Moving, important, & gently radical: Review of “Dispatch”

Dispatch by Cameron Awkward-Rich | 75 pages | Persea Books

by Kelsey May

I first fell in love with Cameron Awkward-Rich’s poems when I read Transit, a 2015 chapbook published by Button Poetry. Awkward-Rich’s newest collection, Dispatch, was published in December by Persea Books and grapples with distraught familial relationships, the persecution of those whose gender identities fall outside cultural expectations, and the national crisis of violence against Black and brown folks. The poeticism of these pieces is moving and often adds a tenderness to circumstances that are anything but.

One of the most moving pieces was “Everywhere We Look, There We Are,” which is part-erasure, part-rearrangement, part-commentary of a 1903 New Orleans newspaper article.

[In the next room, wailing.
Man woman can’t tell.
Any human specificity obliterated
by pain. Someone walks
into the room where I am
pinned. Looks at me, my paperwork.
Backs away shaking his head]

The poem is spacious, sprawling across eight pages, an occupancy honoring the life of Dora Trimble, undoing the cramped brashness of the newspaper article.

In “It’s Important to Know What a ‘Man’ ‘Is’”, Awkward-Rich writes:

There’s a version of the story
in which the sweet girl

never makes it home,
her lungs, unbraided

by salt. But because I did,
because I learned

the lesson, next time I slid
down the throat of a man,

I knew, kick
or not, what I was—

driftwood, kelp, glass
bottle. Moved through.”

These poems ache with the pain of being discarded, the bite of persecution paid for in breath and body. And they aren’t always certain of how to fix the problems they dredge up:

“[T]his is what I tell my friend whose eye
has been twitching since last Tuesday, what I

tell my student who can’t seem to focus
her arguments, who believes, still

that it’s possible to save the world
in 10-12 pages double-spaced, & without irony

I’m asking Have you tried going for a run?

In fact, one poem, “Meditations in an Emergency,” meets the reader in that place of global grief:

“I wake up & it breaks my heart. I draw the blinds
& the thrill of rain breaks my heart. I go outside…
walk among the buildings, men in
Monday suits. The flight of doves the city of tents
beneath the underpass, the huddled mass, old
women hawking roses, & children all of them,
break my heart. There’s a dream I have in which I
love the world… There are no borders, only wind.”

One glory of Dispatch is that it doesn’t examine gender identity as a science experiment or a psychological disorder; it proudly cherishes the existence of gender as a spectrum and triumphs: “I draw a frame around the frame, /…the body not a question.” These poems ground in the everyday normalcy of life despite the challenges that accompany marginalization:

“Sometimes, before light breaks
I lace my shoes & race outside.
I try to touch everything—
my neighbor’s rusty wind
chime, the fallen trees. My soles
drum the concrete, hands strum
each metal fence…”

And they leave the reader with such hope:

“But she looked at me
like a child. She spun
her head. She laughed
& laughed at my awful music
& I thought Oh. Yes.
This is the world
with me in it. It is
beautiful. It is.”

Awkward-Rich, in his poetic and research-thorough genius, has created a compelling collection that transfixes and soothes. Dispatch (Persea Books) is available from your local independent bookseller for $15.95.

Thank you to the publisher for a review copy!

 

 

A must-add for your bookshelf: “Library of Small Catastrophes”

The poems in Alison C. Rollins’ Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) are vast and precise, covering topics from grief and personal loss to generational abuse and systemic discrimination. I read this collection in one sitting, so compelling was Alison’s incredible attention to detail and lyricism. Take these lines from “The Librarian”:

She thinks linguists build houses they can’t afford
to finish… //
She believes every throat is a call number.

Much as librarians can be trusted to assist with problems in any category, the reader can turn to these poems for wisdom in any of life’s difficulties. In these pages, the definition of “American” is broken down. The word mercy is given no mercy in dissection. A “dead mother’s house” is catalogued according to each item it contains. Rape and violation are placed in plain text and lamented.

One of my favorite moments in this collection is this small section from “Object Permanence”:

Only a god can take and give
time, but the one in front of
the gun lasts forever
.

How poetic, and how sad; how ending another’s life reshapes reality, ending another’s existence forever.

