The Sealey Challenge and Writerly Reading Practice: 31 Poetry Book Reviews-In-Tweets

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

I first discovered The Sealey Challenge in 2017: the year I finished undergrad and was transitioning into graduate school. As a writer entering a science PhD, I was worried that my program would consume my time and energy, leaving little room for my writing. The Sealey Challenge first popped into my life at exactly the right time, giving me a disciplined structure of reading one poetry book a day for the month of August – a structure which would teach me so much about my own readerly and writerly rhythms, and give me intuitive time management tools for fitting poetry into my difficult schedule, while also sustaining myself long-term. Throughout what turned out to be the most toxic academic environment I’ve ever worked in, I ended up having my writing and reading practices to sustain me. 

There’s a good chance I wouldn’t be a writer today, or at least not the writer I’ve become, without everything I’ve learned from The Sealey Challenge. Each year, it inevitably leads me to books which have ended up shaping my poetics writ large. The poems which formed the basis of my debut poetry collection, for instance, wouldn’t have been written without my 2017 Sealey Challenge leading me to Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, Suki Kwock Kim’s Notes From the Divided Country, and Hayan Charara’s Something Sinister. In retrospect, these 3 books grew to be some of my most formative reads for my writing trajectory these past few years. 

I want to linger in this retrospective space, and reflect on the importance of reading in writerly practice. This is among the first lessons I try to impart on my poetry students who ask about setting aside intentional, sustainable space for writing in one’s life: whereas writing poetry can often be a very intuitive act of letting pieces evolve on their own time, a consistent, thoughtfully-planned reading practice will always benefit and nourish one’s poetry and writerly mind regardless of the writing that is or isn’t happening. 

What follows is a listicle of poetry book reviews which take forms resembling tweets (with a rough 300 character limit), filtered through my own subjectivity and focusing on how these books contributed to my writerly reading practice. I’ve organized the tweet-reviews in threads, based on lessons I’ve learned from each group of books, in hopes to not only point readers to new books of potential interest, but to also give insight on integrating reading into daily rituals. 

Thread 1: Include chapbooks in your reading practice! 

There are many reasons why chapbooks should be on people’s Sealey Challenge list. When reading a book a day for 31 days, length is a serious consideration for sustainability. The Sealey Challenge also taught me how important chapbooks are for my reading practice, in general. First, the chapbook is, often, a poet’s true debut – a way of getting one’s work out there, in some format, before a full-length debut is ready. Reading chapbooks is a good way of finding new poets to watch out for in the coming years. Chapbooks can also, even for the most seasoned poets, offer rich formal and experimental possibilities. Because of the generative constraint the chapbook’s length induces, I find that my students tend to respond to chapbooks very well in classroom settings. Chapbooks also are often published by independent presses who need our support now more than ever. Taken together, I am always left with the question: what happens to the making of the poems, themselves, when the project they’re housed in rids itself of the pressures, anxieties, and industry expectations of a full-length poetry collection?

  1. Weren’t We Natural Swimmers by Aliah Lavonne Tigh: Confronting entangled climate catastrophe (“Maybe we plant them… ladder a child climbs to escape the sea”) & US imperialism (“the God of War is sitting in the desk behind me”), Tigh’s Queer Iranian ecopoems insist on finding love despite impossible times: “tell me you want to love me / in the round darkness / of midnight.” Among my favorite 2022 releases!

  2. Spells of My Name by I.S. Jones: Structured around a sequence of self-portraits wherein the speaker’s name is mis-spelled, Jones builds a poetics that “survives translation.” Questions of language become questions of landscape, as Jones builds a Queer Nigerian American pastoral. Here are poems as transformations, incantations, pure magic. 

  3. Dancing on the Tarmac by Tarik Dobbs: This is an engaging chapbook which “begins where the state ends.” I can imagine assigning it as an introduction to form and visual poetics, with shapes ranging from dis/embodiment under Ben Gurion airport x-ray scans, a tree poem in which every bird is a drone, and ekphrasis shaped into a US flag, parallel to forms like the rondeau, landays, and duplex. 

  4. Muscle Memory by Kyle Carrero Lopez: With one of the most memorable openings I’ve ever read, this project asks, after prison & police abolition, “what it will take to stop them / if they return with new names.” Through forms like the Oulipian beautiful outlaw & erasures where the word black is replaced by [POC], this chapbook rigorously questions the role of language in liberatory imaginations.

  5. Waiting for Frank Ocean in Cairo by Hazem Fahmy: In his follow-up to RED/JILD/PRAYER, Fahmy invokes Frank Ocean to narrate life from Egypt to the US: Frank’s disappearance discussed on an NY subway, Frank on pause mid parental argument, lyrics as entryways into masculinity & queer desire. To the tune of Thinkin Bout You, Fahmy writes, “I never needed a brown boy’s body to remind me that no state works for us.” Here are poems unafraid of their own intimacy. 

