Staff Picks 2016


Kyle Walsh recommends

Circles Matter by Brian Lucas

CIRCLES MATTER is poetry of astral pitch arising out of the din of the Bay Area. Here, we enter into a world "without construction without ground" (23), carried by mysterious traveler-poets making spontaneous associations and ruminating on the origin of fire, lightning, and sea. If we don't find the origin, we certainly find the expression, "in the vast orchard of the human voice" (23). Lucas' enigmatic lines open up fissures in the brain between presence and absence, allowing silences to seep through. Structure is always overwhelmed by the pure energy of weather, and the resultant imagery occurs on a scale at once microscopic and cosmic: "The tip of a lightning bolt is emergency red, unthreading the leaves into a canopy of smoke" (43). I found such lines taking hold in my mind like mantras, allowing me to meditate and rest before moving on as if on a long journey myself. Along the way, this poetry is a guide toward tuning the ear to the hidden sounds of the universe.


Janice Worthen recommends

Blues Triumphant by Jonterri Gadson

BLUES TRIUMPHANT is a hallway full of echoes and no exits. To move forward is to move into the past, drenched in white and loud with shadow. It takes me back to my home state, to those summer Bible camps, to pantomime and facade. To difference as a dirty word, a secret word. But this is not my childhood. This is the childhood of a biracial girl, and as the replay unwinds, I ask how does one survive when difference—in a place where difference is outlaw—can't be hidden? Where does one cast her to keep them safe? Gadson's book makes me grieve for the stories, the selves that were hidden in the small bodies passing, and sitting beside, and whispering from the bunk across from my small body. It brings me forward to a present still so locked in echo. It makes me cherish her voice, its beauty, as it spills onto each fresh page. It makes me respect all the more courage in vulnerability, protest in speech, triumph in pen.


John Sakkis recommends

Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer by Stuart Ross

Spoken Word is currently having another moment. Stuart Ross does not like Spoken Word (or open mics). I like Stuart Ross. What he does like is books, and book culture; he's a bonafide bibliophage, a devourer of books (and chapbooks, pamphlets, broadsides and readings (pass the hat!) ad infinitum)). FURTHER CONFESSIONS OF A SMALL PRESS RACKETEER is Ross on his soapbox both shit talking and praising the Canadian small press scene. It's a heartfelt, relatable, funny polemic about the ups and downs of being a member of a poetry community, in his case Toronto's. Ross is old school, cantankerous, funny and opinionated, and I just happen to agree with most of what he has to say, though that's not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.


Janice Worthen recommends

Salvage by Kristy Bowen

Each poem in SALVAGE threatens to burst, is held together like a school of fish in a net, a net straining as it's lifted into the air, ripe and full of the sea's mysteries. Kristy Bowen writes, "It is foolish to love that which has freed you. Or that which you save. We know this, and yet, again we turn off the radio. Excite at the heft, the slightest shimmer in the net" (41). While reading SALVAGE you may catch a flash of silver in the corner of your eye and somehow find its echo in artery rush and vein slosh. Maybe you'll find yourself in the sand, washed ashore with bits and pieces still ripe with sea depth. Maybe you'll find yourself caught in the press, looking at sky through wet rope. 


Aiden Arata recommends

i be, but i ain't by Aziza Barnes

For a few days after I read Aziza Barnes' I BE, BUT I AIN'T, I carried it around Oakland in my hands. The volume--slim, white and yellow, wide enough that I can spread my fingers out while I'm reading it--is a satisfying body for something so dynamic and zoetic. I wanted to walk around and feel this book quietly pulsing against my body, in the park and at the lake and at the grocery store. This is a book about America and Blackness and gazes and wanting and dancing and how to survive when the world has deemed you disposable. You'll want to read I BE, BUT I AIN'T out loud, so you can sway to it and so you can catch when, mid-thought, Barnes' language swerves between the conversational and the divine. These poems are a pinwheel of brutality and joy, or maybe the pinwheel of brutality and joy is just life, and these poems are the wind.


