Friday Reading Rainbow

FICTION – BLACK AUTHORS EDITION

Focusing my reading this spring on black authors because 1) Black Lives Matter, 2) the African-American literary tradition is incredibly rich and fertile, and I’ve been neglecting the deep reading I began with my Toni Morrison class in college and with other favorite authors since, and 3) I like having a ‘theme’ to my reading each season, because it’s cool to see how books pair together and resonate with each other.

Right now, I’m enveloped in the wonderfully told story of The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy. To steal the words of NPR’s reviewer, which are featured on the front cover: “Flournoy’s knockout debut is one of those books that should, by rights, be described as the Great American Novel.” I agree. She is the heir to Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry, an expert on the black family and this particular family and this lost, broken city (Detroit) that still has so much life in it. It’s a ghost story and a family saga and a bunch of love stories, too. Here’s an excerpt for you to enjoy:

Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to brick and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. On frigid winter nights, young mothers walk their fussy babies from room to room, learning where the rooms catch drafts and where the floorboards creak. In the warm damp of summer, fathers sit on porches, sometimes worried and often tired but comforted by the fact that a roof is up there providing shelter. Children smudge up walls with dirty handprints, find nooks to hide their particular treasure, or hide themselves if need be. We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone. Cha-Cha knew his family was no different. The house on Yarrow Street was their sedentary mascot, its crumbling facade the Turner coat of arms. But it disintegrated by the hour. Mold in the basement, asbestos hiding in the walls, a garage stolen. He understood these things pointed to abandonment. He knew he should walk away from the place, let it become one more blasted-out house in a city plagued by them. but what to do with the house and what to do about his mother’s sickness were problems to which Cha-Cha possessed no simple solution. In both cases, his impulse leaned toward preservation, but at what cost?

The next books on my list:

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Americanah – Chimamanda Adichie

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

The Farming of Bones – Edwidge Danticat

If Sons, Then Heirs – Lorene Cary

Jam on the Vine – LaShonda Katrice Barnett

 

close up photo of purple lilac flowers
Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

NONFICTION – QUEER WOMXN EDITION

“Why I Take All My Dates to Olive Garden” by Kristin Arnett.

Kristin Arnett is a lesbian twitter queen and Floridian author. In this hilarious essay, she explains why she takes first dates to Olive Garden: “to chill out and avoid the problems in my life.”

Two people eating means you get three sticks total. I like to think Olive Garden did that on purpose, so that you’re forced to break bread with your date. You must share with each other, touch hands. It’s all very romantic, if romance is deciding who gets to take the bigger share of the carbs. Also, if I eat my first breadstick quick enough, I can pick up the second one before my date even notices it’s missing.

 

“Periodic #2”  by Franny Choi over at Palette Poetry

I continue to be in love with this monthly column from Franny Choi, which this time I read a bit late (in time for my own “monthly column”)

 

“Mattress Shopping” by Em Rowene in Honey and Lime. 

I’m not even going to say anything about this one, because it is so surprising and gorgeous that I want you to discover it for yourself.

 

As always, I’d love to hear what you’re reading this week! 

 

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Sunday Poetry: weakness / strength

Sunday poetry is a new series beginning this Spring! Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

April 28: weakness / strength

Sometimes I think my poetry is weak.

It’s not a commentary on the unique 21st century conundrums of technology and privacy. It doesn’t always deal with cutting-edge social controversies or current events or social justice. Sometimes it does. Sometimes my identity is relevant to the poem. But sometimes I write about waiting for someone to come home, or wanting someone to change; about being alone, about love, about seeing myself in nature. Sometimes I write about vulnerability and grief.

A while ago, I was talking to a friend about getting published. Kind of cool, I thought, to get recognized when all I do is write little love poems.

He stopped me in my tracks. “What could be more important than little love poems?”

 

I have to say I agree. We live in a world where too often simple humanity is seen as weakness, where kindness is seen as an absence of strength rather than an absence of tyranny, where talking about feelings is less important than talking numbers. I want so much to be in a world free of this toxic masculinity, but I still feel doubt that my softness is valuable.

This worry over weakness and strength is found in Elaine Equi’s poem, “Lazy Bones,” recently published in American Poetry Review:

Lazy Bones

Sitting in the waiting room
sucking on the sweet paranoia
of a Shirley Jackson story.

Sitting among silk tulips
and paper roses,

the frosted glass panels
and pale pink walls
of the radiology center.

Then led to a dark cubicle
(politely pornographic?)
for the imaging of my skeleton.

Dave, the tattooed technician
slips a pillow under my knees.

I want to tell him,
“My bones are shy.

I don’t exercise.
I love coffee.

They know they’re weak
and don’t like being photographed.”

 

I was intrigued by the word “weak”, and by the speaker’s advocacy for her bones. She identifies her bones as ‘shy’ as if they are actually humans who don’t like being photographed. The reason given: “they know they’re weak.” The speaker wishes to express this sentiment to Dave, the technician, who is in the position of looking at her (and her bones) and potentially judging them. To stave off the embarrassment of being seen, she wishes to reassure him that she already knows her weaknesses. It’s the same phenomenon of getting up in front of a class to perform a speech and apologizing first: “I know this isn’t very good, but it’s the best I can do.” But the bones do not speak in first person; the speaker wishes to speak on their behalf: “They know they’re weak” (emphasis added). This shows that she feels responsible for their weakness, as we can see from the lines that immediately precede this one: “I don’t exercise / I love coffee.” Here, the speaker is criticizing the actions in her life that have made her bones weak, and therefore critiquing her own character weaknesses as she notices her physical ones.