Another powerful piece is “Oral Fixation”, a poem that unfurls a very personal history fraught with familial dysfunction and the troubled relationship the speaker has with their father, who is not faithful: “He washed his dirty work down with / nice cologne. All husbands acquire / expensive taste.” The remaining stanzas muse at the ways we’re shaped by what we don’t or can’t have.

To summarize my praise of Library of Small Catastrophes, I’ll use a line from another of my favorite poems, “All the World Began with a Yes”: “truth sets out to penetrate mysteries…” Alison’s work penetrates mysteries, unveiling understanding, experience, and advice for readers of all backgrounds and cultural identities. This collection demonstrates her mastery of content, creativity, and purpose; I highly and wholeheartedly recommend it.


Library of Small Catastrophes is available for $16 from Copper Canyon Press or your local bookseller or for free from your local library.

“Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution”

Content warning: suicide


Stephen S. Mills‘ third book, Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution, surprised me. It’s written in two parts: the first covers the end of an 18th-century New England woman’s life, the second details the ups and downs of modern day life in New  York. There’s a lot of tragedy in these pages. People die, people are accused of crimes, people want to die, people suffer from such “suffocating heat / that anyone could go mad / anyone could go violent”.

“By the Numbers” takes an in-depth look at how many people have faced capital punishment in the U.S. prison system in recent years. The poem describes the living conditions of a cell, contrasts them with how in a brief 18-hour jail stint, “everyone was kind”, waiting to be released.

“The Drowning / The Confession” details the pivotal crime in the book: the heartbreaking practice where suicidal Christians committed “suicide by proxy“, which means they killed someone, often a child, so that they could be killed via capital punishment (think: hanging) but still have their soul go to heaven, since suicide itself was a damning sin. I won’t give away too much here. Read the poem. It’s brutal.

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Another of my favorite poems, “This Isn’t Law & Order“, is a narrative piece, wherein the speaker is in court gathering “sighs and paperwork” and waiting to see a judge. The whole process is impersonal:

[T]hese faces aren’t Hollywood types.
The defense attorneys aren’t arrogant assholes
like they are on TV,
and the prosecutors are not all power and grace.
In fact, they’re mostly fumbling
with folders,
glancing at details of cases they’ve barely seen.
No one knows your story.
There’s no time for that.

And the poem speaks to the societal issues of ignorance, reluctance to change, and dissociation and alienation. We’re so caught up in this paradigm of “Don’t think.” We don’t connect truly to each other, and it allows, as this poem points out, people who work in retirement homes to continue abusing the elderly after being convicted of that very crime. When everyone is busy, we become anonymous. Interchangeable. Isolated. Depressed. Suicidal. It escalates very quickly.

How We Became Sluts” is a masterpiece of a poem: seven pages of sex and disease and open relationship and love. How to navigate them. How to enjoy each moment. How to cultivate gratitude for what’s been gained and how to live in the gaps between memory: “We talk of bodies we want — / old times together — of changing landscapes. // We speak of anything and everything and nothing. / And tomorrow I will text you pictures / of me fucking a guy we met once… You will send me a smiley face — / or maybe a simple: I love you.

This book is important because it is honest. It doesn’t apologize for reveling in taboo. It doesn’t glamorize depression or anxiety or suicide. It reminds us that “A body next to a body / is only a certain kind of knowing.” It shakes the human condition for answers, then resigns itself to paperwork, but it doesn’t forget to observe the journey. These poems teach and reassure and offer a hand back up. If we don’t learn to rely on each other, learn to make time for each other, learn to breathe and forgive and communicate and simply commune, the revolution won’t come. So let’s be painfully honest, so that we can “see the error of [our] ways” and change.


Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution is available from Sibling Rivalry Press for $18.

“Then Winter” reminds us there will be a spring

Chloe Honum’s chapbook “Then Winter” was released from Bull City Press in 2017; I read it last year and reread it this winter, cherishing the intimate observations and vulnerable recollections of a stay in a psychiatric hospital. These poems offer solace and insight, equipping the reader with both empathy and knowledge of a time in the speaker’s life that was formative and very difficult.

