Michael Chang’s An Almanac of Useless Talents, Clash 2022, showcases the poet’s talent for bending space/time via ecstatic lyrics whose pathos is undercut by Chang’s wit, shade, and raunchiness. Naked as is it draped and adorned, for all of Chang’s nervy buzz, the poems of Almanac reveal vulnerability, and romantic yearnings, even when dissing poets, poetry, whiteness, and burnout capitalism while cruising for hot boys, dreaming of turning inside out with their insta crush before tacos; Chang’s poems are paced with a dopamine rush, the breathlessness of contemporary connected life, a kind of white noise in which Chang’s poems operate.
Chang is dashing, hyper, neurotic, confident, vulnerable, bitchy, and raunchy, often within a single stanza.
At work in the poems of Almanac is Chang’s electric litany, poesy imitating contemporary internet cognition, how people think/react/respond as trained for immediacy by socials. Their poesy is a satire of, a sincere imitation of, and an exploitation of thinking and feeling in the age of distraction. Almanac is a book of lists, or even one macro list of longings, losses, and distractions of Western commodities masquerading as culture. Chang is dashing, hyper, neurotic, confident, vulnerable, bitchy, and raunchy, often within a single stanza. A breathlessness engenders the lines; eros, Chang’s compositions are fully embodied, spirited fist-fulls of life, both anxious and cocky at the same time, endearing and feisty, which Chang also pushes back against. They are aware of the cultural pressure for poets to trade in the dominant gestures of American poetry, still largely centered around maleness, whiteness, and certainly cishet. Performing for everyone and no one, Chang embraces only what moves them, discarding imposed norms and social niceties; Chang will come for your life.
Part of Chang’s allure is their swag, showing vulnerability when it comes to love/sex, and also queening it up when it comes to dismissing competition.
In the opening poem “No No Zone” Chang begins with “if i were that kind of poet” which via anaphora becomes both a chorus of praise and insult at the same time until the poem transforms into a ladder of associations ending with “shorter boys have cuter faces”. A technique Chang employs in their work as if their ear were pulling in all the ambient threads of a busy space, ending with an image invoking both loss and longing and shade, the comparative lingering. Part of Chang’s allure is their swag, showing vulnerability when it comes to love/sex, and also queening it up when it comes to dismissing competition. Chang puts poetry on blast. I make no judgment here regarding shade or shaded, and enjoy Chang’s brashness and daring, a criticism ultimately on poetry’s economics of identity and the public’s mistaken identity w/r/t Asian queer poets, one of the hundreds of microaggressions embedded in American discourse, but perhaps that’s too serious; the tea is hot, and so are the boys, enjoy the tilt.
The joy of Chang’s verses is that many of their compositions are containers for so many gestures intermingling as disconnected lines or stanzas; for example, in the aforementioned “No No Zone” one finds love, advice, in-jokes, conversational detritus, and cultural critique. Later in “Awful Ghosts” a poem about desire, consumerism, and sex, the speaker begins by winking at the reader in rhyme, “Have you ever had steak/with a boy named Blake” before dovetailing into associative eros, sucking, fucking, shopping, before ending with “you →o←butthole//ghastly/ to be nibbled/ like bacon bits/ why do I want it all the time”, a hilarious panning of the western romantic poetic gesture of ecstasy, Oh, offering up a syntactical butthole,“ →o←”, to lust after, and consume, an example of Chang’s gift for bedazzling their lines with line gestures—, numerals, symbols, text/internet speech, and Chinese characters, both disrupting reader’s expectations and embedding data, nuance, and culture, that for most Western readers will likely remain decorative, but offering another level for those who understand.
Chang, with their queered poesy, captures the topography of connected life, the internet, smartphones, social media, the invisible strings that connect chosen family, friends, and traditional family, an America for everyone, with dick picks.
