Guest Post: Poetry from a Former Skeptic

Currently Reading: A Madness of Sunshine, by Nalini Singh

This week, I am extraordinarily grateful to Beck Andoff, for providing me with a FANTASTIC guest post on a topic that I have neglected in my previous posts: poetry! I don’t read enough poetry, and I certainly don’t give it the coverage it deserves in this blog, so I’m glad that when I asked for a post from a fellow Toronto indie bookseller, this is what I got!

Andoff is somewhat of a local celebrity, and someone who I very much look up to in my local indie bookshop world, who can sometimes be heard sharing their book recommendations on Metro Morning!

Beck is a cheerful, messy queer whose gender could best be described as HIM from Powerpuff Girls. Too much gender for one tired anxious depressive body. Beck manages two locations of Type Books in Toronto, reads a lot of pop culture crit and micro histories, and lives with Bill Pullman the malamute mutt.

I’m honoured to host this guest post and share their poetry recommendations in this space!

From Beck: Queer Poetry

The Gay Agenda is just about getting you to read poetry.

Once upon a time, I loved being that smug 20 year old jerk who dismissed poetry as boring. I was yucking people’s yum left, right, and centre. In the years of bookstore experience I had before I worked at Type, I never ONCE handsold a poetry book.

But then, one day this past fall, The Queers got me. They caught me with the simplest little poem in the teeniest prettiest little book (Sennah Yee’s How Do I Look), and made me realize that poetry could be irreverent and current and kind of ridiculous and still have bite to it. The year since then has been an excited process of discovering just how much of a contrary fool I was to be missing all this for a decade. So here’s a little list of my fledgling queer poetry collection recommendations from someone who hasn’t a fuckin clue how to talk about poetry.

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Wow. Gwen is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent (and a hero of the trans/NB/GNC community here in Toronto right now), and this poetry collection ACHES. It’s righteous and exhausted and graceful and very, very real. And tremendously readable for something that deals with some incredibly painful subjects. Take your time with this one, and watch her work forever.

Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird

This miserable joyous snarky work by bisexual New Zealander Hera Lindsay Bird fully embraces rooting her pieces in time with frequent absurd references to pop culture, like the poem MONICA… which is about Monica from Friends. She also just has some of the best titles in the game: KEATS IS DEAD SO FUCK ME FROM BEHIND, WILD GEESE BY MARY OLIVER BY HERA LINDSAY BIRD, BRUCE WILLIS YOU ARE THE GHOST.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Danez Smith is often one of the best things about my twitter newsfeed— their recent (joke) thread about top privilege was a thing of beauty (I caught myself literally saying to someone “it’s funny because it’s true!”). Their poetry’s really tremendous. Not an easy read for me— fragmented and abstract, plays with form— but very worth it. a note on Vaseline is one that burned its way into my heart and brain.

How Do I Look by Sennah Yee

Every one of these itsy-bitsy poems was a precious lil jewel of delight for my soul. Irreverent and goofy and artful and specific. I am endlessly tempted to get the whole of the poem My Type tattooed on my body.

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Griffin-winning poet. He tangles longing and gay sex and colonization, and his style is an amazing clash of academic and conversational. And he has a poem titled AND SO I ANAL DOUCHE WHILE KESHA’S ‘PRAYING’ PLAYS FROM MY IPHONE ON REPEAT. Come on. My standard for all poetry now is unflinching reference to the realities of queer sex prep, apparently.

Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

Why had none of my jerk friends never told me Frank O’Hara was queer? Rude. He writes yearning and contentment and wanting to be loved like absolutely no one else, and with precise clarity of language. His poetry often feels like a warm bath. Reading this really makes me wonder if it was fluke that I wasn’t born a white cis gay man writing poetry in the 1960s rather than white genderqueer queer person writing fuck-all at the end of the world.

Full-Metal Indigiqueer by Joshua Whitehead

Easily the most high-concept collection on this list. A Two-spirit Ojibwe Cree storyteller and writer (his novel Jonny Appleseed was visceral and RAW and sexy and heartbreaking), this collection uses a kind of scifi-meets-lore conceit, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

This is a list of poets that have captured me (mostly through my coworker Sasha’s amazing recommendations), but it is also the list of someone who has only been dipping their toe into poetry for less than a year. There’s a huge body of amazing queer poetry out in the world, and the right bookstores and libraries will be able to indoctrinate you better than I have.

