An Evening of Poetry

IMG_5233This past Wednesday, Dancing Girl Press hosted a poetry reading at E.M. Wolfman General Interest Books in Downtown Oakland. It was my second time seeing one of their events, and what was once a total novelty has quickly become a welcome and well-anticipated tradition in the neighborhood. The event features three DGP poets reading from a mix of published chapbooks and works in progress, all of which were bold and fresh and captivating.

When I left the reading, I met up with a friend at the Golden Bull down the street and tried to explain how awesome the readings were, but I came up short. I realized I have way more words for things I don’t like than for things I do like. And that’s not ok with me anymore. So I figured I’d take a stab at reviewing the reading for this blog.

The first poet, Nicole Borello is a joy to see in action. I’ve had the pleasure taking several writing classes with her, so I was already familiar with her work – her short stories are powerhouses of humor and insight, and her poetry is equally accomplished. In addition IMG_5230to running her own independent press, Nicole has published three chapbooks, all of which are rich and substantial and incredibly accessible. Here’s the thing about Borello’s work – it sneaks up on you. Her reading style is so casual and conversational that you don’t realize you’re being blessed with a dose of badass feminist poetry. I call her work feminist, not because it follows a political agenda or anything, in fact you would be hard pressed to describe her work as political or pedantic. It’s more that the images she presents of women are gritty and real and vibrant – in her work we get to admire bountiful asses and the contents of padded bras, we explore intimate grooming and rites of motherhood and prostitution and abuse – but Borello addresses these things with her signature grace, in effect saying “of course we should talk about these things, because they are beautiful and ugly and real and true,” And in a society where we avoid such topics, giving them a place in poetry is itself an act of feminist assertion.

Now don’t get me wrong, the strength of her work is not solely in it’s subject matter or the accessibility of its delivery – this is well crafted poetry, this is a woman who understands form and structure and employs them every which way to pack maximum meaning into her words. I could get lost in them all day, unpacking connections and associations. This is potent, primal stuff. Her latest chapbook, Fried Fish and Breast Milk is available from Dancing Girl Press.

After the reading I picked up Sarah Chavez’s chapbook All Day, Talking, also available from Dancing Girl, because her poems and the ongoing narrative they explore just got under my skin. The poems in the collection all take the form of letters to a deceased woman named Carole. They range over time, revealing snippets of both women’s lives and their relationship, things they believed in and things they questioned together, and they also chart the speaker’s explorations of life with and after Carole – there’s an intimacy to her private thoughts while washing dishes, reminiscing about adventures they shared, forming and reexamining her identity over time, and of course grieving her lost love. I had to pick up the collection because the story was so compelling, like a really good novel, but masterfully packed into the frame of compact epistolary poems.

Discovering Chavez’s work was a treat and one of the reasons I love these readings (besides the fact that they’re local and hosted at a seriously delicious little bookstore where pretty much every book on the shelves is on my Goodreads list), because they bring talented voices practically to  my doorstep and introduce me to poetry I wouldn’t have found on my own. Check them out, especially if you think you don’t like poetry, ‘cause these two just might change your mind.



I started reading the Best American Essays 2013 yesterday. I usually hate these things and only read them mainly to confirm my suspicion that the same stories keep getting told over and over. But I have to say that so far the first three essays of this edition have been refreshingly interesting and inspiring. In fact the third one resonated with me so much that I’ve decided to make it my first post of 2014. The quote below is from Richard Schmitt’s “Sometimes a Romantic Notion”, and it sums up exactly what has inhibited my writing for most of my life – not the fear of failure or success or whatever, or even lack of time or resources or support (although I’ve never had much of any of these), but something even more strange and probably unique to fiction writers, and possibly “romantic”.

As a writer, I spent years hiding and denying my connection to the circus because I had the romantic notion that fiction writers simply made things up out of thin air or their intrinsic, God-given genius. An idea, I see now, about as crazy as running away to join the circus.

It’s fantastic to see someone else name the thing I’ve struggled so hard to define, and while he’s referring to time spent in an actual circus, the metaphor still applies – we all come from circuses (and by “all” I mean all us interesting people) – but some of us, for various reasons, are reluctant to draw from that rich, seething soil. I have long shared the weird (and inaccurate) notion that good writing is supposed to come from someplace foreign, that it had to be entirely made up in order to be of value, so I’ve avoided telling all my best stories, the easy stories, the ones that are constantly on the tip of my tongue, just trying to keep them from blocking the really, really good and unique and original stories  that I might possibly invent from scratch. But I’m finally realizing that it’s taken more effort to suppress my own crazy circus full of stories than it would have to just write them down. So that leads to my biggest and most cherished resolution for the year: in my writing, I’m going to do my best to come home to the circus, and stop trying to run away to the normal. I’ll be sharing it here. Happy New Year!