published by Kore Press, 2016
Winner of 2016 Kore Press First Book Award, selected by Robin Coste Lewis
Trailer Trash is a book about the cotton-country of Riverside County, Southern California, in1980s/90s. A book about poverty, ravaged landscape, and gender, it touches on a fuller, dustier California than Hollywood would have you believe. It is not only a book of class and struggle, it is also a book of triumph, beauty, and constructed worlds. It interfaces with grief and sanctuary in equal measure, creating a deeper understanding of origin stories.
PRAISE FOR TRAILER TRASH
"Indeed, perhaps the greatest gifts of this collection is that it does not run from the complexities of class and gender, nor the Athenian feat of locating unpretentious, deeply psychological lyric to render them.”
2016 Kore Press First Book Award Judge, Robin Coste Lewis
“When I read the title of this collection, I’ll admit it: I didn’t want to read it. I thought—obnoxiously—that I knew what I would find before turning its first page: cute, pink poems about poverty—which is to say, a style of writing I wanted to avoid completely. I was wholly unprepared for the exceptional skill and aesthetic courage I encountered when I opened the book, skill and courage that remained from the first line to the last. It is so much easier to perform rather than to be honest. You can offer the world a mask, then walk away, pretending to be somewhere, someone. This is especially true when one is poor, or a woman. But from beginning to end, these poems about both are neither cute, nor nice. They are strong, quiet, new, unapologetic, even ruthless in their refusal to play any role, including “girl” or “poor.” Which is to say, July Westhale constantly creates wholly unfamiliar constructions that run back and forth between that pole of both exquisite and horrifying with courageous agility. Evoking the language of myth, history, sociology, Westhale takes a sign as overused as “trailer trash” and utterly destroys that myth (or is it nightmare?) completely. Furthermore, she refuses to look away from the true complexity of gender and poverty, or more specifically, what it actually means to grow up both poor and girl. It isn’t new—class analysis—of course not. Indeed, one could argue that class is precisely what women within patriarchy write. What else could we write, century after century, when it took us so long to own property or even vote? That’s called a tradition. But what’s exciting for me is I know this collection, “Trailer Trash,” will take its rightful place within this exquisite history. What’s even more thrilling, however, is the awareness that this voice is completely distinct, these narratives, this terrain belong only to the narrators who tell them. And that’s something that one can never force, nor fake. Indeed, perhaps the greatest gifts of this collection is that it does not run from the complexities of class and gender, nor the Athenian feat of locating unpretentious, deeply psychological lyric to render them.”
Robin Coste Lewis, National Book Award winner for Voyage of the Sable Venus.
Westhale’s speaker recounts the aesthetics of poverty (“What a dump/ the inspector says. Our homes are a tin crown/ of sonnets, light upon them even in night”) in a space where grandmothers tell Depression-era stories, future lovers are fathomed out of dirty ponds, and “Amazing Grace” is played on the “common saw.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Westhale is an expert metaphor-maker, her images illuminating and often violent. The California landscape “rises in welts;” the airspace is “a gash of clouds.” Trailer Trash enacts an experience of injury that is felt in the body but also viewed through hymns and prayers, fairy-tales and childhood stories. A haunting sequence of “Dead Mom” poems reveals a young child who “makes a house out of a box,” protecting herself from the night forest and the truth of her own abandonment. But still Westhale affirms love and desire. Queer and femme, she can strut across the page with irrepressible flair — “I’ll tell you/ I’m a working girl, I’m a girlfriend experience.” This courageous first book is a must-read for our times.
July Westhale’s poetry seems accompanied with a tuning fork’s pitch, a heightened, pressing, weaponized immediacy. Whatever she faced to earn that ability would have killed a lesser mortal, we can be sure.
Poetry is an art form that is often considered inaccessible, canonical, academic. While it can be all of those things, it can also be hymnal—a kind of homage to the sorts of people whose stories don’t get written and remembered in any other way. A radical archive.
"Elsewhere, Westhale weaves love and thrilling triumph into each word; time is something to “braid . . . / into your hair,” and crickets—“they sing, never be ashamed.” In “Poem in Which I Rewrite History,” Westhale writes, “I meant to shake a psalm from your skin.” Indeed, throughout this entire haunting, biting, breathtakingly beautiful collection, she shakes a psalm from every page."
Trailer Trash is distinctly July’s story — a harrowing tale of grief, childhood, and loss. But it’s also about America, God, and poverty; the collection nimbly toggles, with the grace of a feral cat, between the “I” and the Universal. “You want your readers to be asking questions,” July told me.
And we are.
“These poems literally skewer their inhabitants but bestow astonishing thankfulness as well. Trailer Trash grieves an ecstatic lament while singing a love song’s refrains. Trailer Trash walks a tightrope of precision that allows for subtlety and shock to coexist gracefully, meaningfully, in its poems.”
Westhale’s ability to understand multiple selves suffuses this collection. Realities of gender and sexuality and class are as vital to these poems as the landscape. In fact, they join together in a sort of inescapable terror that the poems carry with them out of time, out of Westhale’s native California, and into the reader’s understanding.
Review of Trailer Trash by Michael Mercurio
For Westhale, this opening up is the necessary danger of writing and reading poems. Poetry allows a space for empathy in a way that other genres like journalism can’t always offer, but poetry is often seen as inaccessible to the masses. Not a single word is wasted and yet the subtext is dense, demonstrating the ways in which our twin selves offer contradistinctive approaches to the world: self-nurture interlocked with self-detonation, self-consideration versus self-cruelty.
July Westhale’s Poems are Dazzlers, Buzzfeed.