“Why can’t you see me? Why can’t I stop needing you to see me?” Chen Chen asks in “Nature Poem” in the third portion of his 2017 debut poetry collection. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is both a demand to be seen & an exercise in imagination. His poems range from playfully political to severely surreal. Woven with philosophical undertones, both embracing them & turning them inside out, Chen Chen explores what it means to be human, what it means to be alone in the world, in one’s body, in a room where the quiet outweighs silence.
Present in the midst of playfulness is a responsibility to his intersecting identities: that of an immigrant, that of a Chinese-American, that of a poet, that of a queer man, that of a descendant of wordsmiths & thinkers. In his poem “Talented Human Beings,” Chen Chen laments the disparity of grief between Asian persons & their American counterparts, recounting how he vowed to only to masturbate to a Japanese porn actor Koh Masaki, although he “felt conflicted, listening to relatives in China/ lament the popularity of Japanese cars. But Chinese porn wasn’t as good.” These concerns return for Chen Chen as a need to not only be seen in death but also in life, combating the ignorance of westerns about the lives of anyone not a next-door neighbor, anyone not white & rich. Chen Chen seeks to stoke both care & anger in the face of these tragedies, mourning how western philosophy “keeps your rage room temperature.”
But Chen Chen too is a sponsor of joy. In so many scenes, Chen Chen explores with childlike wonder how happiness might blossom, as in when he and his boyfriend visit the leaky faucet factory on a date, an image I cannot describe any other way than fun. Because for all their intellectual and linguistic turns, for all their political & cultural investigations, Chen Chen’s poems are fun, joyful even when tinged with sorrow. He speaks of the strange comfort of losing oneself in a good book & the sad plight of the not-as-famous-as-its-cousin-the-llama guanacos he glimpses in the zoo, and whether Chen Chen is penning an elegy or ode, there are always more ways to be together than to be lonely.
Chen Chen hopes, through both love and religion, through grief and family, that there might exist still in this world magic. “Believe the facts could be/ at least a little wrong. Please, something. Some/ magic, real as as this ripe life with him.”
It is rare for a book of poems to explore well not only historical eras but also the lives of past people, especially those neglected by formal history, and yet Kimberly J. Simms accomplishes this historic excavation in her first collection Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill. Simms weaves South Carolina history of mill workers in the late nineteenth century, both personal and journalistic in detail, and spins their lives into stories. The story of mill workers in the South is often forgotten, blotted out by the shadow of the agricultural South in historical narratives, and yet in this book Simms makes a case for the necessity of these stories through a juxtaposition of elegiac and celebratory poems. These mill women and children gave birth to early labor movements in the South, providing for poor, white women an early entrance into fields of labor not shared by their Northern counterparts until many decades later.
She focuses on the lives of children, with “lungs full of lint/calloused soles black with machine oil,” forced by familial poverty to work in the mills. Despite their hardships, they remain children, curious and searching for glints of innocent joy in the clouds of cotton dust. If one listens to these poems, one might hear flashes of song between the mechanical churn of ginning machines. There remain winks of wonder in the midst of the mundane, the workers at the mill holding fast to kindness and community. Simms writes, “Charity starts with a twang in the heart.”
Her poems, however, do not ignore the cruel aspect of mill life. In focusing on the fictional character of Lindy Lee, a young girl working in the mill, Simms explores how workplace politics, the selfishness of supervisors, the despotic power of mill owners combine to mold a life of misery for individuals with little power. The machinery of not only place but also society work together to strip Lindy Lee of her agency.
Ultimately, this story is one of survival, not glamorous, but instead a product of a series of steps toward a better life. “I want to dance lint-less,” wishes the speaker of one poem, finding escape in cinema. Whether the speakers of these poems describe flooding in middle Saluda, a familiar problem to contemporary readers, or the drudgery of daily mill work, Simms sings songs in which every life is both lament and fanfare. And the pain of the everyday may be relieved only by the hope of a softer future, a future not coarse as cotton, in which “tomorrow I will take up silk.”
Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill is available on October 21st and can be pre-ordered here….
