Graceful & gripping: “Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love”

Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) is, in my opinion, very underappreciated. It’s two months old and I’ve not seen a single gushing post, share, or write-up on it, which is a damn shame, as it’s easily in my poetry top five for 2019. Keith S. Wilson’s debut is graceful and gripping, descending into territory of Greek myths, racial tumult, and birds. The highest praise I can offer for Fieldnotes is that I want to write like Keith after reading it.

I finished this collection at the beginning of last week and have been revisiting a few specific images from these pages, including this powerful observation in “Augury“: “I remember being told I should never touch / a baby bird in its nest. That afterward, // the mother would rather let her children starve. / It isn’t true. But how many eggs // has the fantasy kept safe, / how many feathers made elegant, my hands clean and far away / to fold snowflakes or cranes?” Keith’s poems unearth small, succulent truths and set them rolling inside my heart.

This collection hovers over big questions like “what is the rest of me but a daydream / of angles?” and “how can black be // the absence / of all color?” In “God Particle,” Keith examines the molecular importance of everything, how we’re all “built [on] a hearth”, whether we’re rabbits or galaxies. In the spiritually-moving “Undine by the Drowned Cross,” he writes of the want that an outside observer might feel when thinking of the Bible or Christianity: “I try / to catch meaning in my mouth…” Yet the piece doesn’t travel the familar path of ‘finding Jesus’:

Rise. Please.
I cannot read your Word, I’ve only in passing
heard of
salvation…
Don’t give me that. Instead, I beg:
please. Please.
Let my soul be.

Goddamn. What a poem.

In “I Find Myself Defending Pigeons,” Keith pens a love letter to these oft-dismissed friends: “How all the / world is here with them in hate, since they are rats / adorned with angel wings, and the children down / the street are free to chase their drag… / I love the pigeons’ / shoulders, tongues, and wedding nights… / I love the pigeons, the revolution of wheel to sky.” It takes a special person to write actually poetic nature poems, and Keith does it with joy and excellence; pigeons return in other poems to add emotion, advice, and warning. A pigeon-lover myself, I thrill to see Keith handling the overlooked birds with a tenderness and reverence often withheld from animals, plants, and even other people. keith s wilson

I often can’t choose a single favorite poem in five-star collections, but “Mob” stands out for its absolute mastery of content and lyric and “Heliocentric” made me cry. “Mob” is a praise song for folks of color, weaving the longing for a different reality where fear of violence is nonexistent into a retelling of the Icarus legend, replacing the hero with a flock, a congregation, of people of color, of crows, of canaries. “I want to widen the eyes of God… // Icarus leapt. We will fly, be black together in the sun.”

Heliocentric” is a glowing love and love-lost poem, the final piece in the book. Without ruining the magic of the piece because really, everyone should read this fucking book, I’d like to highlight Keith’s linguistic prowess: “Who could love you / like this? Who else will sew you in the stars? // Who better knows your gravity and goes / otherwise, to catastrophe? // I’ve schemed and promised / to bring you back a ring // from Saturn.”

I wholeheartedly recommend picking up this collection. You’ll smile and ache and admire Keith’s creative use of language. You’ll want to write, and you’ll want to reread it. Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love is available from Copper Canyon Press or your local (indie first!) bookseller for $16 or from your local library for free.


A special thank you to Laura at Copper Canyon Press for the review copy. My apologies to Keith for the formatting not carrying over for the excerpt from “Undine by the Drowned Cross.”

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.

“The Tradition” dances & howls & reimagines what wholeness should be

The Tradition is Jericho Brown’s third book and second full-length collection. It’s a tumultuous collection where he plays with form, celebrates life, and braids together aspects of culture, childhood, violence, and transformation into a moving book. He juxtaposes violence with flowers and fruit. In “Night Shift”, he examines the painful intimacies of domestic abuse and the layered, contradictory emotions one might feel toward their abuser: “Midnight is many colors. Black and blue / Are only two.”

In “Correspondence“, Jericho specifically writes about wholeness and how violence affects one’s own psyche and self-perception:

I am writing to you from the other side
Of my body where I have never been
Shot and no one’s ever cut me.
I had to go back this far in order
To present myself as a whole being…

There’s a yearning to separate oneself from the traumas that affect them, to “cross back” and become “the one who leaps” (quoted from “Crossing”), to heal and begin the journey again, to reimagine what life is supposed to be like apart from brokenness and loss. In the collection’s final poem, “Duplex: Centro”, Jericho writes “None of the beaten end where they begin.”