In traditional American verse, and certainly Western verse there’s a tradition of poetic syntax/gesture capturing the topography of a place, cue Sandburg’s Chicago, or Whitman’s wildness, or how Crane and O’Hara had a penchant for dropping in street signs or advertisements in lines, a gesture that expands the poem outward, into the real world where all that Democratic American potential waited. Chang, with their queered poesy, captures the topography of connected life, the internet, smartphones, social media, the invisible strings that connect chosen family, friends, and traditional family, an America for everyone, with dick picks.
Chang’s poesy often explodes off the page, chunks of prosy lines slashed / up, or right-adjusted, or a flowing, popping mix of controlled language. Each use, or each transition reorients the poem, shifts focus, often building momentum, such as in “Girl Sleuth & Boy Wonder” which begins with “Mr. Thoreau aint shit to me — pop culture crassness my middle name” before pondering death, of all things, before firing down and across the page, a visual waterfall of text, which moves the emotional exigency from earnest jokes “avoid getting hate crimed” to ambient pop culture noise “Jared Leto will never work in this town again” to quoting Gil Scott-Heron, to forgetting “Manhattan & Christmas at St, Regis” to a section of cascading lines of characters before, returning to the speaker, who in all caps and exclaims:
IS THE FUTURE
CLEARER UP THERE?
I NEED SOME GOOD
NEWS RIGHT ABT NOW
…I’LL SWEAR I’LL KICK FATE
IN THE FACE…I’M
a gesture of human futility that feels via arrangement to be a shout up to the heavens, the skies above the speaker dense with cultural information, anxiety, a kind of cognitive burnout Chang builds to via language, using the tab key to proffer two, sometimes three separate ideas, or gestures, some of which are simply a floating em dash. For the uninitiated, Chang’s work is dizzying, the effect of so much enfolded in the poesy and the content.
one should be grateful that Michael Chang’s speaker is not looking outward, at the reader, clocking faults, taking note, dismissing, dismissing, dissed.
When Chang chooses to employ restraint, the emotional stakes rise, for the restraint undercuts the hypersensitivity of Chang’s dynamic voice. For example, “National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration” is an earnest(y) love poem rooted in honesty, but warm with shady humor, “If I wanted to complain I would complain abt your secrecy/your big mouth, your lack of gifts,/how you are so annoying, so earnest.” Chang begins the poem with complaints, perhaps a joke, disarming the reader, perhaps the speaker, before revealing vulnerability, “Honesty is not a special place/but you would be with me, finally.” While not exactly tenderness, the openness and pain of that final line resonate. Compare this to “Voyeur” where Chang’s speaker slays with “Hey Danielle//You are nobody//You are equivalent to nuked coffee//Some warmed-up tuna casserole”, a poem where it feels that one should be grateful that Michael Chang’s speaker is not looking outward, at the reader, clocking faults, taking note, dismissing, dismissing, dissed.
Holistically, Chang’s density is dynamic, there’s so much to unpack, as it were, while at the same time, the humor, the wit, float all the pain and vulnerability. Chang both uses humor to satirize the inauthentic gestures of Western life in early American dystopia and to destroy their enemies, as they see them, reminding readers that our own judgments and petty grievances with others are part of life and that poetry is large enough to contain that impulse in the same breath as a lusty litanyical, and a dis at the canon. The final poem, titled “Envoi”, two lines long, encapsulated, each, in a text box, both a wink at self-restraint and an act of self-restraint:
I don’t want a life of meaningless, casual associations
I want all of ur meaning, all of ur associations
Does love put one in a box? Is Chang trying to control their impulses? Is this is a pretty way to break up the white space? Does the use of a table expose the narrow way western poetics view form? Is Chang just fucking with us? Probably all of these are true and none of them are true, as much as any poem is just an engine for the breath; the context is secondary.
Almanac of Useless Talents is a collection that desires to be seen, desires to find love and connection, and then demands all your attention to hold it, consume it, love it like all your poetry darlings.