Kerf by Gareth Farmer

Kerf is a poetry collection that explores woodworking and craft, autism, and language, often together, and is intercut with images of notebook pages and wooden crafts. Farmer’s thoughtful introduction ‘Kerf. A Brief Excursus’ sets up the book—I particularly enjoyed how the term ‘kerf’ was explored and then potential metaphors dissected. Some of my favourite poems from the collection are ‘And, Now What?’ with its repeated question and movement towards actuality, ‘Contra Expressivities’ for its thoughts and formatting, and ‘Sssssssstiiiiimye’ for the way it enacts experience and sibilance.

The collection seems to close with the longer poem ‘What’s That: Instead of Ego’ which moves through various phases to explore autism and woodworking craft hand-in-hand, though coming after this is both the ‘Glossary of Woodworking Terms and Concepts used in Kerf‘ and Further Reading. The Glossary was weirdly one of my favourite parts of the book, full of wit and offhand side notes that sit nicely alongside the linguistic cleverness and exploration of the poems that come previous. At times I became lost amongst the woodworking and theoretical terms in the collection, but I enjoyed finding my way back.

Yo-yo Heart by Laura Doyle Péan

Translated and introduced by Stuart Bell

Yo-yo Heart is a poetry collection that tells the story of the aftermath of heartbreak, a personal diary after a split with a girlfriend. Split into five ‘days’ that correspond to phases in the grief and emotion of the narrator, the poems chart how everyday moments intersect with emotion and also explore the political behind such grief. Laura Doyle Péan opens the collection with a prologue about the process of survival, healing and vulnerability, ending with the memorable manifesto “allowing oneself to be vulnerable / is a political act” and they suffuse this throughout the book.

The collection is translated from Quebec French and the translator, Stuart Bell, also introduces the book to discuss the translation and the poetry itself. I particularly appreciated the discussion of some of the original French and where it has specifically Canadian and political elements, meaning that as I was reading I could have a sense of the original text lingering underneath even without having it on the page. There’s also short explanations of key pop culture references, which poetry collections have been doing more and more, and in this instance it allows for some Canadian references to be explained for readers from other countries.

The short length and powerful imagery of the poems as they move through each section makes this a hard-hitting collection, showing how healing mental processes take time even as the parts claim to be individual days. The use of space in the collection, both around words and also poems, adds to this, as well as to the initial isolation of the break up. The way images are expressed (in translation, of course) brings wit and sadness, for example in lines like “cooking soothes Ricardo tells me / i cut off the carrot ends / just like you have / all contact”.

Day 3 has some particularly memorable elements, starting with the poem containing the collection’s title and having a poem that explores grief for the personal whilst political injustice, especially borders and imprisonment, go on in the world. The way that the entire collection, not only through this poem, emphasises that personal and societal sadnesses occur at the same time and it can be a political act to be able to express yourself is a highlight of the book. Also in Day 3 is another of my favourite set of lines in the collection, “in pastel gel pen I have written / invitation cards / to all my demons / to the monsters under my bed / where I’m going / you are going too”.

Yo-yo Heart is a book that will stay with me for a while, thanks to the use of sparse imagery, emotion, space, and politics throughout a narrative of heartbreak and slow healing. It is in a style I love and I really enjoy collections that tell a full story using any style of poetry.

A Little Resurrection by Selina Nwulu

A Little Resurrection is the first full-length collection by Nwulu, with poems that explore places and spaces, race, and navigating your position in the world. Some of the poems form parts of sequences woven through the collection, like the ‘Conversations at the Bus Stop’ and ‘Repatriation’ poems, and others explore various facets of similar things, like the loss of a parent. 

I particularly enjoyed a lot of the imagery throughout the poems, with lots of lines and ideas that really stick with you (for example, in ‘My Dad’s Jacket Lives On in a Pop-Up Bar in Shoreditch’ and the final line of ‘Half-Written Love Letter’), and carefully sketched out human relationships like the “what if” of ‘Never Mine’. The engagement with space, particularly the modern reality of living in a city in ‘We Have Everything We Need’ also stands out, bringing in the global and climate impacts of having city convenience and inconvenience, and also the idea of which spaces are for who which runs throughout many of the poems.

