I do read Anne Carson, whose essay “The Gender of Sound,” is responsible for the Aristotle anecdote.
Testo Junkie (The Feminist Press), by Beatriz Preciado, is a book that articulates the here & now, and the near future with gut wrenching clarity:
At the beginning of this book, I took testosterone (instead of providing a commentary on Hegel, Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, or Butler); I wanted to decapitate myself, cut off my head that had been molded by a program of gender, dissect part of the molecular model that resides in me. This book is the trace left by that cut.
I’m currently teaching a first-year seminar whose theme is, “Transformations.” So I just read Frankenstein and The Souls of Black Folk, which, O my god are you kidding, contains so much poetry disguised as prose:
I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls…Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia?
In the same class we read de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Weirdly, the morning we talked about de Beauvoir, I ordered—not from Amazon—Michael Robbins’s The Second Sex, a book on which I hope not to spill any cranberry sauce.
I’m constantly returning to Angel Nafis’s debut BlackGirl Mansion to see what I can learn about persona, fearlessness, and truly building worlds in my writing. Angel constructs humans in her poem feel authentic in ways I think are rare in poetry. At the end of her book, when the black girl becomes so large that she becomes everywhere, I have no choice to believe her. Angel’s poetry leaves no room for doubt, but plenty of room for love & sorrow & all things that make us whole and complicated, all written in a beautiful, funk toned lyric.
Saeed Jones’s Prelude to Bruise and Hieu Minh Nguyen’s This Way To The Sugar are two of the most stunning debuts I’ve seen this year. Both have the lyrical quality and range of poet’s who have been writing masterpieces for years. Saeed’s epic journey of “ boy” is haunting, gripping, and heart breaking without breaching into sentimentality. His control is stunning, weaving us this intricate, silk smooth yet sharp fabric of a book, taking through southern fields and cold homes to find a beautiful portrait of the soft edges of masculinity. Hieu’s book lets us peek into the life of another boy, building a narrative that shocks me with its brutal humanity and unflinching honesty. He paints his pictures with all the colors of body: blood, spit, teeth, skin—oh, do these poems come to life! This web of family, sexuality, desire, and loneliness caught me off guard. This book is a mirror to our most unspoken selves.
Lastly, let me echo the world and say this. Citizen by Claudia Rankine is a gospel that we all need write now if we ever expect any world better than this one. The end.
Peter Gizzi’s In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 2014):
Lately I have been carrying Peter Gizzi’s new selected poems everywhere I go. I have been enamored of Gizzi’s work for some time and to have such a generous and encompassing dose of his poems in one book is a true and inexhaustible gift. I love how these poems open and open, their syntactic units pushing the formal constraints of language toward dizzying surprises, particularly when Gizzi employs his knack for leaving subordinate clauses suspended in white space, unclosed, unspoken for. The result is a poetic line that disorients as well as recalibrates the reading toward other possibilities, the way, as Gizzi writes, “death and the imagination equals life itself.”
Jenna Le’s Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011):
Another book I have been returning to is Jenna Le’s Six Rivers. For Le, these six rivers are the means in which personal and historic narratives and trauma are carried and interwoven. For Le, no history is independent and every story arrives to the speaker with its vital inheritance of ghosts. Le also practices medicine and approaches her poems, particularly pieces involving her family’s history during the Vietnam War, with the keen eye of both historian and physician, where lines are fashioned with meticulous precision yet are allowed to yield and unravel when needed, when the questions start to open the poems into broader and more visceral interrogations. Of the reoccurring (yet perpetually shifting) body, Le writes, “I have my ancestors to thank / for the skin between my stretch marks…No other heirlooms have lasted.”
Afaa Michael Weaver
Flash Cards by Yu Jian, translated by Wang Ping & Ron Padgett:
Sitting with Yu Jian in Kunming once, he said, “Daoism is everything,” and then he gestured all around the space of the Daoist shrine where we were having tea. These translations walk up to me from where his poems live in Daoist playfulness and wisdom.
Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been by Chase Twichell:
Yu Jian has been a lifelong student of the Daoist texts, and Chase Twichell is a practicing Buddhist. The two paths mirror each other for me. I read her poems and the gift of being able to build such delicate structures from difficult things always amazes me. Then I have the pleasure to know it as a kind of magic.
Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin by Patrick Donnelly:
There is a definite Zen feeling of stillness in these poems. Reading them I am reminded of a story I heard once of an owner of a small restaurant in Japan who performed all his daily business with all the clarity of a tea master. When he wrote your bill or wiped the table clean it was with the uninhibited precision of someone who breathed aesthetically.
The Collected Poetry by Aimé Césaire, translated by Clayton Eshleman:
As a collective reality, the African Diaspora is its own Dao. I have read Césaire over the years to see how race is imagined in the mind of one of the most important poets and thinkers of the twentieth century. In the Daoist way of noting the particular, his poem “Notebook of a Return to My Native Land” immediately takes me home to Baltimore, absolutely the only place where the good traveler can find the genuine crab cake.
I made a trailer for Kristi Maxwell’s new book. She writes incredible poems, including the series “Every Time I Want to Write You, I’m Going to Write a Line Instead.” I have been giddy for Patricia Highsmith’s Little Tales of Misogyny and Seneca’s Declamations. Likewise, thrilled to read “Hidden Labor: Disabled/Nondisabled Encounters, Agency and Autonomy” by Jackie Leach Scully.
Now I am waiting on the post office to deliver Jeni Olin’s Hold Tight: The Truck Darling Poems, Meg Day’s Last Psalm at Sea Level, and June Jordan’s Some of Us Did Not Die.
I love when the temperature first gets too cold to move, and all you can do is read and neglect your text messages. A mess of recent things:
June 4th of this year marked 25 years since Tiananmen Square, and just a few days previous was my family’s 25th anniversary of leaving Shandong, China. It was to say the least, a weird month. I’m reading Liu Xiaobo (translated by Jeffrey Yang, from Graywolf Press) for the first time—his June Fourth Elegies are difficult, pressing and present, existing “between the flower and the tank” indeed.
Cathy Park Hong’s very great and spot-on essay Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde (Lana Turner Journal #7) has caused me to pull out Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and reread it with even greater (stranger) pleasure.
This new issue of the new journal Company which I’m liking so much. See: Corina Copp, Jessica Laser, Marianne Morris. Sometimes a really small issue of a journal with more poems by less poets feels REVOLUTIONARY.
If you want to feel like you’re somebody’s only hope, try All Talk by Rich Smith, just out from Poor Claudia. Publicly, no, never, we reject this, we reject dependence, aching for someone in a poem while still trying to muster a joke. Privately, it is very beautiful.
These books are really good and I’ve read them in the last month:
Empathy by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
La Far by Eric Linsker
America’s Favorite Poem by Jason Koo
Orange Roses by Lucy Ives
Soft Threat by Alexis Pope
Edificio Sayonara by John Yau
On Immunity by Eula Biss
You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake by Anna Moschovakis
- Robyn Schiff
- Reading List
- The Spectator
- Rob Schlegel
- UnAmerican Activities
- Ocean Vuong
- The Frye Art Museum
- Rachel Galvin
- Jam Tree Gully
- Danez Smith
- Dunya Mikhail
- 75 at 75
- Zoe R. Panagopoulos
- Afaa Michael Weaver
- Dan Chiasson
- Jennifer Bartlett
- Marco Franco Di Domenico
- Knar Gavin
- Jillian Weise
- Bill Manhire
- Wendy Xu
- Karen McCarthy Woolf
- Sohini Basak
- Sabotage Reviews
- Darrel Alejandro Holnes
- Book Culture
- May-Lan Tan