“I wrote this book in a circular home on a hill, overlooking the city, which roams while we are sleeping; I wrote it in a café with my friends; I wrote it as I looked for hidden streets, while sitting in desolate and lush spaces. I wanted to say language leaves a trace, also my saying I have walked. And, this is important, because, though these marks do not render precisely the picture of our crisis, they do show where there are still people.” – Renee Gladman, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge
“…If I were certain of / finding what I want, she wonders, would I become smaller.” – Camille Roy, The Rosy Medallions
This year, so so many of my friends became parents or went to jail. In almost all cases they made a choice, they risked love and the time was urgent and right and afterwards everyone came home. In all cases I cared. Sometimes I cried. My friends are good and brave. The new little ones especially.
Consequently I spent days reading in beige-tiled rooms and parking lots, brain in coffee-echo, and always I believed that any one book could help me work better, love better, stay awake longer. Reading is writing is walking. I thought about that when I read Gladman’s book. Show where there are still people. Keep moving. I have walked. When tilling a field, you want to minimize the turns and maximize the lengths.
The news, on televisions and in neighborhoods—it broke my heart this year too. Reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen three times that week when Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted and Daniel Pantaleo wasn’t either, and marching, and my good and brave friends and our good brave weird families (also my commitment to Cassandra Gillig’s New Order of St. Agatha): that’s how I kept moving. Some mornings it was hard but I did it.
Not everything here debuted in public this year, and I didn’t always pay money for the experience but whenever I did I paid the maker directly (or Powell’s, or the merch table). When I didn’t I borrowed or I worked.
This list—of 21, for transformation—and the time I spent writing it is for Feel Tank Chicago and Brother Mike Hawkins.
- Ghost Box by Emerson Whitney (Timeless, Infinite Light)
Humans are lucky that Emerson Whitney finished his first book of poems and that Oakland-based Timeless, Infinite Light (see also: emji spero’s Almost Any Shit Will Do) published it so we can read it. The main characters are Whitney himself, Emily-who-might-be-a-ghost, and an abandoned Home Depot parking-lot-cum-bird-sanctuary in downtown Los Angeles. Everything is shifting, some of it might be dying.
- Mothernism by Lise Haller Baggesen (Green Lantern Press/Poor Farm Press)
I helped edit this book so I am biased there and also because it has violet and silver pages (expertly designed by Sonnenzimmer, as always) and I’m a sucker for epistolaries. That said, I think the letter Baggesen writes to her daughter about rape, which gave me a clarity and relief I didn’t know I needed, is the most important metallic spark here.
- Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)
If you haven’t read this yet then turn off the Internet and put on some pants, and go find a copy and do. Rankine wrote a necessary lyric meditation on race and the media in the twenty-first century. As Carrie Lorig said on Tumblr, “[T]hat language, her language, makes me / makes PEOPLE a better person.”
- Gephyromania by TC Tolbert (Ahsahta Press)
Gephyromania, its name rooted in the Latin for bridge, is a very important hot-orange book of poems about gender and the body and love, using words evolving and ornamented, read both hot-dog and hamburger-style. I’ve always loved some of these poems individually but fell hard for the whole once I heard Tolbert read “The Palinode” after an incredibly generous, funny, smart conversation at the University of Denver this fall.
- the scene in Theory of Everything when they talk about stars death and Tide
So they’re at the dance and Stephen Hawking’s like Jane, I can’t, and she’s like Cool, okay Stephen, then let’s just watch. So they do, and when the black light switches on the gloves and shirts glow brighter than the dresses. Stephen tells Jane it’s because of Tide soap. Then he says Jane, if we black lit the universe, the shapes stars make dying, and being born—they would look like those shirts and gloves. Stephen and Jane never did dance, though at that point I really wanted to. (Didn’t so much want to stay for the rest of the movie, but: this poem!)
- the scene in Wolf in White Van where the heshers ask Sean if they can look at his face
When I asked John Darnielle about this scene in an interview, I called the heshers “bros” and he quickly corrected me. Mairead they’re heshers not bros. So Sean Phillips, the narrator, he’s leaving the drugstore with a bunch of candy, and these two heshers in the parking lot ask if they can look at his terrible face. Sean says yes and so they do. Then they all talk. It’s beautiful.
- “Learn About Black Panther Party History” by Nicolas Lampert (justseeds)
The original version of this print—a black panther, near text reading “Visit Brookside Zoo: Free”—was completed by a person named Carken in 1937, for a WPA project. Nicolas Lampert re-worked it in strong black, red, and a little teal, with new text referencing the Black Panther Party. The silkscreen hangs over my dining table (originally something else too: lawn furniture).
- The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, translated by Sinan Antoon (Yale University Press)
The two best places I know to buy fiction in English translation are 57th Street Books in Chicago, and McNally Jackson in New York. The Corpse Washer, which I found at 57th Street, was written (and translated!) by Sinan Antoon. It compacts, illuminates, complicates the Iraq tragedy into a single story—Jawad’s. Born into a Shi‘ite family of corpse washers in Baghdad, at first Jawad trains with his father but soon abandons the field because death nauseates him and also, he wants to be a sculptor. But then Hussein takes power, then economic sanctions, then invasion and military occupation and finally Jawad must decide what work is needed most, and after that what to do with his heart. I couldn’t eat or listen to music, even softly, while reading this book, and I kept imagining I smelled whatever Jawad was talking about.
- Wall of Sound (1205 E. Pike Street #1C, Seattle)
Every long-form writing project I’ve ever finished, ever, this year especially, is in serious debt to Jeffery Taylor’s music recommendations.
