Writing has its own mythology. The word author stems from the Latin auctoreum, which literally means “one who causes to grow.” And whatever the reasons may be—our media representations, our educational system, or our star-struck awe at famous writers—we tend to emphasize the “one” in that equation. From Shakespeare in Love to questions for authors at events, our culture often celebrates the tortured soul, the rugged individual, the solo genius. For the past three years, I’ve worked on Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication. The book traces the life history of 11 widely different contemporary debut books. Their books were self, indie, and big-house published. They were travel memoirs, paranormal romances, post-apocalyptic domestic dramas, children’s picture books, short story collections, young adult fantasies, and literary fiction. When I started the project, the only thing that unified these books in my mind was that they'd found some level of success, loosely defined somewhere between runaway bestseller and finding a strong connection to a niche audience. But in all my in-depth interviews, two other unifying factors emerged. The first shared trait among the 11 authors was perseverance. I’ll leave that topic less explored here, but it’s enough to say they each encountered roadblocks and barriers significant enough to sabotage their entire project. Some quit for a time. But each writer returned to the work. The second trait each writer shared revolved around the need to develop community. This theme overshadowed even perseverance. So much so, that I felt it deserved more exploration beyond what I cover in my book. I conducted interviews in Minneapolis and in Tampa at AWP 2018 to capture many writers' thoughts and advice about literary community. I'm grateful to the following authors for recently taking the time to speak with me: Joanna Demkiewicz (Milkweed Editions Publicist and co-founder of The Riveter), Rachel Fershleiser (Senior Director of Marketing at Knopf), Sally Franson (author of the forthcoming debut novel, A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out), V.V. Ganeshananthan (author of Love Marriage), Ada Limón (author of 5 books of poetry including the National Book Award Finalist Bright Dead Things), Bao Phi (author of two poetry collections and the 2017 Caldecott Honor Book A Different Pond), Kaethe Schwehn (author of The Rending and the Nest), 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin (author of 3 poetry collections and editor of the bestselling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota), and Analicia Sotelo (author of Virgin, the inaugural winner of the Jake Adam York Prize). Why is Community Important? In 2015, an Atlantic article questioned the purpose and pressures of literary community. It’s a compelling read, and as someone who shares a deep level of introversion, I found my head nodding several times. The author argues that the pressure for literary community is overwhelming, and that it forces “every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them.” I wholeheartedly agree that community should never feel forced or mandatory. But I disagree with that characterization of literary community. Based on my experience and my interviews with numerous authors, this definition needs to be broader. To me, it’s not exclusively about going to book readings or networking at literary events, as the article suggests. It’s admirable and awesome if people want to write just for themselves, but if writers strive to be published, then they have already committed a public act. That act is a powerful choice, and yes, sometimes entirely based in ego, but it almost always requires some act of humility and community building as well. Literary community is then less a narrow set of predefined acts and more about finding a personal and meaningful way to connect through writing, however that comes about and feels comfortable. 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin explains that the simple feeling of belonging can have powerful effects. She points out that in her community in Minnesota, it took a few community leaders to plant seeds and lead the way, and now the Twin Cities area has a vibrant and supportive community for writers of color. That community has helped her “keep at something that is not always easy to justify in terms of the amount of time and money invested.” Sally Franson, whose debut novel comes out in April, says it wouldn’t exist without the people around her. This echoes many of the sentiments I heard in Behind the Book. “My novel, for example, didn't get off the ground until an editor friend took me out for coffee and said, 'you're funny, you should write something funny' and a beloved poet mentor, months later, said more of the same,” says Sally. “I honestly don't think I would have started it without their nudging!” Poet Ada Limón goes one step further and says that literary community is her lifeline. Twenty years after graduate school, she still emails the first drafts of poems to her close friends from the program. They are her touchstones and keep her grounded. She says it's especially important in a climate and time when the arts don’t feel valued. Her sense of literary community “inspires me, protects me, and makes me feel like I can actually make a living and a life out of the arts.” For Analicia Sotelo, writing can never be a solitary act because it's something we do together. “Writing is not just about the individual artist, but that it is rather something that is generated from our communication, from our rhetoric, from our language and how that changes. Once we acknowledge that, I think we can be much more giving to each other.” In many ways, an act of community is really an act of generosity. It can be notes from one trusted early reader to another, attending a reading, giving a reading, telling someone else to attend a reading, taking a loved one out for donuts after a tough rejection, posting