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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Book Review: They Are All Me by Dominique Christina

They Are All Me by Dominique Christina
Book Review by SaraEve Fermin

They are all me
Dominique Christina is a woman who wears many hats—activist, poet, performer, educator, author. Emblazoned across all of those titles one word sticks out, clearer than the rest: mother. Nowhere is that more of a celebration than in her newest book, They Are All Me. Please, don’t expect a book of sing-song rhymes or lullabies. Christina is here to sharpen her tongue and pen on the rarely explored edges of humanity, dealing with race, genocide, and womanhood.

In the books introduction, Jack Hirschman describes his reaction to first hearing and then reading Christina’s work ‘…I saw PAGE, I saw BOOK—which is not usually the case when it comes to a lot of so-called Slam or spoken word poetry I’ve heard.’ What makes Christina’s work so readable and relatable is the intensity as well as the connection to content. The first poem in the book is aptly titled Summer of Violence, words that ring heavy and true in our time, cutting into the heart of what is killing us–

Your tomorrow has a bullet in it.
Ask Trayvon Martin.
Your tomorrow has a bullet in it.
Ask Jordan Davis.
Your tomorrow has a bullet in it.
Ask Michael Brown.

Christina dares the entire country to look at what it has done, to ask what is happening to all the black and brown bodies disappearing into the open mouths we call graves, guns, cells. No one is off the hook—not the president (A Letter To Obama, Which Means Nothing), not Hollywood (Bad Blood, For Whitney Houston and Her Daughter Bobbi), certainly not White Men (The Sons of Oil Men), even the Country has to answer for it’s inexcusable course in Oh, America:

I went out looking for
what you promised and
found a toothless grin,
an empty pot,
boneyard lullabies,
sweet-less shores,
witches burnt to cinder,
little black girls bombed in churches,

they are all me.

…See how incurably permanent I am.

Many of the poems in this book are dedicated to the mothers or family members of people who have been murdered for simply living. From the Civil Rights Movement to #BlackLivesMatter, Christina refuses to turn a blind eye to the cruel treatment of African Americans, will not swallow the phase ‘post-racial’ no matter what you chase it with. She remains vigilant in the struggle to keep many of these names relevant in today’s clickbait and celebrity status driven world. A mother herself, the rage she feels over these losses as well as the heartache can be felt in every carefully placed word. She examines the devastating violence of the Civil Rights Movement in poems such as Birmingham Sunday and A Poem For Coretta:

They need me to do something about it,
wrestle the past down to a fairy tale and affix
‘And they all lived happily ever after’ at the end.

It has been almost fifty years since the man who said ‘I Have A Dream’ was assassinated for sharing his ideas of tolerance and peace. Still, Christina opens her heart to those who are murdered, to the black and brown boys we are losing, to the mothers grieving. It is here we see the frustration in being so full of language and still so denied the right to speak, here that Christina howls for the mothers who have only tears. In Mothers of Murdered Sons (For Mami Till, Emmet’s Mother; Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s Mother; and Leslie McFadden, Mike Brown’s Mother), she splits open each family drama, again drawing on the juxtaposition between violence and faith:

The prayers of mothers with murdered sons
don’t arrive in heaven anymore.
Could be they never did.
And maybe God’s a charlatan pitching pennies
to the sound of black boys
breaking the world with their bleeding.
Maybe he’s busy with more righteous indignation.
Maybe the melody ain’t right.

Intersecting motherhood and poetry is a woman, a powerful woman who can conjure up words that might make you think twice before hitting send. When an unnamed ‘Dude on Twitter’ made an offputting comment about menstruation and sex, attempting to bring shame to womanhood, Christina wrote The Period Poem, blasting all misconceptions people may have about the resilience of being female–

And when you deal in blood,
Over and over like we do,
When it keeps returning to you,
That makes you a warrior and
While all good generals know not to discuss
Battle plans with the enemy
Let me say this to you, dummy on Twitter:
If there’s any balance in the universe at all…
You’ll be blessed with daughters.

