Reasons to Read Non-Fiction: New Poetry and Essays

After a brief diversion into the 9th century, we highlight some recent books of poetry and essays and find our shared humanity regardless of circumstance or century.

When I first found out that I would be writing this week's blogpost on "the 800s," I was definitley intrigued. The years between 800 and 899 CE were a fascinating time in human history, containing threads that stretch into our own time. When you think of the 800s, if you’re like me, you automatically think of 9th Century astronomer and mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, the father of algebra whose name provides the basis for the word algorithm (see: Significant figures : the lives and work of great mathematicians); or the 9th Century Chinese alchemists who accidentally invented gunpowder while searching for the elixir of life (see: Boom! : The Chemistry and History of Explosives); or the founding of Dublin in 841 CE and of Kievan Rus in 840 CE by the Norse people known as Vikings (see: Children of ash and elm : a history of the Vikings); or maybe you think of the 9th century Indian philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara (see: Why I am a Hindu) who played a major role in shaping and unifying Hindu thought and practice; and who could forget Charlemagne, who’s ascension to Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE supplanted Irene of Athens, empress of the Byzantine Empire (see: Heart of Europe : a history of the Holy Roman Empire). The period between 800 and 899 CE (aka the 9th century) was a period of turbulence and upheaval, the effects of which we are still feeling to this day. It’s not hard to see the connections between these events of another era - gunpowder, Viking invasion, algorithms, religion, patriarchy - and the events of today...hold on... getting a message from my editor...Sorry, I’m being told that this week’s blog post is supposed to be about the Dewey Decimal classificationThe 800s,” Literature and Rhetoric (including poetry, drama, world literature, etc.), not the one hundred year period known in the Gregorian calendar as the 9th century... 

In that case, in this week’s Advice for Readers blogpost, we are highlighting some recently published poetry and essays that, seen together, present a picture of this point in time and some of the challenges that we, as both individuals and a society, face.  In our own times of turbulence, upheaval, and change, these individual voices, speaking to us through the intimate and immediate forms of poetry and personal essays, can provide an elixir of sorts, infusing us with a better understanding of our common humanity regardless of circumstance or century. 

Click on the link for each title to visit the book's page in OPL's online catalog. There, you can place holds and find read-alike titles. For information about our sidewalk pickup service, go here. If you would like help placing holds or have any other questions, please contact OPL's call center at 510-238-3134 or


New Poetry

Rift Zone by Tess Taylor

El Cerrito, Ca native Tess Taylor is the on-air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and the Kenyon Review, among other publications. Her previous book of poetry, The forage house : poems, is also available from OPL. The publisher of her newest work says: 

"Rift Zone, Taylor's much-anticipated third book traces literal and metaphoric fault lines-rifts between past and present, childhood and adulthood, what is and what was. Circling Taylor's hometown-an ordinary California suburb lying along the Hayward fault-these poems unearth strata that include a Spanish land grant, a bloody land grab, gun violence, valley girls, strip malls, redwood trees, and the painful history of Japanese internment. Taylor's ambitious and masterful poems read her home state's historic violence against our world's current unsteadinesses-mass eviction, housing crises, deportation, inequality. They also ponder what it means to try to bring up children along these rifts. What emerges is a powerful core sample of America at the brink-an American elegy equally tuned to maternal and to geologic time. At once sorrowful and furious, tender and fierce, Rift Zone is startlingly observant, relentlessly curious-a fearsome tremor of a book." 

KQED interviewed the author in April of this year. You can read and listen the interview, as well as read some of her poetry, here. 


SLINGSHOT by Cyree Jarelle Johnson

SLINGSHOT, (published by Nightboat Books) the first book of poetry from writer/teacher/librarian, Cyree Jarelle Johnson, is the winner of the 2020 Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. He is a founding member of The Harriet Tubman Collective and The Deaf Poets Society.  

SLINGSHOT questions the value of manhood, the price of sex, and the possibility of liberation. [The book] begins with the author ensconced in the menacing isolation of the pastoral, but once the work migrates to the City, monstrum grows form and fangs. In these messy, horny, desperate poems spun from dream logic, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson considers the consequences of black sexual and gender deviance, as well as the emotional burden of being forced to the rim of society, then punished for what keeps you alive. (from the publisher) 

LatiNext edited by Felicia Rose Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo

LatiNext is volume 4 in Haymarket Books’ BreakBeat Poets anthology series. This anthology of poetry collects the work of Hip-Hop influenced poets from around the globe. According to the publisher, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext celebrates the embodied narratives of Latinidad.  Poets speak from an array of nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles, staking a claim to our cultural and civic space.  Like Hip-Hop, we honor what was, what is, and what's next. [Latinext is an] anthology that opposes silence and re-mixes the soundtrack of the Latinx diaspora across diverse poetic traditions.  

