Franny Choi’s book-length collection of poetry, Soft Science, explores queer, Asian American femininity through the lens of robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence. As she notes in this interview, “this book is a study of softness,” exploring feeling, vulnerability, and desire. How can you be tender and still survive in a hard and violent world? What does it mean to have desire when you yourself are made into an object of desire? What does it mean to have a body that bears the weight of history? Choi’s poetry contemplates such questions through the technology of poetic form.
Here is a little snippet from our discussion, in which Choi discusses the idea of speaking for the voiceless:
“Early in my writing career, I was really struck by the concept of being a voice for the voiceless. I think this has to do with being a young activist kid and realizing that having the ability to write and speak in a way that moved people was a privilege, and [I had] a desire to use that privledge for good. I think not that long after I encountered this concept it started to feel icky to want to speak for people that have mostly been called voiceless but aren’t — and [it became] much more important to highlight those voices rather than speaking for them.
For someone who is politically minded and writer and is interested in the craft of persona work, I think it makes for a difficult space to know how to operate in, you know. So, I think that the ways I’ve tried to — at least in this book — manage that have been to kind of relocate the voiceless as a populace within myself, like what are the parts of me that feel unspoken for or unable to explain themselves through normal language. There’s a lot that is unspeakable within all of us. For me, I feel my job as a poet is to try to use poetry to use poetry to navigate those spaces.“
You can listen to the interview here or on the podcast app of your choice.
Hi, lovelies. Here’s my month in books, movies, games, and podcasts.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was my favorite read of the month. Set in Nigeria, the story focuses on two sisters — one is who alluringly beautiful and has a tendency to kill her boyfriends, and the other who is a nurse and is often left with cleaning up the mess. At the heart of this novel and what makes it so compelling — is how it addresses the complexities of sisterhood, with its blend of frustration, jealousy, anger, compassion, and love. Sisters, I just want you to know, I’d help you clean up your messes, too.
Another great read this month was Rivers Solomon’s The Deep, which has a fascinating genesis, as it is based on a song called “The Deep” from experimental hip-hop group Clipping. The story is about a community of mermaids living at the bottom of the ocean. A young mermaid, Yetu, carries all of the memories of her people so that they don’t have to be burdened by their weight. Among these memories is the knowledge that their people are the children of African slaves thrown overboard from the ships that were transporting them to America. The horrors of these memories are tearing Yetu apart, driving her to try to find a way to escape them. It’s a powerful novella, which looks into how our history defines us and considers its value if it’s so heavy.
I also read two stunning poetry collections last month. Soft Science by Franny Choi is a gorgeous book-length collection, which explores queer, Asian American femininity through the lens of robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence. Kerrin McCadden’s chapbook, Keep This to Yourself, is a stunning examination of addiction, reflecting the mix of emotions — compassion, frustration, anger, and sorrow — of watching someone go through it.
As I mentioned top ten fiction books list, I read 55 books in 2019 — of these 26 were collections of poetry. This large uptick in poetry reading is largely impacted by the spotlight and podcast interviews that I’ve been putting out over the past year.
I’ve read so many amazing poetry books last year and I hate to leave any one out — but sometimes a collection just resonate with where your at in any given moment. These are some of the poetry books and chapbooks that spoke to me this year (in no particular order).
Mary Shelley Makes a Monster by Octavia Cade (Aqueduct Press)
As the title suggests, Mary Shelley does indeed make a monster, crafting it out of the remnants of her own heartbreak and sorrow. Abandoned and alone after her death, the monster searches for someone to fill her place. Its journey carries it across continents and time, visiting other female authors throughout the decades — Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Octavia Butler, and others. These poems are a beautifully moving examination of the eccentricities of authors and how monsters reflect ourselves.
Locus by Jason Bayani (Omnidawn)
Drawing on his heritage and cultural experience, Bayani delves into the fragmented identities of Pilipinx Americans. Blending memoir and lyricism and inspired by hip-hop and DJ culture, these poems do powerful work in recovering the voices of silenced communities, reflecting on the importance of family and history in understanding oneself. (Podcast interview.)