  6. Reconstructions by Bradley Trumpfheller: Here the infinite will be respected. Woven together by fragments of an infinite utopian socialist project, Trumpfheller insists: “don’t say heaven unless you mean the past tense of to heave.” Here, a poem whose trans speaker is zipped into their grandmother’s dress ends in: “Believe, we’re all alive here. Come hum this lace blood-warm. Glisten.” A favorite beyond time.


Thread 2: Make space for books by writers you’ve heard at readings! 

Poetry is, fundamentally, a sonic art. When approaching work on the page, hearing how a poet reads aloud can, often, give a much more tangible, human entrance to their books. Often, attending readings also gives me intuition on how a body of work can fit into my writing, craft, and reading practice – a sense of how a speaker’s voice activates my mind and spirit. The following is a thread of books I was introduced to in the context of hearing poets read their work aloud (in my case, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference – one of three in-person poetry events I’ve been able to attend in the past several years).  

  1. Heart Like A Window, Mouth Like A Cliff by Sara Borjas: As a fellow poet with a spoken word background, Borjas’s reading energy translates immaculately to these pages. With lyric-narrative urgency centered on the speaker’s home of Fresno, & a range of forms (prose poems, ars poetica, an unforgettable visual piece), these poems sing: “listen to the hole in that voice // listen to the hole in your mother’s name.”

  2. Millennial Roost by Dustin Pearson: I’ll never forget the silence descending upon the room as Pearson read First Kiss: this was the breath with which I held Millennial Roost. With epistolaries & central hen/egg motifs, these poems work through childhood trauma on their terms: “who would have us look in the ordinary places / for the things withheld from us?” This book changed how I think about sexuality & trauma.

  3. Subwoofer by Wesley Rothman: The warm energy with which Rothman read these poems was the perfect entry-way into the voice of Subwoofer – a collection driven by sound: “I pledge / disobedience to the united / strings of beats.” But it is also a project of profound devotion: “The bush of Moses throbbed with deep / Holy. I’m no deliverer, but I know / Holy when I hear it.” These poems will be stuck in my head for a while!

  4. Paraíso by Jacob Shores-Argüello: Gentle & precise, every single breath of this book is caringly sculpted. And yet, Paraíso gives us even more than poems, invoking games, cures, & spells. With sonnets, these pieces accumulate into a journey to Costa Rica to grieve the speaker’s mother. In all of its care, we never forget that this is a project of love: “It’s natural to love impossible things.”

  5. Vantage by Taneum Bambrick: I started Vantage just before bed, thinking I’d read a few poems & finish in the morning, but fell into the world of this book: the town, worker dynamics, queer intimacies, & landscape surrounding a Columbia River dam. This hybrid-genre book uses poems, prose poetry, & essays to build a world as rich as most novels I’ve read. I’m so excited for Intimacies, Received!

Thread 3: Read your broader community, and writers you’ve connected with!

Artistic lineage has always been important to my poetic practice, especially as a Queer Palestinian writer working through and despite the English language. The Sealey Challenge is a great opportunity to read broadly with respect to your artistic community, catching up on recent releases or foundational books you may have missed. I distinctly remember devoting several days to (re)visiting June Jordan and Naomi Shihab Nye in previous years, for instance. Although I do not mean “artistic lineage” to be interpreted only with respect to ethnic identity or political position, the books below are recent collections in my broader community of Arab and Arab American poets which I’ve valued spending time with. 

  1. Dear God, Dear Bones, Dear Yellow by Noor Hindi: “I promise. I promise. I promise. I – / meant it as an act of survival. Maybe love,” ends Hindi’s opening poem. Here is a debut insistent on breaking the language (& systems) behind traumatic media cycles of US reportage on Palestine. These are also poems of the body, which dare to love boldly: “Every week I fall in love / with a new bad idea. I hope / one day to magic my body / away.”

  2. The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser: With translations, prose poem dream fragments, & a lyric voice whose urgency & love for their communities from Yemen to NYC allow these poems to live & sing off the page, Almontaser’s book culminates into the invocation: “all I want is to be an adequate ancestor / to the Yemeni women who come after.” An utter knock-out I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

  3. O by Zeina Hashem Beck: With innovative forms, including triptychs, contrapuntals, & Beck’s invented duet, O troubles the binaries between ode & elegy, body & country, to build an immense, generous poetics which loves with its whole breath. Here, mothers are “country enough,” bodies are “dear ordinary miracles,” a poem is a thawra of “forbidden song.” Here are poems that sing.

  4. Like We Still Speak by Danielle Badra: With poems suturing the book’s speaker to fragments from her deceased sister, and poems composed entirely of the speaker’s dead father’s words, Badra inhabits the contrapuntals of grief. Elegies arc towards language poems, as the collection furthers its experiments with work in Marwa Helal’s Arabic form. This unforgettable collection is a cousin in grief.

