The Poetry Foundation's Staff Book Picks for 2018
In keeping with our yearly tradition, some members of the Poetry Foundation's staff share a book (or two) they enjoyed most in 2018.
Rebecca Stoner, Permissions Coordinator
I loved Indecency (Coffee House) by Justin Phillip Reed (and I guess the National Book Award Foundation was on the same page!). These poems were bracing, so gorgeously constructed and emotionally intense. They were life-affirming without for a second taking their eyes off all the legitimate reasons we have to think the world is shit–that is, life-affirming in the only honest way there can be. They were also powerful deconstructions of toxic masculinity, something I'd like to see a whole lot more of on and off the page.
I was also blown away by Terrance Hayes's American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Random House). It's formally inventive and deeply rooted in a number of poetic lineages. It's playful and deadly serious. It speaks directly to our current political moment (all the sonnets were written in the months following Trump's election) while casting a gaze far backwards on the systemic pathologies that gave rise to this moment. It opens space for vulnerability; it claims power. It describes Trump as "a failed landlord with a people of color complex"! This book is everything.
Stefania Gomez, Education and Youth Services Assistant
I love Ada Limón's poems because they resonate with the part of me that yearns for hope, warmth, light, beauty, and pleasure (it could be that's more than just a part of me). Her poems welcome you in—maybe because of her refreshing and critical conviction that everyone deserves to have poetry in their life. I often feel like Limón is able to reassure me of the things I fail to reassure myself. Like the title of one of my favorite poems in The Carrying (Milkweed Editions), the book is a collection of psalms for "Trying," and when she writes it about herself, it becomes true for me, too: "Some days I can see the point/ in growing something, even if/ it's just to say I cared enough."
I also loved Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books) by José Olivarez, whose poem "Mexican Heaven" was, notably, by far the most well-loved work of literature I brought into classrooms in 2018. The poems in Citizen Illegal are so nostalgic and familiar, so plaintive and true, that it's almost as if, like legends or folktales, they've always existed. Olivarez writes as if its more than just his voice that's speaking, more than just the present that's being spoken from. And he proves my suspicion that being a clown is often the same thing as having insight: "I thought I was gone/ & might come back/ on some save-the-hood type shit/but the hood isn't/ a garment you can toss off/ it's a skin hecky naw."
Angelica Flores, Reception & Fiscal Assistant
Citizen Illegal, Jose Olivarez
Not only was this book the first one I reviewed for a newspaper, but it is also a book that I can strongly relate to. This book is a discussion, in poems, of what it's like to be living in the United States as a Mexican-American. Some of Olivarez's most famous poems discuss the topics of gentrification and the struggles of being a first-generation Mexican-American. Olivarez explores his identity but does not forget his roots and in his own way celebrates the Mexican culture.
L'Exil (Les Éditions du Panthéon), Larry Tchogninou
As a French student, I have enjoyed this poetry book because not only am I able to learn new words in French but I am also reading on topics that I'm interested in. Tchogninou writes about social justice and gives insight into his life as an immigrant in France. This is his first book of poems and since I personally know the writer, I am thrilled to soon see and help with his translation into English.
Katherine Litwin, Library Director
Perennial (Coffee House Press), Kelly Forsythe
Through poems built from a series of unsettling images, Forsythe tracks the impact of the Columbine massacre from multiple vantages. How should we incorporate such horrifying events into our consciousness? In these poems, Forsythe's answer is to look closely, though not without the anesthesia of beauty. Forsythe uses beauty as a suture, a way of absorbing the unbearable. This lends the poems a kind of balm, though this is by no means a comforting book. A collection that feels essential.
Fred Sasaki, Art Director
One Hand Clapping (Guggenheim Museum Publications), organized by Hou Hanru and Xiaoyu Weng.
This bilingual exhibition catalog for One Hand Clapping, curated by Hou Hanru and Xiaoyu Weng and presenting work by artists Cao Fei, Duan Jianyu, Lin Yilin, Wong Ping, and Samson Young, is as lavish as its contents are astonishing. The exhibition is titled after a Zen koan ("We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?") and is the third and final exhibition of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative at the Guggenheim. The five artists selected for the exhibition created work in response to the keywords: "Future; System; Medium; Absurdity; Myth; Uncanny; Togetherness; Ghost; Groundlessness; Disaster; Chaos; Existence; Humanity; Utopia; Technology" as a means to explore how globalization affects our understanding of the future. The work itself is revelatory and the catalog is unconventional by design: "it is intended to serve not merely as a document of the exhibition, but also as an active component in the realization of the project—in the spirit of commissioning—by assembling and making meaning through a diverse range of complex voices and visual materials." (Hail to the design studio Wkshps and the Guggenheim's Publishing and Digital Media Department Creative Director Lisa Naftolin.) Alongside two curatorial essays, philosopher Yuki Hui contributes an essay on the "bifurcation of technological futures and its implications for humanity." In addition, poems by "millennial poets" Nicholas Won, Wu Qing, Zhang Xiu, and Xu Lizhi are included to "expand our imaginative and aesthetic horizons." All this plus a cameo by professional basketball player Jeremy Lin!!!
