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we’re gonna put an elephant in a dress
A review of Michael Chang’s “Almanac of Useless Talents” by Hikari Leilani Miya
Looking for poetry that is stale as week-old white bread and pale flowery as your grandmother’s wallpaper? This ain’t it, fam. The colorful poems from Almanac of Useless Talents by Michael Chang go way off any less-traveled path in any yellow wood, and you won’t find any soft light illuminating faces of innocent love in these stanzas. Chang says for themselves, “I’m haunting & powerful” and “ i write gutter poetry / for dirty minds”. Add spicy, bold, frank, and grotesquely lyrical to the mix, and you’ve entered the uniquely honest world of modern queer Asian poetry—one that is certainly not to be missed.
Even if you’ve never met Michael Chang, after reading their newest collection you will definitely want to “hang out on a cloud” with them while eating your vegetables. This exploration of being a queer Asian poet in an increasingly hostile society is a statement: you do not have to fit the conventions of beauty to make a name for yourself. In 零 ZERO, Chang starts with a quote on why ‘“homosexuals or other moral perverts” should not serve in positions of public trust.” Chang invites you to look beyond phenotype and stereotype: “You assume I am the Azn / I say did you just typecast me as the Azn”. This collection has more bite than a feisty hamster yet invites readers to “get on this hamster wheel of greatness”.
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Chang provides an intimate look into the world of sex, humorously noting its awkward moments, such as wet farts, questionable peach emojis, skin irritation. “hey this is a barnburner /your dumb traits, stupid attributes i couldn’t care less abt”. Perhaps a more appropriate way to describe this book would be through a large peach emoji, followed by an eggplant, a turtle, and <3 <3 <3. Acknowledging the trauma of living while dashing through the zest for everyday life will make you cringe, cry, laugh so hard you’ll pee, and itch yourself from one unexpected poem to the next. You’ll feel swaddled in the finest velvet reading these poems.
As a bisexual Asian American trauma survivor myself, it was important to me to see poetry presenting trauma in contrast to the quotidian. It also recalls why we still admire our abusers: “terrifying b/c u are perfect / or perfect b/c u are terrifying”. Who (or what) else can we be? Direct addresses from the speaker remind us of where we might come from: “u vegetable / u come from dirt / u smell like sheep”. Be prepared to devour this book in one sitting, but don’t mistake it for an appetizer; this book is a daring meal in itself, and once you’ve gorged yourself, you’ll eternally be asking for more, regardless of where we come from or what we smell like.
Hikari Leilani Miya is an LGBTQ Japanese-Filipina American who graduated from Cornell University in 2019 with a BA in English, and from University of San Francisco with an MFA in Creative Writing. She is in Florida State University's PhD program in creative writing, where she is a member of the Asian American Student Union and a board member of the university's first Herpetology Club. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in dozens of in-print and online magazines across North America, including MacGuffin, Chestnut Review, Eunoia Review, Broadkill Review, and Brave Voices. In 2021, she was a semi-finalist for the Red Wheelbarrow poetry prize judged by Mark Doty. Her first book of poems is forthcoming via Cornerstone Press in 2024. She currently lives in Tallahassee with her snakes and disabled cat, and volunteers at the Tallahassee Museum specializing in reptile care and handling. In addition to earning her master's certification in herpetology from the Amphibian Foundation, she is a former health care worker, percussionist, pianist, and competitive card game player.