Every year, we witness the release of hundreds of luminous and necessary poetry collections, short story collections, novels, and more. 2017 was certainly no exception. Read on for some of our 2017 favorites.
Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
Alice James Books
There is a feeling of suspense amidst the pages of Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, an exhilaration present even in its most quiet moments. Akbar takes us into the narrative of addiction with an energy equal parts unpredictable and irresistable, arresting us in the very first piece with contrasts between God “coming to earth disguised as rust” and a woman who “dabs a man’s gutwound with her hijab/ then draws the cloth to her lips, confused.” From then on, nothing in this book is simply itself; the body is a dangerous instrument, Farsi a sting of childhood purity, orchids a path to longing. This book has an eye for infinity, holding its narrator to the world like a lens, each fault and beauty and grief of personal history reflecting universally. The result is a book of poems you find you must sit with, reading and re-reading the effortless movement of Akbar’s observation.
Though every page finds Akbar writing with new, unexpected angles, what gave me the greatest impression from this collection was one of the strongest and most consistent lyric voices I’ve ever encountered, a tone imbued with unabashed truth. I was overwhelmed with the power of an author who can present themselves naked and bloody and shameful, who can allow the reader to see them “graceless./ No. Worse than that.” It is not fearlessness that strips Akbar bare but persistence, a willingness to dig through himself in poem after poem, to “dive/ dimplefirst into the strange” again and again. Interesting that, in a collection largely concerned with faith, I come away sensing Akbar’s devotion to poetry; that as these pages find him struggling to come to terms with his deepest wounds, it seems clear that writing them has become a form of healing.
– Daniel Blokh
2016 Summer Mentorship Student
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
Coffee House Press
If you haven’t read Stephen Florida, and can’t claim it (yet) as one of 2017’s finest releases, then perhaps I can at least convince you it has the best first sentence of the year: “My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them,” our protagonist Stephen declares on the first page, throwing us into Habash’s wild, voice-driven character study of a college wrestler in his senior year. Much has been said about this being a story about obsession and a story about toxic masculinity, but still this doesn’t quite do credit to Habash’s dark and mysterious debut. Stephen Florida that best kind of novel, which cannot be properly summarized into a back-cover blurb, and cannot be distilled into a 200 word “Adroit’s Best Books of 2017.” What I will say is this: Habash’s ambition in this novel is rivaled only by his big heartedness. His character building, rivaled only by his attention to language. It is a strange and special book, and by the end, you’ll be thanking Coffee House Press for helping usher it into the world.
– Garrett Biggs
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
BOA Editions Ltd.
“Aren’t all great / love stories, at their core, / great mistakes?” Chen Chen asks in the same earnestly ironic (ironically earnest?) voice that makes When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities such a heart-collapsing joy to read. In these poems populated with misidentified guanacos and “flying mango-tomato hybrids,” gay Japanese pornstar Koh Masaki and loves both lost and found, Chen straddles the line between the deeply personal and the deeply universal. He explodes off the page, wrings wonder from a universe that often can seem thoughtlessly cruel at best, flips apathy off with equal parts wit and confession. And through it all, he pieces together a patchwork self-portrait: the son ruined by a morally corrupt America, the immigrant named too foreign to make this place his own, the poet accused of only writing about “being gay or Chinese,” the poet who “write[s] about everything” — and, most importantly, the list of further possibilities.
Above all else, these poems burn with a searing desire for future; for the finding of “impossible honey,” for everywhere and everyone we have yet to be. And why not? Through Chen Chen’s eyes, it might just be as good a future as any.
– Matilda Berke
2017 Summer Mentorship Student
Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is an explosive, genre-transcending debut. In the opening story, The Husband Stitch, Machado finds new depth in the old urban legend of The Green Ribbon, while in Especially Heinous she rewrites 272 episodes of Law & Order: SVU, with an eerie pathos that brought me, a chronic SVU binge-watcher, to tears. Machado plays with horror, science fiction, and the police procedural, revelling in traditional tropes but refusing to be limited by them. By turns both lyrical and wickedly funny, Machado’s collection is chock full of queer women who refuse to be anything but adimately alive and real. Her protagonists refuse to apologize for their demands or self-doubts, their swearing or their sexuality. In the world of Her Body and Other Parties, it feels as if some unspeakable dark is always menacing just off page, lurking in basement, or creeping beyond the beam of the headlights, but even so, Machado’s stories are full of human life, vibrantly lived, without regard for the consequences. So in a year when the news itself has felt like disaster movie, Her Bodies and Other Parties is a wonderful gift. It’s a how-to-guide to thriving when under attack, whether it is from the things that go bump in the night, or the dark inside yourself.
– Rebecca Alifimoff
2014 Summer Mentorship Student
Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang
Copper Canyon Press
Victoria Chang’s alter ego/inner angst “Barbie Chang”, enters our imagination in tight, biting couplets and never leaves. With this poetry collection, Chang signals that she has left the stifling working world of The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2013) behind with book’s first poem “Once Barbie Chang Worked” and given voice to the suburban mom. Chang’s suburban mom, Barbie Chang, is at turns overwhelmed, depressed, mournful, aspirational and hopeful. But she is decidedly cast as an outsider (“Barbie Change Wants to Be Someone,” “Barbie Chang Can’t Stop Watching) throughout the sequence that dominates the book.
Barbie stands outside the Circle—mean girl moms who dominant the children’s school playground—reporting on their meanness, “its tense at school the Circle/ignores her more than usual.” Chang’s protagonist’s outsider status spreads to the relationship with her sick and dying parents: mother suffocating from pulmonary fibrosis, leaving her one breath at a time and a father consumed with Alzheimer’s severe memory loss. Barbie is deeply involved in the care of parents who like the Circle barely know she is there. “Barbie Chang always thought/ her mother was heartless// not lungless.” Even the imaginative love affair with Mr. Darcy leaves Barbie wanting. The reader feels the pathos of Barbie in Chang’s powerful, yet constrained language.