Sara Wintz, Harriet Staff Writer
Honestly, I've been so mesmerized by Sesshu Foster's City of the Future (Kaya Press) that it's become something like a small flag that I pull out of my tote bag and wave when people ask what I'm reading these days. At his 2017 Poetic Research Bureau reading held at MOCA, PRB Curator (and poet) Joseph Mosconi describes Foster as a "great urban chronicler of Los Angeles," and—yes—I'm grateful for Foster's East Los Angeles chronicles, which are daring and imaginative—to read them feels a little bit like discovering and learning more about East LA. Arturo Romo's illustrations throughout (they're on the front and back cover, too, of course) are marvelous, abstract and minimal, alongside Foster's formal shifts from prose to prose-poem to a lyric poem, reflecting, like the pristine windshield of a car stuck in traffic on the 101, the shifting, moving, living, recognizable-and-not shape of the city. There are many lines that I can point to and say, "My gosh this book is cool," but this sequence at the beginning really stuck with me: "they walked among you, you stones./these walked among you, you lonely trails./they walked among you, dim plains./these walked among you, down long shores./they walked among you, misty trees./these walked among you, cities of forgetting./they walked among you, fallen petals." And—is there time? May I say more? If so, reading New Directions's collection of Inger Christensen's essays, The Condition of Secrecy (New Directions), has been a great treat this year. If you haven't read her poetry, I suggest starting with alphabet (which is one of the first poetry collections I think I might have fallen in love with) but, one might choose to start with this essay collection in lieu. Her essays remind me of Sebald and Berssenbrugge because they feel a little nostalgic and fantastical, like seeing only the bittersweetness of this world, a welcome lens to see and know it, and, Christensen writes, "I have to imagine (human that I am) that the universe wants to know something about itself."
Beyza Ozer, Events and Logistics Assistant
Out of all the amazing poetry that came out this year, I’d have to put On My Way To Liberation (Haymarket Books) by H. Melt, If They Come for Us (Penguin Random House) by Fatimah Asghar, and Outside of the Body There Is Something Like Hope (Big Lucks) by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza on the top of my list. These books help me understand my own intersections of identity and make me feel like I'm less alone, like I'm lucky to have these connections with people who have so much talent and big hearts. Interlocking poetry and identity is something I explore daily and to be able to unpack marginalized voices from trans and Muslim perspectives makes me feel closer to myself and to those around me.
Maggie Queeney, Library Coordinator
I highly, highly recommend feeld (Milkweed Editions) by jos charles. The poems cannot be contained by description, so I'll keep to describing the experience of this collection. Reading feeld, I find myself awestruck, dumbstruck, before the calm, strange power that vibrates here, reminiscent of Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan, two beloveds. This book is a thrilling discovery I return to over and over again.
Michael Slosek, Web Editor
Of all the poetry books that have crossed my desk in 2018, the one that sticks with me and calls me back for re-readings is Brandon Brown's The Four Seasons (Wonder). The book is a sort of immersive daybook containing Brown's insights, experiences, anecdotes, jokes, and lyrical flights as he moves through and meditates on each of the four seasons, with a detour through the Underworld during winter (of course). If you haven't had the chance to crack this one open, 'tis always the season! Norma Cole's latest, Fate News (Omnidawn), exhibits her particular sensitivity to language. One can almost feel the poems thinking their way into existence as they take measure of our social, political, and emotional situatedness. Lastly, Clark Coolidge continues to roll out poetry collections nothing short of tour de force, and 2018 saw his latest, Poet (Pressed Wafer), a 310-page serial poem.
Krystal Languell, Finance Associate
Celina Su's Landia (Belladonna*) considers migration and its costs, consequences, faces, and textures. It's a striking first collection. Marina Blitshteyn, queen of the chapbook form, releases her first full-length collection, Two Hunters (Argos Books), later this month. Two Hunters offers you a Hurtz Donut on the playground. (The fun game where you get bopped in the nose and asked: "Hurts, don't it?") But Blitshteyn's work isn't cruel; it hurts because the depth of its empathy plumbs, plumbs, plunges.