In the chaotic and often overwhelming world of publishing, I like to think there’s a subtle looking out for each other that happens among women writers. Even if you don’t know each other extremely well, there’s a rope that binds us, a safety net, a hand up, a knotted protection spell that’s always in the works. Of course, that’s not always the case, but I’d like to think we work in service to words and in service to each other. Though, Erika L. Sánchez and I have only met once or twice, I have been watching her exceptional career rise to new heights for some time. First I was a fan of her poems in the 2017 release of Lessons on Expulsion, and then I became a fan of her young adult fiction with her book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter which was both a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Bestseller. In the interview that follows, the two of us finally had the opportunity to exchange our thoughts about, not only the nitty gritty of the writing process, but also how one navigates the joys and challenges of a living a life wholeheartedly dedicated to words. —Ada
Ada Limón: Erika, it’s such a pleasure to get the chance to talk to you here. I’ve been watching you and reading you for some time now. You are a star! Your young adult novel I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is just a year old and still doing so well (deservedly!). You’re traveling a great deal and speaking and reading all over the country. I’m positive you and I have passed each other in various airports at some point or another. Because we’re friends on social media, I just saw a picture of you with Judy Blume. Oh the company you keep. This might be a strange question to begin with, but the caretaker in me wants to ask you, how are you holding up? All of this attention for the work is always welcome, but it isn’t always easy. You’ve become a real icon and leader for young Latinx writers—how are you juggling your public persona and your personal life?
Erika Sánchez: Thank you for your kind words. It’s been such a surreal experience. I’m very grateful for the attention my books have received. When you publish, you hope for the best, but you just never know how your work will do out in the world. Part of the reason I wrote these books was because young Latinx women are rarely allowed to tell their stories. I grew up reading almost exclusively white texts. Thank goodness for Sandra Cisneros. Reading The House on Mango Street in high school was the first time I ever really saw myself in a book. I felt so invisible for most of my life, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that people actually care about what I have to say now. I’ve participated in many events, talks, and readings in the last year and a half. The picture you reference was from the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner where I received the 21st Century Award. My entire family was there and I got to meet two of my heroes. It was such an amazing night. I feel a great deal of responsibility with this new visibility. I use the platform to speak out about immigration, sexual assault, mental health, and racism, and to encourage young women of color to pursue their passions. Sometimes this work is exhausting, but I’m really grateful that I get to do this. When I’m not teaching or traveling, I’m usually at home recharging. I spend a lot of time reading in bed with my cat. I’m an introvert by nature, so I need a lot of time alone after my events.
This current administration and the consequent xenophobia is completely horrifying, but I see a definite shift in the literary world. People of color and LGBTQ folks are publishing books and winning major prizes. I can hardly keep up , which I find so exciting. I just saw you on the cover for Poets & Writers! How amazing is that? I see The Carrying everywhere and it also deserves all the attention it’s gotten. It’s truly stunning. I feel really haunted by it. The way you write about the female body is so devastating that I had to put the book down at times. Though I love writing more than anything, I know that the process of it can be so emotionally taxing. There are times that I even feel it physically. There’s an essay I’ve been avoiding for this very reason. I’d also like to know how you take care of yourself. How do you write about grief and stay healthy? How do you find that balance? And is there any advice you can offer women writers who tackle these kinds of difficult issues?
AL: Thank you, Erika. I am so thrilled to see you getting the
attention you and your writing deserves. It does my heart good. And the work
you are doing is important on many levels so I’m glad to hear you are able to
rest and recharge when you can. I agree that the act of writing is a physical
thing. It can be healthy to purge dark things, but it can also excavate old and
new suffering that needs to be attended to. The body can’t always keep up.
While I was working on The Carrying, my body was hurting quite a bit, my
vertigo was intense, and I had an overall feeling of sickness most of the time.
I feel better now and no one is entirely sure why, but the body is a mystery.
What’s interesting for me is that, regardless of how I’m feeling physically, I
really do feel my best when I am writing, it’s a place to be free, to be in the
body and the mind in a new way, to remember what being free looks like and
feels like. The best advice I can offer anyone is to do the work, but also not
to force it, not to drag it out kicking and screaming. Sometimes we sit down to
write the hard stuff, to burn shit down, to light it up and make our words a
bomb. Those explosions of rage and sorrow can be powerful, but we also have to
remember to be tender and kind to ourselves. That we are allowed happiness too.
