Staff Picks (November 2017)
Omg, we love small press books! And these are some of our favorites. Now they can be some of your favorites too...if they aren't already. Be sure to check in every month for a new handful to add to your reading list...lists...so many lists.
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A collection of meditative musings on the nature of public excursions and private devotions, THE SISSIES blesses our queer, bruised, animal bodies triumphant in meekness. Evan Kennedy, a pilgrim on his Peugeot, cycles the hills of San Francisco as he channels the city's patron saint (St. Francis, here not as much 'of Assisi' as 'of a sissy'). His languagesome kind of nouveau sermonbreathlessly conjures divine presences while in delis bagging radishes, while scaling impossible hills with baseball bros and sordid queerphobes, barrel-chested men and sneaky sickos. Donning his monk's habita gray hoodieKennedy reimagines the urban sphere as a public place of worship, a city of heaven glorified by glory-holes, the smell of sweat under leather, the bark of a masked puppy sub and the bite of his dom daddy. Faces caked in concrete have never felt so hot and so holy, so animal and so very earthen in the renunciation of human sin. An impressive follow-up to TERRA FIRMAMENT, Kennedy folds the medieval into the modern with saintly grace and weaves a visionary fabric of his body that, through self-abnegation, commingles with essences sub-/suprahuman: this text and its poet breathe as bodies animal, mineral, and vegetal in a biome of language made divine across time.
Because of its quality of memoir, I was reminded, reading FLOWERS & SKY: TWO TALKS, of a period in the 1980s, when Aaron Shurin and my late husband, the poet and editor Jerry Estrin, had an ongoing exchange about beauty. The argument consisted of Jerry accusing Aaron of a commitment to the beautiful and Aaron saying yes, I do, I am, shamelessly. Conversations occurred in the world while books and postcards arrived at our house celebrating beauty. Despite the fact that the word “beauty” does not appear in the text, FLOWERS & SKY: TWO TALKS seems like another one of those gestures. In this beautiful book, the writer finds a way to explicate his work in relation to the obsessions with flowers and skies that have characterized it from the start. “To enter the flower or parse the sky required a certain general focus…I wrote in the first person to be the person, and raised citations from my own work to illustrate the image-adventure charging my work" (from “Preface”).
In FLOWERS & SKY: TWO TALKS Aaron Shurin deftly uses its eponymous subject matters to consider the poetics of a whole life, following out the flowers and skies in his actual experience, as well as the appearance of these words in his work. The talks are excellent examples of the lyric essay, a form that allows the writer the latitude to make prose sense in a poetic way. One of the advantages of the form, fully exploited by Shurin, is the opportunity to use wonderfully sounded language to make incantatory as well as logical sense. A danger can be the risk of being self-indulgently vague. Far from falling prey to this danger, this book is precise and rigorous in its examination of a writing practice and a series of lived incidents that both inspire and comprise that practice. As revelatory as they are expository, these talks, along with the poems and other material in the book, allow Shurin to celebrate (and demonstrate) his poetics with an honest zeal that seems to tell all. Who better, I thought reading and rereading the book, to fully present one’s poetics than oneself? This work is like a textbook of how to write about one’s poetics in a way that is serious, accurate, and engaging. Old poets thinking to write their memoirs and young ones to assert their own poetics should take notice. Shurin brilliantly notes:
“What is poetics?
You turn it in your hand like a snow globe, and shake it to see its full effects. What do you write, how do you write, what do you mean, what do you frame and what do you follow? What have you made and what have you found? What do you honor, what do you savor, what do you need to encounter…?
The sky for example.”
(“Coda” from “The Sky For Example”)
Margaret Rhee's first full length collection, LOVE, ROBOT, published by The Operating System, is a beautiful collision of technology and sensuality. At heart, this collection exposes the senses and underscores the human-ness of our modern world. Despite cultural acclimation to technology in our modern world, this collection suggests that distance doesn't have to be an accepted concession. Robots, machines and programming are languages that stem from the core of our desire to connect more efficiently and on a more intimate level. This collection exposes the flesh and longing that pours out from such modern endeavors. Rhee writes: "I am naked, do not laugh at me. Lap up my body as if I am part of you. Let's / forget the words 01110011 01101000 01100001 01101101 01100101. Shame / is such an ugly word. All you wires should tell us that. Don't short circuit on / me. Fifteen facial muscles contract, count them fast. Let your sensors lead / Being a human being is the best joke." Throughout this work, Rhee excites the molecules of sensation and teases at every point of access for her readers to come closer. There is something intimate and inclusive behind every word of this brilliant debut. Whether you are more robot than human or more human than not, this collection has a gravity unto itself. Join the constellation of sensuality that will hold and warm you on every page.
Feeling inspired by John Sakkis's Staff Pick last month, I decided to review one of my favorite Steve Abbott books, THE LIZARD CLUB. Dang, this is one weird book. It's a novel about these people who start transforming into lizards and start eating people (who haven't transformed into lizards). The narrator is a lizard and works at The Lizard Club. The book takes a strange journey in later chapters. One chapter is a questionnaire, where Abbott asks his own freak family lizard club questions. (Sample Q: "What are your favorite movies, and why?" Sample Answer: "Aliens, cus Signorey is so hot. Also Paris Is Burning," says Rachel Pepper). Another chapter is called "Kevin's Chapter," written by the legendary Kevin Killian. There's so much weird stuff, and Steve Abbott may have been the smartest guy in the world (see the chapter "Additional Lizard History," where Abbott recounts the history of lizards). Check this book out, there aren't many copies left.
There's been a lot of discussion about what New Narrative is, exactly. I mean, I don't know. It's like, a movement of Bay Area writers? A kind of writing sex and transgression and how it intersects with political engagement? An inadvertent naming in response to aesthetic provocation? It all seems really complicated, so complicated that I wish we'd just invented some sort of sinfully delicious cake and named it New Narrative. But then again, that's kind of what this book is. Rather than the stark, academic contextualisation of an intense moment of aesthetic production that one might expect from an exhibition/conference catalogue, THE BIGNESS OF THINGS is instead a collection of disparate ingredients that don't quite fit, but come together to give us a feeling of the esoteric intimacy and happenstance conditions that produced New Narrative. Indeed, this volume is a treasure trove that includes photos of Bay Area writers surrounded by the art in their homes (not pristinely preserved, but shoved into closets, hung slant on walls) to essays by their contemporaries exploring the zine and chapbook production of the time, how these objects traveled within the community as well as their formal influence on poetry today. Ultimately, THE BIGNESS OF THINGS is a testament to the loose fickleness of sociality and its importance to aesthetic production as Mike Kuchar has been known to say, to make a film, you should just throw a party. And this book is a funfetti cake kind of celebration a glorious occasioning of New Narrative's raw expansiveness, its vulnerable and transient misery/joy.