Best for what?–reading 2018

urs and booksI love hearing about people’s favorite books, and regularly shop and read from lists published everywhere every December. I’ve even written a short discussion of my favorite genre books in 2018, to appear in Strange Horizons‘ annual roundup a few days from now.

But I’m skeptical of these lists, too: “best” for whom, when, and why? For what purpose? I’ve found no single critic out there who shares all of my own tastes and obsessions, even though I’m part of a demographic heavily represented in literary journalism. What makes a book powerful is partly latent in the text, but is also contingent on circumstances. Even for one reader, the stories or voices that feel most necessary can vary from day to day. There’s no value-neutral, objective “best” out there.

I can certainly name the poetry books that most wowed me this fall, that I kept wanting to share: If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrance Hayes, and, a little belatedly, Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. Does that make them the best? It means they’re really good, for sure.

But I also bought poetry books for friends, marking a few poems for each that I thought would especially appeal. Asghar and Chang were on that list, but so was Ada Limón’s The Carrying, which I also remembered loving–and as I reread it, the book gained even more force. Some books grow over time. Does that make Limón’s book the best, even if a December reviewer barely has enough perspective to see it? Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment by Alessandra Lynch worked like that for me, earlier this year. On first encounter, I felt frustrated by how the poems skirted the central subject–rape–but the successive readings you have to do for a reviewing assignment changed my reaction to profound admiration. And while I just read Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art, I can say it’s almost unbearably powerful, and maybe you should read it wearing oven mitts–where does THAT criterion go in the rankings? Really, I liked or loved almost all of the poetry collections I read in 2019 (listed below, excluding things I didn’t like enough to finish)–but I have no idea which will mean most to me five years from now.

Honestly, much that I read last winter is pretty hazy. On the novel side, I remember being deeply affected by Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing and thinking the prose beautiful. I feel similarly about Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, which I read just this week, although the book’s sad irresolution disturbs me. There were several other novels I couldn’t put down–that inspired hours of intense delight. But Richard Powers’ Overstory, a massive tome that struck me in June as being a little clunky in a few passages, seems so far to have changed my brain the most. I mean, I’ve always loved trees–isn’t that practically a requirement of poethood?–but they loom larger now, more deeply rooted in my imagination, more prone to overshadow those little humans flickering around their boles. If a not-quite-perfect book alters how a human sees the world, might it not be the best for, say, trees?

Well, what do I know, really? I read a lot, but I’ve consumed the tiniest fraction of this year’s output (and fewer novels than usual, perhaps because I spent much of the summer revising my own). Happy New Year, and go read something from this list, or somebody else’s, because they’re all partial. In any case, bruit what you love. We all need a variety of angles to make sense of a landscape.

POETRY

1/2 Allak, Keine Angst* (poet I met in England)

1/2 Driskell, Next Door to the Dead (met through AWP)

1/3 Winn, Alma Almanac* (Barrow Street press mate)

1/4 Adair-Hodges, Let’s All Die Happy* (reviews)

1/5 Fisher-Wirth, Mississippi* (friend and writer I admire)

1/6 Young, Ardency (teaching), and reread 5/6 for another class

1/9 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (teaching)

1/15 Forche, The Country Between Us (teaching)

1/20 Lynch, Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment* (for review)

1/28 Cooley, Breach (teaching)

2/2 Dungy, Trophic Cascade* (reviews)

2/9 Chen, When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities* (reviews)

2/16 Gay, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

2/25 Trethewey, Thrall (teaching)

2/27 Kaur, Milk and Honey (recommendations)

2/27 Mahato, In Between (recommendation)

3/3 Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (AWP prep)

3/3 Schwaner, Wind Intervals (local poet)

3/6 Smith, Good Bones* (AWP prep)

3/14 Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

3/17 Bell, Ornament* (teaching)

3/23 Taylor, Work & Days (prepping for campus visit)

3/25 Taylor, Forage House (teaching)

3/31 Igloria, Haori (prepping for campus visit)

4/1 Igloria, The Buddha Wonders If She’s Having a Mid-Life Crisis (“)

4/14 Givhan, Protection Spell (author I admire)

4/23 Reagler, Teeth & Teeth* (friend)

4/23 Keen, Milk Glass Mermaid (friend, rereading)

4/28 De la Paz, Post Subject (friend, also scouting for teaching)

4/29 Smith, Wade in the Water* (poet long admired)

5/7 Van Clief-Stefanon, Black Swan (reread for teaching)