The Tradition explores change — both how it shapes us internally and as a society.

I interviewed Jericho about this collection earlier this week.


Thanks so much for your time, Jericho, and for these incredible poems.

Thanks so much for doing this.

One of my favorite aspects of “The Tradition” is that it celebrates color and Black culture, from “The Card Tables” to the description of how fucking hardworking so many people of color are in “”Foreday in the Morning” to the line in one of the “Duplex” poems: “A poem is a gesture toward home.” These celebratory moments are interwoven with pain and institutionalized racism and grief, and I think this makes them that much more important. They exist in the landscape of the book as flowers, blossoming in the rocky, infertile places where it’s least expected. How do beauty and joy operate in your own life? Do you have any advice for others who want to grow and embrace joy despite their circumstances and hardships?

I do it on purpose. I mean I seek out opportunities for joy and for beauty. I really have a time in my day, usually right after my first meal, where I sit for a few minutes in front of the big window and decide that I like the color of a flower I see outside or the way it’s so nice that I have heat when it’s cold out. I lose my way here and there, but if I order the day like that from the beginning, it becomes incumbent upon me throughout the day to get really ecstatic about things other folks would think of as quite mundane. I means for more joy in my life, but it also drives other people crazy because I’m generally excited and excitable. Of course, I don’t care that my joy drives other people crazy.  

“Entertainment Industry” is a painfully poignant poem about gun violence and our country’s lack of weapons restrictions. Why is reform necessary and how does a poem about gun violence fit in with the rest of these political and personal poems? How does the U.S. fail to value what it boasts about being able to protect?

Well, I think it fits because the kind of gun violence the poem bemoans is only committed by white people with very, very few exceptions.  And white people somehow don’t get pathologized in spite of the fact that they are historically steeped in this sort of thing. I don’t think any peoples should be pathologized, but I’m fascinated that white people don’t considering some of the things white people and only white people have done and continue to do. It’s hilarious. And I’d like more white folks to notice.

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Definitely. How can people be so overprotective of their kids yet fail to recognize that the threat of gun violence could largely be curbed by stricter gun restrictions? In fact, today, nationwide protests for gun reform are happening in schools. I hope so much that these students’ parents and families (including my own) pay attention and have a change of heart. 

Okay, next question. I recently read “The Book of Unknown Americans” and – SPOILER ALERT – I was devastated by the ending, where Señora Rivera loses her husband. I cried for three days afterward, in secret, mourning for her loss and contemplating what my life would be like should my husband die. 

Your poem “Of My Fury” explores this too, how beyond the normal dangers of living, your lover is at risk of being harmed or killed simply because of the color of “all / His flawless skin.” I want to be angry and decry the situational threat that our society assigns to people of color simply by living, by existing. It’s so wrong that this poem is necessary, and that this poem isn’t accepted by or understood by so many white Americans. How do you cope with these race-specific stressors? 

Oh, I’m not sure I “cope.” I cry and think about ways I can do violence like any other human being would. I just haven’t gotten caught on a day or in a location where my wish toward violence ended up in anyone’s murder. It’s important to know that anyone of us could burn down or assist in the burning down of a Walgreen’s.  Anyone of us could riot. And for good reason. Other than through my poems, I haven’t rioted. Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to go to prison, but even that isn’t the same as “coping.”

Your past books have also dealt with the themes of domestic violence and your own childhood (am I assuming that correctly, that you’re writing from experience in your poems about being young?). Every time I read one of your works about the violence and neglect you’ve endured, I ache. Is writing about these experiences cathartic at all? How have they been received? 

Well, obviously, my dad doesn’t like them, and he thinks he should somehow be paid if it’s okay for me to make a career based of them.  So maybe he would like them if I could get him some money for them.  Or maybe that tells you all you really need to know about my daddy in terms his reception of my poems.  My mother hasn’t said much of anything.  My sister thinks it’s really good work but also has said she feels the need to shower after reading my work; she’s a filmmaker.  I think some people like my poems, and some people don’t, and either way, it’s none of my business.  I just want everyone to know the poems exist so they have them to consider.  I don’t care how they land in terms of their reception of them.  I only care that they have some reason to land in the first place.  

I think every book I’ve ever written has helped me deal with that book’s subject matter in a more mature way.  I think writing poems about having been raped in a way that is not as shrouded as it is in my earlier two books has helped me deal with that like a survivor instead of dealing with it like a person who did something that made me deserve it. 

