DOTHEAD, AMIT MAJMUDAR

 

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On Friday, May 20 at 5:30pm, Summit Artspace in Akron, Ohio brought together poetry and science lovers into one room. Poet and diagnostic nuclear radiologist Amit Majmudar shared work from his new collection Dothead. As the first poet laureate of Ohio, it was an honor to be listening to Majmudar’s work.

Drawing on his experiences of growing up as an Indian American, Dothead features imagery from the Hindu tradition, as well as the religion of Islam. From the very first poem of the collection, Majmudar’s humor, and use of unique images comes through: “Lunch was after / World History; that was was India – myths, / caste systems, suttee, all the Greatest Hits” (“Dothead,” lines 12-14). The poem continues by relaying the speaker’s struggle to explain his Indian culture to his white friends, and their subsequent reactions: “So wait, said Nick, does your mom wear a dot? / I nodded, and caught a smirk on Todd – / She wear it to the shower? And to bed? -” (lines 17-19). I like that the poem makes a statement about growing up as a minority, but does it in a way that is accessible and funny. 

Watching Majmudar reading his work gives life to so much of his poetry. Rather than reading word for word from a page, Majmudar enjoys engaging his audience by performing his poems to them. Other than the poem “Dothead,” I really enjoyed the poem “The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up” which is about the speaker’s son facing medical complications at a young age: “my boy, my boy who isn’t going to grow / born with a holey heart, his lips blue-gray, / his body shivering at seven degrees” (lines 7-9). I love the emotional resonance of this poem, and the use of the three-line stanza.

Majmudar’s science background influences so much of his style. At the reading, he admitted that he has a love of form poems because of his medical background. The use of the sestina form in the poem “The Waltz Of Descartes and Mohammed” is impressive: “There is / No God / But God. / I think / Therefore / I am” (lines 1-6). On first read of the poem, I didn’t hear the amusing voice of Majmudar, but when he read this poem, many in the room grinned at the unique play on language and the philosophical conversation the poem engages itself in without taking itself so seriously. 

Aside from the range of topics and styles you will find in Dothead, I think readers will enjoy Majmudar’s commentary about immigration and what it’s like to be a minority. One of my favorite poems in this collection (and also the poem he ended his reading on) is “T.S.A,” which tells about the speaker’s experience of being tagged at airports. It reads: “I dig out the keys from my jeans and do / my best Midwestern grin. / A O’Hare, at Atlanta, at Dallas/Fort Worth, / it happens every trip, / at LaGuardia, Logan, and Washington Dulles, / the customary strip” (lines 3-8). The poem “Immigration and Nauralization” also features the same theme. 

Aside from Majmudar, Summit Artspace also brought young poets Ileana Horattas and Reem Azem. Both poets currently attend North East Ohio Medical University (NEOMED). Horattas and Azem were invited to read their work with Majmudar since they won the 2016 William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition. Majmudar is also a graduate of NEOMED, and also a recipient of the William Carlos William Poetry Competition. Horattas shared her poem “The Lilacs” and Azem shared her poem “Sweeter Than A Watermelon.” 

Dothead features 103 pages of poetry. It is one long section, and the poems pack a lot, so this is a collection that took me a few days to get through. I think readers will enjoy the friendly tone of the poems, as well as what Majmudar has to say about growing up as an Indian-American. 

Thanks to Summit Artspace for featuring this event.

Buy Dothead here.

Ghosts Still Walking, Do Nguyen Mai

gsw.jpgI have yet to read a poetry collection that is more haunting than Do Nguyen Mai’s Ghosts Still Walking.  Her poetry is chilling, and forced me to set the collection down on multiple occasions because I was taken aback by all of the weighty material the poems tackled in such a poignant way.  Highly influenced by the long and sorrowful history of Vietnam, this collection will send shivers down your spine.

One of my favorite poems in the collections is in the first part of the book. It’s titled “From Phùng Thị Chính to Her Child” and it talks about the suicide of Vietnamese noblewoman Phùng Thị Chính, who was “noted for having given birth on the battlefield and continuing to fight the Chinese invaders with her child strapped to her back” (page 12). It reads: “You, red with your / mother’s own starved blood. // You, born of my dying hearth, / delivered into an apocalypse,” (lines 16-19). I am always so thankful for poetry like Mai’s because it honors the bravery of those who fought during these terrible wars. And you can tell from the very beginning of the collection, which reads, “For my ancestors, who have guided my pen since the beginning, and my family members, who have given me this voice” that this is just what Mai set out to do.