5/8 Howe, Magdalene* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Santos, Square Inch Hours* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Miller, Women Disturbing the Peace* (friend)

5/15 Erin Belieu, Slant Six (picked up at AWP)

5/22 Emerson, Claude Before Time and Space* (fandom)

6/6 Tavila-Borsheim, Love Poems* (picked up at conference)

6/6 Robinson, A Cruise in Rare Waters (by a friend)

6/6 Hancock, The Open Gate (local writer)

6/10 Kindred, Says the Forest to the Girl* (friend)

6/21 Eusuf, Not Elegy but Eros* (met at a conference)

6/21 Meng, Bridled* (review)

6/24 Chang, Barbie Chang (word of mouth)

7/5 Banka, You don’t scare me (“met” her virtually)

7/11 Joseph, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman* (fandom)

7/22 Kildegaard, Course* (fandom)

7/29 Daye, River Hymns* (recommended by a friend)

7/29 Williams and Humberstone, ed, Over the Line: Intro to Poetry Comics (research)

7/30 Hayden, Collected Poems (teaching prep)

7/31 Coleman, ed., Words of Protest, Words of Freedom (teaching prep)

9/11 Ginsberg, Howl (reread for class)

9/25 Plath, Ariel (reread for class)

10/12 Limon, The Carrying* (fandom)

10/13 Hayes, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin* (fandom)

10/15 Bishop, Questions of Travel (reread for class)

10/17 Bishop, Geography III (reread for class)

10/18 Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings* (fandom)

10/19 Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (reread for class)

11/11 de la Paz, Requiem for the Orchard (reread for class)

11/17 Gay and Nezhukumatathil, Lace & Pyrite* (fandom)

12/10 Ostriker, Waiting for the Light (former teacher)

12/18 Asghar, If They Come For Us* (reviews and word of mouth)

12/19 Reed, Indecency* (Pulitzer)

12/20 Stallings, Like* (reviews)

12/20 Taylor and Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle* (I’m in it)

12/20 Senechal de la Roche, Winter Light* (colleague)

12/23 Vorreyer, Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story (review)

12/27 Meitner, Holy Moly Carry Me* (fandom)

12/29 Smith, Incendiary Art* (fandom)

  

FICTION

2/10 Hill, Heart-Shaped Box (word of mouth)

2/18 Strout, Burgess Boys (friend’s rec)

3/4  Ward, Sing Unburied Sing* (prizes/ reviews)

3? Albert, The Hazel Wood* (review in NYT)

5/3 Locke, Bluebird* (NYT mention)

5/20 Due, The Good House* (NYT mention)

5/23 Robinson, Shaman (fandom)

5/29 Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain (had somehow never read it)

6/2 Powers, Overstory* (reviews)

6/8 King, Outsider* (fandom)

6/? LaValle, Changeling (reviews)

7/8 Weber, Still Life with Monkey* (fandom)

7/18 Shaffer, Hope Never Dies* (what the hell)

7/20 O’Callaghan, The Dead House* (NYT review)

7/25 Hummel, Still Lives* (like her poems)

8/19 Walsh, Ghosted* (audiobook, from review of book)

9/5 Makkai, The Great Believers* (general fandom)

10/5 Galbraith, Lethal White* (general fandom)

10/7 Carter, The Bloody Chamber (reread for class)

10/16 Jones, Mongrels (reread for class)

11/11 Adcock, The Completionist* (audiobook, from review of book)

11/17 Schoffstall, Half-Witch* (review)

11/18 King, Elevation* (fandom)

12/1 Novey, Those Who Knew (book club)

12/8 French, Witch Elm* (review)

12/25 Meijer, North Wood* (gift)

12/26 Edugyan, Washington Black* (gift)

12/27 Moore, Ghostographs* (review)

 

NONFICTION

1/2 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons (references in other books)

2/2 Adichie, We Should All be Feminists (word of mouth)

4/22 Fennelly, Heating & Cooling (word of mouth, teaching possibility)

5/? Brownell (for teaching/ research)

7/5 Cleland, Mastering suspense, structure, and plot (for research)

7/6 Moore, Flash Nonfiction (for teaching)

7/9 Percy, Thrill Me (research)

7/12 Nelson, Bluets (reputation)

7/13 Connors, Salmon Matters (by a friend)

12/16 Tsvetaeva, Letter to the Amazon (recommended by daughter)

