A Provisional Statement of Poetics

•May 23, 2018 • Leave a Comment

In 2015, in a review-essay about three books engaged with the Oulipo, I wrote,

The Oulipo, short for the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for potential literature), was founded in Paris in 1960 by two polymaths: Raymond Queneau, a former surrealist known for writing Zazie in the Metro, and François Le Lionnais, a mathematician and engineer. Interdisciplinary in nature, the Oulipo came to embrace a rigorous formalism, insisting that literary freedom could be unleashed not through the energies of chance, the unconscious, or automatic writing (à la surrealism) but, paradoxically, through rule-bound procedures, severe formal restrictions, and mathematical constraints. Oulipians follow the cunning design of Daedalus rather than the irrational urges of the Minotaur; as Queneau famously said, they are ‘rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.’

My poetry, then, strives for a rigorously designed Daedalean construction that, at any moment, risks collapsing from the overwhelming roars of the Minotaur.

Words on Edge (Black Square Editions, 2018) at SPD

•May 16, 2018 • Leave a Comment

My brand-new book Words on Edge is now available for order at Small Press Distribution.

Working out a necessary and constantly evolving counterintuition—uneasy, agitated, restless and ceaselessly inventive—Michael Leong’s Words on Edge clocks the alarm of those who “wake late” in a world of fragments and found materials. Bricoleur of the “jagged, ad hoc equation” that is the contemporary, the poet constellates a spacious, ever-enlarging structure from a heap of broken posterities to make space for “the first blossoms of wild meaning.” The assertions are fresh, tragicomic, and engaging, and the ongoing effort to accurately describe (and affect) a transforming situation is thrilling: this is work that leads us toward “a future collapse into / a full state of wakefulness.” Don’t wait!

—Laura Mullen

Barzakh 10 (Spring 2018)

•May 15, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Cover art by Mali Fischer.

The new issue of Barzakh, the lit magazine of UAlbany’s English Dept, is just out. The design looks beautiful, and there is a lot of quality work in the issue. This is–for example–Cedric Tillman’s “Bad Haiku Workshop”:

the fewer descendants
of slaves you have to deal with,
the better the school.

without slavery
all the schools would be good—‘stime
we acknowledged this.

when we say good school
we mean a school unburdened
by slave progeny.

a good school is one
with very few descendants
of African slaves.

the school unburdened
by the descendants of slaves
is called a “good school.”

I send my kids to
good schools where there are very few
descendants of slaves.

The Barzakh staff deserves a lot of credit for their hard work–especially Editor-in-Chief Laurin DeChae, who is a dynamic editor as well as a terrific poet.

Words on Edge

•May 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Words on Edge arrived from the printer yesterday. The books look beautiful. Thanks–once again–to John Yau, publisher extraordinaire; Shanna Compton, for the smart design; and the Black Square team, especially Ronna Lebo, for making this artifact a reality.

The cover image for Words on Edge is Gary Stephan’s masterful painting “The Future of Reading 1” (2016). It is the perfect pictorial annotation of my book. Below is an apt quote from Stephan from an interview with Jennifer Samet and Suzanne Joelson:

My elevator pitch for my work is that I am using the tools of formalism to build the house of surrealism. I see formalism as a set of appearances designed to create something that’s visually dependable. The contribution of Surrealism is that it problematizes the reading of the world. If you take the appearance of formalism, but bang the cues into each other in such a way that the picture space wobbles or flickers, or doesn’t work properly — you are making a surreal proposition about formalism.

“The tools of formalism to build the house of surrealism”: that sounds like the kind of house that I want to live in.

FENCE 34 Launch Party

•May 6, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I recently taught issues 32 and 33 of Fence for a 300-level undergraduate course called “Literary Publication: History and Practice.” It was excellent reading–one of the highlights of the class. I’m sure issue 34 will be just as good!

John Yau’s Bijoux in the Dark (Letter Machine Editions, 2018)

•May 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Whoever said that April is the cruelest month never had to close out an academic semester in May. But here’s a bit of pleasure reading–from John Yau’s excellent new book Bijoux in the Dark (Letter Machine Editions, 2018)–an oasis among the administrative convolutions, the bureaucratic onslaughts, the department and sub-committee meetings, the unending .edu emailings, the papers to grade…


My genitals aren’t worth blistering to
Chinatown smells like brown cheese

Old men still spit on sidewalk
while smoking cigarettes

next to bandaged sprinkler system
Obesity might not be the name

you sat down with
but it’s never going to let you up

This could have happened anywhere
You don’t need a disaster to know you are one

It’s time to retire that smiling potato
No tomorrow to hang your hat on

When did happiness get so chewy
You have officially become an event

You look like you want
to end up in a trash bag

Sky full of half-bitten stars
Are we just a sack of crumbs

falling from one more catastrophe
I used to date a mannequin in a space suit

Whenever I look out the porthole
I can see the planet that ejected me

It is because I am too human
or not quite human enough

Time to turn in old frequencies
Join other raincoats in a painting

No pain can reach me there

And big congrats to John for recently winning Poets & Writers2018 Jackson Prize, which comes with a $60,000 award! A big win for Asian-American poetry, for sure. This is the citation from judges Laura Kasischke, Robin Coste Lewis, and Arthur Sze:

John Yau composes expansive variations, in series, that simultaneously widen, deepen, and complicate the scope of a poem. Visual art, film, and Surrealism are rivers in his work, yet it’s Yau’s dazzling imagination and singular command of language that create unforgettable poems: “Now that the seven wonders of the night / have been stolen by history //Now that the sky is lost and the stars / have slipped into a book // Now that the moon is boiling / like the blood where it swims // Now that there are no blossoms left / to glue to the sky // What can I do, / I who never invented anything // and who dreamed of you so much / I was amazed to discover // the claw marks of those / who preceded us across this burning floor.” In employing voices that reveal the multiple and shadowy selves inside the self, in lyrical poems with an experimental and innovative bent, yet laced with unexpected and biting humor—“I wink at you from infinity”—in twenty-four books of poetry, fiction, essays, and collaborations with visual artists—many of which are out of print—John Yau has created a compelling body of work.

My article “Neo-Surrealism’s Forked Tongue” on John Yau and 2016 Jackson Prize winner Will Alexander appeared in Contemporary Literature 55.3 (Fall 2014).


•April 21, 2018 • Leave a Comment

“Clearly, there is something about poetry that rattles and mystifies people.”

-from Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017)

When I report publishing a poem in my online Faculty Activity Report in the section called “Publications and Intellectual Contributions,” I need to select its “publication type” from a drop-down menu of pre-selected options. So I need to scroll past such entries as “Book, Chapter in Non-Scholarly Book-New,” “Book, Scholarly-New,” “Computer Program,” “Conference Proceeding,” “Handouts,” “Law Review,” “Material Regarding New Courses/Curricula,” “Technical Report,” and “Working Paper” to find the category “Other” at the very bottom.