  5. Rifqa by Mohammed El-Kurd: In jasmine-scented Jerusalem, Rifqa inhabits the liminal memory-space between auto- and anti-biography, where “every grandmother is a Jerusalem.” In doing so, El-Kurd liberates his poetry from respectability & other colonial gazes weaponized against Palestinians, even and especially in literary contexts. The poetics of our future is here & now. 

Additional books I’m looking forward to reading, or catching up on, in the coming months (or on future Sealey Challenge lists!) include Andrea Abi-Karam’s Villainy, and forthcoming books by Maya Salameh and Banah El Ghadbanah

Thread 4: Read broadly in an aesthetic sense, then focus based on current craft needs!

The balance between reading broadly, in an aesthetic sense, and deeply, based on your current artistic needs and obsessions, is necessary to any writerly reading practice. The Sealey Challenge can be a great format with which to experiment! For this reason, I never recommend going in with a fixed list of books, but instead, 1) a general sense of what your reading goals are, 2) a list of books which may help you accomplish that goal, and 3) a spirit of open-ness which will let you veer off that course as your intuition and daily moods and rhythms demand. For my most recent Sealey Challenge list, I knew that some of my broad interests, as of late, included: A) craft-wise, a desire to read more visual, collaborative, and experimental poetics, and B) thematically, a return to pastorals (and complications thereof) and queer speculative poems within my more recent work. Here are some books, of varying different aesthetics, to which I’ve recently (re)turned, in order to accomplish these reading goals in the Sealey Challenge. 

  1. Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart: After “Writing Ellen West” taught me the generative potential of returning to former poems in 2019, I knew I’d return to this book when I needed it. It was ultimately writing through my father’s death, and the ir/resolution of never coming out to him, which led me to these pages: their retrospections on parental histories through queerness, the way they gaze unflinchingly into a dying world. This is a book that’s taken more life/time than one to write. 

  2. The Wet Hex by Sun Yung Shin: “I wrote obituary after homage after ode after elegy (for every species larger than my thumb). // The flora and fauna (c)are nothing for the world of letters,” writes Sun Yung Shin. At the apex of necropolitical (eco)catastrophe, myth, (ancestrally) collaborative, & cross-genre poetics, The Wet Hex is a project only the magic of a collective-minded poetics can hold. 

  3. Gumbo Ya Ya by Aurielle Marie: At the center of Marie’s project is a Black, femme, queer speaker who asks us to hold their impossible histories of survival, & builds towards a collective-oriented poetics: “Promise meaning a poem so beautiful, I must not be tragically Black | however drowned I am | by white noise.” Here, the margin is another border to shatter – here is a future of visual poetics to which I am forever returning, a poetics of liberation I cannot wait to bring into my classrooms.

  4. about:blank by Tracy Fuad: In her boldly experimental debut, Fuad has built a whole multiverse: a poetics which inhabits a future conditional, holding the weight of Kurdish lineage, against a contemporary technoscape where “we’re deeply programmed.” Where else can a poetics where “chronology could fail like anything else” turn but the infinite refractions of body, of body despite?

  5. Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly: Home to poems such as Dead Doe, Song, and Three Cows and the Moon, which are among my all-time favorite poems, Song is an unparalleled collection for anyone interested in contemporary pastorals. I cannot count the times I have returned to this book in the past 5 years – it’s never ceased to teach me something new, or surprise me in the most remarkable ways. 

Thread 5: Catch up on recent poetry releases!

Despite the ways the ongoing pandemic has devastated the publishing industry’s publicity practices and critical review outlets, especially for poetry books, the poetry of 2022 is very much as alive, invigorating, & innovative as ever! It can be really hard to keep up with the waves of amazing releases, and the Sealey Challenge can give us a great chance to catch up on the year’s books we may have missed. Here are a few recent releases I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. 

  1. Customs by Solmaz Sharif: In her extraordinary follow-up to Look, Sharif dares to imagine an otherwise. “Of / is such a little city,” she writes in another central long-form poem of exilic loss unnameable aside from “without which.” After Look gave our generation of poets a way of tunneling through the militarist imperialisms implicit to English, Customs continues to build better elsewheres in, through, and despite English. 

  2. Civil Service by Claire Schwartz: “To confess / is to offer the territory of your elsewhere / to the Dictator’s compass,” writes Schwartz in “Lecture on Confessional Poetry.” Moving through a sequence of similarly titled pieces, poems with an Archivist, Stenographer, Dictator, & spectral traces of Amira, Civil Service is an immense & unforgettable project on poetic potentials for intimacy & interior under state power structures of language. 

