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Culture Connoisseur: My World Poetry Day Selection

A few poetry books from my shelves.

Pitchfork has this video series called Over/Under: in an episode, an artist or band gets a random set of subjects and things. They then have to say whether that subject or thing is overrated or underrated, with a little bit of explanation about why they feel that way. If I had my own episode of that video series and the subject was “reading poetry,” I’d say it’s deeply, deeply underrated. I’m an avid fiction and non-fiction reader, but I often find poetry to be much more compelling when it comes to presenting an idea or figuring out emotions.

Most people shy away from it because it seems like too much of a brain workout, but I guarantee you’ll feel much better about yourself and your skills the more often you do it — just like a physical workout. I promise that there are poems out there that you’ll like, despite the poems you were forced to read in high school and hated. I also promise that in the poems you think are too esoteric, like Shakespearian sonnets or long epics, you’ll find some aspect of relatability. The more poetry you read, the more you’ll figure out who and what you like.

In honor of World Poetry Day, I’d like to share a few poems that I constantly return to or think about — even though my days of studying poetry in a classroom are behind me. Every time I reread these, I find new facets of emotional fortitude. I think you will too.


Alice Walker‘s “Be Nobody’s Darling”

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.
Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.
Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
(Uncool)
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous
Fools.

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

But be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.


Nikki Giovanni‘s “What It Is”

if it’s a trail we can hike it
if it has two wheels we can bike it

if it’s an allergy we can sneeze it
if it’s a pimple we can squeeze it

if it’s dew it “covers Dixie”
if it’s Tinker Bell it’s a pixie

if it’s a breeze it can blow us
if it’s the sun it can know us

if it’s a song we can sing it
if it flies we can wing it

if it’s soda pop then it’s drinkable
it might be X-Rated by that’s unthinkable

if it’s a boat we can sail it
if it’s a letter we can mail it

if it’s a star we can let it shine
if it’s the moon it can make you mine

if it’s grass we can rake it
if it’s free why not take it

if it’s a tide it can ebb
if it’s a spider it can web

if it’s chocolate we can dip it
if it’s a golf ball we can chip it

if it’s gum we can chew it
I hope it’s love so we can do it


Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s “Witch Wife”
She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ’tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of coloured beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.


Maya Angelou‘s “Phenomenal Woman”
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Dorothy Parker‘s “Interview”
The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints …
So far, I’ve had no complaints.

What are your favorite poems? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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What I Read: August & September 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. I normally write a few paragraphs about each book, but to switch it up and challenge myself I’m only going to write three-sentence reviews. Let’s go — here’s what I read in August and September:

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

This is an extremely poignant novel about a young half-Vietnamese man living in the 1970s United States as an undercover Communist agent, framed in the form of a confession. This book delves deep into the complexities of political identity and war, and made me think about how we blur the lines between history and mythmaking. Reading The Sympathizer taught me to seek out different perspectives of American historical events than the ones I’m conditioned to look for and believe.

William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life is probably one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Finnegan writes such poetic prose, and his storytelling was so engrossing that it made me care deeply about surfing and the sport’s place in people’s lives. The only downside of this book was that while reading it all I wanted to do was lay on a Hawaiian beach and watch the waves.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

This essay-in-the-form-of-a-book is required reading for every single human on this planet. Adichie’s candor makes me proud to be a woman and a feminist. After you read this short book, read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad is a good novel that is conceptually imaginative and engaging, but it is horrific and will make your heart hurt. This novel about a young slave running away for her freedom on an actualized underground railroad system is well-researched and well-written, and I learned a lot of historical events I didn’t know about. I gave this book five stars on Goodreads, but I’ll say it is not the best Colson Whitehead novel — try The Intuitionist or Zone One first.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

This is another novel that will make your heart hurt, especially if you’re very passionate about animals. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves takes a closer look at who and what make a family, and also how we write our personal histories within larger histories. It only took me a few days to read because it’s extremely engrossing, so it’s a good pick if you’re looking for something quick.

Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn.

Battleborn is a collection of short stories set mostly in the hot Nevada desert. Watkins is the daughter of a Manson family member, and once she tells you that you can’t shake it from the book’s background. Watkins does an excellent job of straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction, and making the physical landscape and setting the most powerful player on the character roster.

Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Susan Sontag drops truth bombs. The best essays in this collection are “Against interpretation,” “On style,” Happenings: an art of radical juxtaposition” and “One culture and the new sensibility.” The only drawback to read Against Interpretation in 2016 is that a chunk of the essays center on movies or books or people I’d never heard of, which made it harder to truly grasp the gravity of Sontag’s arguments and follow along.

Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power’s The Career Code.

The Career Code is written by two awesome women who know a lot about fashion, editorial and running a business. It’s full of evergreen advice for young women who want to be professionals. None of the advice is particularly deep or earth-shattering, but I have a feeling I will revisit this book often.

Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type

I picked this book up because I want to be a better editor, and it helped me get acquainted with typographical terms and layout design. In today’s world, a journalist has to know more than just the writing (coding and layout included), and you have to seek out the resources to be better. Even if you’re not a journalist, this is a good The More You Know kind of reference book.

Alice Walker’s Revolutionary Petunias.

Alice Walker is a goddess and a national treasure. “Be nobody’s darling; / Be an outcast. / Take the contradictions / Of your life / And wrap around / You like a shawl, / To parry stones / To keep you warm.” struck me to my core. If you read Revolutionary Petunias and like Alice Walker, try Sandra Cisneros’s poems.

Ali Smith’s Artful.

I went into reading Artful thinking it was going to be a novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s more of a fictional criticism and essay hybrid. That sounds weird, but Smith is very inventive — and I am still in awe of her creativity and command of language. If you like books that defy genre, you’ll like it.

What have you read lately? Let’s chat in the comments.

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