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Recommended readings for National Poetry Month

April 18, 2023

ASU poets on the works that they love

Sally Ball understood the question. She just didn’t understand why it was being asked.

April is National Poetry Month – it was started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets – so Ball was asked what makes poetry still relevant these days.

“Do we ask this question of other things?” responded Ball, a professor and director of Arizona State University’s Creative Writing Program. “Do we ask this question of math? Poetry is an art form that gives voice to the urgent questions, the most powerful feelings of being alive. So, of course, it’s relevant. And it’s not different in its relevance than it’s been over the years.

“I suppose there’s more entertainment, more things that compete for our attention. But I don’t think that makes poetry any less relevant or valuable.”

To celebrate National Poetry Month, ASU News asked Ball and other faculty in the Department of English for recommended reading.

Safiya Sinclair, associate professor, poet and memorist

"Mass for Shut-ins," by Mary-Alice Daniel

This book won the Yale Younger Poets Prize this year. This is a brilliant, curious, expansive debut collection where you can feel Daniel’s mind at work, and one can only admire following its myriad fascinating yarns of thought and inquiry. The poems are haunting and haunted, luminous and funny. It’s a book that deals with the inner architecture of dreams and hellscapes, threads of mysticism and religion, while also casting off those things, as the poet reclaims her own space and her own mythos in the world. I come away electrified each time.

"Judas Goat," by Gabrielle Bates

This is the debut collection of a poet that I have admired for some time for her lush lyricism on the page. This book is so rich in imagery, framed by the beautifully recursive motif of the goat as an exploration of sacrifice and redemption, while excavating the inner life of the poet with Bates’ unique voice and unmatched eye for detail. The best poems reference biblical allegory and myth, while also transforming them. The poems here explore the past, current love, and the complex dynamics of family, with just a very potent high lyric register which I really love.

"All the Flowers Kneeling," by Paul Tran

This book came out last year, and I’m just reading it now. And from the very first poem I was transfixed — like, why haven't I read this book already? It’s so beautifully written, so carefully painterly with exquisite detail and imagery, with a rich lyricism and fine-tuned eye for the subtle shimmers and raw mercies of life. Tran’s poetry is so very musical and precise; I was in awe with the rigorous movement of every poem and the brilliant way they explore the dynamics of selfhood, family, trauma, the horrors of the Vietnam War and U.S. history, all while forging the fire of their own identity. They weave all these really wonderfully lush and haunted threads seamlessly throughout the collection, while paving their own way forward. A truly beautiful and shattering book.

Jacqueline Balderrama, clinical assistant professor, poet, coordinator of Thousand Languages Project at Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing

"American Sycamore," by Lisbeth White

Essentially, it's exploring her mixed-race heritage and her identity linked back to that Black and white ancestry. The book has several sorts of series throughout it. There’s a series of bridge poems that I believe were written while she was traveling abroad in Europe. It kind of offers these perspectives of homeland from a distance, and for the Black body sort of outside in a foreign space. And there’s also these series on trees. And the trees become this symbol for growing roots of heritage and this catalyst for reflection. So, it’s beautifully written.

"Drink of Red Mirror," by Kim Hyesoon

She’s a South Korean poet, and this book was translated into English by Jiwon Shin, Lauren Albin, and Sue Hyon Bae. It’s this surrealist feminist book of poems on intimacy and womanhood, and I kind of really enjoy just the unexpected nature of the poems. They don’t necessarily follow a narrative. You kind of bounce around. But it kind of shows there’s no boundaries, and where you can wo with poetry. It’s kind of connected more by language than maybe story. And the imagery is just kind of intensely beautiful, too. It’s both grotesque and beautiful.

Sally Ball, professor and director of ASU's Creative Writing Program

"Collected Poems," by Ellen Bryant Voigt

She is a MacArthur winner, like our own Natalie Diaz, and she’s the author of ("The Art of Syntax"). She has this kind of luscious southern language and voice. So, the sounds of her poems are really astonishing. This is her collected poems, her life’s work. She’s just turning 80, and there’s such a beautiful intelligence and expression in these poems.