Artemis Made Me Do It by Trista Mateer

Artemis Made Me Do It is a poetry collection from the dual lens of Artemis and the poet, exploring ideas of survival and trauma and using your own power. The collection is split into sections, alternating between Artemis and “the poet”, and combines text poems with elements of collage and tarot. I particularly liked the Artemis sections, which explore the various myths surrounding Artemis and how these can be useful in a modern context, thinking about how stories are told and how someone is viewed. I enjoyed the collage parts too, and I think the general witchy/tarot vibe will appeal to a lot of people. Some of the poems were less to my taste as I’m not so much of a fan of very short poems that feel like aphorisms, which were particularly prevalent in the “poet” sections, though I feel that the collection did work well from having both parts, weaving together the two voices in conversation.

oh, you thought this was a date?! by C. Russell Price

oh, you thought this was a date?! is a poetry collection exploring the apocalypse through trauma, desire, and the realities of America. The collection is split into sections, each with a quote, dictionary definition, ‘Soundtrack’ and ‘Ritual’, and the book feels like a ritual overall, a chance to speak about brutality and destruction through lyric and song. There’s a lot of music, titles and lyrics, infuses throughout the book and it almost feels like the hazy soundtrack to a wasteland, playing whilst poems explore kinds of apocalypse, trauma, vengeance, and personal histories. At times, in poems like ‘Ars Poetica: We Can Take Our Turn, Singing Them Dirty Rap Songs’ but also through its own structure and tone, it is also a manifesto for poetry that isn’t “fluff”, that does things rather than gently meditate, and that’s a good message to leave with: poetry should have power, and can feel dangerous to those who’d rather it was hidden.

100 Queer Poems ed. by Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan

100 Queer Poems is an anthology of, as the title suggests, 100 poems from across the twentieth and twenty-first century that evoke queerness in some way, with the introductions by each editor exploring some of the definitions and ideas behind this concept. Split into seven sections, the poems follow a range of topics and styles, with some in translation, so there’s likely to be something for most people to enjoy, regardless of what sort of poetry you prefer.

For me, I found myself often most drawn to poems by poets I’ve already read (Mary Jean Chan, Matthew Haigh, Peter Scalpello, Richard Scott, Danez Smith), which possibly suggests that I’m already good at finding the poetry I like, and it was nice to read various poets together. I found myself drawn into the collection and accidentally stayed up too late reading it all in one go, almost in suspense for what poem would come next. I would like to have a physical copy (I read the book in PDF form) to use as a proper anthology, to flick through and dog ear and find that specific poem you want to read again at that moment.

Probably my favourite poem in the collection is one I think I’ve read before, Harry Josephine Giles’ ‘May a transsexual hear a bird?’, which I don’t think will ever stop being such a powerful poem and one that strikes a real message about poetry and what can be in it, offering with that an interesting commentary on what should or could be included in any collection of queer poetry. Surprisingly, I also found myself really drawn to the ability to reread Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, a poem I’ve read a lot but not recently, in the context of poems from a range of decades, but especially alongside a lot of modern poetry. Some other poems that stood out to me were ‘Go Away and Then Come Back by Martha Sprackland, ‘I See That Lilith Hath Been with Thee Again’ by Shivanee Ramlochan, and ‘Ganymede’ by Jericho Brown.

As the introductions touch upon, it is refreshing to see a major publisher bringing out such an anthology, which feels like the sort of book that all queer poets and poetry fans need a copy of, both as something to return to and as a representation of a current moment (which the acknowledgements suggest, referring to the idea of there being another one of these in ten years). As with any anthology, people are going to prefer different poems or wonder why certain things weren’t included, but it is a great chance to survey some of the queer poetry out there from the past 100 years or so. It’s a jumping off point rather than a closed book, as any good anthology should be, and I think it just being readily available and visible is still important.

Time Is A Mother by Ocean Vuong

Time is a Mother is Ocean Vuong’s second collection of poetry, exploring grief and memory and the important details as well as larger questions of self and place. The writing is lyrical and beautiful, as I expected, but also the poems are highly readable, telling stories and putting together images masterfully. 

My two favourites were probably ‘Beautiful Short Loser’, which feels like a collection of biting observations and tells multiple stories at once, and ‘Not Even’, which is a breathtaking look at self and the past. I also particularly liked ‘Dear T’ and ‘No One Knows the Way to Heaven’, and I enjoyed a lot of the different use of form, particularly space, and also the format of ‘Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker’ which was very powerful whilst only using an Amazon purchase history.

Fans of Ocean’s Vuong’s poetry probably won’t be disappointed—I wasn’t, but was drawn into the poems, and I’ll definitely want to return to them. I’m still in awe at the combination of powerful meaning, concisely expressed thoughts, and sheer readability of Vuong’s poetry.

At Least This I Know by Andrés N. Ordorica

At Least This I Know is a collection of poetry that explores belonging in a range of forms: nation, race, sexuality, family, future, and more. The book is split into sections – ‘Where I begin’, ‘How I have grown’, ‘What I have lost’, ‘What I have given’, ‘He that I love’ and ‘Where I will burn’ – and I really liked how this took you on a journey through the poems, enacting journeys of the poet and also giving a sense of going deeper into issues of belonging and self.