Steve Orth recommends

Rave On! by John Sakkis

This books rules super hard. Like crazy super hard. It's about raves and ravers skateboards and TV characters questing weekly aliens or other various monsters. RAVE ON! is a giant love poem to crews & friends across the globe. RAVE ON! features my favorite poem of 2016 "Contra Costa County," which states, "The Pacific / tastes like toothpaste / after a coke binge." Features awesome and mind altering Matthew Arnone cover art to boot.


Janice Worthen recommends

When the Ghosts Come Ashore by Jacqui Germain

In a world of (en)forced metaphor, Jacqui Germain breaks her own free, and they bear ghosts. Ghosts that jump from the page, up the skin of the hand, and into each cell. Haunting occurs at every level, from letter to line as Germain investigates the treachery of metaphor, its use and misuse by those in power, how that power reflects and is reflected in language. Germain presents metaphor as a self-shattering tool, and in certain hands, a weapon than can break neighborhoods and families and alienate people. Depending on who is wielding it, metaphor can even function as a crime against being. When one thing is called another, it is no longer only itself, is often misconstrued as the other. Metaphor as misunderstanding, misconception, assumption. Metaphor as an act of colonization, as a parasite, as an infection. Germain skillfully undoes, breaks bridges, returns the self to itself and metaphor to truth, shaping a book that is as beautiful as the cover art by Brianna McCarthy. Germain's ghosts have muscle. They will come ashore. They already have a stake in your heart.


Marina Claveria recommends

Hardly War by Don Mee Choi

HARDLY WAR must be read multiple times. Choi's mix of theory, photography, and poetry commands the question of languages and their intended (un)intelligibility. The book of poetry falls somewhere between memoir and photo essay. As a text, it is one of those rare projects where the academic and intimate feed each other. Choi creates an incredible anti-imperialist case, while managing still to feel close.

The way HARDLY WAR fits in between is due in part to Choi's relationship with her father, and his own art. He was a war photographer working in war zones between Korea and Vietnam for 30 years. At one point, he stopped photographing war altogether and began to only take pictures of flowers.

Something in the way Choi intertwines the bright pinks of flower petals or bubble gum into conversations about warships and Napalm creates an eeriness in HARDLY WAR, disturbing for the fact that their perceived continuity, wielded together by Choi, should not be so.

"In the end it was the hardliest of wars," writes Choi, "made up of bubble gum, which GIs had to show those kids how to chew."


Aiden Arata recommends

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Maybe pushing Ocean Vuong's first full-length collection is, at this point, kicking the proverbial dead horse--if you weren't convinced by Janice's endorsement last month, or by Vuong's recent profile in the New Yorker, you either hate poetry or you're wary of any writer who seems to suddenly spark into everyone's consciousness over the course of two months. I'm usually one of those people, the wary ones, but I have to say--I have to beg you, maybe--read NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS anyway. I, a nonbeliever, recently saw Vuong read in a crowded warehouse space in downtown Los Angeles. The crowd was buzzing with AWP energy, here to schmooze, swollen with pride because a warehouse space reached max capacity for poetry. Ocean Vuong, second to last, takes the stage. Everyone is still whispering and trying to find out which author didn't hold his liquor at the Ace last night, and Ocean Vuong says a thing about the loneliness of writing, and he thanks us, and then he starts to read. And the room goes crypt quiet. It was as fast and total as someone turning off the lights. Vuong's use of language is so tactful and delicate and violent that I suspect the crowd--myself included--felt shamed out of their casual handling of language in the time leading up to that reading. By the time Vuong read his last poem, the crowd was making the short raspy noises people make when they've forgotten that they've been holding their breaths for a long time, and the noises of people trying to politely deal with their own public weeping, myself included. None of this wild tender collective craziness is lost when you know what you're in for, or when you are reading NIGHT SKY out of a book, silently, solo. None of it. If you want the breath knocked out of you, read this book.