An influential debut collection, the speaker of this book cannot help but feel the harsh consequences of Vietnam’s unsettling history. As a reader, you will share in this experience. In the section “tongues of fire,” the speaker demands readers to “Look at the nothingness we have become. Look at all the emptiness we are now, after you so meticulously tried to carve your civilized speech upon out bones,” (page 40). Even as the collection comes to a close, the speaker acknowledges the importance of remembering these wars and this history despite the pain: “Like clouds, these dreams // Linger,” (“Smoke,” lines 1-2).

If you’re planning on reading this collection, go slow. Mai’s poems pack a lot of punch. They are heavy, but for a good reason. Although the collection is only two sections, Mai breaks these two sections up with a prose poem titled “Tongues of Fire.” What I really enjoyed about this collection is the fact that I haven’t read anything like it before. Mai’s voice is unique, and it you will feel its importance from page to page.

Photo courtesy of Platypus Press.

Buy the collection here.

THE FATHER OF THE ARROW IS THE THOUGHT, CHRISTOPHER DEWEESE

Father-of-Arrow-Cover3-e1457722858544.jpg” . . . nasty, angry swans / we could almost feel / fucking up our ethos” (lines 15-17). These are the words of poet Christopher Deweese in his second book of poems The Father of the Arrow is the Thought. I had the opportunity to see him read at the Big, Big Mess last week, where he gave voice to so many of my favorite poems, including  “The Atmosphere,” which is quoted above. As the first poem in the collection, it sets us up for the humor that Deweese incorporates in so much of his writings.

“I think in my poems, a lot of the humor comes from surprise. Like, all of a sudden, the poem shifts, and suddenly the speaker of the poem realizes something that hadn’t been telegraphed before. And the writer of the poem and the reader of the poem get to share in that discovery” said Deweese.

I was so excited when Deweese read the funniest poem in the collection, “The Lake” which talks about the speaker’s feelings of jealousy towards it. When the speaker notices that his wife is more infatuated with the lake than him, he reacts in the best ways possible.  It reads, “I invested in ice-fishing / to have a reason / to cut the lake to pieces” (lines 22-24). The personification of the lake is especially hilarious: “it hurt me / to see her so submerged, / always running from our car / to the lake’s wide blue arm” (lines 3-6).

Deweese credits his parents and Monty Python for his sense of humor.

“We used to have these books of transcripts of every single Monty Python episode, and my brother and I used to perform them, even though we hadn’t watched a lot of them (our local video rental store only carried a few). A lot of the jokes, in retrospect, I didn’t actually understand at the time, but I knew they were funny, and that seemed to be enough” said Deweese.Screenshot_2016-05-08-15-21-04-1-1.png

One of the many aspects I love about The Father of the Arrow is the Thought is the simplicity of the collection cover, as well as the fact that the titles and the form with which Deweese writes in follow the same unique pattern. Deweese was inspired by Paul Klee, who wrote “The father of the arrow is the thought: how do I expand my reach? Over this river? This lake? That mountain?” Hoping to achieve a similar energy, Deweese says that the collection consists of a series of “long, skinny poems, full of short lines and no stanza breaks” to capture “a kind of arrow-like energy.”

Deweese began his reading at the Big, Big Mess by sharing poems from a collection he is currently working on which is titled Alternative Music. He says it has 120 poems in it, and that he’s been writing it on and off for eight years. Aside from working on Alternative Music, Deweese is also the Assistant Professor or Poetry at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Keep up with Deweese by following his blog infiniteowls.blogspot.com or following him on Twitter @chris_deweese.

(Photo of book cover courtesy of Octopus Books).

Order The Father of the Arrow is the Thought by clicking here.

See the full transcript of my interview by clicking here.

 

MILK AND HONEY, RUPI KAUR

31-oDaA7eRL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg“My heart woke me crying last night / how can i help i begged / my heart said / write the book” (lines 1-4). These are the words of poet Rupi Kaur from her collection Milk and Honey. I will endlessly thank the friend who recommended this collection to me because it is raw, beautiful, and empowering. Every woman needs to own this book.

In just four sections, titled the hurting, the loving, the breaking, and the healing, Kaur’s poetry made me feel like I’d formed an intimate relationship with the speaker of this collection. She writes, “ you / have been / taught your legs / are a pit stop for men” (lines 1-4). Her words will resonate with anyone who has survived rape or endured a break up that has left them feeling hopeless: “my tongue is sour / from the hunger of / missing you” (lines 1-3). Although many of the poems are small (typically 3-10 short lines) Kaur’s words carry weight.

