Showcase Selects: 2019 Showcase Picks by Yanyi
Yanyi, a presenting poet in Poets House’s Spring 2019 season, weighs in on his five favorite selections from the 2019 Poets House Showcase, an annual exhibition of over 3,000 poetry books published in the past 18 months, on view through August 17. Come by and find these gems for yourself!
A library is a public space, and to it come those who use it exactly for what it is meant (in this case, poetry), and those who meander in with some other need: to study the MCAT, to read the newspaper, or even just to look for a few hours in a quiet space to the Hudson. As a public space, a library holds the forms that its public needs (short of self-destruction) and, in the meantime, may offer its treasures to those caught unawares while getting lost in time.
There is no argument better than proximity to recommend a book—I confess to relishing many afternoons on planes, jauntily flipping through a floral issue of Martha Stewart Living or imagining life chock full of idiosyncratic gadgets from SkyMall. It’s hard to believe that this is not all the new poetry that has come out since 2018 (that would be impossible)—the Showcase is an overwhelming montage, an exciting sign in itself of how much poetry is being written today. For those sucked into the vacuum tube of poetry Twitter, the books frequently splashing outsized into our feeds return to their normal proportions next to their peers on the shelf.
Marketing aside, I can hardly claim objectivity. I reach for books that looked beautiful to me. I scan titles looking for connections—sometimes it is the turn of the phrase or the shapes of the poems that attract me. And I rarely browse with first poems, but like to flip to the middle.
I want to read every single book and object here. But of course I can’t. Even now, I’m staring at piles of books I picked out that were too tall to stay as one. And I’ve already gone on too long. Short of leaving you a manifesto of what constitutes good or bad poetry, I want to offer, instead, these five collections as markers in my particular sensibility as an artist. Simply, each of these provided, in their own ways, that gentle surprise that fuels my love of art. Each book is not universally “necessary,” “urgent,” or even “new,” but confers how they were so for these writers and editors especially, who generously confer those emotions on to us through their work.
“I am a watcher of the zoo, the author says. As well as a performer, this snide and dangerous clerk interjects.”
The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand, Duke University Press, 2018
On the surface: a series of tight-knit prose poems dubbed “versos,” writings that are relegated to the shadow-world of the clerk. What’s attractive about this book is its separation and unity of concerns: a dialogue between the I, the author, and the clerk can seem to blend into soliloquy, as all three individually and collectively encounter and enact violence in the world. Reading this is not easy: the sheer volume of history, observation, and subject matter can be overwhelming. But the end result is very rewarding for the emotional, intellectual, and lyric faculties involved.
“If we imagine the person with the accent as, in the act of enunciation, a displaced individual, then let us together imagine the accent as a displaced voice.”
This short essay, translated from and appearing with the original Arabic, richly addresses the emotional, political, physical, and practical implications of the accent in an impressively economic space. I can’t imagine teaching about the voice (“grain of” or not) without it now. Belladonna* Collaborative’s event-based chaplets exemplify the heart and history of their publishing project; this essay, perfect for the chaplet form, exemplifies the surprise and intelligence that grace those chaplets at their best.
“The future is a slippery project. What can it hold?”
Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN / Radical WRITING, Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin (eds.), Kore Press, 2018
The work is a corrective to guide readers through a Black feminist intellectual tradition that has been, and is, alive and well. I savored many entries in this anthology with an eye to both learning and teaching. Hunt and Martin include lesser-known writers and lesser-known work from well-known writers, bequeathing the reader with a sense of discovery within curation. The foreword and afterwords for each section also draw on the editors’ long knowledge in experimental writing to explain and interpret their selections.
“Women’s language is a language of death.”
Autobiography of Death, Kim Hyesoon (translated by Don Mee Choi), New Directions, 2018
I was drawn in by this book’s morbid lyricism—writing of and around dismemberment to ghosts or monsters—that avoided being pornographic. Rather, Kim’s surrealism grounds itself in fact: that someone lives on through death in all ways, and that violence that becomes permissible first arrives in the imagination. Although it is not needed to appreciate the work, the interview at the back of the book between Kim and Choi is valuable for the first-time reader of Kim’s work (like me) in understanding her ongoing poetic and intellectual project and to politically contextualize the collection.
“We have been in want of rain.”
The Tree We Planted and Buried You In, Billie R. Tadros, Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2018
I was delighted to stumble upon Otis Books, the publishing project from Otis College of Art and Design. Originally drawn by the design, I found myself steadily reading through this collection by Billie R. Tadros. The reader is slowly wrapped into the world of a father’s suicide, weaving through time before and after that leaving through various dimensions of the speaker. The poems flow in and out of each other; there is a consistency in craft and style that serves the project. More than a collection of one-off beauties, this book is a memorial to a person, an answer to The Odyssey’s invocation: “Sing, Muse, of a complicated man.” Tadros does so with care and steady craft.
Yanyi is a writer and critic. In 2018, he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, awarded by Carl Phillips, for his first book, The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press, April 2019). Currently, he is a poetry editor at Foundry, a poetry review editor at Public Books, and a MFA candidate at New York University. He formerly served as Director of Technology and Design at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, senior editor at Nat. Brut, and curatorial assistant at The Poetry Project. He is the recipient of fellowships from Asian American Writers Workshop and Poets House. His recent work has appeared in Granta, Tin House, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.