Undercover: What We're Reading in January

Reviews of "Challenges to the Dream" edited by Jim Daniels and poetry anthology “Nasty Women & Bad Hombres" edited by Deena November and Nina Padolf


Who will tell your story? Who will give voice to your experiences, your hopes and dreams, your shames and failures? Will you tell your own tale?

Far too often, for the marginalized in our country, that authority belongs to someone else, whether it be the media, or politicians, or even well-meaning neighbors. By telling someone’s story, we are, in effect, claiming ownership of his or her life. Even for the well-intentioned scrivener, something is bound to get lost in translation. This is particularly salient in our contemporary moment. Turn on the TV, open a newspaper or check your social media feeds and you become painfully aware that the politicization of people’s lives is at an all-time high.

Two new anthologies seek to redress this situation.

“Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University”
Edited by Jim Daniels
Carnegie Mellon University Press; $19.95

Created in 1999 at Carnegie Mellon University, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards invite Pittsburgh-area high school and college students to submit prose and poetry addressing race and racism in America. “Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University,” edited by the poet and professor Jim Daniels, is a generous collection of incredibly eloquent student writing. As Daniels says in his introduction, underlying the entire project is “the belief that the process of writing itself can help young people explore and break down issues of difference in their lives.”
In giving voice to their own lived experience, these young writers hold a necessary mirror up to our nation. Melanie Diaz’s “Being Mexican-American Post-Election” and Djibril Branche’s “Being a Minority in a School of the White and Privileged” offer powerful rejoinders to the ugly, dog-whistle rhetoric that has contaminated our politics simply by offering a record of their days.
Page after page delivers heartbreak, anger and fear, but there is also hope and humor. There is celebration of acceptance, and there is a shining optimism that these words, borne from their own lives, can affect a positive change for all of our futures.

“Nasty Women & Bad Hombres: A Poetry Anthology,”
Edited by Deena November and Nina Padolf
Lascaux Editions; $18

“Nasty Women & Bad Hombres: A Poetry Anthology,” edited by local poets Deena November and Nina Padolf, seeks to transform words that were uttered as dehumanizing slurs by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump into positions of authority and power. Contributions from 92 poets range stylistically from haiku to surrealist odes, from knee-slappers to tear-jerkers.
The editors advise, “Take a breather, get inspired, be rejuvenated. We need you.” That’s a tall order these days, but this anthology makes a great case for the salutary effects of unplugging for a couple of hours and immersing oneself in thoughtful human expression. A book like this could so easily have been one-note reactionary, but instead the reader is presented with a veritable symphony of unique voices.  

We live in a chaotic world where it can be incredibly difficult to filter out the noise. These anthologies offer a balm to the reader. They almost whisper: Here is an oasis of honesty. 


photo by gregg delman

Speak Up

Jan. 29/ Paul Beatty originally made a splash as the first crowned Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and with his early poetry collections “Big Bank Take Little Bank” (1991) and “Joker, Joker, Deuce” (1994). Better known these days as a novelist, Beatty’s most recent work of fiction, “The Sellout,” won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Beatty is the first American ever to win the prestigious Man Booker. The man The Guardian called “the funniest writer in America” graces the stage at the Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture Series’ Ten Evenings. (Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland; 412/622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org)

Jan. 31/ Mix a heavy dose of outrageous linguistic gymnastics with the cheers-and-jeers atmosphere of a game show and you get Nasty Slam, a head-to-head poetry competition for the ages (or at least a frigid winter’s night). Eight poets will enter, only one will exit victorious. The audience determines the winner, so join in the fun and vote for your favorite wordsmith. (Spirit, 242 51st St., Lawrenceville; 412/586-4441, nastyslam.com)

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