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

Virtual Salon #13 with Sonia Greenfield

This intense week, I’m featuring a new collection by activist-editor-poet Sonia Greenfield (check out Rise Up Review sometime, too, for brilliant poems of resistance).

Letdown consists of 64 numbered prose poems about pregnancy, birth, raising a special needs child, miscarriage, grief, and recovery. No poems can be assembled into tidy chronologies–they slip and blur, associate and meditate–but the book has a strong emotional arc, through an underworld of pain, to emergence into love and compassion. I love that the book ends in empathy for other parents, but that’s enabled by Greenfield’s own difficult rebirth: “Though I am better now, sometimes I can feel a kite string tied inside cut through me when what I want yanks.”

Maggie Smith gets it right, too, when she calls Greenfield “a master of the prose poem.” Each has a boiled-down lyric intensity. Many investigate the meanings of words, putting the lie to the literary-critical truism that pain short-circuits expression. Poems about diagnostic language, the tone-deaf consolations and blame friends offer, and her sons words are very powerful. Her son is on the autism spectrum and the recurrent description of his “weird energy” could describe the book, too. This collection channels a strong charge of loss and love. As she says, “It takes a while to strip expectations away, to peel off the layers until we’re holding our child’s happiness in the palm of our hand, as pure as the simplest silicate mineral, and say it is enough.” This is a testament to celebrate.

1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

We would eat cannoli and Dick’s Burgers (drive-in burger place in Seattle), both of which I craved when I was pregnant. We would eat quesadilla, because that’s my son’s favorite food. We would eat falafel and gelato and zeppoles (in the book), and we’d wash it all down with coconut water and whiskey (also in the book). Then we’d finish up with an Alka-Seltzer, naturally.

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would tell the friend that I had to go back on anti-depressants because of how scattered and unfocused I am, that I feel like a pinball bouncing off the contours of my life. And, no. I haven’t been able to write much– just a couple poems. But things will change, I tell myself. 

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

If my virtual audience wants to know more, they can visit my website at soniagreenfield.com, and I’m also on all the social media with no fancy names. Just Sonia Greenfield with an @. 

Virtual Salon #12 with Ned Balbo

...the landline's cut & no one's listening 
-Ned Balbo, from "Vortex"

The imaginary book party below is the twelfth in a spontaneously invented series–how did this milestone come so fast? In March, events I’d planned to launch The State She’s In fell apart, which in some ways felt like the very smallest loss in an enormous crisis and in other ways was hard. Through this blog feature, I hoped I could do a small good thing for other writers in my position. I’m having fun with it, but it’s a little crushing that we still need to conduct most of our lives virtually.

Reading Ned Balbo’s sixth collection is a powerful and eerie experience right now because of its mix of isolation and intimacy. The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots, winner of The New Criterion Poetry Prize and published in December 2019, takes its title from a poem about plants at the Cylburn Arboretum. A companion shows the speaker how leaves recoil at human touch. After they walk away, he wonders about “green fronds unfolding till/ the surface of their sea is calm again”–as if ease can be restored after an interval of shocked separation. Balbo’s title phrase recurs in a poem called “With Magdalene, near Daybreak,” when a resurrected god tells Magdalene, Touch me not. Balbo wonders why Jesus would return only to “order her away” and how she would have felt: “she who’d grieved already,/ shocked, stopped where she stood,/ the world strange, unsteady// though he was radiant…” This book, written well before the novel coronavirus, is about social distance.

Many of the poems in this (paradoxically?) touching collection come from the intimate-yet-distant process of reading other writers; Balbo is also a translator and some of these pieces, especially in the resonant opening sequence including “Vortex,” “began as translations but were transformed along the way,” as he writes in the notes. The book’s middle section focuses on Balbo’s tangled family and I found it, too, intensely moving. Balbo writes often about being raised by his birth mother’s sister, whose story he didn’t learn until his teens. Here he tells of a sister born fifteen months earlier who was raised by their grandmother as a daughter, then later worked in her father’s business–as his “sister.” “There’s just so much/ to carry and keep hidden,” Balbo writes in her voice, “…knowing he exists/ makes me feel more alone…”

I don’t mean to make it sound, though, as if The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is all about ill-omen and the failure to connect. Loss often frames, and makes more meaningful, romantic closeness rescued from ruins, and Ned’s compassionate imagination illuminates the book. You’ll also see from his answers below that he loves cats, music, and a nice Montepulciano.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

It depends on the poem. For “In Baltimore, 2004,” which takes place in an apartment above Baltimore’s best-known Indian restaurant, I suggest something from their menu for your meal with a friend: Kashmiri naan, two entrées  (chicken korma, for carnivores; benghan bhartha for vegetarians), and rasmalai for dessert (sneak it in from a different Indian restaurant that serves it). And wine—definitely wine. Maybe a Montepulciano.

