UH Creative Writing Program's Current Students and Alumni Publish Eight Stunning New Books

Three current students and five alumni of the Creative Writing Program have recently published new books. From award-winning debut novels and poetry collections to a Louisville poets anthology conceived in the aftermath of city-wide protests in 2020, there’s something for every reader in these stunning new publications. We invite you to explore this eight-book list with evocative covers, publisher information, blurbs from Mark Doty to Dana Levin, and be inspired by the wealth of literary talent nurtured at UH. 

James Davies

Poetry: Unusually Grand Ideas by James Davis May (LSU Press, 2023) 

Titled after one of the side effects of antidepressants, Unusually Grand Ideas is a poignant account of clinical depression and the complications it introduces to marriage and fatherhood. James Davis May’s poems describe mental illness with nuance, giving a full account of the darkness but also the flashes of hope, love, and even humor that lead toward healing. In pieces ranging from spare lyrical depictions of pain to discursive meditations that argue for hope, May searches for meaning by asking the difficult but important questions that both trouble and sustain us. 

“James Davis May’s second book begins quietly, chronicling a series of losses, then escalates into a harrowingly exact, artfully rendered portrait of depression: ‘I needed a darkness I’d probably survive / to escape the one I knew I wouldn’t.’ May nails the paralyzing character of his illness and somehow manages, through art and ardor, to negotiate with despair, climbing toward a position that acknowledges darkness but does not deny hope. ‘Forgive me, Love, my difficulties with joy,’ he writes to his young daughter, and to himself and his grateful readers, ‘sometimes the world doesn’t disappoint.’ Unusually Grand Ideas is wrenching, genuine, and superb.”—Mark Doty

Dream Builders

Fiction: The Dream Builders by Oindrila Mukherjee (Tin House Books, 2023) 

After living in the US for years, Maneka Roy returns home to India to mourn the loss of her mother and finds herself in a new world. The booming city of Hrishipur where her father now lives is nothing like the part of the country where she grew up, and the more she sees of this new, sparkling city, the more she learns that nothing—and no one—here is as it appears. Ultimately, it will take an unexpected tragic event for Maneka and those around her to finally understand just how fragile life is in this city built on aspirations. Written from the perspectives of ten different characters, Oindrila Mukherjee’s incisive debut novel explores class divisions, gender roles, and stories of survival within a society that is constantly changing and becoming increasingly Americanized. It’s a story about India today, and people impacted by globalization everywhere: a tale of ambition, longing, and bitter loss that asks what it really costs to try and build a dream. 

“A marvel.” —Kevin Wilson 

“Reminds me of a Robert Altman film. . . . You’ll want more of every single character.”

—Good Morning America

Black Observatory

Poetry: Black Observatory by Christopher Murray (Milkweed Editions, 2023) 

“Its very strangeness, its eccentric lenses on cis masculinity, and its simple, formal elegance called me to Black Observatory. Reading these poems is like embarking on a Twilight Zone episode where Franz Kafka bumps into Salvador Dalí in a hardware store, and dark, absurdist adventures ensue; where ‘Crimes of the Future’ involve ‘Quitting a job everyone agrees you should keep’ and ‘Kissing a foreigner at a time of war.’ There’s sweetness here, too, and deep thought and feeling—this is a singular debut by a singular sensibility: no one else sounds like Murray.”Dana Levin 

“In this playful and haunting debut, Murray turns his gaze toward the ordinariness and expansiveness of human life. Murray’s poems defy convention, propelling down the page with generous narrative energy… The observational and sympathetic power of these searching poems makes them hard to forget.” Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review) 

“In Christopher Brean Murray’s Black Observatory, characters set out on adventures in a world not quite like our own. They enter museums of impossible objects, venture down forest paths to strangely abandoned settlements, or wander along the industrial outskirts of eerie cities. All at once, the new American painters—all of them? everywhere?—act in unison, as if their simultaneous cooperation had some specific, perhaps insidious, intent. Here, everything is off-kilter and mysterious. Speakers move through unnerving landscapes with a mixture of curiosity, ambivalence, and moments of startling insight. This is a brilliant first book, one I will return to with pleasure.”

Kevin Prufer

My Borrowed Face

Poetry: My Borrowed Face by Stacy R. Nigliazzo (Press 53, 2022) 

Stacy R. Nigliazzo’s poems have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, JAMA, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She teaches medical humanities at Baylor College of Medicine and reviews poetry for the American Journal of Nursing. Her third poetry collection, My Borrowed Face, is informed by her service to the Houston community as a frontline nurse over the course of five pandemic surges.

