It’s the first month of the new year, and so much news about exciting new books has come across our desk of late that we thought we’d put together a couple of roundup posts in order to put some of the titles that we’re most looking forward to reading in the coming year on your radar. In today’s post (part 1), I’ll be discussing six recently published titles (five full-length books and one chapbook) that have made top priority on my to-read list for 2014. Part 2 (which will follow next week) will focus on forthcoming books that are due out in 2014.
Note: the books discussed below appear alphabetically by author; the order in which they’re listed does not reflect any sort of ranking or order of preference. (We’re equally excited about all of them!)
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The Arbitrary Sign by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (Red Wheelbarrow, 2013)
Desmond Kon is a two-time contributor to LR (his work appears in both issue 1 and issue 5), and both times that we’ve published him, Mia and I had a really hard time choosing just two of the poems he’d sent in each batch. Desmond’s work interests itself in philosophy, visual art, pop culture, and the sounds and textures of language: he is interested in dadaism and in other forms of the avant-garde, and has a unique gift for finding the music in both “high” language (such as academic jargon) and “low” forms of speech—slang, text speak, gossip column patter. The genius of his poems lies in their polyglot nature—the way that he mixes contrasting modes of speech and weaves easily in and out of a variety of languages. His pieces work because there is a delightfully haphazard quality to their approach, a lightness that plays against both the weight of the poems’ scale and subject matter and the deliberate care with which the poet has gathered, built up, and sculpted their many intricate layers of texture and pattern. Desmond, a highly prolific writer, has published multiple chapbooks (both in the US and in his home city-state of Singapore) and has a long list of journal and anthology credits to his name—and for good reason. I’ve no doubt The Arbitrary Sign—a philosophical twist on the form of the classic alphabet book—will be as delightful as the rest of his body of work.
For a sneak peek at The Arbitrary Sign, head on over to Kitaab to read six of the poems that appear in the collection.
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Kala Pani by Monica Mody (1913 Press, 2013)
This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long while now. Monica wrote for us as a staff reviewer from 2010 through 2011, and we later had the privilege of getting to publish a poem of hers in issue 4. Her work is deeply invested in myth and parable, and the textures of her writing are rich and sinuously complex—by turns liquid and transparent, and by others, knotty and grotesque. She has an exceptionally keen ear for music and magic, both of which suffuse her work. I had the pleasure of getting to read and workshop portions of Kala Pani back in 2009. It is a hybrid piece (partway between poetry and prose) that takes up the narrative of a group of world travellers who converge around an ancient tree. In it, the poet deftly plies together the fibers of what at first appears to be an allegory-like story, only to tease and unspun these threads mid-strand and remake them again (differently) in the next breath. What I admired most about the manuscript when I saw it in workshop was the way in which the tapestry of the piece’s language shatters and shifts at a moment’s notice—like quicksilver. Monica is a brilliant critical thinker, in addition to being a talented poet, and it shows in the deeply intelligent nature of her writing: though she is keen to investigate notions of trauma, geography, time, race, gender, spirituality, etc., her writing neither preaches endlessly nor holds to an overly simplistic view of the political: rather, she holds questions up to a mirror, testing them on a knife’s edge. She recognizes that the notions of place and identity are inherently fraught with instability, and she both celebrates and problematizes this complexity: the characters of which she writes transform and bleed into one another, metamorphose and cycle back to avatars of themselves, over and over again, in many different ways. It’s been a couple of years since 1913 first announced that it had acquired Kala Pani, and now that the book is finally out, I can’t wait to read the finished product.
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Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds by Stephen Hong Sohn (NYU Press, 2014)
I’ve always thought that it’s incredibly important for writers (especially writers of color) to be actively engaged with literary criticism. Lit-crit and theory can help us to create in a way that is more thoughtfully engaged, and thus, more meaningful. They help us to contextualize our craft, to articulate the aims and political resonances of our work, and to understand how our bit of the conversation fits into the broader landscape of what has been written and what is being written. In the past, we’ve had the privilege of running guest posts by Stanford professor Stephen Hong Sohn (c.f. his wonderful two-part series on Asian American poetry and the small press), and I was thrilled to hear recently that his book had been released by NYU Press earlier this month. Genre-wise, Racial Asymmetries‘s focus is on Asian American fiction, but I think the issue that it’s exploring is equally relevant to APIA poetry. To quote NYU’s catalog copy, the book explores “the importance of first person narration in Asian American fiction published in the postrace era, focusing on those cultural productions in which the author’s ethnoracial makeup does not directly overlap with that of the storytelling perspective”—a topic that Sohn investigates with respect to a range of works (from Chang-Rae Lee to Sesshu Foster to works of speculative fiction). This question of “how does my work fit into the conversation about Asian American literature, especially if I’m not writing about Asian/Asian American people, or if I’m not writing from a lens that causes me to deploy expected ‘markers’ of race-based political discussion in my writing?” is one that we, as APIA poets, run into over and over again. I wrestled extensively with it during my MFA program (when the primary personas in your manuscript are the members of the Curie family, it can be difficult to explain how your writing fits into the context of “Asian American literature” to an outside observer!), and even now, as editors, Mia and I field the same question all the time, both when engaging with poets who are curious about how or whether their work might fit into what we publish (“Does my work count as Asian American literature? If so, how?”) and when we make decisions about what goes into each issue of the magazine itself. So much of the new and exciting work that we see is taking place outside the expected definitions of what constitutes a poem that might conventionally be labeled “Asian American” (we don’t like that term, “Asian American poem,” anyway—you can have an “Asian American poet” or a poem that converses with or can be read as part of the body of “Asian American poetry,” but “Asian American poem” is too reductive; in our minds, there is no such thing). Given the recent discussion of the nature of reviews about novelist Bill Cheng’s work (wherein reviewers scrutinized his ability to write “authentically” from the perspectives of characters who are not Asian), Sohn’s new book seems particularly timely. I look forward to seeing what he has to say.