DC Bio PicBecause women ARE strong as HELL! Christina has written a testimony to the women who have been holding it together for years, women fighting for their lives, women who have lost children, women who we have lost to violence. Through each poem, no matter how brutal the content shines a core of love, a central subject that is being a woman of color in today’s world. In Improbable Bird (for Elaine Brown), Christina writes about the fight between patriarchal expectations and the need for independence in order to make change–

You were supposed to grow up to
Be one of them,
To imprison you wanderlust,
In favor of a husband and
A job that asked of you high heels
and long skirts, but you
Knew something about the madness

That revolutionaries have to keep.

They Are All Me is a reminder that the past can not remain silent. That we need to keep digging at the damage until we find the source of what is wrong and fix it, that the band-aids are not working. She addresses national crisis the so many others have shied away from. She covers Vietnam, Katrina, 9/11, Ferguson, all from a personal perspective. These poems are powerful in the way they transport you back in time, how they pulse the blood, remind you there is more at stake than just a title or a prize. Christina is writing to save lives. In No Consonants, No Vowels, she writes

Language is slippery
when you don’t use it,
when nobody speaks to you,
when no letters come.
Language is a graveyard
of carrier pigeons.

The book contains many of Christina’s slam poetry favorites that can be viewed on YouTube—Birmingham Sunday, Karma, The Period Poem, and others. It is a collection of heartbreak and of celebration. A telling of this country from the blood that runs through it, through us. Dominique Christina has given you all of her with this book. Take the gift with hungry hands.

Click Here to Order They Are All Me Today!

 

Book Reviews by SaraEve Fermin:

SaraEve is a performance poet and epilepsy advocate from New Jersey.  A 2015 Best of the Net nominee, she has performed for both local and national events, including the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam and for the Greater Los Angeles Epilepsy Foundation 2015 Care and Cure Benefit to End Epilepsy in Children. The Editor in Chief of Wicked Banshee Press, a Contributing Editor for Words Dance Magazine and Book Reviewer for Swimming With Elephants Publications,  her work can be found or is forthcoming in GERM Magazine, Words Dance Magazine, Drunk in a Midnight Choir and the University of Hell Anthology We Can Make Your Life Better: A Guidebook to Modern Living,, among others. Her first full length book, View From The Top of the Ferris Wheel, will be published be Emphat!c Press in 2016. She believes in the power of foxes and self publishing.  Learn more here: http://saraeve41.wix.com/saraevepoet

my verse, book review by Bill Nevins

Book Review by Bill Nevins

my verse,

a collection of poetry and photography
poetry by Katrina K Guarascio
photography by Shawna Cory


Swimming With Elephants Publications, 2014
69 pages, paperback
swimmingwithelephants.com

This book cures mental fascism.

Katrina Guarascio, the beloved Ms. G of Rio Rancho Public Schools’ Cleveland High School was let go by that notorious school administration and she made local and now national headlines. The reason: Guarascio encouraged her students to write creatively and freely. After all, she was hired to teach Creative Writing. But the school district decided that when one of the students updated the Biblical tale of The Loaves and Fishes, that was just too much for their Common Core Standardized Testing curriculum to bear.

my-verse-cover
So, the RRPS administration in their wisdom demanded that Guarascio either apologize on behalf of her students and promise never to encourage them to be creative again . . . or leave their employ.

Gurascio split. What else could any self respecting teacher who cares for the free minds of her students do?

She refused to bow to the fascist demand that there are some thoughts which cannot be expressed even in writing class. There are some thoughts which cannot even be thought.

The thought, as expressed by her student, that Jesus might actually have tried to help the poor, seems to have been one of those thoughts banned by the troglodytes of the the Rio Rancho Public Schools Administration.

No, Guarascio preferred to breathe the free air of America and to leave the stifling, choking atmosphere of this Christian Taliban school administation. And she encouraged her students, her charges, to fly free too.

They have been flying free. They have flown on Facebook, on television, in print, and beyond, praising their teacher and castigating the mind-numbing thugs who pretend to be school administrators in the school district that Intel Corp built and bought.

Read this book. It is the free, sexy, mind-liberating voice of Katrina K Guarascio, perhaps New Mexico’s finest mind and sharpest poet. Turn to page 23 (“I am not one/to sit and wait/for tides to change”) and see what I mean.

Word Up. Don’t Shoot. Let Us, and Our Children Breathe.

–Bill Nevins

Find my verse, on Amazon.com, Bookworks Albuquerque, or local Swimming with Elephants Events.