Jared Levine recommends

Babette by Sara Deniz Akant

BABETTE is a pastiche of sound and imagery that craftily uses punctuation to demonstrate the fleetingness of its beauty without interrupting its rhythm. The deconstruction in this book allows the reader to input their own interpretation, and extract that which is lovely from its text. I felt as if my head was being pushed firmly underwater, my eyes forced open to look at the pastel-tiled mural at the bottom of the pool, and intermittently was pulled out of the water to hear a gentle voice that implicates the world as beautiful.


Janice Worthen recommends

Attraversiamo by Monique Ferrell

Monique Ferrell builds a sweeping constellation in ATTRAVERSIAMO with long lines that are filled with the tough, the tender, the held breath, hiccup sob, and exhalation. She takes on/takes in everything that plagues and everything that persists and everything that falls and rises. Each line weaves time and space as it rushes forward and crosses over barriers, and assumptions, and certainties. She writes "the mixture of dread inspiration/ and the faintest scent of hope" (18). She writes the black body, the poor body, the female body, the god and giant body, the body that doesn't get to go home because of the violence of another body: "bullets are the wind chimes that singsong our existence" (53). She writes the beauty and strength and tenderness of each body. Nations rise and fall, neighborhoods breathe and are broken and breathe again, and history haunts the water under planes and the streets of every city in her brave and vulnerable lines that grieve and wonder and embrace. The big and small are on the page but they are also in the body, the skin and bone, in the sudden absence and the carrying on. I'll keep this book in arm's reach to remind myself that "I want to be responsible" (19).


Faith Hale recommends

The Folly of Loving Life by Monica Drake

THE FOLLY OF LOVING LIFE is at turns damp and dark, occasionally feverish or glittering with mania. Not so much interlocking as interwoven, Monica Drake's first collection of stories spans several generations while remaining firmly rooted in the Pacific Northwest and more often specifically Portland. Plenty of short story collections can be read piecemeal but this is one best encountered chronologically. It provokes the sweet sensation of recognition - I kept thinking "I know that guy!" when a character would reappear in a different setting - which initially felt like a novelty and eventually felt like family. There's a satisfying diversity of viewpoints: a range of ages and incomes, levels of self-awareness or sobriety. Each story is a different shade of expectation realized or thwarted, but they're further colored by how each rubs up against every other story. Drake is a master of the idiosyncratic protagonist. They are often unsure of themselves but are so beautifully realized that we as the readers never question them even for a moment.


Aiden Arata recommends

Belleza y Felicidad by Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavon

BELLEZA Y FELICIDAD is a book of Lisa Frank nitrous oxide fantasy poems. These are the selected works of Argentine poet besties Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavón; Belleza y Felicidad is the name of their creative partnership and its manifestation as storefront/gallery/press/community space/literary movement. Belleza is important as a record of the power of female friendship among artists in a world where dudes ruin everything (see: Alt Lit). And the writing itself is weird and strong and contemporary, full of birds and goddesses and bubble letters. Laguna and Pavón have distinct voices, but their themes-magic, power, poetics, domesticity-overlap, and each makes frequent cameos in the other's work. The result is like one of those squish paintings where you blob paint in the middle of the page and then fold the page in half and when you open it you get a butterfly: two wings that bleed in different ways, a shared center.


Janice Worthen recommends

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong's full-length debut leaves a large and ragged exit wound. To enter into his music is to be made vulnerable and to not be spared: "...the body is a blade that sharpens/ by cutting" (21). As the brightness of spilled orange juice sits beside the rending of the body, seagulls and constellations and an "aqua sheen" beside the smashing baseball bat, a desperate worship or devotion or prayer ripples under each line, and the blade will still fall: "maybe we pray on our knees because god/ only listens when we're this close/ to the devil" (49) and "what becomes of the shepherd/ when the sheep are cannibals?" (56). Vuong slides the reader along the string that links before and after, cause and effect, but the destination is always the same: "There's a joke that ends with-huh?/ It's the bomb saying here is your father.// Now here is your father inside/ your lungs" (60). To read this haunting debut is to continuously depart from and arrive at devastation.