In their April 2020 review, Booklist describes LatiNext as “expansive and inclusive, this dynamic, energetic anthology includes established voices, like Willie Perdomo and Daniel Borzutzky, as well as emerging writers like Julian Randall and Sara Borjas. The lineup is curated with intentional intersectionality, highlighting authors who identify as Black and Latinx, like Raina J. León and John Murillo, together with poets who are Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, Salvadoran, Mexican American, Xicana, first-gen, second gen, queer, trans, nonbinary, multilingual, and multidisciplinary artists. A stunning variety of forms and subject matter are also on display, from Survivor's Guilt: A Villanelle by Rocio Pena, to the Ode to Dipset by Elizabeth Acevedo. A phenomenal testament to emerging and enduring Latinx poetic excellence.” 

Oakland-based Root Slam recently hosted an online book release party for LatiNext, including performances by contributors Elizabeth Acevedo, Nicole Sealey, John Murillo, Julian Randall, and Jennifer Falú. You can view the video here. 


New Essays


Here for it : or, how to save your soul in America by R. Eric Thomas

R. Eric Thomas is a Senior Staff Writer at, as well as a dramatist and the host of The Moth radio hour. The publisher of his latest book provides the description: 

“In essays by turns hysterical and heartfelt, Eric redefines what it means to be an "other" through the lens of his own life experience. He explores the two worlds of his childhood: the barren urban landscape where his parents' house was an anomalous bright spot, and the verdant school they sent him to in white suburbia. He writes about. reconcile his Christian identity with his sexuality, about the exhaustion of code-switching in college, accidentally getting famous on the internet (for the wrong reason), and the surreal experience of covering the 2016 election as well as the seismic change that came thereafter. Ultimately, Eric seeks the answer to the ever more relevant question: Is the future worth it? Why do we bother when everything seems to be getting worse? As the world continues to shift in unpredictable ways, Eric finds the answers to these questions by re-envisioning what "normal" means, and in the powerful alchemy that occurs when you at last place yourself at the center of your own story.” 

Finding Freedom: How Death Row Broke and Opened My Heart by Jarvis Jay Masters

First published in 1997, this new edition of Masters' stories, letters, poems, and essays written in prison contains additional chapters and a new afterword by the author. The publisher states that, "there are many forms of liberation-some that exist at the mercy of circumstance and others that can never be taken away. In this collection of stories, essays, poems, and letters from death-row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters, he explores the meaning of true freedom on his road to inner peace through Buddhist practice. He reveals the life of a young man surrounded by violence, his entanglement in the criminal justice system, and-following an encounter with Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche-an unfolding commitment to nonviolence and peacemaking. At turns joyful, heartbreaking, frightening, and soaring with profound insight, Masters's story offers a vision of hope and the possibility of freedom in even the darkest of times."


The Way of Imagination: Essays by Scott R. Sanders

Scott R. Sanders is a former professor of English at Indiana University and is the author of more than twenty books of both fiction and non-fiction. His most recent book, The Way of Imagination, “explores the role of imagination in art, science, and ethics. He shows that bold acts of imagination are key to healing our divided society and damaged Earth […] How astonishing, that people suffering under tyranny can foresee liberation and survivors living among ruins can lay out a path to recovery. Woven through his reflections on issues vital to human survival and flourishing, Sanders tells the story of his own intellectual and moral journey from a childhood religion to an adult philosophy of life. He reveals how that philosophy is tested when his son is diagnosed with stage-four cancer. He recounts how he and his wife, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, leave their beloved old house and build a new one to accommodate her needs, and how they turn their handsome new shell into a home and their raw city lot into a garden." (from the publisher) 


Tying It All Together

Written in exile : the poetry of Liu Tsung-Yuan Translated by Red Pine

This week's Reasons to Read Non-Fiction blogpost concludes by bringing it full circle, back to poetry and the 800s CE. Liu Tsung-Yuan was a civil servant in 8th & 9th century CE China known primarily for his influence on the art of prose writing. This recent translation helps bring to life his poetry and helps establish him as one of the great T’ang era’s finest poets. "After a failed push for political reform, the T'ang era's greatest prose-writer, Liu Tsung-yuan, was exiled to the southern reaches of China. Thousands of miles from home and freed from the strictures of court bureaucracy, he turned his gaze inward and chronicled his estrangement in poems […] Appended with thoroughly researched notes, an in-depth introduction, and the Chinese originals, Written in Exile presents the long-overdue introduction of a legendary T'ang poet" (from the publisher)