Reading List: July/August 2017 (Part I)
The Reading List is a feature of Poetry’s Editors’ Blog. This month contributors to the July/August 2017 issue share some recommendations. So many contributors responded that we divided the list in two. Part II appears next week.
I’ve found myself to be the kind of writer who reads sparingly and writes much more than he reads. This may be due to my profession as an engineer, which makes heavy demands on my attention. But I’ve been told that this writing more than reading is unusual, that my writing could drastically improve if I read millions of books, that reading is the heart of writing. I agree with all of it. I’ve given it a fair shot—reading, reading, writing, reading—though over time I find myself writing, writing, writing, reading. A beautiful aspect of this process, in my humble opinion, is that the books I do read go deeper into me. They haunt me. They have direct impact on my voice, my choice of words, the way I view literature. They stand with me in the void that is creation, and show me their pieces.
A book that recently had such an effect on me is the debut collection of Morton Marcus, Origins, published originally in 1969. I found it at a bookstore in Santa Cruz—I opened a page and read it. It stunned me. I opened another page, and felt a greater electricity. I bought the book and finished it that night. Marcus’s sparse language combined with his beautiful and unexpected imagery made this collection pop for me. The atmosphere in each poem gives rise to a world of its own, yet strings from that ambiance are carried over to other poems to stir diverse complications and scenarios. The way he extracts the essence of a person, the way he explores an object, the beauty he unfolds from a small space of words—they twist my understanding of poetry. If one thing about the book got me the most, it’s the powerful last lines that end almost every poem. Overall, this book was simply a treat to read.
At the top of my list at the moment is the July/August 2017 issue of Poetry, which was wonderfully and generously edited by Lawrence-Minh Búi Davis, Tarfia Faizullah, and Timothy Yu. I am lingering over every single poem. It is a wonderful mix of new and old friends. The best part is that I keep thinking of other poets I would have wanted to see in this issue. I would hope everyone who reads this issue uses it as an inspiration to seek out even more Asian-American voices. I would like to suggest an interested reader might seek out work by Brynn Saito, Jai Arun Ravine, Soham Patel, Meena Alexander, Amanda Ngoho Reavey, Bhanu Kapil, and Aditi Machado. But that’s just off the top of my head; there is such richness out there to be read and this issue is a wonderful gesture.
I have recently found and devoured in a single sitting Nature Poem by Tommy Pico. I’m so alarmed by how good this book is. It’s conversational, lyrical, saucy, and all the while bristling with real imminent danger. While Pico begins by presenting his own version of an urban pastoral setting—changing up the answer to the question of what counts as “nature writing”—the book slowly and subtly shifts to truly interrogate the nature poem, all the while constructing one around the reader. It is poetry, it is diary, essay, literary criticism. But above all else, it is a good read. Having finished the book in one go I plan to immediately go back to the beginning and start again.
I’ve just finished the short prose book Crazy for Vincent, which Hervé Guibert assembled out of fragments from his diary after the death of his young lover, Vincent. It’s a counterpoint to Nature Poem in a way, with echoes of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover hovering in the background.
I am also currently reading a book in Semiotexte’s excellent “Interventions” series called Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity by Gerald Rauning. Ever since I read Mark Nowak’s essay “Notes Toward an Anti-Capitalist Poetics” (collected in an out-of-print chapbook called Workers of the Word Unite!) I have been curious to read critical thinking on the role of universities in knowledge production and, as not quite a corollary, in fostering artists and writers and artistic/literary production. How far are we away from days of court poets and sponsored artists whose responsibilities were to promote the imperial and nationalist programs of their patrons? It is a question we better answer and thoroughly.
Finally, I am engaged with the powerful tome Visceral Poetics by Eleni Stecopoulos. Stecopoulos examines experientially the physical impacts of poetry and sound through an extensive look at healing practices, language-based therapies, and an examination of the work of Antonin Artaud. This book is the result of long years of academic research, creative production, and a storied series on Poetry and Healing that Stecopoulos organized around the Bay Area.
This summer’s reading has unintentionally been all about courage. I’ve been hungry for writing that tackles and reframes intrapsychic struggle, solitude, and longing. One poetry collection that does that brilliantly is Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book, a brilliant feast of musings and fragmented memories. As someone in an on-again, off-again relationship with sleeplessness, I was in awe of what she makes with it, using the nighttime hours to dissect everything from aging to motherhood. The book is written in a series prose snapshots, lists, and confessions, resembling both a fever dream and, in its winsome, charming way, a bedtime story.
