The Best Poetry Books from 2015 I Should Read [My Year in Lists]
Before getting into today’s list, I want to point out a new trend in the Great Listicle Explosion of Book List-Making of 2015™: the “overlooked list.” This has probably been going on for as long as people could count to ten (a prerequisite for list-making), but I had overlooked it (yes, groan) until I saw Lit Hub’s list of overlooked books of 2015 followed by Lit Hub’s list of overlooked books of 2015 by women back-to-back on Facebook.
First off, the main (?) Lit Hub list contains two books on my Translations Everyone Was Talking about in 2015 list, and the rest are basically from major commercial presses. Such as Aleksandar Hemon’s latest! In what world is Hemon “overlooked.” Sure, this book didn’t get the same amount of love as his last one, but here’s a review of it in the NY Times. It was also reviewed in The Guardian, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Slate . . . (The list of overlooked women is better, although it includes a book on the general “overlooked” list and one by Jeannette Winterson. So unknown!)
It’s clear from these lists that the word “overlooked” can mean basically anything. Which, to be honest, is philosophically accurate. Who “overlooked” these books? Lit Hub? The general reading public? All of the literati at last week’s swanky lit party? Your mom? The mainstream media? Booksellers? God?
Anyway, to join in on this trend of flippant and marginally important list-making, today I’m going to post tne poetry collections I would’ve read and loved, if I read poetry. Based on my general knowledge of publishers, translators, and titles, I’m pretty much positivie that these are the best collections I should’ve read this year.
Just so you know, I do have three serious lists ready in my mind for the rest of this week, but since I’m extra-pressed for time today (in case you weren’t aware, Arsenal and Manchester City are playing at 3pm), these descriptions are going to be pretty thin. I’ll make up for it later, trust me.
Science Not for the Earth by Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated from the Russian by Rawley Grau (Ugly Duckling)
To be honest, I’m just including this one because I really like the title. That and it’s from Ugly Duckling Presse and they’ve never steered me wrong before. Plus, there’s this blurb: “Baratynsky is an oddity.“—Joseph Brodsky
Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, Ian Monk, Michelle Noteboom, and Jean-Jacques Poucel (Burning Deck Press)
I actually did read a few of the poems from this collection. They are insane and wonderful. Here’s an explanation from the Burning Deck website (another poetry publisher with incredible taste):
Frédéric Forte’s Minute-Operas are poems “staged” on the page. A simple vertical line of 3 inches separates what Forte calls the stage and the wings. The poet explores the potential of this form with multiple typographic games, calling on different registers of the language, different poetic techniques and, in the second part of the book, by “fixating as minute-operas” 55 existing poetic forms (come out of various poetic traditions or more recently invented by Oulipo, the famous French “Workshop for potential literature.”)
Rilke Shake by Angelica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Phoneme Books)
I said above that I don’t read much poetry, and to be completely honest, that’s absolutely true. I read the collections we published (selected by Jennifer Grotz), anything by Kim Hyesoon, and whatever makes the Best Translated Book Award longlist, but that’s about it. It’s not that I don’t respect poetry as a form—it just rarely seized my attention at night when I finally get to sit down to read a bit for myself (instead of for work). What I like most about poetry are poets explaining what they’re up to (that heady mix of theoretical art school terminology and total bullshit is really amazing to read and listen to), and poems that are funny.
gertrude stein has a big butt slide over gertrude
stein and when she slides it makes a great noise
as though someone dragged a wet cloth across
the huge glass window of a public building [. . .]
but gertude stein is a charlatan thinks it’s fine to let one
loose under the water eh gertrude stein? it’s impossible
that anyone could so enjoy making bubbles
Wild Grass on the Riverbank by Hiromi Ito, translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles (Action Books)
In case you haven’t figured this out yet, most of the books on this list are from a handful of presses—the ones that have earned a reputation for publishing the most daring, interesting works of poetry in translation. Seems to me that when it comes to poetry publishers, branding and reputation are even more crucial than they are for presses doing mostly fiction.
Anyway, from a review in Vice:
The 96-page tract demonstrates the author’s shift from verse to a more continuous, genre-bent experience, knitting a full narrative across its many still-fragmented parts. The work follows the travel of a family of many children, their mother, and a father who is both alive and dead, through fields of insane fauna, dystopian wasteland landscape, eerie haunted temporary homes, refrains of song fragments, skin plagues, and breakouts.
Reminiscent of the plunging-network narratives of Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette and Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the book goes into both the multivalent psyches of the human landscape and the ground we walk on, forging between them a trek that is by turns spiritual, spasmodic, romantic, furious, contemplative, and insane.
October Dedications by Mang Ke, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein (Zephyr Press)
Lucas Klein is a really stand-up guy who does a lot to promote Chinese poetry. He’s also been a judge for the PEN Translation Prize, and been mistaken for me at several ALTA conferences. (I don’t know that we look all that alike, except that we both have dark hair, are white, about the same height, and smile, but this happens more than you would expect.)
He also likes to get all up in my shit about mis-alphabetizing Chinese authors in my various lists and posts. This is totally my fault, although it’s not always that easy to figure out . . . Zephyr Press doesn’t even have this book on their website (which is woefully out of date), but even if they did, it probably wouldn’t be listed as “MANG Ke” or “Mang KE,” which would immediately make clear which is the surname. Wikipedia doesn’t do this either. I did some Googling and since “Mang” is a common Chinese surname, I think this should be under “M.”