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Can’t Lit Fall Previews

Currently Reading: Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

Not to throw shade (except kind of really to throw a little shade…), but there is one Canadian book that has been getting some serious buzz this fall. And guess what? I don’t think it’s the most exciting CanLit that’s being released this season! Not even close. Let me tell you about what I DO think is the most exciting CanLit being released this season…

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

The cover of Empire of Wild: A Novel, by Cherie Dimaline. The cover also notes that the author is the same as the #1 Bestseller The Marrow Thieves. The image is a mostly desaturated image of a green armchair sitting in the middle of a forest clearing.

I work at Another Story, an indie bookshop in Toronto’s west end. The year that I began working there was the year that Cherie Dimaline’s YA Indigenous speculative fiction novel The Marrow Thieves took the world by storm. When I chewed through it in one sitting, the cover was fresh and bare. Now, the cover is littered with medallions representing the awards that this title has won since its released, so much so that they nearly obscure the art. By the time the winter holiday shopping season rolled around, we were literally having cartons of this title delivered by hand from our distributors at the last minute to keep up with customer demand.

I was working at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton in 2018 when I learned that Dimaline had secured contracts for four more books after the success of the Marrow Thieves, and on September 17th, the first of those will be available to the public. Empire of Wild is, like Dimaline’s last book, an Indigenous speculative fiction title, this time written for a mature audience. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ARC of this book.

I wasn’t disappointed. Much like when I read the Marrow Thieves, it took me a few chapters to really get into the pacing. As a settler reader, I sometimes find myself challenged by this aspect of Indigenous storytelling, but the more Indigenous lit I spend time with, the more that I am growing accustomed. Taking the time to get into the rhythm of brilliant books is always well worth it.

In Empire of Wild, Dimaline skillfully weaves her Métis heritage into a politicized, suspenseful narrative that centres around a woman’s search for a missing partner, the damage that Big Oil does in Indigenous communities, and the rougarou – a Métis mythical creature that calls to mind an anthropomorphic, demonic wolf.

CWs for this book include murder, other violence, possible abduction/abandonment by a family member, extreme right religious content, and substance use. It is an adult title, and it doesn’t pretend to be for a YA audience. I would definitely recommend this book. Is there any more enjoyable way to learn about social justice issues than through delicious, #OwnVoices storytelling?

If you are a settler and pick up Dimaline’s work, and then want to learn more about Indigenous issues, there are some great resources and books that can be read as follow up – including Billy-Ray Belcourt’s fall release, NDN Coping Mechanisms, which I recommend later in this post.

Other resources I would recommend are the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the content produced by Idle No More. Some non-fiction titles that would be fantastic follow up include 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, Heart Berries, by Therese Marie Mailhot, and A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott. Last but not least, if you can’t get enough Indigenous speculative fiction, I can’t recommend Jonny Appleseed enough, by Two-Spirit author Joshua Whitehead.

I Hope We Choose Love, by Kai Cheng Thom

The cover of I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. A red flower with a yellow and red centre on a black background, with white lettering.

Kai Cheng Thom is one of the only authors whose work I savour. From her insightful articles and essays to her picture books, Thom’s writing is some of my favourite. She has an advice column in Xtra, and her recent essay on the legacy of trauma within queer communities has been resonating with lots of folks online. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is one of my all-time favourite, gender-affirming picture books to read with children and adults alike, and Thom’s artwork is sumptuous and vibrant.

I’ve read, re-read, and been repeatedly brought to tears by her poetry collection a place called NO HOMELAND, but I’ve actually held off on reading her fictionalized memoir, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, which got some buzz recently since it was Emma Thompson’s Shared Shelf pick in March of 2019. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, because Thom didn’t have any other books, and I didn’t want to have read everything she’d published! I was so excited when I heard that Thom had a new project in the works, and now the wait is almost over, since her new collection of non-fiction essays, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, will hit shelves on September 24th.

Heartwrenchingly, I find myself hesitant about this new collection. It is beautiful, and brilliantly written. It is thought provoking, and that Thom brings a perceptive, and well-informed analytical lens to the issues that marginalized people face surviving the current political climate together. I would never hesitate to recommend any of Thom’s work (this collection included) to another reader, but I wondered even reading the title if perhaps our paradigms had diverged too far in recent times for me to find Thom’s newest work meaningful for me personally in the same way that I had her previous publications. Am I too cynical? Am I too white? Am I too hopeless? Am I too immature? Am I too angry?