Wow. That’s powerful. Thank you for your vulnerability.

A few of these poems discuss the speaker’s mother, tenderly and fairly, but not always in the best light. I’m also very conflicted in my relationships – which are rapidly deteriorating – with all four of my parents. What, if anything, have you found provides comfort or helps you to cope and work through the hurt and disappointment of those relationships? Have you been able to find forgiveness at all? 

It’s interesting you would say this because I think everything I say about my mother in this book is the kindest I’ve ever been to my mother in my life as a writer.  Interesting.  Maybe I’m not so nice to her in the duplex where she’s mentioned because she doesn’t get as much agency there, but in all, I think she’s quite a powerful figure in the first section of the book.  It’s not so hard forgiving my parents since I don’t have to live with them and because I understand — as a person who continues to fuck up here and there — that they did the very best they thought they could do under their circumstance.  More than that, I know they love me.  At any rate, they’re really too old (and in some ways too feeble) for me to hold grudges against them.  They aren’t really capable of raising hell the way they used to because it could quite literally kill them.  They’ve mellowed, and I think they see that I’m okay, that I eat and pay my mortgage, etc.

That’s good to hear. And it’s particularly relatable. Thanks so much for doing this interview with me. 

Thanks again for everything, Kelsey.  You’re the best.


The Tradition will be available in April 2019 for $17 from Copper Canyon Press.

“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!

Queen of Herself: “I’m So Fine”

Khadijah Queen’I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (2017) is a collection of prose poems detailing encounters with men, men she had crushes on, men who ogled her, men who get away with treating women poorly, men who give her hope again. While the poems follow a similar format, starting with an introduction of which famous person she saw / met / talked to / almost met / her sister met / talked to, etc., they don’t get old. Their format strengthens them; the poems become the content, not the form. Khadijah has a lot to say and describe, and it’s a journey that explores the confines and loopholes of gender roles, sexuality, cultural expectations, and how these things are impacted by class, religion, and race.

She exposes a number of famous men as being undeserving of their fame because of the way they treat others; readers are left to wonder why the patriarchy serves them in the first place, “fangirling” them for derogatory, exploitative behavior. “I almost didn’t tell this story but sometimes it’s important to name names…” she writes in a poem about how she hasn’t met Donald Trump but she has been “grabbed by the you-know-what…”

The poem that made my stomach churn (the most) detailed the set of 1/2 Dead a music video shoot that Khadijah and her sister appeared in. “1/2 Dead’s degenerate entourage” tried spying on the women while they dressed, touched the women without consent, and “1/2 Dead himself” tried bribing her to party with them after the shoot. The scene here is problematic in so many ways, from the “dirty” behavior of the men to the premise that to get work in the acting / modeling / music industry, this kind of scene is expected. This is just part of the job.

author headshots

The biggest reason I recommend picking up this collection – besides just marveling at the content and enjoying the conversationalist tone that these poems carry – is that it’s so relatable. Well, maybe not the famous aspect, but the situational relatability is so present it hurts. While it isn’t exactly a comfort to hear Khadijah’s stories, it is empowering; life as a woman is fucking hard. We put up with some shit. We are so often made to feel powerless, but voicing our stories, as Khadijah bravely does, is part of the solution; these poems – while doing their part to critique and provide accountability for the named men – serve as a embrace, a reminder that we have so much in common, and therefore, must change society together.

In the collection’s postscript (the final poem), she writes, “A man can break you with your own love if you don’t remember who you are among the nonbelievers. All praises due to the part of me that listens to herself first.”

I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On is available in softcover from YesYes Books at the current sale price of $16.20 plus shipping.

Nancy Huang’s masterful “Favorite Daughter”

Favorite Daughter is easily in my top three favorite books of poetry, thanks to its honest, relatable poems, sharp cultural and racial critiques, and achingly haunting language. Lines like “i wish for the moon to swallow me” and “19 and I know what love is: a house on fire…” contain movement, both in emotion and meaning. Nancy’s references place this collection in conversation with history, psychology, linguistics and sociology, and media, creating a personal bridge to aspects of society that are often (and detrimentally so) only discussed as curiosities. These poems remind us that it is people who should be considered and prioritized, that when colonialism and Western ideologies are dismantled, it is for the benefit of all of us.