A sense of peace. If we intend to own our suffering, we must also own our
power, our peace.
Do you find the process of writing freeing? Or does
it feel like incredibly hard work at times? I’d love to hear more about your
writing process and how you shift between both your poems and your prose?
ES: Writing is what makes me feel the most connected to the world.
It’s an act of survival, because if I don’t do it, I literally feel like I’m
going to die. That’s not exaggeration. It’s freeing in the sense that I’m able
to take suffering and transform it into something beautiful. That’s the goal,
at least. Though I do love the act of writing, it is definitely work. As I
mentioned before, it’s physically taxing. Sometimes I get short of breath and
can’t sit still. I feel the grief in my body. I pace a lot and talk to myself.
When I wrote the bulk of my novel, I was recovering from one of the worst
depressions of my life and working an incredibly stressful full-time job as a
public relations strategist. I’d write all day for work then work on my novel
all evening. Whenever I had a free moment, I wrote. I felt possessed by it. It
really helped me heal. Poetry is very different for me. It requires much more
time and silence. There are poems that take me years to finish. They usually
come in pieces. I began the earliest poem in Lessons on Expulsion when I was a senior in college, so it was about a decade of
Sometimes I wish I were the kind of writer who wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and gets to work, but I don’t operate that way at all. I’m not a morning person and I’m pretty unstructured. Writing is the center of my life so it informs everything I do. I think about it always—when I’m running, cooking, shopping for groceries, or performing any mundane task. That’s why I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times. You never know when inspiration is going to strike. I write in bed, on airplanes, at the coffeeshop. I’m also constantly reading, which, of course, is central to the process. I just finished A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande and it blew me away.
There is so much quiet yet searing beauty throughout your collection. You take what might be considered mundane and make it sing. There’s a description of a dead animal that made me gasp. That’s what I love most about Emily Dickinson. She found so much wonder and never even left her bedroom. I kept wondering about your influences in this book. Who were your spirit guides? Who do we see in The Carrying? This is your fifth collection, so how have your literary models evolved?
AL: Oh Erika, I feel the same, I wish I was as disciplined as some
folks to write at certain times of day or for a certain number of hours, or to
plunge deeply into something even when life is calling on you. I tend to be
similar in my work, there are long moments of silence and then suddenly I am
writing more than I ever have without realizing it. The Carrying does
have quite a lot of dead animals in it doesn’t it? I laugh that the all my poor
poetry animals are always dying or already dead in my poems. Except my dog, my
dog will always live forever no matter what reality tries to tell me.
Let’s see, who is in my book? I think there is a great deal of Lucille Clifton in my book, that way she could be straight forward and searing at the same time. I think also of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and her honesty and courage in that book. Of course Lucille Clifton and Marie Howe were my teachers so their influence is with me. When I’m really writing, it’s often hard for me read poetry, I tend to read novels and non-fiction because I’m such a mimic, if I read a great deal of poetry, I’ll try to copy it! My biggest influence might have been Natalie Diaz since she and I were writing poems back and forth during this time (four of mine are in the book).
I know that I still suffer a great deal from self
doubt. There are mornings that I get up and think everything I’ve written is
horrible. I usually can claw myself back into a place where I acknowledge the
good work that I’ve done (and sometimes I really love my own poems!), but you
are who you are regardless of success. Do you think success has changed you in
any way; do you think it has changed your writing?
ES: I think hating your work is part of being a writer,
unfortunately. I have those days, too. I expect a lot from myself, and if I don’t
meet my standards or expectations, I can be quite brutal. Then there are times
in which I can appreciate what I’ve created, and that is such a gift. Sometimes
I look at my books and think to myself, I made these! And it blows my
mind that strangers all over the country are reading them.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I struggled for many years before I got any significant recognition, so it’s been a long journey. I’m so grateful for all the attention my work has received because there were times I seriously doubted myself and my life choices. I didn’t have many role models. I didn’t know any professional women as I was growing up. I do think success has helped my confidence. I’ve always been very outspoken, but knowing that people actually care about what I think now makes me bolder. Might as well use whatever influence I have to try to dismantle systems of oppression. I’m tired of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism—essentially, hatred in all of its forms. We are constantly faced with hate crimes now. This presidency has given people permission to act upon their ignorance and fear, and it’s truly terrifying. I’m not entirely sure what to do, but I know I won’t shut up about it.