I saw red flags that led me to believe this book was not for me. In the first chapter, Thom referenced works that make me deeply uncomfortable, for example, Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which is a deeply problematic work that can be used to gaslight victims of harassment. Thom also criticized “call out culture” or “cancel culture”, when I am of the opinion that if cancel culture’s existence isn’t a myth entirely, people often use this rhetoric when what they really mean is “consequences.” Yet, when Thom outlined her political views, I found nothing objectionable, and so I decided to proceed with caution.

Whatever it is about me and my social location, or about this political moment, I struggled with this collection. The format alternates between essays and poetry, and while much of the poetry reached me in a way that felt reminiscent of NO HOMELAND, the essays did not. They’re accessible and well-articulated, and I was often right there with Thom, until about three quarters of the way through. At some point in each of the essays, I found myself taking pause.

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about how instead of describing the written work of a marginalized person as “important” or “urgent”, we should be approaching these works as requiring “urgent listening.” I hold Kai Cheng Thom in great esteem, and while the conclusions drawn in this book are difficult for me to agree with, it is a book that I think warrants urgent listening, and probably for me, revisiting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of books like Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, and it may just become my alternate recommendation when folks come into my shop for Conflict is Not Abuse. In the meantime, me and my rage are looking forward to savouring Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars in the not-too-distant future.

NDN Coping Mechanisms, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

The cover of NSN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. The cover notes that the author is the winnter of the Griffin Poetry Prize. The image is a person with long, dark hair, wearing a black shirt, set against a backdrop of dry, tall grass or wheat, and a pale, clear blue sky. The person has their hands folded as if in prayer in front of them, and the hands are bound together with white fabric. They are holding a piece of wood that looks like a dried, dead tree, with a hole positioned over one of the person's eyes. The wood obscures the rest of the face.

I was honoured to be able to attend the Toronto launch of this book as one of the staff of Another Story, who are the book vendors for the literary events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As Belcourt himself noted during his talk, the event was very well-attended, and I spent the majority of my time behind the bookselling table admiring the spectacular beadwork and other Indigenous jewellery that so many of the people in the diverse crowd seemed to be wearing.

In my doctoral studies, I cite Belcourt’s work on animality in decolonial thought constantly these days. He is one of few Indigenous scholars based in colonial Canada who has written academic work in this area, and since I study working animals using an anti-racist and decolonial lens, his work has been invaluable to me. Because I had yet to read Belcourt’s Griffin-award-winning poetry collection This Wound is a World, I was intrigued by this new work consisting of both scholarly theorizing, as well as poetry.

The event, like the book (title pronounced N-D-N Coping Mechanisms), was varied in both tone and intellectual register. The book is a gripping commentary on the paradoxical horror and beauty of Indigenous queer life in colonial Canada. Belcourt noted that the book had already made the CBC Books Bestseller List for its first week out – but had, strangely, been placed in the fiction category.

Belcourt was joined at the AGO by fellow Indigenous author and scholar, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who asked questions ranging from how Belcourt conceptualized success and envisioned his responsibility to future Indigenous queer authors, to probing for details about the men that Belcourt writes about in his new book. Belcourt himself joked about being born in the 90’s and thus having too short an attention span to write a novel, and also mused about who the anthropological object of his creative work was. I simultaneously enjoyed the evening, and felt (appropriately) like a complete outsider. At times, the conversation was theoretically challenging for me to keep up with – and I say that as a fifth year PhD student. I was both awed, and at times, a little lost. Both Belcourt’s and Simpson’s readings of excerpts from the book made me shiver.

There were a few moments in the evening that were particularly poignant for me. When asked why he writes, Belcourt responded, “I don’t know how else I would deal with all this shit.” As someone who has been eyeball-deep in affective scholarly work for the better part of my adult life, this was deeply relatable to me. In some ways, NDN Coping Mechanisms appeals to me as a work precisely because of this. I am interested and often validated when I have the opportunity to read about the experiences of other marginalized people who have found creative ways to cope with the state of the world, or who cope through content production.

