As a queer college kid studying poetry twenty years ago, I felt the sting of lust as “scorpion need” while reading May Swenson’s “Untitled.” Soon after, I grappled with my own internalized homophobia, burning with shame as I read Jason Schneiderman’s Sublimation Point. Two years ago, when I first encountered Michael Chang’s poetry, I was drawn to the confidence of their voice and sought out their other free poems online. All this time, I had misremembered reading in the first line of their bio that “Michael Chang is a poet of radical selfhood.” Later I discovered this was actually the last line of a blurb by Brian Tierney about Chang’s chapbook Drakkar Noir. The mantra was (and is) aspirational.
Nowhere is Chang’s “radical selfhood” more evident than in their new full-length poetry collection, Almanac of Useless Talents, which, like the title suggests, falls somewhere between a little black book and an FBI dossier of contemporary queer life in an age of hookup apps, celebrity culture, and political absurdity. In the stream-of-conscious prose poem “对号入座 Take a Seat,” Chang proposes a modern fairy tale:
once upon a time i said i wanted to download you onto a thumb drive but it now occurs to me that i would still need time to look thru those files so i guess the new line is i wish i could inject you directly into my veins
Each of these new poems is a thumb-drive’s worth of memories encrypted in Chang’s vernacular slang. What I mean to suggest is that the queer memory is a sort of survival instinct, a documentary disposition marked by material and relational affiliations. Almanac interrogates what it takes to be memorable and what it means to live in another’s memory. In “干爹 Daddy,” Chang asserts, “u’ve mistaken me for someone who cares / realistically i have forgotten u (department of forgotten affairs) / this is not a drill.” “The lesson here,” according to Chang in a later poem, “is to always have things in writing, put it in black and white.”
For those less familiar with Chang’s work, imagine the contemporary poetic equivalent of The Andy Warhol Diaries in either Pat Hackett’s book or Ryan Murphy’s recent Netflix adaptation—verbal selfies of queer sensuality and materiality in a socially mediated world. The opening four paragraphs of the prose poem “Bleu de Chanel” read like a tender Warhol diary entry. Here, Chang’s effortless narration and intimate adornments subsume the acute pain and longing of the speaker under pedestrian human “preoccupations”:
It’s strange to pick up a book from long ago, say from the 1950s, & see so evidently that their preoccupations were mostly the same as ours, that we are not so special, perhaps even common
Readers familiar with Chang’s individual or collected poetics will recognize their provocative humor and characteristic resistance to standardized formal conventions. In Chang’s formal democracy, horizontal lines rocket like declarations and commandments across the page: “don’t be formulaic / go thru our daily circuits of wondering,” the poet implores in “小夜灯 Little Night Light.” Accordingly, Almanac’s poems are often nonhierarchical, yet always superlative—Chang is, by their own admission in “没你我没差 Fine w/o U Diptych,” extra—“compliment my extraterrestrial hotness / get in there / let ur tongue go forzando”—with the caveat, “have to warn u tho / i kiss & tell.”
Chang rebels against enjambment, sustained narratives, and hard endings. At times, a poem’s momentum intentionally dissipates like foreplay that ends in “pushing rope” in the poem “Garden State Trick.” Whether talking directly about hunger and eating or indirectly about lust and sex, the appetite nearly always exceeds the meal: “he puts some cheese on a nice plate, makes it taste good—presentation is everything.” The paradox of capitalist commodification and hookup culture is that a person’s desires can become, well, all-consuming. Similarly, the poem “雪中红 Red in Snow” begs the question through a lover’s “sweet nothings . . . / Can you keep up . . . / is this what you wanted . . . .” Most people, I think, can relate to how more is never really enough, and how getting what one wants is predictably followed by the distress of keeping it. Chang illustrates how this is just as true in relationships, and the title poem ends with “Always being able to get any boy named ____ (or, in the alternative, ____)” immediately followed by “Always being able to make him stay.”
In typical contrarian style, Chang alternates between confidence and humility in both relationships and poetry. In “Girl Sleuth & Boy Wonder,” Chang aims to have an impact, casting spells with charisma, humor, and intellect:
I want to be unhinged — Conjurer of sly magic ::
speak truth to power
These and many poems in Almanac of Useless Talents read like tenets of a tongue-in-cheek manifesto. In fact, the poem “大咖宣言 Big Shot Manifesto” boasts, “yea you read that right / yea I’m 大人物 / A-list big shot.” However, Chang’s authorial confidence is regularly tempered by historical humility, as in the epistolary ode “Dear Andre,” which strings Vogue fashion icon André Leon Talley together with stars like “Andy & Mick & Bianca & Jean-Michel . . . everyone worth knowing.” Having looked back at the greats and around at queer contemporaries like Chen Chen or Danez Smith, Chang reflects how “It’s a simple statement, to do your homework, meaning to study what came before, to know your place in the constellation of artists, to know whose shoulders you stand on, history, giants, etc.” I don’t claim to know Michael Chang’s place in the history of greats, but I continue to admire their conviction, honesty, and self-assuredness. It takes a lot to face the world with radical selfhood, to proudly embody one’s heritage, one’s body, one’s languages, one’s sexuality, one’s judgments, and one’s useless talents.
About the Reviewer
R.J. Lambert (he/him) is Colorado native who survived the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, fostering his interest in the healing power of writing. The award-winning poems in his debut collection, Mind Lit in Neon (Finishing Line Press, 2022), explore family dynamics, relationship violence, mental health, and HIV/AIDS in the queer community. R.J. teaches writing at the Medical University of South Carolina and is online at rj-lambert.com or @SoyRJ on Twitter.