Our Four­teenth An­nual Look at De­but Po­ets

Poets and Writers - - News - by dana isokawa

Our four­teenth an­nual look at de­but po­ets.

THIS year’s fo­cus on de­but po­ets fea­tures ten of the most no­table first books of po­etry pub­lished in 2018. The se­lected books, which en­com­pass a broad range of styles and sub­jects, take on com­pli­cated and weighty top­ics— Fa­timah As­ghar’s If They Come for Us traces the im­pact of the Partition of In­dia, Tacey M. At­sitty’s Rain Scald draws on Navajo cer­e­mony to ele­gize and pray for the land, Mario Chard’s Land of Fire reck­ons with a sense of ex­ile, and Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees With­out the Blood and Justin Phillip Reed’s In­de­cency con­tend with, among other is­sues, the injustices Black peo­ple have en­dured in Amer­ica. Each poet seems to ad­dress the ques­tion Jenny Ge­orge, author of The Dream of Rea­son, asks: “How much of our alive­ness can we bear?”

For all the grav­ity of the po­ets’ con­cerns, though, there is also a sense of play and in­ven­tion through­out their work. As­ghar’s book con­tains po­ems writ­ten as riffs on Mad Libs and bingo grids and cross­word puz­zles, José Oli­varez’s Cit­i­zen Il­le­gal crack­les with jokes, and Anali­cia Sotelo’s Vir­gin flashes with self-dep­re­cat­ing wit. When we asked the po­ets to de­scribe the sto­ries be­hind their books and how they work through writ­ing im­passes, many pointed to this bal­ance be­tween the se­ri­ous and the play­ful. While writ­ing his book, Oli­varez says he wanted to tell sto­ries with an “eye to­ward mis­chief.” Jenny Xie, author of Eye Level, says that when she reaches an im­passe, it feels “com­pletely nec­es­sary to lower the stakes, to re­store some sense of play, or to build just for the sake of chas­ing a ques­tion, a sound, or the mind’s move­ments, wherever it leads.” Other po­ets de­scribe it as the will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment—Clark dis­cusses toy­ing with dif­fer­ent forms and syn­tax when she’s stuck—and other po­ets present it as dar­ing: Diana Khoi Nguyen, author of Ghost Of, ad­vises writ­ers, “Dare to take on am­bi­tious, large po­etry projects that ter­rify you.”

Whether it’s through mis­chief or ex­per­i­men­ta­tion or re­bel­lion, through anger or pain or the process of re­cov­ery, the ten po­ets fea­tured here all seem to seek the free­dom to write with­out ex­pec­ta­tion, to erad­i­cate feel­ings of obli­ga­tion, and to pro­ceed with a sense of pos­si­bil­ity. And this, af­ter all, is what we hope for most from a de­but book of po­etry: that we might meet lan­guage spo­ken in ways we haven’t pre­vi­ously en­coun­tered, that we might, as Xie says, find “wilder forms.” And per­haps the work of these po­ets might in­spire you to play with new forms and move, as Ge­orge says, “with­out at­tach­ment in a pur­pose­ful di­rec­tion to­ward what it is you don’t know.”

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