Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of First Books: Amanda Moore’s “Requeening,” Paul Tran’s “All the Flowers Kneeling,” and Devon Walker-Figueroa’s “Philomath”

Victoria Chang and Dean Rader consider Amanda Moore’s “Requeening,” Paul Tran’s “All the Flowers Kneeling,” and Devon Walker-Figueroa’s “Philomath.”

Two Roads: A Review-in-Dialogue of First Books: Amanda Moore’s “Requeening,” Paul Tran’s “All the Flowers Kneeling,” and Devon Walker-Figueroa’s “Philomath”

All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran. Penguin Books. 112 pages.

Philomath by Devon Walker-Figueroa. Milkweed Editions. 96 pages.

Requeening by Amanda Moore. Ecco. 112 pages.

VICTORIA CHANG: It was so hard to select just three first poetry books to write about because there are so many wonderful first books every single year. I think it’s important to note what we talked about during this selection process, which is that we aren’t even “reviewing” books really, but that we’re having conversations about poetry, poetics, writing, and the writing life while we’re discussing these books. The idea that we’re somehow arbiters “selecting” books or “recommending” books is what can be problematic about book reviews to begin with, in my humble opinion. I don’t know if you have any further thoughts on this, but I wanted to put this out there first.

DEAN RADER: I’m glad you articulated this in the manner you did. I don’t want these discussions to feel like we are coronating some books and disregarding others. All the books we discuss are interesting, but there are numerous other interesting first books that deserve attention. In fact, to me, all first books of poetry deserve attention. There should be a special website spotlighting all first books!

Speaking of, despite the hundreds, thousands, of hours we’ve devoted to talking about poetry — both ours and others — I’m not sure we have ever really opened up to each other about our first books. I ask because I think for both of us it is one of the most common questions we get. So, what was the process like getting your first book published? How long did you work on it? Did you send it to a lot of different places? Was it a good experience?

VICTORIA: Great question! I don’t actually get asked this question anymore because I am old (but you are older!), but I used to. Even though this feels like eons ago, I still remember certain things about the first book process that it feels like yesterday. Things have changed a lot since then, but in some ways, they haven’t changed at all. I’m not a goal-oriented person (which might surprise many), but I did have one goal in life which was to publish one book of poems.

When I first started thinking about a book, I didn’t see many publishers that were publishing books by BIPOCs and hardly anyone was publishing books by Asian American poets. I went back and counted and it looks like I sent my manuscript to 47 presses or contests over a two-year period (amazing that I still have that information in my computer). Incidentally, our current press, Copper Canyon Press, was in there twice over that period as rejections. In that list included all the usual presses one might imagine but also a lot of smaller presses. The place my first book, Circle, landed was Southern Illinois University Press where I had received the Crab Orchard Review Open Book Prize. That was one of the only journals that I could see, at the time, that was regularly publishing a wide variety of poets of color on a consistent basis. Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph were visionaries and I am so grateful to them for making that commitment back in 2000 and 2001, the years I was submitting my first book manuscript, which incidentally, wasn’t a very strong manuscript but was the best I could do at the time.

Was it a good experience, you ask? Is it ever a good experience? No! It was an awful experience. In retrospect, I may have started sending out my first manuscript a little too early. My friend, just the other day, said that he felt like my first two books, while “okay,” didn’t really have my own voice or style yet. Looking back on it, I might agree, but I don’t regret writing them or sending them out. Everything happened the way it needed to, and I needed to write those books before writing my other books.

How about you? I don’t know your story and would love to hear it.

DEAN: Fascinating! In many ways, we had similar experiences; in some ways, quite different ones. It took me a long time to put together a manuscript of poems I thought would make a compelling first book. I think a couple of the poems in that collection went back to graduate school — probably a span of 12 years? I remember in late 2008 looking at the various poems I’d published. I knew I had enough poems for a collection, but I felt like the manuscript could be stronger and more cohesive. So, I spent most of 2009 writing poems and obsessing over the organization of the book. I think the first contests I sent it to that October were the Miller Williams Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize, and by some stroke of luck, it won the T. S. Eliot Prize, which, like the Crab Orchard, was sponsored by a university press in the Midwest. The judge was Claudia Keelan, which thrilled me. I remember I got a phone call from the press’s editor informing me that I won the contest and then 15 minutes later received a call from my doctor informing me that I had pneumonia. Somehow, those two events coalescing seemed apropos.

