Book Review: “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” By Madeleine Thien

by Nazanin Soghrati, Blog Contributor

To be perfectly frank, I picked up Do Not Say We Have Nothing with quite high expectations. After the novel had won several prestigious prizes in Canada and was later shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I was excited to read the work that had caused so much excitement in the Canadian literary sphere. Madeleine Thien, with her wonderful and crackling prose that has a powerful poetic backbeat thumping along, did not disappoint. This work of historical fiction brilliantly weaves together the stories of 4 Chinese people: those who experienced the atrocities of the Sino-Japanese War, the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, and finally the second-generation Chinese immigrants.

The story itself moves almost in a circular motion: It begins with Vancouverite Marie’s laments over the suicide of her father in Hong Kong and ends with her finally forgiving him almost 20 years later, after discovering the true reason behind his tragic death. It is in between these 20 years, however, that Maries reunited with the stories of the people of her past and reaches a spiritual reconciliation with her family’s history.

All this transformation is kindled when Marie’s mother invites Ai-Ming, a university student fleeing the post-Tiananmen Massacre crackdown, to her house after the suicide of her husband. Ai-Ming and Marie, despite having grown up in vastly different environments, develop a special relationship with one other. Over time, Marie understands that their bond runs almost two generations back with their fathers having been colleagues in music school: Sparrow, Ai-Ming’s father, being the composer and Kai, Marie’s father, being the pianist.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is further fractured into subplots with the presence of Big Mother Knife, her sister Swirl, and Swirl’s husband Wen the Dreamer who experienced first-hand the brutalities of the Sino-Japanese War and later the land reform campaigns and executions of communist China.

Thien brings together these 4 generations —that of Big Mother Knife and the Sino-Japanese War, Kai and the Cultural Revolution, Sparrow and Ai-Ming and the Tiananmen Massacre, and Marie and her immigration to Canada —with a brilliance rarely found in historical novels. One can feel the innocence of Marie as she learns about her past, the ambition of Kai, and the broken hollowness of Sparrow through the pages, and witness the powerful relationships that are formed through their common interest in music. Throughout tumultuous times of war, revolution, and political uprisings — with the communist and oppressive state breathing down on the necks of citizens like an ominous shadow — music becomes the only remaining form of individualistic expression, which connects and unites these three characters.

Thien urges her readers to explore important questions throughout the story. She fearlessly scrutinizes how war and state-sponsored policies —specifically those set out by the Communist Party of China during the Cultural Revolution— molded people’s lives, tested their resilience and sent waves of aftershocks for many Chinese generations to come. The fractured subplots that blur the line between past and present deliver a powerful resemblance to Marie’s immigration experience: much of her family, too, resides in fragmented parts of the world, having been torn apart by inhumane state policies and laws.

I thoroughly enjoyed Madeleine Thien’s masterpiece. The story painfully hit home for me — I saw in Sparrow the same hollowness that I often see in my Iranian parents when they speak about their experiences of war. Even though the two groups are from two drastically different parts of the world, they were both enthusiasts of a revolution they believed would lead to prosperity, and both were fiercely disappointed by the actual outcome. Thien also aims to convey the transformative journey of a second-generation immigrant finally coming to a peaceful understanding with her past. Marie, once in deep rage at her father’s decision to commit suicide, finally understands his part of the narrative and forgives him. This understanding, this reconciliation with one’s past, lies at the centre of this virtuosic novel.

Personally, I can only admire the powerful way that Madeleine Thien spurs her readers to not only learn more about Chinese history but to further explore their own past and how their family history has been shaped over time.


Nazanin Soghrati is a junior from Ontario, Canada. Her writing has been previously recognized by Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and has appeared or forthcoming in the Rising Phoenix Review and Polar Express Publishings amongst others.

Book Review: “The Liars’ Asylum” by Jacob M. Appel

by Cindy Song, Managing Editor

For the first book review on this blog, I will be reviewing “The Liars’ Asylum” (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) by Jacob M. Appel, a collection of fictional short stories centering around the themes of love, identity, and lies. Each story is full of humor and wit, and illustrates the complexity of relationships in everyday life. Through the characters’ charming yet clearly faulty personalities—characters who dream, desire, regret, and fail—readers can find themselves drawn to the stories’ honesty and humanity. 

