Voice to Books: Sharing Personal Experience Through Poetry

Poetry speaks to our souls. From songs to spoken word, sonnets to free verse, there’s poetry for any mood or moment. Poetry is a form that can take on many shapes, tackle any subject, and help people express themselves. All of the collections in this column revolve around poets sharing deeply personal experiences. The poems found in these collections move within cities and dreams, time and space, language and culture to release a truth, an emotion, a thought in the hope that others will connect with them.

Finna by Nate Marshall
Reviewed by Pamela Pete

Full of ethnic slang slung against walls, the poetry’s central question is what and who makes words worthy to be voiced and therefore heard? Finna, by Nate Marshall, is artful, intense and gripping, yet mellow. The poetry and terminology navigate through the life of a Chicago boy as he moves into manhood. It’s a storybook of poems that speaks of Blackness without shouting “yeah, I said it” and “in your face.”

Each poem connects with rhythm and attitude. Boldness and transparency of truth are told unapologetically and lyrically directly to both the reader and the author. Marshall’s direct self-talk technique allows the reader to listen in on the personal conversations between him and himself. These provocative discussions lure the reader into the author’s mind—a form that is unique and poetically captivating.

Marshall takes us on a poetic tour of how Black people live in Chicago. Not the tourist view but the warm-kitchen-smelling-of-greens-and-fried-chicken view. The music of the poetry blends periods of time, age, and gender like a symphony. Nothing in the poems stands out. There is no solo; the lyrical verse is a rhythmic blend  that is soothing, keeping you wanting more, yet leaving you full and content in the end.

Marshall has a gift of constructing phrases and idioms in a way that makes the reader feel like he is speaking directly to them. He pulls readers into every poem with an uncanny levelness and poetic meter. He articulates poignant, vivid images, with double entendre masterly layered into his poems, like in “My Mother’s Hands”:

            as if to say we are people
            color of good oak but we
            will not burn, we survive
            every fire without becoming

The verse creates palpable love, strength, and encouragement.

Intimate and stirring, Marshall invites every reader to eye-opening story time. Finna is a reread recommended to anyone who enjoys vernacular poems with a shot of honesty and brilliance.


Sulphurtongue by Rebecca Salazar
Reviewed by Maria Duarte

Sulphurtongue, by Rebecca Salazar, is an extraordinary collection of poems about the journey of identity through culture. The poems are full of vibrancy, rhythm, and music; the images are familiar but brought to the reader with a new perspective. The last line of the book states, “Let’s drink until your body overgrows this place.” The speaker not only invites us to join her  journey of discovery; she also challenges us to keep growing no matter how small the place in which we find ourselves  shrinks. The power of this collection stems not only from the easiness with which the speaker guides us through difficult and taboo subjects of identity outside of normal Latin culture but also from the images the speaker presents. They are explosive, raw, and unapologetic.

The book is divided into four stages: “how to lose,” “femme phobias,” “doppelbanger,” and sulphur bonds.” Each stage belongs to its own mini world since the speaker is undergoing a process of self-discovery. Each of these parts gives the reader a different speaker  passing through different stages of a life, at the end of which they become whole to the world. Culture plays a big role in the speaker finding her identity. Throughout the poems, we find something familiar as readers, as humans looking for who we are.

For example, in “Synaesthesia” we find music in what a name means to the speaker as opposed to everyone else. The flow of words slide off the tongue ; there are no stopping points, no pauses that the reader wants to take. In “Underbelly” we see that “when the blood is cut with acid rain, / all touch pollutes.” This image brings the reader to the specific moment when the speaker can see herself whole. Consequently, readers wonder why it is so difficult to break the norm. We praise Salazar for shedding light on her process of discovering identity and self-love.


Semiotics by Chekwube Danladi
Reviewed by Larry Handy

Style and culture fill the pages of Chekwube Danladi’s Semiotics, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and Danladi’s first full-length volume following her chapbook Take Me Back.

Stylistically, Danladi’s poetry has many visual elements. White space is used between and within lines. Space is left open for the reader to participate in the poem’s composition, a “choose your own adventure” whereby the viewer decides which word they’d like to add, as seen in “Ghazal with Open Throat” and in the poem “Confines [What Remains],” where the reader is given the option to read vertically or horizontally. Lines move and dance just as if we are reading a drawing.

Poetry’s oral roots are kept present. Several poems are best read out loud (even sung) in order to experience their depth. “Night Beach” opens with humming, while “Take Your Trouble to Her Shrine” employs the chant.