In retrospect, I probably waited too long to send out the book. I think I worried too much about everything. Most people coming out of an MFA program now already have a book in the hopper, if not two, if not one already in print! That was not me. I labored on my book for an extraordinarily long time, which feels increasingly unusual. But I also had extraordinarily good fortune getting picked up by the first or second place I sent it, which is also increasingly unusual.

What both of our stories illustrate is just how hard it is to get a first book to a place where it is ready to be published, which, by the way, I think all three of these books are.

VICTORIA: That’s also a great story! These stories are all so easy to describe, but probably hard to have lived through. I always wish that someone could just tell us what’s going to happen or not so we don’t have to spend our lives living in anguish. I had trouble placing my second, third, and fourth books too, so those are whole other stories and so I’ll stop. On to the books …

I love how each of these books is unique in so many ways, yet I can sense that they all grapple with the challenges of first books. Maybe talking about each one separately might be a good way to organize our discussion. You selected Amanda Moore’s book, Requeening, to include in this batch. What about this book caught your attention?

DEAN: Well, I might go back to my own story. I don’t know how old Amanda is, but she is probably in her 40s. She is a wife and mother and full-time teacher. I was reading the acknowledgments section of her book, and she has clearly been working on these poems for a long time, despite all sorts of life setbacks. I guess I feel an affinity for those writers who take a slightly unconventional route (and timeline) to their first book. It feels like we are in a moment when the writers who get the most attention occupy the extreme ends of the spectrum — either the very young or the very accomplished. I was attracted to this first book because it is somewhere in the middle. It is full of poems that reveal a full life.

But, more importantly, Requeening is a compelling read. It is not overly lyrical, though there are gorgeous lyric moments. It is not overly narrative, though she can tell a gripping story. It is not overly confessional, though there are moments of intense personal vulnerability. There is a controlling metaphor of bees, but it does not dominate or overpower the poems or the book. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that the poems function a bit like worker bees — they work in service to the larger project, the whole community. They keep the hive of the book alive.

Here is an example of the kinds of things I’m talking about. The final two stanzas of a poem called “Confession,” in which the speaker is talking to her daughter:

It might be a comfort,
the way my whole world spins
on the tip of your smallest toe,
but you will learn to be a woman
from the way I am a woman in this world
and this is the litany of my mistake:

I did not know what I was doing. I was happy
to be a martyr. This won’t be the last time
I will say it. Daughter, I was wrong.

This reminds me a little bit of some of Plath’s mothering poems. The self-indictment. The need to come clean. The acknowledgment of shortcomings. Basically the poem says: You will learn from me, and I did things wrong. Ouch. That is poignant. And what parent has not felt this?

I also thought about your poems to your daughters in OBIT. Those poems are so beautiful, so heartbreaking, so honest. What I admire in your poems I admire in Moore’s: they are vulnerable without being manipulative. Their lyric insight is a sublimating force.

VICTORIA: Oh my, here we go! Already so many interesting insights and we just started. To me, this book was interesting because of the multifaceted ways the poems and the book are complicated — there’s the obvious bee frame/poems that are sprinkled throughout, there are the various forms such as haibuns, there are the various subject matters from parenting to illness to beekeeping to marriage to womanhood to place-based poems, and more. None of these elements dominate, like you say. In fact, they zigzag between bees, family, illness, parenting, back to bees, in the way bees might fly around a hive (sorry for the bad bee metaphor — it’s just too easy). But I don’t think it’s their lack of domination that is interesting, but the ways in which they leave chasms for the reader figuratively that help the book. Moore doesn’t hand the connections of these disparate elements of the book to the reader on a platter; rather, she just scatters them around and trusts the reader to leap. And the bee frame is absolutely essential to this book — in fact, I would go so far as to say, it is the element that makes the book interesting.