For “Social Drinking of a Solitary Couple,” one stanza of which is about a long-ago Long Island New Year’s Eve: tall whiskey sours with maraschino cherries (the cherries are a must).

For “Rondeau: ‘Meaningless Sex,’” gin and tonics (or gins and tonic, for you grammar buffs): sipping a few with the right person is what the poem’s about, after all.

Finally, “For the Garden’s Architect,” which takes place partly in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and partly in its aftermath (i.e., Hell), anything and everything you can gobble or guzzle. You’ll be ending up in Hell anyway, so carpe diem, as the poets say.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Fortunately, yes, I’m writing, though the ripple effects of our universal lockdown and general chaos are having their influence. My new poems are marked by plague masks, wild animals running around the spaces we’ve abandoned, corvids of bleak omen (“corvid” is only one letter away from you-know-what), and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine’s 2019 exhibition, “The Value of Sanctuary”—a theme that was more prescient than anyone could have imagined.

As to how I am really, it depends on the day and the time of day. But I’m finding refuge in music, as usual: these days, Roger and Brian Eno’s collaborative ambient album Mixing Colours, Andrew Bird’s Echolocations: River, and Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium, a collaboration with James McAlister, Nico Muhly, and The National’s Bryce Dessner.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

My website’s collection of on-line links is good for convenient one-stop browsing and is more inclusive than my inexcusably dormant Facebook author’s page. There are also two readings that might pass the time for friends sheltering in place: one that Jane and I gave just about a year ago at the Cross Cultural Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn [poet and essayist Jane Satterfield is Balbo’s partner], and one from a month earlier at the Newburyport Literary Festival where I was paired with the always magnificent January Gill O’Neill.

And since The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots is partly a book about family, you can learn more about mine (and meet Wyatt, our trusty polydactyl guardian) at Eileen Tabios’ Poets on Adoption blog.

Virtual Salon #11 with Martha Silano

Dear Mr. Wordsworth,

It turns out there is no tranquility.

When you read any of Martha Silano’s books, all of them fizzing with brio and invention and awe, you want to start a salon just so you can invite her. As Diane Seuss says about Gravity Assist, Silano’s fifth poetry collection is “popping with kinetic energy.” The physics references are sometimes metaphors for rising and falling in mood and body, but they’re not just metaphors: Silano’s worldview is scientific, balancing skepticism with infectious curiosity (am I allowed to use “infectious” as a happy adjective right now?–never mind, I’m sure Martha would tell me to go for broke). I read this book shortly after its 2019 publication then again this week, right after teaching Whitman, and this time I was especially moved by all of Silano’s Whitmanian reaching after connection through study, epistle, and even psychedelic mysticism (“prayer/ is like a bread line, a penny for your/ exploded mind”). There anger and grief here, too, especially about human destruction of the more-than-human world, but this restless, brainy poet often responds to crisis with praise of what continues to amaze. No one can solve all of life’s multitudinous inexplicabilities, but Silano’s asymptotic approaches are always wonderful to observe.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

First, we would sit down to a plate of antipasti: Genoa salami, calabrese, provolone, garlic-stuffed olives, roasted red bell peppers, Italian bread. For the main course: puttanesca served over linguini, paired with a mixed-green salad with vinaigrette. For dessert: fresh peaches, fresh cream, and squares of dark chocolate. Oh, and plenty of Chianti.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I’m doing better than I would have imagined. At first I was too anxious to write, but once I began drafting a poem a day things got better. I also attribute my wellbeing to going running at a nearby wooded park. Thankfully, my kids pretty much take care of themselves, and I teach online for a living. The California poppies are blooming here in Seattle. If they can be bright and cheery, so can I.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

My website is marthasilano.net.