But she also uses the poem to establish sympathy. Weakness seems allied to softness, gentleness, in the feminine, gentile setting of the waiting room. And she is, after all, here to seek medical help, an act of bravery in my opinion. he speaker must admit that she is weaker than she would like to be, weaker than a healthy person should be, but why should she apologize for that?

This poem seems to suggest that we all have moments when we are weak– we are not always at our peak condition. Sometimes it is because of injury or disease, sometimes because of emotional distress. We also may have moments when we are seen as weak because of our identities, our ages, our gender, our class. We may find embarrassment or judgement in those moments, and may try to avoid it by apologizing or self-deprecating. Instead, we should sympathize with ourselves. It is okay to be soft and vulnerable, and when we feel tired and weak, we should accept the kindness of a pillow gently slid underneath our knees.

Writing about this weakness, these moments of humanity and need, is the role my poetry seems to be serving in my life right now, and in doing so, I think it is making me stronger.

 

Sunday Poetry: short poems

Back from a short hiatus, Sunday Poetry is a new series this spring. Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

April 21: short poems

A student recently talked to me about poetry (first– can I take a moment to think about how amazing it is that teenagers talk to me about how poetry works? And that another student sent me an email with the subject “A poem I wrote but don’t want you to share with anyone”? This life of mine is a treasure).

Okay, back to the question at hand– she was wondering how to write or what to write about now that she’s doing well and she’s in a supportive, healthy relationship. How do we write about joy? She identified that it requires a shift of mindset, and maybe a different way of writing altogether.

This reminded me of The Secret Sisters Tiny Desk Concert in which the sisters mention that now that they’re married and happily settled, they don’t know what to write about anymore.

And I’ve been in this place too. When everything seems fine, there’s nothing too interesting to write about. There’s no pain that needs to be expunged. So, no new poems?

The great thing about poetry (one little great among many many) is that it can be used to notice the smallest moments and not to reflect the overall trajectory or mood of a life. That’s where short poems come in. There are still interesting tensions and contradictions within joy and peace. Here’s one of mine:

how can love happen any other way
but quickly
majestically
like a fast otter surfacing joyfully midstream
twitching its whiskers
shaking water freely
about to dive deep in its search for clams?

I originally wrote a second stanza, about springtime and being in love, but it felt canned. And I’m still toying with the question mark. Is the poem compact enough to viably be one sentence?

So to answer my student – our poetry changes when our lives shift in new directions. Most of my poems until quite recently, have been in the same length range, but I’m trying my hand at shorter poems and longer poem sequences. Maybe this is because I write more regularly, and am more willing to revisit poems. That first length range feels comfortable because it is the stretch of time I need to get something important out. Poetry seems less urgent now, because I can trust that it will be there whenever I need it.

Our poetry may change, but it is still ours.

If We Were Having Coffee…

If we were having coffee, I’d say “Sorry I’ve been away so long!” My last Sunday poetry post was on March 31st. You ask, “Why, what’s up? What’s been going on?” I’d look down and study the handle of my coffee mug and say “Nah, don’t worry about it. I’m here now. I’m okay.”

If we were having coffee, we would have to clink mugs and toast to TWO YEARS of writing poetry. Okay, so I wrote some poetry intermittently before then, but the style in which I write in now, my intensity of purpose, and my willingness to actually show my work to people– all of that was born two years ago when my heart was broken and I decided to write a poem every day for a month. I’m so glad I did.

If we were having coffee, we could take it to-go and walk through my neighborhood. Today I saw daffodils, abundant purple crocuses, a few snow drops, and some mystery stalks poking their heads out of the ground. I’m on a quest to find tulips; do you want to come with me?

April-dresses-in-all-its-trim

If we were having coffee, I’d speak to you of the benefits of self-care. All hail the bralette! All hail the scrunchie! It’s so important to hit the reset button sometimes, whether that means a massage (I got one of those this week and I feel more moisturized than ever before!), yoga, meditation, crappy romantic movies or a soapy TV show (I highly recommend Hart of Dixie), eating whatever you want, or extra sleep. Don’t forget, though, self-care can also be strengthening your will or getting stuff done (adulting! taxes!) and preparing for whatever challenges are going to come next.

If we were having coffee, the subject of the impending AP Test would come up — my kids have been working towards this all year, but now is the exciting time when they actually realize what they’ve learned, and go through the final push to make this big accomplishment! I’m nervous for them, but I’m also so excited. There’s definitely something to be said for a big culminating performance to celebrate the work that’s gone into mastering difficult material. Here we go, May 15th!

If we were having coffee, I’d do a little bit of self-promotion. You can read two of my poems in the Spring issue of borrowed solace (which, by the way, is currently open for submissions). And next week I’ll have another post up at The Aspiring Author Blog. You can read my last one here: Practicing Poetry in case you missed it. There’s a lot of great writing coming from the other contributors on the blog, too.

Have a wonderful rest of your April, Chag Pesach Semeyach to those who celebrate, and Happy Easter too! If you’re writing and living in this world, leave me your updates in the comments!

~ ☕️ ~