Reading Notes: Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair

86º feels like 96º ~ in the thick, summer soup of it, 3+ inches of rain yesterday, the whole world muggy, swamp-like

I had to read Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair over two separate days. This is a book packed with highly charged lyric poems taking on the colonization of Jamaica and the realities of something we like to call “post-colonial” times. Heavy material dispersed into poems made of imagery that unsettles and sound that haunts.

While I did not set out to read books in any order this summer, it turns out this is the third book in a row that I’ve picked up that reminds me of the importance of being woke. Sinclair traces, in broad strokes, the colonization of Jamaica, its place in the slave trade, its current cultural being (including the tensions associated with the tourist industry), and the more personal issues of being a Jamaican woman now living in the U.S. That’s a lot to take in, but all of it is necessary and urgent.

Cannibal begins with a crucial epigraph that tracks the origin of the word cannibal to its Spanish origin which comes from the word “caribal,” referring to the aboriginal people of the West Indies. We can thank Columbus for the idea that these people ate human flesh. Sinclair sums up: “By virtue of being Caribbean, all ‘West Indian’ people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.”

At its heart, this book chronicles the very process of Othering and the results. Sinclair often alludes to Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in an attempt to unpack what it means to be labeled “savage.” The poems also revolve around womanhood & ideals of beauty, which are inextricably complicated by a history of racism and white, male rule.

In “Prayer Book for Vanishing,” Sinclair addresses the pressure to attempt skin whitening. Here’s an excerpt.

Approach the angels
to efface this blackness,
another tar-baby, self

I am scorching. In the night
find nothing but a dagger of teeth.
Pitch-black marrow, vile

pigment unwanted,
set fire to my undesirable.

The poem lists common practices such as drinking small amounts of bleach, scrubbing with Epsom salts, baking soda, and peroxide, and using copious amounts of face powder. When I read poems like this, and in fact, all of the poems in this book, I’m struck again by the idea of empathy. Why do I so easily slide into the perspective of a woman of color trying to vanish herself, so easily that I can’t help but see and feel the pain, the harm of racial imbalance the continues to exist today, and yet, so many others can’t see & feel? Was I taught empathy, or is it a part of my nature? (I pray it is the first and not the second, for we are hopeless if it is left to nature.)

Finally, every once in a while Sinclair touches on the fact that she (veiled as the speaker) is a poet writing about her family (especially her flawed, violent father). These poems touch me, in particular, as I’m working through some difficult family material as well. Here’s the opening from “Incorrigible”:

All night I wrestled with it–
the onerous verse, trying to salt the wound;
there are worse things one could fix a gloom upon, I suppose.

But I fight to tack it down,
the indefinite I, I, iamb; to tease this venom out–
its cerasee vine grown thick as my hair,

pulling at my limbs, the fur of my mouth.
Opening my hand in the fissure of my throat,
a gutted fish, I am raking rut out.


You can read a selection of the poems from Cannibal here, but I highly recommend reading the entire book.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Miscellany: What Speed Rejection, Grit, Reading Beloit Poetry Journal

83º ~ feels like 87º ~ all bright sun, calm winds, birdsong, freshmown grass, a full moon waiting

One of my goals for the summer is to submit work for publication to literary journals. Publishing poems is one of the criteria on which I’m judged as I make my way toward tenure, but the weight of prepping courses new to me, building a national conference from the floor up, doing my other service work (committees, volunteering for campus activities, etc.), and keeping up on professional development activities prevented me from sending much out this past academic year.

As with reading and writing, I’ve re-engaged with the “po-biz” side of things. As I explained in my recent post about how the poem “A Coward for a Daughter” came to be published, the usual route is to submit work and then not hear anything for months. On the other hand, there are some well-established journals that have perfected the quick turnaround. This week, I submitted poems to The Threepenny Review on Wednesday. By Friday afternoon, I’d received the rejection, which yes, always stings. As Threepenny does not take simultaneous submissions, I appreciate the quick response, but, yikes!, I hadn’t even had time to “forget” about the submission (forgetting sometimes blunts the sting of a rejection just a tad).