Q&A,Tethered Letters: https://tetheredbyletters.com/author-qa-martha-silano/

I have new work up at:

Women’s Voices for Change https://womensvoicesforchange.org/martha-silano-when-i-begin-to-dig.htm

Barren https://barrenmagazine.com/i-bring-you-the-uncertain-music/

dialogist https://dialogist.org/poetry/2020-week-19-martha-silano

The Los Angeles Review http://losangelesreview.org/dear-diary-martha-silano/

Rust + Moth https://rustandmoth.com/work/when-i-realized-everything-had-been-said/

SWWIM https://www.swwim.org/blog/2019/11/15/jean-and-joan-and-a-who-knows-who

The Shore https://www.theshorepoetry.org/martha-silano-pain-is-the-foundation

Thrush   http://www.thrushpoetryjournal.com/january-2019-martha-silano.html

Waxwing http://waxwingmag.org/items/issue17/28_Silano-Instead-of-a-father.php

Reviews of Gravity Assist are up at:

The Rumpus  https://therumpus.net/2020/04/barbara-bermans-national-poetry-month-shout-out/

DMQ Review https://www.dmqreview.com/micro-reviews

The Adroit Journal  https://theadroitjournal.org/2020/02/05/measuring-the-future-a-review-of-martha-silanos-gravity-assist/

My books are available at

Independent Publishing Group (IPG) https://www.ipgbook.com/silano–martha-contributor-487072.php

Steel Toe Books https://steeltoebooks.com/books/3-books/books/57-blue-positive-by-martha-silano-sp-1358827673

Two Sylvias Press http://twosylviaspress.com/martha-silano.html

Virtual Salon #10 with Ruth Dickey

I mark up most of my poetry books–prepare to be shocked–IN PEN. I probably started in grad school, before sticky notes came in all those colors and sizes, and inked notes are more legible when you return to a text to teach or write about it. I recently went back to an old edition of Dickinson’s poems, for example, as I prepare to lead discussions from a newer and better book, Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, and I’m so relieved to see all the glosses and discussion questions I’d inscribed there.

One of the first phrases I underlined in Ruth Dickey’s debut collection, Mud Blooms, occurs on page 5 in “Four-twenty-one,” a poem about a beloved calf Dickey’s parents wouldn’t let her name. It’s the last line: “my brother and me leaning on the fence, stretching our hands through.” The first poem, “Somoto, Nicaragua, #3,” tells you Mud Blooms will be about hunger, but by page 5 you see the book also concerns a longing for connection with the human and more-than-human world, past all the barriers thrown up by difference. Dickey expresses humility about these efforts, especially in her deeply moving poems about working at Miriam’s Kitchen in DC. She orders apples people can’t eat before she knows that “almost everyone who is homeless has dental problems”; “my stupidity galls me,” she adds in an intermittent, abecedarian prose poem sequence called “Alphabet Soup Kitchen.” Sometimes, too, Dickey doubts the worth of her own efforts, because homelessness and hunger are such huge, seemingly intractable problems. There’s so much loss and suffering here, but what impresses you most about the book is its big-heartedness and radical openness. I love this collection and the spirit that shines through it.

I’ve only met Ruth in person once or twice, as I exited and she entered intense work on the AWP Board, but I can also tell from her answers below that she’s a skilled party host, perhaps through her current service as Executive Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures. I’m so glad to introduce you to Ruth and her work, in the 10th gathering of this pandemic-inspired virtual salon!

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

The beloved foods that appear in the book – fresh apple cake, strong coffee, and sandwiches (both peanut butter and pimento cheese) – feel not totally sufficient for a celebration. So there would definitely be rosé, and I’d also order us foods I love from places in the poems – gallo pinto with plantains and fresh tortillas, toast with honey and sea salt from Sea Level Bakery in Cannon Beach, and dosas with extra spicy mango pickle from the woman who used to have a shop on R Street NW just off Connecticut Avenue in DC. And as a finale, thick slices of southern layer cakes from Maxie B’s in Greensboro, NC.

  1. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

These days I’m stunned and scared and outraged and grateful in equal measures. I’ve been journaling and writing poems that are largely terrible, but it feels helpful to have that space where I’m trying to metabolize and make sense of the world, even if I’m doing it incredibly poorly.  

