This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 12.
AD READ: Lanternfish Press
You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites, to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.
In this episode, Wendy Xu chose Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, and Tommy Pico chose A Tape for the Turn of the Year by A.R. Ammons.
Wendy Xu is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and comics artist with three upcoming graphic novels from Harper Collins. Her work has been featured on Catapult, the Barnes & Noble Sci-fi/Fantasy Blog, and Tor.com, among other places. She is the co-creator, with Suzanne Walker, of Mooncakes, a young adult fantasy graphic novel exploring love, demons, family, and witchcraft.
Hi, my name is Wendy Xu. I am an author illustrator based in Brooklyn and I will be recommending Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray.
Defy the Stars is about a young woman named Noemi Vidal. She’s a teen soldier on a planet called Genesis and they’re fighting a war to preserve their culture and to prevent themselves from being colonized by a dying planet Earth. Even though Genesis is one of Earth’s colonies, they’ve been living in relative independence since they were founded. And they have this very traditional culture. And Noemi discovers a ship when she’s on a practice run for what is essentially a suicide mission. And in this ship is a . He’s a humanoid robot and his name is Abel and Noemi’s fought MECHs before. In fact, on Genesis they really hate MECHs. They’re religious, they’re very religious on Genesis, so they think they’re a abomination or just Earth scientists taking it too far.
But Abel is special in that he is a prototype, the first MECH and he’s designed with the capability to empathize and feel things and he’s been trapped in this ship for 30 years. And that’s led him to become even more human. And the two have an adventure together, I don’t want to spoil too much of it, where they travel all the planets of what’s called the loop. So all of Earth’s colony worlds. And along the way there’s lots of romance and all these good fanfic moments happening.
There’s all of your favorite fanfic tropes, sharing a bed or someone has to carry someone else or a pretend marriage. All of these fun moments happen throughout their journey together and it brings them even closer together. And it just makes my heart so happy.
I read a lot of ARCs and PDFs that publishers send for review and I read Defy the Stars, which is a JLG selection, and I loved it so much and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
After I read Defy the Stars and was raving about it to my friend , she was like, “Have you read Lost Stars?,” which is a Star Wars book by Claudia Gray, about two childhood friends who grow up to be on opposite sides of the rebellion and the empire. And I was like, “This sounds like exactly what I enjoy.” So I picked it up and it destroyed me and I was like, “I can’t believe she’s done it again.” So I have read most of Claudia Gray’s other books.
I definitely think Claudia has a background as a fanfic writer. And I think someone actually told me that she had… I think she has an AO3 that’s since been cleared out since she started doing official Star Wars stuff. But you can definitely tell she’s had this long practiced hand in writing a beautiful slow burn romance.
I started reading and writing fan fiction when I was maybe 11 or 12. I stumbled on fanfiction.net, that famous place in the early to mid 2000s. I read across the gamut. I was like, “Oh, what is this X-rated SpongeBob fanfiction?” A 12 year old, and I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I started writing my own fan fiction. The first fan fiction I ever wrote was a Pokemon Inuyasha crossover.
It was just really funny, lighthearted stuff and it showed a new side to the characters in the cannon of the show that I thought was great. You can explore so many different facets of characters that you only get glimpses of within the cannon of the media. And so Mooncakes actually came about because Suzanne, my co-creator wrote this lovely Avatar, The Last Airbender, a Legend of Korra and Avenger crossover when we were just out of college. And I was like, “This is so great, I’m going to draw some comics based off of it.”
And that’s actually how we started working together. So even though fan fiction has been more so in the background of my life for most of my life, I don’t actively seek it out to read, what I have read and the relationships I’ve made because of it, that’s definitely left an impression on me.
I have three books coming out with Harper Collins; two middle grades and one young adult. And the young adult is a graphic novel about a girl and a robot. I was definitely inspired by Defy the Stars. Also largely inspired by some things that happened to me in high school. And I thought that Claudia Gray captured a side of humanity and a metaphor about humanity in this robot boy Abel, that I thought I wanted to explore some different parts of it in the robot character that’s in my own work. So she definitely inspired me to think more about what robots are a metaphor of in science fiction.
I definitely recommend it. I was like, “Do you love a sensitive soft robot man? This is definitely the book for you.” I definitely, I fell in love with Abel, with his character. I really love narratives about robots who become more than what they were meant to be. I think it says a lot about being human and just the side of the robot that can be artistic and loving and showing all these gentle sides of humanity that sometimes we forget. I think there’s something so powerful in that narrative.
