THE BIG BOOK OF EXIT STRATEGIES, JAMAAL MAY

JMBigBookExit300h-225x300When I first heard that one of my favorite poets, Jamaal May, published a new collection, it felt like Christmas again. I knew from reading his debut collection, Hum, that May has a knack for ripping apart language and making it new. In The Big Book of Exit Strategies, the magic doesn’t stop. Each poem is nothing short of an adventure, each line more remarkable than the last: “I’m afraid speaking will splinter / into a confession of how I like the muffled sea/ of your voice, your jaw stilled by rigging” (“Mouth” lines 10-12). Readers: Know that anything I write in this post will come short of capturing the energy of this collection.

The Big Book of Exit Strategies is split in three sections. Fans of May will love the continuation of the fear poems from Hum, as well as the dark beauty in May’s language: “When they say, C’mon, be a man, don’t they hear /the barbells hitting the floor in his head? Don’t you / hear the furniture scrapes and appliances rattle . . .” (“Megalophobia: Fear of large things” lines 12-14). The poems in the The Big Book of Exit Strategies leave you begging for more, even at their most haunting. They love to play with irony, as well as find similarities between seemingly opposite ideas: “from the outside in, the inside of a fist, / decay-dark socket in the head / of a bleached cow skull –“ (“Yes, I Know She’s Dying” lines 14-16). This is a collection of poems that will startle you again and again through their strange imagery and surprising twists.

For me, one of the most powerful poems in this collection that I’ve been coming back to again and again is “The Gun Joke.” May does an excellent job at commenting about the gun problem we have in the U.S by highlighting the absurdity in the phrase “it’s funny.”: “She doesn’t mean funny as in funny, but funny / as in blood soup tastes funny when you stir in soil” (lines 4-5).It’s poems like these that resonate with readers because of their relevancy.

May also does a great job of capturing Detroit. The poem “The Unseen Hand of Zombie Jesus” reads: “His hands / are gone altogether, having rotted and fallen off / on a trek to Detroit’s southwest side” (lines 3-5). He captures the grittiness of the city with poignancy in many of the poems in The Big Book of Exit Strategies.

I think its neat that May segues each section with a cover of a door. The cover of the collection also does a great job of introducing readers to May’s work. The Big Book of Exit Strategies is a must read, and I do not mean this lightly.

Cover of The Big Book of Exit Strategies and Hum courtesy of Alice James Books.

Buy May’s collection here. If you’d also like to buy Hum (also published through Alice James Books), click here.

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*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Alice James Books: “Alice James Books is named after the sister of the famous philosopher William James and novelist Henry James, Alice James. She lived a largely confined and isolated life. The youngest of five children, she never married and lived with her parents until their deaths. Although her four brothers were broadly educated in the US and Europe, Alice’s education was haphazard, reflecting her father’s belief   that “The very virtue of woman… disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her.” Keenly self-aware, she started a journal in 1889, as a way of recording her own understanding of herself. She entrusted it to her friend Katherine Loring, shortly before her death in 1892, of breast cancer. Loring sent copies to her brother Henry and other family members. In 1943 it was published, in incomplete form, by a niece, who called it Alice James: Her Brothers — Her Journal. Not until 1964 was the journal published in its entirety. Alice James has since become somewhat of a feminist icon, in recognition of her struggle for self-expression within the repressive Victorian notion of femininity.”*

NONFICTION, SHANE MCCRAE

McCrae-Cover--250x386.jpgNonfiction is a collection of poetry that understands the movement of language. The poems demand reader’s attention by utilizing repetition and creating a sense of necessity. Each line is a desperate account of the ways in which violence disrupts the body and mind. The speaker in Nonfiction crafts a story about American history that is both troubling and bold: “And I I          loved my children no // Matter how dark their skin // I loved them . . .” (“An Incident in the Life of Solomon Northup a Free Man” lines 12-14).

From the very beginning, readers will feel the despair in the speaker’s voice. The first poem in the collection is jarring in its depiction of slavery: “I could rebuild the chains now and the ring     the bench now and the room // From memory” (lines 50-51). No matter the subject of the poem, whether it be slavery, sexual abuse, or the speaker’s son’s autism, each poem will hit readers with the unflinching truth: “Secret and even then / I knew / He did what he did to me   made me invisible   / I didn’t have / the blonde face of a kidnapped child . . .” (“2. The Face of Someone” lines 11-13). In Nonfiction, we have a set of poems that are beautiful, even when they’re most brutal.

