Dispatches | April 02, 2014
Best of AWP14 SWAG
By Anne Barngrover
One of my favorite parts of the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference is always the generous armloads of swag I get to come home with afterwards: literary journals, magnets, mini notebook pads, pens, fortune cookies and saltwater taffy, and, of course, books of poetry. While at AWP14 in Seattle, I perused the enormous book fair for the most exciting new poetry books of 2014. Some books were long-anticipated and some were surprises, and I have been savoring them all in the weeks since I’ve returned to Missouri.
In no particular order—and in honor of the first week of National Poetry Month—here are the top five books I brought home from AWP14:
1. Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, Southern Illinois University Press
Winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry contest, Seam is described by US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey as “a beautiful and necessary book” with a “brave and unflinching vision.” Its driving force is outlined in the epigraph of the powerful first poem, “1971”:
On March 26, 1971, West Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel who were demanding separation of the East from the West. The war resulted in a secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi sources, two hundred thousand women were raped, and over 3 million people were killed.
In her fierce and courageous debut, Faizullah intertwines words from the birangona women themselves (a Bangladeshi word that is translated as “war heroines,” although they were usually ostracized from their families and communities) and the speaker’s own coming to terms with how “the country of her birth/ became a veined geography inside// you, another body inside your own.”
The bravery and vulnerability of this stunning first collection took my breath away as the speaker asserts in the poem “The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief”: “Because you/ can’t reassure me I have/ the right to ask anything// of women whose bodies won’t/ ever again be their own.” Seam ends, though, with a line of hope: “The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed/ lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned/ my face toward it.” I am excited to read more from this poet who is steadfast in her search for the truth even in the most unimaginably dark places.
You can read an interview with Faizullah about Seam at The Paris Review.
2. Thieves in the Afterlife by Kendra DeColo, Saturnalia Books
Chosen by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, each poem in this debut collection fizzles and crackles with such energy you expect the book to burst into flames in your hands. It exposes a world that “belongs to the panty-less/ and unshaved” “where the road was a ripped/ vein and the night bled oil/ and the bodies swallowed up/ in the green music.” DeColo employs a language you can sink your teeth into, full of sex and grit and color, of “what is too precious/ to be said aloud,/ what is so beautiful it’s a sin.”
More than that, though, I read Thieves in the Afterlife as a lush, unabashed ode to female desire, pushing the boundaries of what women are allowed to say. The book opens with the first poem, “Anthem,” that begins with the words “I Heart Pussy,” and ends with the yearning “to love myself/ the way a match combusts// in a pocket.” And yet, the speaker knows that it’s not enough to simply voice this longing in a world where female desire is still considered taboo. The emotional heart of this book rings out in the lines: “It’s not enough to save a body/ from darkness but teach one to shine.”
You can check out Kendra DeColo and more of her work on her website.
3. The Tulip-Flame by Chloe Honum, Cleveland State University Poetry Center
I loved this book. I loved these poems. Not just appreciated, admired, and were inspired by them, but loved. Shrouded in mist, set in an eternal spring where moths collide with throats and ballerinas never turn around, they pay homage to beauty amidst the overwhelming sensations of grief and loss. Even as these poems meditate on melancholy and sorrow, they expose a world that glimmers with unexpected musicality. The speaker’s senses here are so sharp, so finely tuned, nothing is ever what it seems. A house becomes “a wet coat/ we couldn’t put back on,” an absence of voice, “a bowl/ of very still water,” the pinch of hunger “a balloon tied to your wrist,” birds “white scarves in the wind,” “wet handkerchiefs,” “their wings turning like oars.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith writes in the introduction to Honum’s book, which won the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, “Like a dancer, or like a dance, The Tulip-Flame is expertly wrought, built upon muscle and instinct and crafted into something that feels effortless and spontaneous.” This is a book I know I will return to again and again for comfort, beauty, music, and inspiration.
4. Abide by Jake Adam York, Southern Illinois University Press
What can I say about York’s final book, published posthumously a little over a year after his untimely death, that will do justice to its brilliance, beauty, and bravery? I didn’t know if anything could top Persons Unknown, which was my previous favorite of his books, but in Abide I felt the full weight and emotional resonance of York’s life and work, and it left me breathless. Did this book mean so much to me because I could feel the tragedy of his death pressing on it? Absolutely. Is this a fair critique? I don’t know. All I know for now is that I’m not done being amazed by this collection. So, instead, I’ll just leave you with the title poem from Abide, a book with a glowing white cover where the rest were black, and a book that’s filled with elegies, the blues, and the powerful work of one man’s life:
Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees, forgive me the few
syllables of the autumn crickets,
the year’s last firefly winking
like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds,
if I forget the hour, if I forget
the day as the evening star
pours out its whiskey over the gravel
and asphalt I’ve walked
for years alone, if I startle
when you put your hand in mine,
if I wonder how long your light
has taken to reach me here.
5. The Keys to the Jail by Keetje Kuipers, BOA Editions
I’ll be the first to admit—I totally fan-girled over Keetje Kuipers after her University of Oregon alumni reading at AWP. I discovered Kuipers’ work back in 2011 when I stumbled on one of her poems on Verse Daily, and her first book, Beautiful in the Mouth, has remained one of my favorite contemporary poetry books ever. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to devour her second collection, The Keys to the Jail, also out with BOA Editions.
Elyse Fenton writes of Kuipers’ second collection, “These poems are not afraid to feel, not afraid of desire or beauty or the inevitability of their respective undoings.” In an age where everything feels like it’s layered under fifty cloaks of irony, Kuipers’ poems to me have always felt like the real deal. They take place in the actual world; they have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Kuipers’ work has meant so much to me for this reason and more—she doesn’t gussy up heartache but looks at it straight-on with fear, sure, but fear that is recognized and whole. She is a poet, first and foremost, of the heart.
The poems in The Keys to the Jail are wolf-strong, rooted in “the cold hassocks of snow-filled grasses” that elk leave behind, in the place where “The ocean is a fist, inside of which I/ am allowed to be heartbroken,” where along the road semis “make the dead/ bird’s feathers fly again, the deer’s town// leap from the gravel of the road.” They inhabit a place where, ultimately, the speaker, with all her full-hearted desires and flaws, “know[s]/ who you are, and goodbye (goodbye!) is forever.”
You can check out more about Kuipers and her website here.
I hope you check out these five fine books of poetry and enjoy them as much as I did. Happy reading!
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