One poem I want to mention is “Old White Guy”, a rewriting of a problematic (as is so much of his work) poem by Marc Kelly Smith. By stripping the poem down to a handful of words, Nancy starkly unveils just how ugly Marc’s work is.

Another poem, “Aperture”, compares the effects of washing out an image in photography to the erasure of Asian people from history textbooks and media. “Chinese New Year, 2017” is a collection of images from everyday life: the speaker’s mother braiding her hair; writing poems “until dawn edges around the sky”; bingeing on TV shows while eating popcorn. This poem ends with the beautiful revelation: “Maybe love / is just becoming more of someone.”

I interviewed Nancy [in 2017!!!] about this collection and her life, curious to find out more about the author behind the marvel that is Favorite Daughter.

How have you forged your identity? What are obstacles you’ve overcome and – in hindsight – were they worth it?

I used to think about identity as something that other people call you. It took me a long time to reframe this, and of course it was worth it, but I still slip back into that mindset of “you are what they say you are,” which is always so diminishing.  

I remember I was talking to the unconquerable poet Ariana Brown, and she told me that she made a conscious decision to stop explaining things to white people in her poems. It was taking up too much space. I credit her for my own reworking; I started saying to myself, you don’t have time to explain this to them. They’ve got to figure this out on their own. And, this is only partially about the way language is used in poetry, or the way I use language in poetry. This is more about what I think of myself, navigating through a reality that more often than not doesn’t center me. I shouldn’t have to translate my existence to people. 

“Tipping Scale” was a really important poem for me personally; as of last November, I learned that I have generalized anxiety, and I’ve been working to improve my mental health using traditional and non-traditional methods. It can be really difficult at times, but it pays off.

How does mental healthy play a role in your day-to-day life, and why should people talk about it (publicly and privately) more?  

Thank you for this question. I wish you luck with your own mental health journey, and I hope that you have community around you to help you.

“Tipping Scale” was a poem I wrote because I was trying to balance (forgive the pun) the fact that certain ways of healing work for me, but also have a terrible history of working against people like me. Western medicine has a horrible history, yet my entire life, people have disparaged traditional Chinese medicine in favor of it. 

It’s made its impact; I see therapists, I use birth control. But it’s so much more complicated than that. There’s a line in the poem that refers to that complication, the one about how my therapist at the time, as a white woman, was also my oppressor. I can’t separate those things. 

As for mental health, my depression and anxiety are low-grade and I’m high-functioning, which initially prevented me from reaching out. But talking about it openly counteracts the stigma. That’s the other weight on the scale, in the poem, how even though Western medicine is a corrupt industry and historically terrible, there is less mental health stigma in it than there is in Chinese American communities. And stigma grows from silence. 

Do you want to share advice for other queer women or take us through your coming-out story or just talk a little about your journey?

I don’t know about advice, haha; there are so many incredible queer women and femmes out there and I don’t think they need advice from me. But even though there are plenty of bi/pan women/nonbinary poets to read (June Jordan comes to mind), you’re right that either word really isn’t getting around, or (more likely) we’re unintentionally overlooking people. As an example, the Lambda Literary Awards don’t have a Bisexual Poetry Award category. I know that there have been steps made this year to change that (by amazing people), so it’s getting better. But if someone were to nominate my book for a Lammy right now, I’ve been informed that they wouldn’t be able to. There isn’t a category for it. And it’s not like Favorite Daughter defies categorization, or that its author does. There’s just this overlook of certain people. And judges/reviewers that give literature awards especially need to pay attention to that.

As for my journey, I started writing all these stories about being bi/pan when I was in high school, and it got to the point where reality was hindering that expression. I spent a lot of time confused—as a lot of queer kids do—and it was worse because I was keeping it a secret. I kept putting off thinking about it because I would look at a (cis) guy and feel the way everybody was telling me was “normal,” so like a lot of people who are attracted to multiple genders, I initially thought I was straight. Every time I was attracted to or emotionally connected to a woman I would blame it on fluky hormones. But I wised up eventually. And when I started to come out to people, they took it well. I’ve been lucky with that. 

What is your family’s relationship to China while living in the U.S.? What aspects of culture do you / your family still retain?

My parents are both very connected to their families in China; my mom visits her family periodically and my dad’s family is split between here in America and in Beijing. When we lived in China they were totally comfortable. I’m very jealous of that easy familiarity with both countries. And as far as assimilation goes—there’s only so much you can “adjust” when you immigrate. You can learn English, and be afforded privileges in that way. You can choose not to do that, and people have. Specifically, because I have a closer proximity to whiteness than other POC, that gives me a different level of privilege. 