Upon opening Nonfiction, readers can expect a set of well-crafted poems that contain a rhythm and movement of their own. The poems read fast because of the well-placed repetition that McCrae utilizes in the collection: “My son he was / Six he was six he’s / ten now he was six . . .” (“From the Greek” lines 1-3). Because of this repetition, as well as the collection only being 22 pages of poetry, I was able to finish Nonfiction in a couple of hours. Despite its smallness, the collection holds its own weight, and each page delivers some of the strongest poems in the contemporary poetry today.

Cover of Nonfiction and logo of Black Lawrence Press courtesy of Black Lawrence Press.

Buy McCrae’s collection here.

2524057_596x596.jpg*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Black Lawrence Press: “Black Lawrence Press is an independent publisher of contemporary poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. We also publish the occasional translation from German. Founded in 2004, Black Lawrence became an imprint of Dzanc Books in 2008. In January 2014, we spread our wings and became an independent company in the state of New York. Our books are distributed nationally through Small Press Distribution to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and various brick and mortar retailers. We also make our titles available through our website and at various conferences and book fairs. Through our annual contests and open reading periods, we seek innovative, electrifying, and thoroughly intoxicating manuscripts that ensnare themselves in our hearts and minds and won’t let go.”*

BORIS BY THE SEA, MATVEI YANKELEVICH

download.jpegLast week, while I was looking for a lighthearted read, I ordered the collection Boris by the Sea by Matvei Yankelevich.  I wanted something weird and wacky, playful and fun. When I found the collection on Octopus Book, the idea of fictional character being the voice of a poetry collection caught my attention.  And soon enough, I was in love with Boris and the strange world with which he occupies: “The world was reflected inside him, somewhere inside his skull. And it hurt. It hurt something awful” (8).

Through the combination of poetry, prose, and plays, Yankelevich’s collection does a great job of keeping readers on their toes. Personally, I enjoyed the subtle humor in Boris by the Sea. Boris will remind you of that quirky cousin of yours that you admire, yet feel equal worry for because you wonder how the hell he functions in this world: “Boris was thirsty so he watered his plants. When the plants died from being over-watered, Boris was still thirsty” (3). The only comparison I have for Boris is Mr. Bean. And who doesn’t love Mr. Bean?

Despite the humor and nonsense, the collection does not lack in poignancy, even if it’s coated with bits of absurdity: “Slowly a dark thought came over Boris: In such a manner Boris could be rid of himself. And then for the first time in his life Boris said aloud: There is a limit to everything everywhere” (11). Even in the most surreal moments in the collection, Yankelevich’s words are touching.

I picked up this collection because I was looking for something different – and who better to deliver that than Octopus books (more info on them below). Octopus Books also published The Father of the Arrow is the Thought, so if you’re into eccentric collections, check that out too. I like the overall lack of the “I” speaker in Boris by the Sea. So much of it is written in the 3rd person, which I appreciated because it offers a different type of voice that is not typical in contemporary poetry. “Boris reached around and touched his sghoulder blade. He wondered what it looked like. He got a good hold on it. He pulled hard. And he pulled harder. But he could not bring it around to the front” (5).

In total, the collection is only 62 pages. If you’re looking for a short break from the typical poetry that you read, I suggest Boris by the Sea. The voice is fresh, and each page offers something different. Boris is out-of-this-world and irrational in the best ways possible. Embrace your inner Boris. Buy this collection.

Cover of Boris by the Sea courtesy of Octopus Books.

Buy Yankelevich’s collection here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Octopus Books: Octopus Books is a small poetry press in Portland, OR. Established in 2006, Octopus Books is committed to building a catalog of contemporary poetry by publishing four books each year. Many of our titles are selected through our open reading period held each April.*

CITIZEN, CLAUDIA RANKINE

71SxmbgcRuL.jpgFriends, it’s been a tough week. With 150 people dead in Baghdad from a suicide bombing, 28 dead in Bangladesh after the Holey Artisan Bakery hostage crisis, and with the U.S mourning the death of two black men fatally shot by police officers, it has not been an easy week. This is not to mention the death of five law enforcement officers in Austin, Texas.

In the wake of this heartbreak, I turned to poetry. Whether it was reading Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam once again, Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” or re-reading Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, I spent my week clinging to their words. This is the only way I know how to grieve.

To my friends who are speechless in regards to the shooting of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I recommend Citizen. It is not only a powerful read, but it’s a great reminder of the consequences of racism. Through the use of poetry, nonfiction, and artwork, Citizen both haunts and challenges our views of what being black in America means today.