an online book recommendation, offering to watch the kids for a few hours so your partner can write, writing a review for a writer you love, or speed-networking your way through a 10,000-person conference event. It can be big or small. It can be public or private. But if there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over, it really can’t be avoided, and we shouldn't want to avoid it. It helps us, and it's part of what you sign up for as a writer. Most of the time, even for the most introverted, it doesn’t even need to be painful. “Everyone is the person who thinks that they don’t belong at one point or another. So it’s really important to remember that everyone feels that way. I mean I often felt that I was the mistake. Everyone feels at some point like they are the mistake,” explains V.V. Ganeshananthan. “But if you start to think of it like a whole room full of mistakes, it starts to sound pretty fun.” [millions_ad] How to Find Connection So, that’s great, but how do you actually find, establish, and foster literary community and connection? In my interviews, there seemed to be four common pieces of advice: Be active, be present, be kind, and be giving. 1. Be Active Start by being active, however you define that, says Bao Phi. Bao's way of interacting and participating has changed as his life has changed, but he continues to try to stay as active as he can. When he was younger, he “went to as many literary readings, open mics, and slams as I could. Trying to absorb, listen, think, and learn.” Now as parenting, writing, and work have soaked up more of his time, he still tries to stay active, but in different ways. “I use social media a lot, and I might be the only person who's still emailing folks like it’s 1998. I send poems or essays I like out to people who I think might enjoy them, have conversations electronically, and buy a lot of books.” Joanna Demkiewicz says it takes some work to be active. “You’re going to have to do some research and hit the keys a little bit,” she argues. “The literary community is a friendly community despite this impenetrable mystique. And it’s definitely not all happening in New York. So the first step is just to show up and take part.” 2. Be Present Demkiewicz says the easiest way to take part is to follow our second common piece of advice: be present and start local. Rachel Fershleiser agrees. She says, “No matter what, I think it’s about starting local. Find one or two people who you know and like, or even reach out to people via social media that you’ve never met before, and say you’re going to this reading and will they join you. A lot of times if you start with that one-on-one connection—and it just takes one—then that person might introduce you to someone they know.” Furthermore, Fershleiser says don’t just start local, start small. When you’re starting out, “don’t just go to the big events with the big name authors and crowded rooms. Go to the smaller, more obscure events. Then people will introduce themselves more freely. They’ll be so happy that you took the time and effort to come, and you’ll be part of something.” It also pays to be genuine, notes V.V. Ganeshananthan. “If someone is being Machiavellian about wanting to get something out of a conversation, people pick up on it pretty fast. So just be real, just be human. Ask other people what they are working on, try to connect with them rather than figure out how to get something from them. If you’re faking it to get someone to introduce you to their agent, that tends to be the kind of thing that people can tell. But if you’re interested in another person or their writing, that also comes through loud and clear.” 3. Be Kind When I asked 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin for her advice, she listed kindness first. Try to include others, and reach out to them. This extends to “being a fierce advocate for free expression from underrepresented communities.” Kaethe Schwehn agrees, noting that kindness goes a long way in the arts. In some ways, writing is a competitive enterprise, but it’s healthier when practiced with kindness. “Cheer loudly and sincerely when a writer friend accomplishes something,” says Kaethe. “Madeline L'Engle has a great quote about how each artistic act is a stream that feeds this greater ocean of art. Believing that we're all on the same team is crucial.” 4. Be Giving Perhaps most of all, the group of people I interviewed challenged anyone seeking community to start with generosity. Ada Limon says to start with service before anything else. “Reach out and write the poets that you love, the poets that are undercelebrated and underrepresented. Do interviews, ask questions, help promote books that you love. It can mean the world to those writers and build a connection for you.” Sally Franson says that literary community is ultimately about generosity and help. “It's folly, this myth of the tortured genius working in her room for years and coming out wild-eyed with a sheaf of papers that will change the world. No one can create alone. Great ideas are a confluence of five to 100 other great ideas. And so you've got to listen and pay attention to what the world is telling you. You've got to ask the world for help. And you've got to let the world help you, too.” Image Credit: Flickr/hiimniko.
