Book Review: Rock Paper Scissors

i need poemspoemspoemspoems
a universe of nothing but–
just to keep the light on
just to keep my head
in a world gone madmadmad

The ending stanza of Mary Oishi’s first poem in Rock Paper Scissors showcases exactly how I needed this book, at this point in my life especially. Co-written with her daughter, Aja Oishi, Rock Paper Scissors is divided into two parts: part one being Mary’s, a mother’s poetry of strength and survival. And it radiates and embodies those two qualities so well, but it gMaryO (1)oes beyond the theme of motherhood alone — though it was this theme that I clung to desperately, now raising two daughters of my own, and an old friend of much survival and some strength.

Mary’s part in the book starts with a subtle strength, though; short poems pack brief blows of heartbreak and speak a story of resilience, touching on abandonment (when i asked how my mother could give me away), growing up biracial (at least I had siblings, you said), the impact of racism, and politics (in numerous poems, though most notably in Thoughts on the Execution of Troy Davis).

Heaven help us,” Mary writes, “We are ALL Troy Davis.” But in the same stride that she seeks to remind readers of our unified human-ness with this and other works, her poem prior, Ghosts of Penn’s Woods, packs a reminder of the brutality of colonization. Her heavy concentration on politics does not cease here: broken frame left a lump in my throat, womb-heart aching not only because I am both mother and woman, but because I have faced the choice of abortion.

this poem is a graphic picture on a sign
in front of every senator, every candidate
who calls for escalation, for “tough measures”
this is a pro-life poem.
THIS. is a PRO-LIFE poem.

She begins with this brave declaration, placing the reader briefly in the shoes of a war-ridden woman; for every politician who screams PRO-LIFE, we are left with the echoing question, “What about the children in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan?” The list could go on, loud as bombs.

But then, there is perhaps a message more easily related to.

she wonders if her pro-choice sisters,” she writes, “will stand with her now,” speaking of a doubt that has flooded the minds of too many women more concerned with the thoughts of others than the impact of making their own choice may have on their futures. With unwavering finality, we are left with the firm belief of the author:

this poem demands all women’s right to choose,
ALL women, to really have choice, choices, opportunity
this is a pro-choice poem.

THIS. is a PRO-CHOICE poem.

This is a pro-life/pro-choice poem
looking for a new frame.

Never before had I read something that so wonderfully/horribly resonated with my own thoughts on the constant debate of choice, and for that, I cannot offer enough praise to Mary Oishi.

Her daughter, Aja Oishi, proves to be just as radiant in writing as her mother, though certainly with her own unique voice in the second part, a daughter’s poetry of chance and fate. Visually enlightening, Aja’s poetry awoke something visceral within me. Immediately, I felt as though I was being taken on aajaauthorphoto  spiritual journey; but perhaps there was no surprise in such spirituality resonating in Aja’s writing with titles such as Creation Story and Of the three Fates, I choose scissors. Other poems, like Beast vibrated with simplistic form, and still strongly echoed that deep and complex spiritual feel.

Get down

Dig dig dig because you are small
and the small will survive.

Stay alive

Touch your hands to the earth
and do what it tells you.

Remember what you came for

Love and joy, and love and joy,
and love and joy.

She goes on to write about defending the sacred, reiterating that it is we who are sacred things; assuredly, each of her pieces are equally as beautiful and enlightening, offering a semblance of inner peace. But there is a bittersweetness, too, in poems like Fireflies that seek to remind us of our dying earth, of what we once thought of as eternal and how it’s now fading. In a political landscape strife with debate of climate change and global warming (and the list goes on from there, of course), I feel like Aja’s voice is necessary for my generation — we are the ones who witnessed little miracles like fireflies, and constantly buzzing bees, and our children will, perhaps, be the last to see such things as they fade only to be revisited in memories.

And perhaps this is why earth itself (or maybe it’s more apt to say herself) is such a beautifully repeating theme in Aja’s work. In don’t be afraid of the beautiful and high mountains, she again succeeds with offering a very visual piece, the message of which is simple and still so very important: don’t give up.

Don’t give up
for unbearable sorrow.
Don’t give up
for the terrible anger.
Every day
suffering piles up
on yesterday’s suffering
be we have work to do.

Even at night a miracle happens
with every in breath.
Somewhere
frogs emerge singing

and precious strawberries
are red
in the mouth.

