Fore-Side Chats: May Edition
Welcome to the first real fore-side chat, a monthly series where I’ll be rounding up the books I’ve read and getting a bit chatty about their highs and lows. If you missed it, throughout May I’ve been wrapping up the first four months of my reading calendar, which you can check out here. But now we’re all here together in the present! Hooray for us. May was a big month for me, as I started work editing a series of non-fiction books for a publishing company in New York. On the book front, this means I read a lot of chapbooks and not as many full-lengths as I probably would have liked to. As usual though, I’m excited and I have a lot to talk about. Let’s get started.
1. Home Remedies – Kaisa Cummings (Goodmorning Menagerie 2014)
I picked this chapbook up at AWP ’16 from the same press that just published Paul Cunningham’s translation of Swedish writer Sara Tuss Efrik’s Automanias. The design caught my eye, with its thick, creamy cover and the simple woodblock print of a bisected red onion. With a well-placed epigraph by Yoko Ono, a quick flick through these satisfyingly trim prose poems told me it had to be mine. I’m learning to trust my gut, with regards to book and record purchases, and if my belly’s telling me to buy it I just do. Ignoring the impulse has only led to heartache and regret. Sure enough, it turns out Home Remedies is my jam. Kaisa has written a series of poems after the premise of the home remedy, where each poem is introduced by a brief remedy in italics. The first, “Apply cobwebs to staunch the bleeding. Dusty cobwebs are especially good. If this fails, cut a stalk of milkweed and allow the sap to drip into the wound,” is followed by:
There is a house and a woman. The woman plants strawberries. She hangs the plants upside down. She says so the light falls evenly upon them. Nothing grows. No green push out of death does come. In a manner that is customary in fruit farming, she grafts a stem to her arm. She says what flesh is to bone you must pass to pass through. The vascular tissues join in the shapes that living makes. Stock and shoot and ache and dirt. Her heart leaks something so strong they can smell it in the street.
When I read this aloud to Jackson, I meant to stop after one poem but kept going into two, three, four. I only stopped because they laughed at me. I could have read it all out and been a happier person for it. It’s taking all my strength not to reproduce this whole book here. Home Remedies has easily become my favorite read of the year, and my favorite chapbook of all time. Kaisa, if you can hear me all the way from Alaska, I need more. Please write more books. I want to read them all.
2. Daughters of Monsters – Melissa Goodrich (Jellyfish Highway 2016)
I am all about the Jellyfish Highway. They’ve been on my radar since June of last year, when they were just announcing their first titles. I like a mysterious new small press, especially one that declares an interest in bioluminescence. Now that they’ve got four titles up for sale I’m even more into it. I put a recommendation of Melissa Goodrich’s Daughters of Monsters (written by David S. Atkinson) up on The Lit Pub in March back when it was still a pre-order, and his review hooked me. I noticed it was available for review on Necessary Fiction, and I jumped on it. Check back for my own review on their site if you’re interested. Hopefully, it will be out later in June.
Daughters of Monsters is a wonderful debut short story collection, full of apocalyptic narratives delivered by flood, poison gas, and the double whammy of snow storm and animals growing to gigantic proportions. I think my favorites were the title story and “Moon Tale”, which is a tiny love story about the moon and Arizona that in retrospect I didn’t even cover in my review, due to the getting caught up in other things. “Moon Tale” begins: “Before the moon was the moon, the moon was lava. And the earth was lava. Someone hurled a crater and boom. The moon dislodged like a tooth.” Melissa’s imagination is wild, and her stories are uncontained. Some are a bit rough around the edges, in a satisfying way. That roughness might go away as she keeps writing, but it would be okay with me if it didn’t. I will absolutely be reading whatever comes next from Melissa and Jellyfish Highway, and I would like it if you went out and read this one at least.