Joy Priest

Anthology: Once a City Said: A Louisville Poets Anthology edited by Joy Priest (Sarabande Books, 2023)

Conceived in the aftermath of city-wide protests in 2020, Once a City Said showcases the polyvocal communities of Louisville, Kentucky, a city celebrated for its bourbon, basketball, and horseracing, but long fraught with racial injustice, police corruption, and social unrest. Priest takes the city’s narrative out of the mouths of politicians, news anchors, and police chiefs, and puts it into the mouths of poets. What emerges is an intimate report of a city misshapen by segregation, tourism, and ruptures in the public trust. Featuring thirty-seven acclaimed and emerging poets—including Mitchell L. H. Douglas, Erin Keane, Ryan Ridge, and Hannah L. Drake—Once a City Said archives the traditions and icons, the landmarks and spirits, the portraits and memories of Derby City.


Fiction: Transit by J.D. Smith (Unsolicited Press, 2022) 

Transit, J.D. Smith’s debut fiction collection, ranges from Central Mexico to the Asian side of Istanbul, with stops in Houston, Chicago and Washington, DC. Working in flash fiction, the traditional short story and a series of linked stories, Smith takes on race, ethnic identity, class and disability, along with the power dynamics of how they play out in everyday life. He also skewers the pretensions of those who think they are—somehow—above the fray. With intelligence and compassion, as well as illuminating flashes of wit, Smith shows us how character, faith and sheer guesswork collide with circumstance. If Flannery O'Connor and Mickey Spillane had spawned a love child—whose godparents included Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges—it would look a lot like Transit

“The stories in J.D. Smith’s TRANSIT are gloriously disconcerting, beautifully ominous, and utterly, perfectly strange. By turns soft then sage then savage, these are tales of the unforeseen, histories written upon lore and rogue rumor. Nothing is on the nose; every story takes place to the side of itself.  These are provocative narratives told plainly, unburdened of apologetics or sanctimony. And undergirding the entirety of this collection is a lyricism that's as poised and deliberate as it is sinister. I wish I'd written this book.”Jill Alexander Essbaum, author of Hausfrau 

“The 25 sharply drawn stories in J.D. Smith's wonderful new collection TRANSIT come on quietly, then build deftly to moments of unexpected revelation or wonder that resonate long after one puts the volume down.”Pete Duval, author of The Deposition and Rear View

Particles of a Stranger Light

Poetry: Particles of a Stranger Light by Anthony Sutton (Veliz Books, 2023) 

  • Lambda Literary Most Anticipated LGBTQIA+ Book for the month of February
  • Small Press Distribution Recommendation for the month of February 

“Anthony Sutton’s debut book is haunted by the old, existential question no one has yet been able to answer satisfactorily: Who or what am I? Rimbaud proclaimed, Je est un autre or I is another. Sutton updates Rimbaud with wry postmodern panache. In one poem, his is a “Mixed White/Filipino Poet” who “Interrogates the Basic Notion of ‘Passing’ and then Accepts Being Read as a Latinx Woman.” In others, he is the zombie who has lost his identity after being “roofied.” He is also the person who knows “if I had a god to pray to // it would be the light fixture / in the jail cell I spent most / of a day in.” All I know is that I want to keep reading and rereading these lovely, strange, wise, and wise-cracking selves that Sutton invents for himself in Particles of a Stranger Light. This virtuoso book passes like a Category 5 hurricane through our consciousness and, if you let it, will rearrange who you are.”—Donald Platt, author of Swansdown

Aunt Bird

Poetry: Aunt Bird by Yerra Sugarman (Four Way Books, 2022) 

Aunt Bird is an astonishing, hybrid poetry of witness that observes and testifies to social, political, and historical realities through the recovery of one life silenced by the past. Within these pages, poet Yerra Sugarman confronts the Holocaust as it was experienced by a young Jewish woman: the author’s twenty-three-year-old aunt, Feiga Maler, whom Sugarman never knew, and who died in the Kraków Ghetto in German-occupied Poland in 1942. In lyric poems, prose poems, and lyric essays, Aunt Bird combines documentary poetics with surrealism: sourcing from the testimonials of her kin who survived, as well as official Nazi documents about Feiga Maler, these poems imagine Sugarman’s relationship with her deceased aunt and thus recreate her life. Braiding speculation, primary sources, and the cultural knowledge-base of postmemory, Aunt Bird seeks what Eavan Boland calls “a habitable grief,” elegizing the particular loss of one woman while honoring who Feiga was, or might have been, and recognizing the time we have now. 

“‘To remember is both plague and song.’ This is one of the myriad striking lines in Yerra Sugarman's Aunt Bird, a book of holocaust poems like no other. What can we know of this ‘genocidal little earth?’ What must we invent? Sugarman's intense—even glorious—lyrical poems draw song from a life the poet is compelled to imagine, never having actually met this aunt whose name in Yiddish meant ‘bird.’ ‘Her life was like a thick soup in my mouth,’ the poet confesses. Language in these poems is pummeled and ‘exploded like melons,’ watches as ‘the sky/ is pulled back like a bandage from the skin,’ understands that ‘courage is like meat packed in ice . . . it can't free anything.’ Yet beauty is a kind of freedom, and the surreal beauty of this book is compelling as its tragedy.” Alicia Ostriker, New York State Poet Laureate