Utterly beautiful poems on topics ranging from landscapes to Chinese history. I’ve seen hardly a peep about this collection. Don’t sleep on Shangyang Fang’s lyrical debut!
2. Water I Won’t Touchby Kayleb Rae Candrilli ($14.72 at Bookshop.org) Grounded in the year of the poet’s transition, these poems liquify and gasp; they present pain in honest and metaphored brilliance. Time and again, I found myself feeling so grateful for the love between the poems’ speaker(s) and their partner. A collection I’ll come back to for inspiration and strength.
3. Tortilleraby Caridad Moro-Gronlier (Texas Review Press, $19) Poems of family and identity, place and “the headiness of sex and lust.” Outstanding. Five stars.
4. Yellow Rainby Mai Der Vang ($15.64 at Bookshop.org) An incredible and haunting work that details the biological warfare and physical torture of the Hmong people (largely civilians in remote villages) during the Vietnam War. Hats off to you, Mai Der Vang.
5. Goldenrodby Maggie Smith ($20, Atria) It’s Maggie Smith writing exactly the poems we need at this moment in time, in this place. I’m always grateful for the expert blending of nature, image, and relationship in Smith’s work.
6. Hex & Howlby Simone Muench & Jackie K. White ($9.95, Black Lawrence Press) An extraordinary co-written chapbook that plays with pronouns and fosters feminist agency.
7. Sawgrass Skyby Andrew Hemmert (Texas Review Press, $18.72 at Bookshop.org) Climate-conscious yet hopeful, these poems reveal the worst of human greed while holding out a hand to pull readers into action and determination. Keep fighting with your pen, Andrew Hemmert!
8. The Vaultby Andrés Cerpa (17.95, Alice James Books) Tender poems of love and loss.
9. Genteficationby Antonio de Jesús López ($17, Four Way Books) A book for the people!!! Gentefication rises up and storytells its way into protest and philosophy.
10. Embouchureby Emilia Phillips ($15.95, University of Akron Press) These poems are both fierce and vast, vascillating between body image and religious guilt and a reclamation, physically, spiritually, sexually.
“I let her tie me up… so I can’t stop her from telling me how beautiful, how strong, my body is with the whispers of her hands.”
11. Wavelandby Ösel Jessica Plante ($16.95, Black Lawrence Press) Heartfelt and cruel in its unabashed exploration of divorce and the freedom tasted in the after. A beautiful work.
12. Philomath: Poemsby Devon Walker-Figueroa ($16, Milkweed Editions) These poems meander through a small rural town, the poet’s hometown, and its many faces and hearts — some open and optimistic, others hardened and full of hatred.
13. Peach Stateby Adrienne Su ($17, University of Pittsburgh Press) These poems, mostly centering on meals and recipes, tell of a deep and long-reaching cultural history, particularly those of Georgians and Chinese Americans.
This novel is intense and delightful and grief-laden. Angeline Boulley weaves 18-year-old Daunis Fontaine into a story of loss, drug addiction, and familial bonds. I couldn’t put it down after the fourth chapter. I don’t want to spoil it too much so just trust me, you’ll be swept up in the drama and beauty of this story.
Wow! If you’re familiar with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s previous works, — particularly The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones & The Six — it’ll come as no surprise to you that Malibu Rising knocks it out of the park again. This story follows a family living in Malibu from the 1960s through 1983; four siblings throw an annual party and unlock secrets of their parents’ past, grapple with financial strains and gains, and learn how to become their own persons, separate and lively outside of the expectations of others and the eyes of the public.
This novel is perfect for those whose hearts are tugged at the slightest mention of soil quality deterioration, water pollution, and pesticide overuse. The Seed Keeper details the homegoing of Rosalie Iron Wing, a farmer who retraces her Dakota roots; then, the novel turns and begins retelling the slaughter and displacement of the Dakota peoples in the 1800s, tribal recollections rich with wisdom and yearning. Through the weaving together of generational stories, this book reminds readers of the importance of seeds, Indigenous worldviews, and each other.
This haunting novel-in-verse follows young Nima as she decodes the truth behind her birth and chases a higher self-esteem and sense of belonging. Outstanding story and gorgeous writing, although I’d expect nothing less from Safia Elhillo!
I was completely unfamiliar with Neel Patel before picking up Tell Me How To Be, so I’ll admit I judged it by its cover and was blown away by the intricate prose and quick-paced narration. The story follows two narrators: Renu, an immigrant mother who has just lost her husband and is figuring out where her life will go after his passing; and her son Akash, an amateur music producer and lyricist who has never come out to his family as gay and is struggling to love and live and find freedom. A five-star read. Such a fantastic and emotional journey.
Hello! Disabled reader here! This book is truly amazing and a MUST-READ for everyone. @emilyladau has done a fantastic job of explaining, empathizing with, and encapsulating what it’s like to be a disabled person in an ableist world.
I learned so much about my own experiences and gained vocabulary to discuss barriers to access. Pain and chronic illness is something that ALWAYS exists in my functioning and living. I’m never not-disabled. I’m never in a situation where my disabilities and pain aren’t affecting my experience. I also learned how much of my language is still stuck in ableist patterns (particularly the words stupid and dumb, which I’m now actively trying to replace).
I also learned about the history of disability activism and the fight for rights, which extends into today and will continue to be a major fight for years to come (unfortunately).
This book is hella important, hella wise, and hella necessary. As Emily points out, disability is the only identity that anyone could take on at any time (especially right now with so many folks experiencing severe long-term effects from covid).
Michelle Zauner, the voice and musician behind Japanese Breakfast, writes through her childhood and teen years, exploring both the closeness and standoffishness of her relationship with her mother. When her mother becomes sick, she and her partner change their lives to pause their creative pursuits and make the last months of her mother’s life memorable and lasting; this memoir is grief-heavy in the best way possible.
Outstanding mini-essays that can be both meditations and discussion starters. Both written and illustrated by Jonny Sun, Goodbye, Again offers insight into his life and anxieties that is sharp and relatable. I highly recommend this collection, especially for the busy reader.
Space-Time Colonialism: Alaska’s Indigenous and Asian Entanglements by Juliana Hu Pegues
Fantastic political writing that’s helped me personally understand what the $*%)# is going on in the minds of many I care about who are misguided and trusting in an ideology that harms everyone but the rich.
Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence and Grief by Victoria Chang
Sexual Justice by Alexandra Brodsky
Sunbelt Blues: The Failure of American Housing by Andrew Ross
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’:
I cannot read your Word, I’ve only in passing
Don’t give me that. Instead, I beg:
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.
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.”
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 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.
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 Traditionwill be available in April 2019 for $17 from Copper Canyon Press.
Christine Kitano’s SkyCountry, 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 Countryis available from BOA Editions, Ltd. for $16.
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.
her perfect temperature
the only language
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.
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. <3 You can purchase this collection from Coffee House Press or your local bookseller for $17.
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. <3
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?
Right 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!
Khadijah Queen’s 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.
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.