Review by Claire Matthews
Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang
2013, Oolichan Books, Canada
“Emily Polh-Weary thinks everything seems insignificant once she’s posted it on Facebook.” This is the starting point of Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s second poetry collection, Status Update. She shows us how untrue the statement is before you even open the book. It’s a poetry collection that wouldn’t exist without social media, without a Facebook post. Status Update is the poetic response to real Facebook status updates. The updates appear at the top of the page as if you’re looking at your own newsfeed: like, comment, share, and a date stamp. They include the person’s name and the update is in their voice. It’s a book of juxtapositions: Tsiang contrasting where we think the poems are going and where they actually end up; contemporary poetry and classical poetry; playfulness and seriousness; our expectations of Facebook and what it means to the literary world, specifically poetry.
If the collection’s conception doesn’t already stun you, then Tsiang’s poetic range and language will. The poems cover a lot of ground, ranging from funny to philosophical with lots of side roads in between. Their forms vary from free verse to prose, narrative to almost lyrical to the glosa. It’s in this last form that Tsiang shows her true mastery of the craft. The forty-line form is a beautiful contrast to the often short, direct Facebook status, a further example of the way in which Tsiang blends contemporary and classical poetry.
The first poem of Status Update is the embodiment of the rest of the book: a contrasting balance of humour and loneliness, wit and deception. “Is it wrong to lie to a dog?” starts off with the silliness that you’re expecting from the title until you get to the end of the poem: “He pretends, for you, that you are both/ happy that the ten minute walks/ around the same city block/ can fill your hearts.” This is only the beginning of Tsiang subverting the reader’s expectations.
With many of the poems, it feels as if Tsiang unpacks the statuses completely. The updaters want to express themselves, but hesitate. Then Tsiang comes in, peels back the layers, and explores until you’re left with the responses you see on the page. Her poems echo a longing, vulnerability, a soft cry; people wanting to be heard, but never knowing just quite how to say it. Tsiang subtly dives into the complexity of social media and intimacy: how people are more comfortable exposing and expressing themselves because they have a technological barrier. Tsiang gives a voice to this loneliness.
Status Update is an exploration of a world most of us are familiar with and have so little understanding of. Through funny musings, wit, and a critical eye, Tsiang exposes the underbelly of the Facebook status update, the vulnerability and loneliness of the person on the other side of the screen. Her playfulness and willingness to have fun with poetry are traits not seen enough in Canadian poetry. She adds new life to a genre that is constantly trying to stay relevant. Most importantly, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang reminds us that poetry can be found in everything, even where you’d least expect it.
You can find Status Update here at Oolichan Press.