Also, I’ve spent a lot of my life either poor or broke, so it’s such a relief to have financial stability. I can buy myself things without falling into a spiral of guilt now. I live the way I want, and I know what a gift that is, particularly as a woman of color. The women who came before me weren’t even allowed to read or write. They weren’t permitted to move freely or live alone. They were expected to get married and be cared for by their husbands. I have traveled all over and I live by myself. “A room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf encouraged. Though I would eventually like a partner, I have really appreciated the time I’ve had to myself.
You also live a life centered on literature. You
travel quite a bit and are very prolific. What has your writing provided for
you, especially as a woman?
it wildly lucky that we can have a life centered around our writing? I feel
grateful about it every day. When I was a kid, I could never really imagine a
“dream job.” I mean, I thought about jobs, but nothing sounded like
what I really wanted to do, which was to stay home and write and read and think
of things and then go out and talk to people about the things that I had
written. I assumed a job like that didn’t really exist. How could it? Because
my mother was an artist, and my stepfather was a writer, I had a model of a
creative life. But they also both waited tables. I always assumed if you wanted
to be a creative person then you also had to wait tables, or have some other
job that took the majority of your time (and energy). Or you worked in education
like my father. Who was amazing and inspiring as an elementary school principal
and as an administrator of instruction, but had very little time to write, play
the guitar, very little time to himself.
It wasn’t until 2010 when I became a full-time writer. I worked
for magazines for 12 years before that. And even “full-time writer”
is somewhat of a misnomer. I travel and teach and speak at universities. Like
you, I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home, I’m fully home and my time is
very much my own. I am still amazed that I make my living through my creative
work. I’m also to the point now where I am able to say no to things. I think,
as women, we are convinced or guilted into thinking that we should give our
time, dedicate our time, donate our time. We get guilted and shamed into saying
yes to waving our speaking fees or yes to writing work that doesn’t pay. I’ve
just now started giving myself permission to say no. It feels powerful,
marvelous, like taking all my clothes off and running through a field, saying
no is a party, it’s like magical weapon, a tool I never thought I’d have access
to. This way, I get to say a big fat enthusiastic YES to my writing.
Speaking of, I have one last question for you and then I’ll let
you get back to your busy life and your exceptional writing. It’s been such a
pleasure talking to you and spending time with you here on the page. Before we
go, is there any advice you’d like to offer to a writer who is starting out?
an admirer of your work, it’s been so great getting to know you better. Advice
for the youngsters… That’s a great question, one I get asked a lot. I always
tell them that they should only pursue a career in writing if they absolutely
love it. You have to take great pleasure in both reading and writing for it to
be worth it. (Personally, it never felt like a choice to me. I believed it was
the only thing that would ever make me happy.) It’s just such a hard career
that I really wouldn’t pursue it otherwise. (Of course, you can always
“write on the side” of whatever else you’re doing.) Also, make
friends with rejection. Not everyone is going to like your work, and that’s ok.
You can’t please the entire world. No matter what you do, there will be people
who don’t agree with what you’re doing. I’ve been rejected so many times, but I
kept going because I truly believed in my work.
I also like what you said about saying no. I totally agree. We’re
often expected to work for free. I did when I was younger, but those days are
over. I volunteer my time or resources for worthy causes when I think it’s
necessary, but I still need to make a living and my time is valuable. I worked
really hard to get to this point and no one is going to make me feel guilty
about being compensated for my labor.
Lastly, I think it’s so important to build community. You have to
support other writers. The act of writing can be lonely, but then spending time
with my fellow weirdos makes it all worth it. I’m grateful to have met so many incredible
people doing this work. This is the life I’ve always wanted.
you for your generosity, Erika. What a perfect place to end: on a living a life
that we have always wanted. Now, let’s go write.
What a year this has been. Do I mean it was really good or bad? It can’t just have been one of those. I just mean it was crazy. My novel There There came out and it’s hard to believe how well it’s been received. Because I had a debut come out this year, I met a lot of other debut novelists, and read a lot of debut novels. I want to mention three of these all at once because while they are very different novels, they were all written by authors who live or have lived in the Bay Area. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, and Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s Fruit of the Drunken Tree are all beautiful, original and heartbreaking works. Each deal in different ways and to different extents: family, coming of age, and belonging.
