Whenever I go to writing conferences, I try to attend as many live readings as possible. I want to know all the writers unknown to me, and scribble down their names and books in a picket journal. Just as vigilant as I am about discovering up-and-coming authors, I likewise study all the journals and magazines those writers have been published in, to see if they’re a fit for my work. It seems like a very roundabout process, but my individual ritual is a warm process, not a stressful one.
While at a reading in the old bookstore building where the show “Portlandia” was shot, I sat in the second row, absorbing all the poetry I could. The space was already excessively cramped; it was the first evening of The Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference (AWP). The list of poets for the reading was huge, too, an ensemble of queer and POC poets from all over the country, but primarily the west coast. One poet in particular, Grace Shuyi Liew, reading from her new book (by new, I mean it hadn’t even been released yet, but she had early copies for sale), “Careen,” was a fresh, unique voice among a cast of unique voices.
What makes “Careen” so potent is how Liew balances the tension of her very experimental verse with dense images and political commentary. “Careen,” simply put, is a book of craving, of desire. Liew couples the deep wanting the speakers of her poems have for a place to call their intersectional identity home with the stark reality that the world—or rather the America we suffer in—is dominated by the gaze of whiteness, of homophobia, of transphobia.
At times hard to read, and at others viscerally explosive, “Careen” suggests that the desire we might have to be included will only be reverberated by the history of exclusion constant in our time, propagated by our political leaders.
Viciously personal, Liew collaborates with tensile methods of shaping her poems around the page, to manipulate its white space (it’s worth noting that the collection is much wider than typical poetry collections, which accommodates Liew’s stylistic form).
As scant as my wallet was after buying—perhaps too many—books at AWP (I recall counting about 25), I still felt insatiable. To be fair, I always want more books. But what was compelling me to fill my tote bags with poetry collections was the consistent longing that I shared with Liew that first night of AWP. I wanted her want, the ulterior collective want for inclusion when, in our harsh reality, isn’t possible, and might never be. However, and I hate to use the word, but hope drives my body toward what pockets of community we have for minority groups, one I tediously crave as a queer individual.
“Careen” is not a hopeless collection of poems, because books like this desperately need to exist; the discussion Liew makes with her debut full-length collection is one I hope never loses steam. I know I keep saying the word hope. But sometimes, it’s difficult to stray away from what often feels like the only thing we have.