I’ve been thinking about grit (regarding the stick-to-itiveness it takes to be a writer) as I’ve been drafting more poems lately. In working on my last poem, I noticed, again, that there came a point when I felt the urge to just stop and drop it. Here is the moment of either persistence or giving up, a moment when one’s grit is called into question.

In general, I get this feeling at one of two points. The first opportunity happens when I’m scribbling longhand in my journal. I might get three or four lines to come together and then nothing. When this happens, I tend to let it go. However, the more crucial turning point is when I’ve gone from journal to computer, and the “meat” of the poem is beginning to appear, word by word, line by line. Even with the energy behind that movement, there is usually a point where I’m confident in the opening salvo of the poem, but then become uncertain of where its going. In this uncertainty is the opportunity for me to waver and lose my grit. In that last poem, I remember sighing; I remember thinking I should just quit. But, then, I had to think about hitting “save.” Seeing that the poem had not reached a critical mass, I knew from experience that hitting “save” was the same as never finishing the poem for me. I had to take control of that little voice inside my head and tell myself, “try again, figure it out, keep your butt in the chair, tell the truth, write it.” Thankfully, I listened to myself and stuck with it to a finished draft.

(Working in forms makes this extra important, as I can save a free verse draft knowing that it is nearly “there,” but not quite. In a formal poem, I’m not sure I could come back and complete an impartial draft.)

This morning, I grabbed the lit mag waiting on top of my to-read pile: Beloit Poetry Journal (67.3) Spring 2017. I confess that the number of books that I own but haven’t read yet is overwhelming, and having the lit mags arriving on the regular simply adds to the overwhelming. However, as soon as I open a cover and begin to read, all the other books drop away.

BPJ is one of the most well-established, long-running, consistently-stellar poetry journals out there, and this issue lives up to that reputation. It was an extra delight to find that friend and fellow Little Rock poet Seth Pennington designed the cover.

I believe in Daniel Pennac’s Reader’s Bill of Rights, which stipulates that it is okay to skip and/or not to finish. When I read journals, I give each piece my full attention at the opening. If the writer can’t hold me, I’m gone. In the case of BPJ, I read all but three of the poems completely, and in about 50% of the cases, I read the poems a second time (they tend to be shorter than longer in this journal). Some of the poems that stood out to me were:

Doug Ramspeck’s “Winter Trance”
Martha Silano’s “I have to deepen my know
Denise Bergman’s “he opened the window’s slit and climbed in
Xandria Phillips’ four poems from Black Eyewitness Directory
David Salner’s “A Shift of Sand and Steel”
Lauren Camp’s “Father to Narrow then Stranger”
Michael Brown, Jr.’s “Freedom”

The whole issue is worth your time and attention.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Reading Notes: Afterland by Mai Der Vang

76º ~ days of sun & heat followed by storms, the mid-south in all its late spring glory ~ we are well-watered and thick-grown

As a member of the Academy of American Poets, I receive a copy of the Walt Whitman Award winning book of poetry each year; sometimes they hit, sometimes they miss. This year’s book, Afterland by Mai Der Vang, was a definite hit.

Like Shirali’s Gilt from my last post, Vang’s Afterland brings us the poetry of immigration, this time from the Hmong point of view and with the added horror of being displaced by violence rather than by choice. Afterland was a difficult read because of its content, but a joy because of its amazing blending of craft and imagination.

For those who need a refresher, as I did, the Hmong people were first indigenous to the Yellow River valley of China some 3,000 years ago. By the mid-19th century, most Hmong had migrated to Laos and were living in the highlands there, in an often contentious relationship with the French colonial powers. In the 1960s and early 70s, the Hmong people aided the CIA in “The Secret War,” by fighting against Laotian communists with CIA supplied weapons and goods. When the US withdrew from Laos in 1975, only a small group of Hmong were evacuated and many were killed. Others fled to Thailand on foot, crossing the Mekong river. Some of these refugees came to the US in 1976, with many “re-settled” in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, among other major metro areas. I’m no longer sure if I first read about the Hmong people in the Des Moines Register when I was still in high school, or if I later learned of their community when I was attending the College of St. Benedict outside St. Cloud, MN, but they are a people who have been in my consciousness for decades.

