Today’s political landscape teems with critical topics; the economy, women’s rights and our diplomatic relations with China are but a few. These issues carry catch phrases and slogans that are disseminated to the general public via media and pop culture. We, the public, are inundated with instant clichés at every turn: television, magazines and sometimes even in literature and poetry. However, those of us that enjoy poetry expect subtlety, skill and guile because when it comes to poetry slogans and political banter simply will not do. Enter Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire a collection that speaks volumes on “the issues” without declaiming from one single soapbox.
Hong’s latest collection moves through the Civil War era, modern day China and the future as it conveys a startling idea: that human greed, ignorance and apathy are not necessarily resolved by technology but helped along by it.
Engine Empire has received a good amount of praise. The collection is full of imagination and creativity. However, something must also be said about its authenticity and the way in which the book makes its social commentary. The diction in “Ballad of Our Jim,” the first section of the book, is pure Mark Twain. Hong creates music that is unforced, hard at its colloquial best and authentic, “A horse hair tightrope tied from one barrack to another, / and the crowd jeers and rails / til a rouge-doused banker in a stove pipe hat / is pushed from the balcony, trembling against the ledge.” In an interview with the Paris Review Hong described some of her research for the book and for the opening chapter, “I read Zane Gray, Larry McMurtry, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner’s Light in August. I had a couple of wonderful Old West dictionaries.”
The aforementioned “Jim,” separated from his family during a raid, is the chapter’s silent protagonist, moving along the frontier with a band of brothers; a rag tag family of gold rush fevered low lives.
so we pluck one boy from the litter,
lure him out with hen fruit and fresh violet marrow.
We pounce him. Christen him Jim.
September 2nd, 2013 / 11:00 am
23 More People Who Made Me Care About Poetry in 2013 (From One of the Million People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013)
When I first moved to Manhattan in 2008, I roughly knew about three people in the entire city. I lived in a bedbug-infested apartment on 139th Street with a sugar baby, a Bubba Gump Shrimp waiter, and a digital retoucher. At the time, I thought I was going to work as an assistant in photo studios while applying to MFA programs on the side—a plan that ended up completely shifting (no MFA, au revoir photo world)—but that’s not what I’m here to write about. I knew nothing of the NYC literary world, especially that of poetry. One day I had wandered into a library near 103rd to check out some familiar books. I saw a flyer for POETRY DISCUSSION GROUP / TONIGHT’S THEME: DEATH and hung around, hoping to meet some poets. And talk about death, of course.
What I ended up was sitting in a circle with about a dozen people, myself the only person under 60. As one cantankerous woman pointed out—most of them were “sitting in god’s waiting room” & it was “foolish to romanticize death”. This lead to a shouting match between attendees. So there I sat, hands in lap, in a coven of curmudgeons, horribly embarrassed at how much I misgauged what I thought I would be participating in. This is not to say that these old folks couldn’t have schooled me. I perhaps have never witnessed a more intensely personal discussion of death with any group of strangers in such a short amount of time in such a public space. But my point is that geography is a strange creature, containing wheels inside wheels. I wanted to meet young poets in their early 20s who would show me who they were reading, where they were reading at, where they hung out. This Upper West Side library, much to my ignorance, was not that place. I didn’t find that niche for a long time, even though we all lived inside the same city. It took many misguided open mics and weird basement readings to find the people I wanted to be around.
In some ways, I’d say this year is the first year I’ve been asked to read at series that I didn’t have to creepily solicit (although I still creepily solicit). It wasn’t until my first chapbook came out last fall that people gradually stopped introducing me as “that guy who runs Moonshot“. Every day is baby steps, is one poem after the other. I think it’s important to highlight these gooey ‘writer journeys’ we hear about over and over again to show how people find their way to meeting writers and literary scenes they care about. It’s hard when you’re on the outside and suspect others are members of a literary cabal who are only interested in helping each other out. I’ve been there. I’m still there, in many ways. Not everyone who lives in NYC is geographically self-obsessed or entitled or had everything fall into their lap instantly. Does this even need to be said? It took five years just to reach a point where the lit projects I’ve started here (or been involved with) have been around long enough where it people come up to me and say they know who I am, what I do. It hasn’t gotten less jarring yet—maybe one day it will.
Perhaps this is why it’s equally surprising to find myself on a list called 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013. It’s even stranger to watch people—in response to this list—echo criticisms I’ve made of NYC’s poetry scene—white, exclusive, cliquey, centered around itself. Except, in this case, I was included on an exclusionary list. I’m now that person. Numbered lists are incredibly tricky to begin with because they seem so incredibly final, as if there are no others. Here are the 23 chosen ones. There is a glib part of me that wants to say we should take these kinds of lists with a grain of salt, that wants to point out that media sites have to churn out dozens of these insipid listicles per day—but I know that will incise—and I recognize that it’s my privilege that would allow me such flippancy.
Or, what I did over Christmas Weekend.
1. Liked a photo called “Sawhorse Buddha” from an upcoming series by Josh Grigsby:
2. Read A poem from Lana Turner Journal called “Market Forces Are Brighter Than The Sun” by Cathy Park Hong, which is crunchy and smudgy and full of errant exclamation points.
3. Read Less Than Zero and felt wonderfully wretched afterward. This excerpt encapsulates the book for me:
While reading the paper at twilight by the pool, I see a story about how a local man tried to bury himself alive in his backyard because it was “so hot, too hot.” I read the article a second time and then put the paper down and watch my sisters. They’re still wearing their bikinis and sunglasses and they lie beneath the darkening sky and play a game in which they pretend to be dead. They ask me to judge which one of them can look dead the longest; the one who wins get to push the other one into the pool. I watch them and listen to the tape that’s playing on the Walkman I’m wearing. The Go-Go’s are singing “I wanna be worlds away/I know things will be okay when I get worlds away.” Whoever made the tape then let the record skip and I close my eyes and hear them start to sing “Vacation” and when I open my eyes, my sisters are floating face down in the pool, wondering who can look drowned the longest.
Watched The Lakers get spanked by the Cavs. This made my Christmas, especially when they got whiny and pouty about it. Phil Jackson, I love you, but you can be a spoiled brat.