*=published within the last year or so

book-presents.jpg

Fuzzy at the edges

U-Chris

Meet our new kitten, Ursula! We brought her home from the SPCA yesterday and she’s charming everyone in the house (except our other cats, who are scared to death of her tiny rambunctious self). I thought of titling this post Cranky Poet Goes Soft, because that’s basically the mood around here, although I can’t entirely shake a little holiday anxiety. So much to do, as well as paradoxically worrying that I won’t find time to kick back–but at least I’m reading up a storm, catching up on poetry books I haven’t had time for. I’m hoping to post on the books I read in 2018 around the New Year. I’m also prepping like mad for the new term, which starts Jan. 7th; I have to get everything organized early because we decided to go to New Orleans for a few days right beforehand. The kids have never seen the city, and for me it’s been about 20 years, so we’ll just walk around, eat well, hear some jazz. Traveling is one of the few things that makes me really put work away and we realized we were all craving the break.

 

Another bit of good news: I’ll be seeing Portugal for the first time in July! I’m on a panel just accepted to the 2019 International MLA, held in Lisbon, so Chris and I will go together and extend the adventure by at least a few days. The panel concerns poetry and physics, and I’ll be talking about Samiya Bashir’s Field Theoriestwo of the other panelists are people I love hanging out with, my former student Max Chapnick and another dear colleague in the poet-scholar biz, Cynthia Hogue. I will have to write that paper (!), but that’s too far off to worry about, so I’m just happy to have a very cool trip to look forward to.

Other luck at the hinge of the year, as light finally considers returning: Flock has published two of my poems in its new “Vanishing Point” issue, which you can read online for free through Dec. 25th. “List from John Robinson, 1826” was one of their Pushcart nominees, which moves me for all kinds of reasons–it’s a few years old and was inspired by the history of a group of enslaved people at my home institution. You can see the actual document, which is far more powerful than my poetic response to it, here.

And my copy of Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, edited by Marilyn Taylor and James Roberts, just arrived–my poem “Return Path” is in its pages, as well as gorgeous work by Ned Balbo, Amy Lemmon, Jane Satterfield, Kathrine Varnes, and many others. I’ll close this post with one of my favorites, “Beach of Edges” by Annie Finch (photographed with one of the shells I keep in my office, although Ursula is doing her best to smash them, crash by fascinating crash). I also love the quote from Annie on the back of the collection: “Based in communal dance rather than individual song, spiraling back repeatedly to the same refrains, often moving from obsession to acceptance through the simple movements of repetition, perhaps the villanelle teaches us something about sharing and returning, integrating, and learning to let go: good lessons for our time.” That feels uncannily right about my own few successful ventures into the form–most villanelles don’t quite fly unless you’re willing to participate in that integration, even if it’s painful.

I’m still most dazzled with happiness to have placed my next poetry ms with Tinderbox Editions, but the smaller pleasures are nevertheless ratcheting up the general shine. Here’s wishing you the light and luck you most desire and a peaceful holiday, with kittens.

villanelle

Pleased as punch (with recipe)

pudding

Maybe I need to blog about poetic self-doubt more often. As soon as I did, my luck seemed to shift under my feet. I had been doing math some of you have surely done, too: I’ve been showing the ms around for a while now. What if this poetry collection I thought was so great doesn’t strike any editors the same way? The poems have done well in magazines, but what would I do with the larger structure, with its support beams and fancy finials, if no press wanted I genuinely wanted to work with returned my affections? Keep trying while I write another one, I realized.

I don’t feel that way about literary criticism; blogging about poetry is fun and I care very much about boosting the poetry that inspires me, but there’s no way I’d keep writing footnoted articles if no one wanted to publish them. I’ll write the best poetry I can for as long as I can, however. It’s work I love desperately. Returning to it after occasional absences, with renewed interest, joy, and creative ambition–that’s been one of the deepest rhythms of my adult life.

Then a piece of fan mail popped up from Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox Editions, to whom I sent the ms a year ago. Submittable still said “In Progress” but I figured she’d given it a pass. Au contraire. She loved the book. Was it still available?

If you don’t know it, Tinderbox Editions is a small press based in Minnesota; their titles are beautiful inside and out, appealingly designed and carefully edited. I’d reviewed a couple of them and talked to one of the authors, Athena Kildegaard, about her publishing experience, so I’d long felt the press would be a good home for my work. When Molly contacted me, we talked about timing, too, which has gotten messed up for me in the past; if you don’t have a cover and galleys/ advance copies months before the official launch, publicity becomes much harder to do well. She had really good answers about a 2020 launch and working backwards from that due date through a nine-month process to make sure we get it right.