Even though I’ve never been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, I’ve struggled with generalized anxiety and had several breakdowns, the worst of which was during the 2017 CUPSIs. And mental health breakdowns are, as you may know, atrocious and taxing and intense and heartbreaking. Winters, like RIGHT NOW, THIS WINTER, are especially hard for me (I live in Michigan). Seasonal affective disorder is bad. I can’t leave my house without layers of warm clothes and a hat and gloves and a scarf and boots, and I hate it. I’m tired of shoveling and scraping my car in the bitter cold. I’ve slipped dozens of times, and both my husband and I (as well as plenty of other people I know) hurt ourselves badly from falls. I miss hiking and being in the sunshine. I feel considerably less happy, and I know so many others are also grumpy and sad and so over winter. No wonder, then, that these poems take place in the grips of a snowy winter. And even without having experienced as severe a crisis as the subject of the book, I turn to these poems and am still able to relate and gain comfort, healing, and solidarity from them, and for that, I’m grateful.

Many of these poems are quite emotional and are tied to heavy moments; the details and snatches of conversation recorded in “Group Therapy” and “Early Winter in the Psychiatric Ward“, for example, place the reader squarely in the therapy sessions, hearing the difficulties of each patient, feeling the same heaviness and turmoil, longing for the same “miracle drugs.” In “Rest”, Chloe writes of wanting to rest with “dreams / like white petals absorbing ink.”

“I imagine myself in the ward above, for the more severe cases. I’m afraid I’ll float up and ask to be admitted,” Chloe writes in “The Ward Above.” For years, I’ve had troublesome thoughts about self-harm or intentionally crashing my car or of fainting and being found to have some sort of major health issue. They’re terrifying but also exhilirating, and the worst part is that I’m aware that they’re founded in a desire for attention, even if I know that it would not be a healthy kind of attention. These lines I’ve pulled from “The Ward Above” seem to carry the same weight; they’re an admission and a sudden desire, even if the speaker knows it isn’t actually desirable to have to be admitted to the upstairs floor.

This book also explores the concept of wellness and normalcy. “Maybe sense is not a place / I want to linger” she writes in “At America’s Best Value Value Inn in Crossett, Arkansas”. The book’s first poem, called “The Angel”, examines the othering that people with mental disorders or difficulties sometimes experience: “Since then, she has gone everywhere with me. / Occasionally, people see her and startle. They ask her if she’s all / right, but she speaks only to me…”

In “Note Home”, Chloe writes the beautiful line: “It it so important to go / on naming, even if all I said to you this winter was snow, snow, snow.” For me, it evokes the memory of my therapist teaching me of mindfulness. One way to combat mental wellness struggles is through meditation and a focus on being present. Some people count slowly; some pay attention to their breathing; others picture a place that helps them feel calm.

Mental wellness is a constant heave-ho, requiring work and emotional awareness that sometimes, we just want to ignore. Sure, yoga and getting enough sleep are crucial, but you have to be able to discipline yourself to do those things, and if you’re a parent or if you’re low-income or if something else in your life is a serious stress factor, it can be hard to do the hard work of maintaining good mental health in the first place. Thank goodness, then, for “Then Winter”, which reminds us that it’s okay to be in the off-seasons and to still be trying.

Then Winter” is available from Bull City Press or your local bookstore for $12.

Interview with Camisha L. Jones about “Flare”

Camisha L. Jones’ chapbook Flare was released by Finishing Line Press in 2017.

Many of these poems employ metaphor and talk around “chronic illness”, which make them relatable for a wide audience. It also caused me to be curious about the specifics of how your life is affected and how frustrating it must be to live in world that is not disability-inclusive. “The Sound Barrier” is perhaps the first poem that gave me a concrete picture of the challenges that you face, as well as the reactions of others when interacting with you becomes “an inconvenience.” Could you talk about how accommodating disability (and living with a disability) “ain’t open to negotiation”?

The body wants what it wants. Needs what it needs. And I’ve become more and more aware of the fact that part of being human is being in relationship with the body you were born into. Others are in relationship with that body as well. I’m not always a good partner to my body. Sometimes it tells me “I need to rest” and I push through my to-do list anyway because being productive and driven is part of what society tells me it means to be successful and capable. I pay a price for that choice – a price that may put me in a pain flare for a few days, a week, sometimes more. And that’s the non-negotiable part of that interaction.

When I interact with others and say, “Hey, for me to participate fully, here’s what I need” – that too is non-negotiable. If the need is captioning for a conference call and it’s not provided, then you get less of my presence and participation. You get less of what wisdom and skill I might contribute. And if that sort of thing happens repeatedly, you send a strong message that my full engagement is not valuable to you. Accommodation – whether it’s the work I do for myself or the work others do to ensure my full participation – is not just about the concrete shifts in how things are done but also how one thinks about bodies that interrupt the perceived norm. We can think of those interruptions as a nuisance or we can see them as opportunities for personal and societal growth.

