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My Favorite Books That I Have Read in 2014

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Up until now, I have told you my favorite music and movies I’ve encountered this year. Here is my final favorites of 2014 blog post, my favorite books I’ve read in 2014.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell- I loved reading this book because I can totally relate to Cath, the main character. She loves reading and writing fan fiction (albeit slash fan fiction) about a Harry Potter-ish book series called Simon Snow. At the same time, she is a college freshman who has to learn to get out of her comfort zone as a writer and a person.

I loved that the author understood why some people enjoy reading or writing fan fiction and how she captured the glory days of the Harry Potter fandom with a fictional book series. I also loved how she showed that anybody can geek out over something, not just a particular type of person. In addition, Levi was a thoughtful and sweet love interest for Cath and he is my favorite love interest in teen fiction.

Blackanese Boy by Ramon Calhoun- This is the first book I’ve read that was written by a black and Japanese author. It is also the first book I’ve read featuring a black and Japanese protagonist and the first book I’ve read that discusses what it is like to be bi-racial in the 70s and 80s. A remarkable aspect of the book is that the main character Rafael encounters different cultural experiences and is viewed through the eyes of black, Japanese, white, Arabic, and Muslim people.

Despite taking place years before I was born, I could relate to this book because I am black and asian and have experienced events similar to Ramon’s. I loved how honest this book was and how historical events like the atomic bomb scare and the birth of hip-hop were woven into the storyline.

Of Minnie The Moocher and Me by Cab Calloway and Brian Rollins- This autobiography has Cab Calloway telling about his life from his childhood until the early 70’s. It was a great read because you see how he became a bandleader, how he developed certain songs, what it was like touring with his band, and more. It was just as entertaining as any of his music.

I liked how he said that the point of him being a bandleader was that it was his way of saying, “I know it’s rough out there, but let go of your troubles for a little while.” I also liked that he revealed that he was an introvert offstage.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson- I’ve been a fan of Jacqueline Woodson’s teen fiction for a couple of years, but this autobiography has become my favorite book of hers. I loved how she wrote about her childhood in beautiful free verse poems with vivid sensory detail. I also loved that she also wrote haiku poetry in order to tell about the lessons she learned. Finally, I loved how you can see her writing voice developed in certain poems.

Various Black Speculative Fiction Books- I did a separate post on my favorite black speculative fiction books that I read this year. Since people of color rarely get noticed in fantasy fiction, I decided to promote them as much as I can on this blog and the site Black Girl Nerds. Read about my favorite black speculative books on Black Girl Nerds here.


Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Brown Girl Dreaming

Source: Goodreads

Plot Summary (Taken from Goodreads): Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.

My Review: One of the best aspects of the book is the poems. Most of them are written in free verse, while others are haikus. Many of the free verse poems have great sensory detail that allows the reader to feel like they are right there with the author. Meanwhile, the haikus serve to sum up lessons she learned by paying attention to what was going on around her. They are simple yet poignant poems that make the reader pause and reflect.

Besides the poems in general, the poems that tell the about the author’s love for stories and her beginnings as a writer are very touching. Through the eyes of the author as a child, these poems go from innocent to passionate as the book progresses. After reading about the author’s influences and seeing her writing voice emerge, current and new readers of Woodson will appreciate her more.

Another aspect of the book that is great is its themes. The most prominent ones are freedom, dreams, and a sense of belonging.  Despite being set in the 1960’s and 70’s, these are themes and more are presented so honestly that almost anyone today can relate.

Overall, this book was fantastic. I recommend it to poetry fans and minorities of all ages.


National Poetry Month Spotlight: The Connection Between Poetry and Rap

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Warning: Some of the content mentioned in this post contains strong language.

If you told me ten years ago that I would find rap music that I actually related to and learn to appreciate it, I would have said, “Yeah right, rap music sucks!”

The truth is, rap and poetry are more connected than I ever thought possible. It is not because rap and poetry can rhyme. It is because that with the right person, both of these mediums can have powerful and beautiful words.

Let me clarify something. I do NOT consider rap and poetry the same thing. I’m in my early twenties and I’ve been a poet for a decade and have read and written a lot of poetry.