On the first day of 2017 I finished The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I was in Tokyo, and still believed that Donald Trump would be impeached, that someone (who?) was going to call bullshit, that we would get a second chance. Stone Diaries follows Daisy Goodwill from birth to the end of her life, and infuses even the minute details of her existence—recipes, letters, addresses—with poignancy and grace. Reading it felt like an antidote to the way women had been undermined by the election results. The ending delivered me so fully into the world that the hours I lived after closing the book have the clarity of something written—the watery sunlight, the moment, in a crowd of hundreds at Meiji Shrine, I realized that the policemen were not carrying guns. Months later, on tour in Michigan, I mentioned the novel to a Canadian friend, how much I loved it, how profoundly it made me want to write. I hated that book, he said. I had to read it in school. My friend is a sensitive reader, and yes I know this reaction isn’t fair, but I remember looking at him and thinking, would you have still hated it, if it were about a man? In 2017, years of work come to fruition all at once. My first novel came out. Two books I edited, and love and admire deeply—Exes by Max Winter, and Large Animals by Jess Arndt—were published. Catapult’s creative writing program doubled its classes offerings. Something about all of that, or maybe it was the news, or maybe it was getting off Zoloft and going back on it, or maybe trying to keep my head above water at work while promoting a book, or maybe it’s that I got a little obsessed with my Goodreads reviews—I don’t know. Internally, I suffered a small collapse. It’s not a very interesting story—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem. I finally got to hold so much of what I’d been fighting for in my hands, and in response, that inner voice, the most sacred part of me, went quiet. All year, I’ve been trying to wake my voice back up. I’m still trying. I throw books at the silence, and it helps. If you’re feeling quiet, too, in the face of the world right now, consider the titles below a prescription. I’m tired of men, so I won’t talk about what they wrote in 2017, not even the books by them that I loved. Instead, a partial list of books I read by women, most released into the estranging darkness of this year, many of them debuts. The ones that made me laugh (and in a few cases, also cry): Rachel Khong’s glorious Goodbye Vitamin, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Edan Lepucki’s Woman No 17, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Weike Wang’s Chemistry. The ones that haunt me still: Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket, Kristen Radtke’s breathtaking Imagine Wanting Only Wanting This, Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal, Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming to Save Us, Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark. The ones that were extremely sexy: Jardine Libaire’s White Fur, Jamie Quatro’s forthcoming Fire Sermon. As a writer, I found something to envy in every single one of these books; as a reader, I was simply grateful. There were others, too. I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, in Bruges, after a photoshoot that embarrassed me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I developed some kind of aspirational writer crush on Danzy Senna after an event in Martha’s Vineyard and read New People in an exhilarating two-day burst; I’m reading Caucasia now. I had never been to Belgium before, never been to Martha’s Vineyard—how strange to be welcomed to these places thanks to a book I wrote when I was a different person. I spent a lot of this year feeling like a liar. I picked up Sallie Tisdale’s Violation, on a recommendation from Chloe Caldwell, and am shocked that we don’t talk about her more—her essay on abortion, “Fetus Dreams,” should be taught in schools. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I normally do, but particularly loved The Middlepause by the infinitely wise Marina Benjamin, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I read What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, on my phone during my commute. Poetry-wise, I was stunned by Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone. I read Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce three times, and returned to Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, a gift from my friend Steph Opitz, again and again—as if both books were lifelines, which, I suppose, they are. I am forgetting things. Forgetting books I loved—I’ll look at this later and want to shake myself. Just now, I’m remembering that this is the year I had an affair with wry, elegant Anita Brookner, that I read Iris Murdoch because my husband made me and he was right, that I returned to Wuthering Heights because of an assignment and found it maddening and melodramatic and irresistible. I read Jean Rhys—Good Morning, Midnight—for the second time in a hotel bathtub in London, drinking wine. I decided I couldn’t write a prep school novel after reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, because she did it better than any of us ever will. I received my first blurb requests and resisted the urge to write back to the editors, to the authors, asking, are you sure? There are some good, good books coming next year—by writers like Meaghan O’Connell, Lucy Tan, Zulema Summerfield, Jana Casale, Rachel Lyon, Danielle Lazarin. [millions_ad] I’ve spent my entire career employed by bookstores or indie presses or nonprofits devoted to indie presses, and yet I read very little by small presses in 2017, which I hadn’t realized until just this moment. An assignment for the rest of the year. That, and reading the things I bought and never got to—Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; American Street by Ibi Zoboi. So, where to end? When I think of what I read in 2017, the work by women that inspired and motivated and moved me, there’s one book I haven’t mentioned yet. Over and over again, I read Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, watching it evolve from proposal, to partial, to the honest and vulnerable and vital book it is now—both the chronicle of Nicole’s own adoption, and a larger story about identity and family. It is many things—but above all else, it’s a fierce and urgent story by a woman whose voice we need. Something to throw at the silence, I think. Something for 2018. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
