A Very Good Anti-Best List

It’s exasperating when people refer to a work of art as “great” as if that were an objective pronouncement. Great for what? The idea that there could be stable, neutral criteria by which literature could be judged more or less worthy is at best nonsensical. In practice, it’s often a way for powerful people to consolidate power and invalidate contradictory views so they can keep controlling resources, while calmly holding that their views are apolitical, unlike the allegedly hysterical screeds of propagandistic forces celebrating “minority” voices. In English department canon wars, these power-conserving arguments often mutate into claims about “influence”: a work is great because it has been important to many other writers. There’s validity to that; whether or not they find literary monuments beautiful, it’s useful for students of literary history to encounter them, the better to understand books that set out to repurpose or smash the monuments. If you’re serious about literature, though, you also read horizontally across fields, trying to understand the networks and processes of inclusion and exclusion, knowing that you can’t read it all, taking joy in what you love but also listening to arguments based on values/ tastes other than yours. You recognize that what’s “good” for classroom discussion and paper-writing at your institution might not be “good” in another educational setting, much less for a grief group, an open mic, or reading alone when you’re down. And, of course, even a classroom at an apparently homogenous college (like mine) is a gathering of wildly various experiences and needs. What it boils down to: many syllabi and anthologies are carefully curated, inclusive among many axes, and generally wonderful, but they remain documents of networks, access, and other specific, temporary conditions.

Emerging from English department hothouse-politics into the different canons and procedures of Creative Writing, I have to say, oh, man, here we go again. Plenty of people who publish annual best-of lists know perfectly well that what they really mean is “what I liked most among the books that presses sent me or I heard publicity for or came across randomly.” Their newspaper or magazine editors just won’t allow such an egregious headline. Still, these lists bug me, even though, probably hypocritically, I would be quite happy to see one of my books appear on almost any of them. I’m more than delighted when something I wrote delights anyone, and a media boost is awesome. I just don’t like this annual critical abandonment of knowing better.

So here are some 2020 poetry books I like that didn’t appear, to my knowledge, on any best-of-year list or major postpublication prize longlist (I also liked a lot of books that are critical faves, but I’m putting them aside for the moment). The beauties in the picture happened to be in my home office this week (I had already toted others to my work office). Among those shelved across town, special praise to Kaveh Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile; Tess Taylor, Last West; Jessica Guzman’s Adelante; and all the books I had the pleasure of featuring in my spring-summer Virtual Salon (which I’d be happy to reboot if you contact me with a newish book–just message me). There are many, many other exciting collections I haven’t read yet, and everything I found rewarding enough to finish in 2020 is listed below the photo. An asterisk doesn’t mean it’s “better,” just that it was published during the year before I read it. I notice I read a ton of poetry this year but much less prose than usual–that has to do with fragmented concentration–although there are many new books in those categories I also loved.

Best wishes to all of us for a good new year full of good-for-something literature, good-enough health, and please-be-better government. On the reading side, nourish yourself with books, buy from indies when you can, give love to small presses without publicity machines, and like what you like no matter what the critics or professors say!

POETRY (82 books and chapbooks)