Although I couldn’t tell you the lyrics to a Tupac song, I’ve listened to more than a dozen rap songs. To me, rap and poetry are two different things that can be connected.

My definition of rap is words spoken to a beat that rhyme. My definition of poetry is not only rhyme, but also metaphor, imagery, and other elements. Sometimes, these definitions can come together.

For instance, take the songs “Breathe”  (lyrics here) and “A New Star Is Born” (lyrics here) by the late Lisa Lopes.

To most people, she was known as Left Eye of the R&B hip-hop girl group TLC. I believe that she could have been a great solo rapper if she had been able to release this album in the United States and do more solo work.

If you listen to the songs and follow along with the lyrics, you’ll see why I consider Lopes a poet and rapper. On “Breathe”, she raps to the beat and her words rhyme, but her wordplay is very clever.

One of my favorite lyrics from this goes,” This here wand has a magic stick/Throat-wise called the Larynx/Helps me spill it, my utter of a mind/I milk it/So that it hits your back with spiritual parmalat/I farm the black/Spirit staff, Spirit staff, Spirit staff.”

On “A New Star Is Born”, there is only a little clever wordplay. However, the way Lopes speaks makes the song more like a spoken word poem than a rap song.

At the moment, the only living rapper I am a fan of is Angel Haze. She is unique because she has done spoken word poems and rap songs as well as some singing. One of my favorite spoken word pieces by her is called “Smile” (lines here).

Besides the fact that I can relate to some of her lyrics and love her singing voice, I enjoy that she mixes spoken word and rap in some of her songs. By speaking without a beat or not speaking to the beat, she turns the lyrics into spoken word.

One of the  best examples of this from Haze’s past work  is “Smiles N Hearts” (lyrics here). If you follow along with the lyrics, then you’ll eventually come to a lovely interlude with raw and beautiful imagery.

Sometimes, rap and poetry can be related because the person has done both separately. Late rapper Tupac Shakur wrote a book of poetry called The Rose That Grew From Concrete.

These poems are completely different from Shakur’s music because they are more introspective and thoughtful, especially if you know a little bit about Tupac himself.

A poem from the book, “Can You See The Pride In The Panther?” is about Shakur’s Black Panther Party roots. His mother was a member of the Black Panther Party before Shakur was born.

Besides music, the connection between rap and poetry can be found elsewhere. Recently, I had the immense pleasure of viewing the poetry film Slam.

There is a point in the film when a member of a police unit says, “That doggone rap music they got is driving em crazy.” I found it ironic because sometimes rap can be the key to survival.

A perfect example of this fact is a scene called “Serving Time” (turn your volume up). This is one of my favorite scenes from the film because it shows the contrast between the main character Raymond (the one on the left) and his cellmate on the right.

While Raymond’s verses are filled with hope, his cellmate’s verses are filled with anger. With a simple beat, poetry and rap have collided and shown two completely different mindsets.

So far, I have written four poems while listening to Angel Haze’s music, spoken word, and covers. Unlike most of the poems I have written, these have rhyme and wordplay.

Also, listening to her spoken word pieces have inspired me to record some of my poems with my laptop, a mike, and a sound recorder. While I have only done a few of them, doing this is making me more comfortable with reading my poetry aloud.

Even if you don’t enjoy rap music, you should keep an open mind, especially if you enjoy poetry. You never know what you’ll like and you’ll never know how it can impact you.








Written by Serena Zola

April 14, 2014 at 11:04 AM

Movie Review: Slam (1998)- Rated R

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slam, movie, saul williams

Source: Wikipedia Rating: R

Plot Summary : Street pharmacist and aspiring rapper Raymond Joshua lives in Dodge City, a drug-infested war zone in Washington D.C.  One day, he is at the wrong place at the wrong time and gets caught up in the criminal justice system. Using his talent for poetic rap, Ray learns  to survive and rise above the pain of his lost generation.

My Review: One of the most amazing things about this film is the spoken word poetry and raps. Despite the description of the main character Raymond, he is more poet than rapper. His spoken word poems are intelligent, vivid,  and raw in a way that stuns you and makes you think.

