salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

saltSelf-published in September of 2013, Nayyirah Waheed’s salt. has become one of the most important and influential poetry collections in recent memory.  A quick glance at any poetry best-seller list reveals a legion of admirers and imitators, ranging from Rupi Kaur’s sublime Milk and Honey to crass cash-ins like The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace.

Waheed’s poetry deals with themes like exile, racism, love, sexuality, womanhood and radical struggle.  She writes in a deceptively accessible voice which actually causes the reader to slow down and savor the “salt” dissolved in each poem.  Many of the poems are quite brief, like teaspoons of tears, sweat, or seawater, each as complete and unique as a fingerprint.

Formalistically, Waheed works to subvert and upend traditional poetry hierarchies by casting each piece in a uniform lowercase free of the coercion of punctuation marks, placing her titles at the end of the poems to neutralize the privilege and the guidance they invisibly provide when they traditionally  “head” a piece of writing.  Page after page, the reader encounters the body of the words before the titles which seek to frame and situate them, thereby reducing the title’s naming power to a retroactive re-reading that makes it always come too late to contain the text it is meant to master.  This is more than just an aesthetic strategy, as one of Waheed’s key concerns is challenging toxic, patriarchal writing practices which minimize emotional and embodied experience in favor of an invented and disengaged transcendence; here, the thought-bubble of the head rises to the surface only after the body has plumbed the depths.

Anyone interested in understanding the current popularity of contemporary poetry is advised to start here.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature edited by John Branscum & Wayne Thomas

The Appalachian Mountain region and its people have been a powerful influence on American literature. The area is an anomaly in the eastern part of the country – a placered holler largely rural, with a culture somewhat different from the mainstream. Its very uniqueness makes the mountain region fertile ground to be written about.

And write they do, here in Red Holler, a kaleidoscope of fiction, poetry, essays and graphic writings by a coterie of individuals who provide a gritty face to latter-day Appalachian literature. Most of the writers here are largely unknown, at least to me, although both Ron Rash and Dennis Covington have contributions here. Go past these two (although their story and essay are worth reading); there’s some good writing in Red Holler, and it shows the varieties of viewpoints that are manifest in Appalachia today – white, black, gay, straight, or poverty-stricken.

Since it’s an anthology, Red Holler isn’t something that you have to finish in one sitting. You can go through a story or essay, cut through a few poems, and then put it down for another time – just the ticket for these busy times when reading a whole novel is out of the question.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Happy World Poetry Day!

poetry1Today 

today – March 21st – is

World Poetry Day, didcha know?

Established by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1999, the purpose of celebrating today is:

“to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world” and, as the UNESCO session declaring the day proclaims, to “give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements.”

Savvy! I’ll second that sentiment and reason for the season ;-}

Declared Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of Unesco in his message on the occasion of World Poetry Day: Poetry “designs the contours of possible forms of dialogue among cultures, histories and memories.” […] “Ensuring the promotion and safegaurding of these forms of exchange and transfer – such could be the focus of this world day which, placed at the service of our creative diversity, can I hope nurture and renew the ability of each and everyone of us to understand the cultural plurality of the world.”

Amen, my fellow homo sapiens. Power to the pen, the truth, and creativity in diversity!

enthusiastically & in peace, jonah meyer

The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter

*And just in time for upcoming National Poetry Month, in April!  boy-who-loved

     For young readers (and/or parents, teachers, caregivers) who hone a passionate predilection for spry, savory and scrumptious tales, which with real gusto (and giggles galore) celebrate the often-tantalizing (if not tintinnabulating) pulsing rhapsody of the harmoniously luscious poetry of WORDS, then have I got a stirring and swirling, exultant children’s picture book for you.

     Mellifluous!

     This story of young Selig – a word collector in both the literal and metaphorical sense – is chockablock with words, oh! delicious words. Celebrating the sounds, the tastes, the thoughts, and the feel of new words with which our young poet-hero comes into contact throughout this fascinating, full-of-cheer and life-embracing gem of a book, The Boy Who Loved Words is truly a celebration of the transformative power inherent in words … a festival-exercise saluting not only their intrinsic beauty – especially when strung together such as through the craft of poem-making – but also the mysterious ability in which words can, often unexpectedly, bring people together, “lucky people [who] have discovered and delighted in them.”