So I am all in, and wildly grateful. My poetry book has a home!

And there’s more! I’ve blogged about my role as poetry editor for the redesigned Shenandoahpublicizing the new issue and celebrating its contributors has felt really great. Plus I’m going to publish my first venture into poetry comics: Split Lip Magazine has just accepted a longish piece Chris and I co-authored called “Made for Each Other.” (Don’t go “awww”–it’s about decrepit robots, as I just told the generous blogger Bekah Steimel in an interview which will be posted sometime today.) The editors at Flockbless them, have nominated one of my poems for a Pushcart–that issue will be live soon, too. And even though I’m receiving my share of literary journal rejections, as everyone seems to this time of year, I do have another bit of loveliness I can’t reveal yet, and that’s dizzying. This middle-aged cyborg isn’t too old yet to pivot, but still, the good news feels overwhelming. Now, if we can just get Trump in prison and solve a few geopolitical crises, I’ll be outright cheerful.

Delicious Holiday Punch I Invented Last Night

*1 cup each pear juice, pear vodka, and ginger liqueur (Domaine de Canton)

*1/2 cup simple syrup (1:1 sugar dissolved in boiling water; I add lemon peel)

*juice of a lemon or two

*ice and Asian pear slices for the punch bowl

Proportions can be doubled or tripled for a crowd. Add lemon seltzer or prosecco to each glass for celebratory fizz.

 

Teaching from online magazines

Fall term is over except for the grading, and THANK GOD: I had terrific students but a lot of them, and I really had to drag myself over the finish line. But winter term starts early here–January 7th!–and it will also be a busy one, so one of my tasks over the next few weeks is to finalize syllabi for two courses. One is “Protest Poetry,” which starts with the Civil Rights era, moves through Standing Rock and ecopoetry, and ends with independent projects: students have to identify their own causes, find some public way poetry can serve them, enact their plans, then write reflective essays. The other is a multigenre introductory creative writing course, moving from flash memoir to poetry. I’ve never taught either before so, yikes.

Even as this term’s portfolios and papers come snowing down and I organize next term’s particulars, however, I’m trying to bask in another grand finale: the re-launch of ShenandoahIt’s stunning how much Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples has accomplished since she started in August: the dated-looking website has been radically redesigned on a new server, but most importantly she recruited exciting new work–a few pieces by distinguished writers who’d appeared in the magazine under R. T. Smith’s editorship, but many, many others from writers who might not have considered sending to us before, so that the issue is more inclusive than ever along every possible axis. I say “us” because Beth, who has a collaborative spirit, included her new colleagues as volunteer readers from the beginning, and by mid-fall had appointed several of us as genre editors, including Seth Michelson for translation, Chris Gavaler for comics, and me for poetry. I didn’t read every entry or make every call on acceptance or rejection in my genre, and that will be true of the next issue as well (towards which a lot of work has already been accepted) but I did read thousands of pieces (and am still processing the last few from our fall reading period).

So, OF COURSE I’ll be teaching poems from the new issue next term. My syllabi always include plenty of books on paper; I love print as a medium. But a digital issue can be a great addition to the mix: free, ultra-contemporary, and diversifying a reading list in interesting ways. Below are some thoughts about how to use the poetry section of 68.1, or an online journal generally.

Reading assignment for any group of poems:

Read all the first lines/sentences. Which do you like best and why? Now read all the poems. Does your favorite first line belong to your favorite piece? Why or why not? (This is a good exercise for creative writing students getting a handle on craft.)

Or: identify three strategies at play in these poems that you might want to try yourself and discuss how they work. (In this issue, for instance, there are prose poems, free verse in various arrangements, a persona poem, an ode, and an erasure–check out the erased/ unerased text toggle on “Ethos of I C E”! There are also poems in numbered sections; unconventional uses of punctuation, capitalization, spacing, and abbreviations; elegies, anti-elegies, and riffs on obituaries; and a wide variety of allusions.)

A response paper topic I’ll use for Protest Poetry: Now that we’ve talked about whether or not poems can be “useful,” choose a couple of poems from this issue and write about what potential work they might do for a reader or a community of readers. Which help you think about a problem or an institution in a different way? Did any of them alter your mood or spur you to do additional research into a topic? Which might work best at a rally, in a waiting room pamphlet, on a poster, in a valentine card?

More ways to teach these specific poems:

If you’re teaching elegy: try Patrick Kindig; both poems by Victoria Chang; the poems by John Lee Clark; Janet McAdams’ “Thanatoptic.” On a related note, Hai-Dang Phan’s poem would pair well with Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and other poems about monuments–it’s also very much an eco-poem that situates the human dead amid “veteran elms” and other representatives of the more-than-human world.