Perhaps the most fearless collection I’ve read in years is Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things. These poems are sentient and unsettling, turning a microscopic eye on all the little encounters that make a life. Love and death, womanhood and identity, all emerge as lighthouses in this collection as Limón works masterfully with memory to tell a narrative as much hers as it is collective.
This has also been my year of reading nonfiction, a genre I’ve always felt intimidated by. A topic I’ve been long fascinated with is loneliness—more specifically, loneliness as it intersects with displacement and creativity. Olivia Laing’s captivating The Lonely City offers a wry, unflinching look at the history and function of loneliness, knitting autobiographical vignettes of her move to New York City in her thirties with larger explorations about modern connection-seeking, urbanization, and the lives of various (lonely) creative figures, showing the reader the ways that loneliness can be the thing that tugs us to one another.
The Devastations by Melissa Buzzeo.
Compassion by Norman Fischer.
Calamities by Renee Gladman.
Earth by Barbara Marciniak.
Quantum Evolution by Johnjoe Mcfadden.
Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.
The Changing Room by Zhai Yong-Ming.
Decoded by Jay-Z.
Lawrence Joseph may be the most relevant American poet of our time. He delves deeply into the social problems plaguing individuals and society, thinks even more deeply about the “truths” of those problems, and is masterful at transforming his thoughts and meditations into authoritative and unforgettable poetry.
Here are excerpts from his previous books, including the forthcoming So Where Are We?
From “Do What You Can” in Shouting at No One (1983):
I wonder if they knowthat after the jury is instructedon the Burden of Persuasion and the Burden of Truth,that after the sentence of 20 to 30 years comes down,when the accused begs, “Lord, I can’t do that kind of time,”the judge, looking down, will smile and say,“Then do what you can.”
From “There I Am Again” in Curriculum Vitae (1988):
Today, again, in the third year of unlimited prosperity,the Sunday night the city burnsI hear sirens, I hear broken glass, I believethe shadow of my father’s hand that touches my hair,my cousin loading a carbine, my uncle losing his mindtoday in a place the length of a pig’s snoutin a time the depth of a cow’s brain.
From “Over Darkening Gold” in Before Our Eyes (1993):
So here we are. Thieves stealing from thievesin a society of complex spheres,wondering what you should do. And stillstars blown outside the eye’s corner.
From “The Game Changed” in Into it (2005):
The phantasmic imperium is set in a chronicstate of hypnotic fixity I have absolutelyno idea what the fuck you’re talking aboutwas his reply, and he wasn’t laughingeither, one of the most repellant human beingsI’ve ever known, his presence a gross and slipperylie, a piece of chemically pure evil. A lawyer—although the type’s not exclusive to lawyers.
From “So Where Are We?” in So Where Are We? (2017):
So where were we? The fieryavalanche headed right at us—falling,flailing bodies in midair—the neighborhood under thick gray powder—on every screen. I don’t knowwhere you are, I don’t know whatI’m going to do, I heard a man say;the man who had spoken was myself.
I’m obsessed with Chloe Honum’s chapbook Then Winter (Bull City Press, 2017), which explores mental illness and the natural world with precision, tenderness, and complicated insight. Honum demonstrates a mastery of the short poem and the prose poem. I can’t and don’t want to get over the final lines of her prose poem “Offerings”: “But I have rain in my hair. This much is true. Let me bring it to you.” Or consider this ending: “looking up with yearning, as though / we could solve that string of bird and sky arithmetic / and know the ages of our souls.” I had the honor of reading with Honum recently and was blown away. Hers is a poetry so alive and compassionate that it can hurt to read—like stepping out after too much time in a stuffy room and having to adjust one’s eyes to the light.
Jennifer S. Cheng also writes unforgettable prose poems; the form makes up the bulk of her innovative full-length debut, House A (Omnidawn, 2016). This book has lived on my desk and in my hands for months now: a challenge to write better and a cherished companion. House A is one of the few books that I can say sees me. Though our experiences have been vastly different, Cheng speaks to and somehow transforms who I am, as a fellow child of Chinese immigrants. In one poem, Cheng uses words I’ve never seen before in poetry—“lu dou tang”—and she leaves them untranslated. Here’s the sentence in which these words occur: “This can be a kind of narrative: scents of backyard plants, the acoustics of kitchen linoleum, cold lu dou tang to follow up our lunches.” Reading this sentence, I wept with a joy and knowledge I didn’t know was shared.