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

More about my book and some poems are on my website – www.ruthdickey.com– and I am frequently posting about books I love and my dog on Instagram at @ruthdickey206. If you are interested in Mud Blooms, you can order a copy at https://bookshop.org/books/mud-blooms/9780988275577– thanks so much for reading!

Virtual Salon #9 with Sara Robinson

Since poetry, like bourbon, has a long shelf life and often a long trajectory of rising to wider attention, I’m including a couple of 2019 authors in this salon series, including Sara M. Robinson. Blurbing her new book, Needville, I wrote, “So many voices smolder in Sara Robinson’s ambitious new collection. Evoking a fictional coal town named Needville, she channels exploited miners; dying canaries; guilty consumers of coal-fueled electricity; and even the voices of mountains themselves. ‘How are poets like geologists?’ one poem asks. Robinson’s answer is to take the long view, probing the mighty forces that shape us. This powerful book treats its subject with precision, compassion, and not a little fire.” (Hey, I think I succeeded with that blurb! They’re micro-reviews themselves and not easy to craft.)

I find this week that it’s also a rewarding book to reread. Different images jumped out at me: a mountain gutted like a deer, “naked creeks with muted pulses,” fatback sizzling and jumping in an old black skillet, a miner discovering a mammoth in a deep vein of ice, and the observation that “we will all turn to carbon & silica one day”–as well as a rash of Rite-Aids, Dollar Stores, Hardees, and peanut butter nabs. Sara has deep roots in Appalachia and her passion for it pervades the book. She also worked for decades in mineral industries, so many poems have a scientific bent, too. Check out the mini-interview below, including Sara’s excellent ideas about cocktails.

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

I would have a new bourbon drink called Black Water, a mixture of Writer’s Tears Irish Whisky and a splash of branch water. I would have grilled cheese sandwiches fashioned in the shape of lunch boxes. And for dessert I would offer Lemon ice cream with spoons in shape of little shovels. All would be served in a diner made from a coal car or rustic cabin/shanty. Main entrance would simulate going into a mine shaft. Lantern lights. Dripping water and iron clinking as background music. Fiddle playing intermittent. 

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would say I am totally frustrated with our government right now and yes I am able to write. I wish I could write more about the pleasures of whisky drinking but the latest news is really interfering with my enjoyment. I keep wanting to come up with whisky cocktail names like “Shelter-in-Place, Shelter Dog, Old Miner Boots, and Hollertini.”  I have written a few poems about the current state of things but mostly I am composing concrete poetry using lines from the daily paper as verse. These I post on FaceBook. 

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

I would love to start a blog someday, but in meantime, I’m on Facebook and also easily accessible by email. I’m available for group Zoom conversations or FaceTime. Also Needville debuted as a play this year and actually had a real audience (right before the virus shutdown) under the direction of NY Director, Tom Evans. It was videoed and copies of the play are available.

Virtual Salon #8 with Marianne Chan

Marianne Chan’s brilliant debut collection engages a wide array of topics with insight, wit, and brio: not only religion but colonization, copulation, space exploration, and family relations (her mother is a funny and wonderful recurring character). I fell hard for Chan’s work in the process of selecting pieces she had submitted to Shenandoah, and All Heathens expands on the pleasures of those pieces in a satisfying way. As I take notes for these micro-reviews I make notes in the back of each book about zingy lines and titles, and there are too many here to list. One of the most hilariously wicked poems is a retort to “When the Man at the Party Told Me He Wanted to Own a Filipino,” and there are so many great metaphors, too (“the sun was hot yellow tea in a saucer”). A few lines near the beginning of All Heathens crystallize something about the book for me: “my mother keeps telling me/ that I should move my hips when I dance, because I am as stiff/ as a Methodist church in the suburbs…” I’ve never met this author and can’t tell you how she would boogie if this virtual salon ended in a dance party, but her poems are full of oscillations and surprising turns that could constitute poetry’s answer to her mother’s instruction. Words can move, too.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be? Since we’re using our imaginations and I don’t have to worry about going broke, I think I’d opt for all of the food mentioned in my poem “Lansing Sinulog Rehearsal, 2010”: pancit, dinuguan, pinakbet, caldereta, lumpia, leche flan, bibingka and five Hot-N-Ready pizzas! We shall feast! 