     Yes, the book is a bit ‘overdone,’ perchance teetering on that which one might describe as over-the-top ‘cheesiness,’ but hey – if the purpose here is to entice young readers with an accessible, artfully rendered story, simple enough in its celebration of language and a main character’s unyielding enthusiasm in sharing those words with others in his midst, then one would be hard-pressed to find, I dare suggest, a children’s book on par with Schotter’s insofar as unbridled inspiration borne of Wordsworth’s (Selig’s classmate-given nickname) boundless imagination and literary zeal.

     Plus, what other picture books out there feature a thickly Yiddish-accented Genie (“Djinn“) who escapes from a vase one evening at an unusual emporium, recognizing the young wordlover’s gift, and inspiring his life search for a mission in which to utilize this unique passion. For that matter, how many titles out there feature carefully collected words strewn in treetops, later to sprinkle down as poems – or dreams of scrumptious home-baked macaroons fresh from Mama’s kitchen?

     I do, with whole-hearted proclamation and exultant gusto, recommend this book for any lover of words, child and adult alike. Even taken on its own, the illustrations by Giselle Potter are a sight to behold. I enjoy the fashion in which Selig’s words, like organic ornamental design right at home among these pages, become part of the very landscape itself: an effect one must see to truly appreciate (here, words only do not do it justice).

     What are some books (children’s especially) others of you might recommend in the realm of playfulness of language and passion for vocabulary?

(Jonah Meyer, Circulation Department, Central Library)

Langston Hughes (Poetry for Young People series) edited and with introduction by Arnold Rampersad & David Roessel; illustrations by Benny Andrews

“There are words like Freedom / Sweet and wonderful to say. / On my heartstrings freedom sings / All day everyday.”

“There are words like Liberty / That almost make me cry. / If you had known what I know / You would know why.”

     As one of more than 25 poems – or parts of poems – included which span the groundbreaking literaryLangston  career of one James Langston Hughes, pieces like the above ‘Words Like Freedom, ‘ simple enough in its message, this wonderful children’s picture book has proven a pleasure to peruse – over and over again. One of more than two dozen titles in the Poetry for Young People series, this treasure of a book – complete with bold, colorful artwork by the accomplished illustrator – indeed fills its niche completely, coherently, and with a real sense of passion and purpose.

As a writer myself, and more specifically a poet who has led workshops and other programming on poetry and poem-crafting for children and adults alike, I really appreciate the value of children’s literature such as this piece, where the focused intent can be seen as introducing young people to the craft of such varied and colorful ranges of poetry, in general, with emphasis on individual poets, specifically – their background (brief introductory bio included), the life experiences that have shaped each individual artist, and an age-appropriate “examination” of the circumstances – social, economic, historical, personality – of each poet included in the series. A sampling of others would reveal such motley personalities as Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Edward Lear, Edna St Vincent Millay, Edgar Allan Poe, Carl Sandburg, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Whitman and Wordsworth. I simply cannot say enough about how much I enjoy the Poetry for Young People series – and how, years later, as I’m going back and re-reading a number of the titles – such as my current Langston Hughes – I would indeed highly recommend any and all that are available for checkout here at the library.  Whether in aiding oneself with a poetry program, or as curriculum tie-in to the spoken and/or written arts; whether as a welcome tool to precisely fit the need in introducing a group of children to some of the rather significant poets in America’s historical, modern and contemporary schools of literary tradition(s); even simply as a beautifully-attractive, well-conceived and often poignant introduction to a number of poets who are or have been ‘on the scene,’ as it were, to share with one’s own child (or inner child, yes?); this series, I’d be willing to bet, is sure to please even the most “poetry-skeptic” among us. 

And why?  Within the roughly 45 pages of each picture book, not only are the sampling of poems presented in a rather logical order – in helping tell the story of WHO the poet is and WHY he/she explores such themes and HOW, stylistically, that process is undertaken; the reader simultaneously is treated to a healthy dose of the words borne from such inspired imaginations, with each individual poet’s edition arranged and introduced by scholars in the field who, by very nature of their work and focus of research, are uniquely qualified to offer tasty insight into the significance of particular poems, the unique motifs and – as in the case of L. Hughes – the background material that benefits the young reader in mentally “rounding-out” just where the writer is coming from.

A strong believer in, for example, the struggle of African-Americans (indeed the larger-scale issues of social justice for all) at a time when much of the gains now enjoyed had not yet realized fruition, as this was decades before the civil rights movement in our country, without a doubt such issues are examined by Hughes’ impressive body of work – whether it be his poetry, prose, journals, memoirs, etc.  And so here, in the form of a highly accessible children’s picture book, these words and poems and stories are made more brilliantly poignant, treating the reader to gorgeous illustrations which co-exist on the page alongside the poems, resulting in a generous offering of multi-sensory word-meets-image and image-compliments-word.