  • 1/12 Jeanne Heuving, Mood Indigo* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/12 Tyrone Williams, chapbook* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/18 Harjo, She Had Some Horses (teaching)
  • 1/19 Harjo, American Sunrise* (fandom)
  • 1/22 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (reread for teaching)
  • 1/26 Forche, The Country Between Us (reread for teaching)
  • 2/12 Cooley, Breach (reread for teaching)
  • 2/15 Spencer, If the House* (fandom)
  • 2/19 Young, Ardency (reread for class)
  • 3/4 Dove, Thomas and Beulah (reread for class)
  • 3/7 Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile* (gift)
  • 3/7 Witte, All Fires Don’t Burn the Same (gift)
  • 3/8 Smith, Wade in the Water (reread for class)
  • 3/20 Nethercott, The Lumberjack’s Dove (reread for class)
  • 3/21 Liz Hazen, Girls Like Us* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/22 William Woolfitt, Spring Up Everlasting* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/25 Elizabeth Lindsay Rogers, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons* (Virtual Salon)
  • 3/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament (reread for class)
  • 4/3 Cabrera, lack begins as a tiny rumble* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Savage, Detail (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Michael, Barefoot Girls* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/11 Taylor, Rift Zone* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/18 Chan, All Heathens* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/19 Green, The More Extravagant Feast* (local friend)
  • 4/27 Dungy, Trophic Cascade (reread for teaching)
  • 4/29 Robinson, Needville (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/9 Kildegaard & Hasse, Rocked by the Waters* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/10 Dickey, Mud Blooms (for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/15 Silano, Gravity Assist (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/23 Balbo, The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 6/2 Greenfield, Letdown* (for virtual salon)
  • 6/6 Solari, The Last Girl (fandom)
  • 6/12 Walker, Maps of a Hollowed World* (blurb)
  • 6/27 Egan, Hot Flash Sonnets (fandom)
  • 7/6 Petrosino, White Blood* (ad)
  • 7/14 Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem* (fandom)
  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie (friend recommendations)
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God* (local friend)
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque* (fandom)
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke (reviews/ buzz)
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn (fandom)
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast (reputation)
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit* (fandom)
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold* (fandom)
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine* (reputation)
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant (fandom)
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation* (pressmate)
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge* (buzz)
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos (recommendation)
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms* (gift)
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue* (fandom)
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (fandom)
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy* (gift from a friend)
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House (fandom)
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit* (was sent to me)
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West* (fandom)
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water (reputation)
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems (fandom)
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches (reputation)
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire (Shenandoah contributor!)
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human (spouse the comics reviewer had it)
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You (bought at a conference)
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (reputation)
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry* (buzz)
  • 9/20 Kuppers, Gut Botany* (fandom)
  • 9/21 Su, Middle Kingdom (research)
  • 9/22 Tolmie, The Art of Dying* (research)
  • 9/24 Phillips Bell, Smaller Songs* (fandom)
  • 9/30 Coleman, Selected Poems* (research)
  • 10/1 Van Duyn, Firefall (research)
  • 10/26 Birdsong, Negotiations* (review assignment)
  • 11/14 Malech, Flourishing* (reputation)
  • 12/1 Erdrich, Little Big Bully* (fandom)
  • 12/12 Gay, Be Holding* (fandom)
  • 12/17 Miranda, Altar for Broken Things* (friend)
  • 12/18 O’Hara, The Ghettobirds (ms for blurbing)
  • 12/19 Igloria, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts* (fandom)
  • 12/25 Beatty, The Body Wars* (fandom)
  • 12/26 Daye, Cardinal* (review assignment)
  • 12/31 Oliver, Devotions* (fandom)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/8 Suma, The Walls Around Us (friend’s recommendation)
  • 1/26 Cho, The True Queen* (fandom)
  • 2/24 El-Mohtar and Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War* (reviews)
  • 3/7 Mantel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (review)
  • 3/29 Erdrich, The Night Watchman* (fandom)
  • 5/9 Mantel, The Mirror and the Light* (fandom)
  • 5/28 Mandel, The Glass Hotel* (fandom)
  • 6/3 King, Let It Bleed* (fandom)
  • 6/10 Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (many reviews and friend recommendations)
  • 6/17 Collins, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes* (fandom)
  • 6/21 Foley, The Guest List* (review)
  • 6/24 Brooks, Year of Wonders (audiobook, review)
  • 6/28 Hill, On Beulah Height (friend’s recommendation)
  • 7/5 King, Salem’s Lot (review)
  • 7/8 Wehunt, Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here* (social media)
  • 7/13 Baggott, Seventh Book of Wonders (fandom)
  • 7/18 Jones, The Only Good Indian* (fandom)
  • 7/26 Atakora, Conjure Women* (reviews)
  • 8/8 LaValle, Devil in Silver (fandom)
  • 8/16 Bardugo, The Ninth House* (review)
  • 8/27 Hall, Dread Isle (ARCs, in fandom, and for blurb)
  • 9/18 VanderMeers, ed, Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (a lot of it, anyway)
  • 9/20 LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom* (fandom)
  • 9/24 Tolmie, The Little Animals* (research)
  • 10/11 Galbraith, Troubled Blood* (fandom)
  • 10/18 Dimaline, Empire of Wild* (review)
  • 11/15 Jones, Night of the Mannequins* (fandom)
  • 11/21 Clark, Ring Shout* (reviews)
  • 12/10 Harrigan, Half* (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/19 White, As Summer’s Mask Slips* (met at a conference)
  • 12/24 Shawl, New Suns (research for teaching)
  • 12/26 Riley, Such a Fun Age* (many recommendations)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (8)