I found myself most engaged in these poems when the storytelling was deft and authentic, and the takeaways (sorry, that feels like a corporate word) about parenting and life were so realistic and true. For example, “Morning Haibun with Tween” describes a parent’s love (and a scowling tween) so well that it’s hard not to follow and ride along with the poem’s irrefragable truths:

… Sometimes
I can’t help it — I climb in the bed, look at the unguarded face, so
ancient and dear and dangerous. Like looking at fire. And her hair,
the feel of it as a I brush, push it back from the sleeping countenance
I have watched her whole life. When her eyes flutter open, it is to
scowl at me, but when she rides again toward the crest of sleep,
she burrows toward me: her first comfort …

Any parent of a tween girl can probably identify with the infamous “scowl” and the quick switchbacks of parenting a tween girl that can go from deep love and sentimentality to complete hatred within one millisecond.

There’s humor too in this poem where the haiku part of the haibun takes over as the speaker describes a scene where a tween is disgusted by sharing a towel with the mother by accident:

Deadheading spent blooms.
We once shared a body
now not even a towel.

I’ve thought this myself many times — that these children came from my own body, and I stared at and cleaned and clothed daily for more than a decade, and then one day, like a light switch, it’s all over. I never see the body again because the children grow up and the bodies become their own bodies, no longer mine. It can be jarring when confronted with this juncture.

There are numerous other examples of parenting truths captured in these poems: a teen slamming doors during a fight, how the child “split our / marriage neatly in half — before and after,” the speaker pulling over and sobbing from the difficulty of parenting a young child, and more. Ultimately, these poems risked sentimentality and often went right to the edge of sentimentality, sometimes falling over the cliff, but when the poems teetered right on the edge of sentimentality, and then added some hot sauce of truth, was when I found them to be most interesting. This book, ultimately, for me at least, was fun to read because it seemed to document a life, like you said. These are lived poems, this speaker has lived a full life.

Robert Bly in his essay, “What the Image Can Do,” published in 1981, pointed to three energy sources in a poem: “[T]he image, that carries both the dark and light worlds, the music of pitches that makes its effect on the musical lobe, and an adult grief that makes the poem feel heavy, as if it were living on the earth.” Admittedly, I myself am biased toward poems that are philosophical and/or acrobatic in language and/or deploy strange imagery. Bly then goes on to say that it takes a “young poet ten years or so” to develop the image well, “perhaps five more to grasp the idea of spoken language and embody it, perhaps five or ten more to make the changes that will lead to weight.” He contends that the whole process can take an American poet 20 to 25 years to develop these things, adding that some “European poets go through it more quickly,” which made me chuckle and scoff at once. I naturally push back at such arbitrary assertions, but what I do take away from Bly’s thinking is that writing poems is an act of asynchronous patience. Sometimes poets have immediate gifts in one or more areas, but the last one (or two or three!) might take a lifetime. Anyway, sorry for the small tangent — talking about Moore’s book made me think about patience and poetry.

Now I want to switch over to Paul Tran’s book, All the Flowers Kneeling. This is another book that feels like it is successful and thoughtful as a first book. I just want to say it right away — that I really liked this book. The writing was so strong and powerful at the language level. I have so much to say, but I’m going to toss it to you first. What did you think of the book?

DEAN: I feel like you just handed me a cornucopia! I don’t know where to begin. Bly? Bodies? Bees? Tweens? Tran? I’m intrigued by your observations about patience. I do think Moore’s is a patient book, and I might also say the same about Tran’s. Both Moore and Tran turn to poetry to address, to process, to reflect, and to name.

That concept of naming — What can we name? What should we name? What are we called to name? What must or must not be named? — plays as a quiet soundtrack across Tran’s poems. But nowhere is it explored more than in the stunning, “Incident Report.”

​​I had a form.

The form said  Name of  victim.

The form named me.

The form was a form of naming.

Naming gave me form.

The form said  Time of  incident.

Time could be measured.

The Incident could be defined.

Both had a form.

Both were a form of naming.