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My Funeral Gondola by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Manoa Books & El León Literary Arts, 2013)
We reviewed Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s first collection, Water the Moon, on the blog during LR‘s very first year, and so it was wonderful to hear about the publication of her second full-length collection of original poems. In addition to her own poetry, Sze-Lorrain also has a venerable body of work as a translator of poetry from French and Chinese. She’s also an accomplished concert musician. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that her work has always struck me as thoughtful and carefully cut together in a way that strikes both the ear and the eye; she works deftly and precisely with multiple strands of influence—linguistically, geographically, artistically—sounding out the seams between light and shadow and between the seen and unseen. Stephanie Papa writes of Sze-Lorrain’s new book (in a review at the Rumpus): “[it] is in itself, as the poet writes in her title piece, ‘an object of meditation.’ . . . Sze-Lorrain’s pieces exude a compelling wonder and fragility . . . urging us to look in the darkness for the light.” Water the Moon was a beautiful collection, and certainly, My Funeral Gondola promises to be an equally pleasurable read.
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No by Ocean Vuong (YesYes Books, 2013)
Since we published a poem of Ocean’s in our very first issue nearly four years ago, he’s gone—with a chapbook and and now this full-length collection under his belt, in addition to many prizes and fellowships (a Pushcart, among them!)—from a poet who was up-and-coming on the APIA poetry scene into an important name in his own right. I’ve always enjoyed the courage and intimacy of Ocean’s poems: how they take us into the hidden places of the city, into spaces and bodies that are at once dream and memory and creatures of physical weight that yearn for flight. They are gritty; they carry blades and wings, fire on the tongue; they bear of histories of trauma; and yet they never romanticize or objectify; only speak with translucence and clarity.
Cathy Linh Che, in an interview over at the Blood-Jet Radio Hour’s blog, recently named No as one of her favorite reads of 2013. She forgoes description and lets Ocean’s poetry speak for itself:
“‘Brooklyn’s too cold tonight
& all my friends are three years away.
My mother said I could be anything
I wanted—but I chose to live.
On the stoop of an old brownstone,
a cigarette flares, then fades.
I walk towards it: a razor
sharpened with silence.
A jawline etched in smoke.
The mouth where I’ll be made
We believe her.
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Kudzu Does Not Stop by Jane Wong (Organic Weapon Arts, 2013)
The appearance on Facebook of the beautiful promo video for Jane Wong’s newest chapbook was what first put this pick on my radar. (Side note: shouldn’t all books have lush video trailers like this? Kudos to the talented Jamaal May, who both edits the series that Kudzu Does Not Stop is a part of and creates these stunning short films for Organic Weapon Arts). But of course, it’s Jane’s own magnetic writing, her gift for rendering the strange, eccentric, and even grotesque with a quiet, compelling intimacy, that is the main pull here (“I am as opaque and unfaithful as a salt lake,” she writes hauntingly in “Microwave Beetle,” the poem that appears in the promo video). In the excerpt of her long piece Division by Zero that we published in Issue 5, Jane’s speaker proclaims, “I have a weakness for ghosts.” And it’s this same ghost-like quality—the poet’s seemingly endless ability to transform and to turn a line or image before the reader realizes that anything has changed; to seemingly walk through walls as her speaker traverses whole maps of narratives, settings, bodies in the same breath—that I find so captivating about her work. If Kudzu Does Not Stop, which wraps a catalog of invasive and troublesome plants, insects, and other organisms in and around moments from the speaker’s childhood, continues in this vein (as it promises to do, given all I’ve read about it so far), then I am in for a treat.
A recent interview with Jane Wong about Kudzu Does Not Stop (as well as the text of “Microwave Beetle” and links to a few of the poems that have appeared in online journals) can be found here, at Speaking of Marvels.
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What books are you most looking forward to reading this year? Are any of the above books on your to-read list for 2014 as well? We want to know! Leave a us comment or tell us on Twitter or Facebook, and stay tuned for part 2 of our roundup next week.