Faith Hale recommends

Soft Split by Szilvia Molnar

SOFT SPLIT is physically tiny - about 2.5 x 3.5 inches - which shouldn't matter, but it does, because it's too small for a bag and will end up in your pocket, and you'll forget it's there, and when you remember it you'll be shot through with an illicit thrill, like when you first started buying condoms and just looking at them made you feel embarrassed and excited. You'll end up reading it in public, waiting for clothes to dry at the laundromat or riding on the train, and when the buzzer announces the end of the cycle, when the train slides to a stop you'll look up, blushing, at the non-profane around you. Ostensibly about an ambivalent woman in an early marriage, the text consists of fragments of moments ranging from domestic and banal to startlingly obscene. It's incredibly engrossing even while exploiting conventional taboos and is at once beautiful and nasty.


Janice Worthen recommends

Silent Anatomies by Monica Ong

SILENT ANATOMIES is such a visually engaging book. Poems are paired with family photos and artifacts, written into anatomical charts and ultrasounds, and pasted on antique pill bottles. Language, anatomy, self, history--all are pieces stitched together just as they are meticulously separated and classified: "Memories tango, are tangled in plague fibers of twisted tau. All of us mangled by the nothing train that spreads from nerve to nerve. A gliding whisper without brakes." To see/hold family, self, and history in the object, to look at each objectively, to see each as unfamiliar/proof/continuance, to oscillate within and among. Each page is stunning. Each asks can the self/family/origin/history be treated, traced, dissected, and labeled like human anatomy? And can this anatomy then step off the page and breathe again? I search for what exists in the shadows of each ultrasound, the silence of each image. I ponder the life that exists in fragment within the artifact. I flip to the beginning and start again.


Zoe Tuck recommends

Archipelago by Alana Siegel

In ARCHIPELAGO, Alana Siegel proves her dedication to the role of poet as phenomenologist. Her poetic inquiries into the endlessly complex relationship between world and consciousness are given shape by her deep research into different religions with strong emphases on developing a science of the mind. We met up recently, and she was carrying a copy of Herbert V. Guenther's Philosophy & Psychology in the Abhidharma. The Abhidharma are texts that deal with the nature of consciousness, causality, temporality, and questions of personal identity; a fitting analogue for what Siegel attempts in ARCHIPELAGO, a book whose constant refrains are: What is image? What is time? What is language?

The difference is method. For Siegel, reading is breathing, and soundsense is a serious technique for serendipitous discovery of the truths lurking in language. Take this stanza from "A Tantric Measure":

How I hear this now is language bound. A bounty of words bound by
words. In Hebrew, the root for "anger" is also the root for "Hebrew"
as well as the verb "to pass". The story of Israel, the origin of
Hebrew, I hear now, run the narrative, prod the plot-the story of
the soul of a place, of a language that has not yet learned how to love
itself. (20)

In this passage, she contemplates and enacts the suggestive qualities of shared etymology and the ways that proximity can allow even words with different roots but similar sounds to open new possibilities for connotation. More concisely, "The letter roots freeing her" (31).

The ambiguity of knowledge as a goal drives poems like "Snow Maiden Shimmering Suffering," in which Siegel acknowledges its role as a balm, writing:

Our fields of human knowledge
Are also shields
Can be shields

Knowledge, a shroud
Can be a cool cloth
After the volcano
A memorial washing away the contortions of a face (33)

Knowledge expressed in language partakes of delineation, definition, and demarcation can be real buffers against the chaos of life. When we require its function as bridge or tinder rather than buffer, is it adequate to the task? "Each one must somehow deliver into the animal of another/The overwhelming ecstasy of sun"-a daunting task, especially when Siegel defines Hell as this: "when language thinks it knows".