The beauty of this list that I’ve put together though is that, even if “Ke” is his surname, this book is STILL properly alphabetized. I CAN NOT BE BEATEN TODAY.
Selected Poems by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss (New York Review Books)
Silvina Ocampo was an amazing writer and literary figure in Argentina (married to Adolfo Bioy Casares, friends with Borges, sister to Victoria who ran Sur) who, thanks to NYRB, is finally getting some of the attention she deserves from English readers. I’ve not read her poems (yet!), but if these are half as good as her stories . . . damn. I’d recommend buying both of her NYRB titles: this one and Thus Were Their Faces.
Hit Parade: The Orbita Group edited by Kevin Platt, translated from the Russian by fifteen different translators (Ugly Duckling)
The Orbita group is a creative collective of four poets—Sergej Timofejev, Artur Punte, Semyon Khanin, and Vladimir Svetlov—who live in Riga, Latvia and write poetry in Russian.
In part, I’m including this book because of Kaija’s Latvian heritage, although I know that Latvian Latvians have some mixed feelings about Russian Latvians . . . Anything Russian tends to bring up bad memories of that whole occupation and Soviet thing.
Regardless, this group sounds really interesting, and a few paragraphs from introduction makes this all clear:
These poems were written in Russian, yet they are not simply Russian poems. For one thing, they are written in free verse, and Russians are a bit particular about rhyme and meter. [. . .] For another thing, the primary context in which this poetry shoudl be seen is that of Latvia. The poets of Orbita participate actively in a bilingual cultural scene drawing from the multiple literary traditions of an intimately multinational society. [. . .]
Which is not to say that this is not Russian literature, too. Orbita has made a name for itself in Russia over the past decade or so with its sui generis texts that [. . .] push the boundaries of “mainland” Russian poetic traditions and expectations, charting out new possibilities of Russian literautre in the context of twenty-first-century “transnational Russian Culture.” This is Russian poetry out of bounds. [. . .]
Since the collapse of the USSR, Russian cultural life in the Baltic has, on the whole, become somewhat attenuated and rather conservative—if not provincial. Being in Europe, as it turns out, is sometimes challenging for Latvia’s sizable Russian-speaking minority in the twenty-first century. On the whole, the majority of Russians in Latvia feel cut off from the cultural homeland of the Russian Federation [. . .] and marginalized in Latvia.
Worth reading for that cultural context alone!
Twelve Stations by Tomasz Rozycki, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Zephyr Press)
I can’t remember where, but I’m almost positive that I heard Bill Johnston read part of this aloud . . . Maybe at Translation Loaf this past summer? Regardless of where I heard it, I remember wanting to grab a review copy of this when I got back to the office. Unfortunately, I can’t find it now to give you all a quote, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this epic poem is really interesting.
Besides, it’s Bill Johnston. That man could translate scraps of MFA garbage and I’d probably read it.
Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets by Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi, Sukirtharani, translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom (HarperCollins India)
It’s pretty rare that HarperCollins India sells their books into the U.S. market. Almost as rare as it is to have access to poetry by a female poet writing in Tamil . . .
To explain why I’m including this here, I’ll just quote the beginning of this introduction:
In 2003, at a time when politicians and other establishment figures of Tamil Nadu were caught up in a surge of Tamil chauvinism, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets, particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. They charged the women with obscenity and immodesty.
These women poets came into prominence at the same time; their first collections of poetry were published between the years 2000 and 2002, when they were in their late twenties and early thirties. Though each of these poets is unique in what she has to say in her poetry, there are some themes which are common to all of them, notably the politics of sexuality and a woman’s relationship to her body. For the moral police, such language was not permissible for Tamil women. So the poets were condemned and vilified. The debate gained focus with the publication of Kutti Revathi’s Mulaigal (Breasts, 2002). The poets received abusive letters from individuals as well as literary organizations. The media had a field-day. A popular song writer for films gave a much publicized interview to a literary journal condemning women writers in general. This was followed by another film-song writer, Snehithan, who appeared on television declaring that these women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive.
This is horrifying and disturbing, and probably happens more than any of us want to know. Fuck those people; buy and read this book. The poetry looks fairly straightforward, lyrical, with a political undercurrent that rings true even if you’re not familiar with the particular situation in Tamil Nadu.
The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman Waberi, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Seagull Books)
I love Abdourahman Waberi’s novels, which is why I wanted to include this here. It’s got a great, fun title, and it will be the only collection of poetry from Djibouti that you’ll read this year. (Most likely.)
Translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson, Waberi’s voice is intelligent, at times ironic, and always appealing. His poems strongly condemn the civil wars that have plagued East Africa and advocate tolerance and peace. In this compact volume, such ideas live side by side as a rosary for the treasures of Timbuktu, destroyed by Islamic extremists, and a poem dedicated to Edmond Jabès, the Jewish writer and poet born in Cairo.
OK, now that I’ve put this all together, I’m thinking that in 2016, I should try and read more poetry. I think it would be more interesting to read these with a group of people—especially people who actually know shit about poetry. Maybe, and this is one of those momentary ideas I probably won’t follow through on, we could start a sort of “International Book Club” via Three Percent and feature a new work of fiction and poetry every month. Each week we could have a post on both of these—from me, or from someone who actually knows something—about the author, the themes, some interesting tidbits, whatever. Readers could join in on Twitter or the Facebook or, if you’re old school, in the comments section. This could be interesting . . .