"To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness," by Robin Coste Lewis

This is a book that I guess we would call a hybrid. When her grandmother died, she found this box of photographs that sort of went across her grandmother’s life, and she began writing about them. She sees this book as sort of tracing Black life in America across the last century. The photos are here, so throughout the book there’s this combination of image and text. It’s a very beautiful and moving book that sort of anchors her family story in kind of an under-told historical context.

"True Life," by Adam Zagajewski

He’s a Polish poet who lived quite a lot of his life in the United States. He’s always had a kind of political and social justice kind of consciousness, and then this deeply sort of painterly individual personal attention to the sort of smallest things in the landscape. There’s this poem in here called "Mountains," which says, "look greedily when dusk approaches, look insatiably, look without fear." He’s a poet who addresses these kinds of large subjects that are sort of hovering for all of us, either as a preoccupation or sort of anxiety-producing thing. And he really, directly addresses those anxieties, but he’s also anchored in the world in really beautiful ways.

Alberto Rios, Arizona poet laureate, Regents Professor, director of ASU's Piper Center

"Survival Strategies," by Tennison S. Black

It’s the winner of the National Poetry Series, and it’s coming out soon (September 2023). We hear so much loud in the world today. This is more fundamental to where that loud is coming from. It’s more personal. It shares something that I think we connect with, no matter who we are. I think it’s effective in conveying what everybody is trying to shout. There’s no shouting here, but it’s getting to the essence of so many things, including being a woman and a mother.

"Dear Diaspora," by Susan Nguyen (poet and ASU alum)

Generationally, we have a connection to Vietnam, but the aftermath, as we all know, becomes something flattened out. We don’t place our antagonisms or our interest there. She brings something of a next generational sensibility to that. She’s here, she’s American, but from a very clear and conscience-filled past. She labors under that. Do we all labor under that? No. She brings a sensibility that helps us to be tuned to something we were well in tune with for so long. I find that art that could have come out of that time is remarkable and heartening. This is not a writer writing about the Vietnam War. This is about what comes next.

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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Raincoats made of algae could be the future of sustainable fashion

Design professor an innovator in envisioning carbon-negative consumer products.
April 18, 2023

ASU Design School professor creates carbon-negative consumer products

Charlotte McCurdy wants to take sustainability to the next level. Instead of just buying less, she wants to create consumer products out of materials that are carbon negative.

McCurdy, an assistant professor of industrial design in The Design School at Arizona State University, works at the intersection of research, design and sustainability. She came to the school in the fall 2022 semester and teaches industrial design and a class titled Design for Ecology and Social Equity.

A few years ago, she created a translucent raincoat made of a carbon-negative, algae-based plastic substitute while she was a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Called “After Ancient Sunlight,” the work was part of “Nature — The Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial” in 2019, won the Experimental category in the 2019 FastCompany Innovation by Design Awards and was exhibited at the Design Museum in London.

Algae is efficient at converting solar energy to stored chemical potential energy — so it sequesters carbon and is therefore carbon negative instead of carbon neutral. That’s opposed to making plastics biodegradable, which releases their carbon into the atmosphere.

In a video pitch for “After Ancient Sunlight” project, McCurdy said:

“We increasingly have the technology to make new and old materials out of biomass and present-tense sunlight. We have a guilt about consumption. We’ve tried telling each other that the moral thing to do is to reduce our consumption. How’s that going? Making things out of present-tense sunlight could reduce the guilt over consumption. Consumption could be carbon-negative behavior.”

Charlotte McCurdy collaborated with top fashion designer Phillip Lim on this shimmering green dress as part of the ONExONE Conscious Design Initiative, which pairs designers and scientists.