What are ways that everyone can react to and anticipate needs of people with hearing loss or difficulties?

In terms of event planning, I’ve actually posted a list of tips on my Facebook page. Here’s some of what I share there that’s relevant to communicating with someone who’s hard of hearing:

  • It helps if you are facing them and for your mouth to be in clear view. Be mindful not to cover your mouth while you speak.
  • Be mindful of how fast you speak. Slow your pace down a bit and try not to cram your words together. Enunciate but don’t over-enunciate unless requested to do so.
  • It’s helpful to check in periodically by asking if the person heard what you said.
  • Try not to get frustrated by being asked to repeat yourself.
  • Be willing to write down what you’re trying to communicate if the person has trouble understanding you.
  • Sometimes, especially for people who wear hearing aids, the issue is clarity, not volume. Ask which is helpful before shouting.
  • Minimize or eliminate background noise when possible.

Most of all, be patient and realize every person’s needs are different. Ask what will be most helpful (in advance where that’s appropriate) and be willing to respond accordingly.

Absolutely. Being patient and ensuring that you are communicating kindly instead of getting irritated or exasperated is really important to demonstrate dignity and respect. 🙂

There are poems about other types of illness – lupus, a cell mass that wasn’t cancer, even the scars earned from childhood accidents. “Good health” is something that is too easily taken for granted. How does writing about these ailments transform them?

Diagnosis can be traumatic. When a doctor told me a few years back that I had lupus, my mind started spinning. One of my very close friends has lupus and I am very familiar with how the disease can affect a person. My mother also died of an autoimmune disorder that she suspected to be lupus. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel I had the courage for what might be headed my way. I wrote my way through the fear. It shook me to my core. I used writing as an outlet to work through how I was feeling mentally and emotionally. Giving voice to all that uncertainty, fear, anger, lingering grief from my mother’s death, it offered a release. Holding it in would have been toxic and without writing through those experiences, I think it would have been like holding my breath – denying myself a chance to exhale and inhale again.

Years later, my doctors are now not sure if what I have is lupus and I am stuck in a place of uncertainty. Naming a thing doesn’t heal it but having no name for it is certainly not better. When the medical industry doesn’t know what to call your condition, it can at times serve to invalidate that experience. Writing, in a way, gives me an opportunity to “diagnose” what I’m going through for myself. It allows me to name what I am experiencing in the truest terms I know and thus validate that experience for myself. I believe those acts in themselves to be good medicine.   

In “Haunted”, you discuss how “beloveds… sip [your anxieties] & complain of its bitter.” I know that when I was incapacitated for several months with West Nile virus, my mother was by my side, helping me walk to the bathroom, bringing me cool washcloths for my fevers, cooking for me, and comforting me. How do your interactions with your support network help you live with your difficulties?

My spouse, Anthony, is my biggest supporter. All these health changes began within our first years of marriage – as we were both figuring out what it meant to be married and the roles we would play in that partnership. He holds most things down on the home front so that when my fuel runs low – and it does very quickly – I can take time for self-care. Rest is critically important in managing both Meniere’s Disease and fibromyalgia. Striking the right balance is still very hard for me and, with Anthony’s help, I’ve been able to do a lot more than I’ve imagined I would be able to over these last 5 years.

That’s awesome.

A thing I wish for within my support network is to have folks – including myself – become fluent in sign language. It’s a beautiful language and it would be such a relief to have a way to communicate that isn’t dependent on sound. When I am going through periods of hearing loss and distortion, it takes a lot of extra energy to keep up with conversation and many variables, like background noise, make it even tougher. I’m anxious for the day when I can just say whatever needs to be said with my hands and converse with others without worrying about words I didn’t hear.

What projects or plans are in store for you now that “Flare” is published?

My husband Anthony and I are in conversation about projects we might do together. Through his company, SKIES THE LIMIT Entertainment, we’d like to find ways to combine my poetry with his skill as a videographer, visual artist, and DJ.

Thank you for sharing such personal information and stories. I look forward to reading and possibly watching or viewing more of your work!


Flare is available from Finishing Line Press for $15.