There were three standout nonfiction books I read this year. The first is Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries. It’s a powerful and important book I think everyone should read. Now. The second is Pam Houston’s Deep Creek (forthcoming in January). It’s an expansive meditation on our relationship to this earth through the experience of her owning and maintaining a ranch in the mountains in Colorado. The third is Rigoberto Gonzalez’s What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth, which is about his brother. The prose is plain and stunning and the story powerful and compelling.
I’m fairly new to poetry, and feel pretty mystified by it still, but I love it. Three books I read this year that I loved were Tommy Pico’s Junk, Sherwin Bitsui’s Dissolve, and Ada Limón’s The Carrying.
I very much loved three short story collections this year, two debut, and one a possible very last—if there are no posthumous collections. I’ll mention the last one first, which is Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Denis Johnson is one of my favorite writers, and I had the extreme pleasure—mixed with extreme sadness—of finishing his collection while landing in Memphis; the collection ends with a story about Elvis. The other two are Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, which I reviewed for the New York Times, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People—which just blew me away, so smart and funny and poignant.
I also want to mention Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, which is impossibly smart and full of heart (forthcoming February 2019), and finally, two books I’m currently reading I already love and will regret to finish. The first is Tao Lin’s Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change. It’s about Terrence McKenna and psilocybin among other things. I think Terrence McKenna is a forgotten (mostly) genius, and I have a deep respect for psilocybin. Tao Lin does a fantastic job of exploring a subject not explored often enough. Lastly, I’m deliberately taking my time reading Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. He is one of my favorite poets, and I always want poets to write novels, so reading his book is a dream come true. It’s devastatingly beautiful.
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Longtime listener, first-time caller. I’m excited to be here talking about my Year in Reading. This was the first full year in almost a decade that I didn’t have a monthly column in Marie Claire magazine to write about forthcoming books. As a result, my reading had less structure than usual. I put down a lot of books that didn’t do it for me, and shuffled and reshuffled my to-be-read pile to my heart’s content. It’s been liberating. But, a new restraint has also entered the scene. My toddler has recently become a book connoisseur. He often hijacks the book I’m reading for himself or replaces it with something he’d prefer to have me read—which is more often than not Bao Phi and illustrator Thi Bui’s A Different Pond, author and illustrator Brian Floca’s Locomotive, or Jane Yolan and illustrator John Schoenherr’s Owl Moon. I’m grateful to the authors and illustrators for providing rich text and complex art that keeps us both rapt after multiple readings.
Before I get to the adult titles I read this year, I’ll start with a confession. When I read poet phenom Carrie Fountain’s young adult debut I’m Not Missing and novelist Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake, I actually didn’t know either was YA. When I got to the end of both, I was like, Huh, I wonder if they had any conversations about billing this as YA? Seems like it could go either way—fans of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles know what I’m talking about—with a teen protagonist going through some real adult shit. Which is to say, if you balk at the YA dubbing you’re missing out. I like to think of a YA designation as a kind of PG-13 designation; it doesn’t mean it’s only for teens, it just means that it’s not inappropriate for teens. As case in point, a transformative book I read earlier this year, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is essential. Every high schooler in the country should be required to read it, and all adults retroactively should, too.
Now, onto the adult books. A book that made me emotional as hell: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Maggie O’Farrell beautifully flays the moments in her own life that danced with true danger, and asks, What could happen? What did happen? Am I ok? Depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person, my life has had a lot of unlucky brushes or I’m one of the luckiest people you’ve met. So this particular collection poked at a lot of my most sensitive thoughts. I’d recommend this book to everyone who loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, as this, too, is a penned head nod at the real and invisible scars women carry.
I was lucky to travel a bit this year, and it’s important you know that I don’t believe in vacation reading as a separate genre. Whatever book I might choose to read at the beach, is a beach read. Some of my ““beach”” reading included some amazing LGBTQ titles like John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, and, the exciting new king of the footnote (I can’t, in good conscious, celebrate David Foster Wallace anymore), Jordy Rosenberg with Confessions of the Fox. On one particular trip, my husband, our four closest friends, and I went on spring break. Without any of our children present, we relished in the unencumbered time to do whatever we wanted—floating in the ocean for hours, sleeping in, happy hours, or reading at a speed that didn’t suggest a child might cut short the reading time at any moment. The only book I ended up reading on this trip, slowly, engrossed by it the way it should be was There, There by Tommy Orange. This book is stunning and made me literally gasp at the end.
