April 6, 2023
by Lynnell Edwards, poetry faculty
In past years I have used this space each April to proclaim my commitment to a “poem-a-day” project in honor of National Poetry Month, or other plans for vigorously engaging my writing practice. But this year, I am taking National Poetry Month as the particular occasion to reinvigorate my habit of reading poetry. Yes, a vigorous habit of daily writing surely leads to stronger writing, but the importance of reading cannot be overstated. Not only do we need more readers of poetry to widen our community, no habit better tunes our own sensibilities about craft than reading—deeply and widely and often. As I am recently laden with a haul of books gathered at the recent annual AWP conference in Seattle, what follows is my “poetry playlist” for this month.
Whatever else the 800+ vendors at the sprawling AWP Bookfair might offer, the one thing you can count on is great deals on great books from independent literary presses—and the two-for-fifteen-dollars deal at Alice James Books was too good to pass up. First, Shira Erlichman’s Odes to Lithium is a collection I have wanted to read for several years after seeing it reviewed in 2019. Erlichman’s raw documentation of living with bipolar disorder, including her original artwork, is unflinching; her accounts of hospitals, doctors, medications—especially lithium—electric:
everything on this brutal blue
dot is constructed of elemental attraction
Intersecting with my own interests in the effects of mental illness on our family, I am both mesmerized by and afraid of what the work will teach me.
My second purchase, Shara McCallum’s No Ruined Stone, proceeds from what must be one of the most highly imaginative premises for a collection of poetry. Simply summarized on the back cover, the book is “a speculative account of Scottish poet Robert Burns’ planned migration to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation.”
Well, so she had me at Scottish! But I love this kind of creative projection onto historical material. And, bonus! She includes an author’s note about her research and process, and a bibliography of her sources for further reading on Burns, the history of Jamaica, and Scottish migration generally to Jamaica, which heretofore I did not realize was a thing. From the opening dedicatory poem “No Ruined Stone,” a direct address to Burns, wherein she begins "You saturate the sight / of those who come after, poets / and painters alike,"
to the opening “Dramatis Personae” page that provides a cast of characters, and through the timelines and photographic artwork, McCallum is enacting an expansive model of what documentary and historical poetry can be.
Further indulging my love of historically researched poetry and concept books generally, I was delighted to hear Honorée Fanonne Jeffers discuss her writing and her collection The Age of Phillis at the conference. Persona poems, found poems, poems that take the form of letters, narratives, and imagined public documents and records—all work together to create a total historical picture of the age of Phillis Wheatley. This new collection also fans my scholarly heart with a comprehensive bibliography and a terrific critical afterword discussing the available biographical information about Wheatley, her work as a poet, and Jeffers’ own research journey for this book.
I may be the last poetry lover to read Victoria Chang’s 2020 collection Obit, but this month I intend to join the ranks of those who have similarly been intrigued by the obituary-shaped poems and her themes of grief and loss. The few poems I have read in other places are startling in their innovation and lyric candor, and I suspect there is good reason the work has received significant press and national awards.
In addition to being the occasion for buying more books than you can reasonably carry home, AWP is always a time for seeing old friends and making new ones. I am looking forward to Winter, Glossolalia by Louisville colleague and friend John James, a beautifully made chapbook he so generously gifted me over drinks after a long day of conferencing. The slim volume of winter tableaus beckons to be read in a single sitting, on a sunny deck in the brightening April days. A mutual friend introduced me to a new friend, Michael Kleber-Diggs, and after talking about our common connections in Minneapolis, and feeling the spark of a new friendship, he shared a copy of his book Worldly Things with me. Moments later, I had to stop myself from sitting down right there in the middle of the book fair chaos after reading the first lines of the stunning first poem, “End of Class”:
Black boy in the backseat of a cop car
across the street from my daughter’s jr. high,
hands cuffed behind his back: hard to see
him like that.
Knowing that I wanted to save this work for the time and space in my day it deserved, I slipped it into my bag. Visiting it now, I know that it will be the first pages I read on April 1.
Finally, having just received my April issue of Poetry magazine, I resolve to read it. For those of you who, like me, subscribe to more journals than we can reliably read, this is no small commitment. Editor Adrian Matejka has compiled suites of poems by the eleven(!) Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize 2022 recipients for lifetime achievement. In recognition of the journal’s 110th anniversary, eleven were selected—one for each decade—rather than the usual single poet. As he puts it in his introduction, the “living legends in these pages . . . have been celebrating, protesting, emboldening, untangling, re-remembering, mythologizing, and stirring shit up their entire careers.” Each suite of poems is introduced by another, contemporary poet whose work or life resonates with the featured Lilly recipient. Jericho Brown introducing Rita Dove? Camille T. Dungy introducing Sharon Olds? Yes, please. This issue’s a keeper.
If you haven’t made a habit of reading poetry, there is not better time to start than National Poetry Month. I’d love to hear what’s on your playlist (feel free to riff on the one I’ve curated here) and I’d especially like your perspectives of any of the works I’ve mentioned. Contact me with your rants and raves about poetry at email@example.com.
Lynnell Edwards serves as the Associate Programs Director and faculty in poetry for the Sena Jeter Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing. Her most recent collection, This Great Green Valley, is available from Broadstone Books. Her forthcoming collection from Red Hen Press is The Bearable Slant of Light, 2024. She also serves as Book Reviews editor for Good River Review.