Reading List: May 2018
I’ve been somewhat obsessively writing on dance, especially black people dancing. And now I’m really wrapped up in this whole thing about Soul Train lines, so I’ve been reading The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George. I’ve also been watching a lot of videos of Soul Train lines on YouTube, which I believe is also a type of reading—I’ve immersed myself so into this project that I have begun to consider movement a type of language. I’m picking about some old musician profiles from the seventies, which is my favorite era of The Musician Interview. I’m reading a Rolling Stone interview with Van Morrison, another with Patti Smith. There was something about the boldness of a musician who felt they had significantly less to lose, for better or (often) worse. I read with Douglas Manuel at AWP this year and have really fallen in love with his book Testify. The poems are doing such great work sonically, for me. The language bounces. So glad Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency is out in the world properly. It is a book of gentle straining. It’s so patient, which I’ve needed reminders of. Aimee Nezhukumatathil really created something special with Oceanic, I think. It is both delightful and aching, in equal measure.
Last Psalm at Sea Level by Meg Day, a fellow Deaf poet and teacher living in Lancaster, PA. Their presence has been making me feel less alone in the universe. Lyrical, dramatic narratives full of literal and figurative transformations and transcendence.
Heaven Is All Goodbyes by Tongo Eisen-Martin. Eisen-Martin’s poems are full of suspense, lyric, and loose logic. The poems brush through bustling cities of people living so close to the live rail of poverty and violence that everything they say is about survival.
Working Class Voodoo by Bobby Parker is one of my favorite British poetry collections this year. Visceral and beautiful, sometimes vile but always alive.
Mixed-Race Superman by Will Harris is an essay written by one of British poetry’s leading new names. It speculates on the “heroic” mixed race identities of Barack Obama and Keanu Reeves. I laughed and sighed all the way through this.
Kingdom of Gravity by Nick Makoha is a poetry book I revisit when I need quiet poems of witness and careful intensity.
Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation, edited by H. Melt, has been a true godsend for me; currently in a community lacking significant trans culture, it has given me a tether, a way to feel among other trans writers. But the book’s power is also in its insistence on multifariousness—how each whole but wonderfully various life inflects the other, imbues the work. I hope we see more anthologies like it.
I’m also nearly done with a two-year-long dive into Shane McCrae’s full body of work, and I am convinced he’s one of the most crucial living poets around. I’m floored by his use of form as a hinge between historical narrative and intimate imagination. His rigorous, unrelenting work renegotiates what we mean when we consider things like violence, complicity, justice. The past, even. An absolute lodestar.
Lately, I’ve spent my afternoons with Anybody by Ari Banias. This collection is like that golden friend who is charming, complicated, challenging, generous—the one who is infinitely smarter and more thoughtful than you but never makes you feel that way. A book I can sense I’ll be sitting with forever.
New collections I adore: Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here and Alicia Mountain’s High Ground Coward.
And last, some early hype for feeld by Jos Charles, out in August. Doing emotional burpees to prep myself for how much that book’s going to mean.
I’m slowly and carefully devouring Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, a remarkable and keen look at the intersection of addiction and literary life. She works to correct and revise the often contradictory mythologies of addiction—the tortured genius drunk, the drug addict as societal blight—and redirect the narrative toward a compelling vision of recovery. New to recovery myself, Jamison’s book has come to me at the perfect moment; I’m deeply grateful for her honesty and her brilliance.
I picked up, on a whim and with a long train journey ahead of me, Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet—a novella about corrupt abbesses, crusader treasures, murder by bonbon, and an uprising in a home for old ladies. It’s very anarchic and beautiful—and I’m looking forward to reading The Debutante and Other Stories, an anthology of Carrington’s prose writing.
I’ve been very fortunate to read alongside Laura Elliott a few times recently, and her debut, lemon, egg, bread, is probably one of my favorite recent poetry collections. It’s poised, quiet, strange. In a similar vein, Mina Loy’s Lost Lunar Baedeker has convinced me to give up all personal poetic aspirations (not really) and I think I might get her name tattooed above my right knee (really).
Lastly, Sophie Collins’s Small White Monkeys, an extended essay on shame, self-help, and the aftermath of sexual violence, is something I keep returning to, quoting, thinking about, and finding comfort in. “Important” seems too tendentious a word—but, for me, it’s webbed up some dark corners of the female experience with language and ideas that are utterly vitalizing and revelatory.
I was recently gifted Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health & Training. What a delight of discovery this little Ten Speed Press edition is with its pencilly Matthew Allen illustrated excerpts from recently-discovered 1858 New York Atlas newspaper columns penned by Whitman under the pseudonym Mose Velsor.