Again and again in Archipelago questions arise and change form. In "She Tries To Study," Siegel asks, "What am I asking for when I say I seek the origins of language?" "Do I want to know how language was first used?" she continues. Finally, "Or am I asking to enter what is not restricted by evidence?" (44).

And yet if all this talk about consciousness and representation makes Archipelago seem cold or airy-lost in the sky, it also insists on roots, singing of a kind of spiritual reverse-parturition, in which Siegel gives us the image of a god "Forcing herself back into a word" (49) and why:

We seek a depth of speech
Why the roots of words are called

Before they were gods
They were ground (50)

Why? These are the consequences of great passion:

What Will You Hold Real Against Your Death?

Will it be some ancient esoteric text?

Or will it be a person most close to you
You hold with every last breath in you

Against what takes you from your breath (49)

If you are prepared to take part in Siegel's patient and insistent search for the beyond of the beyond-absolute reality, to look with her for the gods behind the concepts behind the words, I encourage you to do so. Of course, in addition to patience and insistence, there's also ecstasy and astonishment.

For all that's here, a word about what isn't. "'The internet is not beautiful,' I shouted" and through this act of self-quotation Siegel points to the comic hopelessness of railing against that juggernaut of surveillance and solipsism (9). This text can feel old-fashioned, likelier to have been written by a contemporary of Robert Duncan than of Steve Roggenbuck. What does it mean that Archipelapo isn't driven by the imperative to be thematically or stylistically a la mode? Perhaps more significantly, what does it mean that careful contemplation of being and mind feels counter to the poetic zeitgeist? Archipelago reminds us that other, more timeless questions, are in no way superseded by technological changes and are perhaps all the more urgent because of them.


Laura Moriarty recommends

Actualities by Norma Cole and Marina Adams

ACTUALITIES by Norma Cole and Marina Adams takes off with "oh/live/it-/veer/in/air." Norma's words face a painting by Marina that is deep purple and something like eggplant which is both vast and entangling. In the book the words form a vertical column, not the horizontal line I have made it here but ACTUALITIES is a book of lines, as well as being one of fields and wild, intense, satisfying colors. I find I can dive into it anywhere and the lighter-than-air gestures in language, form, linearity, depth and color lift me up and draw me down into fantastic depths. It is a place I like to be--both empty and full: "The alarm sound, then stops." There is white space, negative space, lines and color color color. Things funny and profound at the same time: "I'd like to die laughing," "When will a silver birch tree grow in the kitchen?" (Strangely, I now see one from my kitchen window. Do books by your best friend predict your life?). Problems are asserted: "Siberia's boreal forests will not survive climate change." Questions are asked: "What is the nature of the relationship between elves and wild boars?" And solutions are proposed--"Go for the throat my love, already protected"--while lines and colors swirl with an almost audible richness: ""The Fermata"//*the lengthening of a note or slight pause to take a breath."

One's breath is taken and restored and then, usefully, you can dive in again.


Marina Claveria recommends

Black Lavender Milk by Angel Dominguez

"I picked up the smudge of the novel," writes Angel Dominguez. "I smeared my face. I asked my dreams, ‘Can we please get the words out of the blood?' trying to wake up with that language, a scar." The dream is vital. The dream is falling victim to semiotics, is being forgotten. BLACK LAVENDER MILK reads as a dream journal, an ancestral history, and instruction manual on manifesting the past, if not the future. It is a flight that never lands, and a familial pilgrimage that never returns. This book is an attempt that planned to fail. This book was written in case of evacuation. Read it.