Out of the eight stories, my favorite one would probably be “Prisoners of the Multiverse,” an intricate narrative about a childhood high school teacher that raises questions about self and the universe. The multiverse—defined by Appel as the “infinite reflection of alternative universes paralleling our own”—is a fitting title as the narrator ponders about the choices in her own life, encouraging readers to join in. The ending lines of the story are magical and hopeful, demonstrating the brilliance of Appel’s writing. 

Every story in the collection focuses on a different storyline but each pulls on the reader’s heartstrings. Appel is brilliant at paying attention to detail, both in crafting his characters and plot. He is also wonderful at bringing to life the seemingly ordinary aspects of life—fittingly for the mission of Minute Magazine. I would strongly recommend this collection to anyone who wants a lighthearted and witty, yet strangely philosophical, read to reflect on the trials of daily life. By accompanying Laurie Jean, Maia, and the many other characters on their respective adventures, readers will be sure to leave with new insights and experiences.

Check out “The Liars’ Asylum” on Amazon!



Cindy Song
is a freshman at Princeton University planning on studying economics and creative writing. Her poetry has appeared in Words Dance, Cicada Magazine, Noble Gas Poetry, and elsewhere. When not writing, she enjoys taking long walks and looking at dessert recipes.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories and is a past winner of the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review‘s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review‘s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review‘s Wabash Prize, the Briar Cliff Review’s Short Fiction Prize, the H. E. Francis Prize, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award in four different years, an Elizabeth George Fellowship and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant. His stories have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology on numerous occasions. His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012. Jacob holds graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Harvard Law School, New York University’s MFA program in fiction and Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Interview: In Conversation with Daginne Aignend

by Art Editor, Carl Scharwath 

Daginne Aignend is a contributor for Issue Three. 

What sparked your interest in poetry?

I always played with words—mostly little stories in my head. I started to write them down at the age of fourteen, but then suddenly it was a poem. I thought it was a creative way to ventilate my feelings.

When did you realize you were a writer?

Writing was and is for me a “fun project.” At some point, I thought it was a pity when my poems only were read by me. I wanted to share my words, so I started to write in English instead of Dutch. When a poet friend I met on Facebook encouraged me to submit my work— and it was accepted—I realized I must be a writer.

How do you begin a poem?

No rules. Sometimes a line pops up, sometimes it’s a few words, not in any particular order, and my mind starts to spin a poem.

Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

Sure. In the beginning, I thought all poems should rhyme. When I found out that free verse existed, I could finally express myself in the way I wanted. Rhymed poetry can be a restriction but also a challenge; it isn’t so easy as it seems.

What type of poems do you find yourself writing most? Do you have a recurring theme?

Free verse and no special theme. I can write about the sweet fragrance of wildflowers and the next time about the pollution of plastic waste in the oceans.

Tell us about your process—how do you write?

Pen and paper beside my bed; if I have a strong idea, I must have the possibility to write it down immediately. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen so often because I can’t catch any sleep after these brilliant scribbles. I write on my computer with a grammar checker afterward because English isn’t my native language.

I know you are also a photographer. Can you describe how your photos compliment your poetry?

For me, it’s actually more the other way around. If I have written a poem, I see if one of my photos fits the poem. Sometimes the photo needs some photo editing. On my fun project website, I have a category called “Friends in Poetry” where I publish the poems of poet friends together with an image, which is often one of my photos.

What do you want the world to know about you?

I don’t think it is so important to share as many credits as possible, but a little about the writer or artist is appreciated by the reader. My bio tells enough in a few lines about me.

 


Daginne Aignend is a pseudonym for the Dutch writer, poetess, photographic artist Inge Wesdijk. She likes hard rock music, fantasy books, is a vegetarian who loves her animals. She’s the Poetry Editor of Whispers and has been published in many poetry journals, magazines and anthologies, in the ‘Tears’ Anthology of the NY Literary Magazine to name one. She has a fun project website www.daginne.com.