It has been a difficult year in reading for me, mainly because the late winter and spring required too much reading from me -- for contests, applications, submissions -- and left little time for me to read what I wanted when I wanted. And because I have found myself increasingly drawn to reading snippets of news from my phone instead of books and when that becomes too much for me to handle mentally or emotionally, escaping into cheesy super-hero television shows on the CW. So here is what might seem like an abbreviated list, but which is in fact mostly the list of books I've read since the beginning of 2016. I don't collect comic books anymore, mainly because there are so many titles I would love to keep up with that I would put my family into hock if I were to try, but I did pick up Bitch Planet, Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, after listening to the author talk about the series on some public radio manifestation. If you haven't heard about it yet -- I don't know anyone who hasn't, but in case -- the story takes place in a (too) near future, where independent and free-thinking women, whenever they are perceived to rage against the patriarchy, are shipped off to a penal planet known commonly as Bitch Planet, and there trained gladiator style to play a vicious version of rugby, subjected at every turn to misogyny, humiliation, and fear of physical and emotional suffering. Not once does Kelly Sue DeConnick pull any punches. But she injects the work with action and humor and compelling characters, too, and right now, I'm waiting for Volume 2, waiting to see how the women of Bitch Planet will (fingers crossed) undermine their patriarchal overlords through noncompliance -- though now I'm maybe reading it as a manual, not a fiction. It's been, overall, a tense and unsettling year -- the Year of the Monkey, y'all -- full of uncertainty and instability, at home, abroad, politically, socially -- and weirdly I found the tension of Hannah Pittard's road trip novel, Listen to Me, not so much a soothing balm to the fears and tension plaguing me, but maybe the kind of bolstering affirmation of my own worries I wanted -- a novel version of your friend who says to you, "Oh yeah, everything's going to hell and we're all going to die sooner than anyone thought." It's comforting when you find that friend, just as it was comforting charging through this slim but evocative novel. Pittard's writing is funny and dark and she captures a marriage at crossroads with unsettling precision, and at the end, I had a good cry. Speaking of good cries, this year I taught creative writing to a lecture class of almost 100 students -- most of them freshman -- and when approaching poetry, immediately turned to the new-ish collection Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón, many of which I read aloud to my class with the hope of making them cry (not just her poems, but also the poems from Natalie Diaz's stellar collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec). The poems in this collection are -- again -- dark and wicked and at times frightening and personal, and it's the close, personal, exposed glimpse of her own life that Limón offers the reader that makes this collection as moving as it is. Limón collects the pieces of herself and stitches them together in these poems and draws us into the fabric of her pain and pride and sadness and badassery and success and failure and by the end of it, we are ourselves exposed and undone, and this year, nothing feels more satisfying than that raw feeling. Seeking more of that raw feeling -- and hoping to impart it to more students -- I recently revisited with my graduate students Ramona Ausubel's luminous collection, A Guide to Being Born, published three years ago, and found the stories contained here as relevant as before, if not, in fact, more so. Time and again, Ausubel navigates her readers through a version of our world full of fantastical conceits that are frightening (there seems to be a theme here) and outlandish -- a society that grows extra appendages, love-arms, any time they experience true, deep love, and a group of grandmothers on an ocean liner that carries them into the after-life (maybe?), and the one grandmother who jumps overboard -- but told with such aplomb and with gorgeous prose that by the end of the collection, it was our world -- our current frightening saddened disturbing uncertain world -- that felt outlandish when compared to the landscapes of Ausubel's stories. I read other beautiful novels and stories and poems this year, I know, but these are the ones that have kept with me, the ones I keep picking back up, then, after reading the first few pages, realizing, "Oh, I just finished this, I should find something else," but without fail, I bring them with me back to bed, or to the couch, and I find myself caught up all over again. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Novels might bore, and short stories can frustrate, but poetry is the only genre of literature that elicits consistent hate. People hate poetry because it is obscure, elitist, vague, complex, somber, trite, ornate, pretentious, out-of-touch, and dated. William Shakespeare is blamed. Secondary school teachers are blamed. Contemporary poets are blamed. Poet voice is blamed. Tumblr is blamed. Greeting cards are blamed. James Franco is blamed. Perhaps it is the way we talk about poetry that is to blame -- we being those who have already been converted, who read and write and share poetry. Love is a private emotion; it risks withering when shown public light. We who love poetry think it will save the world. Why must it save the world? It should be enough to save a single minute. If a poem pauses someone, that is enough. This list is an olive branch to the poetry skeptics. Prose is great for fiction, essays, and belabored introductions to lists, but poetry has its own place in this world. Poetry is the grand language of ceremony and spectacle, as well as the whispered language of secrets and fears. Many wonderful poems exist, but the following selections will appeal to readers of prose: work that is approachable, funny, smart, but still verse. Take a chance on these 10 poems. 