It has been a long, arduous season for heroes in the United States’ communities of color. Women of color, in particular, have replenished their arsenals several times to sustain justice equity movements. With great care, they have critiqued and challenged the status quo of systems built to disempower persons of color. We are seeing a surge of women of color in news media who are fully leaning into their roles as auxiliary educators for viewers. And who are we not to celebrate the writing that’s also emerging—these written works that correct, challenge and find reason to celebrate struggles toward freedom?
It is providential to witness and experience a time during which the public wants to engage in social protest, critical thought and the arts. With the aid of technology, transmission is swift and far-reaching. One need not wait for the latest cultural contribution from women of color; we effortlessly find critiques, conversations, art, short videos and the like online. This shift in mode and engagement is not lost on literary presses that have increased their virtual presence, bringing more fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry by women of color to a boundless audience. Too, these presses have made the traditional reading experience more convenient and perhaps trendier by elevating the availability of the chapter-length collection. The chapbook has gained momentum as an efficient form to share short collections as portable art. In this space, I’d like to celebrate the chapbooks of five women of color whose work I consider heroic, frightening and singing.
1.Tafisha A. Edwards, The Bloodlet
Tafisha A. Edwards’s forthcoming chapbook, The Bloodlet (winner of the Phantom Books 2016 Breitling Prize), is a literary reckoning with an abuser. Of the collection, her mentor, Dr. Bettina Judd, shares, “The poems are a catalogue of discovering that one is being abused intimately. They illustrate the ways that clinical language obscures the intimacy of rape and assault. They also catalogue the way one heals which is to reinvent the airplane again and again.” I recommend her poem, “Your Rapist is on Paid Administrative Leave,” featured at Split This Rock.
2. Khadijah Queen, Exercises In Painting
Khadijah Queen’s ninth collection (fifth chapbook), Exercises In Painting, arrives in 2017. Queen—who has, in other works, revealed much about injustices to her body and that of her paternal grandmother—wrote this series about what she would paint if she had time. The ekphrastic is subverted. Instead of writing from an existing work of art, she writes poems based on what she imagines she would draw or sculpt. None of the art to which she responds actually exists. She is at once “woman as observer and subject of observation,” in her words. Here’s an excerpt from her piece “__________________ after dreaming that hungry women may resort to violence”:
An all-woman riot in the wilderness &
chained vultures & wolves smell the brawl
from their caves & forests policing, by force
of habit wanting everything for themselves
3. Nikki Wallschlaeger, I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel
Nikki Wallschlaeger’s I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel is a demonstration of poetry’s porous parameters. Wallschlaeger’s collection is a series of image poems. In the absence of images in literature, the reader relies on an author’s cues and their own personal mental library to make sense of the text. Wallschlaeger halts the reader’s wandering mind and draws attention to the curated images – headshots of a vintage, Black Barbie doll with text placed flush to the top and bottom of the photo like a meme.
4. Rachel McKibbens, Mammoth
An older collection, which accompanies me on long trips, is Rachel McKibbens’s Mammoth (winner of the Organic Weapon Arts 2013 David Blair Chapbook Prize). Although readers might complete the collection in less than one hour, there are devastating turns that require breaks. Loss of a child is one anchor of the collection. Yet there are moments of reprieve, where the speaker describes the danger and ease of her womanhood, her bone-deep transformation in motherhood, and the tenderness of loving and being a lover. She returns to these spaces often enough to rally against, but not ignore, grief. Persons like me who are interested in the language of grief should read McKibbens, because she does a great job at it. I revere and study this work, which equips mothers with a lexicon for pain this impenetrable. From her poem “Giants”:
I’m saying that my niece
was never as tall
as when she was gone.
That I blinked in confusion
at the sight of her 23-month old body
outstretched and cleaned.
5. Raven Jackson, little violences
Last is a recommendation I received just recently. Raven Jackson’s little violences is forthcoming in 2017, and hers is a full-throated poetic voice of little patience. Her published work speaks to knowing – dissonance during sex (or, perhaps, sex work), childhood bullying, and a childhood curiosity to know adult things – without mincing words. I flinch at the steadiness of her tone in “tight” and look forward to little violences for other honesties that Jackson will share.