I was also charmed and impressed when Simpson inquired whether Belcourt suffered from imposter syndrome, and he replied, “Maybe it’s just my generation’s thing of being like, I know I’m amazing!” The audience laughed, and Belcourt paused before continuing, “I know what I bring to the table.” As a bookseller and a member of the literary community, if I could have one wish for all Indigenous people, it would be that they all feel this kind of confidence in their work. Indigenous literature is certainly having a cultural moment right now, one that I hope will have a lasting effect on the literary scene in our colonial nation state, and I hope that Indigenous creators can all be aware of just how much they bring to the table.

Lastly, and to make reference back to some of my complicated feelings about Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love, Simpson mentioned during the launch that some of Belcourt’s lines of poetry would stay with her forever, and I think that the one that she mentioned is a good place to end this recommendation of Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, which is available for purchase now. He wrote, “Revenge is more decolonial than justice,” something which feels equitable and firey and powerful to me. Simpson therefore asked herself, and Belcourt, and I think that it is a good question for everyone in the Canadian literary community to consider: what does revenge look like in CanLit?

Other Fall Books That Just Can’t Lit

…and if two books won’t be enough to stock up your TBR this fall, there are lots of other Canadian releases you should know about, for readers of all ages. These are some of the ones that I would recommend:

  • One Drum, by Richard Wagamese, October 19th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • On Fire, by Naomi Klein, September 17th
    Political non-fiction.
  • From Where I Stand, by Jody Wilson-Raybould, September 20th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • Breaking the Ocean, by Annahid Dashtgard, available now
    Memoir, Iranian-Canadian author.
  • Pickles vs the Zombies, by Angela Misri, September 21st
    Middle grade dystopian.
  • Angry Queer Somali Boy, by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, available now
    LGBTQ2S+ memoir, POC author.
  • Hustling Verse, various authors, available now
    Poetry, authors are sex workers.
  • African Canadian Leadership, various authors, available now.
    Political non-fiction, POC authors.
  • I Promise, by Catherine Hernandez and Syrus Marcus Ware, available now
    Picture book, LGBTQ2S+, POC authors.
  • Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun, by Paul Seesequasis, October 22nd
    Photography, Indigenous artist.
  • We Three, by Markus Harwood-Jones, available now
    YA with polyamory and LGBTQ2S+ representation.
  • In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott, available now
    Memoir, Indigenous woman author.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Affirming Middle Grade Gems for Spring 2019

Currently reading: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Note: the links found on this page are affiliate links for Amazon.com, so if you use them to make purchases, you will be helping to support my work. If you are in Canada, please use this Amazon Canada Affiliate link, and then search for the book you’re seeking. You can also always leave a tip for me through ko-fi!

Trans Book News

At the end of 2018, I sent some feedback to the hosts of my favourite podcast, Book Riot, that I thought they should have included more content about LGBTQ+ (and specifically trans and enby) people, content, and issues in their last couple of episodes of the year. Well, it appears that they listened. In their latest episode, they discuss some relevant bookish news stories that specifically focus on censorship of trans content in libraries, and opposition to drag queen storytime, both in the US. Take a listen here.

I’m really excited about this one: a new picture book about gender by enby illustrator Noah Grigni (and written by Theresa Thorn) is coming out this May. It looks like a beautiful book. If you’re in Canada, you can pre-order it here, and in the US, pre-order it here. Pre-orders support authors so much, and if you use these affiliate links to order, you’ll be supporting my work, too.

Last week, Ceillie Simkiss posted an important review of a forthcoming YA novel featuring a trans character, which is written by a cis author and riddled with problematic content. It’s not recommended for trans readers. Read the full review here.

Good news for trans representation in books and non-binary authors this week! Jessica Love’s Julián is a Mermaid, which I featured in my 2018 Trans-Affirming Picture Book Wrap Up, was a recipient of the Stonewall Book Award at ALA Midwinter! Another recipient was Kheryn Callender’s Hurricane Child, which – spoiler alert! – I will be discussing next week, as part of my Black (History? Future? Present?) Month post. See the full 2019 Rainbow List here.

The Moon Within

A selfie of me, with green hair, looking sleepy, and holding an ARC of The Moon Within, by Aida Salazar.

See the suspiciously sleepy-looking eyes in that photo? Yeah. It’s because it was after midnight, because once I picked this book up, I couldn’t put it down. No one is more surprised than me, and I’m thrilled to admit it.

I actually wound up with two hardcopy ARCs of Aida Salazar’s The Moon Within from the shop where I work. Perhaps because the rest of the staff saw it and had the same reaction I did: this is a middle grade, novel-in-verse. See me: skeptical. Yet, coming of age stories are usually among my favourites, and this one is by a Latinx author and features a mixed-race MC with a genderfluid best friend. I decided to give it a chance.