Brute by Emily Skaja (Graywolf Press)
Winner of the Walt Whitman Award, Emily Skaja’s Brute is a stunning collection of poetry that navigates the dark corridors found at the end of an abusive relationship. Her poetry considers the intersections of both love and violence, evoking a range of emotional experiences — ranging from sorrow and loss to rage, guilt, hope, self discovery, and reinvention. One of the many things I love about this collection is the way the poems reflect the present moment — ripe of cell phones, social media, and technologies that shift the way humans interact with each other — while maintaining a mythic quality, with the speaker feeling like a character struggling to survive in a surreal fairy tale world just waiting to eat her up. (Podcast interview.)
Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned by Sara Ryan (Porkbelly Press)
This chapbook of poems about taxidermy dives into the liminal space between the living and dead, exploring the nature of body down to the bone. Footnotes intricately offer additional layers to the poetry, providing an expanded philosophical look at the art of preservation. (Spotlight interview.)
Oculus by Sally Wen Mao (Graywolf Press)
Pop culture blends with technology to examine how we reveal ourselves, how we see each other, and the power structures involved in who gets to tell the story. One series of poems is written from the perspective of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, who time travels her way through the history and future of cinema. Through the eyes of Wong, Mao considers the portrayals of Asian characters in movies, from Bruce Lee to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sixteen Candles. (Podcast interview.)
As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams (Orison Books)
The poems in this collection present a familiar world full of burnings carried out on both the grand and intimate scale. Newspaper-like columns of prose poetry in his work provide a social critique of violence in American culture, while working within the boundaries of self, family, and the natural world. The book permeates an apocalyptic tension, but what makes it so great is the way in which his poems envision the kind of fires that not only provide destruction but also illuminate a spark of hope. (Podcast interview.)
Death by Sex Machine by Franny Choi (Sibling Rivalry Press)
In this stunning chapbook, Choi examines her own experience as a queer Asian American femme through the lens of robots, androids, and AI. There’s a beautiful combination of hard science and tender intimacy expressed in her lyrical work as she delves into what it means to have a body.
The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes by Sara Tantlinger (Rooster Republic)
Horror poetry can be profoundly chilling. Tantlinger’s collection blends fact and supposition to relate the life and times of the man thought to be America’s first serial killer. The poems are individually visceral, while coming together as a whole to provide a fascinating narrative arc. (Podcast interview.)
all this can be yours by Isobel O’Hare (University of Hell Press)
O’Hare uses erasure poetry (the act of erasing or crossing out another text to discover a poem) as a dynamic tool to reexamine a multitude of celebrity sexual assault apologies that came out during the #MeToo movement. These poems are fierce explorations of how the men (and some women) making these apologies try to evade their own culpability. (Podcast interview.)
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)
This justifiably lauded collection of poetry and essays offers an unflinching look at the everyday realities of racism in America, with the second person narration drawing the reader directly into the experience. The prose poetry and essay styles combined with art make for a powerful and necessary read.
What were some of your favorite poems, poets, or poetry books from last year?
Hi, lovelies. Here’s my month in books, movies, games, and podcasts.
I really enjoyed The RavenTower by Ann Leckie (which I discussed here), a beautiful and fascinating fantasy novel about a world in which gods are able to directly interact with humanity and all the power structures that come from such interactions.
Another phenomenal read was The Book of the Unnamed Midwifeby Meg Elison. The story is a set in an apocalyptic world in which the population has been decimated by an illness that was particularly hard on women and children. The result is a world in which children are nonexistent, women are rare, and most men rove around in gangs claiming the few women left as slaves. The midwife — whose diaries have been preserved by a future society — survives by pretending to be a male and issues what little help she can to the women she meets in the form of contraceptives and medical care.
There is a certain bleakness that tends to come out of this kind of storyline — much of the worst of humanity is revealed. And yet, this book doesn’t fully dwell there. For all the awful things that happen, there are people who are trying to help or at the very least trying to just survive without doing harm. Interesting cultural structures crop up, which reverse power roles and people are capable of trust and be good to one another, if they try hard enough. This is, in the end, a story of hope in a brutal world — and it moved me to tears several times. I loved it.
I also read a lot of poetry this month. One of my favorites was Locus by Jason Bayani, which draws on his heritage and cultural experience to delve into the fragmented identities of Pilipinx Americans. Blending memoir and lyricism and inspired by hip-hop and DJ culture, these poems do powerful work in recovering the voices of silenced communities, reflecting on the importance of family and community in tying us to ourselves.
I met Bayani at a reading he was doing and was fortunate to be able to have a moving conversation with him for the New Books in Poetry podcast, which I should be able to share soon.