“Sky Country” helps slacken the knots inside us

Christine Kitano’s Sky Country, published in 2017 by BOA Editions, Ltd., is one of my favorite gently moving collections; I read it in the fall and reread much of it in December. From poems about divorce and enduring to pieces that explore the pains and sufferings of Christine’s family who “fled Korea and Japan” and lived through internment camp incarceration “during WWII”, this collection tackles heavy content with grace, thoughtfulness, and hope. Take this gorgeous line in “Insomniac in Fall,” for example: “If I prayed, I’d pray: let me leave you, let you / leave me.”

And in “Insomniac in Winter”: “Your breaths slow and multiply, each one / thickening the air between us.”

The collection also explores immigration, opening the all-too-often impersonal issue to a moment between lovers or an exchange between parents and their children. In “Gaman,” she writes, “But what we don’t anticipate / is how the dust of the desert will clot our throats, // how much fear will conspire to keep us silent. / And how our children will read this silence / as shame.”

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “A Story with No Moral” which is broken into “Los Angeles” and “South Korea” subsections. The LA poems examine the fractured relationship a young daughter has with her mother, namely by comparing herself to her friend Lauren, whose hair is “buttery blond, fluffy and soft” and who is “completely absorbed in her own image”, an image that the girl yearns to be herself. My heart goes out to her and to the young women in the South Korea poems, who have their own desires and struggles.

I interviewed Christine last week about these poems and her next plans.

Who is the speaker in “I Will Explain Hope” and why did you write it?

“I Will Explain Hope” is one of the last poems I finished for the collection. It began as an ekphrastic poem after the work of Chiura Obata, a painter who was incarcerated at Topaz Concentration Camp. The poems in this sequence of the collection take place at Topaz, so I wanted to use Obata’s work to help fill in the landscape, both physically and emotionally. When I first started drafting this poem, I envisioned the speaker as a bit of an outsider, that is, a contemporary person looking at a painting by Obata. But as I kept writing and revising, I found myself returning to the mind and voice of the speaker I had been working with, a persona who is loosely based on my grandmother. Working through this speaker, I found my way to the word “forgive.” It surprised me, but it also made sense.

Thanks for sharing that. I wasn’t aware of the depth of influence behind those poems. How deep — and how heartbreaking.

“Monologue of the Fat Girl” was one of my favorite pieces; not only did it explore the strains and desires of marriage, but it also celebrated and lamented the body and the hardships when one is confronted by the body’s imperfections. I find this poem immensely comforting because it feels like womanhood solidarity. How does this poem relate to the other mother narratives in Sky Country?

Many of these poems were drafted in my first two years in Lubbock, Texas, and I was interested in telling the stories of individual female personas. I experienced a bit of culture shock when I moved to Texas; I was surprised to be surrounded by women my age (mid-twenties) who already had two or three children. When I was invited to someone’s house for dinner, I learned it was customary to ask to “see the nursery.” At the time, I had not even considered whether I wanted children or not, as it simply was not on my mind. Coming face-to-face with assumptions about my gender influenced many of the persona poems in Sky Country.

I’m also finding that people my age — I just turned 25 — are starting families, even though I feel only marginally older than I did at 20. It’s a little strange feeling like a parental outsider, even though I nanny for seven families. 

Anyway, back to your book. I enjoyed the different places these poems centered on, and I thought a lot about life-in-motion while reading. Where do you write? Is the “on-the-road” feel of “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” a poem about your own travels?

I usually write in my office, which is un-Romantic, but I’m a practical person when it comes to my writing. I like routine, I like quiet, and I like having most of my books within arm’s reach. But it’s in this space that I have the time to remember moments when things weren’t as comfortable. “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” comes out of a road trip my partner and I took when moving from New York to Texas. It was the middle of July and we were in a Jeep with torn windows, so it was hot and dusty the whole trip. I remember driving through Roanoke, Virginia and passing through a stretch of shade on the highway, which gave me a fleeting moment of peace. The poem grew out of this memory.

I love the freedom in poetry to be able to tell the story however it needs to be told; “This is not the whole story, / and yet, it is true,” you write in “1942: In Response to Executive Order 9066, My Father, Sixteen, Takes”. I’ve heard some poets campaign for only telling ‘your own stories,’ but I think that kind of policing is detrimental to what poetry can do and is for. How do you approach the non-fiction/fiction elements of poetry, and what advice can you offer other poets who write about cultural and social issues?

