Elizabeth Acevedo, Hieu Minh Nguyen, LGBT, Mary Oliver, Ocean Vuong, Poetry, Poetry Project, Thomas C. Foster, Timothy Liu, Verse Novel, Vietnamese

A Successful Poetry Month

For the last two months, I’ve pursued some themed-reading. This is something I tried a couple of years ago as a year-long project, changing my reading theme every month, but it didn’t quite work. It seems to work better if I choose something just prior to the new month beginning, because it allows me to read what I’m actually interested in in that given moment. So, in June, I read a whole bunch of LGBTQ+ books (most of which were awesome) and in July, I read a lot of poetry and/or books about poetry.

I specifically chose to read poetry this month because I’ve been writing my own young adult novel, and I found that reading creative works that are well outside of the genre I’m writing in helps me to stay motivated and to think about language without getting distracted by works that are too similar in genre, audience, theme, etc. Considering I finished the first draft of my novel yesterday, I’d say this was a good plan!

Here are the works I read in July, with some thoughts:

How to Read Poetry Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster: This is the third in Foster’s “How to Read…” series that I’ve read, after How to Read Novels Like a Professor and How to Read Literature Like a Professor. As always, I find his style approachable, his sense of humor engaging, and the examples plus explantations that he gives very helpful. Poetry has always been the weaker literary genre for me (fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry, in that order!), but Foster manages to explain a lot about the basics in a way that makes sense. The other benefit is I’ve added to my reading list quite substantially. I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu: What an incredible find, this was! Timothy Liu is one of my favorite poets. I’ve been a little obsessed with Asian-American queer male poets lately and recently re-read Liu’s collection, Burnt Offerings, which inspired me to find his other publications. This anthology covers self-identified gay poets writing and publishing in America since about 1900. It’s a hefty tome, but the diversity of style and theme are wonderful. I was introduced to a lot of new-to-me poets, many of whose works were quickly added to my TBR. I also found some of my favorites in this collection, like Dennis Cooper and Mark Doty. It was fun to revisit them, especially in the context of a gay poetry anthology, where one can see the communication that is happening between poets and poets, and between poets and their audiences. I rated this one 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong: I’ll admit right now that I’ve become obsessed with Ocean Vuong. It’s very strange to me to be a “fanboy” for any living writer (most of my mania is reserved for deceased writers, like Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck.) The only other living writer I’m so passionate about is probably Joan Didion. That said, Ocean Vuong is giving me everything I need right now, which is to say, an incredibly interesting and poetic exploration of language, life, and all their possibilities and complexities. I read Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, last month and was blown away. Night Skies With Exit Wounds is just as breathtaking. Vuong is one of the most unique, courageous, and honest writers I’ve read recently. I rated this one 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo: This one is a verse novel written as a series of prose poems. It explores the life of a contemporary Dominican-American teenager and her relationship with her very conservative-Christian mother. Verse novels are becoming more and more popular, in large part, I think, due to the successes of Ellen Hopkins, whose stories are compelling and beautifully told. Acevedo’s perspective adds a welcome and refreshing perspective to the genre, and I think it will go a long way to propelling this genre forward. I enjoyed the diary-like entries and the way Acevedo manages to treat the narrator’s road to becoming a poet as a theme in the development of the verses themselves. It’s delightfully meta! I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver: What can you expect from an “On Poetry” book by one of the most recognized and celebrated poetry writers today? It’s an inviting, edifying journey into form, style, history, and all the rules (many of which are meant to be broken.) Reading this one alongside Thomas C. Foster’s turned out to be an incredibly helpful and rewarding experience. They reinforced some of the major ideas, but each took different approaches to the various items of importance for readers and writers of poetry, including the examples they provide. If I could, I would spend an entire semester reading books like this one (and Foster’s). I already feel much more confident reading poetry and will be trying my hand at writing more of it soon. I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen: Reading this one in the same month as Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds was fascinating. Both writers are gay men, both are Vietnamese-American, and both write extensively about their relationship with their mothers. (This is a theme for Acevedo, too, which suddenly makes me want to research the theme of mother/child relationships in American poetry.) Nguyen’s collection is held together by intercalary poems about his white lovers and how his relationship to white men has defined, or ill-defined, him as an Asian-American. Nguyen’s pain, even resentment, brought on by racism and fetishization is strikingly powerful and deeply saddening, but his triumphs are powerful, too. I particularly appreciated the end poem, an exploration of depression that reads like an open wound. I rated this one a 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

