What are the ‘Nepantla’ Poets Reading?
Author: Christopher Soto
October 2, 2015
It’s finally arrived! Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color launched Issue #2 on Thursday, September 17th. After publishing Issue #2 we asked our contributors to share with everyone what they’re currently reading! Read below to find out what books the QPOC poetry community is talking about!
I rely on reading many poets that navigate writing on themes of gender, race and sexuality that are similar in ways in which I meet the page. For me this means keeping a roster of books to return to such as Dionne Brand’s No Language is Neutral, Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise and Ocean Vuong’s No to name a few. I’m currently reading Morgan Parker’s Other People’s Comforts Keeps Me Up at Night. I am moved by her words, by the honest inner dialogue that sits in the places where unnerving feelings settle. In her poems I find odes to everyday beauty, mistaken as fluff. I find a similar focus in Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. His work runs thick with moments in which an elusive particularity is named almost precisely:
i’m trying to get
to the awkward flock
of flamingoes soaring
somewhere below my navel
in the back of my throat
or the small house
behind my eyes suddenly
I have been feeling deeply empowered and inspired by the movement of Afrofuturist work lately, in the films of Black Radical Imagination and Samuel Delany’s novel Dhalgren, and through rereading Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. These works provide an outlet for me to imagine possible futures, despite the ways in which we, as people of color, are quieted with waiting. In my near completion of Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness I have been thinking through what he has named “storying” the necessary fictions we must embody for survival as folks on the margin, and how writing can be the practice of writing yourself into existence.
I’m reading Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, translated by Don Mee Choi. I’ve been thinking a lot about literary lineage lately and realized that I know very little about contemporary Korean poetry. Between this book and the Anxiety of Words anthology (also translated and edited by Don Mee Choi), I’m getting a crash course in contemporary poetry by Korean women writers. Kim Hyesoon’s work is wild, surrealist, and delightfully strange. But as a poet who is very aware of the sonic qualities of poetry, it’s been an interesting challenge to read work in which rhythm hasn’t always translated (or perhaps in which conventions of rhythm aren’t recognizable to me). And yet, Kim’s work is strangely recognizable. It’s been a bit like finding a photo of a distant relative and going, “Oh shit, there’s my nose!” Reading her work has made me feel like I’m not only an Asian American poet, but also part of a diaspora of Korean poetics.
Chistopher, first I would like to thank you for including me in the second issue of Nepantla. Second, with the “what you’re reading” that email that you’d requested a few days ago, I have not been able to sit down and write it because I’m trying to help a friend navigate end of life issues as she makes peace with her cancer…. For support in that arena, I’ve re-read Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. I’ve also been reading Trouble Sleeping by Abdul Ali.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout plus Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio, plus There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights by Jason Sokol. I’m on a kick about the structure of race and the actions it protects versus the people it won’t. I dig reading about how certain movements in history went down because it’s just as odd and revolting as when a writer subverts the structure, write a fictitious world-in-which the opposite of history goes down. Also, history itself as an unreliable narrative is something I dig. Fred Moten’s syntax reads like a subversion of memory, and I dig that the most–you can subvert with immense integrity and funk. How he goes “motherfucker I love cars” is a boldness and humor I need to read through all our strange nation’s fool-headed selective memory.
I’m staying with a couple of friends in a room with at least four bookshelves, so I’ve had a lot of fun browsing through their libraries. I’ve spent a lot of time with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion. I just cracked open john mortara’s Some Planet, and started making my way through Fire to Fire, Mark Doty’s new and selected poems. I keep a little mobile library with me which consists of some e-books, some audio books, and whatever I can pack between my backpack and a small cardboard box I keep in my car. Of those books, I’m turning most often to work that helps me think through grief, specifically Kevin Young’s Book of Hours. I’m also listening to an audio book of The Light of the World, which is great because I get to fall asleep having conversations with Elizabeth Alexander and then have vivid dreams that less often pivot around grief and more often help to restore my faith in the possibility of cosmic love. Then there’s Ross Gay. I’m maybe always reading Ross Gay. I’ve been consulting Lace & Pyrite, the letters between Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, as I try keep up my own burgeoning letter writing practice. And of course, I can’t stop reading Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude for the way the poems can hold love and joy and gratitude and grief and anger simultaneously and without contradiction.
Right now, I’m not reading much of anything because I’m trying to keep my mind clean, trying to listen to myself. Its been murky lately so I’m trying to push away other people’s voices. Mostly what I have been doing is “The Artists Way,” a twelve-week course for artists. It’s been really helpful for me in distinguishing the difference between false confidence and real confidence. I have also been teaching myself Urdu, which I think is a really important thing for me in terms of getting back in touch with my heritage and family and resisting assimilation into America. Its been really fun to do it–I’ve spent many years being daunted by the prospect of teaching myself a new language. But I just decided that I didn’t care anymore and have been trying and its been really rewarding. I am also beyond excited for Nate Marshall’s new book, Wild Hundreds.