Janice Worthen recommends

White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad

With its aluminum-like cover, Jennifer Hayashida's translation of Athena Farrokhzad's WHITE BLIGHT is striking and even blinding. To look upon its cover is to see a distorted reflection of oneself and to be devoured by that metallic white sheen. The interior is just as alarming/engaging with white words printed inside black bars upon a white page. Before reading a word, one can't help but be absorbed in the language of the book as object.

Farrokhzad investigates place/space-personal, familial, racial, cultural, regional-through a family of voices that sometimes speak together, sometimes speak against, sometimes speak alone as they come to terms (or don't) with a new land, new people, and new language. What does a person of color experience in a white-washed land? What gets lost as words, memory, and people are juxtaposed, mixed together, and broken apart? What is the cost of leaving, the cost of belonging, and who keeps the ledger? At one point, the grandmother says, "Belonging is like a mirror/ if it breaks you can repair it," to which the mother replies, "But in the reflection a shard is missing." To stay is to fracture, but to move is also to fracture, and violence in its many forms does not end; instead, it echoes out and out in memories and voices, traveling beyond generations.

As Farrokhzad explores what and who oppresses, what or who fractures, she captures the trauma of being displaced, replaced, and even misplaced. She shows how language reflects, fails, and is complicit. She asks if one can ever truly leave a place or if vital pieces of the self are buried in the soil of each new land. How does the scattered self survive? Where does it echo?


John Sakkis recommends

Levitations by JH Phrydas

"There's something intrinsically hideous about community," says JH Phrydas in the introduction to the introduction of his book LEVITATIONS. I really couldn't agree more. But no matter how hideous community may be Phrydas returns again and again to the fact that community is magnetic, and that to participate in one (but preferably many) can be too pleasurable to resist. This book pays homage to communities, SF, Poetry, QUEER, the South, family, bar culture, theory-world etc. So many lines to choose from, but one of my definite favorites, "A rainbow of blood/ from my mouth to yours," echoes the cover design of the book itself, a faded watery rainbow in the sun. This is a great debut.


Aiden Arata recommends

Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer

In GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN, Anne Boyer writes: "I will soon write a long, sad book called ‘A Woman Shopping.' It will be a book about what we are required to do and also a book about what we are hated for doing." If this makes you think GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN is maybe a book about shopping, some shopping is involved, as is some cooking, some hair dye. If this makes you think GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN is not a book for everyone-specifically, that this is a book exclusively for women- you're wrong. GARMENTS approaches the obligatory with a ferociousness that would make Hemingway faint. This work fights for moments of failure and boringness, asserting that they deserve a place in our creative landscape. Boyer manages to write clinically and devastatingly, her cross-genre prose both expansively Romantic and remote. This is a book for anarchists; parents; economists; poets; peasants and their warlords; anyone who's asked Who makes Art? On whose terms?


Janice Worthen recommends

Lilith's Demons by Julie R Enszer

Julie R. Enszer's LILITH'S DEMONS is tiny-the whole collection could disappear in a pocket-yet it is heavy with reforged myth and voices that bite. Demons slide through its pages and "alter women's lives" by unleashing their tortures: anxiety, depression, compulsions, insecurity, and discontent. With each murder of woman or newborn, they deliver a terrible revenge and freedom that is their own fate, fear, and ultimate relief. The reader is swept into this brief but severe tempest, where Enszer's Lilith, creator and destroyer, punisher and perpectually punished, feared and adored, is master of all. Shaping the world to her own design, she names and dispatches each demon. What "G-d" makes, Lilith unmakes. Unapologetic, lonely but completely her own, she rules the night. So why didn't Enszer title the volume LILITH? Because the volume is absorbed in Lilith's creations, the manifestation of her power and tools of her vision, just as the reader's attention is absorbed in Enszer's creation, light as demon ash. Both make their way in the world, altering what is found. Adam, Eve, and G-d may pass from the earth and angels fall, but "unlike Eden/ Lilith's garden endures."


Sign up for SPD e-newsletters