The Poetry Concierge Recommends: Warsan Shire

PoetryConcierge[The Poetry Concierge is an occasional feature here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses wherein I select a poem, poet, or book of poems for individual readers based on a short questionnaire. Come play along! Read the introductory post here, my first recommendation here, the reboot here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.]

This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Emily, who writes at The Bookshelf of Emily J.

1. When you read fiction, who’s your go-to author?

Joyce Carol Oates or John Steinbeck

2. If you read nonfiction, which subjects are most likely to interest you? (cultural history, science, biography, memoir, survival stories?)

I love cultural history. I just finished The Warmth of Other Suns about the great migration of African Americans from the south to other parts of the country. I learned so much and realized how much more we have left to do in terms of racial equality and acceptance.

3. If you were stuck on a desert island for a week, which five books would you bring to keep you entertained?

I would bring Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

4. If you were on a five-year mission to Mars, which five books would you bring to keep you sane?

Oh wow. Maybe five books from Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series because they always make me laugh.

5. What kinds of questions are most likely to keep you up at night? (death, the nature of love, politics, environmental issues, meaning of life, end of the world, justice and injustice, etc?)

My future and where academia will take me. I also get worried about issues with my kids. Sometimes nerves keep me up the day before a big presentation or a first day of teaching.

6. If you’ve read poetry before, what have you liked? What have you disliked?

I love William Wordsworth and William Blake. I had the opportunity to take a class on British lit as an undergrad, which included poetry, from Leslie Norris, a famed Welsh poet himself.

 


Well, for a while there I was stumped. Who to recommend? Elizabeth Barrett Browning (whose lifetime overlapped with Wordsworth’s, and whose poetry took on social issues of the day)? Emily’s favored Joyce Carol Oates, who is not only a prolific novelist, but also a poet? Langston Hughes (a contemporary of Steinbeck’s, and of course one of the great American poets)?

Possibilities abounded.

And then I watched Lemonade, the Beyonce visual album that came out this past weekend. The whole piece is utterly absorbing, but I found the poetry between songs most arresting of all. The poet is Warsan Shire, a British poet (she was born in Kenya and her parents are Somali) who earned fame with her 2011 short collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. In late 2015 she was profiled in the New Yorker; Alexis Okeowo wrote of her first collection, “It’s a first-generation woman always looking backward and forward at the same time, acknowledging that to move through life without being haunted by the past lives of your forebears is impossible.” You can read a bit more about Warsan Shire here. 

Her poem “Home” was quoted in the New York Times, and by Benedict Cumberbatch in his impassioned plea for aid to refugees after the curtain call for Hamlet (I saw the NT live production in the movie theater). You can read the poem here. 

I think, given Emily’s interest in social issues and the movement of people and cultural history (Steinbeck, The Warmth of Other Suns) that Ms. Shire’s work, which deals with immigration, diaspora, family history, belonging, violence, and womanhood, will be appealing, and still a change of pace. While you can find a few of her poems online—they tend to be widely shared—you should be able to find Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth in your library or in bookstores, and look out for her first full-length collection to appear late this year.

P.S. For those nerves, I recommend Hazel Hall’s “Before Quiet.” And if you’re looking for even more poetry of social engagement, you might want to check out the Split This Rock festival.

 


 

Would you like the Poetry Concierge to make a recommendation for you? Check out the introductory post, and send your answers to the questionnaire, along with the name and/or blog you’d like posted with the reply, to rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.

 

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The Poetry Concierge Recommends: Mary Oliver

PoetryConcierge[The Poetry Concierge is an occasional feature here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses wherein I select a poem, poet, or book of poems for individual readers based on a short questionnaire. Come play along! Read the introductory post here, my first recommendation here, the reboot here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.]

This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Audra at Unabridged Chick. 

1. When you read fiction, who’s your go-to author?

Penelope Lively

2. If you read nonfiction, which subjects are most likely to interest you? (cultural history, science, biography, memoir, survival stories?)

Biographies of authors

3. If you were stuck on a desert island for a week, which five books would you bring to keep you entertained?

Rebecca, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Kristin Lavransdatter, The Doomsday Book, and Good Omens

4. If you were on a five-year mission to Mars, which five books would you bring to keep you sane?

Kristin Lavransdatter, The Sparrow, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, and some Norton edition that is ten thousand of those onion-paper thin pages of all Western lit or something.

5. What kinds of questions are most likely to keep you up at night? (death, the nature of love, politics, environmental issues, meaning of life, end of the world, justice and injustice, etc?)

The loss of my child, politics, women’s rights, community violence

6. If you’ve read poetry before, what have you liked? What have you disliked?

Like Dylan Thomas and Sharon Olds, H.D. and Diane Wakoski. Diane Ackerman and Anna Akhmatova. Dislike old school guys or stuff with too many allusions that I can’t figure out.

 

(optional) Are you looking for a poem or poet to help you through a tough time, or to help you answer a question? If so, please explain.

Yes — I’m feeling so conflicted about work and creative endeavors — stressed and unhappy. I need advice, or a pep talk, or something. Centering, maybe.


Just like last week, there’s so much to work with here! Audra is into classics, sci-fi, some truly photo (60)great poetry (shout out to Anna Akhmatova!), a novelist I can’t believe I haven’t encountered before (putting Penelope Lively on my TBR immediately)–so many directions to choose from. I had Wislawa Szymborska, Margaret Atwood, and June Jordan in mind.

