Purchased: Harvard Book Store, 2018.
Recommended By: Seeing Chen Chen feature at The Boston Poetry Slam at The Cantab Lounge . So, technically, recommended by Cantab Booking Guru, Cassandra DeAlba.
Pages Of Poetry: 73
Recommended For: Anyone looking for confessional poems that go deeper than just the narrator's experience. Chen Chen is really talented at using specificic, very personal stories to evoke ... I don't want to say empathy, it's deeper than that ... a shared experience in readers/audiences, even if the reader/listener hasn't had precisely the same experience, there is an overwhelming I Know That feeling, whether it's pain, joy, frustration, or some more complicated emotion.
A couple of weeks ago . I read about yet another old . white . academic nobody . going after a younger . not white poet . for not being A Real Poet . for not writing American Poetry . and I went to my bookshelf to see how someone could be so completely wrong . about a person . about an art form
I don't know what's more . American . than Chen Chen's book . When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities . A set of mainly confessional free verse . about trying to fit in . What the fuck . is more American than this experience ? Being torn down for the trivial differences . in a narrative about feeling like one doesn't belong . anywhere . Isn't this exactly The America we are all living in . in the twenty-first century ? Trying to just be a human . a self . while a bunch of almost always old . almost always white . almost always people . try and tell you that your experience isn't as important . as the Friends reruns they imagine their life was . or whatever fake ass housewives of a terrible city is currently playing on cable . which only Boomers are still watching . at this point . But even those shows are mostly about trying to fit in . right ? Why else bother ?
I don't want to die . But I'm afraid of being old . and white . at the same time . I was young and white once . It wasn't my best look . I said some bullshit . when trying to say the right things . So sometimes when I was saying the right things . people still heard the bullshit
I find no bullshit in Chen Chen's writing . because I get no sense that Chen Chen is trying to convince me of anything . There is no You Folks Won't Believe What Happened To Me . There is only what happened . You . the reader . do the work of taking meaning from the experiences . but it doesn't feel like work
Chen Chen's poetry isn't homework reading . isn't . let me take my ritalin so I can get through this . poetry . It is a book you want to read in chunks . and put down for a while . and pick it back up . knowing you won't have to struggle to get back into the collection . you'll always want more . You'll wish the book was longer
1. For I Will Do/Undo What Was Done/Undone To Me. If there were ever a time to be nationalist, it's not right now. Not just in America, but anywhere. Now is not a time for flags and propoganda. It is a time for compassion and surviving, and helping others survive. What, besides a nation, would you pledge your allegiance to? It can be an idea, a landmark, an institution, your job, a food. Not a person. A dog would be fine. A cat or a lizard. A deer or a goldfish. Feral or domesticated. Not a person, though. People are as trustworthy as nations.
2. In This Economy. Start your poem by writing a personal ad for something other than romance. A job, a roommate, a set of bookshelves, then start to digress from the personals format until you are just focused on why you want this thing, and how you hope to achieve it. Let the poem go so wide afield of the original concept that you can theoretically go back and cut out the personal ad aspect and still have an amazing poem.
3. Night Falls Like A Button. Tell your readers about your sleeping habit using as many images, and as few emotional adverbs and adjectives as possible.
4. Things Stuck In Other Things Where They Don't Belong. Find a picture of a friend or relative in an unusual place for them, doing something out of character. Talk about why it is out of character for them. Then put yourself somewhere in the picture. Do you make sense there? Why or why not?
5. Chapter VIII. One time, my current boyfriend destroyed me in Scrabble, partially because he played the word "faggot" on a triple word score. We don't play Scrabble anymore. Start a poem with a story about playing a board game or a video game, something where an argument occured. How was it resolved? If it was.
I've read this book at least three times through since I bought it in 2018. I'll definitely be reading it again. It's another book that I would feel equally comfortable giving to someone who's just getting into poetry, or to someone who's been immersed in a spoken word or an academic poetry community. There's a lot to each of these poems but it doesn't feel like work to comprehend or understand them. It's engaging, honest, and never feels like it's asking you for anything.
Where you can buy this book: Brookline Booksmith
What Should You Read After:
Ocean Vuong's Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Paul Guest's My Index Of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge
Shira Erlichman's Ode To Lithium
Erika Meitner's Copia
Sharon Olds's Satan Says
Purchased: Bookshop.org in July 2020 for the Sealey Poetry Project
Recommended By: I don't remember. I know that I ordered it because of the title and cover.