Carl Scharwath resides in Mount Dora, Florida. He has appeared globally with 100+ magazines selecting his poetry, short stories, essays or art photography. He won the National Poetry Contest award for Writers One Flight Up. His first poetry book is “Journey To Become Forgotten” (Kind of a Hurricane Press). Carl is a dedicated runner and 2nd-degree black belt.

Music Minute: March 2018

Here are our monthly music faves for March, curated by our editors!

  1. Sit Still, Look Pretty (Daya) — Catchy melodies, bright and addictive. Also has a theme of female empowerment!
  2. Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys) — An oldie (1966), considered one of the masterpieces of rock music.
  3. your text (Sundial) — Sundial is an Asian American duo. Their songs have a R&B / slow jazz kind of sound.
  4. Imagine (John Lennon) — When I think about March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and other current movements, the lyrics “imagine all the people living life in peace, you/ you may say I’m a dreamer/ but I’m not the only one” drift through my mind. John Lennon was more than imperfect. The continuum of his identity shifted during the period when he wrote “Getting Better” and later the beloved peace anthem “Imagine.” Listeners of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s albums witness an intimate, almost primal breaking open, a yearning to be really, truly, deeply seen and accepted. In a Playboy interview, Lennon not only admitted his violent past but explained, “That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite.” “Imagine” is a powerful song, but Lennon’s history makes it even more meaningful. To achieve world peace, we must first rehabilitate ourselves before seeking to redeem others. // Review by Prose Editor Sarah Hutchins
  5. Who You Are (Jessie J) — Beautiful vocals, catchy melody, melancholic yet upbeat.
  6. Min (Hunjiya) — Hunjiya, an emerging Korean American artist, explores themes of heritage and family.
  7. Something in the Way (Jorja Smith) — Haunting, classy, romantic.

A Quitter is Not Always Never a Winner

by Cindy Song, Editor-in-Chief

Quitters never win. That is a phrase I’ve come across numerous times, one that is reflected in countless novels, childhood stories, and even Internet memes. Certainly, a phrase that has been reiterated so often has to have some truthfulness to it. And I’ve experienced this truth when reflecting upon the many times I toiled through a homework assignment even when the clock read 1:00 a.m. Great people only achieve greatness by pushing themselves to success, though that success may be as minor as finishing an essay for English class.

However, where is the line drawn? What happens when the determination to not quit starts to take its toll–on health, on spirit, and on mentality? When is quitting a better option than not quitting? It seems that sometimes, people are so bent on pursuing this single goal in a narrow mindset, that they forget there are possibly better options out there. It all boils down to choices and what really matters to the person.

Last spring, I made the decision to quit my school’s varsity tennis team. I had played on the team for my freshman and sophomore year, although as an alternate (most of the underclassmen were designated as alternates). The reason I quit wasn’t that of anything skill-related; I was actually one of the best players out of the alternates. However, it was the vast amount time and energy I needed to pour into being on the team–long matches that stretched late into the evening, often clashing with my homework time and orchestra rehearsals–that made me wonder whether being on the team was the best decision. Every day after practice, I would come home feeling drained and still have a mountain of homework to do along with repertoire to practice. Yes, I loved the sport and made many amazing friends on the team, but my personal health was put on the line. I simply had too many activities to juggle.

It’s true that I sometimes regret my decision. Whenever I see my ex-teammates dress up for game days, or hear announcements of the team’s recent win, I feel a twinge of bitterness in my heart. When I dig through my closet and find my old tennis uniforms, I feel that same twinge. But as I look at the bigger picture, I realized that it was for the best. After quitting the team this fall season, I could focus more on writing and music and my other hobbies. My passion for tennis still hasn’t faded–I still play whenever I have some free time.