1. “A Perfect Mess” by Mary Karr (Sinners Welcome) “It’s not law but the sprawl / of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing.” Our world is a perfect mess: just when you think things could not get any worse, small miracles right the course for a few important moments. Poetry is a snapshot form, and Karr’s poem captures the feel of the city, the world unraveling in a million directions. The narrator watches the “unprecedented gall” of piano movers “shoving a roped-up baby grand / up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.” Those movers “knew what was coming, / the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black / as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant / it burst.” They are saved by unlikely heroines. “A Perfect Mess” ends on an ellipsis, because, she says, “You only unplug from [the city], the current never stops ...” 2. “Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion” by Matthew Olzmann (Mezzanines) I might have chosen Olzmann's hilarious and sweet “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” but there's something extra special about his Isaac Newton poem. It has been said so often that poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, and yet that transformation is often a romantic one (think a farmer standing in front of a field moved by wind, or someone looking down at Earth from an airplane). Yet equally appealing to me is how a great poet can make you appreciate stasis and even boredom. “Matthew Olzmann / is an object at rest, and will remain at rest, / reclining on the couch while drinking Guinness / and watching football.” I can't trust a poet without a sense of humor. Olzmann has my trust, so I'm willing to follow his lines everywhere. Next time someone calls you lazy, share this poem and proclaim your leisure art. 3. “Blue Prelude” by Saeed Jones (Prelude to Bruise) If Jones wrote a two-line poem it would still hit me with the power of an epic. “Last night, the ceiling above me / ached with dance.” What brings me back to poetry are those single-word decisions: “ached,” how that one note pulses through the entire line. We've all known the feeling of longing, of being so close to joy and yet so far away, and Jones follows the emotion from that upstairs room to the empty bed of the narrator. There he “dreamed / the record's needle / pointed into my back, spinning / me into no one's song.” 4. “Ode to Browsing the Web” by Marcus Wicker (Maybe the Saddest Thing) “I've been told the internet is / an unholy place — an endless intangible / stumbling ground of false deities / dogma and loneliness.” I'm worried that a poetic traditionalist would make such a claim, but thankfully poetry has embraced the online world. Wicker packs so much material into his lines, modulating speed and pivots with care: “The camera pans to another / pocket of the room where six kids rocking holey / T-shirts etch aerosol lines on warehouse walls.” The beautiful thing about language is that it makes ugly action sing—in the right poet's hands. This poem is an ode to sitting in front of a “holy streaming screen / of counterculture punks,” blinking the day away “without care for time or density.” 5. “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Lucky Fish) For years I’ve been sharing Nezhukumatathil’s poem “Baked Goods” as an example of a perfect love poem, and “Break-Ups” might be the perfect explanation of how poets must lie. In popular culture, poetry is often presented as the purgation of unfiltered feelings -- a genre of writing where writers lose all self-control and bleed on the page. Catharsis without craft. Poetry is actually a space for play. If every love in Nezhukumatathil's poems were real, “Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many / slices of cake?” There would be husbands making a “great meal,” one could change the baby while another reads the newspaper, “and every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home.” 6. “That's Incredible!” by Michael Robbins (The Second Sex) When I read a poem, I expect a poet to surprise, shock, or confuse me with language. If you hate poetry, than you might have read poets who only confuse -- or who don't speak to your particular experience or anxieties in life. I have called Robbins “the most provocative Christian poet in America” with appreciation, but he is truly one of the most inventive writers working. For the uninitiated, it might take a Robbins poem or two before you get his style, but once it clicks, you feel as if you're part of a very smart inside literary joke. Robbins is like a poetic machine who takes the entirety of popular culture, history, politics, music, and God, and then remixes them into poems with beats worthy of recording. 7. “Double Dutch” by Gregory Pardlo (Digest) Often people who hate poetry hate the poems that served as their introduction to the form. Inevitably that poetry is “older:” formally staid, metered verse that feels antiquated. Of course older poetry is beautiful, the foundation of modern verse, but to the new eye, older poetry feels like a series of abstractions without contemporary reference. Say what you will about our embrace of free verse, but many contemporary poets mix detail and sound to create magic. Pardlo, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, hails from the Garden State, and I haven’t found a better contemporary poet to capture the songs of my home state’s peculiar mix of asphalt and grass. Give “Double Dutch” to someone who has never studied poetry, but has spent hours on the blacktop like those girls “shadowing each other, / sparring across the slack cord / casting parabolas in the air.” Watch them nod when they recognize the truth of his lines: “she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish / as she flutter-floats into motion / like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos / thumbed alive.” Watch them smile at how a poet renews youth: “She makes jewelry of herself and garlands / the ground with shadows.” 