Written like a letter to a woman named Carol, it begins with the declaration, “Your very name is a praise song.” I was so utterly struck by this statement, and the lasting sentiment, “We need you here to sing the welcome song.”

Like her mother, Aja also speaks of heritage, of being a woman in this wild world, of the choices that we face. With My Body Between acts as a witness, from the perspective of patient escort, to every woman who has walked into an abortion clinic.

She’s worn every label you can think up
from good girl to fuck up.
She keeps her chin up.
She’s come in a rusty blue Mustang
and her brother’s pickup truck.
She saved to come out from Texas
—cause it’s much worse in Texas—
and her boyfriend’s come with her
on the bus from uptown.
They thought she wouldn’t get here,
cause she just finished
fifth grade.
She thought she wouldn’t get here
cause in her forty-five years
she’d never been.

This entire piece chipped off pieces off my heart, not only because I have been there for reasons numerous, but because it made me feel seen. It made me ache and cry, it made me feel as though I were a part of a unified front, even with the recognition that this choice isn’t made lightly, and without hurt. And I think that was the most important thing: Aja’s words don’t seek to act as though this isn’t a painful choice, but certainly reiterates the fact that it is a CHOICE; a choice that women in all walks of life have had to make.

I could go on to wax poetic about each of Aja’s poems that follow, written from various personal experiences (though written in such a way that they are not impersonal, and allow the reader to insert themselves into the words and images and places), but maybe that would be too redundant. Instead, I leave you with the simple insistence that you buy this book. I speak as a mother, but believe this is a worthwhile collection to add to anyone’s library.


Mary Oishi has two poetic voices: one stark and simple like that
of her Japanese ancestors, and one that echoes the rhythms of
preachers from her upbringing by her American father’s
fundamentalist relatives. Both voices sing her songs of truth
and social justice. She is the author of Spirit Birds They Told Me
(2011) and is one of twelve U.S. poets in 12 Poetas: Antologia De
Nuevos Poetas Estadounidenses (2017), a project of the Mexican
Ministry of Culture. Her poems have appeared in Mas Tequila
Review, Malpais Review, Harwood Anthology, Sinister Wisdom, and
other print and digital publications. Oishi is a public radio
personality since 1996, most at KUNM-FM Albuquerque,
where she hosts The Blues Show.

Aja Oishi lives in northern New Mexico. Her writing draws
from ecology, anthropology, and the years she spent in Spain,
Japan, and New Zealand. She revels in the uncaged world and
makes a living (and a life) by fighting for prisoners as an
appellate public defender. This is her first collection of poetry.

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Featured SwEP author: Jennifer E. Hudgens

Swimming With Elephants Publications would like to reintroduce you to Jennifer E. Hudgens, author of Girls Who Fell in Love with War. Jennifer was born and raised in Oklahoma City. She has always danced to the beat of her own drummer, just ask her mom. Using poetry as a means of expression and survival, Jennifer lives poetry. She watches the sky the way most people watch television. Jennifer is terrified of clowns, horses, and animatronic toys. That damned Snuggle bear is secretly trying to steal souls.

Girls Who Fell in Love with War is Jennifer’s first full collection of poems. She has plans to release a couple poetry chapbooks and her first novel in 2016. Jennifer promises the novel is quite murdery. She is also working to bring more diversity and light to the amazingly talented poets in the Oklahoma Poetry Community.

Jennifer is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing at the University of Central Oklahoma with plans to teach high school students after graduation. She teaches creative writing classes for the Oklahoma City Arts Council and is a pretty rad substitute teacher.

Jen genuinely hopes you like her poems. If you don’t, that’s okay too.

Recently, she released a collection, Paloma, with Blood Pudding Press. So it goes…

You were the only one who believed me when I said what he did hurt

You were the only one who knew I was burying myself in too much fat and flux

Paloma kickstarts with 1996, a punk rock war-cry of nostalgia and a final lingering note of sadness. This, like many others in the collection, is a poem that resounds with everything oh-so-90s; but make no mistake, this is meant in the best possible way. A mixed tape soundtrack that plays like growing up, it sets the tone to whom this collection is dedicated– as much funeral dirge as it is love song for a sister and friend. The final line of the first poem rings melancholic: “Who’s gonna take care of us strays now?”