In the two “Dear P” sections that appear mid-book and at its end, Chang steps out of character. These two quasi-sonnet sequences written to her daughter pulse with a mother’s vulnerability and love in poems written as wishes, wisdoms and warnings. Be forewarned, Victoria Chang writes in “Dear P: Someone will love you”— “one might haunt you hunt you in your/sleep make you weep the tearless kind of/weep.” Be forewarned Victoria Chang’s poetry will haunt your sleep. This poet’s talent scrawls off the page.
– Heidi Seaborn
Poetry Staff Reader
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo delights in its own macabre and finds its footing in a strange curation of voices. It is at once a startling account of grief, a lesson on the human condition, and a dark comedy. Saunders experiments with a form that skirts on non-quite nonsensical, weaving historical documents with fictional accounts. The basis of the story is Willie Lincoln, who died of typhoid fever at age 11, and his arrival in the titular bardo. The bardo is a term borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism and the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.” Lincoln in the Bardo enjoys itself, revelling in its journey, as it slips between personas. The writing is exquisite and grotesque, managing to sew many distant tangents into a compelling portrait of the Civil War and its effect on the American imagination. In an odd year, an ungrateful and ugly year, Saunders is a necessary voice of clarity among all the noise: “Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the bring of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.”
– Serena Lin
2017 Summer Mentorship Student
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
Copper Canyon Press
Unaccompanied, Zamora’s debut collection, paints an intense, personal, and empowering narrative of Latinx identity. The collection details his childhood in El Salvador, solo journey to the United States at the age of nine, and experiences of prejudice and disjointedness while living in the US.
Unaccompanied, however, is more than just “Latinx poetry” or part of the “Latinx canon.” It is about living in one country, and then another, without guaranteed safety. It is about family and war and how, without asking or apologizing, war takes away family. It is about remaining cognizant of such wars, as well as the governments and people who cause them (a poem titled “Disappeared” tells the reader to “Hold these names responsible…” which include Reagan, Bush, and El Salvadorean institutions). It is about womanhood, told through both the stories of women (“Postpartum” and “Mom Responds to Her Shaming”) and via the misogyny striking all genders (“Alterations”). It is about intergenerational violence, and love, and trauma (“Dad, age 11” and “This Was the Field”). Most poignantly, it is about the sweet and sour enchantment of youth. Take a line from “Prayer:” ““Diosito, I’ve been eating broccoli, / drinking all my milk so parents / think I’m big.” This combined nostalgia and bitterness—a sad, beautiful magic—pervades Zamora’s work.
– Talia Flores
2015 Summer Mentorship Student
mxd kd mixtape by Malcolm Friend
Glass Poetry Press
Malcolm Friend’s mxd kd mixtape is a book of broken bones, of living skeletons, of the wound of definitions & borders, and, most importantly, of music – his own, Héctor Lavoe’s, Prince’s, Stevie Wonder’s, Tego Calderón’s, and others included in this cohesive but expansive mixtape, in this creation of a personal mythology. I imagine mxd kd mixtape picking up where Ntozake Shange’s “now i love somebody more than” leaves off – they share the blood of music & myth & the afro-boricua encountering of the brutal simplicity of America’s racial imagination. While Shange’s Lady in Blue doesn’t find the legend Willie Colón to dance with, Malcolm magically happens upon Tite Curet Alonso at a bar & gets dizzydrunk. The way Malcolm becomes sloshed with the weight of his ancestors reminds me of the way Gloria Anzaldúa describes the vertiginous space of another of Friend’s core muses, borders: “A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is a in a constant state of transition.” This collection sometimes asks, sometimes challenges, the reader to join him in that dizzy place in which “i am not translator/ i am not mexican/ i am coquí croaks/ synchronized to/ caribbean waves”, the place of clarity that does not simplify, though may well overwhelm. It is a vulnerable place Friend invites us into, where we are privy to his failings (how many of us don’t call our mothers enough!), his reflections, his wounds, his mother’s wounds, his father’s wounds, his healing, his mythmaking. Willie Perdomo has already said it best – “[the collection] resists the violence of definitions until we have no choice but to sing.” mxd kd mixtape has left me with what I imagine is just the right feeling – that in the face of the border of a word count I have so much more to say, but should hold onto my barstool and let Friend’s music wash over me like waves.
– Andy Powell
Poetry Staff Reader
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Grand Central Publishing
As the multi-generational story of one family unfolds across four hundred sixty-two pages, and the landscapes of Japan and a unified Korea, Pachinko accomplishes what few novels of this length succeed in doing: leaving the reader wanting even more when they’ve reached the final, hard-earned page. I read Pachinko over the course of roughly four bus commutes to school, during which I could be seen crying at various intervals of the trip. When I arrived at the last page on my bus ride home, I was as silent as the blank page that came next. The book was finished, and I couldn’t get over it.
Pachinko presents a history of joy and sorrow and emotional truth. The characters are more than characters. They’re a family that’s as real as the families we belong to, and Pachinko is as much the saga of one family as it is of the life of each individual family member. You see the inheritance of failed hopes and dreams, love and all its beautiful consequences. From Lee’s richly detailed prose, we learn that “there was more to being something than just blood” for this family and for ourselves.
– Erin O’Malley
2017 Summer Mentorship Student
Who were your favorites?! Whose collections are you eagerly anticipating in 2018?! Let us know in the comments below!