Michelle Chan Brown

Poetry Introduction


will build things anew (sewn in head-holding 

wings, an I held stable by committee 

and housed in a husk of maps [property, 

propriety, prosperity: into these we pleat 

perhaps, perhaps (little boxes of noise) perhaps

 -- Andy Frazee


The word “surreal” has been ascribed to our landscape – literal, not poetic – of late, from the lockdown in Boston to the unfunny dumb show in Congress to the environment, all via the susurrus of the twitterverse. We’re over-informed, under-protected, in too deep, out of touch. We’re losing our grip. In fact, we’re not even sure if there is a “we” anymore.

Fitting, then, that the poets assembled in DB17 are gripped with the concurrent impulse to orient and to explode. Maps are craved, sought, found lacking, dismissed, and reinvented. Even as their irrelevance is acknowledged, there’s a compulsion to discern what’s preceded and what’s forthcoming, if only to direct attention away from the present. “Perspective is a fiction,” reads Eric Pankey’s “The Dictates of Gravity,” only to concede “Still, one follows parallel lines/To the sharp awl-tip of vanishing.” Laura Wetherington’s “We Deliver our champions to the city” counters: “We live outside of reimbursements/or the possibilities of language./There exists a belief that the doing/is reason enough.”

Wetherington elegantly phrases what I will reiterate in more leaden fashion: that poets should –and these poets do – ask questions and demand answers from a grand We and a quiet (private?) I. These poems resist the gestures that have become too easy (and cringingly familiar) in contemporary poetry that addresses the Big Questions: the “unexpected” wry veer, the shift towards absurdity – always clever, because it can excuse nonsequitur as legitimate caption to These Dark Times. Who are we to make sense of anything, anyway? Let’s enjoy a private laugh and talk of vacuum cleaners, the place of poetry, Cadbury Eggs. Chechnya? Czechoslovakia?

Drunken Boat’s poets don’t presume to know the answers, but they’re not playing coy as cover up for helplessness. A poem’s aim is not necessarily accuracy, but making poems serves as legitimate form of cartography. These poems interrogate what structures can be mapped, pushing away from the cliché of “the body” to more elusive landscapes – power, love, and loyalty. Danniel Schoonebeek’s “Lullaby (Coup)” diagrams the cycle of empire via grammar-school pedagogical tools. Christopher Lirette chooses a syllabus of errors, concluding “It’s good to have a list of lies, as the body when meat has little to offer. It’s good to have something to study.”

In the Drunken Boat tradition, we’re thrilled to feature poems that push the possibilities of form and tradition, including selections from Dick Allen’s epic The Neykhor, which takes as its template The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Lisa Fay Coutley’s odes, as well as lyric poems from Lisa Sewell, Ocean Vuong, and Traci Brimhall.

Without a means of determining location or direction, many of these poems call for another – a beloved, a familiar. “Dear others, are you there?” begins Laura Eve Engel. “A flare” is the only response. Others prove that play can be antidote to uncertainty, as in the collaboration of Adam Vines and Allen Jih and Sarah Blake’s homages to Kanye West. Others wonder if the illusion of control, or navigation without blindness, can still be found in a poem, or the poem’s constructed self, as in Hannah Gamble’s “How Early to Wake”: “the business of approving/and disapproving of the shapes/I’d let my person take.”

Let’s end with Oliver de la Paz’s epistles to Empire, that capture best the concurrent self-nullifying and self-affirming impulses against uncertainty—“We wait for their approach. We are the silence that multiplies itself in the night. We are the dark with our eyes closed. We are the hard knots pressed against the drum.”

Michelle Chan Brown

<em>Edit Poetry</em> Michelle Chan Brown

Michelle Chan Brown’s Double Agent was the winner of the 2012 Kore First Book Award, judged by Bhanu Kapil. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Linebreak, The Missouri Review, Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, Witness and others.

Michelle received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was a Rackham Fellow. A Kundiman fellow, Michelle has received scholarships from  the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center and the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. Her chapbook, The Clever Decoys, is available from LATR Editions. She lives with her husband, the musician Paul Erik Lipp, in Washington DC, where she teaches, writes, and edits Drunken Boat and co-curates the Cafe Muse series. Find her online at www.michellechanbrown.com.