This is a powerful poem on many levels, but its directness — its litany of declarative statements — lends it a detachment that is at variance with its content. That disconnect makes for a jarring but effective reading experience because of its astonishing restraint. We want rage. We want anger. We want the poem to scream. We want to scream. We want to rage. But, the poem neither incites nor invites those reactions. The poem sears us not for what it says but for what it does not say. We are shaken by what the poem does not do.

Tran’s poem made me think of a great poem by the Diné poet Esther Belin called “Ruby’s Welfare”:

I smile
place my forms in the box marked
black black and bold
welfare is a luxury
place your form in our box
play by our rules

Both texts play with the double meaning of form — a form one fills out and poetic form — in order to raise larger questions about how “official” bureaucratic forms delegitimize or disenfranchise people of color (much the way, perhaps, “official” poetic forms disenfranchise people of color). Is one given a chance to name one’s own identity? Or is one’s race, one’s gender, one’s personhood pre-populated?

A companion piece to “Incident Report” is the equally fierce “Progress Report,” which comes much later in the book. This form talks to the previous form, both of which talk to the limits of what procedural documents are able to quantify, to name.

I had a new form.

The new form said Name of survivor.

The new form renamed me.

The new form was a form of renaming.

Renaming gave me a new form.

The new form said Relevant history.

History could be relevant.

History could be irrelevant.

History had a form.

History was a form of renaming.

That little leap from Relevant history to “History could be irrelevant” is genius. Such a smart move. That line and the line after it not only work within the context of the two poems, but they also enter into conversation with a larger concern of Tran’s book — the Vietnam War and the trauma of history (or the history of trauma). I see these poems as performing work the forms were unable to do. The poem is the new form. This form allows the author to name. The poem allows the naming of the form; the forming of a name.

VICTORIA: So smartly said! I like what you are pointing to here when you say: “This is a powerful poem on many levels, but its directness — its litany of declarative statements — lends it a detachment that is at variance with its content.” I really couldn’t have said it any better than you just did. When referring to “Incident Report,” you also say, “We want anger. We want the poem to scream. We want to scream. We want to rage,” and that’s exactly right. Who is the “we” in the end? The “we” includes the reader, the institution, the government, and the bureaucratic systems that oppress us. What I love about “Incident Report” and many of the other poems in this book is that they lie in that liminal space between rage and beauty, pain and beauty, as if to say that these aren’t mutually exclusive — they can coexist. Ultimately this is a book about reclamation, about agency in the face of abuse (at the individual level of relationships, but also at the systemic level), yes, but it’s also a book about beauty, written in beautiful language.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately (mostly because I have to write a talk on putting together a poetry book) is structure. Tran’s book intrigued me in terms of structure — I found the book to be quite a masterful book. It feels like Tran was thoughtful in a smart way about structure. Even the two poems that you pulled out are an example of structure. “Incident Report” is in the first section of a four-section book, while “Progress Report” is in the final section. This frames the book, as well as allows certain themes to echo across the book, as well as creates a kind of arc of agency/reclamation.

Something you and I have talked about ourselves as poets/writers is that we’ve called ourselves “correspondence poets,” a phrase you actually coined. I’ve been thinking a lot about correspondence and how so many poets and poems are responding in some ways to the spiritual world or the other-worldly (think Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”). I find this phrase useful when thinking about Tran’s book structure too — namely Tran’s use of science and art as ways to press against, dismantle, and investigate trauma. In sections one, two, and four, there is a poem titled, “Scientific Method,” for example. Other poems related to science are “Hypothesis,” “The First Law of Motion,” “Endosymbiosis,” “Galileo,” “Copernicus,” and more.

Tran also corresponds with visual art in poems such as “The Nightmare: Oil on Canvas: Henry Fuseli: 1781,” “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: Oil on Canvas: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: 1560,” and “Judith Slaying Holofernes: Oil on Canvas: Artemisia Gentileschi: 1620.” These poems are in the first, second, and fourth sections of the book and are all gorgeous poems. I think the writing is beautiful in all of them, and they correspond to the paintings as a way to navigate and understand the self, but each is slightly different in structure and point of view. “The Nightmare” is in the voice of the figure in the painting, while “Landscape” begins with the speaker: “Given that the door had to be opened and closed, / the jeans unbuttoned and unzipped, the right hand placed over my mouth / while the left hand held me, held me / …” and then the poem weaves in the painting, and finally, “Judith” is in the voice of Judith who beheads Holofernes.

