Reading List: November 2018
I was thrilled to read Emilia Phillips’s recent piece “Bi+ Visibility in Poetry” on the Ploughshares blog, in which she considers the work of writers like June Jordan, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Brenda Shaughnessy, Rebecca Hazelton, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Hera Lindsay Bird, and Kathy Fagan. Phillips also addresses bi erasure and biphobia, and their damaging effects on the bi+ community. Sometimes I don’t even notice how starved I feel for representation until I see it—I remember reading the story “Inventory” in Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties earlier this year and yelling, “bi visibility!” to my empty house. As a bi poet, having Phillips, a writer I already admire so much, address this subject with intelligence and vulnerability is an incredible gift.
Another recent literary cause for celebration is the new season of Food 4 Thot, “a podcast gabfest wherein a multiracial mix of queer writers gather ’round the table to talk about sex, identity, culture, what we like to read, and who we like to read.” Dennis Norris II, Joseph Osmundson, Tommy Pico, and Fran Tirado playfully and seriously interrogate culture with an energy and nuance that had me hooked from their first episode. Listening to them in the kitchen, in the shower, in the car, on long walks, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve shouted with laughter, paused when emotionally overwhelmed, and been brought up short when made to consider my own ignorance. At this point, I owe the Thots several cases of rosé for their unrelenting greatness.
The death of a poet takes us back to poems, his poems in this case. And I’ve returned in a kind of dirge sleepwalk this morning to Tony Hoagland’s marvelous What Narcissism Means to Me (a title that is pure Hoagland, a slipknot, a boomerang, half comic, half cosmic somehow). This book of voices is smart and smartass in the best sense, and one hundred percent unafraid. The poem “America” (the all-time favorite for my undergraduate students to memorize and recite in bank lines and/or bars, I’m proud to say) has become absolutely iconic to us as we sink deeper into the hideous morass wrought by—well, you know who... But it’s how this poet stacks cheap or appropriated culture (MTV, Burger King) against graceful, shifting layers of hilarious dream imagery, a father’s passing, the speaker finally taking his own knocks even as he runs a brilliant critique of the knee-jerk political claims of others. “But I am asleep in America too,” he abruptly admits, a classic move for this writer who creates a speaker who rants and looks askance only to let the poem U-turn inward to an honest-to-Zeus crucial discovery about self and world. Mea culpa. Which is to say, his poems are moral tales for these terrible days, vignettes whose grounding and glue and come-hither depend on his sharp-eyed humor and, finally, a humility. From there (but really always), Hoagland’s genius-level way with metaphor kicks in even more as he riffs darker to evoke a nightmare of “100 channels of 24-hour cable” with its gruesome “rivers of bright merchandise” running under us in our “pleasure boat” as we see those drowning below, “their faces twisting in the surface of the waters.” This is surround sound as poetic device—as conscience, empathy, prophecy, too, the lasting triad of meaning behind important work—and Hoagland remains its master.
Chase Berggrun, R E D
Rachel B. Glaser, HAIRDO
Friederike Mayröcker, Scardanelli (translated by Jonathan Larson)
Chelsey Minnis, Baby, I Don’t Care
Jonah Mixon-Webster, Stereo(TYPE)
Eileen Myles, Evolution
Soham Patel, ever really hear it
Raquel Salas Rivera, lo terciario/the tertiary
Mai Der Vang, Afterland
I’m very much looking forward to Gabrielle Civil’s Experiments in Joy, a collection of multi-formed texts around her experiments in dance, performance, community, romance, and reading. It’s a follow-up to Swallow the Fish, which everyone should also read! I love this new collection’s expansiveness, its reaching out to be in conversation with other voices and lives. It has a really fabulous piece on ballet, Black girlhood, and books that gives my heart and head the fouettés (a word I recently and publicly mispronounced).
I think a lot of people have been awaiting Paige Lewis’s full-length debut, Space Struck, and we are getting very close to a countdown at Mission Control. I love their imagination so much, the way they gather bits of this planet and its occurrences and make from it something utterly particular to their own enchanting perception. This book made me laugh the kind of laugh that means something new has tickled my thoughts.
The past couple months have also seen me fall into deep fandom of Nuar Alsadir’s work—not only her exciting, smart, funny poems in Fourth Person Singular, but also her totally exhilarating account of attending clown school (published last year in Granta), part of an in-progress book on laughter which really cannot come out soon enough.
Beyond that I’m slowly making my way through a giant stack of books about Kew Gardens (UK, not US), Virginia Woolf, colonialist botany, and histories of gardens in general. Perhaps my favorite finding so far: Woolf, in notes plotting out her plans for her last projects, wrote, “The idea of the book is to find the end of a ball of string & wind out. Let one book suggest another.” (Oh, how they do!)
