By Cid Galicia
MICHAEL CHANG (they/them) is the author of several collections of poetry, including Boyfriend Perspective (Really Serious Literature, 2021), Almanac of Useless Talents (CLASH Books, 2022), and Synthetic Jungle (Northwestern University Press, 2023). Tapped to edit Lambda Literary’s Emerge anthology, their poems have been nominated for Best New Poets, The Best of the Net, and the Pushcart Prize. They were awarded The Poetry Project’s prestigious Brannan Prize in 2021 and serve as a poetry editor at the acclaimed journal Fence.
Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build
your own, and let it grow, be like water.
--- Bruce Lee
It’s the return of the… "Ah, wait, no way, you’re kidding
He didn’t just say what I think he did, did he?"
Reading the poems in Michael Chang’s collection, Almanac of Useless Talents, is an experience similar to getting hit in the face with a hundred beautiful nunchucks of craft and composition. All the traditional “rules” of poetics– sandblasted by Chang’s narrative on the pop-political entertainment world we live in. Everything our world tells us not to do– done, not to write– written, not to say– said. And the outcome is a beautifully constructed deconstruction of this world’s binaries and boundaries. The laws of writing, the laws of the world, and the laws of writing about the world– hybridized into the fiercely rich voice that is all their own.
CALIFORNIA ONE NIGHT STAND
All of Chang’s poems are found active on the page– whether it’s the dual-linguistic writing, the geo-symbolic stanza breaks, or the italicized vs. non-italicized font. The linear structure of this poem is both form and anti-form. The opening stanza, at first glance, casts a sonnet-ish shadow down the page. It tells the story of a one-night stand experience in Venice Beach, California, as the writer flirts and giggles with the page, the character in-poem, and the reader. It then then shifts to a four piece Chinese section in columns:
别说我LOCAL 别说我没用 (Don’t Talk About Me) (Don’t Say I’m Useless)
别说我心狠手辣 忘记你我做不到 (Don’t Say I’m Cruel) (I Cannot Forget You)
which in a way could be thought of as a turn in the poem, as the written voice reflects upon the engagement.
Another recurring action in Chang’s poetry-verse is the writing–about writing the poem–in the poem. This occurs on many occasions, and in many poems.
for me the highest praise is saying ur poem is for smart ppl i write gutter poetry for dirty minds
ur poems make me feel swaddled in finest velvet engulfed in scholarly love it’s gentle, recalling words like curvature & slope
Chang is the Deadpool in your poetry-verse, their mutant power breaking every wall (third, fourth, ninth, or otherwise) as they interact with the reader live and in motion on the page. It is perhaps for this that Chang chooses to use commas as the only punctuation of the writing in the poem– to syncopate the continuous teleports of the reader down each stanza.
And finally, the closing of the poem slices like a katana. The double-speak and reversal of submission between writers and magazines leaves the reader feeling humorously entertained and empathized with.
500 HORSES OUTSIDE AT THE VALET
This poem is active in that it opens without any throat-clearing, singing to the reader through a pair of lyrics by songwriters Thomas Rhett and Chris Lane.
(Sidenote: be prepared to do continuous homework for many of the poems in this collection. As a veteran english teacher of many years, I was prepared. It's just a warning for you Michael Chang 101 incoming freshman: Google Translate, Google Dictionary, and Urban Dictionary are the required readings for the class! You can certainly do a once over and be thoroughly engaged…but there are so many secret dungeons in each piece that you will most definitely want to find the keys!)
You will not find Chang in the ivory towers of poetics or academia.
Don’t talk to me about pretty privilege All I know is ugly condemnation
Though I am sure he visits, Banksy Style, from time to time with street graffiti poems in spray cans to say hi to friends and write on the bathroom stalls MCHANG WUZ HUR! But as Rhett says, it's in parking lots and empty streets that you’ll find the poetics of Chang, and that he leaves warning signs for haters to head towards anything that ain’t me. If you can’t handle trans-sectional-plots in poems, then this piece will be a horror poem for you with terrifying insects, smashers, slashers, and monsters all loose and causing simultaneous guts and glory on the page.
My favorite line in this poem, and probably the whole collection, is the following bare-knuckle blast of an insult:
Who even are you You’re a Xerox of a Xerox of a fax
Total-Knock-Out. What is so great about Chang, and one of the questions this insult presents in this piece, is whether they are delivering the insult to themself or another. Identity is the thing we are all fighting for these days. In this poem, and in their public sphere, Chang is openly vulnerable about wrestling with their definition of Azn identity.
As a first generation Mexican in the U.S. who can only roughly cook or speak Spanish, I admire Chang’s openness as it is one of the most inviting aspects of their writing.
AREA CODE 888
There really isn’t any topic that Chang steers away from. In this poem Chang Nightcrawlers their way (blip…blip) through loneliness and desire, past reality and fantasy future, compliments and criticism, annihilation and alexithymia, thievery and favorites, ending with gifts passing through membranes.
…now I know that’s a lot, but so is Michael Chang and I don’t
think they would deny that.
Chang: she had a boyfriend named henry & i wanted one too
Reader: I’ve felt that way before…It was yesterday…blip
Chang: wuz that fancy word to describe nostalgia
for something u’ve never experienced (desiderium)
Reader: Hey Google, what’s the definition of desiderium…blip
Chang: im haunting & powerful ur daring & strange
Reader: Chang really knows themself, and me. Thanks Chang…blip
Chang: at one pt or another i could watch entire planets get obliterated & feel nothing
dead martians everywhere i won’t even look up from my fkn cereal
Reader: I feel that way some days, especial when I’m out of adderall…blip
Chang: ariana reines stole our heirlooms tried to sell them back for five dollars
i refused, told her i’m ur favorite poet’s favorite poet
Reader: and she’s a Xerox of a Xerox of a fax…mic-drop…blip
Chang: if wut u give me is the same as wut u give everyone else
i don’t want it (osmosis)
Reader: I passed 9th grade science too! Go us…blip
Chang doesn’t slap readers in the face with technique and intelligence, but on the back acknowledging the day to day human struggles we are all sloshing through…or loving depending on the day. They really are not on the other side of the poem, but right next to us in the Twitterverse encouraging us to meet our daily tasks, like turning in your book review blog article to your head editor by the deadline.
This is a wild ride of a wild read, so strap in and sink into Michael Chang’s Almanac of Useless Talents. It will leave you with more questions, and less answers, by the end. It will leave you unsure of whether you are quite friends, or quite foes, by the end. There is a magic and method to the madness that is Chang’s voice. You will read a bit different, and probably write a bit different– for a while at least, by the end. You will leave changed.
Almanac of Useless Talents can be purchased as a paperback here:
Cid Galicia is a Mexican American poet who has been teaching in New Orleans for over the past decade. He graduated with his MFA summer 2023 through The University of Nebraska Omaha. He is a poetry editor for The Good Life Review, reader for The Kitchen Table Quarterly, and this year's FIRECRACKER Poetry Manuscript Awards. His work has appeared in The Indianapolis Review, The Watershed Review, The Elevation Review, Trestle Ties, South Broadway Press, Roi Faineant Press, The Letter Review, The Peauxdunque Review, and other journals. He was excited to attend the 2023 Summer Writing Residencies of Sundress Publications & The Kenyon Review Summer Writing Workshop.