  3. Unceded Land by Issam Zineh: Where sonnet meets catastrophe & cento, physics meets love poem, body meets myth & the divine, Zineh’s debut sings: “We believe ourselves nations. / I come to you because I want to come // and because coming is as much / a going away from.” Here we’re reminded that the project of anti-colonial poetics has always been one of love & deep attention: “I take you as you are. Forever and far / in this difficult language of the world.”

  4. a Year & other poems by Jos Charles: Structured around a central long-form poem titled “a Year,” Charles’ follow-up to feeld inhabits a lyric time-space inexorably queered in its with-ness: “past what is lifted / whatever word from / whatever throat it’s lodged / there being only one throat / between us, past perception / & nevertheless perceiving.” This collection has haunted me, down to my language, in the months since first reading it. 

  5. Year of the Unicorn Kidz by jason b. crawford: “Again / I feel so much like the dead. Feel / myself becoming,” writes crawford in their opener, “The Etymology of Cruising.” Moving through forms like the pantoum, ghazal, & duplex, and writing in lineage with poets such as sam sax & Jonah Mixon-Webster, this gut-punch of a book does not let us leave the same. These words will ring in my head long after my reading: “memory is another form of debt.”

Additional recent releases I’m looking forward to reading in the coming months are: Come Clean by Joshua Nguyen, Maafa by Harmony Holiday, All The Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran, Swallowed Light by Michael Wasson, and Iguana, Iguana by Caylin Capra-Thomas. 

Thread 6: Develop practices for reading project books that may require continuous attention!

Although I do not believe in the rigid distinction between project vs collection poetry books (as most poetry projects, even book-length-poems, are collections in some capacity, and collections need to be interested in arc and accumulation, though often of a different shape than project-type poetry books), the Sealey Challenge can be a good way of testing ways to build time for books which may demand to be read in a single, continuous sitting. Here are some project-inspired poetry books, from long-form poems to narratively-driven poetry books to docu-poetic and other research-inspired projects, which benefited from continuous attention in my reading practice.   

  1. Ossuaries by Dionne Brand: Words like epic & immense still seem to somehow fail at describing sheer scope of this project, the borders it crosses in perpetual movement. Brand writes, “they ask sometimes… who could have lived each day knowing some massacre was underway.” This project has always been one of un/knowing, its weight. Ossuaries is a book I’ll carry to the end of the world; one I’ll be reading for the rest of my life. 

  2. Paper and Stick by Priscilla Wathington: In this Palestinian reckoning with colonial violence and archival erasure, language is the body by which the speaker finds “breath in occupied space.” Docupoetry, too, is critiqued for its potential to become “tool of every empire,” as Wathington builds a poetics of fragmentation which aims less to narrate than shatter language beyond colonial limits.

  3. Crib and Cage by Kazim Ali: Bookended by poems titled “Quarantine,” this project leans into the unsettling power of language by defamiliarizing sonnets from the contemporary, weaving English with “odder older tongues” – middle French, Scots, Norse, etc. A powerful illustrated tribute to Etel Adnan, queering time, English, & genre: “A human is a verb. The world is the condition.”

  4. The Spring Flowers Own & Manifestations of the Voyage by Etel Adnan: Dearly beloved Queer Arab hero turned recent ancestor – there aren’t enough words to articulate just how indebted we are to Etel Adnan, allah yerhamha. Here is a poet who lived with death close, unafraid to be present with the world at its most impossible times. In doing so, she prepared us for her death: “the morning after / my death / we will sit in cafes / but I will not / be there / I will not be.” To these two long-form poems, I will be forever returning: “Let tombs stay open!” 

  5. Affiliation by Mira Mattar: Centered around a long-form poem dedicated to the speaker’s father, this chapbook by UK-based Palestinian poet Mira Mattar rigorously questions the affiliations with which we structure our world: the blindspots which themselves slaughter, what “‘together’ means and why / and where it begins / and that it ends.” It is a rare joy to read a poem that’s petal-to-metal for 23 pages of non-stop poetry-meets-theory brilliance. A poem for & beyond our time. 

These are some of the insights the past few years of completing the Sealey Challenge has given me. I want to end by emphasizing: the challenge is what you make of it, and can become whatever you need it to be. I decided to use this year for a modified poetry + theory version of the challenge, alternating between poetry books and nonfiction. Among the most interesting experiences was reading the Dustin Pearson, Taneum Bambrick, Claire Schwartz, and Frank Bidart books included in this listicle, in the backdrop of theory texts like Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology and J. Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure – books which I knew I wanted to read this summer, but didn’t necessarily go into the Sealey Challenge planning to read! Another practice I started adopting was taking pedagogically-focused notes on the books as I went through the Sealey Challenge: poems to teach, where certain works could fit in my lesson plans, prompts and exercises which different readings inspired. The past few years have taught me, above all, that the process itself is way more important than how many books I ended up getting through.