I related culturally to the images describing the Black experience in poems like “Tomorrow, Chaka Demus Will Play” where coconut oil is placed between the sections of braided hair. The poem “Depraved Indifference” is dedicated to Freddie Gray, a Black man killed by the Baltimore Police Department in 2015. There is a shared Blackness in hair, music, politics, humor, and wisdom.

But there were also areas where it was less about readers relating and more about being invited into Danladi’s Nigerian culture through the door of language. One may need to look up the meaning of various Nigerian/Hausa words before being able to look forward to trying karkashi (powdered vegetable) and nama (meat), or choosing to stay away from burukutu (alcohol brewed from Guinea corn and millet).

Semiotics is a gift to readers who enjoy style and craft as well as culture, commentary, and cultural commentary.


The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void by Jackie Wang
Reviewed by Diana Love

Jackie Wang’s debut poetry collection, The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void, is a striking and singular read. Culled from Wang’s own dreamscape, the vignettes encountered across these narrative poems have staying power, buoyed further by the slightly surreal illustrations of Kalan Sherrard. A narrative dreamer “I” leads readers through decaying cities to pain and disease and apocalyptic weather patterns, spaces not necessarily of this reality but which also don’t feel particularly far away. Repeated themes and motifs—of the anxieties of destruction, of the possibilities of love and community, of the beauty and precariousness of this world—build satisfyingly toward the crescendo of the final poem where the sunflower arrives. Wang dissects the sunflower in this poem, noting “layers of / singing ray petals that meet the eyes as / lemons.” Like petals, each beautiful, funny, complicated poem here combines to form a larger and more wondrous whole.

The focus is kaleidoscopic, shifting in one poem from apocalypse to impromptu fashion show and back again. Dream logic absurdity imbues scenes of panic, guilt, and disaster with space for humor and reflection. There is beauty, too. The image of a luminous tree made from sea coral, glimpsed through the doorway of a bombed-out building, fills the narrator with awe.

“I think [. . .] these flashes of the luminous world should be shared,” writes Wang, a self-described student of the dream state. “I don’t believe the imagination can fix everything (I am a rigorous materialist!), but it can do some of the work: the work of creating openings where there were previously none.”

If the void is all around us, and certainly the worries explored across these pages all have counterparts in our real, waking world, then the shining coral tree of the luminous other world has its hopeful counterparts as well.


Flower Grand First by Gustavo Hernandez
Reviewed by A.E. Santana

Although not ordered chronologically, Gustavo Hernandez’s poetry collection, Flower Grand First, seems to create an autobiography, displaying his life juxtaposed between Santa Ana and Jalisco, Mexico. The collection is separated into three basic sections labeled “One,” “Two,” and “Three,” but individually his poems are configured into various structures, from winding sentences of delicate prose to compact, concise stanzas with judiciously-chosen italics and a thoughtful use of white space and line breaks. Each poem is a body—complex, precious, hearty—containing Hernandez’s memories and experiences.

The poems in Flower Grand First are glimpses into moments—and what is life if not an accumulation of embarrassing, joyful, bizarre, and painful moments? Every carefully selected word not only helps to show readers the places Hernandez is writing about but also helps readers experience those places. Hernandez details these moments with sounds, colors, shapes, and scents, through temperature and texture, bringing them to life on the page.

As an example, these lines from the poem “Tuberose” speak to the aforementioned senses and elements:

Illumination, camino de la noche,

my father and his childhood

friend reached out for you.

Their hands brought light

down from the foothills.

Although deeply personal, Hernandez’s poems hit upon themes that readers from marginalized groups may relate to, including the suffocating panic of not fitting in, identity confusion, the pain of solitude, the safety of solitude, and simmering resentment. With strong links to his childhood in Jalisco and his experience as a Mexican transplant in the United States prevalent in the collection, Hispanic/Latinx readers may find pieces of themselves sewn into the poems, as if coming upon a forgotten memory of their own. Other themes can be seen as universal: moving to a new place, going through puberty, moments with family, losing a parent. Flower Grand First is a delightfully-moving poetry collection for readers interested in the human experience as filtered and highlighted through an individual’s experience.

Voice to Books is a monthly short list of reviews from a variety of voices, curated by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana. Like the authors and their characters, each of our reviewers comes from a marginalized or underrepresented group. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquiries to voicetobooks@gmail.com.


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