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer? My answer to the first question is that I’m doing okay most of the time, and my answer to the second question is: yes, thank goodness, yes! Despite the worry and sadness I feel about the pandemic, and despite having to focus some energy on virtual book promotion, I’ve been able to write new poems. In fact, I think I need to read and write poems more than ever right now. Other than talking with friends and family, writing has been one of the only things keeping me centered. 

How can your virtual audience find out more? For more info about me, feel free to go to my website: mariannechan.com, or you can read “10 Questions for Marianne Chan” on Poets & Writers: https://www.pw.org/content/ten_questions_for_marianne_chan. Also, if you’re interested in All Heathens, you can order a copy here: https://bookshop.org/books/all-heathens/9781946448521 Thanks for reading!

Virtual Poetry Salon with Tess Taylor

I’ve always liked fierce poems and feminist poems, but it wasn’t that long ago that I noticed how many of the poetry collections I like best are deeply grounded in place. In Tess Taylor’s new collection, Rift Zone, that place is California in a century perched on a fault line. Taylor writes of suburbs that bury violent histories, and also how that violence keeps erupting and threatening to upend today’s polluted prettiness. There’s an apocalyptic Plathian verve to some of Taylor’s similes: “My parents renovated that old home. / It is clean as a lobotomy.” There’s resonant music, too, with some of the poems framed as songs and lullabies, and others just prickling with echoed sound: “The air rings with lost force we call the waves.” I hope you’ll read the book, the interview below, and the poem Taylor links to in the last line. It will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, a physical copy of which I cherish over tea every Sunday morning. Is that another precarious pleasure? How long will our luxuries last?

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

Broken cookies cracked apart by seismic pressure.

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would say I am horribly sad and that some days I cannot even bear it. I would say writing a book of poems about the precarity of our lives in this brutal era only to have the era be too precarious for the poems has been staggering. I would say that beauty and song have a nagging way of sneaking up on me despite my rage and grief. I would say: I am waking up at midnight and keeping a raw insomniac’s journal. I would say I feel unkempt and also deeply alive. I would say “thank you so much for asking.”

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

There is a lot up at www.tess-taylor.com!

A virtual reading here: 
https://www.ptreyesbooks.com/event/virtual-poetry-reading?fbclid=IwAR0oiHkMHdUk8LHonRo3CAWe5unQbxzS07h715aifPM8eK3N-Nf349hcnlU

And:  Here’s a stalwart defense of reading books NOW –  which you may like. 

And:  here’s a poem from the NYT Mag to send you into the weekend. 

Virtual Salon #6 with Elizabeth Savage & Ann E. Michael

Featured at today’s virtual salon are two lovely new chapbooks, a brand new one from blogger-extraordinaire Ann E. Michael and one from late 2019 by Kestrel Poetry Editor Elizabeth Savage. Both are poets whom I’ve admired for ages. If this were a live reading, you’d also immediately perceive that they are exceptionally kind and generous people, too. I’ll begin with Ann’s book but be sure to keep reading for a mini-interview with Elizabeth, below.

I was moved to revisit a landscape in Barefoot Girls that reminds me of my own girlhood in North Jersey. Ann’s slim book powerfully evokes a landscape just south of there, flat and stretching east to Atlantic beaches. Awkward teenagers, “more than one kind of hungry,” are marked by its barrenness; soothe the ache at roller-rinks and rock concerts; cope with assaults and unwanted pregnancies; and, at pool halls, hustle “drunks who think a girl can’t win.” In this stirring chapbook, however, girls persist dauntlessly, just as “the darning needles swoop/ and dart, hungry, busy, rising up/ against whatever holds them down.”

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

1. Alas, warm Schlitz beer (in a can) or Coke, and hoagies, would be thematically perfect–but I can’t bear the thought. And popsicles, choose your fake flavor. My teen years were not gustatory pleasures. We can update it with gelato and thin-crust pizza.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

2. Harried, nibbled to death by work-related technology details, not writing much; reading a lot…and spending as much time in the garden as possible. Pulling weeds can be cathartic!

How can your virtual audience find out more?