It is this echoing theme of finality, of trying to grasp the concept of loss, that carries on through the entire collection, questions of mortality and suffering scattered like the ashes of the departed, asking the question specifically in Lauren Kate is Dead: “Where the hell is this better place people are always talking about” and present in lines like:

How is it life if we aren’t suffering
Pain keeps us still {here} latched to gravity

With each poem thereafter comes a chapter of both closure and reawakening old memories; Paloma is remarkably bittersweet in the tug-of-war of saying goodbye to somebody who can no longer hear you, and Hudgens’ voice is so clear and combative against adhering to traditional standards. If nothing else, it is clear that Hudgens proves to be anything but a traditional poet; she rocks the reader’s thoughts, with gruesome details suggesting unkempt murder, encouraging one to further unravel the mayhem behind a sudden loss. Nonetheless, this proves to be a beautiful read, a true work of dedication and memory even with scattered wishes to be unseen, like that found in Bizarre Love Triangle:

You always saw me
Now
I’m trying not to be seen

And isn’t that so like loss, and how we process it? Loud as bombs, but in the quiet, in solitude, trying to process in peace, even if the death was anything but peaceful. But with this thought, I wonder at the intention of the book title: Paloma– a name that means peace, it is perhaps, with this offering, the dearly departed (because judging by Hudgens’ words, Lauren Kate was, indeed, so very dear) may be at peace, too.

Overall, as with all of our SwEP family, I can only offer heartfelt recommendations to reach out and read more of Jennifer Hudgens’ work. You can purchase her full-length title, Girls Who Fell in Love with War, published with Swimming with Elephants, on Amazon, and keep an eye on her wordpress for more news directly from the author.

Available Now: I Bloomed a Resistance from my Mouth by Mercedez Holtry

Book ended artfully by two poems (“Dear Donald Trump” and “For Latinos Who Voted for Trump”) that bring much needed attention to the political climate and how the Trump presidency affects her and her people, Mercedez Holtry’s newest publication from Swimming with Elephants Publications is everything you could imagine from the renowned poeta. It, as the title proclaims, is a resistance of performance, blooming like sunflowers stretching to an Albuquerque sunset sky.

Mercedez goes further in speaking not only about the national political climate but also local change and gentrification of her beloved hometown — Albuquerque, New Mexico — in poems like “La Central gets a Makeover” in which she calls out by name former Mayor Berry and the many failings of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) and its continued construction. Woven with a deep woe for being the final generation that might cruise Central Avenue, she takes you on a journey of the Albuquerque she knows and loves.

But there is a softness to this resistance, too. In “You Bring Out the Burqueña in Me,” dedicated to her beloved, she journeys through all the makings of herself and her culture, her love and her home, painting an image that echoes the vulnerability in the poem prior, “The Heat of Summer.” Both veer away from the political undertone of this publication and yet, there is still a softly flowering rebellion in her words. A rebellion of self, of love, of light.

But as with nature, there is darkness behind the light. A persona poem, entitled “La Llorona Speaks,” takes the reader on a shadowed journey into muddy waters of loss, exploring the legend of La Llorona, or The Wailing Woman. Another stunning exploration of her own culture, this particular poem was a hauntingly beautiful read.

As ever, Mercedez does not fail to enlighten and educate with her second collection from Swimming with Elephants, bringing an artfully entwined variety of work.

You can purchase I Bloomed a Resistance from my Mouth on Amazon, along with her first publication, My Blood is Beautiful. And don’t forget to like Mercedez’s artist page on Facebook, and keep a lookout as she heads out for the Blooming Resistance Tour this May (and for inquiries about booking her for a feature, please contact our partners at sugarbookingentertainment@gmail.com).

Now Available: Nail Gun and a Love Letter by Beau Williams. 

Heralding from Portland, Maine, Beau Williams describes himself as a “fairly optimistic” poet, and what better way to describe his newest collection of poetry from Swimming with Elephants Publications than as “fairly optimistic.” Bittersweet journeys to bar floors and the bottoms of bottles, Nail Gun and a Love Letter is reminiscent of beat poetry days and the pilgrimages we must take to find ourselves.

Whether these pilgrimages occur literally or otherwise, Beau has managed to make an astonishing and beautiful book; these are love letters soaked in liquor, poking nails through your heart only to fill the holes with the sort of honesty that only being three sheets to the wind can bring. This book is better described as a cure for hangovers, best enjoyed with a hot cup of tea (or maybe a hot toddy for those frigid winter nights). Beau is undeniably honest in his descriptions, and there’s something chilly in his work, reminiscent of winter along the Northeast coast, but he always manages to wrap the reader up in warm words. From micropoems like “Sacred Vows” to full length bar hymns like “Looking for Brooklyn in a Shit Bar in Portland,” it’s clear that Beau has an inspired affinity for storytelling based heavily in symbols and setting. This book is a journey.