I’m an audiobook junkie. I drive a decent amount—commuting to and from work and daycare—so that makes up a significant part of my listening. But I’m not precious about how much time I have. I just get started, even if it’s only a 10-minute drive; it adds up, naysayers! When I’m hooked, I end up putting in headphones and listening while I cook, or while I do laundry. I’ll even uncharacteristically make up errands and chores to keep listening. Some particularly wonderful books that I enjoyed on audio this year are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (one could argue audiobook is the preferred format for this book as the Scottish accents make all the difference), Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother, Luis Alberto Urrea’s House of Broken Angels, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Less is one of the more hyped books in the past few years (I guess a Pulitzer Prize under the belt does that?) but it’s well worth the praise, just stick with it! I’m the queen of ignoring hype for no good reason except for the sake of it. I’m working on it. Which is to say, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee took me a year to get to, a year that I could’ve been living with that book in my brain! I’m glad I rectified it. Circe, too, by Madeline Miller. The description didn’t grab me, and I can’t remember what ultimately made me read it, but that book literally has everything. For these lapses, my New Year’s Resolution is to consider widespread acclaim more carefully, so as not to delay reading some great books.
Perks of my job include being able to sweet talk my way into very early copies of some books. I was able to finagle Miriam Toews and Susan Choi’s forthcoming books, Women Talking and Trust Exercise. And Maryse Meijer’s Northwood (which is now available). All left me dizzy with their strength of voice and inventive forms, dying to find folks who had also had the early preview to hash them out with. JFC, these women can write. I was so deeply affected by all three that I have the chills just typing this out. Peter Geye’s latest novel, Northernmost, doesn’t come out till 2020, so, sorry, sorry, sorry to bring it up now but it’s sexy, thrilling, and Minnesotan—this Minnesotan never gets to say all those words in the same sentence so I’ll beg your pardon for that very early peek. I also recently finished Dani Shapiro’s latest memoir, out in January, Inheritance. Dani’s ability to write in the middle of a moment is unparalleled and this book is no exception; in it she has very recently learned her father is not her biological father. I’m actively wondering if Ancestry.com is going to start giving her a cut of the inevitable sales boost post publication.
Do you watch Midsomer Murders? My dad and I love to watch that show together. If you’re a fan, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz seems like a good book to tell you to read. I struggle to explain the details because I hate to prep people for a plot twist, but this one is [chef’s kiss]. I hadn’t previously deliberately read many mysteries or thrillers, despite my penchant for them in movies and TV. So this year I dabbled, and I’ll give a shout out to Mira Grant whose book Into the Drowning Deep scared me so effectively and thoroughly I may never get into the ocean again.
Other books that made deep impressions on me this year: Karen Tei Yamishita’s Letters to Memory, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything, Neal Thompson’s Kickflip Boys, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (as a Fu megafan, I was thrilled and satiated to read her latest). In Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, the title story is so realistic that I still feel sad for the protagonist and her deep misreading of an encounter.
While I’m wrapping up and wondering what book(s) I’m forgetting here, the book I spent the most time with this year and am better for is Ada Limón’s The Carrying. Ada’s work is a gift. I will fight anyone who says they don’t want to read it because they’re not a poetry person (and by “fight,” I mean direct you to your local indie or library to flip through the pages and convert you).
On deck? I’m chomping at the bit for early copies of Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, both out next year. I’m also reading all the titles of folks coming to Wordplay, May 11-12 in Minneapolis (we’ll be releasing the full line-up of authors on January 17). And, meanwhile, I’m considering becoming a person who buys lottery tickets so I can get a producer credit on Dan Sheenan’s Restless Souls, a book that is so gorgeously cinematic it boggles the mind that it has not yet been made into a movie.
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Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August.