How has assimilation affected you and your family? 

Whatever the opposite of assimilation is (exclusion? mistranslation?), that’s the aspect of existence I think a lot of AAPI poets talk about more. Of course, that doesn’t mean that assimilation isn’t happening, and that it doesn’t have consequences; my forgotten language (Mandarin), my forgotten histories, the fact that I don’t know any of my ancestors’ names. These are all real. But who wouldn’t have an easier time writing about the things they know are happening versus the things they’ve forgotten have happened? That’s why, for me, assimilation represents privilege, and in a certain sense, amnesia. There are poems in my collection (like “Aperture”) that are about both. 

On “Colonial Conquest” in particular, how has your appearance affected your dating life? 

Oh, “Colonial Conquest”. Oh, Tinder. Navigating the dating realm in an Asian body has been an experience in perspective. When I date/talk with men of color on Tinder, they obviously understand racial navigation more than white men. Messaging white men who don’t have the same awareness can lead to awkward times. Colonial Conquest was just a compilation of times when that awkwardness turned hostile.

Could you talk about the process of publishing and putting together Favorite Daughter? Are you touring to promote the book? What’s it like being in the Write Bloody family?

I am touring! Soon! It’s a lot of work and I had so many nerves initially that were soothed by a variety of different amazing people. But anyway. Being a part of Write Bloody is surreal. The other day I was looking at Clint Smith’s Twitter and I just thought, we have the same publisher. Cue my hyperventilation. It’s incredible. I keep thinking I’m just living in my own fantasy and I’m about to wake up any second. 

When I’m promoting the book, it’s easy to forget that behind me there’s been a team of people helping me bring it to life. My experience working with all of them has been really eye-opening; all the editors and the commissioned graphic designers and sales representatives and social media contacts. There are layers and layers when it comes to this kind of work that I previously had not been aware of. What a privileged education. 


Interview edited for clarity and grammar. Special thanks to Nancy for infinite patience while I sat on this interview for far too long! I’m so excited to finally publish this article and loan out my copy.

“River Hymns” conjures dreams of places both physical and metaphysical

This collection is truly “so sweet [it] must be sacred.” My copy is covered in sticky notes, and one reason it took me so long to write this article is I loaned it out twice to poet and reader friends. Set in a southern landscape, this collection delves into family, guilt, death, and tradition. Part eulogy, part praise, part meditation on place, these poems curl their knuckles around your heart, squeezing you in the feels while also inspiring, healing, mesmerizing, and offering sanctuary, a place where, should you also be grieving, you feel understood.

Many of these pieces feel applicable to many generations of Americans but are particularly hard-hitting in our current era of police brutality and gun violence. Take this line from “When My Mother Had the World on Her Mind, Crickets in Her Ear”, for example: “They’re shooting boys who look like you. You know my number, / use it, keep all your blood… Stay… alive.”

I was left gaping after reading “Rock-a-bye”, particularly the final lines: “how can I tell [my mother] I love you / in a way she hasn’t heard my father say before”, as well as one of the final poems, “What Is God but Rain Spilling Me Over?”, which is an homage to lost loved ones.

Another piece that has stuck with me is “Is it Love”, which is about a landlord and the power he has over his tenants; I carry so much resentment toward my own slumlord rental company and have never considered using poetry to ease my anger. It becomes deeply personal to remember that so many renters are being exploited and mistreated by those who should be caring for them, whose very job is to maintain healthy, livable housing.

Our landlord white and old
comes over smiling.

I wonder where he lives.
Why my mother cusses him…

I asked Tyree a couple questions after finishing River Hymns. 

The details in your pieces bring each scene to life and center the reader squarely in the poem. What is the importance of place in your poetry?

Place is very important to the world of River Hymns. The people become the land and vise versa. Place also acts as a container for the magic in River Hymns. Rivers, tobacco, and birds are also spells.

What does “I hear mercy / in the leaves breaking under my feet.” mean? It strikes me as gorgeous and profound – I just can’t grasp the extent of its beauty.

The land also having duende responds to the negative and positive things it has seen. The land, just like the people, asks for mercy.

River Hymns, which won first place in the 2017 American Poetry Review / Honickman First Book Prize, is available on Amazon and at booksellers, including Barnes & Noble and I think even Target. I recommend this collection for those who love poems that burn long after the book is put down.