This week I’m in an open field. Well, alright, not actually in a field, but that’s where my brain is this week. A big, wide, open field of… what, exactly? Possibilities? Uniformity? Mysteries? Monotony? That’s for you to decide.
Taca Zhijie Sui, Untitled, from Odes of Zhou series. Photograph. www.tacasui.com
John Singer Sargent, Thistles, 1883-1884. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
Chris Faust, Oat Field, Kandiyohi City, MN, 1994. Photograph. www.chrisfaustphoto.com
If you read my review last week, you know I was pretty impressed with Tin House’s Summer Writers Workshop this past July. Not only did I develop creative relationships and get some great feedback on my work, but I also left with a *few* reading suggestions. Okay, the reading list is ABSURD. But if you’re anything like me, and you believe that reading will improve your writing, then lists like these from people I hold in high regard are like gold. And so, I share the wealth:
Campbell McGrath – Capitalism (Wesleyan New Poets)
Campbell McGrath – American Noise (Ecco Press)
Campbell McGrath – Spring Comes to Chicago (Ecco Press)
I have become a complete disciple of Campbell McGrath. No other voice (that I’ve found) encapsulates the identity of this nation, in this millennium, with as much subtlety, poise, and formal consideration as McGrath.
Charles Wright – Bloodlines (Wesleyan Poetry Program)
D. A. Levy – Suburban Monastery Death Poem (Crisis Chronicles Press)
Dawn McGuire – The Aphasia Cafe (IFSF Publishers)
Derek Walcott – The Schooner Flight
Derek Walcott – Omeros
My workshop group spent a good deal of time considering form. Omeros is an epic poem in terza rima, and our conversation of Derek Walcott, also led us to Edward Kamau Braithwaite—another poet attending to the African diaspora.
Edward Dorn – Gunslinger (Duke University Press)
Edward Kamau Brathwaite – The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Oxford University Press)
Edward Kamau Braithwaite – Mother Poem (1977)
Edward Kamau Braithwaite – Sun Poem (1982)
Ellen Bryant Voigt – Kyrie (W. W. Norton & Company)
Gwendolyn Brooks – “We Real Cool” (originally published in The Bean Eaters )
With Kevin Young as my workshop leader, sound and music were frequent topics in conversation. Poems like “We Real Cool” are concise examples of precision and rhythm in a poem.
Jim Harrison – Letters to Yesenin (Copper Canyon Press)
Jo Ann Beard – “The Fourth State of Matter,” in The Boys of My Youth (Back Bay Books)
Jo Ann Beard was a faculty member at the workshop. I haven’t read The Boys of My Youth yet, but if her prose is half as wise as her lecture was last summer, I expect to be blown away.
Julia Story – Post Moxie: Poems (Sarabande Books)
June Jordan – “Poem About My Feelings”
Karen Volkman – Spar (University of Iowa Press)
Kevin Young – Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf)
Larry Levis – Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Matthea Harvey – Modern Life (Graywolf Press)
Maurice Manning – The Gone and the Going Away (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Muriel Rukeyser – “Effort at Speech Between Two People” (originally published in Theory of Flight )
Enjoy this poem here!
Natalie Diaz – My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press)
Paige Ackerson Keily – My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta)
Come on! With a title like that (My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer) how could you NOT want to dig into this book of poetry?!
Rochelle Hurt – The Rusted City (White Pine Press)
Sally Wen Mao – Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books)
T. Crunk – Living in the Resurrection (Yale University Press)
Ted Berrigan – The Sonnets
I admit, bashfully, that I did not know Ted Berrigan’s name before this summer. A “late Beat,” Berrigan became famous for The Sonnets, reissued by Grove Press in 1966, and influenced by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
W. S. Merwin – Finding the Islands (San Francisco: North Point Press)
Walid Bitar – 2 Guys on Holy Land (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Wallace Stevens – Harmonium
Yusef Komunyakka- Copacetic (Wesleyan New Poets)
The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (New Rivers Press)
There you have it! Now I know what you’ll be reading this winter so… see you next spring! Speaking of which, if at any point between now and then you decide this workshop might be right for you, get your application in for the rolling admissions process. Scholarship applications are due March 25, 2015.
Franny Choi’s debut collection of poems, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, is haunted. There are ghosts everywhere, from the opening poem “Notes on the Existence of Ghosts” to the “dead lover” in “My Lovers” to the ghosts of old neighborhoods in “Gentrifier.” However, it would be wrong to imply that these poems aren’t based in the realm of the living. On the contrary, ghosts and living bodies occupy these poems in equal measure. Living bodies, in Choi’s poems, are political; ghosts are lucky enough to escape the politics of the living.
One of the most memorable—but nearly impossible to memorize—poems in the collection is “Pussy Monster,” which takes the lyrics from Lil’ Wayne’s song of the same name and rearranges the words in ascending order of frequency, ending with the word “pussy” repeated a whopping 40 times. Similarly, “Second Mouth” focuses on the female anatomy and the ways womanhood has been made political.
Other-lips whispering between her legs
What they called black hole not-thing
is really packed full of secrets A rebel mouth
testifying from the underside […]
from “Second Mouth”
The political poems showcase Choi at her most focused, and that intensity keeps the poems afloat. The strongest poems in Floating, Brilliant, Gone cleave to the page in some way, while still begging to be read out loud, to be performed. However, other poems are bound to performances that the reader can’t access on the page. Lines fall flat, even in the strongest poems. In one poem, “Metamorphosis,” which takes butterflies as its central metaphor, stanzas are scattered on the page like a cloud of butterflies. It’s a striking poem, and yet, even here the page muffles the poem:
he held the last raspberry
of the season to my lips.
the sun was shining. everything
was dying & we
laughed hand in hand
over the graves of
The final sentence of this stanza contains wonderful music (“the graves of / tiny kings”) and a surprising juxtaposition in “everything / was dying & we / laughed […]” Unfortunately, the uninspired image of the sun simply “shining” weighs the stanza down, though, read out loud, it’s easy enough to ignore the line.
The best poems here are moving, surprising, and big. They speak to loss and love in real and wonderful ways. The second poem in the book, “Halloween, 2009,” begins:
When my boyfriend’s mother
called to tell me
he was dead
I called her a liar
and took the day off.
These lines are spare, but the hurt and denial are huge. In “Kimchi,” Choi plays on her heritage, both familial and, more broadly, as a Korean-Amereican woman, writing, “My parents’ love for each other / was pickled in the brine of 1980 […]” The metaphor of a relationship as kimchi is unexpected and acute. It’s in these poems that the ghosts begin to speak more clearly.
The shortest poem in this collection, “Heaven is a Fairy Tale (& Vice Versa)” reads in full:
We are all
In the pages of Floating, Brilliant, Gone the exploration of bodies and how they become ghosts—the “practice” of dying—dominates. The collection suffers slightly from a lack of focus, both in poems individually and overall, but Choi’s voice is strong and at their best these poems ring clear and true. It’s a good bet that Choi’s poems will appear in pages and on stages across the country for some time to come.
What other new poets are you looking forward to reading as their careers grow?
This week, I’m in the mood for science fiction. Care to play around with some sci-fi elements in your piece? It’ll be fun, I promise.
Simon Stålenhag, Septemberjägare, from Invasive Species series, 2013. Digital painting. www.simonstalenhag.se
Melvin Sokolsky, Untitled, from Harper’s Bazaar “Bubble” Spring Collection, Paris, 1963. Photograph.www.sokolsky.com
Arthur Radebaugh. Illustration from his syndicated Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think, December 9, 1962.