It requires a great amount of responsibility to write about cultural and social issues. Doing so requires research. In the introduction to Beloved, Toni Morrison explains how she based the novel on the real-life Margaret Garner, but then had to move away from the historical record. She writes, “The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space there for my purposes. So I would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual…” (xvii). For me, writing about the Japanese American incarceration required years of research. But at some point, I had to move from “fact” to “truth,” a move I wouldn’t have been able to make if I hadn’t done the necessary research.

Mmm. That’s powerful.

So Sky Country came out last year. What’s next for you?

I’ve been working toward my next collection, which I envision to be a prose/poetry hybrid. I’ve been thinking about inheritance, about land, about the responsibility humans have for the land we live and work on. I’m not sure where this is going yet, but I’m enjoying the process of embarking on a new project.  

I look forward to keeping tabs on your next works! Thanks so much for your time and thoughts.


Sky Country is available from BOA Editions, Ltd. for $16.

Late to the game: “Not Here” is beautiful <3

I read Not Here as soon as my galley arrived in March but never made the time to write a review that could do it justice, and I still think it’s impossible to write a review that would do it justice so here goes!

—— content warning: sexual violence and suicidal thoughts ——-

These poems are tender and vulnerable and so, so personal. I feel honored to be given so much of Hieu in these poems. I don’t know him and actually have never even talked with him, but I’ve followed him on Instagram and read his poems for several years now, and I’ve always admired the fuck out of him for being himself and for exuding happiness and positivity even in raw or painful moments.

In Not Here, Hieu writes often about his mother, about longing, about self-esteem and the fluidity of identity. I learned so much about my own feelings in reading these poems; lines resonated with me and helped me uncover the complexities of my own parental relationships and self-esteem. “Madness, too, can be cumulative,” he writes in “Probe.”

In a brutally honesty and heartbreaking piece titled “Hosting,” Hieu writes:

The man wakes me up by slipping a finger inside.
I don’t move away, can’t go back to sleep
until he’s done. It would be too easy
to make him leave, to roll on my back
to scream out the open window, but instead
I laugh & say, you won’t find it—you won’t
find whatever you’re looking for. 

I’m at a loss for words to explain the emotional turmoil this brings me and am so saddened by the reality that so many of us can relate to this sexual violence. And the quagmire of relationships where consent isn’t present but also isn’t “not present.” How we lose ourselves in wishful thinking and can’t bring ourselves to vocalize the “no.” This review is a mess, I know. But isn’t that what poetry can do for us? Meet us in the messiness of memory and burden and fiancial stress and remind us that we aren’t alone? That’s what Hieu’s poems do for me.

“I want to be a bird, or forgiven,” he writes in “Again, What Do I Know About Desire?” “[G]rief can taste of sugar if you run your tongue along the right edge,” he writes in “Still, Somehow.” Yes, I know reviews aren’t supposed to just quote lines, but what can I say about Hieu’s poems to help you understand their elegance and transcendence? I insist on showing you.

Bless also
my mother
her perfect temperature
her concern
the only language
we have
to say
sorry.

This excerpt is from the powerful piece “Ode to the Pubic Hair Stuck in My Throat,” which wrestles with, as you can imagine, sexuality, as well as race and discrimination. The speaker explains how gay sex is a secret from the speaker’s mother. I ache and try not to cry in understanding. I mourn the truths we bury out of love for our parents. I wish we didn’t have to live in versions of ourselves.

In “Heavy,” he writes:

Sometimes my friends—my friends

who are always beautiful & heartbroken
look at me like they know

I will die before them.
I think the life I want

is the life I have, but how can I be sure?

I groan reading these lines. Hieu is a master of emotion, setting up poems with concise details and descriptions, then delivering a comment or observation that hits like a punch to the gut.

I cannot kill myself until my mother dies,” he writes in “Notes on Staying.” Again, I groan. Not only is Hieu an expert poet, he’s also incredibly wise and a brilliant thinker.

Not Here is an important read and an important reread. I wholeheartedly recommend adding it to your nightstand pile of books. ❤ You can purchase this collection from Coffee House Press or your local bookseller for $17.