The Carrying by Ada Limón
For a book metered by grief, there’s a lot of love here—that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Limón’s stylistic control and skill. Poems like “Almost Forty” appear next to “Trying,”; in the former, narrated by a couple, loud birds are “insane // in their winter shock of sweet gum and ash.” They look at each other and wonder if the birds’ screams are a warning—but don’t say a thing. Their silence extends to the end of the poem, when they “eat what we’ve made together, / each bite an ordinary weapon we wield // against the shrinking of mouths.” In “Trying,” they are again together. He is painting in the basement; she is “trellising / the tomatoes in what’s called / a Florida weave.” And then, “we try to knock me up again.” The day passes, the sun begins to set, and she checks the plants, her “fingers smelling of sex and tomato vines.” She doesn’t “know much / about happiness,” and yet “some days I can see the point / in growing something, even if / it’s just to say I cared enough.” Growing, caring, surviving: There’s a hymn at play here, and Limón is very good at pacing her poems to leave us satisfied but also curious. Elsewhere she writes, “Perhaps we are always hurtling our body towards / the thing that will obliterate us,” and that sentiment feels like a central truth to her poems. Her satirical poems sting (in “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual,” she roasts empty attempts at inclusion: “Will you tell us the stories that make / us uncomfortable, but not complicit?”), yet so many of these poems are simply about how to stay alive. “I lost God awhile ago,” she ends one poem. “And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them, / in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered / in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt / that’s been turned and turned like a problem / in the mind.” One of the best books of the year.
Perennial by Kelly Forsythe
Forsythe’s debut collection is about 1999 and now, the personal and the projected, villains and victims. Writing about high school is never easy—those hyper, hyperbolic years—but Forsythe is open and patient as she reconstructs life at Columbine High School. “Call us rebels,” begins one poem. “We’re making movies, / we’re making a plan, we’re / following each other // around basements.” As if the poem wants to nudge our assumptions about the infamous identities of these poem’s speakers, we see: “Will you set up a dynamic // that is also an obsession? / Will you discuss patterns?” Perennial shows how the violence of Columbine—a violence that has reverberated on campuses across America—creates an endless cycle of worry, fear, regret, and guilt. The narrative bounds between Colorado and Pittsburgh, where a young narrator is forced to accept the pain that now scars the mundane walls of such schools. Forsythe delivers precise lines of pain—“We are so small & red, red, collapsing,” ends one poem, holding the reader’s breath—but what also appears is the dizzying sense that even in these banal spaces, humanity remains. In “Homeroom,” “It felt strange to return to this space / the next day, or rather this concept: // a room meant as a home / for small enlisted selves.” In that weird, boring world, “we noticed the color / black, we noticed each other’s / hands, we noticed each other.”
If You Have to Go by Katie Ford
“The mind is full of mistakes as we set out to write the poem. We have flawed thoughts, collapsing systems, rotten boards and corroding anchors that make up how we think through a morning, through a day, through a love, and through a life. It is a crushing art.” Written after her second book Colosseum, Ford’s description of the poetic experience feels equally apt to her excellent new book. If You Have to Go is dedicated to the theologian Gordon D. Kaufman, one of Ford’s mentors at Harvard Divinity School. Her new book is part threnody, part longing, all song. The book is anchored by an extended crown of sonnets, which feel like pained and punctuated addresses to God, herself, and “Desire, that zealous servant / who won’t stop tending.” The speaker has had enough and only wants some rest. “Let me stand plain, undone in this room. / I never asked desire to be so rich.” The recursive sonnet crown pushes the reader deeper into the book, and deeper into the narrator’s woes: “I make my bed every morning. / I don’t know where to start / so I start with the bed. / Then I fall to my knees against it.” Her habit, or perhaps her condition, of seeking divine solace creates only more worry: “Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord / I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored.” Ford’s lines are impassioned, full of the terrible desire of doubt: “I don’t know what I mean, / but I mean it. I don’t know what to want, / but I want it. And when I say God / it’s because no one can know it—not ever, // not at all—. It’s a wall. / And it drops to the floor as I fall.” This book is a journey, particularly moored to “Psalm 40,” a robust poem that looks inward and upward: “I am content because before me looms the hope of love.”