Even with all of this historical knowledge, I do not think that I ever fully processed the tragedies experienced both on an intimate level and on a cultural level until I read Afterland.

Vang’s poems illustrate the intense connection of a people to a land and what happens when that connection is ripped away not once, but over and over again. First, the Hmong were forced south into Laos by Chinese oppression, and then they were either massacred or forced to flee that “homeland.” With this history, the poems concern themselves with ancestry, rituals, and the idea of home. Thus, “afterland” comes to mean both the afterlife and the land to which one has been displaced. As a member of the newest generation of Hmong, of those living in the U.S. Vang offers a sweeping view of this troubled history.

Consider the opening of “Another Heaven,” the first poem in the book: “I am but atoms / Of old passengers // Bereaved to my cloistered bones.” In the fourth section of the title poem (which appears last in the book), Vang writes (in indented lines I can’t get to replicate here): “To meet the end is to go back / through every dwelling, // return my footfalls / to yesterday’s land.” Then, she lists the following cities of her own family’s history, back to her origins in Laos with her grandfather’s family (perhaps, my assumptions are based on Vang’s bio): Fresno, CA; Merced, CA; Lansing, MI; St. Paul, MN; Ban Vinai refugee camp, Thailand; Long Cheng, Laos; and Sayaboury, Laos. As I read the book and went back to individual poems, I couldn’t help but think of the current refugee crisis in Syria and wonder about the poets who will emerge to tell that story, too. Again, this was a heavy, difficult book.

That heaviness arises as I try to explicate Vang’s precision in language and diction, creating images that don’t just move the reader, they shove & jostle. In the discomfort zone, we have images like this one of two brothers: “It was scalpel that day they captured / you both. They sliced off / and boiled his tongue, // forced it down your throat” (“Dear Soldier of the Secret War”). And in “Yellow Rain” of chemical warfare, Vang writes, “a furnace flared // to hollow / your face” and

Another cow dies
from breathing

as you swallowed
from the same air.

The added touch of tying the body of the cow to the body of the person is exemplary of the way Vang works, highlighting the connection of the people to the land and its flora & fauna. Through all of this, the images are never gratuitous; they are carefully sculpted to tell the truth. Through this truth-telling, Vang creates empathy, at least in me.

And, there are poems sprinkled through the book that offer solace, especially the poems that honor the long history of the Hmong and of the dead. In “Terminus,” Vang offers, “I hear condolences / from the eclipse, // light the hidden storm in my hands.” Finally, in “Your Mountain Lies Down with You,” the speaker addresses her grandfather who has died in the U.S.:

Grandfather, you are not buried in the green mountains of Laos
but here in the Tollhouse hills, earth and heaven to oak gods.

Your highlands have come home,
and now you finally sleep.

I confess that while it took me a long time to read the book, from the opening poem in Afterland I felt a kinship to Vang in her poetics. Her diction is sharp and unusual. She blends an advanced vocabulary with plain speech, but more importantly, she makes language new in a way that had me questioning whether I knew the definitions of words I’ve know most of my life. For example, one poem is titled “Heart Swathing in Late Summer.” I had to read the title three times and check the definition of “swathe,” which of course I knew. Still, it was such an unusual use of the word that it sent me slightly off balance (as all good poetry should). Then, there is the way Vang often turns nouns to verbs, effortlessly. There is a body that “baskets fatigue,” a tree that must “cathedral its roots,” and book pages that “widow my way.” With syntax that moves from fragments to complex-compound sentences and adjective-noun combinations that startle, all alongside the often heart-breaking content, I read these poems slowly and filled the pages with marginalia. All of this felt very familiar, and when I got to the acknowledgments page at the very end of the book, I simply nodded “yes,” when I saw Lucie Brock-Broido’s name there. It takes years and years of reading and re-reading, but eventually, one does begin to understand poetic lineage on the page, without having to be told it first. I’m thrilled to have added Mai Der Vang to this strand of my own, personal poetics, and I know that Afterland will remain with me for a long time to come.


Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Reading Notes: Gilt by Raena Shirali

64º ~ another beauty of a spring day, all the trees are in full leaf, the wind goes gently, and the sun & clouds give & take the sky

Like most writers, my home office is in a perpetual state of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of books waiting to be read. I spend little on cosmetics and fashion, but books, oh the books (and journals) I buy. Here’s a glimpse at two of my “to-be-read” shelves.

In the new-found clock-freedom of my summer, I’m jumping into the fray. Today’s read is Gilt by my Home School friend Raena Shirali. I met Raena last August in Hudson, NY, when we were assigned to the same workshop cohort during The Home School. In that brief week together, I came to admire not only Raena’s poems but also her vital spirit.

Gilt is a book filled with wit and sarcasm, brilliant images and heart-wrenching truths, mostly surrounding how a young woman comes of age as the daughter of two continents. (I keep wanting to type Gilt as “guilt,” a play on words I’m sure Raena planned, and I can just see the quirk of her lips when she thinks about it.)

The speaker of these poems, like Raena, is the American daughter of Indian immigrants, in this case growing up in South Carolina, but often visiting India for family events. The speaker is concerned with finding her way beneath the weight of mixed messages from her family and from American pop culture & societal norms about body image, “successful” relationships, and how to be a “good” daughter. Amongst these more intimate poems, Shirali includes overtly political poems that tackle violence against women in India and violence begotten from religious & political differences there. Throughout the poems set in America, the reader can never forget that the speaker is growing up in the South as a person of color, with all the covert & overt racism that includes. Gilt is complex and multi-layered. I cannot sum it up or do it justice in this small space, except to say, I am changed for having read it.

My heart ached for the speaker many times, as I read lines like “I wasn’t a fragrant bouquet / of anything but a thing without roots to put down in this field” from “Engagement Party, Georgia” or “look at the beast // you’re becoming, pulling yourself in two / directions, one with each hand” from “feet planted.”

Yet, subject matter alone cannot sustain a book; there must be compelling writing as well. My test for this is how much underlining and dog-earing I do. Here are just a few phrases that caught my eye & my pen:

  • “your small thicket of mistakes”
  • “uselessness: limp knees // unshackled from our brains”
  • “i have run / my fingers over jagged men with light skin & come out raw”
  • “o america, i too, have a stash / of sashes”
  • “barnacles stud my knees as i sink deeper / into pluff mud”
  • “The moon’s nerve / is pinched outside the barred window”

Finally, given my recent admonition to myself to write the truth, I have to thank Raena for the poem “DARE I WRITE IT.” In this poem, the poet lays it all bare and ends with a phrase I’ll be tacking up on my wall.

“dare i chameleon. dare i write. dare i girl.”

Yes, Raena Shirali, please dare all of this and more. I’m looking forward to the new poems and the next book.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Southern Literary Festival @ University of Arkansas Fort Smith 3/30 – 4/1

65º ~ remnants of last night’s storms linger in gray skies and stiff breezes, hardwoods leafing, esp. hackberries


Friday, 31 March, I have the great pleasure of appearing at the Southern Literary Festival, being held at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith this year. Having lived in Arkansas since the fall of 1999, I was stunned to learn about this southern, undergraduate festival that has been happening since 1937. Each year, a different school hosts the festival, incorporating a writing conference with workshops, readings, and contests (for undergrads).

At 10:30 a.m. I’ll read with Courtney Miller Santo.

At 1:00 p.m. I’ll conduct a talk, “The Multiple Personae of the Poet,” with lots of time for interactions with the audience.

All thanks to Christian Anton Gerard for the invitation to read and to everyone at UAFS for the enormous amount of work preparing for the conference. I can’t wait to be there.

University of Arkansas Fort Smith

Posted by Sandy Longhorn in Event