3. Martha – Leslie Allison (Ugly Duckling Presse 2015)
Martha was another one of those gut buys at AWP. Ugly Duckling Presse is known for its beautiful packaging, and they do not disappoint here. The grooves from the letterpress printed covers are so satisfying, as is the lush lilac-mauve of the card and the swishy silent ghost of a peony hovering there. If you get the feels from feeling up books, get thee to a Martha. As you can imagine, it was hard to even crack the cover of this one—but things get even better inside if you can even believe it. Martha is a book-length epic sex poem about the one and only Ms Stewart, highlighted by the most perfect illustrations by Molly Schaeffer.
At the top of one page, Leslie has written:
Martha calls a house meeting
she says, ‘This morning you will hear a work of fine literature.’
Madeline opens to a bookmarked page and reads aloud:
These are my sprays, creams, and lathers, my genders,
I listen to Madeline’s sanguine voice
as the wolfish interns hand out gift bags
of skincare products and bull whips
I’m sorry, I got snagged on that last line
and can’t remember what happens next
This is followed directly by Molly’s illustration of a braided whip encircling two runny tubes of skin cream. Martha is playful in so many ways. From the very first page where the speaker states, “I work at the garden store/ I stroke moss, glass pebbles, and faux roses/ today Martha Stewart is on tv dressed as a witch/ swirling/ batter, she waves” there is just this vivid sensory detail, this outright wash of sensual pleasure where smell, touch, taste, sound, and visions are inundating the speaker and in turn the viewer to the very brink of overload. Again, I want to keep sending out these words to you, I want to regenerate their words rather than writing my own about them but that’d be a bit of a cheat. Again, I’m finding myself overcome by a chapbook—these tiny tasters that are meant to leave us wanting more. But Martha is her own beast, she’s perfect at this length, go read her.
4. Faber New Poets 14 – Crispin Best (Faber & Faber 2016)
Are you sick of chapbooks yet?? I sure as heck wasn’t (and still, I am not.) In fact, I couldn’t be prouder of this one if I tried. So listen up, please? Not to get all sappy, okay, but Crispin Best was the very first internet writer to reach out to me as a budding poet in the hazy days of Let People Poems, c. 2011. He was also the first to publish me online, in his series For Every Year. I felt a real surge of emotion when he announced he’d been named a Faber New Poet of 2016. And I fully recognize that my story here isn’t at all unique. He’s been this person for a lot of writers over the years. I really think Crispin cares, and he has this sense of unquenchable curiosity and playfulness that is very catching. Send him an email and you’ll see what I mean. Read a poem of his and you’ll know it in your heart.
But this isn’t about me, this is about a hot pink, staple-bound chapbook put out by Faber & Faber to promote one of the best new English poets (or, ‘emerging talents’ as they call them). If you’ll recall, back in 2010 they put out a similarly hued pamphlet of Sam Riviere’s work, which was the seventh in their series, and we all know how that turned out, with first 81 Austerities (Faber & Faber 2012) and then Sam’s brilliant Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (Faber & Faber 2015) and who knows what next. I suppose these pamphlets are meant as a teaser to get new people hooked on some new-to-them writing, but there’s also something very pleasing about re-reading some of your favorite poems by someone you’ve been following for the past five years, who’s talented beyond words and truly writes funny poems. Someone who’s had individual poems up online and anthologized in places like 40 Likely to Die Before 40 (CCM/Lazy Fascist 2014) and LEFT (We Are Babies 2015) but never before had their own collection in print, not even a chapbook. No pressure, Crispin, but I think we’ve all been waiting a very long time for this and now our collective expectations are running super high.