 

Review of “Colin is Changing His Name”

This collection by John Andrews (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017) is part mystery, part relatable biography, and it does that thing that poets are supposed to do – it tells the truth. The truth in this case is an explanation of growing into oneself (and into queerness) amid situational violence, abuse, and oppression. It’s also a collection about place and family, about relationships and seasons.

Who is Colin?

For me Colin is a gay male or queer person and the name itself often stands in to represent terms like “gay” or faggot. The concept came from the fact that my husband is named John too; don’t worry, he goes by Randy, thank god.  I have a friend from my MFA and PhD program named Colin and he’ll try to tell you it is him as a joke, but trust me, it isn’t. Another friend pointed out that I wrote one of the “gayest” books they’ve read that doesn’t have the word “gay” in it.

Right on. I didn’t even notice that you never used the word “gay” because the poems were so, well, gay. ❤

One powerful line is in “Colin on I-35”: “There are only so many cattle / that fit into a truck, / only so much weight that can be // dragged off to slaughter.” At what point in your life did people’s judgment and hate stop dragging you down?

You know, I think it always is still kind of there looming in the background, but for the most part I’ve let it go. I came out during undergrad so I felt like a lot of people knew me as one person and then suddenly another. When I moved to Texas for grad school though I was just out and all my new friends and colleagues just knew me as me which is really were I felt like I let go of caring what people think. For me though I think the hardest thing is coming out to yourself. At some point, you have to admit to yourself who you are even knowing the social consequences that will follow. That’s really what I hope the book communicates to people; its hard to come to terms with who you are as person when the world tells you that person is wrong.

Many parts of this collection discuss various family members; in one poem, Colin’s step-dad “says tell me you are not Colin!” How do you reconcile familial disapproval with your own creativity, desires, and values?

I am lucky to have a family that is very supportive of me and my work, but I know way too many people who’ve experienced terrible scenes like that.

Unfortunately I’m one of them. 😦

Back to the book: the second “Colin is Changing His Name” poem deals with the complexities of navigating a gay identity and relationship in an unaccepting environment. How are queer relationships affected by the social pressures to abstain from PDA and public romance, including “I love you’s”?

It’s really an issue of safety. I grew up in rural Arkansas where that was always a fear of mine, and it’s sadly been casting a shadow over me to this day. Just last year my husband and I got married and we were extremely nervous to even go to the court house together in Stillwater, OK where we live. Its suppose to be a happy moment, right? But we kept thinking about Kim Davis and how simply asking for license might turn into a battle instead of being excited. Nothing bad happened at all and the clerk’s were extremely friendly, even offering suggestions of putting down straw or pet shavings in our back yard to keep the mud down during our wedding since it had been raining all week. We felt dumb for being afraid up to that moment and sad that the world made it possible to feel that way during what should have been all joy.

This collection came out last year. What’s next for you?

andrewsauthorbookRight now, I am working on a second book centered around the idea of simultaneously building and destroying a house. It seems like a lot of poets are thinking about the “end times” lately, for obvious reasons, and I’ve been caught up in that mode a bit but from the perspective of a literal and imagined house. The first place my husband and I lived together was sold by our landlord 6 months into living there and the new owners paid us to leave so they could tear it down and build a giant house to rent to undergrads. It was kind of heartbreaking because we loved that little house and had to watch them tear it down. That image with everything going on has been sticking with me since they tore it down in 2016.

Wow, that’s heartbreaking. Awesome news about the next book though. I look forward to reading it!

“Touched”: a graceful, vulnerable chapbook

Luther Hughes was my mentor in a summer workshop with The Speakeasy Project, and upon becoming familiar with his work, I was drawn to the preciseness of his language and his attention to detail and emotion, and how place occupies both an imaginary and a physical realm. All these elements of Luther’s which I admire are present in Touched, his first chapbook, released this year by Sibling Rivalry Press. ❤

Probably the highest praise I can offer of Touched is that, in its intimate, painful dwelling on violence and sex, it enabled me to write about my own assaults for the first time. What power and what grace Luther writes with. What vulnerability. These poems connected with something in me that I had intentionally distanced myself from for months. For that, I am so, so grateful. And for that, I wholeheartedly recommend reading this collection, even if you don’t think you have any traumas to work through; Luther’s writing will move you, and, after all, isn’t that why we read?