Through her use of 2nd person narrative, Rankine puts readers in the shoes of the speaker, making Citizen emotionally gripping: ““ . . . he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black! I didn’t mean to say that, he then says. Aloud, you say. What? he asks. You didn’t mean to say that aloud. You transaction goes swiftly after that” (44). I love Citizen because it spends no time beating around the bush. Its words are straightforward and blunt, breathtakingly honest and raw: “When the stranger asks, Why do you care? you just stand there staring at him. He has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers” (16). Rankine’s words are a shout for America to wake up. They understand that silence is no longer an option

For me, what was most powerful about this collection is the ways in which Rankine highlights the many micro-aggressions that she and others of color face everyday. These instances are told in the most candid way possible: ““he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there“ (10). Aside from this, Citizen also engages readers with a discussion about tennis player Serena Williams, as well as Hurricane Katrina and the ways we disregarded the victims.Toyin-Odutola-Uncertain-Yet-reserved
In total the collection is 161 pages of nonfiction/poetry, as well as artwork. The art in Citizen is also stunning, as is the cover of the book. This collection should be read by every high school student in this country because it is nothing less of an extraordinary. I think that reading this collection is an empowering statement against racism, and I am confident that readers of this blog will feel this way too.

Cover of Citizen courtesy of Graywolf Press. I do not own this cover.

Photo of “Uncertain yet Reserved” is courtesy of artist Toyin Odutola. I do not own this photo. Check out her website.

Buy Rankine’s collection here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Graywolf Press: “Graywolf Press is a leading independent publisher committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature. We champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers to ensure that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded marketplace.

We believe books that nourish the individual spirit and enrich the broader culture must be supported by attentive editing, superior design, and creative promotion.”*

Listen to Claudia Rankine read in the video below.

 

 

MISTAKING THE SEA FOR GREEN FIELDS, ASHLEY CAPPS

41N5RXJMZ6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes, you read a poem and you can’t stop thinking about it for months. And maybe I’m being too sentimental, but I haven’t stopped thinking about those damn lemmings in Ashley Capps’ collection Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields. The poem, like the collection, is heartbreaking in so many ways. It’s about failed expectations, and trying to muster up the willingness to survive. It’s about dysfunctional families, and the oftentimes absurd world we live in. It’s brave, despite its desperation.

In the title poem “Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields” readers are introduced to the speaker’s aunt, Karen, who commits suicide. The speaker recounts the suicide, as well as the family’s subsequent reaction: “no one knew what to do / with all that anger, / or in the end how not to blame her” (lines 23-25). Later in the poem, the speaker compares Karen’s suicide to the lemmings who “threw themselves / en masse into the sea” (lines 28-29). The last three lines though, is where the gut-wrenching, sob-everywhere reaction happens: “and so were lost forever, / even though they thought it was real, though / they thought they were going home” (lines 51-53). And this, dear readers, is why you shouldn’t read poetry. Just kidding.

The rest of the collection is no less than beautiful. It’s bizarre and wonderful. There’s a sense of humor and biting irony that carries us through until the end. In the poem “Washing the Brain” readers are thrown into the weird and electrifying world of Ashley Capps: “I am washing my brain / because, while relatively small, / it has been much handled” (lines 2-4). Using her excellent sense of detail and narrative, the speaker shows readers all of the wacky places her brain has been to: “a sequined circus / performer who juggled it with steak knives / in the dark” (lines 12-14). The sense of imagination and oftentimes borderline surrealism Capps presents readers with is stunning.

And although I can’t talk about all of my favorite poems in Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields I recommend reading the poems “Live Feed” (because Jesus), and “The Sign Said” (because phone sex and toenail clippings).

It’s also not possible to finish this blog post without talking about the cover, which is fantastic in so many ways. It introduces readers to the magic and sharp wit that they will fall in love with upon opening the collection. In total, it’s just 67 pages of poetry but this is a collection that everyone should have on their bookshelves.

Buy Capps’ collection here.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about The University of Akron Press: “The University of Akron Press seeks to acquire innovative content that advances scholarship. These materials can be in traditional or digital formats. We especially are interested in works that are interdisciplinary in nature, shed light on new areas of research, and apply findings to real-world problems. We look for titles within the following areas: law, organizational studies, politics, psychology, sustainability, and technology, including polymer science.

As a regional publisher, we are interested in titles about Ohio history and culture in the broadest sense.

We also publish two books of poetry annually, one of which is the winner of the Akron Poetry Prize. We will consider literary collections based around one theme, especially collections of translated works. Poetry collections by a single author must be submitted to the Akron Poetry Prize for consideration.”Check out their website here.

(Cover of Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields courtesy of the UA Press. I do not own this photo.)