8. “Before” by Ada Limón (Bright Dead Things) If we share song lyrics to ease the pain of loss and distance, than why not great poetry? Limón’s short lines in “Before” arrive as a sequence of phrases and breaths. In poetry, so often honesty has become another word for brutality; a poet is only authentic if she is raw. Limón’s authenticity is on another level; it is like hearing the confession of a friend. She is able to capture the particular grief of separation experienced during youth. “Before the road / between us, there was the road / beneath us, and I was just / big enough not to let go.” A great poem brings us back to our own tenuous moments, to our own “hazardous bliss.” 9. “Intersection” by Kerrin McCadden (Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes) McCadden, a fellow high school English teacher, knows how to offer poetry to a skeptical audience. There is an accepted narrative structure to prose. Sentences scaffold paragraphs, and paragraphs are the links for pages. Poetry is somewhere between a dream and a scream. “Intersection” moves in a surreal manner; first, there is that tedious interaction at the four-way stop. Then, love: “Your hands cup the wheel / at ten o'clock and two, then float / past my knee and only sometimes land.” How quickly, and yet how smoothly, McCadden moves us. If this were prose, we would ask: is this really happening? In poetry, we ask: why does this not happen more? 10. “Nothing Is Haunted” by Sandy Longhorn (The Alchemy of My Mortal Form) In many great poems, there is a space of absence. It might be a chasm or a pinhole, but it is a space of uncertainty, and it must not be so big as to swallow the rest of the poem. “Nothing is Haunted” is that type of poem. The first lines are surprising enough to invite us in: is it true that “Nothing is haunted / in quite the way small Midwestern farms / are haunted”? Longhorn convinces us. The source are these lithe girls who “lie awake through summer's / liquid heat and listen to the rattling window screens.” We can hear the panting between the lines; this is horror in verse. “The girls throw off / their bleached sheets and untangle their legs.” Hot and uncomfortable, they want to run, but instead “huddle” while “quivering in one weak circle of light.” Are these girls or ghosts? Longhorn carries that absence, that confusion, on to the final lines, and then hands it off to us, to you. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn't and couldn't go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence. In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn't seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother's absence. One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander's The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander's book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith's Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson's The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte's The Undertaker's Daughter. Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn't think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set. I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I'd get frustrated because I couldn't remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I'd go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I'd be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions. While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty's On Writing. I'd also carried around Lucille Clifton's Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women's bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness. This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves's King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer's Cane and Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston's grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden. While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky's Revolver I'd stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs's Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O'Keeffe country. I'm still working through O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz's letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year. I've opened up Vladimir Nabokov's Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera's biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America's Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden's astonishing exhibition "Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life." Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites! A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I've been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We're great company for each other. Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I'd been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too. Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka's SOS: 1961 - 2013, and somehow eventually I'm holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams. When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly. Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh. As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I'm a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I've read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We're all better for it! So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage: Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus Jack Gilbert, Collected Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance Nicholas Wong, Crevasse Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine Nick Flynn, My Feelings Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold Margo Jefferson, Negroland Chris Abani, Song for Night Rick Barot, Chord Major Jackson, Roll Deep Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box Randall Horton, Hook Parneshia Jones, Vessel Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin Patti Smith, M Train Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud Paul Beatty, The Sellout Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In January I vowed to purchase and read as much poetry as I read fiction. I traveled more this year than ever before, mostly in support of my novel, and poetry became a way to keep good words on my person without lugging around a heavy hardcover. For a fiction writer like me, who loves clause-heavy sentences and a good, chunky paragraph, poetry reminds me that every word and every sound can and should be considered. The poetry I read, in the order acquired: Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones Citizen, by Claudia Rankine Blue Yodel, by Ansel Elkins Hemming the Water, by Yona Harvey Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch How to Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes [Insert] Boy, by Danez Smith Boy With Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón An unexpected and wonderful thing happened as a result of putting my first book out this year: I read a good amount of 2015 releases. It usually takes me a while to learn about new books, and longer still to read them, but there’s only so many times you can see your book alongside other good-looking ones in bookstores and in the press before you pick them up and see what’s what. Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon Diamond Head, by Cecily Wong Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson Bright Lines, by Tanwi Nandini Islam The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Book award season is peaking along with the autumn leaves as the National Book Award shortlists have been released in four categories. These have been whittled down from last month's longlists, and the winners will be announced in New York City on November 18. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction shortlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: Refund by Karen E. Bender ("For What Purpose") The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book's opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Nonfiction: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ("We Know Less Than We Think We Do") Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt) The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt) If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt) Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light) Poetry: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem) How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem) Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem) Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things) Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem) Young People's Literature: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt) Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt) Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt) Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)
Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 14, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 18. The fiction list seems especially varied this year and includes many newcomers. Alongside highly touted books by Hanya Yanagihara, Lauren Groff, and Adam Johnson. Are "newcomers" like Bill Clegg, Angela Flournoy, and Nell Zink. It's a great time to be a reader. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, of course, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. In the other categories, after last year's male-dominated Non-Fiction longlist, female authors have captured seven of the spots this year. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball (Ball's Year in Reading, 2009) Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (exerpt) Refund by Karen E. Bender ("For What Purpose") The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book's opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt) Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (excerpt (pdf)) Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction, Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Mislaid by Nell Zink Nonfiction: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (interview and excerpt) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ("We Know Less Than We Think We Do") Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes (excerpt) Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt) The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt) Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore (essay) Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti (excerpt) If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt) Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light) Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White (excerpt) Poetry: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem) Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler (excerpt) A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker (the title poem) How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem) The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (poem) Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem) Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things) Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem) Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (poem) Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab (poem) Young People's Literature: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (excerpt) Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt) Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (excerpt) This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt) X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (excerpt) Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt) Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)