Quitting doesn’t always make you a loser. It can be a symbol of strength, that shows you know how to make the best choices for yourself. Of course, there are times when quitting isn’t the smartest option, when gritting your teeth through the hurdles is the only way through. And that perseverance, that unwavering determination is a quality I respect in people. The difference lies in the bigger picture–there is no set path to being a winner, but it’s up to the competitor to decide which path to take. The road to happiness isn’t a straight line, and neither is the road to failure. There are long and winding roads, and there are also short and easy ones. So take your eyes off the road once in a while and enjoy the scenery around you.

Music Minute: December 2017

As 2017 comes to an end, the staff at Minute Magazine would like to introduce a new blog installment called “Music Minute,” where editors share their favorite music picks of the month. Below are the tracks for December 2017 – take a listen as you enjoy this holiday season.

Listen on Spotify

Some highlights from the playlist…

  1. “Champion” by Fall Out Boy // reviewed by Prose Editor Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
    Notable lyrics: “I’m just young enough to still believe / but young enough not to know what to believe in”
    Since their pre-hiatus emo days, bassist and songwriter Pete Wentz has always made sure that their songs would be poems for the troubled, and I love that most about this band. This song from their forthcoming album “Mania” just hits so close to home. With strong lyrics that scream “If I can live through this, I can do anything”, this anthem aims to inspire – and it surely does.
  2. “Mrs. Potato Head” by Melanie Martinez // reviewed by Prose Editor Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
    Notable lyrics: “Mrs. Potato Head, tell me / is it true that pain is beauty? / Does a new face come with a guarantee? / Will a pretty face make it better?”
    This song is a powerful piece that talks about the pressure to change what you look like to fit in the societal standards of beauty. As a feminist and a firm believer of body positivity, I feel strongly about Melanie Martinez’s obvious criticism of plastic surgery, the risks it entail, and the repercussions that ensue. This song is dark, raw, and bold – perfectly complemented by Melanie’s unique style and brilliant voice.
  3. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen // reviewed by Prose Editor Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
    Notable lyrics: “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide, / no escape from reality”
    Honestly, who even doesn’t know Bohemian Rhapsody? This song is literal classic: unique in its form as it doesn’t fall under a single genre, but rather weaves together different sounds into six beautiful minutes. Fans speculate on what the song truly conveys, relating it to other literary texts such as the tale of Faust and Albert Camus’ The Stranger because of the many similarities in themes and tone.
  4. “The Trio Project – Warrior” by Hiromi // reviewed by Poetry Editor Tanya Singh
    This piece is a battle cry, the roar of a thousands lions collective, the dance of penguins, the bustle of magpies living in the anticipation of a rain shower some light years away. It is a sort of transformation. Hiromi, Anthony and Simon, have blessed this piece  with the joy escaping their hands in music, reaching to us, you and me, their heart-beats synchronizing with all the notes you didn’t even know existed before. This is the kind of music that makes me feel that this is all beautiful, that the world is a possibility in the making. It transforms itself, it transforms me, we are both different people when the piece hits its last note. A part of me feels, this, now, is a healing, kind of like nan’s stories, full of magic, and all the more possible.
  5.  “Blue Drag” by Django Reinhardt // reviewed by Poetry Editor Tanya Singh
    The first time I heard this, the guitar dancing a sort of hopscotch, I thought to myself, Reinhardt must really know what he wants from his life, to make others feel that the tinge, fading light is a want, still burning, asking — you want this, don’t you?  How many lives would you be willing to live through again simply to feel, to know, that you want what you want? Want is endless, never ending, and sometimes almost bigness, self driven madness, that is both selfless and selfish. But this want feels like a soft prayer to yourself, an antidote for your fears, the guitar is reciting your name like a poem — doesn’t that feel warm? This piece is a want, a child-full desire to dream again. I listen to it often, often enough to remind myself that my dreams are colours,  these pastels rising to a birth of another possibility.

Creative Nonfiction: Defining the Genre

by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro, Prose Editor

Creative nonfiction is the fusion of creative writing and journalism. On one hand, it uses principles of journalism to build the skeleton of the story, which, as suggested by the tag ‘nonfiction’, demands to be hinged on facts instead of merely the writer’s imagination (as opposed to fiction). On the other hand, it seeks to be “creative” in such a way that it employs literary devices to retell the fact-based narratives.

