Review of Michael Washienko’s “So Spicy, So Sweet”
The first thing you notice about Michael Washienko is how soft-spoken he can be. That’s a lie—the first thing you notice about Michael Washienko is he has bleached half his hair a la Sia, giving a far more jarring physical impression than is suggested by the second thing you notice about Washienko, which is how soft-spoken he can be.
It’s a trait that disguises the abrasive if personal nature of much of the 24-year-old poet’s work, including his most recent collection So Spicy! So Sweet, out from Lost Alphabet (of which Washienko is the founder). The title “came from a conversation I had with a Venezuelan woman I was in love with,” whosays Washienko. “She’s very hippy, very connected to the Earth, ‘I only believe in the power of love’ sort of person.” He rolls his eyes. “You’re connected to the whole universe, but you can’t fucking call me?”
According to the author, So Spicy! So Sweet is a vulnerable collection born out of Washienko’s experience as a sexual assault victim, and how multiple assaults endured last year have changed the poet’s relationship with his own body and the bodies of others. While a nerve disorder in his eyes kept him from more visual expressions of that struggle, Washienko found solace in poetry.
“I was working a terrible job—60 to 85 hours a week—and would come home and just cry from the pain my eye,” he says. “I just started writing in the dark.” During this period, Washienko claims he wrote over 400 poems, many of which make up the bulk of his newest collection, which he suggests is a narrative about his recovery. “A huge portion of the book are very sad poems,” he reflects. “Mainly about learning to love after you’ve been hurt like that and learning to stand up for yourself.”
This brute personal style combined with delicate images and presentations is the dichotomy that drives much of So Spicy! So Sweet. Gone are the attempts at subtlety more typical of erotic poetry and replaced by lines like the opening poem—”my fingers / weave dreamcatchers / as i swipe/ left if you don’t eat ass.” Sexual frustration seems the most common theme, and Washienko embraces vulgarity throughout.
At times the book seems even parodic of neo-confessionalist “Instapoets” like Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, or Nayyirah Waheed whom Washienko cites as an influence. Some pages hold single lines, like “it was never about being nice” and “free love is the fight for freedom.” Which is not to say that there isn’t also wit and charm—the narrator of one poems refuses the church because “my life has already had / way too many / virgin men / claiming they can send me to heaven.”
So Spicy! So Sweet is out from Lost Alphabet, a “nomadic” publisher managed by Washienko and a team of editors and artists from across the globe. “For example, we’re having a poetry contest this month,” says Washienko. “One of our jurors is bouncing around between Shanghai and Tokyo. Another is in Belarus, and another is right here in Harrisburg. The company exists wherever our staff are.”
Although Lost Alphabet is print-on-demand, Washienko balks at being called a vanity press. “If you’re going to build a brand, if you’re going to follow your dreams, why not do it by just being really genuine?” Print-on-demand keeps costs down, explains Washienko, allowing for more experimental forms if not the same accreditation. That same openness, however, can be limited by the constraints some of Lost Alphabet’s poets endure in their home countries.
Pointing out one collection by an Iran-based poet, Washienko expresses concern the book could get her arrested—a fear built upon his own close calls while travelling in the Middle East. While reading at a book festival in Dubai, Washienko claims the content of his own work nearly got him in legal trouble. “I thought I was reading really tame ones, actually,” he says. “Not about sodomy but about vulnerability and loss. I had several curators and gallery owners who saw the reading approach me and say if an official had seen it, I could be in jail.”
While ostensibly well-traveled—citing recent trips to Moscow and Istanbul—Washienko finds himself based in Central Pennsylvania while caring for his ailing mother in New Cumberland. “I’m very fortunate to have in Harrisburg such a living and giving art community,” says Washienko. “People here—and I think this is rare for America—will go to every show and look deeply at every painting or go to every music show and, even if they don’t understand it, they’ll really try. I find it frustrating here to engage with a lot of contemporary things,” he says. “But I’ve had exhibitions here and hundreds of people come and really look, and it just fills me with love and happiness.”