The literary world brims with glib advice for aspiring writers. Look on Instagram or Twitter and you’ll find oodles of reassuring, platitudinous phrases about not giving up, trusting your instincts, or writing what you know. Visit a bookstore and open up, at random, one of a plethora of volumes promising to assist novice scribblers in their clumsy geneses. While most of it is well intentioned, you rarely come across anything of real value. Continue reading…
You can tell a lot about a poet by how they use nouns. An abundance of common nouns or abstract nouns usually means the poetry aims at loftier, grander themes. There is an ethereal quality to words whose referents are generalized—like some Platonic ideal of “bird” or “love” or “fingers.” One gets a sense of being high above the subject, gazing down at a panorama so vast as to preclude the use of specific, proper nouns. Continue reading…
In 1976, five Black women sued General Motors because the company systemically prevented their advancement. The court, however, ruled in favor of GM because, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw put it, “General Motors did hire women—albeit white women—during the period that no Black women were hired [and thus] there was, in the court’s view, no sex discrimination that the seniority system could conceivably have perpetuated.” The court then recommended that the case be consolidated with another race discrimination lawsuit against GM. A person, in other words, could sue for race discrimination or sex discrimination, but not both, because claiming that there was a specific prejudice against Black women, in the court’s words, “clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”
Crenshaw uses this case—and others—in her seminal paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” published in University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” because “dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis.” A feminism that only addresses the experiences of white women is no true feminism, and an antiracist politic that only addresses Black men is similarly incomplete, as neither on their own addresses the experience and oppression of Black women. Though “intersectionality” has been expanded to include all manner of categorical intersections—including class, sexuality, gender identity, nationality, disability, and age—it began as a legal concept specifically referencing Black women. Continue reading…
A caveat: Foreign Bodies is Kimiko Hahn’s tenth collection of poetry, but it’s the first and only one that I’ve read. By my own standards as a critic, this lack of familiarity with a writer’s work usually disqualifies me as a reviewer of one of their books. The only exception I make for this is when I read a book that is so fantastic and exhilarating and rich that I’m compelled to write less of a review and more of a celebration, a fan’s note, a paean to a particular book’s achievements. This is one of those cases. Continue reading…
The following poets, of varying ages and points in their careers, each tackle, from an eclectic array of perspectives, the dizzying complexities of being alive today. Whether through surrealist imagery or personal narrative, these collections help us zero on the lives and dreams of richly drawn individuals and communities, so that by experiencing a moment in the heart of one person, one family, or one geography, taken altogether we can create a mosaic that resembles, imperfectly but still vitally, the world around us. Continue reading… (Image: @yummypixels)
Poetry ought to be the preeminent form of this age — hell, every age. In a smattering of words, a poem can eulogize, satirize, criticize, proselytize. The greatest verse clues us into what Jane Hirshfield calls “poetry’s knowing,” its function of “clarification and magnification.” It’s the quintessential hybrid form: an amalgam of essay, lyric, story, polemic, and diary. Poets are penguins, to paraphrase E.E. Cummings. They use their wings to swim. Continue reading…
For true bibliophiles, there is nothing lovelier than a volume of collected works. Such a book, filled as it is with a career’s worth of writing, isn’t meant to be read conventionally, from beginning to end, but can be nonlinearly perused, occasionally opened, to any old page, to one’s favorite piece, and enjoyed again and again. Add to this the fact that these collection contain all—or at least most—of an author’s work in a given form, which means when it comes to the collected writer, you’ve got them covered; never again will you have to seek out something they published, since you’ve now got everything they’ve produced in a handsome, stuffed-to-the-brim edition. Below you’ll find some recent collected works by some of the most influential and monumental talents in the world—a few you’ve no doubt read, while others may be new to you. But they all, in their careers, ran the gambit of subjects and themes, explored the outer reaches of their forms, and composed a rich array of poetry and prose. Continue reading….
Whether we like it or not, this is the age of Trump. Maybe Trump’s actual presidency will last for four years (or maybe less, fingers crossed), or even eight, but the repercussions of his policies, his behavior, and the world’s reaction to him will be felt for much longer. Entire volumes could be written about the impact of Trump’s tweets alone. In less than two years of the Trump era, writers have engaged with our political landscape with renewed passion and indignation. Poets and short story writers have traced Trump’s disheartening influence, and even novelists—not always known to be the quickest to respond to topical politics, considering how long it takes to craft a novel—have already tackled, in various ways, our Trumpian climate.