It helps that those poems were written by the same person playing Ray, Saul Williams. One of his best poems and scenes is called Amethyst Rocks.

Also, Raymond isn’t the only character who does spoken word in the film. There is a writing teacher named Lauren Bell (played by Sonja Sohn) and several supporting characters that do spoken word. Bell’s pieces are just as notable as Raymond’s and the same can be said for some of the others.

Furthermore, some of the dialogue in the film is just as poetic as the actual poems. A particular scene that has striking dialogue is known as “New World”.

Besides the poetry, the realism of the setting and the storyline is thought-provoking.  Some minorities can become angry enough to destroy each other for drugs, revenge, and other things whether inside or outside of jail.  It is a vicious cycle that is a prison physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Raymond and Lauren show that it takes courage, honesty, and the realization of self-worth to break it. Despite being more than a decade old, the issues in this film are still relevant today.

In addition to the poetry and the realism, the cinematography of the film is great. There are certain scenes that are shot well enough to give you Raymond’s view and others that give you a bystander’s view. Also, the music is mostly ambient and makes the surroundings and certain scenes more palpable.

Overall, this film was fantastic. As this film has strong language, violence, and sexual content, I recommend for teaching purposes that this film only be shown to high school and college students. Of course, poetry fans will love this film, especially if they enjoyed Poetic Justice. 


Written by Serena Zola

April 9, 2014 at 5:55 PM

Book Review: Zami- A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

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zami, audre lordePlot Summary (Taken from Goodreads): From the author’s vivid childhood memories in Harlem to her coming of age in the late 1950s, the nature of Audre Lorde’s work is cyclical. It especially relates the linkage of women who have shaped her.

My Review: One of the best things about this book is its beautiful imagery. She makes some sentences in the book seem like lines from a poem. An example is the line “All the colors change and become each other, merge and separate, flow into rainbows and nooses”. In addition, there are poems sprinkled throughout the book that give a more vivid impression of her experiences.

Another fantastic aspect of the book is how the poignant bond between women is shown. The book’s title is a Grenadian word meaning “friending” and symbolizes the bond between Lorde’s ancestral home of Grenada and the women that impact her life. Lorde’s experiences show how true sisterhood is formed between women who are mothers, sisters, friends, and lovers.

In addition, the book has a powerful historical account of racism, lesbianism, and the McCarthy era. All three of these themes eventually intertwine as Lorde struggles to discover her identity and her place in the world. There are a couple of chapters devoted to Lorde’s thoughts on how others perceive race and sexuality and the impact of those perceptions. These thoughts are insightful and could easily apply to today’s times.

The only flaw of the book is also its strength. Sometimes, the author focused too much on her romantic relationships with other women. It made the book a bit slow and melodramatic.

Overall, this book was a touching autobiography that may give strength to fellow outsiders of any race, sexuality, or gender identity. I recommend it for black history month reading and anyone who has enjoyed Audre Lorde’s poetry.

Written by Serena Zola

February 3, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Poem Spotlight: “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan

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For National Poetry Month 2013, I’ve decided to spotlight the poem “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan. I saw the animated video made for the poem first, then I read the poem to myself via Shane Koyczan’s website. Both times, I was emotionally moved as a poet and as a person.

My heart ached at certain stanzas because of my own experience with being bullied. I felt that he reflected my feelings and the feelings of other bullying victims in an honest, raw, and poignant manner. Of course, this is probably because the poet himself was a victim of bullying.

I love certain lines in this poem, especially the metaphors. Likening bullied victims to “lobster clawed boys and bearded ladies”  and “abandoned cars” was really good. Also, the way he positioned the lines and spaced the stanzas made it seem like he was giving a speech rather than just reading poetry. It is a powerful way to get the reader’s attention.

By putting his experiences into the poem along with an uplifting message, Koyczan has shown bullying victims that they are not alone and that they can survive what they are going through. I strive to have this same impact with my work someday, so this poem was very inspirational for me.

Feel free to share this poem with others.