These three poems exhibit the range of Tran as a poet. The first is written in short clipped lines and mini-lists (Tran loves lists). The lists alter the rhythm of the poem, adding a kind of pointed urgency to the lyricism:

… Who
can deter-
            mine what’s inside
What is risked
            when we enter?
                        Caliper. Forceps.
Scalpel. Oculus.

The second is in tercets and longer lines, and the story of Icarus isn’t introduced until the sixth stanza: “from the rest of their suffering, confused for and eclipsing / that suffering, the way the story of sunlight melting wax wings / is confused for the story of hubris and eclipses the story of the child.” And the final poem is in staggered couplets and stays within Judith’s voice the whole time.

I point to these three poems because I think this book is strong as a first book because of the complications even within connections — on the surface, these are three ekphrastic poems within a book that tie the sections, themes, etc., together, but if we delve below the surface, each ekphrastic poem not only adds to, but also complicates the other ekphrastic poems, as well as the book as a whole. All of which to say, this poet’s toolkit is quite remarkable, especially given that this is a first book, and it gives me such high hopes for future work by Tran.

I know we could spend a lot more time on this book, but I feel like we should move on to the final book, which is Devon Walker-Figueroa’s Philomath. What do you think about this book?

DEAN: Wow! So much here. And so well said. I love that you acknowledge the ekphrastic element of this book. I fear that might get overlooked, but for me, it is a source of real power. I agree that we could just keep talking about this book and its many strengths, but as always, you are correct. Plus, your response provides perfect closure.

Onward to Philomath.

By the way, every time I read “Philomath,” I think of that R.E.M. song, “Can’t Get There From Here,” and the line: “If you’re needing inspiration / Philomath is where I go.”

Somehow, that seems appropriate.

Speaking of appropriate, I don’t know if you are aware of this, but both Philomath and Requeening were National Poetry Series selections for 2020. Ocean Vuong selected Moore’s book, Sally Keith, Walker-Figueroa’s. I did not realize this when we decided to discuss these collections, but in retrospect, I’m not surprised. Both are smart but accessible. They are confessional, but never solipsistic. And, they hold together as books.

Philomath is a beguiling collection of poems in that they are at once super narrative and also super personal. It is full of poems in which a lot is revealed. You and I have been emailing with a mutual friend who asked us to recommend books of poems in which the speaker-poet does not appear very often in the poems themselves. That would not be this collection. There is a great deal of the first-person singular here. “I” often appears in the first line and sometimes even as the first word. However, that speaker, who I assume is the poet, is always contextualized in fascinating ways; cleverly embedded in various communal settings, like towns, schools, classes, and road trips. The poems, many of which feel and read like short shorts, meander their way to moments of great insight. One senses that the speaker experiences these epiphanic moments not through isolated contemplation but through relation.

As we established in an earlier version of this column (to your surprise and derision), I never begin at the beginning. I just open the book and start wherever the poetry gods place me. In the case of Philomath, the first text I landed on is a seven-page stichic poem entitled “Beginning Wax to Bronze at Chemeketa Community College,” a descriptive, and as it turns out, accurate title. The poem opens with an explanation that the speaker is making cast pig hearts (I want one). She wants to make sure

they’re big enough to hold a hand-
ful of pencils or fresh cut
orchids. Our teacher, Calvin, tells me
I could make good
money selling these at Saturday
Market, but I’ve no desire
to share my early attempts.
“Sometimes I think I’m pro-eugenics,”
my friend Susan whispers, her eyes
fixed on our pregnant classmate
who’s seated in the corner, naked
from the waist up, slathering her breasts
& belly in plaster of paris. “I mean,”
who get their boobs inked
with barbed wire & flaming dice?”
“Maybe she’s religious,” the guy next to us
suggests as he eases his pin tool
along the surface of a tiny victory
brown wax gladiator whose chest
plate, he assures us, is completely

You don’t see a lot of conversations like this in contemporary American poetry. It’s refreshing. The clever line breaks do a nice job of breaking anticipation and delivering a little surprise. One risk in conversational poems is the loss of a sense of line. The reader starts to lapse into reading as though the text is prose. Walker-Figueroa is skilled; she lets us know in subtle ways we are reading a poem. But a poem that is always in conversation.