I knew I was going to like the collection from the first poem ‘November 16th, 2014’, which is a perfect opening for it: a moment at border control, encapsulating fear and desire for a place to belong, and a poem that almost makes you laugh and cry at once. From there, the collection moves on to images of family, like being passed photos around and told stories, and then onto growing up and queerness, loss, and place. 

I really liked the use of repetition in many of the poems, used to various effects, for example in ‘By the seashore’, one of my favourites in the collection, in a way that really gets across how certain details can become entwined with grief and traumatic moments. Also, the repetition (and variation) in ‘These pyramids are houses for the dead’ stood out to me, especially with the font size changes, and the poem has such a powerful sense of place and what people can lay claim to.

I also like the understated love poetry in the collection, especially ‘We are young and still have time’ and ‘It had been so long’, which both have a beautiful sense not only of tiny moments of love, but also time, the seeming unreality of it and maybe how queerness impacts that, changing the effects of looking back or thinking of a future.

In short, I loved this collection, which captured me from the start, with its wit, phrasing and powerful simplicity combined with explorations of all sorts of things that make up a person and make them feel like they belong somewhere. Occasionally I had to pause reading at the end of a poem to think ‘damn, that’s good’.

(Note: Thanks for 404 Ink for the proof copy – the book is out now via their website)

My favourite non-2021 books I read in 2021

I always do a ‘best books I read this year that weren’t out this year’ list, to fully appreciate any books I was catching up on/not born for/etc, but this year it is crucial, because this year is the year I read Lote and the year I read Tommy Pico. So we have to start with my two new faves:

  • Lote by Shola von Reinhold – Not so much the book I didn’t know I needed as much as the book I knew I needed but did not have. A friend gave me this thinking I would like it, maybe not that it would quickly become one of my favourite books of all time. We follow Matilda through Transfixions, aesthetics, and questions of who gets to define history and taste in a book that does Gender Feelings and made me google people and just generally feel like I got so much from it. I read it twice in 2021 and that may have not been enough.
  • IRL, Nature Poem, and Feed by Tommy Pico – I read three of Tommy Pico’s poetry books this year, and the only reason I’ve not read the fourth is that I’m saving it on my ‘to read’ pile that some kind of hoarder. I love long poems, I love books that are a single poem, and I love how Tommy Pico writes. I was sold and then I read the lines “Stop fucking / posting about “veggies,” truly / America’s most disgustingly / perky word”. Also, this year I watched Reservation Dogs because Pico writes on it, so got even more great content.

Okay, fine, I did read some other great books from not-2021 this year too, so here’s a few others that I’ll go less feral for:

  • Homie by Danez Smith – I read a whole bunch of recent-ish poetry on catch up this year and this was another stand out book, about friendship and loss.
  • Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang – A short novel about where you come from, as a trans woman deals with grief and explores her aunt’s secret relationship, that was just really good.
  • Infect Your Friends And Loved Ones by Torrey Peters – If we’re talking short… this novella was one of those ‘I know I need to read it’ and then I read Peters’ Detransition, Baby (which will come on the proper year list) and then I finally read this and it was fantastically witty and dark.
  • The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen – The only graphic novel I read this year, and it gets onto my top books list… the art style is beautiful (I basically picked this up because I saw a picture of the cover) and the tale of using stories to communicate where you don’t have other words is very emotional.

I read some other great poetry this year, but actually a lot of the non-out-this-year books I read this year were a bit of a let down, maybe because with all the reviewing and actual day job I didn’t get time to read as much of a mix as I’d like, especially not older stuff. Still, I got some new obsessed-with favourites out of the year, which I’ll take as a win.

Anyway, my list of actual 2021 books will be coming soon (and then, if you’re lucky, some kind of ‘spite list’/things I didn’t like in books this year)…

Where Decay Sleeps by Anna Cheung

Where Decay Sleeps is a collection of poetry split into seven stages of decay: pallor mortis, algor mortis, rigor mortis, livor mortis, putrefaction, decomposion and skeletonisation. Using seven themes, the poems explore haunted elements and everyday gothic, merging horror creatures with modern technology and creating spooky atmospheres.

I particularly enjoyed some of the twists on modern life, like ‘Monster Tinder’ and ‘Dinner with Dracula’, which were tongue in cheek, and the combination of those with more serious poems like ‘Decay, The Stalker’. The variety of kinds of gothic poetry was nice, with some poems a walk in an eerie woods and others a sudden reveal of gruesome bodies. The poetry is accessible and it’s a good collection for gothic horror fans who perhaps don’t read many poems as well as poetry fans who like a bit of haunting.