5. Anne with an E – April Michelle Bratten (Dancing Girl Press 2015)
Surprise, surprise. I read another poetry chapbook. I am truly unpredictable in May. This one arrived in the mail while I was unaware, driving along on the West Coast of this vast nation—the last in a series of BookTube-inspired picks purchased by Jackson for my birthday back in January. I’d felt very curious about this one, and I still do, in a way. What I think I know to be true of April’s collection is that it’s heavily inspired by Anne of Green Gables, and to be honest I’m not sure if I ever read it. It’s one of those books I think I might have read as a pre-teen, but then again I thought I’d read Little Women but it turned out it was only an abridged version. So for me, this collection was very mysterious. I liked these poems, but I did feel like I was being held at arm’s length from them, and that if I truly want to enjoy them I have to be fresh off a Green Gables read. Like full immersion is only accessible if you have an Anne of Green Gables superfan club card. I don’t have that card. I would like to read L.M. Montgomery’s book(s?) and come back to this one again in the future. There’s some really great writing in here, but a lot of name-dropping, a lot of ‘characters’, and I don’t know these people? Do I want to be a part of this club? I think so, yes. But for now, it feels like I’m reading someone’s diary—these poems are well-rendered but they are private, and pretty exclusive. The quality of the printing and bind-up wasn’t exceptional (there are printer streaks across the front from Anne’s orange-inked hair), but I’d like to read more from Dancing Girl, a press that “has published over 200 titles by emerging women poets in delectable open-run handmade editions.”
6. Some Possible Solutions – Helen Phillips (Henry Holt 2016)
I requested this short story collection from Henry Holt & Company after setting up a recommendation of Helen’s novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat (by Matthew Oglesby) on The Lit Pub back in March. I hadn’t read anything by Helen or even heard of her before putting up Matthew’s review, but since then I’ve become obsessed, reading interviews and essays she’s written online before diving into the collection. Some Possible Solutions has already been blurbed by Lauren Groff, Karen Russell, and Kelly Link. Helen is a good writer. Meaning, she has an incredibly imaginative brain and she knows exactly how to craft her stories to maximize their potential. She’s a precise writer, and I think she has found her niche in setting her stories in a world that is slightly off-kilter to our own.
A stand-out for me in this vein was the title story, particularly the section titled “The MyMan Solution”, which brings the reader into a modern yet slightly alternate world in which women can purchase blue, plastic, anatomically correct robotic ‘men’ as stand-in lovers. Another favorite is “Game”, a story formatted into two columns where dialogue between the two characters (in the right column) interrupts the narrative (in the left column) in a really subtly disturbing way. This one is strange in a very different way than the obvious otherness of the MyMan; the couple is normal, their life is normal—and then the girl dives into the waves and turns into an orange. Maybe.
There are a few normal, seemingly-autobiographical stories sprinkled throughout that I would have suggested Helen remove from this particular collection if I were in charge of such things, but I see how even they pick up a slightly magical quality from the stories surrounding them. I’ll be writing a full review of this one later this month, and I plan to focus on this aspect of the collection in more depth there. But I will say I’m not usually a fast reader when it comes to short story collections and I whizzed through this one. Helen is a master craftsperson, and I would certainly rank this short story collection high on my list.
7. Lost Property – Andy Poyiadgi (Nobrow 2015)
Lost Property is part of Nobrow’s 17X23 graphic short story project, which kind of qualifies it as a chapbook! It’s staple-bound with French flaps and really stunning endpapers, and wastes no paper, diving straight into the story on the first page. I’d first seen this series on BookTube and was itching to get my hands on this one and The New Ghost (if anyone sees a copy of it, send it to me?) I found this one while browsing at Powell’s—and by ‘browsing’ I actually mean I had instructed Jackson to start at one end of the graphic novels section while I started from the other and we hunted the stacks mercilessly for staple-bound Nobrow 17X23 titles. This one was a used copy for $4.50. I was very pleased. The story is nostalgic and quick-paced, and while this particular style of art is not my favorite, the muted, flat green permeating the book, with faded red touches throughout, really appealed to me. Lost Property is a very nice story about two weird and lonely people—and that’s kind of all it is, but that’s really enough to make it work.
8. The Bird Artist – Howard Norman (Picador 1994)
So, here’s the part of the wrap-up where I admit (again) to being a bad student (again). I managed to go through my entire MFA without reading my mentor’s most well-known, well-loved novel. Why? Why did I do this? Who knows. I mean, I kind of do, but not even really. I had it on my shelf, and sometimes I felt compelled to read it, though often times I did not. I felt the fear. What if I read it during the program and I didn’t like it? What if he saw me reading it and found out I was a fraud?