  • 1/4 Reynolds, Walt Whitman (teaching prep)
  • 1/12 Macfarlane, Underland* (recommendation from friends)
  • 4/10 Buntin, Sheffield, Dodd, Dear America* (anthology I’m in)
  • 4/12 Finch, ed., Choice Words* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/17 Selznick, Live Oak With Moss (for class)
  • 7/6 Sheldrake, Entangled Life* (review and fungal curiosity)
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders* (fandom)
  • 9/? Lee and Winslow, eds., Deep Beauty* (anthology I’m in)

*published within the last year or so

cats : making a ruckus :: poets : blogging

My daughter and her cat have moved in for a couple of weeks. We have two cats of our own who were already unimpressed with each other, so the house is full of hissing AND purring, as each cat circles back around for reassurance that they are still the best cat, the most handsome and loved, and certainly everyone’s boss. I know from living with Poe and Ursula that the feline dominance battle never ends. Ursula wins more often–the toy, the spot in the sun–but there are flags Poe keeps re-staking, such as the sill of a certain downstairs window. Without that particular view of sparrows, the mailman, and an offensively brassy groundhog who needs to be shown a thing or two, would life even be endurable?

As you suspected, I’m working myself up to a metaphor: the vehicles are cats, the tenors are moods, and there’s struggle all round. (I could even say that Ursula stands for inexplicably confident cheer, Poe for the rational pessimism of intelligence, and the visitor Sabina for rage behind which is a yearning for peace and freedom, but I think we’ve all had enough of this.) As the season turns to lengthening daylight which is also the start of a long winter, my equilibrium is shaky. I had a challenging year; I had a lucky year and should never complain about anything. It’s all true.

My fifth poetry collection The State She’s In, seems to be doing well. But, and this won’t shock anyone who knows that 2020 has been a bad year for publishing, I just learned that my first novel, Unbecoming, isn’t selling much despite good reviews. I am heartsore. I’ve seen my spouse go through this; in 2011 he published a novel in stories with a university press that immediately went under and eventually learned that the marketing person, last woman standing on the sinking ship, never sent out the review copies or publicity she’d promised. He wrote a couple of great novel mss after that and just couldn’t sell them, because the publishers’ marketing people looked at those numbers and said “bad risk.” This happens in poetry, too–the best way to jump to a press with a big presence is to sell the hell out of your small-indie collection–but the effect is stronger in novel-publishing, probably because poetry has so little money in it anyway. I had felt excited about the new novel I’m drafting but pivoted immediately to fear that no matter how good it is, it might get stuck in limbo. What I care about here isn’t advances or royalties–I have a day job–but to keep writing books, publish them when they’re good and ready, and find appreciative readers.

I’m sad but not paralyzed. On the practical side, I’m making to-do lists for post-publication prize entries and other ways 2021 can be an occasion for a second push. On the emotional side, I’m reminding myself how many literary gifts I’ve received in 2020: generous reviews, reading opportunities, and a LOT of nice notes from friends and strangers praising one book or the other. I am truly, wildly grateful, even when so much about the publishing landscape is dispiriting or just plain pisses me off. I’m also trying to pay back the love. Here are a few things I do beyond buying indie books (ideally from independent bookstores), and I hope you’ll try them too:

  • celebrate books I like on social media (especially books from indie presses).
  • rate books on Goodreads and Amazon. I know people don’t like those linked sites for many good reasons, yet it’s a big kindness to authors to post a few stars there. The number of reviews matters much more than the content; I don’t know what the magic numbers are, but more reviews makes it more likely the books will pop up as search suggestions.
  • ask your local/ university libraries to order titles. I’m behind on this myself but will work on it in the new year.
  • teach new work when you have the opportunity, especially when the book can be on the required or suggested list for your class. Many indie authors are willing to Zoom in cheaply or for free–I’m one of them–and that’s a great way to raise the energy of a flagging class.
  • suggest a book for your book club or library event series, also with the potential excitement of a virtual author visit.

You can also look for a year-in-reading post from me soon, featuring a few poetry titles that deserve more love. And please sign up for one of my readings early in the new year! I promise to make them fun as well as quite different from each other. For the Poetrio event, poster below, the wonderful bookstore Malaprops is stocking The State She’s In. Another bit of light from the moody universe! Happy holidays, stay safe, be patient with whatever your feuding cats are, and I’ll see you next week.

Poetrio Series at Malaprop Books with Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran, 3 pm ET, January 3rd, https://www.facebook.com/events/708758299776747

Café Muse with Don Colburn, January 4th, 7 pm ET, sign up here (https://sites.google.com/view/cafe-muse-events/home)

Wall, whatcha got?