VICTORIA: I like what you are saying here about the first-person “I.” I just scanned a new manuscript I’m working on for pronouns, thinking more consciously about the perspective of the speaker. It’s a useful exercise. And I did notice that we picked two NPS books, but only after we had already decided to discuss these. The nice thing about the NPS is that each year the jurors rotate off so as a reader, at least, I’m never sure what I’m going to get and that’s exciting in terms of offering a wider chorus of voices.

Walker-Figueroa’s book reminded me of several recent books that I’ve read and enjoyed. I think not coincidentally, these are also first books of poems: William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind, which explores the opioid epidemic and poverty in rural Appalachia, and John McCarthy’s Sacred Violent Like Horses, which explores the Midwest and McCarthy’s childhood. Paterson by William Carlos Williams also came to mind, as well as Frank O’Hara’s New York–centric poems, as I began to think about place-based poems and books and our relationship with landscape. So much of one’s childhood memories and coming-of-age memories are often tied to place so that the place and the landscape become a character in a book. I also can’t help thinking about Dickens and London or Dostoyevsky and St. Petersburg. And we haven’t even talked about visual art yet.

But back to Philomath. I found that the technical skill in these poems to be strong in terms of the use of caesuras, interesting line breaks, attention to language and aphorism, and also the flotation of mini-narratives in and out of poems. I could open to any random page and find interesting writing, this passage from “Next to Nothing”:

                                    I subtract myself
            from the shadow of an ash tree, knowing well
                        my life is not yet right-
            fully mine, nor is it                 what I’d deem old, though it has
                                    moved the meat of me
               beyond the beginning. I press          my ear to
            my father’s field, the one he’s turned, the one he’ll be
                        ceding to the unappeasable — no matter.

To talk about line breaks again, many of the lines throughout Philomath have multiple possibilities such as this first line: “I subtract myself” and “I subtract myself from the shadow of an ash tree…” and again at “moved the meat of me” can stand alone but becomes additive with “beyond the beginning.”

In another poem, “Golden,” line breaks also work hard to add layers to the poem:

We are a kind
of sick that takes saving
up for, every day another
deposit in a bedeviled account
of history, the devil
being my father’s blood
brother who’s driven …

Note the “bedeviled account” and “bedeviled account / of history” or “being my father’s blood” and “father’s blood / brother…”

In “After Birth,” there’s another example: “My mother once rubbed moonshine on my gums to numb the pain,” or, “My mother once rubbed moonshine on my gums to numb the pain / appearing inside me.” In this same poem, a caesura also serves as an opportunity for further possibilities: “I / am the first to admit I’m kind         of a poster sometimes.”

I think these line breaks, the mini-narratives, the sparkling language, serve important roles in this book, which to me at least, feels like one long poem versus individual poems. In fact, I felt like the poems had an ahistorical feeling to them and sometimes they felt like the poems were navigating similar subject matter, characters, landscapes, objects, and concerns. And because of this, the poems relied more heavily on their own composition and making. Unlike the other two books we’ve looked at, I felt like this book relied the least on some kind of overarching figurative elements, but instead dazzled at the microscopic level.

DEAN: That is an astute observation about the poems feeling like one long poem. Formally, the poems vary enough from one to the other to stand on their own, but thematically, you are spot on — they do feel like one long poem or at least one sustained salvo.