What is even more amazing about this collection is the visual element of the book. Many of the poems sit alongside simple illustration that have been drawn by Kaur. The collaboration between poetry and visual art is profound. I love Kaur’s writing and drawing style because it does a lot with very little. The illustrations are minimal and most of the poems are small and lack a title and punctuation.

The first section, which talks about the speaker surviving rape, is blunt, emotionally charged, and emboldening. The words are terrifying: “he had the smell of / starvation on his lips / which he picked up from / his father feasting on his mother at 4 a.m” (lines 7-10). Nevertheless, there is a thread of hope that moves through the collection, teaching women how to reclaim their body: “the rape will / tear you / in half // but it / will not / end you” (lines 1-6).

After the speaker heals and falls in love with someone, the entire second section reveals the most intimate parts of their relationship: “every revolution / starts and ends / with his lips” (lines 1-3). I love the message this section sends to woman: “i am learning / how to love him / by loving myself” (lines 1-3). The idea of creating positive relationships in our lives by first loving ourselves is powerful.

The third section of the book , the breaking, illustrates the speaker’s heartbreak after finding out about her boyfriend’s infidelity. This section will resonate with woman who’ve been cheated on, as well as anyone who has been through a painful breakup: “ . . . how even when the love / leaves. it doesn’t leave. how even when i am so / past you. i am so helplessly brought back to you” (lines 16-18). These words speak to anyone who has been forced to end an unhealthy relationship with someone they love.

Everyone needs to read this collection at least once.  If you’re not a huge fan of poetry, I can say that this collection is welcoming because of the simple language that draws you in. It’s fierce, stunning, and powerful. I devoured this collection in one sitting, and I promise you will too.

(photo courtesy of andrewsmcmeel.com)

Buy the collection here.

 

SPLIT, CATHY LINH CHE

30m0dbb.jpgThere are few poetry collections that make me want to underline every passage and sticky note each page. From the very beginning, Split, by Cathy Linh Che gripped me. As a reader, I could feel the speaker of each poem reclaiming herself as a woman and as a child of refugee parents. Reading Split is empowering, despite the pain tugging at your arm as you move farther and farther into the collection: “Archipelago of desire. I skip stones, / one to another. Mother’s shame, / father’s cold and brutal shielding. // There was more tenderness in the rain. / I woke with an archipelago / of bruises, ([Doc, there was a hand], lines 25-30).

The collection consists of three sections. In the first section, the speaker vividly recounts her experience of being sexually assaulted by a cousin. This section is brave and does not hold back: “He loved you in the same way / he loved his mother. // He pulled your pajama pants / off in the dark. // The carpet scratched at your back” (“Profile” lines 2-5).The subsequent denial of these incidents by family members is even more shocking: “A family secret / ending in shhh,” (“In What Ways Does the Room Map Out Violence?” lines 73-74). The shame and abuse that is endured by a speaker who is bold enough to tell her story with such beauty opens a space for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. This collection is important because we see the way we allow people to hurt others, and the consequences of not speaking out.

Split is not just about the sexual abuse. It also boldly recounts the experiences of the parents in Vietnam and during the Vietnam War with tenderness and love: “On Christmas Day, he mistook / the Macy’s star / for the Viet Cong flag. // While watching Forrest Gump, he told me / how he carried a friend. // He squeezed / around my throat so tight, / I thought I’d die with him” (“In every psyche, tiny or dramatic perforation -” lines 27-35)We can see pieces of the speaker’s father in our relationship with our own father. The desire to please them, connect with them on a deeper level, and understand their past is strong here and gives us a powerful message about the nature of family. One of my favorite poems is called “Talk” and is about the speaker’s brother: “You are a coat / I want to turn / inside-out to see // where the silk frays – / in the arms, along / the back, your massive // shoulders. When / did you get so big?” (lines 17-24). Through these poems, you find a family that is struggling to heal as they attempt to reconcile the past.

The language in Split is commanding and insightful. This is a collection that I had to read in small chunks because each poem blew me away. The longest poem in the collection, which is titled “In what way does the room map out violence?” took me multiple reads over the course of a few days to truly grasp the beauty of Che’s words. It comes as no surprise after reading the collection that it was the winner of 2012 Kundiman Poetry Prize. The speaker is forthright about her emotions, but a tone of forgiveness and understanding ends the collection: “I can crown myself / with my own life” (“Gardenia” lines 16-17). It is these words that made me feel like I had been on a difficult journey with the speaker, but one that we had endured and begun to move forward from together.

(photo courtesy of cathylinhche.com).

Buy the collection here.