Oliver de la Paz
I’m spending the summer trying to fill up with words and right now Chen Chen’s book, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is knocking me out with its audacity, its humor, and its overall generosity of spirit. It’s a very ecstatic book working in ways that I don’t as a writer, so I’m learning a great deal. I’m generally fascinated by poetry collections that espouse a tone and a style and that sustain the tone and style over the duration of the collection. In that regard, Allison Benis White’s Please Bury Me in This is beautiful, spare, and full of gorgeous silences that leave me bereft. I’m also enjoying Leslie Harrison’s new book, The Book of Endings, and the way that the book carves a contemplative space that is evoked by the long and unpunctuated poems that drive me forward into immediate introspection. I’m also delighting in rereading the first collection of poems by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Water & Salt. It’s a heart-rending collection of music, meaning, and loss and I really look forward to what she has in store for her next book.
As for other books, I’m reading Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, as part of the research and reflection I’m doing for a manuscript on parenting and my son on the spectrum. I’m also dipping into other nonfiction to teach myself tone and scene, so I’m reading Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses. I’ve also got Zadie Smith’s White Teeth on audiobook for when I go on my daily dog walk.
I’ve been on an author biography binge lately—John Worthen’s D.H. Lawrence, Geoff Dyer’s brilliant and unclassifiable Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H. Lawrence, A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy, Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens and Katherine Mansfield. All this has left me wondering how the biographies of future writers will be written without the treasure trove of letters. So much is contained in there—gossip, envy, fears, friendships, and so much can be constructed from them. People are always trying to make separations between art and life but I feel enriched knowing that Tolstoy never began writing a novel without first reading a novel by Dickens, that he spent three years reading everything by Shakespeare in order to write a nasty essay about how bad he was. You realize the echo chamber with writers is airtight and that competitiveness can transcend centuries.
One poetry anthology I’ve been dipping into is In Person: World Poets, filmed and edited by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and Neil Astley. It bounces wonderfully across the world and has the added video bonus of seeing poets read their own work, often filmed in their writing lairs. Ruth Stone is particularly wonderful on here. Also, The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith. Terrance Hayes’s golden shovel form is genius and now sits beside the sestina as my most favored form.
It might be blasphemous for a poet to say this, but I heart Bob Hicok. I’m reading and re-reading Sex & Love &, and I’m also looking forward to John Burnside’s latest collection, Still Life with Feeding Snake, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s forthcoming Oceanic.
I found so much solace in rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God. In it, Janie looks inside herself and finds there an expansive space, a silk-cool waiting dark. In it, a black woman raised on hurt turns inside herself and finds there the substance of her own knowing. And it is a book that begins and ends in her friendship with another woman, Phoeby, who shares this knowing with her. And it is a book in which the earth and animals—though complexly—share in her knowing, too.
I’m reading for my comprehensive exams, and—thus—as a non-black reader—I am immersing myself in black literature, reading chronologically through the twentieth century. For critical perspective, I’ve just started Kevin Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. Quashie asks readers to be attentive to black interiority, for our cultures always demand of black people performance, resistance, voice—but does that leave room, Quashie asks, for the fullness of black personhood?
And I have been re-reading Cane. As a mixed-race person who looks white, as a queer person whose life looks straight, I am always, always thinking about passing and, even more, about unpassing—if such a thing is possible. Jean Toomer’s Cane is, I think, an act of unpassing—one he tried almost immediately afterward to reverse. White-skinned black from the North, when Toomer traveled to Georgia and for the first time heard its folk songs, he felt such a longing for the land, for the people that were both his and not, and he transmuted his desire into that fragmented, fierce, singular whole that is Cane.
Cane is a stand-in for home—book as home and the impossibility of home at once. And in this lineage of home-not-home I have recently, with immense pleasure, read Jennifer S. Cheng’s first book, House A. In one of its prose poems, a small girl falls asleep in the sunshine of a car, and I feel myself lingering here inside a childhood that is not mine but a longing that is.
Stanzas in Meditation: The Yale Corrected Edition by Gertrude Stein, edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina (Yale University Press, 2012). Used to be that I’d carry Tender Buttons with me everywhere I went. Well, it got replaced in 2012 by the corrected edition of Stein’s long poem, described as “a hymn to possibility” by John Ashbery. A book I return to daily.