And you can check out the publisher’s site here…
Kimberly Simms is a travelling poet. Will she be visiting your city on her tour? Find out here…
There’s a voice in my head when I read poems, and she speaks like a rust-wreck gassed up on moonshine. But you can only say something meaningful in the poem if you speak like you’re reciting the side effects of a questionable medicine at the end of a 2am infomercial, only slower. There’s a brick caught in your throat, and the poet sometimes speaks around it, certain to en-nun-see-eight each word. The brick is twined with a message scrawled on a bar napkin, reads, what I’m saying right now is very important.
The poet is a not a hypnotist, only sounds like it. Perhaps in speaking with the voice, a voice that does not seem to ever belong in anyone’s human mouth, the poet
authority. The poet talks
in his sleep
these words are merely
dream, an imprint
of what sentences
may not say until broken
I adore open mics & view them as religious experiences. Sometimes, I tell people I’m “going to church” when I’m going to a poetry show. I began attending open mics and poetry slams when I was sixteen years old, but a few years later, after I began living in Charleston and attending college there, I joined forces with another poet to start our very own open mic. These days, we have a robust following and access to a variety of unique venues; often our crowds surpass one-hundred-twenty bodies, and the events have only grown more successful.
In fact, the Charleston Poets team, in conjunction with many other literary groups, are organizing Charleston first ever poetry festival called Free Verse, which will take place in October 12th-17th. But we didn’t become kick-ass organizers overnight. We had to first leap through hoops of fire, bound across rivers populated with vicious crocodiles, and climb the Aggro Crag (Aye, Nickelodeon references up in here).
In November 2013, I arrived at King Dusko in Charleston, SC with palms sweat-slick and voice hoarse from practicing a new poem. My co-host and I arrived an hour early to an empty bar. The venue was bizarre—a large space populated with plush sofas and splintered kitchen chairs, walls decorated in local art works and scribbles of Sharpie graffiti. A small television sat near the entrance, a Nintendo 64 resting at its base. I asked the bartender whether or not they had a microphone, and she laughed. She told me she wasn’t aware there would be an poetry event that evening. My co-host was a years older than me, but still young. I was just nineteen. We hardly knew each other, but would grow to be close friends after we embarked on a new adventure—starting our own poetry open mic series.
It is difficult to conjure the details of the early days of The Unspoken Word. It sprung from our heads, like Athena, in the courtyard of a nearby coffee shop. The first few events were strange and under-attended: ten people crammed into the back of King Dusko, sharing work scribbled onto napkins and the backs of class notes. Meanwhile, patrons at the bar loudly discussed sports & break-ups & religion.
Starting our own poetry open mic series was tough. We spent the first month finding a venue, rejected again and again from different bars or cafes. Several had hosted poetry series in the past and viewed them as inherently unprofitable. Who wanted to hang out in a coffee house courtyard while a couple of poetic weirdos recited long untranslatable Latin verse? But we were aiming to bring a new spin to the open mic– we wanted the open mic to be a party, a “happening,” an event that could bridge gaps between strangers.
We also struggled with building a stable audience. Each week brought a fresh crop of faces– while at one event, an array of punk accapella pieces, the next month a series of slam poet performances. We did not necessarily possesses a steady voice as an organization, which prompted our poetry series to morph, adapt. We became an open space for what poets might want to bring. The secret, then, to creating a consistent audience is to invest both in the poets and the spectators. Some open mic hosts ignore the poets who come speak on their microphone, merely names on the list, but a good host should take time outside of events to get to know the poets who read. This engenders a real community and commitment to the poets’ growth, meaning as the open mic series becomes more established, so too do the poets grow more confident.
Early events included Ode to Hip Hop, Confessions Night, and Rhymes and Lovers. In March 2013, we held their first Holy City Slam at the College of Charleston Stern Center Ballroom.
We noticed something different about their poetry events. These were no polite events, at which stifled voices mumbled poetry from behind pages. The poetry was loud and energetic, striking at something alive, pulsing. The hosts encouraged a loose environment, in which shouting out encouragements and snapping one’s fingers were encouraged. We sought to create a democratic space for poetry where readers were confident to share their work—inspiring the motto Leave No Word Unspoken. Here, in this crowded, noisy room full of tipsy artists, poetry became something entirely new—fun!