Sometimes directly and sometimes less overtly, it’s impossible to deny the effect Trump’s election has had on literary art. Many have called this the “post-truth” era, but these 21 books show that great literature doesn’t lie like Trump lies—self-aggrandizing, fault-avoiding, and shortcut-chasing. Instead, literature invents in order to tell us hard-won and difficult truths. Deception conceals; literature reveals. Continue reading…
Full Stop excerpted my book on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666:
2666 begins with a quote—a fragment, really—from the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire: “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.” Though the epigraph only cites Baudelaire’s name, the line comes from Geoffrey Wagner’s translation of the poem “Le Voyage,” from Baudelaire’s seminal work Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) (1857). Innovative, daring, and utterly original, Baudelaire laid the groundwork for modernism—he is, in fact, credited with coining the term “modernity”—with his sexually frank and morally ambiguous verse. He also raised some predictable controversies: six of his poems were deemed outrage aux bonnes mœurs (“insult to public decency”) and suppressed. One can easily imagine what a self-styled renegade like Bolaño would admire in a figure like Baudelaire. Continue reading…
I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.
—Sharon Olds, “The Language of the Brag,” Satan Says (1980)
It hasn’t been easy being Sharon Olds, especially in terms of the critical response to her work, which has been two-fold: to ignore her completely, or to lambast her for “exhibitionism.” Continue reading…
Denis Johnson, 1949-2017
Luckily Johnson gave me an unexpected glimpse. Though he read from Nobody Move, Johnson said he wanted to take this opportunity to read some of his poetry. Being much less familiar with his verse, I grew interested in seeing what a terse novelist would bring to poetic writing. But before he even opened the book in front of him, he intoned a brief preamble. He said that he found the book in his hand, his 1982 poetry collection The Incognito Lounge, at a used bookstore somewhere, and that when he found it and opened it, he was delighted to discover all these little notes in the margins of his poems. Some of them were complimentary; some decidedly not. What he wanted to do, he said, was read some of the poems as well as the liner notes accompanying them.
My 3rd annual Books About Books piece over at LitHub!
Books about books might seem like an insular category designed only for those predisposed to such subjects…but it’s also an important genre. Our writers can tell us not only how another writer may have accomplished X or Y achievements, they can also reveal, by their very focus and attention, those authors whose work has influenced them and others as they’ve navigated the literary landscape. That is, their choices alone count for something. Continue reading…
For the New York Times Book Review, I reviewed essays collections by poetry critic David Orr, novelist and essayist Stanley Elkin, and food writer Betty Fussell! Check it out here!
The most fascinating note I’ve ever found in a secondhand book is in a hardcover copy of Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971—2001, which I bought this past summer at Tin Can Mailman in Arcata, California. I was visiting my sister Sarah, who lives there with her daughter Emma and her partner Donny. When I travel the only attractions I’m ever interested in are the local used bookstores, so besides hanging with my sister and my niece, my memory of my trip to northern California pretty much consists of what I looked at and bought at Tin Can Mailman and the other stores I checked out (which also included Eureka Books, Northtown Books, and Booklegger—fantastic establishments all). Continue reading…
Maxine Kumin’s “The Final Poem” suggests something about Frost’s own poetry that many often overlook. Frost tells Kumin and the other fawning poets of Bread Loaf that the audience “can’t take in / half of what you’re giving them.” If we were to believe conventional analyses of Frost’s work, an audience would be able to get everything in one hearing, as many interpretations of Frost’s poetry don’t account for the layers of Frost’s work. Moreover, Frost is often thought of as a poet of nature and rural life, which to me feels a bit like referring to Anne Sexton as merely a poet of domesticity—these descriptions are ostensible; it is what is underneath them that defines them. Let’s take three of Frost’s nature poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “After Apple-Picking,” which are often interpreted as laments on man’s distance from nature—and determine the way that each of these poems shows how nature only offers fleeting respite and temporary transcendence. Nature cannot save us spiritually; it can only place us “toward heaven,” and only then for but a moment. Rather than lament this ephemerality, Frost concludes, “Earth’s the right place for love.” Continue reading…
I wrote an epic response-poem to Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1733-1734) at The Rumpus! Check it out here!
Although poetry is often dismissed as an almost anachronistic form, in my opinion, poets are offering some of the most vital work being written today. Like artful reporters from the front line, poets communicate experience one step beyond autobiography, as if they’ve set their heartbeats to music. Great poets record their footsteps as they move through life; their records aren’t exact but are more like sketching an object without looking at the paper, or a tape of one’s self humming a song one hopes to remember—the point lies in the idiosyncrasies of the lines, the particularities of the hum. And these histories are truer and much more representative future relics of our present era, for it is not the facts they report or the ideologies they extol but the rhythm of their soulfulness, and the melodies of their humanity, that best capture what it’s like to live today. Historians should always begin with poetry. So here are 12 books for posterity, and for you, reader, to take the temperature of today. Continue reading…
Nearly every season, the literary world is introduced to some wunderkind writer who, at some stupidly young age like 21 or 22, has crafted a debut novel (usually) that is wise way beyond its fresh-faced author’s years. The attention placed on their books has as much to do with the novelty of precocity as it does with the merit of the work, if only because most of us, having lived through our early 20s without producing a masterpiece, know how difficult such a feat is to accomplish. Moreover, many readers enter into the highly extolled books of the preternaturally gifted with dubiousness, almost a suspicion of such quickly realized talent, so that upon publication the impassioned responses are drastically polarized between those much impressed by the early effort and those for whom it is nothing more than crass publicity on the part of the publisher and less the insights of some twenty-something genius.