So, I planned to read six books of/about poetry for my personal poetry month, and that’s exactly what I did. I feel accomplished, but even better, I feel inspired. Poetry has always been a little intimidating for me, but I allowed myself to relax into it, to read them as closely as I can, and to give myself a little support with the Foster and Oliver texts. All this to say: I can’t wait to read more poetry, and I can’t wait to write more of it.

Do you like poetry? Have any favorite poets or collections/anthologies I should try?

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Addiction, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary American, LGBT, Literature, Ocean Vuong, pride month, Vietnamese

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

The irony is not lost on me that, just a couple of days after claiming that I no longer plan to write formal/lengthy book reviews for this blog, I finish reading Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It would be absolutely thrilling to think that I can articulate just why it is so necessary for me to write a full-length reflection about this novel, but the idea that I can do this book justice is ludicrous. Still, I’ll try my best.

Ocean Vuong is an acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet who has already won numerous prestigious awards, including the T.S. Eliot award for poetry. His collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market, which made the anticipation about this first novel all the more extreme. It is rare to see a talented writer in one genre, like poetry, crossover into another genre, like fiction, and even rarer still to find that she or he manages it expertly. Vuong is such a rarity.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is marketed as a letter from a Vietnamese-American boy to his mother, who cannot read. Taken literally, this is the case. Little Dog is writing to his mother about all the secrets he has kept, all the memories he has buried, and all the love he carries for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the traumas of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimer’s. So, it is a kind of love letter to these women, to their past, but also to himself as a boy and to his future self, the man who will be made possible. He knows his mother cannot understand the words he writes, the language he speaks, so he shares without restraint and sends the letter to us all.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed and appreciated this novel so much is that it is written by a poet. This is clear not just in the language, but in the shape and delivery of the major themes and ideas. Vuong, through Little Dog, looks at the world through the eyes of the poet and describes what he sees in a way that only a poet could. The mundane is made miraculous, the painful is paradox, and the beautiful is wrenching. He manages to make the reader empathize with a host of characters, from the quietly rebellious protagonist, to his contradictorily abusive yet loving mother, and to his young boyfriend, a country redneck simultaneously terrified of yielding himself to another boy while still capable of treating his lover with the greatest compassion and tenderest care.

What holds it together most, what makes it a masterpiece, is its honesty. Words like “courageous” are often applied to novels like this one, stories that tell of family traumas, of coming-of-age and coming out. But Vuong’s honesty, here, is on a different level altogether. The way he describes his coming out and his growing up, his ever-progressing awareness of self, his first love and loss, moves beyond courageous. It is an act of total surrender, a giving up of everything that the world tells us should be kept to ourselves. In this way, Vuong allows Little Dog to reach the two kinds of readers who most need his story: the readers like Little Dog, who experienced or will experience the unique moments of gay life, of immigrant life, of life as an outcast, that can rarely be discussed in public, if ever. And the readers who know nothing of this type of journey, but who might learn what it means to be the someone else, the one without words or defense in a world that is terribly loud and aggressive. To be the dove in a crow’s nest.

For me, Ocean Vuong’s novel comes at a time when I am re-examining my own life and past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases his beautiful artistic articulation of a similar journey. For me, it seems, a universe of ellipses is falling into place at exactly the right moment, and to read a perfect book in a turbulent and confusing time is perhaps the most miraculous way to think of one’s place in that universe as intentional, purposeful, and necessary.

Notable Quotes:
“The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are” (63).

“The children, the veal, they stand very still because tenderness depends on how little the world touches you. To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones” (156).

“To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” (206)

“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine” (181).

“The sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted” (238).

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