I treasure my well-turned Bill Knott books—The Naomi Poems, Auto-necrophilia, Love Poems to Myself, Rome in Rome—and am reminiscing and recollecting while reading Knott’s I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960–2014, edited by Thomas Lux.
A few months ago I immersed myself in Leonardo Padura’s brilliantly entangled historical novel, Heretics (Anna Kushner, translator), marveling at its maze of politics, mystery, war, art, and survival. Heretics led me to Padura’s tight, teasing, languidly flavorful Adios, Hemingway (translated by John King). Sticking with Cuba, I just finished Mark Kurlansky’s polygenre Havana. Poets and poems of historical Havana populate its pages, linking ideas, launching chapters, illustrating ironies, singing from exile.
I’m moving about and closely reading The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, which is enriched by the coincidence of the follow-up anthology, The BreakBeat Poets: Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, being amply previewed in April’s Poetry.
I spent a couple weeks of bedtime reading with Walter Issacson’s Leonardo da Vinci, an insightfully researched 2017 biography.
And I’m reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s posthumous collection In Montgomery, with its trenchant poems of witness and praise, along with the anthology Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks, coedited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku. Ms. Brooks was my teacher and critical mentor at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, where she was the Rennebohm Visiting Professor of Creative Writing. A woman who transformed lives, were it not for her I’d be doing something other right now than writing this note about poetry.
Two of the books I’ve found most captivating recently explore the written word without being the written word, as they are collections of what could be called asemic writing, or graphic language, or visual poetry, or simply visual art. The first is poet, novelist, essayist, and artist Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures, published in 2017. The second is Argentinian artist Mirtha Dermisache’s Selected Writings, edited by Daniel Owen and Lisa Pearson and published in 2018. Gladman’s “drawn writings” give spatial form to the writing process, echoing maps and diagrams, letting a reader’s eye travel line as it imagines mind and hand in sympathetic motion. Dermisache explored an array of mark-making techniques over the course of her career (born in 1940, she passed away in 2012), with some of her texts evoking the redactions of censorship and others evoking runes or glyphs or alien script. Both of these dynamic, absorbing investigations ask their readers for a fresh engagement with page and text.
I’ve also been focused on reading contemporary sonnet sequences (both traditional and experimental) lately, including two terrific collections published this year: Terrance Hayes’s shortly forthcoming American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin and Anna Maria Hong’s Age of Glass. Both of these collections are dense and dazzling in the tension between their violent gravities and their linguistic fireworks.
Kristen Renee Miller
I’m completely immersed in Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s essay collection Don’t Come Back, which braids memoir, translation, and reimagined Columbian mythology. I picked up Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s book after encountering her ongoing “100 Refutations” translation project at The Brooklyn Rail. She began the series informally on her own Facebook page, daily translating works by poets from countries “denigrated by the president of the United States” in his comments from January 11, 2018. Encompassing centuries and civilizations—from Aztec poet Nezahualcóyotl of Tezcoco to contemporary poets from El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and more—“100 Refutations” is truly one of the most direct and hope-filled projects I’ve seen answering relentless xenophobia with relentless art.
I’ve also been admiring the work coming out from unconventional publisher Container, in particular their curious View-Master series, which publishes visual poetry micro-chapbooks as actual View-Master reels (subscription includes a View-Master!). The first reel in the series, “DELAND” by Teresa Carmody and Madison Creech, combines the kitsch of those midcentury “national landmark” reels with genuine lyric and visual innovation. As with many of the projects released by Container, both the series and the medium seem to hold endless potential for visual poets, which fills me with delight.
And for the lightning round, here are a few other collections giving me life this spring: What Runs Over by Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Giving Godhead by Dylan Krieger, Landscape with Sex and Violence by Lynn Melnick, Instead of Dying by Lauren Haldeman, and Death by Sex Machine by Franny Choi.
Touring spoils you: you cross different countries, languages, and cultures, and stories land immediately in your hands. This month touched Italy, the UK, Austria, Germany, Romania, and Hungary, so my reading list circulates around these language-islands. From the UK I had Simon Pomery’s and S.J. Fowler’s visual poems in my bag—wild colors and language fall down and new word-creatures build up. From Italy I brought the “concreta poesia” back. Austria and Germany: two “markant” ladies, Esther Dischereit and Nora Gomringer. Flowers for Othello, NSU-murders, tradition, vanishing names under commas, plus MMM monsterpoems, the body, and remembering. In Romania the Hungarian-Romanian collaborations, the magazines like a szem, where (just like in Hungary) translation is an act of opening and welcoming other languages and cultures—probably the most beautiful gesture of acceptance, respect, and “listening” to each other, which is nowadays more than highly needed.