My son, a college sophomore, is a fiend for math and loves teaching it, too. Since he’s finishing the term at our dining room table, I get to eavesdrop on the tutoring he does by Zoom as well as his study groups’ conversations. Sometimes he and I break for a midday walk in the middle of it, and yesterday he reflected that when he comes to an impasse in his work, he’s more willing than his friends to just sit with the problem and wait for inspiration. He told me something like, “When I hit a wall, I’ll just sit and look at it and say, “Wall, whatcha got for me?'”

This is mostly just temperament–he and I are both stupidly resistant to asking for help, and we both enjoy puzzles. But he also said that he prefers hard math problems to easy ones because the answers to easy problems are just “coincidence,” whereas you know you’ve solved a “proofier” question because the solution comes with a deep click, a sense of rightness. I’m not sure I fully understand that, but I’ve been thinking about it as I bash my head against poem revisions, unable to decide when each ornery little piece is finished.

This hasn’t been a good workweek. My simple goal for Monday was to gather some poems to submit to the annual Poetry Society of America contests. I rarely throw in, but I thought that hey, this year I have time, right? But mostly these awards are for unpublished poems so I thought I’d finish up recent ones, pieces I haven’t sent elsewhere yet, and it’s NOT going well. I know none of us should be beating ourselves up for poor concentration right now; the soaring virus rates are horrifying and the political circus depressing. I had the added suspense this week of a couple of family members waiting for test results (everyone is negative and feeling fine). I never handle suspense well! Still, my fuzzy-headedness feels frustrating.

My son is right, though, that facing hard problems can lead to more interesting math or art–and that the way forward involves just showing up, again and again. None of these poems is easy: my tabs are open right now to pieces about giant tube worms, domestic violence, viral replication, divination…So I try to solve for x, take breaks, and circle back, hoping for flashes of intuition. History suggests that tough writing patches eventually end. I didn’t like it when my phone autocorrected “I was told” to “I am old” recently (!), but aging does bring a kind of equilibrium in knowing that time, careers, etc. aren’t just linear. They’re cyclical, too.

In the meantime, here’s my latest little mag publication, two poems occupied and preoccupied by catbirds, with thanks to Carol Dorf at Talking Writing. And if you missed my unusually cheerful post-election reading with the brilliant Anna Maria Hong–part of the Hot L series, it launched Sunday–you can catch it on YouTube (and below). Stephen Reichert is a great online-event organizer and promoter. After another stupid workday, I’m about to raise a glass to Stephen and to everyone else who is helping poetry shine in these dark nights.

What’s cooking and what’s already on the table

My mother in 1966

Being on sabbatical puts a insulating layer between me and the academic seasons, but I can still sense the weather shifting via publication cycles. Even for magazines and presses without university affiliations, there are year-in-review lists and columns: Aqueduct Press just published one of mine, and I’ve just submitted another to Strange Horizons for early January publication. I’ve been reading proofs for December issues. Rejections are souring my inbox. I also received three delicious acceptances from magazines I’ve never cracked: I’ll have poems in Smartish Pace and Kenyon Review Online next year, plus an essay that’s central to my forthcoming book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, will be in American Poetry Review. I’m freaked out, sad, tired, and feeling like a shut-in, yet that is some serious holiday cheer.

I’m rarely in a good mood, honestly, when I’m processing publication’s endless clerical business, even the wins. Being immersed in writing and reading feels better. Yet there are payoffs. A big one today is getting to celebrate the just-published issue of Shenandoah. I’ve been proofing the fiction, nonfiction, comics, and translations sections, which I otherwise have almost nothing to do with, although I love what the other editors have selected. The poetry section, though, is full of my babies. I recruited a few of the authors; most are people whose work I didn’t know before last year, when I sifted their beautiful poems out of the hundreds and hundreds submitted during our brief reading period. I can’t play favorites, loving them all equally, but here’s a tasting menu, each chosen because it will make you feel replete:

There’s a wide range of other feelings and experiences represented in this suite of poems, but for now: honey, rhubarb, persimmons.

More fruit of past efforts: this Sunday at 4 pm ET, you can check out poetry readings by Anna Maria Hong and me, courtesy of Hot L. (They’re recorded.) I’ll be virtually live (oh the paradoxes) in the Poetica-Malaprops series at 3 pm ET on Sunday January 3rd, and in the Cafe Muse series on Sunday January 4th at 7 pm ET. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out what end-of-year submissions I need to scramble up for postpublication book prizes, other random opportunities, and yes, the magazines. It’s a lot, and most of it won’t end palatably. But no cooking, no feast.