Pages of poetry: 97
Recommended For: People looking for manuscript length poems. Readers who want a gimmick but expect the gimmick to delve beneath the surface and go in unexpected directions. Poets studying how visual blocking affects the way they read.
I don't know why I bought this . I don't know how I found it . The internet is too large a bookstore for casual cover browsing . My attention span sweats to oldies . The tracking is blurring my recall . Happy accident of editing . This book . My eyes. I'm not trying to lose poetic pounds . I'm weight training. Building up my bookshelf with new ideas . More modern stories . Living writers . Writers who move . to . unfamiliar rhythms . Don't care about the flowers . that remind you of your mother's . death . Don't want your inspirational . platitudes about the moon . Give me the racial implications . of a video based exercise form . A hundred pages about how the moon came . to earth . to devour your mother . and how this is like . late stage capitalism . Okay ?
1. What is nobody writing about? Including you? We all get used to falling into patterns: love poems, political rants, surrealist monologues. Cool. Cool. Cool. But what is a subject you've never encountered? It's tough to come up with, isn't it? Lose yourself fown a Wiki-Wormhole, or randomly click on suggested Youtube videos until you find something intriguing that you've never thought about for. See how many topics, and how many ideas you can get out of that one thing that falls out of your expertise. Now draw it into your expertise. You don't have to become the foremost academic scholar on the subject but learn enough on that very specific subject that you can craft multiple poems about things you care about. Let your old ideas and themes be the delicious crushed cookies accentuating the flavor of this new topic's vanilla ice cream.
2. When I was a kid, my mother took me with her when she worked out. Some gyms had arcades, some had small room in place of daycares where kids watched Godzilla movies while their parents lifted weights, and some didn't offer any entertainment, so there you were, six years old, watching your mom with some sort of giant rubber belt around her, supposedly being sanded thinner. What weird thing have you been forced to watch your parents or peers do that didn't in any way traumatize you, just made you wonder about the sanity or well-being of the person performing the action?
3. The way Ojeda-Sague weaves their own relation with race into an ongoing commentary about the history of jazzercise is seamless. And really the inspiration for the first prompt. But going slightly smaller scale, write something about your culture using something seemingly non-anologous. The usual rule applies here, if you're a Cis-White Dude, don't define yourself as a Cis-White Dude, write about your culture as a sports fan, a carpenter, a rubber duck collector. I've yet to hear a Cis-White Dude use their whiteness and/or straightness as a poetic focal point and not fall directly into Offensive And Yet Somehow Boring. Don't be that dude.
4. Going back to the first prompt. What's a good soundtrack or playlist for this topic. Is it eclectic? Is the whole subject alt-country or trap? Does it glide from industrial house music to ambient jazz? Why?
Just to see
I never knew where this book was taking me. From block stanza to block stanza, page to page, phrase to phrase, this book was an adventure. Because I initially read it as part of the Sealey Poetry Challenge (reading thirty-one poetry collections during the month of August), I didn't get enough time to sit with it. It was the first book I went back to reread when the challenge was over. And I've read it once again since then. There are books that have been on my shelves for years that I haven't finished reading once.
If you're too frightened to buy it, at least request it from your library.
Purchased: Harvard Bookstore, 2016
Recommended By: Having seen Hanif perform for several years, and having purchased a few of his chapbooks, I was delighted to have a spined book of his in my collection.
Pages of poetry: 102
Recommended For: Anyone. But, particularly, your prejudiced family member or acquaintance who loves music and will be surprised to find themselves reading and enjoying something that includes Writing From The Perspective Of Otherness.