Into poems of relationship, loss, and healing, he weaves Biblical language, stark landscapes, and bedrooms that seem familiar even if the details are different. Perhaps one of the most meaningful lines to me is this: “if only he’d stop / resisting, the poor bird would still be alive.” In what ways does abuse kill us? Cage parts of us? In what ways does physical death, particularly the deaths of unarmed, nonviolent black boys, cut into us? How does loving your abuser complicate the abuse? The recovery? Luther explores these and simliar themes in his 13 poems, explaining how violence and assault open us “like a zipper / stuck / on its threads…”

I interviewed Luther about this collection a few weeks ago.

Could you talk about grief? What does your grieving process look like? How does poetry – including poems such as “Trayvon” and “Alternate Ending with Weeping” – fit in?

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It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately in the past few days because I’ve been trying to (re)write this poem about my dog’s death that happened about 13 years ago. I’ve been trying to write this poem for maybe five years now. And it’s weird because this is the only poem that I haven’t been able to write. Eventually, poems give themselves up to me, or, as someone once said, I’ve found my way in. But, this poem about my dog’s death evades me to the point of self-doubt. And this is what happens every time I try to write this poem.

This time around, I was tempted when I was walking to work, and I read a sign that said, “This house harvests rainwater.” And suddenly, I was grieving my dog, Beethoven. This is how I think of grief. I don’t believe anyone is ever done grieving. I think grief comes when you least expect it.

And for that matter, I don’t have a process. When I am impacted by death, like I was by Travyon Martin’s death, it’s overwhelming. It’s all I can think about. When Trayvon died and the audio from that night was released, I was obsessed. I wanted to know what happened and how. I listened to the clips over and over and over. People were confused about who was screaming and I wanted to be sure their confusion was justified. I just had to know. Although, I’ve written poems about death, those poems were about discovery and lineage. This was the start of my obsession with death and how I encounter it.

The poem, “Alternate Ending with Weeping,” isn’t about grief but about memory and how, like grief, it comes at the most random moment. More so, I think, this poem addresses recovery and acceptance than grief.

How does surviving abuse change us? Is “surviving” even the right word? Is there a way for the violence to be a catalyst for growth? Or is the “after” always shadowed by the abuse?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer this question. And I’m not sure how to answer it because I’m not sure what “surviving abuse” actually means. Is it a question of physicality, mental state, or spiritual rendering? I don’t know.

Me neither. I’m still uncomfortable calling myself a survivor because the truth is, I don’t feel like I survived anything. I feel like I endured it or lived through it, but it affected me deeply, and I think “survive” is too strong a word for the me that was left after I encountered my abuse. 

The best way for me to consider this question is to think about Lucille Clifton’s poem, “mercy.” And this poem has been haunting for several months now. But in this poem, the speaker announces her gratitude for the level abuse that happens and then ends with saying how mad they are about what happened. For all purposes, it’s a pretty straightforward poem. But I bring this poem up because, yes, the speaker survived the abuse because they are recalling what happened. But they obviously didn’t “survive” mentally because they are still affected by it as they’re reflecting.

Exactly.

Okay, so how does surviving abuse change us? I’m not sure. And, yes, the question is: “is surviving the right word?”

I don’t see, at least I don’t think, violence as a catalyst for growth. That’s almost like saying we only grow when harmed. That’s not true. I know there’s that saying from Mulan: “the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all.” Okay, sure. Yes. But, am I only beautiful because I was abused? No, right? If I wasn’t abused would I be less beautiful than I am now? No. But, what I think this quote is saying, in so many words, is that everyone goes through something or has been harmed in some way, and this, our experiences, is what makes us rare, special.

To answer the last part of your question: I don’t pin the “after” against the “abuse.” To me, that’s weird. I was abused. I am still alive. Both are always present.

What’s next for you? What other projects are blooming?

Phew. What is next for me? I’m writing my ass off. I’m exhaustively working on my first full-length. I’m currently a columnist for Frontier Poetry, where I’m addressing different topics and questions using poetry. And I’m writing fiction. Not a lot of it, but characters have been coming to me in my dreams, so I’m jotting down and letting them ferment until I can get them to the page.

How exciting! I can’t wait to read more of your work, particularly that full-length collection. Hopefully I’m not speaking just for myself when I say that after Touched, it will be highly anticipated.


If you would like to purchase Touched (or put in a request for your library to snag it!), it’s available for $12 from Sibling Rivalry Press.


Feature image credit: Nicholas Nichols