I think human boyfriends are really boring. I think that having a robot boyfriend or a monster boyfriend, because I’m also looking across at my bookshelf at Uprooted by Naomi Novik, another one of my favorite books. Because he’s this immortal wizard boyfriend. But the idea of this fantasy of being in love with someone who is not 100%, or not human, but exhibits all these humanesque traits, either the best or the worst, because in a robot you don’t expect them to be a human. The expectation is that they are cold and mechanical. They’ll carry out whatever they are programmed to do. But to bring out a different side of a robot, whether it’s in a not romantic sense. But I remember in Pluto there’s a robot who is designed specifically to be a weapon of mass destruction in a war. And all he wanted to do in the end was learn how to play piano.
I thought that was so beautiful. This robot learning being assigned to this savant pianist, and being so enraptured by this old man’s music that he wants to learn how to play music even though this goes against what he was made to be. It says a lot about, again, about being a person where when we are young we are put in all of these boxes, especially if you’re marginalized. Telling you what you have to be. You have to be a nice girl, you have to be a quiet girl, you have to be… I’ve definitely grown up being told like, “That’s not a nice Chinese girls do.”
But in letting yourself fall in love in fiction with something not totally human, you are bringing out not just a side of that other character that’s more human, but also discovering your own humanity and what it means to be a multifaceted person. And I think that’s really wonderful.
That was Wendy Xu recommending Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray. Mooncakes, co-created with Suzanne Walker, is published by Lion Forge Comics, and is available wherever books are sold. You can find more art on her instagram, artofwendyxu, that’s a r t o f w e n d y x u.
AD READ: HMH
Tommy “Teebs” Pico is author of the books IRL, Nature Poem, and Junk. He co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude with Morgan Parker, and co-hosts the podcasts Food 4 Thot and Scream, Queen! Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the KOOM e YEYE Kumeyaay Nation, he now splits his time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Feed, his newest book, is the fourth in the Teebs tetralogy. It’s an epistolary recipe for the main character, a poem of nourishment, and a jaunty walk through New York’s High Line park.
Hi, my name is Tommy Teebs Pico and the book I’m recommending today is a Tape for the Turn of the Year by A.R. Ammons. A Tape for the Turn of the Year is loosely about “a person in the Midwest in the wintertime.” Over the course of about a month between mid December to mid January as the year turns from 1963 to 1964 and the tape … so that’s the turn of the year part of the title. The conceit of the book is that it’s written on a single piece of tape that is on a calculator or like an adding machine, which necessarily truncates some of the lines and gives it its form and its length. And as for also what it’s about, I mean, you know The New Yorker called A.R. Ammons the great American poet of daily chores.
So it’s kind of just like about a car not starting and what the moon looks like outside, and somebody’s mood and how he’s cranky and likes sex. So it lets in the dailiness into the work. I first came across this book, it was in 2014 and heretofore I had been too daunted by the length of book-length work to actually start reading one. I didn’t know that I had the attention span. I didn’t know that I had the wherewithal in terms of intellect to understand a whole book length poem. Like I was barely careening poem to poem in shorter works.
But I had reached this crossroads in my life. I’d just turned 30, and Beyoncé’s self-titled had just come out on my birthday actually. And so it was a fortuitous time for Tommy Teebs Pico in 2014 and her album kind of exposed me to epic poetry, to long poetry. I saw that album as more of a long poem than just like a collection of songs. And it was also during this time I had been dating somebody who was younger than me and he was like sexy but not very stable and broke all the time.
And I was dating another person who was older than me who was stable and I was going to say well off or comfortable, but to be comfortable in New York means you’re basically wealthy, but he was really boring. And I thought these were the two paths that my life could possibly take. Very naive of course, but I did a workshop with Brooklyn Poets and it was led by Jason Koo who started Brooklyn Poets back in the day. And he gave us the first three pages of a Tape for the Turn of the Year. And we read it out loud, and our task was to write something in the spirit of that. And I thought because the poem was so, it was written on an adding tape, it necessarily made the lines very small. And so what he would do is sometimes truncate words that seems to me kind of like text speak.
And so I thought with the conceit of that was a single piece of adding tape, what if the conceit of mine was that it’s one long text message which makes the lines shorter and it brings in the world of text message speak and OMGs and LOLs and stuff like that. And it started off interrogating these two different points of view, these two different men, but also what they metaphorically mean. Like Gerard is the one who can get the top shelf bottles, and like Muse who was this younger person who is always broke, but we always have a good time. And I immediately in the span of those 15 minutes, 10, 15 minutes, I wrote the first three pages of what would become IRL, which was my first book.
