Selected by Richard Blanco as winner of the 2019 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, Justin Jannise turns the self-help manual on its head in How to be Better by Being Worse.
These poems flout, subvert, question, and ignore the rules with exploratory energy. Queer experiences are celebrated—from crushing on long-dead, sad-eyed poets to drag divas dancing at Halloween parties—gender constructs are questioned, and familial transgressions are laid bare for the world.
Delightfully modulating between flippant, sincere, and back again, How to Be Better by Being Worse freely indulges in harmless wickedness as its speaker grows in self-awareness, slowly learning to let go of inherited shame while continuing to seek self-forgiveness for the harms he has caused the outside world.
but we were midway through “real talk”
and, logically, I might have been responding
to your desire to see less of me.
The dark film developing at the base
of my mug was taking me back to Kansas,
a clapboard bed-and-breakfast, the streets
that day or night were dead empty.
Between the two of us, we had enough
to live there for a month.
How many dime-store novels do you think
we could have read aloud to each other
in that floral-patterned room, between meals
and lying down as long as we could stand it,
wrapped up in ourselves like the damp towels
we let fall to the floor?
“There’s an abundance of good poetry being written today. Poetry that exhibits good style, exercises good technique, and evokes good sentiments. But Jannise has done more than write just another good book of poetry—he’s written a great book, and beyond that, quite a memorable one.”
—Richard Blanco, from the Foreword
“This thoroughly delightful debut collection by Justin Jannise is full of wit and fire and play. He has an impressively off kilter sensibility that pierces the banality of American-style absurdities and pop culture's often vacuous signs and icons like a particularly scathing and funny X-ray (an illuminating device that he notably points at his speaker as well). Equally as impressive, his poems have real formal integrity and a structural intelligence that speaks of this poet's authentic engagement with the art. Jannise's How to Be Better by Being Worse reminds me again that poetry is supposed to be for its reader, first and foremost, a pleasure.”
—Erin Belieu, author of Come Hither Honeycomb