I’m glad you mentioned Brewer’s book. Last time we talked, you and I both found similarities between Philomath and I Know Your Kind. I would not say that Philomath is “about” socioeconomic class, but issues of class permeate the book. Class haunts these vignettes like a little ghost. Consider the opening poem, “Philomath,” which sets the stage for the entire collection. It references timber mills, what store has the lowest price on feed, the best place to buy tire chains, the hardware store that “boasts all the sturdy / dead bolts for when the back door’s gone / busted again,” the best friend who “is still giving out / blow jobs to mechanics & drinking / red cough syrup until she doesn’t / care about her step- / dad walking around, covered in nothing / but sweat and dirt.” This opening poem does important work — it preps readers for the landscape they are about to enter. The difference between this landscape and Brewer’s is that the poems of Philomath lack the dread lacing I Know Your Kind.

For some reason, I’m thinking about Wallace Stevens’s “Description without Place.” There is a Calvin in that poem too, but that’s not what brings it to mind. It is this couplet:

In a description hollowed out of hollow-bright,
The artificer of subjects still half night.

I don’t get the sense there is much artifice in Philomath. Her descriptions do not hollow out anything; rather they animate it. Put another way, these poems have settings. They are located in actual places. We see people live and work and shop and struggle — people who live a bit on the edge, who don’t always make ends meet, where dysfunction is just part of the fabric of the town. Setting is another technique Walker-Figueroa deploys to make Philomath feel like a short story. But, it also humanizes her poems. I never get the sense she is exploiting the characters that populate her book. In this way, Walker-Figueroa sort of reminds me of early William Carlos Williams. Great call out by the way on Paterson — I totally agree.

I think about these things a lot. Many of my own poems are set in rural Oklahoma in similar socioeconomic conditions. I have a poem called “Labor” about being a carhop at a Sonic Drive-In. Several about the Dust Bowl. Several about farming. It is a tough tightrope to walk. To me, Walker-Figueroa does it well.

When I wrote Wallace Stevens’s name above, it made me think of Harmonium, maybe the most impressive first book of poems by an American poet, well … ever. He was 44 years old when that book was published. Even older than me! I recently wrote a blurb for a wonderful first book of poems that just came out, called Bone Seeker, by Chris Haven, who is in his 50s. Like Requeening, Bone Seeker feels accomplished and mature, even though it is a first book. And that made me think about first books in general and what characterizes them. As we both stated earlier, so much is riding on the first book. Or at least it feels like everything is riding on it. There is such anticipation. There really is no feeling like seeing your first book in print, on a shelf, in a store. It is a remarkable moment in a writer’s life. I still remember opening up the box that held my books.

Do you have any closing thoughts on the firstness or bookness of first books?

VICTORIA: I love how you describe Brewer’s book as having “dread lacing.” I keep wanting to read that as “dread icing,” perhaps because my mind is currently on sheet cake. Forty-four years old sounds so young now! I can’t think of anyone who might say the first book isn’t exciting. I think it can also feel like the whole world is riding on the first book, but now that I’m as old as I am, I can look back and honestly say that it really depends on the poet and a poet’s personal growth. Sometimes a first book is the strongest book. More often than not, it’s just the beginning of an exciting journey, much like life, full of ups and downs. I think most people probably want their first books to be spectacularly received, but I think that can sometimes debilitate a poet, whereas a more quietly received first book, which is most books, can give a poet and a person freedom and space to grow at their own pace, out of the public eye and that can be a beautiful and quieter thing. Whatever happens or has happened to these lovely first books in terms of reception, I’m excited for them and their authors and I’m so glad to have had the chance to talk with you about them.


Victoria Chang is the author of OBIT, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her latest book is Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. She lives in Los Angeles and is a faculty member within Antioch’s MFA Program..

Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book.

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Dean Rader has authored or co-authored eleven books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize, Landscape Portrait Figure Form, a Barnes & Noble Review Best Book, and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly, is forthcoming in 2023 from Copper Canyon. His writing has been supported by fellowships from Princeton University, Harvard University, Headlands Center for the Arts, Art Omi, and the MacDowell Foundation. Rader is a professor at the University of San Francisco and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. 

Victoria Chang is the author of OBIT, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her latest book is The Trees Witness Everything (2022). She is the incoming Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech.


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