Written by Serena Zola

April 8, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Book Review: The Big Sea by Langston Hughes

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This autobiography mostly covers Langston Hughes’ twenties as a world traveler and worker, a reveler and poet in the Harlem Renaissance, and as a college student. He also discusses his early years  in order to show what shaped some of his actions as a person, writer, and poet.

One of the things that is enjoyable about this work is the honesty. If he felt ashamed, insecure, or mad, then he says so and explains. He doesn’t try to present himself as this genius poet who knows everything; he admits his flaws and shows he is as human as everyone else. Besides being honest about himself, he is also honest about his own race and everyone else by portraying the good and the bad side. One shocking thing he wrote about was the Washington Society,  a  group of cultured upper-class colored people who were snobs to Langston and other colored people who didn’t meet their standards.

Another admirable trait of this book is Langston’s writing style. While he does recount certain poems he wrote and what inspires them, he also displays an excellent prose writing ability through vivid sensory detail. For instance, he writes of Burutu women in Africa: “”Women of the night stood before low doors, with oiled hair and henna-dyed nails. In the golden light, they looked like dark flowers offering their beauty to the moon.” A particular line that became a favorite is about his poetry writing habit that goes, “For poems are like rainbows: they escape you quickly.”

Lastly, the theme of “a big sea” was a creative way to put a metaphor into an autobiography. Not only does it set the tone of the book, it makes the entire work seem like one poem. At the start of the work, there are the words, “Life is a big sea full of many fish; I let down my net and pull.” For this reader, it seems to mean learning to living life to the fullest with other people by learning to tolerate and appreciate them.

To sum things up, The Big Sea is a wonderful book that deserves to be read just as much as Langston Hughes’ poetry is. It is poignant,  funny, lively, and intelligent. I recommend this to fans of Langston Hughes’ poetry and those who are interested in the Harlem Renaissance.

Op-Ed: Is Poetry Dead?

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I was looking at the book section of Flavorwire when I saw an article posted in response to another article entitled, “Is Poetry Dead?”. I read the latter and was astounded. As a poet and a reader of poetry myself, I heartily disagree with the author of the article.

The reason the author of the article says poetry is dead today is because it hasn’t changed anything. By change, did she mean historically change society? Or, did she mean change people’s lives by getting the attention of a large number of people? I think it is both.

Why should poetry have to historically change society or attract the attention of a large number of people in order to change something? With most people being so technology and reality-tv obsessed and, shouldn’t people be happy that poetry still is being read and written by some people?

For instance, me. I have been writing poetry since I was thirteen years old. Discovering that I had the natural talent to write poetry (and as it would turn out, stories) made me happy. Until I discovered my writing talent, I thought I had no talent. If that newfound happiness is not a form of change, I don’t know what to say.

During my first two years of college, I’ve read many poets I never considered reading before: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks, to name a few. Walt Whitman became my favorite poet to read for pleasure because his work showed me that no matter who we are or where we come from, we are all connected. For someone like me who has felt out-of-place for a long time, it was an immense comfort and another life-changing moment.

As for poetry that has been inspiring to my own work, Gwendolyn Brooks and her poem “We Real Cool” was the nugget that led me to a gold mine of inspiration from other African-American poets like Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. All three of these poets inspired me to write about youth social issues with raw imagery. When I have enough poems, I will publish them in a collection.

Currently, I want to look for good introspective poetry to serve as inspiration for my own. I don’t know what poet will inspire me next, but when I discover them, it will be awesome.

Simply put,  If poetry can change just one person’s life and make them feel more alive, then how is it dead?



National Poetry Month Spotlight: Poetry in Today’s Culture

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In honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to share some of the things in contemporary culture that have been influenced by poetry:

Book: The Outsiders

The coming-of-age novel features Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay, which is used as a part of the story’s theme.

Movie: Poetic Justice

The film features the poetry of Maya Angelou . In this scene, Janet Jackson’s character Justice is reciting the poems “Alone” and “Phenomenal Woman“.

Song: Song of Myself by Nightwish

This song was inspired by Walt Whitman‘s poem of the same name.

Written by Serena Zola

April 14, 2012 at 8:38 PM

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