If you’re teaching poetry and place: “Yes Yes Dakar, 2018”; both Brandon Melendez poems; Jessica Guzman Alderman’s “Florida Orange”; “Meeting House at Cill Rialaig”; and maybe most of the others, because place, like sex and death and memory, is one of poetry’s big subjects.

Poetry about family: Dujie Tahat’s “Ode to the Golden Hour on the Day of Finalizing My Divorce”; either “Obit”; “After the Wedding”; Kathleen Winter; plus one for holiday dysfunction by Alicia Mountain.

The John Lee Clark poems would also fit into readings about disability, as would Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block,” which adds contemporary politics to the mix, and the question of how we write when our bodies force reconsideration of our ambitions and oh, that’s right, the world’s in flames.

There are countless ways to teach complicated poems, however, and all these are complicated in beautiful ways. I’d love to hear your ideas. In the meantime, hey, just spending an afternoon READING the work is a lovely thing…And hey, if you’re on Twitter, please follow us at @ShenandoahWLU. Some long-ago intern set up the old account, @ShenandoahLit, and we no longer have full access to it, so we’re rebuilding on social media as well as everywhere else. Lots of work to do!shenandoah

 

Poetry and self-doubt, with footnotes

There’s this late-fall moment, every other year, when many U.S. poets feel a little dejected: once again, no NEA fellowship. This year, for reasons I don’t entirely get, I just shrugged it off. Too busy, maybe. The thought had also hit me the week before Thanksgiving–oh, wait, I bet they’ve decided already–so I felt resigned by the time the email came. It’s just one of those honors I may never earn, although I hope one of my long-term comrades in feet* picks one up, one of these years. I know a bunch of very good poets who are not stars; many of them are middle-aged women, a category that often gets the short end of the stick. Poetry fashions skew young, like fashions in everything else.

One of those fashions right now favors poetry of joy, praise, sexiness, gratitude–and I don’t say that in a disparaging way at all, because I love a lot of the work.** But while I want my writing to lean towards kindness, love, and other happy endings whenever possible, because it’s a hard world and books should help us imagine a better one, I also find myself muttering: you know, screw that. I lead this privileged life and still feel touched by so much sorrow and worry; I’m also basically a serious person from a long line of dissatisfied depressives. Performing lyric joy with my achy body and anxious brain, under the current U.S. administration and amid national conversations about racism and sexual assault, is just not authentic. You wouldn’t believe me. The trend feels linked, to me, to how social media compels so many of us to overemphasize the positive most of the time, because that’s what sells, or gets likes, or whatever.*** We’re just doing too much celebrating, dammit.

I see a therapist from time to time and we had an hour this week in which we talked mostly about self-doubt. She rightly points out that I have a pretty good resume, career-wise; my loved ones, though afflicted sometimes with crises, are basically okay; that I would do well to ease up and slow down. I do not have to be so afraid, say, of never publishing a ms or writing a great poem or getting pats on the head from the prize-dispensers again. I agree with her and we talked about ways to balance my commitments better. I also argued, however, as I argue to myself sometimes, that self-doubt is a necessary part of being a decent artist, and maybe a decent human being. If you don’t stand back and say, “hey, maybe that writing sample wasn’t really good enough to ensure a grant win,” how do you grow? Isn’t a drive to keep upping the bar a necessary pressure? Shouldn’t I keep questioning myself and my work?

Well, I’m probably rationalizing, because that’s what people do. I doubt my self-doubt. Happy December, my writer friends. Put up those twinkly lights, and don’t mind the darkness encroaching.

beach path

*That’s a stupid pun, sorry. I just thought “comrades in arms” sounded too military.

**Think of Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, for instance. They perform poetic joy even as they admit and face the world’s essential crappiness, somehow. But I think they may be taking vitamins that aren’t sold in this state.

***I absolutely do this–only getting on FB, for instance, when I have good news. Hey, did I mention my brilliant mathematician son is interviewing for a fancy college RIGHT NOW? Or that my class is doing a HAIKU DEATH MATCH on Monday morning at 11 in the Elrod Commons Living Room at W&L, because I’m kind of a creative and risk-taking teacher? Or that I’m now poetry editor for Shenandoahwhich is launching NEXT FRIDAY? All true! My life is so fabulous! But for once, let’s relegate fabulousness to the footnotes.