And so the Tape for the Turn of the Year was, I guess it was a kind of permission because of how much A.R. Ammons wrote about the worlds around him and the very small things and the mundane things and the things that you might overlook. I felt like I got permission to do that as well while also … I mean what it is is because it’s so specific and it gives the work, I think it allows for the poetry in the work to breathe.
Tape is very accessible. I think in a way its accessibility was what allowed me to give my attention span over to a book length poem. You know, it had a formal rigor in that it was very long and it had … there are moments where it sublimates into some kind of like heady poetry. But then it also just is like, if you can get laid, get laid. There are so many insights, so many personal insights and poetic ones alongside each other and that there’s a space for both of those. I would recommend it to people who read poetry regularly and who’ve never picked up a book of poetry before because it can surprise you.
I’ve returned to this book quite often, mostly because there are some insights that accrue with time, there are some insights that accrue with your comfort in the text. So the more having read it, the more things I pay attention to from the jump. And then other things, other interpretations and other readings, I mean, this is I think one of the beautiful things of rereading is that upon discovering, upon the most obvious thing being read, it allows for the subtexts maybe to come through.
I think A.R. Ammons is a poet that isn’t necessarily one of the first ones to come to mind when you think about poetry. And I think, he’s been slept on a little bit, and so when I recommend him, I think it’s more … well, I feel like if somebody wants to understand my work, I direct them to my lineage and Ammons is a part of that. And so I’ve had people come back to me and be like, “Oh, I get what you were doing.” It’s like nobody is unprecedented, and I lean heavily on my idols. But I’ve had people, yeah, I would say I have a pretty good success rate when it comes to recommending book length poems to people because honestly I don’t … there was a whole other world of poetry that opened up to me once I realized that I in fact could pay attention to a book length poem.
There’s so many things that this book does that is exemplary of longer, which is that it is self-conscious, it is aware of you reading it, it is aware of itself as a poem. It argues with itself. It’ll land on a conclusion and then a page later and be like, “What the f was I thinking? Are you still here? Why did you think, why are you giving me this permission,” so like, so there’s a way in which it remains in conversation with itself and it’s inherently, I think all epic poems are about time in some way and about consumption. Because it’s like aware of itself being consumed by the reader because you do it so long for such a long period of time, you have to give so much of your attention to it. And also it becomes a part of you in a way that I’m not sure other work necessarily does, that long poetry necessarily does.
Which is that like it’s with you for so long and in so many different places and parts of your life and times of your life. It imprints on you in a way where I read this book and I remember where I was when I first started, I remember the summertime, but also I remember returning to it in a November hotel room, you know? And I remember revisiting it on a beach in Santa Monica before I was going into this like pitch meeting. So much of my life becomes a part of the poem as the poem becomes a part of my life too.
I would like to read from it if that’s okay. So you spend this entire poem and again like the poem is very aware of itself and the poet is very aware of the poem because it is written on a long piece of tape. So there’s a conversation with how far in the tape he’s gotten. Towards the middle of the book, it’s like there’s half of it left unspooled on the floor, and towards the end of it, it’s like towards the end of a life becoming very aware of how little time is left or how much less there is to say now that the tape is nearing its end.
And it’s in that sort of last moment that I understood that although we’re very different people, we have almost nothing in common, like literally he’s dead. But I learned that poems come to him the same way that they come to me. And that’s what gave me an affinity for the work. And so it’s like on page 203, he says, “I wrote about these days the way life gave them. I didn’t know beforehand what I would write, whether I’d meet anything new. I showed that I’m sometimes blank and abstract, sometimes blessed with song, sometimes silly, vapid, serious, angry, despairing. Ideally I’d be like a short poem. That’s a fine way to be, a poem at a time. But all day, life itself is bending, weaving, changing, adapting, failing, succeeding.”
So that was, I mean, literally I’ve read that line and I was like, “Oh God, I feel this so much. I’d love to be a short poem. I’d love to be a poem at a time, but I have so much shit inside here, so much that needs to be excavated and unpacked. Of course, I’m a long poem.”
That was Tommy Pico, recommending A Tape for the Turn of the Year by A.R. Ammons. Feed, published by Tin House Books, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at heyteebs, that’s h e y t e e b s.
Many thanks to Wendy Xu and Tommy Pico for joining us and sharing some favorites.
Thanks also go out to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. You can find shownotes, including titles mentioned, at Bookriot.com/recommended.
This episode concludes Season 5, and Recommended will be going on hiatus for the foreseeable future. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for a special “By the Numbers” episode to wrap everything up.