A Life in Poetry
Poets & Writers Magazine|January - February 2021
Our sixteenth annual look at debut poets
By Dana Isokawa

Every year since 2005 we have highlighted a group of writers who have published their first full-length poetry collections in the prior twelve months. We ask the poets to describe what set their books in motion, what keeps them returning to the page, and how they live as writers. When we inquire how long it took to write their books, every year several reply, “My whole life.” And this makes sense—a book is not the work of a moment or simply a product of the time the poet was setting down words on the page. Many of the poets have been writing poems—or the poems that helped them get to the ones in their books—for decades. Many have been fashioning their relationship to language, their manner of responding and speaking through and about their concerns, their entire lives. They have been going through, as poet Taylor Johnson says, “the process of articulation and learning my own language.” Or, to use Chad Bennett’s words, the “eccentric, vitalizing process” that makes up “a life in poetry.”

So this year, like every year, we want to spotlight ten debut collections and the ten lives in poetry that led to those books. We want to celebrate Anthony Cody’s inventive, visually sprawling Borderland Apocrypha and his practice of writing lines in a phone book. To celebrate Chessy Normile’s humorous, vulnerable Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party, and the four friends who read her manuscript and urged her to see it for what it was. To celebrate the taut and visceral poems in Tommye Blount’s Fantasia for the Man in Blue and his habit of sitting by Walled Lake near Novi, Michigan, to write. To recognize the books of the poets featured here who write while balancing multiple gigs, who write while contending with trauma, illness, and great change.

In their replies the poets offer a broad range of advice for writing through impasses and publishing a collection. Common ideas surface: Many recommend writers take their time and take ownership over their work, like Destiny O. Birdsong, who says, “Time made it better because I got better at being myself as a poet, at hearing my own voice and following my own instincts.” Several suggest focusing not on public recognition, but on sharing your book with your community and, as Claire Meuschke says, “leaning toward the select few who enjoy your work.” And threading through all the poets’ replies is a sense of how joyful and how hard writing can be. “You are doing difficult, vulnerable work,” says Leila Chatti. “Language is such a complex and unwieldy technology, capable of profound softness and unfathomable violence,” says torrin a. greathouse.

Many authors and publishers have noted that 2020 has been an unusually difficult year to release a book, especially a debut. “You’re going to face challenges beyond your control,” Roy G. Guzmán says. Public health precautions have precluded many in-person book gatherings, and many writers have likely found releasing a book to be removed from, or secondary to, the demands of caring for themselves, their families, and their communities. So in a year when it might have felt strange for anyone to draw attention to their debuts, we are glad to fete these poets a little, these authors whose books have emerged from a committed and sustained engagement with poetry.

DANA ISOKAWA is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Anthony Cody

BORDERLAND APOCRYPHA

Omnidawn Publishing (Omnidawn Open Poetry Book Contest)

To narrow a body, excise. —from “Bracero(s) & The Ice Car”

HOW IT BEGAN: I was preparing to leave the country on a trip and had to take a passport photograph at a local drugstore. While I was in line an older white man stood uncomfortably in my personal space and made a joke—in reality a microaggression—asking me if I was afraid of the current president and trying to flee the country. Perhaps it was milliseconds, perhaps it was minutes, but in that provocation all the scenarios of what could happen next played out in my mind. Would I confront him? Would I laugh it off? Would I say anything? Ultimately I took a half step toward him and looked into his eyes without expression. He backed away and left. This moment sat with me for months, and I ended up writing a poem about the event. As time went on I began making more connections between that poem, which would become the opening poem of Borderland Apocrypha; the archival research around the period the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed; and the subtle, and not so subtle, histories that had built up to the moment.

INSPIRATION: Being in community with other poets, writers, and artists. The act of writing feels like a meditation in loneliness and often a study in rejection, so community feels vital. To talk, collaborate, share your work, manifest, dream, and support one another in the struggle helps keep me grounded and focused.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: I walk away. The internet, the algorithm, and capitalism want us to go as hard as we can until we are spent, only to start over again. If I can’t push a project any further, I change mediums or do something else entirely. I write inside a phone book. I break down cardboard and sketch and build. I read and read and read or dive into the internet and research or obsess over a song that I loop and dissolve into for days. Writing is often more about listening than it is about the act of writing, so if the writing ceases, I know it is time I stop what I am attempting, listen more, and reimagine the path.

