“Let’s write a new myth, one without fire.”
–Stevie Edwards, Good Grief
I met Stevie Edwards at an open mic a few years ago and since then I’ve been entranced by both her mind-blowing poetry and her undiluted spirit. Needless to say, I was totally amped when she gave me the okay to do a review of her forthcoming, first full-length book, Good Grief, which you can pre-order from Write Bloody now (it’s coming out in March!). Although I personally know Stevie, I’m going to put that aside so that you can understand just how badass this book is:
Stevie Edwards was one of a handful to win the Write Bloody Manuscript Contest this past summer, which in the poetry world, is the equivalent to being signed to Matador or Kill Rock Stars circa 1990. For those of you who aren’t nerdy enough to understand my indie music reference: basically, your career is set, because Write Bloody not only has an emphasis on publishing some of the best living poets today, but also on touring, requiring its artists to do 20 shows a year, which usually includes a round or two of well-paying colleges dying to get a WB Artist in its auditorium. Write Bloody has a reputation for publishing some of the most successful and iconic slam poets of the past 10 years (Buddy Wakefield, Anis Mojani, Beau Sia, Taylor Mali, among many others), which makes Good Grief all that more exciting to me–Edwards doesn’t give a shit about being a slam poet. Never has, and probably never will. Okay, okay–so admittedly, she’s actually terrified of slam poetry, but it’s pretty obvious the career boost that comes with being a successful competitive poet isn’t necessary for Edwards. Between being the editor-in-chief of Muzzle Magazine, and being one of four first-year Poetry MFA students at Cornell, she doesn’t need any sort of gimmick to promote her already fledging career.
With that in mind, the fact that she won this contest when pitted against a roster of 20-30 some odd slam giants should tell you just how groundbreaking the 24 year old’s work remains. Good Grief is a rarity among poetry books today. It doesn’t read like anything else I’ve read recently, from Pinsky to Wakefield–Edwards transcends that fueling debate that “spoken” or “page” poetry are genres at all, and what remains is an explosion of language that both defies academic standards while remaining consistently strong; each line and image, when isolated, remains flawless, obviously obsessed over to perfection, with an unmatched ability to penetrate readers and hit them in that poetry muscle that only flexes when in awe. Louise Gluck once said that, when it comes to poetry, “Voice is not a pattern of speech. It’s a pattern of thought.” I have no idea if Stevie has ever heard this quote before, but her attention to structure and language makes it evident that she has mastered this concept.
Some of the overarching themes and ideas you may find in this book: how fucked up the world is, how fucked up you are, how fucked up every body else is, and how beautiful and singular pain is (an idea that harkens back to her chapbook, aptly titled Pain Needs to Remember). But even within these themes (which, I confess, aren’t necessarily a rarity in poetry today or yesterday), there is a diverse amount of subject matter and content that fuels a type of self-expression that is accessible while simultaneously constructing a personal narrative that is highly compelling and relevant, from being a 20-something in the digital age:
When there’s only condiments left in the fridge
and you join a free online dating service
so men will buy you dinner.
(from What I Mean By Ruin Is…)
to confrontations of death that harken back to Emily Dickinson in the best possible sense:
I wait. There is a charge–
the drooling pool of regret
stinks the morning into blue
flowered sheets and yes,
I am in it […]
(from Because I Could Not Belly Death)
There is a diversity and discipline in Edwards’ execution that is not often seen in poetry today. It’s like every poem in the book has been hammered into submission until it perfectly expresses its motivating ideas. It’s challenging, yet still accessible. Moreover, in Good Grief, nothing goes unscathed–the poems, the audience (that’s you), or the poet herself.
I wanted to make this review as objective as possible, but since I’ve already convinced you how badass this book is going to be, I do want to provide some personal insight into this book. I saw Stevie recently when she visited Chicago for the holidays, and we got a chance to talk a bit about the book, or, more accurately, to talk about the position of the “woman poet.” I was pleased when Stevie described her book as “poetry for women–but not just for women. For humans, but concerning the female experience.” I really feel like that sort of thing is important. Stevie is unafraid to confront the fact that she is, in fact, female, and that her poems will always address this aspect of her identity, sometimes critiquing it, or celebrating it, or admonishing it. But it’s bigger than that–she fearlessly confronts the complexities of identity (hers and others’) in all aspects:
I was fifteen when The Eminem Show came out—
a brace-faced, Michigan-poor scarecrow
of angst that the universe kept shitting on.
I horded cooking wine and Sylvia Plath,
pierced my own bellybutton with a sewing needle.
I was old enough to be angry at the litany
of nice things in the world that weren’t for me:
cars, college, Nikes, sit-down restaurants,
ballet lessons, vacations. You gave me an anthem
for being born into a life that comes complete
with a WIC application and carton Parliaments.
For practicing my alphabet at AA meetings
through the smoky depression of adults
bemoaning their childhoods and wondering
if and when it would be my turn to speak.
(from “For Eminem”)
It would be unfair to dismiss Good Grief as a book of poetry for women. It stands a testament to poetry that has moved beyond that flawed simplicity. Edwards is unafraid to confront not just her own demons in her poetry, but everyone else’s as well, something rarely seen or executed in a way that doesn’t read as self-indulgent. Instead, Edwards’ poetry reads more like an object being held up to a light, something illuminated for the first time to our eyes, and always dazzling, even when grotesque.