You Don’t Have to Be Everything
Diana Whitney, ed.
Workman Publishing, 2021.

An edgy manifesto for non-binary, trans, or cis-gendered girls in the form of a poetry anthology that cheers all kinds of girls to live without apology will hit the stands with a second reprint in March 2021. Edited by author, editor, queer mother of two, Diana Whitney, You Don’t Have to Be Everything (Workman Publishing), is a skillfully curated collection that packs a wallop with its range of form, diversity, lush visuals, and historical relevance. The content ranges from various poetic voices that traverse sexuality, poverty, loss, celebration, and various explorations of what it means to embrace one’s physical self on the journey to adulthood.

The landscape of You Don’t Have to Be Everything is a broad range across eight emotional areas— seeking, loneliness, attitude, rage, longing, shame, sadness, and belonging — and across sixty-eight intersectional and intergenerational voices. The poems in this collection include all divides of career status: new work from younger poets, writers from the poetic canon, the Instagram poets, US Poet Laureates, and all voices in between. 

In addition, the different forms included in this anthology range from free verse to sonnet to verses that are filled with bold and rich dramatic monologue. These verses are matched with an equally stunning visual text crafted by international and culturally diverse illustrators, Christina González of Ecuador, Kate Mockford of the UK, and Stephanie Singleton of Canada.

This collection tugged with advice that felt accessible in a way I wish I could have encountered as a teen girl. Consider this review an open letter embodying the richness from this community of poets. 

They come together in a powerful way that brings forth a manifesto of permission for the next generation: a manifesto through verse. In the process of growing into the various forms of womanhood, one might discover that some questions will never go away. As Elizabeth Spires tells it in, “Questions for Google,” one will seek and hunger to know, “Who will be coming and when will they get here?…If not now, then when?” As one will discover that the only answers to these questions are what life unzips. Also, as we all know, the hunger of our curiosities have no end.

Other truths from this collection stick to women’s bones: the world can be cruel. S. Erin Batiste knows this truth when she reveals in, “Questions Asked to Me When I was Ten” the lines, “What are you? Why are you here?…Why are your eyes shaped that way? Are you sure you are not half Korean? Chinese? Japanese?” Beyond the general cruelty of the world that the poem exhibits, the building tension in Batiste’s poem is timely in its representation in relation to America’s struggle with race.

This kind of reality about the world might inspire women to crave the kind of “Solitude” poet Franny Choi yearns for when she says, “Now that’s my kind of intimacy—/faceless, salty,/no wondering how my jokes going over/” in a poem that opens with the line, “I hope no one comes to my party.”

Other poets here embody the range of attitude as in Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to my Hips.” She writes, “they go where they want to go/they do what they want to do.” 

May women’s attitudes carry the body of knowing as declarative as Amanda Gorman’s lines, “…Write the future/Like I’m dragging my finger in wet sand? My every breath/A song carved out of the dark left behind?”

Some of these poems challenge the canon. In “Confession,” by Leila Chatti, these confessions are a bold invitation to the reader, and all girls, to behold their bodies. The call to beholding that is no different than when Chatti says of her reimagining of Mary giving birth to Jesus,

“I admire this girl who cared
for a moment not about God
of His plans but her own
distinct life, this fiercer Mary who’d disappear
if it saved her…”

And maybe the challenge won’t be a confession that questions the canon, but perhaps instead will provide a sense of permission that a poem may confront any of the so-called truths the world lays upon women’s bodies.

The collection also addresses the taboo of certain kinds of emotions, particularly rage. We are all familiar with the ways that girls and women are not allowed to glow red hot. May women’s rage be as expansive as expressed in Rage Hezekiah’s “On Anger,” especially when she describes a white therapist’s invitation for her to smooth her edges. Hezekiah writes, “…She asks what I will lose/if I surrender, I imagine a gutted fish,/silvery skin gleaming, emptied of itself—”

And may women embrace all ways of being that are as literal and metaphorical as the instructions given in the lines, “Just BLEED” within Dominique Christina’s “The Period Poem,” a  response to a twitter user who bragged to the online world about dumping his girlfriend for getting her period during sex. 

“Name the blood something holy.
Something mighty.
Something un-languageable.
Something in hieroglyphs.
Something that sounds like the end of the world.”

May girls know no bounds in their longing, and may their desire be free of judgement as in Marie Howe’s poem “Practicing.” She writes, “I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade,/a song for what we did on the floor in the basement…I want to write a song/for that thick silence in the dark, and the first pure thrill of unreluctant desire,…”

And across this spectrum of want, may one’s longing feel like what Sarah Kay describes in her piece, “On the Discomfort of Being in the Same Room as the Boy You Like.” Perhaps readers will have the same grace and care for themselves and enjoy that tension as they are, “…counting things to keep from looking/at him. Five chairs, two laptops, someone’s/umbrella, a hat. People are talking so you/look at their faces.”

Or maybe they will feel the longing that Evie Schockley’s means in “Coming of Age,” when she writes about listening to the music of Prince, and the way his music transported her body describing, “you sang for me   for us   the holy promise of your shadowed eyes was my/own and my best friend’s daily church.” 

And for some, that kind of daily holy will be the music or art of another that takes one’s want to new dimensions. As desire knows no bounds, for some, that want may be connected to an ache of wanting to change the things that one cannot change. This may look like a kind of change that an individual wishes to make to keep them safe as written by Sharon Olds in “I Go Back to May 1937.” In that poem, she talks about traveling to 1937 to tell her parents as they embark on a yet-to-be-written life,

don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,”

Many readers will have their own version of wanting to change something in their lives. And maybe, like some among us, one will put pen to paper like Olds does when she says, “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

As one attempts to read the cartography of their body in the world, shame will take many forms that may look much like what is described in  Blythe Baird’s, “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny.” The shades of shame that one will try to navigate now, and like all of us, for other parts of one’s life, might feel like these lines within Baird’s poem,

“if you develop an eating disorder
when you are not thin to begin with,

you are a success story,”

One may find some connection between these poems and their own bumpy road of learning to embrace themselves, their body, and the perception of others.

In Sheila Black’s, “What You Mourn,” Black writes about what goes missing for her in a society fixated on perfection the moment her legs were straightened. She writes, “…that body/they tried so hard to fix, straighten was simply mine,/and I loved it as you love your own country.” No doubt readers have either the same or their own version of living those lines.

Most importantly, all these voices come together to remind us all that becoming who you are meant to be is a never-ending project. One does not have to be everything, as Joshua Jennifer Espinoza reminds the reader with the last lines of, “Flowers #3,”

“My love works the same way.

It is always dying and growing
at the same time.

Learning to love myself takes forever
and it never ends.”

Shanta Lee Gander
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