You've got words you like . and words you fear . and words you cradle . even when they cut you . You've got desire and rhythm . and all the shit you're supposed to covet . and it all fits in your leaky hands . Poetry . Essay . Memoir . Some things are all things . in cropped paragraphs . And i remember
Hanif . near but not . at the end of his set . leaving the stage to wander towards the bar . inviting the whole audience to . follow him to the darkest . stankiest pit of the dive . Me leaning against the sink . as I scrubbed what was never the last . set of glasses in the sink . and he read something . leaning over the audience . who'd left their chairs behind .
huddled around the fire exit . It doesn't matter which . words he spoke . at that particular time . There was only Hanifness . heavy . making you forget the smell of piss and rat . oozing from the ungendered restrooms . Hanifness . smiling without smiling . ease without simplicity . a story
you experienced as much as heard . And the text in this book does that . too . A friend and I were trying to launch a pop up restaurant concept . menus based on pop culture and literature . and . of course Hanif was the first person I asked to perform . And nobody came . Just me . Hanif . My business partner . The couple who provided the venue . Hanif's partner .
No one else . Milkshakes and I don't remember . what food . Hanif gave us a thirty minute set . like we were a stadium full . of fans . because we . the five of us . were . When you read this book . you are a stadium full of fans . and also . the only person he's performing to . Every time .
you pick up the book
1. On Hunger: Deconstruct a political, religious, or social group using two specific types of animal.
2. At My First Punk Show Ever, 1998: What made you stick out or blend in at the first music show you attended without your parents.
3. In Defense Of "Moist": Take a single unusual or unpopular word and seed it throughout a poem. Try and make the reader either dread or look forward to the word's saturation.
4. When We Were 13, Jeff's Father Left The Needle Down On A Journey Record Before Leaving The House One Morning And Never Coming Back: Tell us about a piece of music that was traumatizing to either you or someone you loved in your youth, and how you/they were either able to overcome that trauma and enjoy it, or how you believe they/you will never overcome it.
5. September, Just East Of The Johnson Park Courts: A ghost line prompt (A ghost line is where you begin a poem with someone else's line/lines, and then remove them from the text so that the work is all your own): another bloody/bar mitzvah another destitute boy/learning what it is to suffocate/someone with their own gold
6. The Summer A Tribe Called Quest Broke Up: One of the bands you loved when you were young eventually broke up. Maybe it was egos. Maybe tragedy. Maybe death. Maybe it was just a temporary break. Think of another event in your life that feeds into your memory of when you first learned that band wasn't going to be making music together anymore.
I love a manuscript with a solid structure, and that's So Here. There are times you are lulled into thinking that there is no order to these poems. They're just poems. They don't flow logically into another, you think. And then you get to the end of the first section and you realize how this echoes the first poem from the section but now you have a better understanding for what's underneath that poem. He's not repeating himself. This is how he grew from the experience of the first poem, and he's provided you with how that growth took place. And when you reach the end of the collection, oh, we are deeper in the echo, deeper in the learning.
It's a technique more poets should tangle with.
This is one of the easiest books on my shelves to justify. Excellent work, perfectly structured by a talented writer whose work and personality are easy to fall in love with.
There are some books that you simply Must read from beginning to end, and it feels like such an amazing accomplishment to experience the book in one sitting. This is not one of those books. You are going to have to put this book down several times. It will remind you of a story you have to tell, or remind you to call a friend you've been neglecting, or go listen to a track by a band you either Already Adore, or which you were unfamiliar with until you came across it in this book, and now Must Acquaint Yourself With.
This is a book you might takes days or weeks to read, and it's Okay. It's going to stick with you. Not hauntingly. You probably won't wake in the night, covered in sweat thinking My God How Did Anyone Survive That Trauma. But you will have a conversation with someone you are unlikely to ever have to exchange holiday gifts with, and you will think This Ignorant Motherfucker Needs To Read Some Hanif Poetry.
There are writers I've met through slam whose work I would consider Introduction To Poetry Books. Their work may not be challenging, but it's successful at speaking to people who might not otherwise enjoy poetry, and if they read that book and like it, you can slowly get them into better poetry. Hanif is one of three or four poets I can think of whose work is complex, and interesting, and well-constructed, but whose books I would still trust to give to someone who's never read poetry before, or else someone who "doesn't like poetry" (probably because of an archaic high school or college professor), and know that they would immediately ask me if I had anything else By Hanif, or Like Hanif's work.
Where you can buy this book: Button Poetry
What Should You Read After:
Eve Ewing's Electric Arches
Scott Woods's Urban Contemporary History Month
John Murillo's Up Jump The Boogie
Phillip B Williams's Thief In The Interior
Terrance Hayes's American Sonnets For My Past And Future Assassins