But let’s be totally transparent. I picked it up on the night that I did because I’d been in a bit of a reading slump, and I thought, this book is short, and I’m probably not going to like it anyway. Might as well. I ended up so glad that I did. This is me, with the humble pie over here.

This coming-of-age story is a charming exploration of many tensions that will resonate for readers: reclaiming Indigenous culture in contemporary America, navigating early love, and overcoming challenges in deep friendships. This book is entirely age-appropriate as a middle grade novel, with writing that remains poetic and descriptive. This story spans a relatively long period of time, enabled by the verse format, which avoids the passage of time and depth of emotion feeling cumbersome to the reader. Spanish language is woven into the text of this novel, at times with and at times without translation and explanation, and I expect that this will enrich the cultural experience of this text for Latinx and other Spanish-speaking readers.

The only aspect of this book that I found challenging as an AFAB trans enby was the focus on menstruation as a theme in the text. While I imagine that it would be empowering for girls and women, this was at times a struggle for me to navigate, because of the troubled relationship I have with my own body and its hormonal cycles. I did appreciate that the text touched on this tension as well, with reference to the AFAB genderfluid character in the book, but (my biased perspective is that) I thought that it could have been more thoroughly probed.

I’m thrilled to be able to recommend this book, which drops on February 26th, but can be pre-ordered now. Give this one to your kids. Point your teacher friends toward it. Send it in the mail to your enby friends in Oakland, like I’m going to do. It’s a gem. You won’t want to miss it.

Little Apocalypse

The cover of Little Apocalypse, by Katherine Sparrow.

Note: I received an eARC of Little Apocalypse through Edelweiss+.

I requested an ARC of Katherine Sparrow’s Little Apocalypse out of personal interest, because I love a good spooky story, even if it doesn’t have explicitly LGBTQ+ content. It was appealing in part because comped to Ellen Oh’s Spirit Hunters, which I read in 2018, and loved. Much like when I read The Moon Within, I picked it up because it was a middle grade book, and I’d been battling a cold, so that’s about where my executive function level felt comfortable at the time. But again like when I read The Moon Within… once I picked this up, I had trouble putting it down.

Maybe it’s about time that I checked my own prejudices about MG books, because despite being written for a young audience (I know, I know), the world-building in Little Apocalypse was rich and deep. I probably would have anticipated that had I been familiar with Sparrow before picking up this book – although this is her MG debut, she’s hardly a novice writer. Sparrow has four previously-published adult novels in a series called the Fay Morgan Chronicles, and one of her short stories, The Migratory Patterns of Dancers, was nominated for a Nebula award.

This is a monster-fighting book with a Strong Feminine Protagonist that is perfect Buffy or X-Files fans (or future fans of Buffy, or maybe Buffy herself). If you’re buying this one for a kid, and they enjoy superhero stories, it’s a great step up from something like Buffy: New School Nightmare, the Desmond Cole series, or the Goosebumps books. Parents will love about this book that although there aren’t a lot of responsible adult figures around while the plot is unfolding (surprise!), the main character’s love for her family is clear and abiding throughout the book, even as she truly comes into her own as the protagonist.

My favourite things about this book are that, 1, it was written for book lovers. It has a bookworm MC, features a library in one of its settings, and even some of the most dramatic apocalyptic imagery was book-evocative. 2, it’s a friendship book. There are little hints at romance in places in this novel, but ultimately, it is all in on nuanced, complicated, platonic relationships. 3, the monsters are awesome. 4, the author does not shy away from moral ambiguity in this book, and I love the depth and complexity of that gray area.

But ultimately, (spoiler alert) one of the things that I love about this book is that in the end, the main character undergoes a pretty significant physical and emotional transformation. Although it’s dramatic and complicated, she and her parents work through it together, and they wind up having a happy, loving life, all together. The book doesn’t gloss this over, but the happy ending was heartwarming. It was this part of the book that I felt would be really affirming to any kid, but especially to kids dealing with transition or coming out to their caregivers. (end spoilers)

I would recommend this book to anyone over the age of 9 or so (only because any younger, and I feel like it might be edging on nightmare territory), including adults. Little Apocalypse is available for pre-order now, and will be released on March 19th, 2019.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.