     I could doubtless go on and on waxing poetic (perchance already have?) on the multitudinous merits of this series in filling that gap which might exist in the consciousness of children and young people in our lives when it comes to instilling a true appreciation for such seminal works as those of Hughes – and others before and since – but suffice it to say: Though many of us adults might already have an appreciation for and (at least) rudimentary understanding of such poetic giants as Hughes, the main point herein is that this title (and others like it in focus) can and should serve as a catalyst for introducing our little ones to such beautiful, earnest, straightforward words and concepts as freedom, liberty, Weary Blues and Homesick Blues, Dream Keeper and I Dream a World, where “I, too, sing America / the darker brother / They send…to eat in the kitchen / When company comes” … who nevertheless laughs, eats well and grows strong. Who is beautiful and shall tomorrow be at the table … whose people, laden with so many struggles, hardships and absolute cruelties, have kept the dream alive, through the social and cultural glue that has incorporated (among other phenomena) the spirituals, the blues, jazz, and a sense of community as perhaps best exemplified by those artists (and not only poets, to be sure) of the Harlem Renaissance, upon whom Hughes drew so much of his inspiration and was shaped as a writer and as a human being.

Perhaps it’s a strange occurrence: a book such as this, which undoubtedly is first and foremost a children’s picture book, focusing on a single poet of the last century in America – which at the same time delves into such meaningful and complex realms as social, political, cultural, linguistic, and economic issues as they relate to the American experiences of justice and injustice … a landscape at times full of hot jazzy music; other times lamentation for the dread of downtrodden reality.

(Jonah Meyer, Circulation Department)

Redneck Haiku/Double-wide Edition by Mary K. Witte

RedneckFor would-be versifiers, writing haiku can be a rewarding early attempt at poetry.  The challenge with writing haiku is keeping within the 5-7-5 syllable structure.  It’s easier (supposedly) to write haiku in its original context of Japanese, which captures a more concise idea within the structure.  With the English language, the words are shorter and as such, when you try to conform to the 5-7-5 structure, sometimes the poem loses its conciseness.  Often, haiku in English is written in fewer syllables to convey the idea more concisely.  However, I am a stubborn cuss, and stick to the tried and true 5-7-5 when I write it.

The author of this collection sticks to this form as well, with hilarious results.  I first “met” this book about three years ago, and never fail to (achingly) laugh at its tongue-in-cheek humor.  Not only that – reading the book sparked my interest for haiku and the great things one can do with this poetic form.  Haiku writers usually concern themselves with nature and such; in this collection, beer drinking, deer hunting, and trailers are the subjects of Witte’s wit. 

If you offend easily, this might not be the collection of verse you desire.  However, if you want to read something fresh and appreciate Foxworthy-esque laughs (although I think Witte does it better), read on – and be prepared for your sides to hurt.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems by Fred Chappell

This is one of my favorite books of poetry.  I love it because Fred Chappell is a local author, and often his imagery includes places that I know — such as Walker Avenue (mentioned in this book) or the mountains of Western North Carolina (the setting of some of his novels).  I don’t claim to have read this Spring_garden book from cover to cover.  I don’t have the attention span for that.  I just keep coming back to this book from time to time and finding another gorgeous work of art that is one of his poems inside.  Each time I return to the book, I reread the poems that I have read before, savor them — greet them like old friends and smile.  Then I seek out a few new poems to enjoy.  I may finish this book one day, but what’s the rush?  Chappell’s poems have such rich and glorious imagery in them with allusions to things academic sprinkled throughout.  But don’t think he’s snooty about his knowledge. No. He brings the real world that everyone knows into his poems and intertwines it with those allusions to things some of us will never study — juxtaposing the erudite with the universal. Not only that, but his mischievous sense of humor breaks up seemingly serious subjects throughout.   Spring Garden is like a “greatest hits” of Fred Chappell because it includes poems from six of his previous collections plus 30 new poems.  You know how you can play a song over and over again on a CD because you just can’t get enough of it?  Well, that is how I feel about the poem “Narcissus and Echo” that is in this collection.  I have never seen a poem crafted in the manner of this one, sort of a poem within a poem.  And the imagery, the rhythm and feeling of it when read aloud leave me in awe — spellbound.

(Heidi Schachtschneider, Information Services)