The Women of the World Poetry Slam | Literary Hub
Since 1990, the National Poetry Slam has taken place in a different city each year, and an Individual World Poetry Slam was added in 2004. In 2008 Poetry Slam, Inc. introduced the Women of the World Poetry Slam (hereafter WOWPS), a rich and essential event, which this year takes place from March 9th to 12th in Brooklyn. During the four days of WOWPS, 96 of the best slam poets from around the globe (limited to, according to PSi’s mission statement, those “who live their lives as women… including gender non-conforming individuals”) will read, spout, quip, jab, shout, prattle, sing and croon—and they will inspire you in deep, unimagined ways. Slam poetry is a vital art—for women, poets of color, and LBGTQ writers, yes, but for every person invested in hearing other people’s voices, for those who may not find themselves in the characters of canonical literature, for anyone who yearns to expand their notion of this earth, and all the wildly talented, intensely effective artists who dwell within it. (Photo: Mahogany Browne. Photo credit: Kia Dyson.)
The Failed Mechanics of Masculinity:
On B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick |
The ostensible occasion for this review is the paperback release of B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems, a compendium of 30 years of work, but the real reason is that I was simply moved to write about this book and moreover this poet, this B.H. Fairchild, whose name had previously existed in my peripheral vision but who became for three days of rapid but somehow still assiduous reading the only portal through which I viewed the world, as rivet by rivet the machinery of Fairchild’s frank verse contorted me through its circuitous veins–Pardon my lousy lyricism there. It’s just that after reading The Blue Buick in large gulps, Fairchild — not his style so much as his spirit — wore off on me. He’s one of those writers whose rhythm you fade into, smoothly, and when you emerge, the undulations still pulse in you, and it’s hard not to mimic the mechanics.
O Muse, Where is Wisława Szymborska’s Teeming Crowd? | Literary Hub
Last year saw the publication of Map: Collected and Last Poems, an extraordinary and vital summation of Szymborska’s decidedly modest output, and although critics positively and even sometimes excitedly reviewed it, the book didn’t sell tremendously well (and of course nothing like the 120,000 first edition of View with a Grain of Sand) and wasn’t noted in all those Best of 2015 lists. What a shame. Not only is Szymborska a major poet of the last half century but Map, as a reading experience, is wonderful, illuminating and enriching, a reminder that poetry can be direct, unadorned and still deeply moving. I cannot complain, of course, that Szymborska’s work is hopelessly obscure (because it isn’t) but I can be a tad disappointed that such a rare poet and such a brilliant, warm, and lovely book didn’t find more readers in 2015.
Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith | Northwest Review
Tracy K. Smith’s exquisite memoir Ordinary Light primarily traces three narrative threads—her relationships with her mother, with religion, and with herself—which are all tied together by Smith’s discovery of poetry. Raised in a Baptist family, Smith struggled through much of her life to resolve the ever-growing conflict between the certainty of her mother’s beliefs and the ambiguity of the real world. She found a kind of happy medium with poetry and went on to publish three volumes of it, the latest of which, 2012’s Life on Mars, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Saint Friend by Carl Adamshick | Tupelo Quarterly
If someone had the gumption to go around and ask everyday Americans to name a poem, nearly all of them would certainly supply an answer. One might hear, as a reply, Poe’s “The Raven” or Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred” or Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” But if this same pollster were to ask these citizens to name a single volume of poetry, a collection, how many would be able to come up with a title?
Twenty Poems That Could Save America by Tony Hoagland | The Rumpus
These essays form a slowly accumulating argument for the Hoagland’s vision of poetic efficacy. He is itemizing the major components of successful (and enlightening and potentially useful) poems in order to establish the premises for his larger argument. Like many essay collections, Twenty Poems can be viewed as a subtle manifesto, a whisper to action. If that’s so, then what is his argument? What action does he want us to take?
Fortress by Kristina Marie Darling | Tarpaulin Sky
Fortress is an intensely effective work that demonstrates the emotional power of literary subversion. It shows how postmodern techniques can work in concert with sincerity and truth. The pages in the book are mostly blank; only the notes survive. And, often—in life and in love—that’s all we get, when all is said and done.
E.E. Cummings: A Life | The Georgia Review, Fall 2014
I review Susan Cheever’s E.E. Cummings: A Life in the newest issue of The Georgia Review! Cummings was a major influence on my younger self––probably the writer who inspired me to start writing. Later, I was the Program Director at Forest Hills Cemetery, where Cummings is buried. And now a review in a major literary journal. All because of this wonderful poet and person. I owe him my life, probably. Click here to order a copy!