“The Boat is Tethered to the Floor”: After the Harlem Renaissance by Helene Johnson (Lost & Found, Series IV, 2013).
of plethorathe starsthe hinged warsthe narrow corridors ofetcetera.
Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde by Peter Quartermain (University of Alabama, 2013). This year, I read Stubborn Poetries throughout the cruel month of April, choosing, instead of taxes, to revel in parataxis:
a species of fragmentation, in which the elements of the poem only acquire full meaning in relation to one another as the parts begin to coalesce: we learn the details of a perception before we arrive at its complete expression—and even when it is complete the words and their plural connections shift and realign themselves anew.
No other scholar has excited & inspired me more to read, learn from, & take pleasure in the poem than Peter Quartermain.
The Edge Is Where the Centre Is: David Rudkin and Penda’s Fen: An Archaeology, edited by Sukhdev Sandhu (Texte und Töne, 2015).
Long before historians and anthropologists began talking about the inseparability of ‘nation and narration’ and about ‘the invention of tradition,’ David Rudkin delivered a primetime masterclass on how storytelling can question state myths, unlock submerged traditions, and liberate the imagination from an imprisonment in which it did not even know it was held.
Counter Daemons by Roberto Harrison, Litmus Press 2006.
I lose all my digitsto the moon that will one day be bareto the parched piles of breathing in farmsto the doorways that promise a morningon the accident prone to a murder of chanceevery mouse in the dust in the kitchenwill harvest the cold.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor.com, 2016). Big Machine: A Novel by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau, 2010). Victor LaValle is a master composer of weird fiction, the only kind I get around to reading throughout the busy school year, in all honesty. He is also a Queens native who sets his stories in the borough—a rare occurrence in publishing. I enjoyed The Ballad of Black Tom for its sincere embrace & wicked subversion of Lovecraft’s racist & xenophobic Cthulhu mythos. Currently halfway through Big Machine, which I began less than a week ago, I find the novel equally gripping, terrifying, & hilarious as heck.
Providence by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press, 2016). Similar to The Ballad of Black Tom, Moore’s masterpiece of a horror comic deconstructs Lovecraft’s oeuvre to include the writings of his underground cult of true believers, doing for weird fiction what Watchmen achieves in the genre of superheroes/pulp novel. Deeply unsettling & timely.
PAL is a phenomenal roving library curated by artists/writers Emmy Catedral and PJ Gubatina Policarpio, & their recent celebration of America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan (University of Washington Press, 2014) at Knockdown Center inspired me to re-read it. A searing road novel that precedes Kerouac’s publication by eleven years, America Is in the Heart offers the, er, flip side to white hipster wanderlust: kaleidoscopic reportage & visions of codifying xenophobia against Asians and migrant workers of color in the early decades of the American century.
Norse Gods and Giants by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire (Doubleday, 1967). My wife loves Scandinavian culture and bought this original edition of the D’Aulaire classic for us to introduce to Loki, our daughter.
On Walking On by Cole Swensen, Nightboat Books 2017.
Thoreau, in his notes, notes the fact that a leaf has no inside, that shadowstills a breeze. The architecture of all living things is a cathedral of trees.
Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock by Jess Jarnow (Avery, 2012). I always refer to my first book of poems, the time at the end of this writing, as an indie album. Jarnow’s engrossing biography of YLT, one of my favorite bands, covers the history of this trio of Mets devotees, & of the genre their music helped define.
The Little Red Hen/La Gallinita Roja retold by Carol Ottolenghi, illustrated by Reggie Holladay (Keepsake Stories, 2007). Loki’s current go-to bedtime read-aloud.
Private Archive by Stephen Motika (Albion Books Series Six, 2016).
Is the tomb a fetish? Perhaps. It traveled until he would havenothing to do with it. It was lost before he found it again.Never caring or never knowing caring in his care.
Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda by Pablo Neruda, translated by Forrest Gander (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). Last weekend, poet/critic/painter Tom Fink introduced me to Gander’s astonishing new translation, which I read aloud to him and Loki as they collaborated on a couple of new paintings in his basement studio. Perfect timing, too, following my recent viewing of Pablo Larraín’s phenomenal anti-biopic Neruda, starring Gael García Bernal.
A Border Comedy by Lyn Hejinian (Granary Books, 2001).
STORIES OFTEN GO into the dark and stay thereTo changeSpringing from nocturnal soundsInto experience which daylight might otherwise obliterateDrawn from dark moods that cannot be called linear.