After seven months,my co-founder AJ Johnson left for Atlanta, GA to pursue his career, and Unspoken Word regular Matthew Foley stepped into a leadership role. Foley had been hosting an open mic in West Ashley’s Avondale neighborhood called Poetry Night @ 827. Marcus Amaker, longtime poet-graphic-designer-beat-maker-musician-extraordinaire became more and more involved, collaborating with Unspoken via Charleston Poets. In summer 2014, Unspoken Word regulars and poets from around the city collaborated for the Word Perfect Poetry Show at the Charleston Music Hall.
In 2015, King Dusko closed, prompting The Unspoken Word to move to a new venue. It found two new homes in Elliotborough MiniBar and Pure Theater, where it held open mics and poetry slams respectively. Throughout 2016, The Unspoken Word expanded to various other venues such as Harold’s Cabin and Eclectic Café. Local poets began also to take part in Typewriter Poetry sessions on Saturday mornings at the Charleston Farmer’s Market. Today, the Unspoken Word operates primarily out of Eclectic Café & Vinyl on Spring Street.
Each second Friday of the month, we return because we have built something lasting. We have developed not only a poetry open mic but a true community of wordsmiths who hope, in coming together to speak on the mic, will spin out of our words something new and transcendent, a sort of monthly church at which we can worship.
“In the South everybody’s got a story, a long, elaborate, rambling, subordinate-clause-filled, bullsh–it-laced, possibly even entirely made-up story.”
—Diane Roberts, quoted in book review by Jay Watson in The Southern Register, Fall 2009
“Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?”
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”
—Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South,” St. Petersburg Times, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river on a raft. After Jim and Huck narrowly escaping slave-catchers, the raft runs up against a sturdy steamship, which cast Jim and Huck into the wild river. Somewhere northeast in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor sweeps through her front lawn and directs a flock of peacocks. Vibrantly colored, their feathers fan out like graceful spokes. South of her peacock sanctuary, a barn burns in Yoknapatawpha County. The history of southern writing is one of strange stories populated by ghosts and off-kilter characters. When one sets out to write a novel one considers “southern,” as I did when I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, the writer hopes to unsettle the narrative of the south.
Two interesting cliches emerge when I discuss The South (as a concept and place) with writers who did not grow up here. The first is the romantic view of The South borne of Antebellum dream: plantations lush with magnolia trees drip with beauty and Spanish moss. Somewhere down the road, a simple man plays a simple song on a homemade banjo as he sits on the front porch of a wooden shack he built with his own two hands. This version of The South is a quiet and wondrous place in which the potholes of the racist and violent past have been paved over. Sometimes southerners too conjure this vision of The South, though not everyone is self-deluded about the flaws of this place. Flaws flood unbidden the second popular fantasy of the non-southerner’s South: in this South, every person is a toothless hillbilly carrying sawed-off shotguns, driving too-big trucks, and fulfilling redneck cliches. In the second cliche of the South, houses fall into disrepair, tractors stampede through downtown, and cow-tipping offers the pinnacle of entertainment for any bored teenager.
Neither of these visions of The South prove true, which is why those who do not live in The South tend not to write about it. To them, it is a boring landscape of stereotypes. But read Faulkner. Read O’Connor. Read Toni Morrison. Read Twain. Read Pat Conroy. You will learn The South is a stranger landscape than it seems, a place that demands to be both criticized and celebrated.
When I set out to write Lickskillet, I wanted to write a “southern” story but rather than rely on the southern tropes of the past, I sought to draw from my own life. I grew up in the suburbs. Mundane hatred outweighed intentional racism. The neighborhood Bi-Lo parking lot offered a sanctuary for chainsmokers. The woods brimmed with promise of bonfire parties that never quite materialized. We lived lives informed mainly by imagination. Although violence became a footnote in personal and family history, rarely did these events occur in the light of day. Instead, everything is hidden.
Perhaps for this reason I chose to set my first novel in a fictional town, in which the dirty aspects of the town’s history could be contextualized as unreal. I don’t wish to tread on too many toes, though maybe that’s an unwise anxiety. One runs the risk, when writing anything incepted by personal experience and observation, of revealing too much. These days I live in Charleston, SC, a city made well-known in recent months due to the racist and horrendous actions that have taken place here. And this, I think, is an important consideration: in the same city as horror may appear, so may hope. So may love and family persist. Secrets litter Charleston like cigarette butts: the Starbucks across the road from College of Charleston was once the place where the gallows stood, the school library is built atop a graveyard of free blacks, and the charming downtown Market is referred to often as the Old Slave Market. Here the present interacts brutally with the past. Ghosts linger on every street corner.