Moon river, swollen river, river of starholeand bright, harness river, lichen river,river we velvet with our filth.River of butter and river of witches, rivercracked open careful like egg, or burstapart, unleashing its violet load.River mouths, river beds, every backforty creek, every crick, made oftrickles, made of synth, river of soundas vibration, river where we all get free.
i am less a genius of worship than i let on.but the pill, emerald dialect singing the maladyaway. not away. far enough. for now.i am the most important species in my body.but one dead boy makes the whole foresta grave. & he’s in there, in me, in the middleof all that green. you probably thoughthe was fruit.
I recently taught Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude for the fourth time, so Ross Gay’s poems are fresh and percolating in my mind. Each time I reread the collection I unlock another layer to his gorgeous extended metaphors. Gay is a master gardener on and off the page, smashing grief and gratitude with elegiac odes that keep singing even after the poems end. I love teaching this book, because I want to reenter these poems as a type of daily devotion. I keep learning from his barreling enjambment and pastoral psychology. The best gift is seeing how the book breaks something open and unnamable in my students. They become better writers and readers and humans after encountering this permission-giving collection. My poetry-hating students soften and blossom too.
I’m almost done with Alexander Chee’s gorgeous essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. It’s lyrical and masterful with buttery transitions. This is one of the best descriptions about being mixed I’ve read so far: “like discovering your shoe was nailed to the floor, but only one of them, so that you paced, always, a circle of possibility, defined by the limited imaginations of others.”
Current rotation of new and newish poetry books I’m clutching, cherishing, and dog-earring right now:
If They Should Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
Anagnorisis by Kyle Dargan
Thaw by Chelsea Dingman
Perennial by Kelly Forsythe
Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
Refuse by Julian Randall
Bound by Claire Schwartz
Gilt by Raena Shirali
A forthcoming collection that I’m really excited about for next year: Space Struck by Paige Lewis!!! The brilliant, glow-in-the-dark poems are bursting with magic, risk, and oodles of wonder.
Lauren Clark’s Music for a Wedding is a stunning exploration of family relations and embodiment through the conceit of the wedding. Clark has a knack for finding resonance and depth in places other people might not look, like in the poem “Kim Kardashian and Ray J Sex Tape,” where Clark explores the ordinariness of bodies despite the separations and distinctions we impose on them.
I also just read Anna Maria Hong’s Age of Glass. Hong conjures the voices of everyone from Little Red Riding Hood to the figures of Greek myths, but from new perspectives. Poems like “A Fable” especially exhibit Hong’s mastery of rhyme and voice, bringing magic, mayhem, and mischief from the tales and myths she channels.
Toby Martinez de las Rivas
I’ve been reading three works of theology recently which focus on the connection between the crucifixion, affliction, and salvation. Liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle’s Suffering makes fascinating connections between power, sadism, and apathy. From the same period is Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, which situates the crucifixion in an eternally unfolding present, an idea which I find persuasive. Both of these books take something from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, and I enjoyed her short essay regarding the cross as a lever. I was moved by the introduction in which her friend Gustave Thibon wrote, “Goodbye, Simone, until we meet again in this world or the next,” to which Weil responded, “In the world to come, there will be no more meetings.”
Part of my interest in affliction, and its role in theology, stems from the many years of my professional life I spent working with asylum seekers and refugees in Gateshead, so I was very pleased, during a brief stint back here, to catch up with some of their stories on the Comfrey Project, a charity which seeks to engage refugees creatively. They are small, difficult struggles into language. I found the projects moving, and they reminded me strongly of that part of my life—its rewards and frustrations, successes and failures.
Finally, along with closer readings of the gospel accounts of the black sun which appeared at the crucifixion—“And the sunne was maad derk,” in the beautiful Wycliffe translation of Luke (you can see a wonderful visual representation in Jean Cocteau’s murals in Notre Dame de France in London)—I’ve been looking over The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism by Steven J. Venturino (an acquaintance requested it as an early Christmas present) together with an article by Joseph A. Dane, “The Defense of the Incompetent Reader.” I dislike reading criticism, so I usually have something distracting on in the background—yesterday, Rushmore, a gentle farce about a perpetual student who seems incapable of ever leaving his comfortable life in the academy.