ADVICE: Poetry is not a competition or a race. For many years I did not write regularly. I worked. I read. I wandered. For much of my twenties, and even a portion of my thirties, I engaged in a variety of creative projects all while working at nonprofits, as well as at a wastewater reclamation and recycling plant. I did everything except write poems. All those friendships, experiences, and time gave me a chance to slowly understand the book I wanted to write into this world.

AGE: 39.

RESIDENCE: Fresno, California.

JOB: I am currently shifting from my MFA in creative writing at Fresno State to looking for a full-time job. In the meantime I serve on the volunteer communications staff for CantoMundo and as an associate poetry editor for Noemi Press.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: Thirteen consecutive months.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: About a year.

Taylor Johnson

INHERITANCE

Alice James Books

No name in the city of undoing I lengthen beyond what I know —from “self/hood”

HOW IT BEGAN: The poems in Inheritance were formed while I walked around D.C. or had conversations with friends and lovers, or as a response to a theoretical framework I was trying to understand. Each poem has its own sense of time and reality, and I wasn’t considering other poems that I’d written when I was in the process of writing a new one; I let the sounds emerge as their own. Ultimately the compulsion was to respond.

INSPIRATION: Riding public transportation in D.C., walking Georgia Avenue, walking Fourteenth Street, laughter, the Greyhound bus, The Poetics of Space (Presses Universitaires de France, 1958) by Gaston Bachelard, Fred Moten’s consent not to be a single being trilogy, go-go music, Roland Barthes’s essay “The Grain of the Voice.”

INFLUENCES: Christopher Gilbert’s Across the Mutual Landscape (Graywolf Press, 1984) found me in a used bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and when I read it, it seemed as if we’d always been in conversation. When I was twenty-one I was fading out of school and I found Fred Moten’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and his collaboration with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013). Both texts changed how I understood critique, which is adoration, and study, which is connection. And I first applied to Cave Canem when I was sixteen after reading Dawn Lundy Martin’s poem “Negrotizing in Five or How to Write a Black Poem.” In the moment, the poem reached me where I was, which was inside the process of articulation and learning my own language— “phonemic struggle,” as Martin says in the poem.

WRITER’S BLOCK REMEDY: Lately, listening to Keith Jarrett’s concert in Köln, Germany, has kept me going. I’m moved by his vocalizations and foot-stomping in the first part of the improvisation. If I’m at an impasse it means I’m stopping myself. When I stop myself it’s because I’ve reached an emotional impasse, for which I take a walk to try and work it out. Sometimes if I’m at an impasse in writing, I’ll watch a film; it’s been Cléo From 5 to 7 these days.

ADVICE: I think it’s important to find silence and to be periodically defamiliarized with your voice and your sense of saying things.

AGE: 29.

RESIDENCE: New Orleans.

JOB: I engage my mind for a living. I write poems and have begun exploring creating installations and expanding my sense of a poem into something physical and immersive.

TIME SPENT WRITING THE BOOK: Four years.

TIME SPENT FINDING A HOME FOR IT: Three months.

Leila Chatti

DELUGE

Copper Canyon Press

... All night I listen for you listening. If there is something you need to tell me, God, you must tell it to me yourself. —from “Annunciation”

HOW IT BEGAN: I first became sick— or realized I was sick—in 2012, the year I applied to MFA programs. The entirety of my MFA overlapped with the illness at the center of Deluge; I would go to class, then to the hospital, and then return home to write my poems for workshop. I wrote the initial poems in Deluge not because I imagined I was writing a book, but because I was learning how to write and because I desperately wanted to understand my experience; poems were how I processed and grieved. It wasn’t until a year after my graduation, when I was living with my mentor Dorianne Laux, trying to sort out what to do next with my life, that I realized, with her insight, I had begun a book. What compelled me to finish the book were the questions writing unearthed for me and the understanding that my specific experience of misogyny—in faith, medicine, and literature—was part of a larger, urgent problem I couldn’t look away from.

INSPIRATION: I read a good deal of scripture and religious texts while writing the book—the Qur’an and the Bible, hymns and hadiths, as well as other spiritual texts such as Saint Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. I also spent a lot of time in museums looking at the religious artwork, particularly the depictions of Mary.

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