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Very occasionally I have special guests. Today's recommendations come from Kaveh Akbar, who is, yes, "a poet and an editor," as he says below. But it seems he wrote that in a moment of Kaveh-esque humility. So allow me a proper introduction: Kaveh founded and edits Divedapper, where you will find interviews with "the most vital voices in contemporary poetry." His own poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Tin House, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, APR, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Boston Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. He has two new projects forthcoming: a chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017), and a debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2018). He has been a journal editor, a poetry editor, a book review editor. And along with Gabrielle Calvocoressi, francine j. harris, and Jonathan Farmer, Kaveh stars on the monthly poetry podcast All Up in Your Ears.
See why I'm so excited to share this letter with y'all?
Hello! My name’s Kaveh Akbar, I’m a poet and an editor and a regular reader of this dispatch, even though I’m still a little upset about that self-knowledge quiz Allison recommended at the beginning of the year that told me my predominant personality characteristic was neediness. That’s like a fortune cookie telling you to lose weight. Or a birthday card in the mail that turns out to be from your dentist. Anyway! I’m very very glad to have the floor for a moment because I am constantly trying to recommend books to strangers and so seldom have such a dashing, intelligent audience as this (is this working? do you like me yet? stupid quiz).
One of the great surprises of my year was Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary. I got a review copy and, knowing nothing about it, threw it in a bag to take to the beach (along with a few cans of Diet Mountain Dew, a bag of tortilla chips, and a jar of salsa I ended up accidentally shattering in the parking lot). A Bestiary saved the trip; I read the whole thing cover to cover. It’s Argonauts-y quick-pivoting non-fiction (Maggie Nelson even blurbed it), full of quotable koans (“Although its math is precise, time has the texture of magic,” “I am probably less damaged than I feel right now”). Where Nelson leans academic, Hoang steers mythological—the book is full of fables and riffs on the Chinese zodiac. It’s ambitious, dealing with immigration and family and divorce and death and grief and addiction and lots more, but it’s also deeply fun. Ten salsa jars out of ten.
Another (differently) poem-ish book of non-fiction—Chris Forhan’s new My Father Before Me. It’s a gorgeous and stone-hard meditation on a father’s suicide (Forhan was fourteen when his father killed himself) by a poet-by-trade who now has boys of his own. Though there’s much here to be praised, Forhan’s sentences are the stars of the show. Just look: “Thank you, thank you, God, to whom we were taught to give thanks, for our mother’s Scandinavian sweet tooth, her love of Sunday pastries, and her one strange day a year—her day of shameless extravagance—when, with the buckets of wild blackberries we’d picked, she baked pie after pie after pie and presented each of her children with one and said this is your dinner, this whole pie is yours, no vegetables, just eat this pie till you’ve had enough, and if there’s some left, have at it again tomorrow.” Five blackberry pies out of five.
Speaking of bestiaries, I have a bunch of favorite new books by young poets that I want to talk about so instead of writing a bunch about each of them I’ve taken the liberty of pairing each with the animal I think it most closely resembles. If you want to know more about any of these, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or message me on Twitter (@KavehAkbar) for a more in-depth conversation/rant.
- Anaïs Duplan’s Take This Stallion would be a bee because I still can’t figure out how the poems work the way they do (scientists are still working out the mechanics of bee flight) and because if it could puke it would puke honey.
- Solmaz Sharif’s Look is a Javan rhinoceros because it’s immeasurably powerful and dangerous but also heartbreakingly lonely.
- Heather Christle’s Heliopause is a mantis shrimp because it’s constantly creating its own physics. And because it seems able to access a more complete spectrum of colors than other poetry books.
- Gretchen Marquette’s May Day is a blue macaw (because this).
- Ari Banias’s Anybody would be an origami crane (I made up the game I get to pick origami animals if I want) because the poems seem elegant and deliberate in their making but they’re also very playful and constantly bending towards and away from themselves.
- francine j. harris’s play dead is an elephant because it has a poem about a girl who cries crystals and elephants cry, don’t they? And they certainly grieve. And! They’re almost supernaturally intelligent, like this book.
- Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude would be a butterfly because it’s just lovely in exactly the same way a very lovely butterfly is lovely.
Okay, that’s it for now. Thanks so much for humoring me, and thanks to Allison for inviting me here and for making here. Let me know what you think, if you want. Not that you need to. Not that I need you to. Damn it.