The genre, as Theodore A. Rees Cheney noted, requires “the skill of the storyteller and the research ability of the reporter.” Creative Nonfiction Magazine expounded on this thought, saying that the genre “allows a writer to employ the diligence of a reporter, the shifting voices and viewpoints of a novelist, the refined wordplay of a poet, and the analytical modes of an essayist.” The multiplicity of personas that a creative nonfiction writer has to embody in the process of writing his piece unveils the complexity demanded by the genre. A writer ought to be versatile and, needless to say, patient throughout the process.

More than this, a writer has to surrender to vulnerability. This is the same as in other genres; however, creative nonfiction demands a more personal insight from the writer. Creative nonfiction, after all, is the attempt to make sense of the complexities—or mundanities—of real life, and retell them in a more compelling, more bearable way. “The writer of creative nonfiction presents the world—or that slice of it he wishes to focus on—through the prism of his own personality,” Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo writes in Creative Nonfiction: An Overview. “[I]t is writing about oneself in relation to the subject at hand,” Bret Lott writes in Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction. Whereas journalism leaves no room for one to discuss personal takes on issues, creative nonfiction makes it a point to consider and use a writer’s subjectivity in line with what is being written about. “[B]alance is unnecessary and subjectivity is not only permitted but encouraged,” said Lee Gutkind in The Art of Creative Nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is a reinterpretation of real-life events, without the attempt to change what must be taken as “actual.”

Nevertheless, creative nonfiction is a commitment to stay loyal to the facts for the sake of the story’s accuracy. The genre is all about the author’s calculated use of his freedom. The line between artistic license and transgression in the genre still have blurred spots in my understanding.

It reminds me of what The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway called being “within and without.” I cite a person from a work of fiction, which I think should no longer be ironic, considering that the genre itself prides on using borrowed devices from fiction. Carraway curiously went about his days with a sense of detachment from the rest of the world that he was in. He was immersed, but at the same time, he was uninvolved—in the case of creative nonfiction, this might be necessary because, as much as personal connection to the actual event will contribute heavily to the foundation of the piece, events are bound to be misconstrued when perception is tainted with bias and emotion-driven subjectivity.

So then, how do we draw the line between subjectivity and the necessary objectivity in creative nonfiction? Would it even make any difference to know where one ends and the other begins? Would it even matter? Maybe creative nonfiction isn’t so simple after all.

The Struggle to Become a Woman

by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro, Prose Editor

When I was a child, I would write my stories imagining myself as a man. Somehow, I found it hard to see myself as a woman, when I did not know what being a woman meant. I, like every girl my age, had been taught to think that a man is independent and strong. He is capable and wise. He is indestructible and necessary. I wanted my characters to possess the qualities of a man. I wanted myself to possess the qualities of a man, but how can a woman, designed to be subordinate to a man, be ever able to contain these traits?

I was made to wear skirts and dresses, wedges by the age of seven, no matter how
uncomfortable they felt on me. As I grew older, the skirts and sleeves had to be longer, the blouses tighter. I was told I had to learn to wear higher heels. I had to wear a bra to hide my nipples and define my breasts. I could not risk being seen as a distraction to men, but I still had to be attractive enough to get their attention. When I could not pique their interest, I thought it made me less of the girl that I am. Was I not beautiful? Perhaps not. I went on trading dresses for pants, blouses for loose shirts, heels for sneakers. Boys’ clothes felt so much more comfortable than those of the girls. Being a boy felt so much more comfortable than being a girl.

I became the teenage girl whose sexuality puzzled everyone. I started to look like a boy, but my preferences remained the same. I was attracted to men, just as I was expected to. Not long after, my fascination toward the strong personalities of the male grew into a hopeless pursuit of their validation. The clothing I used to despise became my costume, hoping this time around, I could be pretty enough for men. I used the methods only a woman can, slowly dragging my self-respect to the ground as I reach for their approval.