3. Check out my webpage’s “My Books” tab at www.annemichael.wordpress.com, or go directly to prolificpress.com (“new books”). For context, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s first three albums, read about the gas crisis of the early 70s, or maybe check out http://www.josephszabophotos.com/ and view Szabo’s photographs of teens in the early 70s.

~

Detail by Elizabeth Savage is just as vivid in conjuring place, although its style is way more elliptical, oscillating between scoured-down lyrics and even smaller shards (perhaps Ann has me thinking about the shells and shell-fragments you pick up on the New Jersey shore). Elizabeth’s locations, however, are the Richmond, Virginia of her girlhood, the West Virginia she inhabits now, and, in glimpses, Pacific beaches. Sensory detail transports: one poem “reeks of peaches” while another manifests “a gridded garter snake” who “basks/ trusting the asphalt when a motorized warmth/ pulses suggestively.” The most salient aspect of this collection, though, is its exploration of edges: seasonal hinges, crusts of earth pushed up by crocuses, a beautician’s shears, and more. I confess I reread these poems while gnawing the ears of a dark chocolate bunny, but Details’ refreshments are better.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

1. Detail is made up of dense, enjambment-driven poems followed by a distillation. Applying this concept to refreshments, the Detail buffet might include some of my cannibal cookies next to tiny Dixie cups of dark chocolate chips and coconut flakes; paella alongside saffron strands; martinis next to glass dishes of green olives; hummus with sea salt and lemon juice sidecars—and all accompanied by cold, bone-dry white wine that comes in a box. Several poems concern Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up, so perhaps ham biscuits accompanied by lard and a tiny statue of J.E.B Stuart should also be made available.   

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

2. I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

3. I love Will Woolfitt’s response to this question, and I think his interpretation of it  fits both my “how” and my “more.” I began the poems in Detail as a way to read Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems, so more is to be found in her poetry. Noah’s Ark is my poetry neighborhood, and I was listening to and thinking through Ingrid Stolzel’s compositions from poetry throughout the years I wrote Detail. Dancing Girl Press published another chap for me that is roughly the inverse experiment, so the poems in Parallax might be of interest. 

Virtual Poetry Salon #5 with Caroline Cabrera

And even in blindness our chemistries communicate. Our instinct, a lace mycelium. When my cheeks go hot and I distrust a man I may be sensing the hair as it rises from another woman's neck. I may smell her experience. We know more than we trust ourselves to know.  -Caroline Cabrera, from "The body gives itself away" 

(lack begins as a tiny rumble), a brand new collection by my pressmate Caroline Cabrera, belies its title: these hybrid poems, almost lyric essays, brim with language that nourishes me. Pain and grief are starting points, but line by line, with amazing persistence, Cabrera digs herself out of those very dark places. Sisterhood helps, but so does a renegotiation of her relationship with her own body. “The womb is a world,” she writes in one poem, clarifying that image with the eye-opening closure, “Our first act is one of emigration.” In many poems, too, Cabrera unfolds what it means to be a blonde-haired Cuban American: “My skin keeps me safe. My blood, it boils in me.” My own concentration is poor these days, but this book riveted me. Bonus: the collection includes great poems about toxic bosses. I really appreciate poems about toxic bosses.

This book, by the way, feels very much in sisterhood with Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen, star of my last salon, but really I’m just contacting people with new books and posting these interviews in the order I receive them. I’m really enjoying this project, as well as the new books it’s leading me through. Virginia’s governor just gave a stay-at-home order. I totally agree with it, but it makes connecting through writing more important than ever.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

We would eat popcorn and parmesan cheese. We would eat kale with bechamel and fried rice. We would eat spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp and grits, and beet risotto. We would eat fried chicken. We would eat guava pastries and croquettas and yucca frita with creamy cilantro sauce. We would eat blood oranges and pomegranates. We would eat and eat and eat and eat and never be filled.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Right now I am reading and thinking and processing, which all feels like the precursor to writing. To a Floridian, this period of hunkering feels a lot like preparing for a hurricane that never comes. I’m living from that headspace and trying to be present with where it takes me. 

How can your virtual audience find out more?

I co-host the advice podcast Now That We’re Friends with two other poets, Anne Cecelia Holmes and Gale Marie Thompson. We’re hosting a virtual live episode on Saturday April 11. Check out @NTWFpodcast on Instagram or Twitter for details.