After reading Elizabeth Alexander’s Light of the World, I became really interested in focusing on gratitude for “small” things, and the details of people I love, which turned into paying more attention to and reading about nature. That keeps me re-reading Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude while working through Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s books. Right now I’m reading her second collection, Song. Finally, I really dig Tommye Blount’s work so I spend a considerable amount of time searching the internet for and (re)reading his interviews and poems.
Jess X. Chen
Right now, I’m reading When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz, this essay Beginnings: New York by Ocean Vuong, Liliths Brood by Octavia Butler. I also am reading a lot about the environmental issues affecting the Navajo Reservation right now such as the gold mine spillage in the Colorado River, the uranium mines polluting the water sources, animal relocation, loss of sacred land, and the slaughtering of their wild horses.
What I find myself reading is often related to what’s on the horizon for Letras Latinas. On October 1, in Chicago, the most recent winners of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize, respectively, are appearing together at the Poetry Foundation (Chicago folk, come on out!). I have agreed to introduce them. Therefore, I’m currently re-reading Furious Dusk by David Campos (University of Notre Dame Press). I have also just begun The Gravedigger’s Archaeology by William Archila (Red Hen Press). I have also just begun, on Kindle, Curtains? : The Future of the Arts in America by Michael M. Kaiser. Kaiser was put on my radar a few years ago by Sandra Cisneros. He had requested to meet with her during a visit to San Antonio. They met, after which she read his current book at the time, The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations and recommended it to anyone who would listen, including me. I read it and found it immensely useful—particularly as I was forging my own philosophy as a literary arts administrator.
Currently, I’ve been making my way through Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in America by Karen and Barbara Fields. It deals urgently with the everyday. It traces race back to its ideological origin, racism, and has reminded me of the all the sinister logical maneuvering American’s use–with our every breathe–to justify anti-blackness. When that has both enlightened and exhausted one part of my brain, I’ve been re-reading Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds. It’s a book about divorce, but it’s also a book about intimacy over time: the physical nature of what it means to be both literally and emotionally proximate with someone or something else. Olds is a brilliant storyteller and when I come back to her poems they always feel like gifts. Finally, I’ve been moving over the last few days and usually when I move, I re-read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. Simply put, that book saves me.
This week, I’m thinking about how my writing practice is an act of decolonization. To support this, I’m reading Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores, translated by Jen Hofer, Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us, Make/Shift’s latest interview with Rafa Esparza, and Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas.
There are fourteen books on my red desk right now. Yes, I counted. And the pile will continue to get taller. Why? Because not only am I in graduate school, but I have always been one of those readers that likes to have someone else’s work around me when I work. There are a couple of books I am enjoying at the moment and are feeding me as I write new poems every week. Rodrigo Toscano’s Deck of Deeds has me engaged in the politics and the use of Spanish titles. George Steiner’s iconic After Babel has me redefining my own theory of translation and looking closely at translations currently gaining momentum. Randomly, almost weekly, I will pick up Juan Felipe Herrera, Christopher Buckley, Christopher Abani, Alba-Cruz Hacker, Octavio Paz, Rigoberto Gonzalez, and Sandra Cisneros, among other writers that have inspired me through out my years. For me, it is about learning something new, or re-learning, and trying to take more risks. These writers remind me of why I fell in love with poetry. To end on a popular note, I do spend quiet some time online, reading anything of interest to me. Thank you Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Yahoo! Just Read It.
I am teaching right now, so most of my reading is associated with that class. That said, I am reading Jen Bervin’s Nets, Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager (can you tell we are doing something about erasures?…), and several texts about computer poetry and digital poetics. As far as reading for pleasure (which does happen!) I am reading the Troubling the Line anthology, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and a book of essays about accelerationism and another about hyperobjects. I also just finished Angie Estes’s Enchantee and Percival Everett’s Grand Canyon, Inc.
I am currently not reading novels or poetry, but spend my time reading a lot of material in medical books about surgical instruments, anatomy and physiology and microbiology. I have returned to school to study surgical technology, so there’s a lot of interesting material on instrument technique, the body, and patient care.
A poet that hasn’t been reading very much poetry lately: that’s where I’m at. I work at a literacy organization that services youth of color, and our work is to incite critical thinking through facilitating literature that reflects their lived experiences. The job has me reading all week, and the departure from my familiar theory-based reading into YA lit has been exciting and refreshing. I can’t tell you how tired I am of language of the supposed celebrated academia. When Kambia Elaine Flew in From Neptune by Lori Aurelia Williams is an incredible story of a tender and fiery friendship between two young girls in a Houston neighborhood. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero tells the story of Gabi, a first gen high school senior navigating her new found sexuality and a troubled relationship with her father, all the while keeping up with college applications and understanding the cultural differences between her traditional mother and her ache for independence. Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon is a love story told through letters between Antonio and Natasha, profiling their decade long correspondence while Antonio is incarcerated. The book is able to balance a very real, very deep relationship between two youth growing into themselves and understanding their love and lust, while pointing out the prison industrial complex and it’s impact on one’s mental health, family and larger policy. All three are new favorites of mine.