Well, over three years out of the program I finally did it. And I’m surprised by what I found. After taking ages to wade through the first 15-20 pages, I became incredibly compelled by this book. I was shocked by how plot-driven it was. On the first page, we find out the narrator, Fabian Vas, has murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August. The first 150 pages work us toward the event of the murder, which takes place at the very center of the book, and in the next ~150 pages we get the aftermath. Everything is charted out and Fabian’s voice isn’t all that exceptional, and yet the narrative is far from flat. When I wasn’t reading The Bird Artist, I wanted to be. I had a very busy Memorial Day weekend but I read the last 100 pages in one day, and most of it in one sitting—in bed, finishing around 3 am.
I loved the setting, I loved the birds, I loved the names: Alaric, Orkney, Romeo Gillette, Odeon Sloo, Boas LaCotte. My favorite image is early in the book, with its roots in a bit of dialogue between Alaric and Orkney, the narrator’s parents. Fabian’s dad is complaining about how many layers Alaric wears to bed, and Alaric defends herself by saying, “It’s not so much against feeling cold, the layers, as it makes me feel girlish and secure. And it helps me to sleep.” And then after all the debate, we get this lovely visual of Alaric in the doorway:
She was wearing thick woolen socks folded over once into reverse cuffs of equal width. She had on red long johns under a cotton nightgown. Over the nightgown, she wore a faded white robe. With her right hand she held the ruffled lapels of the robe together at the neck. Her left hand was deep in the one pocket.
And for some reason, it’s just so iconic—there’s something about the image of this statuesque woman wearing just so many layers and being so unshakeable about it. I fell in love with her then, which is a really tough position to be in as her narrative unfolds.
There’s a kind of glee to Howard’s writing, something unpresumptuous and also very self-indulgent (by which I mean, not tied to a sense of critical opinion). This felt like a story Howard really wanted to tell; I know from knowing him that Newfoundland is a place he cares deeply for, and this came through so clearly in this book. In many ways, The Bird Artist felt more like commercial fiction than literary fiction, which surprised me quite a lot, given the context. Is that terrible? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure exactly what I think yet. I do know I’ll be reading more, to find out.
9. Goal/Tender Meat/Tender – Paul Cunningham (Horse Less Press 2015)
You can’t escape me, Paul Cunningham! I may be getting a bit delirious this close to the end of the month, but that is honestly how I felt as I bore down on Paul’s chapbook in the final hours of May. This is a sticky book, both literally and figuratively. Literally, because the cover is done from photo paper—the Epson watermark is peppered across its inner side. Figuratively, it’s a little harder to explain. You’d think it’d be slippery, what with all the ice, and that Zamboni rumbling along making so many strange sounds out there in the Ice Land Ice Arena.
The style of Paul’s chapbook is similar to Katie Jean Shinkle’s Baby-Doll Under Ice in that both involve a kind of orchestrated conversation between the poems. In Katie’s, her Charlotte poems overshadowed her baby-doll poems and I found myself wanting them, alone. But in Paul’s chapbook, the conversation is more nuanced. We have the Warm-Up, the Frank Zamboni, the Iris. We have the setting—Ice Land Ice Arena—itself a character, and host to The Zanies. There is a cacophony of sounds both intrinsic to the language of the poems, particularly the Warm-Ups, and extrinsic, imposed through their insertion: “SOUND: SLURPSLURPSLURPSLURP” impedes upon Zamboni’s monologue. Language is characteristically important in Paul’s work, but there is a narrative here I wasn’t expecting to find: a haunting praying mantis as goaltender, her lovers/prey an ice hockey team full to the brim with pucks, and an ice rink to host them.
Made it this far? Want more? Check out my other reviews for Real Pants and elsewhere. Leave a comment below specifying which, and I’ll write up a more focused review of any of the books I read in May. And stay tuned for my June wrap-up, coming up on July 7.