In 2020, she collaborated with top fashion designer Phillip Lim on a shimmering green dress as part of the ONExONE Conscious Design Initiative, which pairs designers and scientists. McCurdy created the sequins, a notorious use of plastic in fashion, out of the algae-based polymer, while Lim designed a base fabric that was ecologically responsible as well as thermoregulatory.

McCurdy has been recognized as a sustainability innovator in a recent commercial for Genesis electric vehicles, which dramatizes her work on the green dress.

She came to design through her work at a sustainability nonprofit.

“We worked with large corporate clients who saw the writing on the wall around crop supply chains, particularly coffee,” she said.

“Coffee, especially high-quality Arabica, grows in a particular elevation band, and as things get hotter, there is not more uphill the plants can go.The majority of Arabica is grown by small farms. Our nonprofit tried to create a path for the future for the farmers that could weave equity and climate resilience together.”

She saw firsthand the power of consumer demand to change the behavior of corporations.

“That really intrigued me and drew me to design. How could I position myself in a place where I’m pushing for a better, more ambitious definition of sustainability in the broader conversation?” she said.

“How do you create tools for having a conversation about something that never existed before?”

In graduate school, she explored industrial production and how the creation of cement, steel and plastic produces emissions.

She investigated whether it was possible to use algae feedstock to make a petrochemical-free plastic substitute.

“Plastics was the place to start if the goal is to ultimately make something accessible and vibrant that can shape the public conversation about climate change. Consumers make decisions about plastics every day,” she said.

“It’s so perniciously everywhere. We’re familiar with plastics as packaging but they’re also in pigments and coatings, and they subtly permeate so much of our life in a big way.

“More than half the textiles produced on earth are from fossil fuels in origin, the biggest of which is polyester.”

She did a lot of experimentation.

“I’m coming from the design side and not the hard science side. My question wasn’t, ‘If I change this variable by this amount, how will the performance change?’” she said.

“My goal was to see if it was possible and to have proof of concept. Is it in the domain of the possible to make a film plastic substance out of algae?”

Close up of algae polymers

Charlotte McCurdy creates ‘plastic’ raincoats and sequins from algae polymer. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

She looked to a wide variety of techniques, from molecular gastronomy to glass casting to leather tanning.

“Before the industrial revolution we made everything without fossil fuels. We have a rich body of knowledge of how to make functional, vibrant materials that meet our needs,” she said.

Algae has a naturally occurring biopolymer, and McCurdy developed a process for coaxing the material to perform the way she wanted it to.

She called her process “hundreds of beautiful failures. Each one let me learn something to try the next time.

“And I got to the point where I was able to produce something that was strong enough and consistent enough.”

Why a raincoat?

“It was important to me to make something that comments that this climate-change future is already here in some way. It gestures at extreme weather and hurricanes. Hurricanes are how the present manifestation of climate change is felt day to day in impacted communities,” she said.

For now, the raincoat is not headed to large-scale commercial production.

“With the right partners and circumstances, it definitely could be pushed much farther in terms of commercial readiness,” she said.

“That’s part of why coming to ASU is exciting to me -- understanding the tech transfer piece. The (intellectual property) piece is evolving, and I’m in the early stages of that. I’m learning the process.”

Transluscent raincoat on mannequin

A transluscent raincoat that Charlotte McCurdy made out of an algae-based platic. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

One challenge is that because it’s a naturally occurring biopolymer, the raincoat material is too biodegradable to survive the current mass-production system.

“We have this legacy infrastructure that’s built up around fossil fuel-based materials, and there’s no good answer to that. That’s what design can do — craft plans for something that does not yet exist and have it be desirable so we can all be pulling in the same direction and have a mental model,” she said.

“The raincoat is a charismatic object. It’s a tool for talking.

“We should be having those conversations about what future we’re building together and what we want our technology to serve.”

Top image: Charlotte McCurdy, an assistant professor of industrial design in the Design School, with samples of the raincoat she created out of an algae-based plastic in her Phoenix studio. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News