But it’s Audra’s answer to that last question that struck me as the most important, and one poet immediately leapt to mind: Mary Oliver*.

Chances are you’ve heard of Mary Oliver, since she’s one of the best-selling poets in the United States (though I confess I only started reading her work a few years ago). She’s the author of many collections and the recipient of many awards.

I recommend in particular House of Light (1990). Here’s a bit I wrote about the collection a few years ago:

A native of Northeast Ohio, Ms. Oliver now resides on Cape Cod (her poems celebrate its interior marshes more than its seashore), and since I grew up in Cleveland and now live in Boston (and married a man from Cape Cod), her poems often feel homey and familiar to me. I love the intimacy of her observations, the feeling, almost, of conversation. This feeling of casual grace is remarkable, because elsewhere Ms. Oliver has written that she revises most poems forty or fifty times!

I think this collection is right for Audra because of the contemplative feel and focus and nature often feel centering, while a few poems are galvanizing, like the famous “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

A huge question, but with this book in hand, one feels better prepared to face it.

Audra, I hope this recommendation is helpful! Thank you for writing in.

P.S. Audra, if you want some poetry with a sci-fi twist, you might also want to check out the panel “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand: Poetry and Science Fiction,” moderated by Heather Hughes, at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival later this month.

 


 

Would you like the Poetry Concierge to make a recommendation for you? Check out the introductory post, and send your answers to the questionnaire, along with the name and/or blog you’d like posted with the reply, to rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.

*No relation to yours truly.

The Poetry Concierge Recommends: Claudia Rankine

PoetryConcierge[The Poetry Concierge is an occasional feature here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses wherein I select a poem, poet, or book of poems for individual readers based on a short questionnaire. Come play along! Read the introductory post here, my first recommendation here, the reboot here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.]

This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Jenny of Reading the End. 

1. When you read fiction, who’s your go-to author?

It’s so hard to choose just one! I’m going to say Maggie Stiefvater, because she’s the blend of creepiness and feelings and Societal Issues that I’m feeling very fond of right now.

2. If you read nonfiction, which subjects are most likely to interest you? (cultural history, science, biography, memoir, survival stories?)

Cultural studies is always good for me — anything that describes society with a keen eye, whether it’s our present society now or a time long past.

3. If you were stuck on a desert island for a week, which five books would you bring to keep you entertained?

I’d probably pick five from my TBR list relatively at random, depending on what my mood was like. Probably at least two hefty nonfiction books, to last me; a romance novel for funsies; a YA novel I’ve been anticipating for a while; and a big fat chunky novel that I’ve been putting off reading for a while, like East of Eden.

4. If you were on a five-year mission to Mars, which five books would you bring to keep you sane?

Angels in America, the Bible, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s letters, Shakespeare, and Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock.

5. What kinds of questions are most likely to keep you up at night? (death, the nature of love, politics, environmental issues, meaning of life, end of the world, justice and injustice, etc?)

What will happen to the people I love (death sometimes, illness sometimes, lost jobs sometimes), and how frustrating it is that I don’t have the power to change it.

6. If you’ve read poetry before, what have you liked? What have you disliked?

I love June Jordan and CP Cavafy and Paradise Lost; I’ve never had any luck with poets who gaze at flowers like Wordsworth and Shelley (sorry, dudes).


 

So much to work with here! Jenny is an omnivorous reader after my own heart (and, confession, Wordsworth and Shelley have never been my favorites either).

First I focused on the creepy angle from Jenny’s answer to the first question, because that’s not something I see too often. It put me in mind of Louise Glück’s “All Hallows” or a handful of Emily Dickinson poems (nothing like a dead speaker for creepiness).

But then I circled back around to Jenny’s interest in social issues, which she not only mentions explicitly, but also shows in her literary picks (June Jordan, Shakespeare, Milton, Angels in America, the Bible, East of Eden). Audre Lorde leapt to mind (“Never to Dream of Spiders,” “Coal,” A Woman Speaks”), and I think Jenny might like those poems, and also Tracy K. Smith’s book Life on Mars (especially given what keeps Jenny up at night), but I thought choosing Life on Mars would be cheating since I’ve already recommended it. 

Then I wandered around my house full of books, and found the answer in the hallway: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which I just read last week (two weeks ago, by the time you read this) and was about to return to the library.

IMG_6469Citizen won many, many awards (and got some unexpected media attention), and rightly so. It’s a hybrid of poetry, images and essay, a wide-ranging witnessing of how race and racism and race work in America (and it’s also fantastic sports writing, which I haven’t seen often mentioned). It combines the poet’s personal experiences (as in this excerpt, which you can hear Claudia Rankine read here), considerations of the media’s treatment of African American citizens, meditations on the injustices we’ve all seen in the news. It’s an important, formally exciting book (and so popular that my library still has a waitlist for it, even though it was published in 2014!).

I hope you have a chance to read Citizen, Jenny, and that it’s a pick that’s right for you!


 

Would you like the Poetry Concierge to make a recommendation for you? Check out the introductory post, and send your answers to the questionnaire, along with the name and/or blog you’d like posted with the reply, to rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.