I first met Beau when he was on his own journey with GUYSLIKEYOU, a poetry collective with Wil Gibson and Ryan McLellan. It was his soft demeanour that caught my attention, allowing a contrast to his occasionally sharp edged poetry. Again, this brings to mind poets like Allen Ginsberg; there is a subtlety in these pages, a sharp as a nail, unforgiving as alcohol sort of sensation. And yet, reading this collection was like having a drink with an old friend. Like coming out of the Maine cold to warmth, at long last. And maybe he’ll burn a bit of you, but he will always wrap you up again with a love letter.

Nail Gun and a Love Letter will be released soon. Meanwhile, don’t forget to like Beau’s Facebook page to show him some support and for book release updates.

Wil Gibson just can’t quit…

…being phenomenal.

Of course, such a grand sweeping word as phenomenal fails to do Wil Gibson’s work, in his most recent published collection, any justice whatsoever. It’s my belief that a simpler word might better suffice, if only for the phenomenal simplicity of what Wil’s words make you feel. An oxymoronic statement, maybe, but it’s just that — the beautiful simplicity — which Wil brings to both written and performance poetry.

It’s his most recent publication with Swimming With Elephants Publications, Quitting smoking falling in and out of love, and other thoughts about death that draws close that beautiful simplicity. As life-changing as an arrival to a safe haven, or a departure from the only place you’ve ever known, reading this book was like coming home, wherever home may be. With a broad array of landscapes and cities throughout the United States mentioned, I felt a strong sense of connection to place in reading. It was, undoubtedly, a journey; more than that, it was a pilgrimage.

For that reason, this book needs to be savoured (like a cigarette, if you will, or five after you’ve quit for the umpteenth time). Not to say I didn’t have the urge to rush through each part and eat it all up, but I found it most enjoyed as a slow read, taking the time to dog-ear pages and underline phrases that struck me (and as I say to many writers: sorrynotsorry for dog-earring books, for lack of post-its to use as markholders, and for marking up your books — this, to me, is a testament of love for the work put in, as I find connection to it).

The contrast and connection between each section was so well-constructed, from a writing and editing standpoint, I could certainly see the love that was put into this book, too. From the numbered poems and the slow stream of falling in love over and over again in the first part, The part where I fall in love and a bunch of people I love die to the numbered days in the second part, The part where I quit smoking and more people I love die that are almost comical at times in their display (days 16-18, especially; any smoker or former smoke can certainly relate to the feeling of fuck you that Wil puts so adequately on the page), a conversational tone carries throughout.

Thinking back to when I first heard Wil perform, it’s that conversational tone that holds him as one of my most highly recommended poets for anybody first entering the slam/performance poetry scene; I believe there’s something unique in drawing your audience in without the grandeur of the typical “slam voice.” Instead, Wil’s poetry has always offered this drift back to something reminiscent of the “original” spoken word artists of the Beatnik movement. But there’s that modern touch of artistry in his work, too.

It’s in The part where I fall out of love and more people I love die where Wil’s artistry as a written poet really shines. With unexpected construct like the poem titled simply as Purple, to the constant self-recognition of using cliches to his best ability (and the simple notion of the necessity of cliches), there’s a heartwrenchingly beautiful notion presented in the level of vulnerability that Wil provides in the third and closing part of his collection. Here is vulnerability as a lover, as a smoker, as a writer, as a human. And isn’t that what writing really needs to be? Vulnerable conversations, the shared recognition that we’re all cliches, we’re all just quitting something to start again, that we’re all falling in and out of love with ourselves constantly; Wil’s poetry reminded me that we’re all on a phenomenal pilgrimage through life, and we’ll get there whenever we damn well please (and maybe quit smoking, eventually).

In parting, I would tell anybody skeptical not to be swayed by the ominous title of Wil’s most recent book; instead, let it be an offering that allows you to feel absolutely, phenomenally, simply… human.

You can find Wil’s book on Amazon and Goodreads, along with other books in the Swimming With Elephants Publications family. And don’t forget to keep up with him on his website and Instagram as he continues to tour and scatter his words across the country.