In a year when we’ve seen an unprecedented global pandemic, nationwide protests for racial justice, economic uncertainty, and political upheaval, I can’t bear to read poetry that doesn’t engage with the world in a substantial way. Deborah Paradez’s Year of the Dog, published in April of this year, weaves the personal with the political in intensely moving ways. Intertwined with poems about her working-class immigrant family, and her father’s experience as a Vietnam veteran, Paradez writes about seminal instances of racial violence from the 1960s and 70s, including Black Panther Deborah Johnson / Akua Njeri watching her partner Fred Hampton being gunned down by Chicago police, the Kent State massacre, the Jackson State College killings, Angela Davis’s 1970 arrest, the occupation of Alcatraz by the group Indians of All Tribes, and other political events reminiscent of this year’s headlines. Documentary poetry, as a subfield, has been experiencing something of a renaissance for the past decade, and often incorporates photos and other images, testimonials, interviews, facts and figures in order to explore the conditions of contemporary culture or historical events. The form allows poets to wrangle with complex personal, political and historical questions around power, exploitation, appropriation, erasure, and the nature of language itself. Year of the Dog employs not only language, but also visuals—photographs and snippets of handwritten letters and photo captions—to interrogate America’s legacies of racial violence, as well as larger themes of representation, memory, evidence, and testimony. And the sheer variety of forms Paradez employs in this book are breathtaking. The book opens with a villanelle, and includes braided long-lined narratives, compressed musical lyric poems, and even a short play, as well as a ghazal, and documentary poems based on archival materials, news reports, interviews, and photographs. I can’t think of a better book for our current moment.
Erika Meitner is the author of five books of poems, including Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry Series winner, Copia (BOA Editions, 2014), and Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA Editions, 2018). Her poems have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Tin House, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Oxford American, Best American Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. In 2015, she was the US-UK Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast, and she has also received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Blue Mountain Center, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she directs the MFA and undergraduate programs in Creative Writing.