“When I was twelve,” Larry Levis wrote in “Family Romance,” “I used to stare at weeds / Along the road, at the way they kept trembling / Long after a car had passed.” The narrator watches “gnats in families hovering over / Some rotting peaches, & wonder why it was / I had been born a human. / Why not a weed, or a gnat? / Why not a horse, or a spider?” Levis was a master of such turns, although my favorite practitioner of poetic metamorphosis is Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1887, Hopkins described Loch Lomond, where the “day was dark and partly hid the lake, yet it did not altogether disfigure it but gave a pensive or solemn beauty which left a deep impression on me.” “Inversnaid,” his poem of that place, follows the churning flow of a burn that is “horseback brown.” The poem's final stanza arrives as a chant: “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” Bright Dead Things, the fourth book of poems by Ada Limón, begins with an epigraph from Levis -- “Who among the numberless you have become desires this moment / Which comprehends nothing more than loss & fragility &; the fleeing of flesh” -- yet the collection breeds her own particular mixture of wildness. The mixture is by turns melodious and tight. Endemic to a wildness of flee and freedom is a sense of transformation. I think again to Hopkins, who believed that the poetic sense was not merely meant to document the observed world, but that poetry should transform lived reality into a new plane. Limón’s poems are like fires in this way: charring the page, but leaving a smoke that remains past the close of the book. The narrators -- or perhaps singular narrator -- of these poems has undergone a transformation from living in Brooklyn to Kentucky. In the prose poem “Mowing,” the narrator watches a man mow “40 acres on a small lawn mower” in slow, hypnotic fashion. “I imagine,” she says, “what it must be like to stay hidden, disappear in the dusky nothing and stay still in the night. It’s not sadness, though it may sound like it.” The narrator demurs, but there is a curious link between wildness and sadness in the collection. “This land and I are rewilding,” says another narrator. The speakers of these poems lean on the pastoral world for support and rebirth; they are skeptical of God. Yet in “What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use,” the narrator plays with the reader’s spiritual sense. “All these great barns out here in the outskirts,” she begins, “black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass. / They look so artfully abandoned, even in use.” Artfully, artifice: “You don’t believe in God?” The narrator doesn’t, but her interlocutor says she is merely mislabeling nature. Still: “we stood there, / low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss, / and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets, / woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.” Those feelings -- doubt, wonder, rejection, flirtation, penance -- swirl throughout the book, and are borne of the wildness of self: “I’m cold in my heart, coal-hard / knot in the mountain buried / deep in the boarded-up mine.” There are also spaces for open hearts in the book, as in the aptly-titled “The Wild Divine.” It’s rare to read a poetics of affirmation -- I don’t mean sappy songs, but rather a poet capturing joy, however temporary: “I could barely feel my hands, my limbs numbed / from the new touching that seemed strikingly / natural but also painfully kindled in the body’s stove.” Cue the wildness of Hopkins, for the euphoria that follows love is broken by a “wandering / madrone-skinned horse...bowed-back, higher than a man’s hat, high up / and hitched to nothing.” She thinks: “He seemed almost worthy of complete devotion.” The poem’s ending encapsulates the collection: “I thought, this was what it was to be blessed— / to know a love that was beyond an owning, beyond / the body and its needs, but went straight from wild / thing to wild thing, approving of its wildness.” Bright Dead Things is an outdoor book, but this is not to say that Limón can’t write a poem about domestic and mundane spaces. “The Good Wave” is an ethereal baseball poem. Other poems sketch homes and apartments (Robert Bly was correct to title one of his collections of poetry essays American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity). “Nashville After Hours” is a knockout: “Late night in a honky-tonk, fried pickles / in a red plastic basket, and it was all Loretta / on the heel-bruised stage, sung by a big girl / we kind of both had a crush on.” Limón effortlessly narrows the lens of a moment without narrowing its significance. “Good grief we were loaded,” the narrator quips, and in lines that made me long for Elizabeth Tallent’s “Why I Love Country Music,” Limón exits with the perfect breath: “I won’t deny it: I was there, / standing in the bar’s bathroom mirror, / saying my name like I was somebody.” I look for a healthy tension in a book of poems; call it a scar of being reared on Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. The big-sky poems of this book are well-contrasted with heart-skipping narratives like “The Riveter.” The narrator, a manager whose office is in a “high rise,” learns that her mother has a month to live. She “called in my team” for advice about what to do next. Hospice? Total parenteral nutrition? She writes down advice “like this was a meeting / about a client who wasn’t happy,” and soon realizes that the hardest job belonged to her mother, whose work “was to let the machine / of survival break down.” I think of a later poem, “Outside Oklahoma, We See Boston,” that ends “How / masterful and mad is hope.” Madness, wildness, transcendence. Bright Dead Things offers many answers, but is equally appealing for its questions: “Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented / the contentment of the field. Why must we practice / this surrender?” May our poems always be wild.