To my younger self, I would write you as many apologies as I could for the rest of my life. You were never meant to become any man’s toy. You were never meant to believe that you were inferior to the male. You did not have to imagine yourself as a man just so you’d feel invincible. Being a woman may be the most difficult task you would ever be given, but it will also be the most fulfilling, when you realize that being a woman is so much more than what you were taught to think. Women thrive in spite of the discrimination; we fight against the stereotypes that cage us. We were not created for the male gaze; we were not made to seek validation from the opposite sex. We were made to create and conquer, to breathe life anew, to hold the universe in our palms and keep its heart beating.

Music Minute: Coalesce, a playlist featuring mellow songs by POC

Curated by Stephanie Chang, Blog Contributor

Coalesce, a playlist featuring soft and mellow songs by POC. This selection is best listened to during a rainy evening, chamomile tea in your favorite mug. Old honey sitting on your tongue while you reminisce all the sweet things you smiled upon today. An overcast sky battered with pinpricks of light; just about cold enough. Your heart in funny places and silence seeps in from the floorboards. It’s the best kind of quiet, the least haunting nothingness can be. Listen to the playlist on Spotify here.

  1. Fireworks – Mitski
    I will be married to silence
    The gentleman won’t say a word
    But you know, oh you know in the quiet he holds
    Runs a river that will never find home
  2. Boyish – Japanese Breakfast
    Watched her lips reserving tables
    As my ugly mouth kept running
    Love me
    Love me!
  3. Mermaid – Yvette Young
    The last time I felt love,
    The sun was a halo around your head.
    I saw clouds, I heard waves
  4. Oak Tree – Mirel Wagner
    So if you walk in the woods and you see
    A big old oak tree
    Thread carefully, please
    Cause I’m dreaming underneath
  5. Free – Body Language
    Tell me what you really wanna be
    Tell me, are you really free?
    Do you trust, do you care?
  6. Heartbeats – Dabin
    We had divine sense
    To know what to say
    Mind is a razor blade
  7. Cold Apartment – Vagabon
    And we said it’s not the end
    But she wore that white dress
    And I changed
  8. Two Hearts – Valerie June
    Then they fell
    Two hearts they fell
    What they felt
  9. Blank Maps – Cold Specks
    Head for the heart; does it break?
    Words may fall, the body remains
    And every map is blank
  10. Chasing Shadows – Santigold
    You find us where we fall
    We’re chasing shadows
    Here is the glow

 

Weighing In: The Purpose of Poetry

by Devon Balwit, Poetry Editor

What is poetry for? Lately, many have weighed in on this topic in the popular press. Why do big events like natural disasters, 9/11, or Trump’s election seem to call it forth? Why do many people hate it? Why do many others continue to produce it? How should one approach it as a reader?

A recent essay in The New Yorker titled “In Defense of Poetry” by Louis Menand examines a number of claims made about poetry’s utility or lack thereof. Of interest is his summation of Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry”: “Poems simply cannot do what people want them to do—create timeless moments, or express individual experiences with universal appeal, or create a sense of communal identity, or overturn existing social mores, or articulate ‘a measure of value beyond money.’ All they can do is expose the impossibility of achieving any of these things by writing a poem.”

I disagree that poems “can’t” do these things. They do them all the time. To write a poem is to take a moment—historical or personal—and expand it, first, through the act of writing, and then again through the act of reading.  Does the moment become “universal”? That word is perhaps too large unless you mean the space of intersection with an Other and the finding of commonalities there. The commonalities may not even lie in identity or shared life-experience, but in the power of art to produce shared emotions: nostalgia, indignation, empathy, lust, etc. They create a space apart from the world. (Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t be troubled with liking the work of a poet whose politics we disagree with. Inside their work, we can encounter them in a different space, that of our shared language, or of the creative process itself.)

Poems also frequently overturn existing social mores—perhaps not in the sense of fomenting social movements or inspiring legislation, but in that of an individual sharing information that otherwise wouldn’t be shared publicly, or sharing it in language usually deemed socially inappropriate. We see this when poets write about being victimized, about perpetrating crimes, about acts normally performed behind closed doors. By bringing these taboo events and thoughts into the open, they challenge social mores.