- You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek) by Eleni Sikelianos (Coffee House Press)
I read this book chilling in a hotel in North Platte, Nebraska with Mathias, D’Count, and a Van Morrison album, one night when the car broke down. A companion to Sikelianos’s The Book of Jon, which is about her father, You Animal Machine is about her grandmother Melena, who had five husbands, three children, and a burlesque career. The book builds a firmly angled structure, saving rooms for adult realization and competing memories, plus scattered lazurite and KFC bones. “Who said hoochie-coochie means a drunk woman’s genitals?” writes Sikelianos. “It means a single mother’s rent.”
- Julie Ezelle Patton at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, Chicago
I skipped class, turned down a tutoring shift, and rode the bus for an hour and a half both ways to see Patton perform work about ritual maintenance, native plant and green space advocacy, and neighborhood love-economies in Detroit. She’s amazing. Do whatever you can to see her perform.
- “Play It Right” by Sylvan Esso (Partisan Records)
Joshua keeps this song on cassette in his car and I listened to it maybe thirty-five times during Denver’s November snowfall. Amelia Meath sings and Nick Sanborn produces; that’s it. I hold this song, Malaria!’s “Kaltes Klares Wasser,” and the Hardly Art catalog responsible for me not crashing into snowbanks while learning to drive in a new city.
- Part of movement is anticipation. The books I am most excited to read in 2015 so far are The Underground Is Massive by Michaelangelo Matos, SLAB by Selah Saterstrom, The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin, The Volta Book of Poets edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and I’m Very into You by Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark. Oh! and the new edition of Cherríe Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back, out very soon from SUNY Press. And real pants dot com.
- The Feel Trio by Fred Moten (Letter Machine Editions)
I return to this book once a week, to read or re-read a poem and learn something new from it. As CM Burroughs wrote in Lana Turner Journal on the day Maya Angelou died, “Moten’s verse references the lived and the living right now… the stakes being matters personal and political (and the political become the personal).” These poems witness, feel, clang harmony, and are sometimes very funny too. “how do we read this?” writes Moten. “this is what it’s for. To claim catastrophe.” (Another favorite book from this press this year is Andrea Rexilius’s The New Organism.)
- Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley (Touchstone)
This is a very graphic, very tender book about familial trauma caused by sexual violence, poverty, and addiction. An autobiographical first novel, Winter Birds was published in translation in German, ten years after it was finished and two years before appearing in English. As a writer, I learned bucketloads from how it treats time and empathy. As a reader, I can’t remember another book that put my guts in such knots.
- Antena pamphlets by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker (distro: Half Letter Press)
Antena is a language justice and language experimentation collaborative founded by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker in a barn on the estate of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Antena has published four texts so far, in both English and Spanish, which I purchased from Hofer at AWP—“A Manifesto for Discomfortable Writing,” “A Manifesto for Interpretation and Instigation,” “A Manifesto for Ultratranslation,” and “How to Write (More).” I used these pamphlets as compasses at virtually every classroom and at every march this year. I am a better teacher and worker for learning new-to-me terms from translation and interpretation, and hearing Antena’s belief in “the right everyone has to communicate in the language in which we feel most comfortable.”
- Teresa, My Love by Julia Kristeva (Columbia University Press)
Kristeva writes: “Cervantes blew faith and love to smithereens of derision, not abolishing them, you’re right, but regaling humans with the gift of disabused pleasure. Whereas Teresa uses faith and love in order to recondition the belief- and love-producing machine. She ventures as far as possible along the route that beckons the person who doesn’t give up on believing, the person who talks as a way of sharing, and who loves in order to act.” I looped Journey a lot while reading this book.
- “Skate Bitches” by Samuel Shanahoy
During a lecture in a punk class this spring I mentioned Danny Plotnik’s Super-8 film “Skate Witches,” a short about a gang of girls who skateboard and pet rats, and a student (thank you) was like No, it’s called “Skate Bitches.” And it is! There’s a new one! It’s seventeen minutes long, features a Diane Renay song, and was filmed by Shanahoy and their crew in Footscray, Melbourne. Dedicated to girl gangs + femme punx everywhere.
- the rainbow ceiling at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos
The vigas in the reading room of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house (now a retreat space too) in Taos, New Mexico, are washed in a light jeweled rainbow. Sarah and I sat here for an hour and read about Buddhist monks while looking up, looking out a low window, and listening to the caretaker talk about ghosts. I want to go back pretty badly.
- the cover of Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl
“It was hugely important to me that the cover accurately reflect the book’s two central characters,” Sarah McCarry told MTV, “both of whom are girls of color (well, Medea is technically 3,000 years old, but she looks like a girl in the book), and the romance between them.” So, Sandy Honig photographed Lola Pellegrino and Kimmie David kissing. Done. This is the last book in McCarry’s come-as-you-are Metaphorphoses trilogy, after All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings. (Sarah published my favorite chapbook this year too: “Hags,” by Jenny Zhang (Guillotine #7).)
- Drift by Caroline Bergvall (Nightboat Books)
This is a dark blue book about the sea, and how depth and translation can make you dizzy even when there’s a solid map in your hand. It is poems and poetic essays to read aloud to yourself in empty rooms when you can’t sleep. Also Bergvall uses the word “nightwacko.”
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) writes in Colorado. She is also an English/Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Denver, a columnist at Bookslut and the online editor at MAKE Magazine, and, through Hoist Point Writing, a poetry teacher at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Her first book, See You In the Morning, comes out from featherproof in September 2015.