December cadralor

I found a new poetic form this week through Dave Bonta’s always excellent Poetry Blog Digest: the cadralor. JJS quotes a definition in the post “The good, the bad, and the ugly”: “The cadralor is a poem of 5 unrelated, numbered stanzaic images, each of which can stand alone as a poem, is fewer than 10 lines, and ideally constrains all stanzas to the same number of lines. Imagery is crucial to cadralore: each stanza should be a whole, imagist poem, almost like a scene from a film or a photograph. The fifth stanza acts as the crucible, alchemically pulling the unrelated stanzas together…and answer[ing] the compelling question: ‘For what do you yearn?’” I drafted a cadralor for the last entry in my November poem-a-day-effort. (I’m not sure anyone in my group managed consistent daily pieces, but drafting and revising any poetry at all felt like a success!) It also occurred to me that the cadralor resembles a multi-section blog post, so here’s a stab at it.

  1. It’s gusty and cold; my son, home from college, is doing virtual math classes in plaid pajamas at the dining room table; and I suspect I’m not going anywhere for a long time now, beyond sepia-toned trails through the woods. Reading time. I just finished the new poetry collection by Heid E. Erdrich, Little Big Bully–she’s “visiting” virtually this winter as a writer in residence and a group of faculty are having a book-club-style discussion of her book, which won last year’s National Poetry Series. It’s a powerful study of colonialism, sexual assault, racism, contemporary U.S. politics, and how to live against and through it with love for people and the land. Heid is an Ojibwe poet enrolled at Turtle Mountain and she lives in Minnesota, so it’s a wintry book. Strongly recommended.
  2. The apparition of poets’ faces on a Zoom/ petals in a wet dark month: in a weird parallel to Heid’s visit, I’m going to be the virtual Pearl S. Buck Poet in Residence at Randolph College this February! (When I proposed our writer in residence series, I actually modeled it partly on what Randolph was already doing. Here’s something on what Fran Wilde did last semester–she sounds wonderful.) This means a reading, class visits, and teaching a 1-credit master class in four sessions to a small group of advanced undergrads. Apparently some of these poets are also into sf, so I’m developing a syllabus called “Haunted and Weird.” I was offered the honor out of the blue last month, a saving spar in the usual late-fall surge of rejections.
  3. I also recorded a reading for the “Hot L” series in Baltimore recently. Paired with one by Anna Maria Hong, it will air soon. I am reading live (virtually) on Monday, January 4th in the Cafe Muse series, too. Details forthcoming. These are lucky acceptances and I feel like I get the medium now–how to be engaging, project warmth, from a little box on a screen–but it remains, to me, a strange way to connect with audiences. I am rooting for vaccination in time for spring’s pastel emergences.
  4. Meanwhile, I want to hibernate like a bear, which for this poet means writing, reading, and occasionally baking and decking the halls–not talking to anyone, not continuing to promote this year’s books, definitely not planning for the next book, consuming news only in nibbles. I had been hoping for a burst of energy after the stresses of November, but no. Slow metabolism. Plodding work.
  5. In one lovely way, though, my December introversion and my dreams of eventual blossom are about to come together. The new issue of Shenandoah will be live in a week and a half, and Beth Staples and her crew have arranged a launch party this Thursday 12/3 at 7 pm eastern. I hope you’ll join us at https://wlu.zoom.us/j/97991372692 for a bunch of brief readings, songs chosen by writers, and more. The poets will be Samyak Shertok, Hannah Dow, Ashley Jones, and Isabel Acevedo, all of whom have beautiful pieces in the forthcoming issue, which I’m excited to share soon. The interns recommend the following recipe for sipping during the party, and I’ll tell you how I do cider after that. Cheers!

Bog Fog Recipe

1 cup apple cider, 1 cup cranberry juice, 1 cinnamon stick, ¼ cup of cloves, bundled in a coffee filter tied with cooking string (or loose, and filtered when poured)

Simmer concoction in pot on stovetop until the whole kitchen smells like cozying up on a cold winter day. Pour into favorite mug. If holiday cheer is desired, stir in a shot of rum or other favorite booze.

Mulling a la poetesse

Who needs measurement, much less cranberry juice? I warm a pot full of good farmer’s market cider slowly, adding the following in a tea ball: a bunch of cloves, a cinnamon stick broken in half (smashing things is satisfying), and a chunk of fresh ginger. I used to stick the cloves in an orange but that, frankly, is a pain in the butt. A tot of dark rum is strongly recommended. It’s going to be a long winter.