Emerging Critics

Summer Reading from Ismail Muhammad

By Ismail Muhammad

We asked the first class of NBCC Emerging Critics to tell us what they've been reading this summer. Here's the third response:

The end of summer is always a little mournful for me, a time of foreclosed possibilities. That foreclosure applies to language, too: the prospect of teaching and dissertation writing catches me flatfooted, leaves me panicking, and makes my language feel claustrophobic. I’ve made reading poetry—as opposed to criticism and fiction—at summer’s end a graduate school ritual. This summer I’m finding solace in a handful of Bay Area poets. Claire Marie Stancek’s Mouths and Jane Gregory’s My Enemies are gorgeous and playful in a way that leave me thinking, Oh, you can do those things with language?

I haven’t completely abandoned prose, though. I just finished Jesmyn Ward’s hypnotizing new novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, which sent me back to her 2011 National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. Sing highlights her singular strengths as a novelist, especially when it comes to writing about black women; seeing her expand her ambition and embrace magical realism as a way of exploring blackness is quite a treat. Jarret Kobek’s The Future Won’t Be Long is fantastic, a return to the soft prose that characterized BTW, as opposed to the abrasive humor of I Hate the Internet. Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian’s anthology of New Narrative, Writers Who Love Too Much is a striking collection of writing, a prehistory to the metafiction and nonfiction of writers like Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner, and Brian Blanchfield. In a moment where we have no shortage of great nonfiction to read, Killian and Bellamy’s anthology reminds us that poetry’s luxuries don’t belong solely to poetry.

Ismail Muhammad is a Ph.D. candidate in English at U.C. Berkeley, a staff writer at The Millions, and Contributing Editor at ZYZZYVA. He lives in Oakland, where it nearly always feels like summer. He's a member of the NBCC's inaugural group of Emerging Critics.