In the second chapter of Lickskillet, a character named Aron King recounts a well-known local ghost story and laments that younger kids no longer carry on the tradition of sneaking into the so-called haunted house. According to lore, a rich Yankee recluse locked his mad wife in the attack until she eventually plotted his death– the details of where the authorities found his decapitated head, however, have been muddled by multiple re-tellings. In this geographical space, stories determine identity as strongly as do personality traits. Each character is haunted by the history of the space they inhabit. During this particular chapter, Aron develops a sense that the ghosts of his hometown have become irrelevant. Even the glorified past, often gilded in southern literature, is now falling apart; quite literally, the house is crumbling. Each time Aron and his friend Blaine return to the house and climb to the attic, their ritual smoking spot, the floorboards threaten to buckle. Always, disaster and darkness resides just off-stage.
If I were to attempt to describe Lickskillet in terms of genre, I would say Gothic Southern meets Young Adult Tragicomedy. I want an element of strangeness to rule the page and illuminate the lives of characters as they navigate their blooming lives. Each character is a teenager, young and eager to escape the dull town of Lickskillet, and yet they are still connected to the town’s irreparably southern past. One finds this strangeness in specificity: the peanuts floating in the Coke bottle, the kaolin sprayed on truck tires, the pop and sizzle of chicken frying, and the peculiar existence of characters who seem to belong nowhere else but here.
By here, I mean of course The South. The real South, a pulsing and writhing and alive culture. Southern stories carry a burden of unreality, the truth unfolding like some impossible origami. No human stands far from madness. No floor does not threaten to buckle. Illusions waver under the weight of old age. Haunted houses don’t stay standing; they burn down. Traditions do not remain constant; they slip and alter and grow anew. In these vulnerable moments, one may observe the center of strangeness to southern living.
I hope I have balanced the celebration and critique of The South, that I have struck some vein of truth in the stories that weave through Lickskillet. The place comes alive in my mind each time I revisit the novel, the town itself as significant a character as any of the people who live there.
I want my stories to hurt like a sweet tea toothache. Remember, they demand of the reader. Taste the blood-soaked dirt. Stick your face in it. And then sit on a porch at night in South Carolina and whistle in tune to crickets.
The following essay was written as part of a larger art exhibit curated by Roberto Jones called “The Contemporary Form,” which explored androgyny as a contemporary social and artistic concept. I provided the following essay as a plea to explore gendered expressions as not simply a political or artistic curiosity but rather a survival mechanism.
The Body Is Where We Live:
On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms
A Short Essay
By Derek Berry
Gendered language is the sarcophagus but not the corpse within. You can
claw your way out of the coffin, sure, but how to escape the body? You live there,
every experience, every moment, every love, every thought filtered through the
reality of existing in that corporeal being, one you cannot escape except through
sleep or orgasm or suicide. Even dead, you cannot escape the tongues of
others—those who will name you boy or girl when you only ever named yourself
God or fairy or Leelah Acorn. The catch, that skin stretches around our
bones, a flesh-prison. A strange virtual reality video game, in which we sit rattling in
the consoles of our skulls, controlling human-shaped vehicles. In these vehicles, we
collide and crash and zip and brake—we live our entire lives within bodies. We do
not even understand what it means to live beyond the body, whether death be a
coda or refrain. So we have these: we own bodies, though several own the language
that describe our bodies. How can we own a name that does not belong to us, one
our tongues have never learned to properly speak? How can we own a body so
inscribed with meaning we did not choose, a library of misinterpretations that
mangle bones, that fertilize graves, and that trap us with organs, with body hair,
with blood. We do not properly understand the physical effects of gender, that these
transgressions do not only happen in discourse or in the classroom or in some
theory-ruled vacuum but rather on the body, in the body, to the body. Always the
body is the final secret exhumed, the final consideration behind the name on the
headstone or taste of the dirt. This is a cemetery we continue to dig.