Rachel Wiley’s collection of poems Fat Girl Finishing School was just re-released by Button Poetry in June 2020. It was originally published in 2014. I’ve already read and reviewed Wiley’s collection Nothing is Okay, published in 2018, and loved it. What that means, though, is that I’m reading Wiley’s development as a poet backward. The result is while Fat Girl Finishing School was fine, it didn’t light me on fire like Nothing is Okay. Wiley has become a better poet, and that’s worth celebrating. But let me focus on her first collection.
Poems that were inspired by something get a brief explanation under the title. I appreciate this to the moon and back. I’ve said many times that my pet peeve with poets is when I get their book, I have poems without context. When I go to a public reading, the poet almost always spends time explaining why they wrote a poem, where it came from. If your poem benefits from some brief context, then that context should appear in your book. Here is an example of a poem called “Wife Material” that has the following note under the title:
Maybe I needed to show him I could cook to prove that I am wife material. . . — Stephanie Smith, a blogger who took it as a challenge to make her boyfriend 300 Sandwiches in order to “earn” her engagement ring.
Understanding that a woman felt the need to prove she was marriageable by serving her boyfriend changes this poem from a general feminist cry to something more specific, something directed at one woman’s efforts. Yet, Wiley doesn’t lose a message for all women and the efforts they have made to uplift women in the future. Wiley ends the poem with the following stanza:
Remember that you have that choice because there were women before you who swallowed all of the kitchen knives in order to spare your fingers.
The blend of speaking to one person and to all women effectively narrows in and speaks outward simultaneously.
Another reason context is helpful is because I don’t know everything! I know that the wonderful poetry collection We Want Our Bodies Back by jessica Care moore likely requires some background in black history and arts, which may put readers off. But what I learned in Wiley’s book is that even someone world famous like Yoko Ono may need some context. In the poem “Questions for Yoko Ono When My Love Decides We Need A Break,” Wiley gives the following note: For 18 months in the autumn of 1973, John Lennon and Yoko Ono legally separated. This time period is referred to as John’s “Lost Weekend.” I had not known that Lennon and Ono broke up; in my mind, they were this co-dependent hippy couple that apparently ruined the Beatles with Ono as a 5th wheel. Also, based on Wiley’s note, I’m assuming Lennon did the leaving and Ono did the grieving.
What about the laundry, Yoko? Did you wash and re-hang his shirts so they would be perfect upon his return? Or did you let them fester, take root and bloom a corpse flower full of his scent in case he didn't?
Yet again, this poem about one woman is applied to something bigger, this time Wiley’s own break up. Wiley can’t decide how to separate herself from the everydayness of her ex’s things and lasting presence, so ends the poem with a demand:
Yoko, just tell me what to do with the goddamn laundry.
Wiley is a fat biracial slam poet whose work reflects her experiences with these labels. She includes powerful fat–positive poems, including love letters to her body and other women who won’t shrink in the name of male gaze compliance. But she also writes about the rage of having very light skin, light enough that white friends feel comfortable making racist jokes around her because they think she’s white, too, only for her to explode with anger at having the “privilege” of being “in” on a joke that first requires the speaker to look over their shoulder.
As a young queer woman, her love poems are about dating women and men, and how when she published the collection originally she was twenty-five, meaning she was navigating conversations about possible parenthood. Although some of the poems utilize clever imagery and calls back to earlier parts of itself (like the laundry in the Yoko Ono poem), many read more like narrative prose poems broken into lines, causing me to ask why the line breaks mattered or what they added to the reading experience. A fair collection, though I would recommend the more artistically mature Nothing is Okay.