I’ve found myself coming back to Terrance Hayes’ To Float in the Space Between (Wave, 2018) again and again over the past year—and I think I’ll be returning to it for many years to come. After I read a book I really love I tend to read it again hopping around randomly, piece by piece, to relive the most impactful moments of it, and to see how my eyes change, and feelings change, in relation to that first reading. From considerations of black masculinities and various traditions within American poetry to an incredible meditative structure on the life and work of Etheridge Knight (from which the title is drawn) to breathtaking memoir-like moments that allow us to see Hayes’ reflect on his own life and work, I’m just so grateful for this book. In an early moment, Hayes’ zooms out and talks about the difference between how a scholar and a poet read and study the work of a poet:

“The scholar looks upon his subject as if through a window. The scholar aims to frame the poet’s work according to things like genre, talent, culture, history. A clear pane of logic, interpretation, and appreciation separates him from his subject. Conversely, a poet looking upon the poetry of another poet sees something of himself reflected in the pane. Process, imitation, and competition are reflected in the work. A poet looks upon the work of another poet not only through a window but also through a mirror. (Please forgive my generalizations).” (9)

It’s this kind of self-aware thoughtfulness that sets the stage for the other books I’m reading right now, which draw from my often quite mixed-up impulses as a poet, PhD student, and translator. Because I’m now in my PhD’s dissertation phase, a lot of what I’m reading also includes critical texts. I’m curious about the ways that kind of writing lives alongside the creative writer in me. The tension is a challenge at times and I think, as a practice of reading widely, that kind of challenge is fundamentally useful.

The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures

Harris Feinsod’s Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford UP, 2017) is such a joy and valuable read right now because of the way that his historiography of American poetry embraces the continental meaning of the word American and painstakingly details the transnational relationships and influences that have defined so much of what we might too easily define as [United States’] American poetry. Feinsod’s work emphasizes the fact that everything, from a poets’ writerly influences to sociopolitical repercussions, never takes place in a national vacuum, so to situate United States’ poetry as one curious node in that broader context of national identities and (post)colonial languages is so valuable. My dissertation work is focused on understanding the relationships between Afrodescendant writers across the Americas, but particularly the translation efforts between black US poet-translators and AfroCuban poets, so Feinsod’s transnational historiography is a useful example of how to broaden our understanding of a poet’s life and work beyond a single national context.

Una suave tierna linea de montañas azules: Nicolás Guillén y Haiti

Emilio Jorge Rodríguez’s Una suave tierna linea de montañas azules: Nicolás Guillén y Haiti (Casa de las Américas, 2017), which I’ll provisionally translate here as A Soft, Tender Line of Blue Mountains: Nicolás Guillén and Haiti, has also been an amazing discovery for me because of the way it thinks through the Afrodiasporic relationships between Nicolás Guillén, a giant of Cuban letters in the twentieth century, and contemporaneous Haitian writers and thinkers. My own travels and studies have made it clear to me that Afrodescendant peoples born in various countries around the Americas have an underexplored, fraught, nuanced relationship to not only our own national identities, but also to other Afrodescendants that deal with the histories and ongoing repercussions of colonial racialization in their various national and transnational contexts. Jorge Rodríguez’s contribution goes a long way in helping to document the fascinating history of Cuban-Haitian literary relationships that are so often ignored.

Selected Poems
by Lorna Goodison

Buck Studies
by Douglas Kearney

But back to the poetry! Over the past few years, I’ve found myself counterbalancing different genres of books in order to see how they’ll live together in my own thinking and in my own writing. Right now, even within the realm of poetry, I’m reading Lorna Goodison’s Selected Poems (University of Michigan, 1993) alongside Douglas Kearney’s Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2016) because I love to put wildly distinctive poetic voices in my head at the same time and wait to see how they interact with my own writing. In my own writing process, I’ve learned that reading poems that spark my curiosity often inspires me to focus, experiment, and more courageously write my own. Goodison’s and Kearney’s poems make meaning, build energy, tell “stories”, and buck histories in such wildly different ways that, as of late, I’ve felt most fed when I “float in the space between” their radically different aesthetics.