Similarly, too, poetry celebrates a value beyond money. Few poets earn money through publishing, teaching, lecturing, websites, or workshops. Thus, the creation of poetry is largely unpaid as is its dissemination. In fact, I’d venture that this is the source of much of the scorn leveled at those who write and read poetry. Those caught up in the production or enjoyment of capital cannot understand dedication to something that doesn’t pay homage to the currency of this realm.

Menand also paraphrases Matthew Zapruder’s essay “Why Poetry?”: “Where people who are puzzled by poetry go wrong, he thinks, is in expecting poems to say something straightforward about life, to be useful. Poems are really about language—ultimately, about the impossibility of fixed meanings.” I want to step out of this grad-school lingo. Many poems, I’d counter, are quite straightforward. They use simple language and situate themselves in recognizable and commonly-lived experiences. Sometimes, even the most successful poems emerge from the artist’s personal experience. (I think of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” about explaining death and evil to a child.) Poems are evidence of the writer’s grappling with a moment. The fact of a poem is like an intimate stain on a sheet. We know sex occurred. We can imagine it. We didn’t live that encounter with the lover, but the facts of it resonate within us. And what of the “impossibility of fixed meaning”? One does find meaning in or through poems. They don’t mean anything or nothing at all. Perhaps “fixed” is the key term as each reader might enter the poem through a different line or phrase, and the same reader may enter it by a different one the next time they read it.

Perhaps those people who are puzzled by poetry are not really puzzled at all, but rather offended. They don’t want to slow down. They don’t want the apparent slightness of a poem compared to a Netflix series, a movie, or a book. They might be affronted by the gossamer lines asking for “weighty” consideration. They may resent having to work for pleasure in their leisure time.

Menand also intrigues when he notes: “One of Lerner’s chief examples of misplaced expectations for poetry is what he calls ‘nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social, and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic People.’” We imagine a “back then” in which children routinely memorized and performed poems in school, or when people kept notion books of notable lines or whole poems. We imagine the pool of poems smaller and thus shared and familiar. I wonder if we are romanticizing the past. Then, as now, only a fraction of extant poems are offered for such activities, usually the most accessible, the best-known, those with the most marked rhythm for ease of memorization, those most likely to carry the audience along. The rest, certainly the most daring or experimental, or those written by “margin-dwelling” writers didn’t find themselves “reconciling individuals into a People,” at best perhaps they brought together a group of friends/compatriots around a café table, or as now, rippled outward among a “friend group” on social media.

I take issue with Zapruder’s lines: “We find genuine questions everywhere in poetry because they direct the lines away from certainty and stasis. In the best poems, often the poet does not know the answer.” A poetry critic always runs the risk of elevating personal preferences to principles. For example: “I prefer ambiguity; thus, the greater the degree of ambiguity, the better the poem.” Many poems that I love examine recognizable themes in language that invites the reader in (see, I am doing it too: elevating my preference to an aesthetic ruler). These poems take the reader to what could be called a “conclusion.” The final line “makes sense.” The poet—gasp!—perhaps even knows where they are going and how they wanted to arrive there. This doesn’t render the poem “static.” We know any given wave will advance over the shore and retreat, but never the same way. Its movement isn’t ambiguous and enigmatic, only variable.

Without being churlish, I confess that I like the final two lines of Menand’s essay best: “I understand that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.” This, indeed, sums up the impulse. I see, read, hear, feel something, and it sparks a desire to respond. It opens the door to the room set apart, that strange room of the mind that is bigger than the whole world, that exists outside of time, unbound by it. The saying of the thing created there is pure pleasure, independent of whether it is read, understood, appreciated, or remunerated. The act of transmuting lived experience or thought into language is all-absorbing.

I would like to end by quoting Menand: “You read this piece…maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.” Our brains are restless tools. Poetry, the making and reading of it, gives this tool its perfect exposition. It is the sought-after perpetuum mobile, the inexhaustible process.