Am I allowed to say I’m reading an album? Right now, as I type this, I’m reading Julia Holter’s Aviary, which seems to me to be many worlds. And I have been thinking a lot about writers’ worlds, possibly because I would like to see the world I live in differently, though it seems the current, enormously corrupting central fact of this world cannot be eliminated by a change of perspective—perhaps he can be overcome by the addition of other worlds to this one. Toward that end, I’ve been reading Lucie Brock-Broido’s work again—her world is as complete as any in the poetry of the last 50 years, perhaps more so, and I have been particularly heartened by The Master Letters. And I am just coming to Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species, but from one’s first encounter with her work, it’s apparent she is a world-maker. Two days ago, I finally got around to reading Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis,” and, as is the case with all pastoral elegies, but more so with the greatest of them, among which “Thyrsis” must surely be counted, in it the poet makes in a small space a world to mourn—or, as Julia Holter just put it: “Lover, you say a word, but now the ship is gone. Lover, who will know you?”
I’m neck-deep in the wonderful Norwegian writer Tor Ulven (1953–1995), whose short novel Replacement was translated into English by Kerri A. Pierce, and whose collected poems I’m slowly reading in the original (so my fledgling Norwegian now consists of terms like inhuman worlds, a chaotic sun, and the great destructive kingdom). I’m still delighted by Alan Felsenthal’s Lowly, a book that calls clearly to me above the noise, as do recent books from Terrance Hayes, Ashleigh Young, and Nuar Alsadir. A long time ago I spent a year with the writings of Adrienne Rich, and returning to her poems and prose recently has been a kind of homecoming; she knows transformation like no one else.
“Best of” lists are usually whatever, but sometimes a book is on the National Book Award’s radar for a reason. Raquel Salas Rivera’s lo terciario/the tertiary is a decolonial queer critique that’s been with me for months and won’t let go. Thanks to Salas Rivera’s We (Too) Are Philly poetry festival this summer, I finally got to hear the poems of Hanif Abdurraqib. I’m reading The Crown Ain’t Worth Much now. Also, I keep going back to They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us—my favorite collection of music writing in recent memory.
Tripwire has been one my favorite lit journals in the past few years. The latest is the Red Issue, featuring a special section on “Greek Poetry of the Crisis.” This sampler has a number of writers who’ve appeared in the recent anthologies Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis, edited by Theodoros Chiotis, and Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry, edited by Karen Van Dyck. I’ve given both books away more than once. Since I’m in between copies right now, thanks to Tripwire for reuniting me with some of my favorites—Universal Jenny and Jazra Khaleed.
Closer to home (like a half block from my apartment), Ryan Eckes wrote the poems that became General Motors. From chase scenes to class war to unrealized dreams of public transportation, the book is a stark, beautiful accounting of the search for a dignified commons, while decrying a headlong race toward a gentrified dystopia.
Tommy Pico’s Junk is a book-length poem of couplets that starts out as a breakup with a partner, an apartment, and a job while looking for a liminal space of being—and not “doing.” The result is a revelation of a junk drawer full of jewels. Thanks in part to the Food 4 Thot podcast (cohosted by Pico), I got turned on to Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. This collection of essays on death, activism, love, and friendship has helped shape my idea of a writing life more than any other book this year.
Jean Améry, the Austrian-born Belgian resistance fighter and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who was in the same barracks as Primo Levi, and who Levi once referred to as “a professional of suicide,” wrote several books which were delivered as multi-part serials over French radio—the precursor to the podcast.
In his first book, At the Mind’s Limits, he shows how empty and stunned and essentially useless the intellect was in surviving the camps—at least for secular intellectuals like himself. Auschwitz taught him that the spirit means nothing unless there is a counter belief in a world beyond the camp. And that was precisely what Améry found impossible to imagine. It’s a dark perspective, one in which the usual lip service paid to culture and politics and art and the spirit is simply shown up to be a set of verbal formulae that evaporate in an atmosphere of organized terror and torture.
But because of that darkness, if you want to read someone who goes all the way to the bottom of his subject, you can’t do better than Améry. In light of the recent mass killing in a synagogue, and of the difficulty of reintegrating yourself back into the world after such an experience, Améry has this to say, although here he is referring to his alienation after Auschwitz from all ideologies, whether Leftism, Fascism, Judaism, Christianity, etc.:
But this does not mean that fear and anger condemn him to be less righteous than his ethically inspired contemporaries are. He is able to have friends and he has them, even among members of just those nations who hung him forever on the torture hook between fear and anger. He can also read books and listen to music as do the uninjured, and with no less feeling than they. If moral questions are involved, he will probably prove to be more sensitive to injustice of every kind than his fellow man. He will certainly react more excitably to a photo of club-swinging South African policemen or American sheriffs who sick howling dogs on black civil rights protesters. Because it became hard for me to be a human being does not mean that I have become a monster.