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
Asghar’s debut mines past and present, Pakistan and America in poems that are driven by a penchant and talent for storytelling. She begins with “For Peshawar,” an elegy that considers the 2014 Taliban attack on schoolchildren: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” The narrator moves from questions to frustrated requests: “I wish them a mundane life. / Arguments with parents.” A life should have moments of mundane, not mortal, pain: “Blisters on the back of a heel. // Loneliness in a bookstore.” As her poems move to other settings and moments, Asghar returns to this theme: Wounds are inevitable, and much of life is looking to story for closure, or at least comfort. In the poem “Kal,” the narrator says “Allah, you gave us a language / where yesterday & tomorrow / are the same word.” Then, “If yesterday & tomorrow are the same / pluck the flower of my mother’s body / from the soil.” There’s an energy to her sense of elegy, so much that it permeates other poems, like “Old Country.” A family goes to a buffet “on the days we saved enough money.” Kids carry “our rectangle / backpacks brimming with homework, calculators / & Lisa Frank trapper keepers, for we knew this was a day / without escape.” That space becomes a fantasy of play: “Here, our family reveled in the American / way of waste, manifest destinied our way / through the mac & cheese, & green bean // casseroles, mythical foods we had only / heard about on TV where American children rolled their eyes in disgust.” Hours of freedom pass, but as with many of Asghar’s poems, there’s a tinge of melancholy—an awareness of what permeates this world.
The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand
Every ars poetica is a conversation, an attempt at meaning and purpose. The Blue Clerk is a collection of such attempts—a meandering, metaphorical, sometimes mystical collection—and the result is a developed, inventive book. Brand is also a novelist, and her reach is showcased here in a book that begins with a curious premise: a clerk, dressed in blue, waits on a wharf. A ship is supposed to arrive soon. She is “inspecting and abating” the “bales of paper” that surround her. These are “left-hand pages” from a poet, “benign enough pages,” ones “you can’t use right now because the poem moved in another direction. Pages that are unformed, or pages that, at whatever moment, she did not have the patience or the reference to solidify.” Brand tells this unfolding story in prose poetic verses. Some sections are of indiscriminate authorship—the clerk is the poet, the poet is not the clerk—suggesting the drift of our poetic identities. Brand’s lines are unique and quite comfortable to get lost in. The cleaved personality, and person, between the poet and clerk brings us to places where poetry is birthed: “Living that little fissure between scenes of the real. Everyone lives that everyday but we quickly seal the fissure for whatever pleasures are in the so-called reality, or we give up on being on this side of the fissure because it is too lonely there. It is a chasm. It is a choice available to anyone, and apparent to everyone, but unfortunately my job is…I wish I couldn’t see that chasm.” The work of the clerk is curation. The work of the poet? “I am not really in life, the author says. I am really a voyeur. But the part of me that is in life is in pain all the time. That’s me, says the clerk. You watch, I feel.”
feeld by Jos Charles
“Why do we say that the word ‘tree’—spoken or written—is a symbol to us for trees? Both the word itself and the trees themselves enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the ‘tree’ as for the word to symbolize the trees.” Alfred North Whitehead’s schema of language seems relevant to feeld, the second book by Jos Charles. Although Charles’s method has been compared to Chaucer, I think Stephanie Burt’s allusion to James Joyce is even more apt. feeld, in its mode and method, lives in the same world as Finnegans Wake—both books force us to reconsider how language transfers (and hides) meaning. “i a lone hav scaped 2 tell u this,” Charles writes, of various scenes from a “female depositrie room,” but also images of fields, unearthing metaphors and ways to think of identity: “i muste // re member / plese kepe ur handes / 2 urself / i meen this // ontologicklie // nayture is sumwere else.” Language is a place of skepticism but also necessity, and feeld builds toward a sense of resignation: “a lief is so smal / the nut // off a thynge / the trees // ive wetd / & wut weeve throne // inn 2 a stream / ull never kno // wut was here.”
How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach
Rather than wonder or worry about poetry’s larger, idealistic goals for society, Longenbach’s volume is a careful guidebook that sticks to the poem itself: its reading, its writing, its revision. “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to feel unconstrained by ourselves,” he writes, and he proceeds like a good teacher through many of poetry’s essential modes: diction, syntax, voice, figure, rhythm, image, tone, and more. What I especially like is that he uses time-worn classics as sources of instruction. He draws from poets like Blake, Crane, Dickinson, Donne, and Keats for good reason: “Because they hold our attention as repeatable events, the best-known poems may seem wonderfully strange, especially after long acquaintance.” With healthy quotes from poems that demonstrate the technical and metaphorical values he lauds, Longenbach creates a book that is not literary analysis, but an explanation of how poems work—which might just be enough to get people writing verse.