Bookshelf: Prose poems chart loss, alienation in ‘Dear Outsiders’

A Cappella hosts private author events; Townsend Prize keynote speaker announced.
Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of "Dear Outsiders."
Courtesy of University of Akron Press

Credit: University of Akron Press

Credit: University of Akron Press

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of "Dear Outsiders." Courtesy of University of Akron Press

This week’s Bookshelf is about a gorgeous new book of poetry, an update on the Townsend Prize for Fiction and a special “choir” for lovers of books and indie bookstores.

Happy Pub Day: One of the pleasures of reading poetry for me is the experience of having such big emotions evoked by very few words. Because every word in a poem carries so much weight, it requires a deft wordsmith to pull it off. And Atlanta poet Jenny Sadre-Orafai, a creative writing instructor at Kennesaw State University and former executive director of the Georgia Writers Association, more than succeeds with “Dear Outsiders” (The University of Akron Press, $16.95), which publishes Tuesday, March 7.

The slim volume of linked prose poems introduces a pair of unnamed, ungendered children who grow up in a touristy beach town until their parents’ deaths force them to relocate to the mountains. But that’s only what happens. “Dear Outsiders” is about so much more than that. It’s about alienation, finding your tribe, love, loss, grief and the power of place, and it’s told with the delicacy of a memory of a distant fever dream.

The children are born from a mother who comes from the sea: “She said the gulf spat her out and yes, we believed. Her fingers never wrinkled from water — a cormorant.”

Their father is from the land: “He talks about tectonic plates, how mountains were formed, describes floating continents and what will happen when all the water in the world is disappeared.”

They enjoy childhood pursuits like eating ice cream cones and swimming in the ocean out past the buoys, but they also maneuver in a world sharply divided between locals and tourists whose deep pockets make them more valuable than residents.

“We know them by the color of their towels. Orange is the fanciest resort. Blue is the motel without water views. They line their balconies with them — flags to countries they’ll never belong to,” writes Sadre-Orafai.

More attuned to nature than people, the children bemoan the commodification of their environment. “Somebody tell the starfish we’re sorry for buying their bodies (starched liked pressed clothes) from the store…”

In the second half of the collection, the children relocate to the mountains, the land of their father, where they “pitch a house but not a home” after their parents die.

There they struggle to lose their sea legs. “We walk out here with our knees high … like walking against a cresting tide.”

And they navigate their new normal in a strange land invaded by spiders, wrapped in vines and stalked by bears while they try to process a grief so deep it threatens to consume them.

It is a heart-wrenching work that stays with you long after the last page.

Preaching to the choir: If you’d like to attend an exclusive meet-and-greet at Manuel’s Tavern with Jeannette Walls, author of the 2005 smash memoir “The Class Castle,” prior to her event at the Carter Center March 31 to promote her new novel, “Hang the Moon” (Simon & Schuster, $28), consider joining the A Cappella Choir.

The membership program at A Cappella Books doesn’t charge a fee to join, but you have to contribute $100, $500 or $1,000, all of which goes in your account for future purchases at the independent bookstore. Perks include discounts on purchases, priority seating at events, free local delivery to intown members and invitations to private events. Go to to join or to get tickets to the Walls event, which are $30.50 plus fees per person and include a copy of the book.

Tickets on sale now: Melissa Fay Greene, author of “Praying for Sheetrock” and “The Temple Bombing,” will be the keynote speaker at the AWC Townsend Prize for Fiction Award Ceremony taking place April 13 at the Atlanta Woman’s Club Wimbish House, 1150 Peachtree St., Atlanta.

The recognition is bestowed every two years on a fiction writer with Georgia ties. The 2023 finalists are Daniel Black, Kimberly Brock, Taylor Brown, Anjali Enjeti, Ann Hite, Thomas Mullen, Lo Patrick, Josh Russell, Sanjena Sathian and Tiphanie Yanique.

All the finalists’ books will be on sale at the event, which includes dinner. Doors open at 6 p.m., and seating is limited to 125. Tickets are $60 and can be purchased at

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at