I also admire his book On Aging. As unsparing as At the Mind’s Limits, it’s leavened by a bitter sense of comedy that borders on slapstick—the darkest slapstick since Kafka or Oedipus Rex.
This fall, I’ve been drawn toward poems and books that lend themselves to liminal spaces. All of these texts grapple with what Jenny Boully, in Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life, writes of: “I grew attached to such hesitations, refusals, yearnings, oscillating and uncertain desires.” Here are just a few books and poems I’ve been reading and holding close:
feeld by Jos Charles is completely stunning in its lyrical leaps. I just taught sections of her book in my intermediate poetry class. The joy in reading this out loud, in the unraveling textures of each word: “i care so much abot the whord I cant reed.” Vital, tender work.
Diane Seuss’s poem, “[The famous poets came for us they came on us or some of us]” that appeared on Buzzfeed said so many of the things I haven’t been able to say. And said it in a way that makes me ache in the knowing: “they came / like honeybees to hyacinths to some of us they came in some of us / the ones they called unreadable but fuckable or readable and fuckable.”
I returned to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Dead Doe” as I’ve been thinking about repetition and how words ring and ring again—the “no” and “yes” of this poem. The way this poem shifts, moves, dwells in that space of the unknowable world, amongst its animals. And that ending: “We are done for / in the most remarkable ways.”
I’ve also been reading essays, which often feel like poems. I felt deeply akin to essays in Abandon Me by Melissa Febos: “Being reached for is a frightening thing, touch sometimes a painful revelation that one exists. What relief, though, to be seen, even in some small way.” Febos weaves and unravels narrative with hunger. This book stood at the core of my fear of being abandoned.
New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich is a necessary collection and I am grateful for it. I’m very excited to teach these poems by new Native voices. I love Jennifer Elise Foerster’s imagery: “The clot in the sky / is not the moon // but blood—the body / you turned against” and “In the dream it is a claw print of a bird. / Sharp enough to write with. / I put it in my mouth. / What kind of girl are you?”
Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is a haunting book. Nguyen is a close friend of mine, and each time I see her read from this book out loud, I can’t help but cry for the everything inside of it—the loss of Oliver, the family that must go on, the hidden ghosts of intergenerational trauma and the Vietnam War. “Why should we mourn? / Isn’t this the history we want / one in which we survive?” Here is an interview with Nguyen right before Ghost Of came out, from my project the Poetics of Haunting.
(v.) and Forget It by Anastacia-Reneé are two fierce, hybrid texts. I love all of Anastacia-Reneé’s work, which is always risky, heartbreaking, and real. Both books speak of the fight, the exhaustion, the ancestors. From “Dear Little Girl,” in (v.): “remember you are not a little girl. / remember you are not a little girl but god. // amen.” From Forget It: “& rejection was a high-tech jump rope which made room for ten. & everyone jumped. in. & all the little girls twirled. & danced. & sang. & were quiet too.” Both of these books reverberate viscerally for me—especially through form, through ways of storytelling.
Bright Felon follows, in what seems to be reverse-chronological order, stacks of autobiographical sentences, sectioned by location. Kazim Ali has a talent of being within the lyric, associative mode no matter what form he chooses for the work itself, and Bright Felon shows how memory stitches a place on Earth into our bodies, our lives, even without intention. Ali can write with a bare grace from the silent self-dialogue that comes from traveling, revealing what we are actually looking for, being elsewhere and outside of ourselves.
I was completely floored as I made my way through Rock | Salt | Stone by Rosamond S. King. This book is a compendium of brilliant interventions. One poem, “silent,” is written entirely in symbols—others intervene with English through both language-based techniques and through a Black and Caribbean subjectivity; others yet through interrupting genre: prose with poetry, narrative with history, lies with truths, and vice versa. This goes up there with Whereas by Layli Long Soldier and Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis. Like those books, it is that difficult blend of political and intellectual, emotional and intimate. A masterpiece of sentience.
I am, admittedly, not yet finished, but excitedly in the middle of Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN/Radical WRITING, edited by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin. In addition to the introductions at the start of the book, each section includes a postscript written by one of the editors. I love the diverse virtuosity in these radical, intergenerational selections, and the detail that each contributor has an author page with both a bio and photo: a small and beautiful homage to taking space, a resistance to the historical erasure of Black women from the landscape of the literary avant-garde.
And the books just begun and just finished on my writing desk: Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, Thinking Its Presence by Dorothy Wang, A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass, and Essential Essays by Adrienne Rich.