A Review of Sophomore Slump by Leigh Chadwick

Alex Carrigan

Sophomore Slump
by Leigh Chadwick
Malarkey Books, 2023.
168 pages

To publish one book is an accomplishment, but to publish a second is an act of reckless disregard for one’s health and sanity. While many would be thankful to be able to publish more than one book in their lifetime, writing a second book requires the author to ponder over what made the first book work and what they can do to improve upon it. For poets, this means figuring out what other themes and topics they can broach that they didn’t the first time around, or figuring out if the subjects of the first book have evolved since its publication.

Leigh Chadwick’s Sophomore Slump is one such poetry collection. The collection is Chadwick’s second collection with Malarkey Books, the first being her collection Your Favorite Poet, and as one poem in Sophomore Slump explains in its one-page title, the reader should probably be reading her previous work instead of this one. Sophomore Slump builds off the insanity of the previous collection by structuring Chadwick’s ruminations on the body, depression, family, and more as a middling sophomore music album à la Fairweather Johnson. While this may sound like Sophomore Slump is a weaker or more disastrous collection of poetry, Chadwick’s is actually a brilliantly subversive work that examines the idea of the post-masterpiece life of an artist.

Anxiety is a major running theme throughout Sophomore Slump, beginning with the preface “The last book was better” and ending with a poem whose title thanks the reader for picking up the book, although stressing about how the reader acquired the book to begin with. The collection begins with a series of surreal prose poems that paint Chadwick as a musician trying to hold onto the approval of the masses (“I am the lead singer of the band. I am not a good lead singer. We are not a good band,” she writes in “Lead Singer of the Band"). By treating the occupation of a poet as that of a musician, Chadwick is attempting to connect the mental processes that leads to the creations of lyrics and verses, where many of the pieces are centered around the music she is listening to at the moment of writing or that are in her head at certain moments.

There is an undercurrent throughout the collection that many of these fears and anxieties are less to do with being famous and more to do with how the current sociopolitical climate can affect what artists will find inspires or affects their work. One of the major running motifs throughout Chadwick’s collection is stress and anxiety around guns. Chadwick, a parent, writes many pieces that are directly inspired by or respond to mass shootings such as the Columbine High School shooting or the Uvalde school shooting. While this leads to some poems like the succinctly titled “Greg Abbott Can Fuck Himself” or the several blank pages for the poem “A Comprehensive List of Places to Hide From a Bullet,” its in poems like “How Do I Tell My Daughter When She is Old Enough for Me to Tell Her” that really captures this fear. In the poem, Chadwick writes “…that numbers grow like weeds, that the air gets thick when candles burn at dusk while parents are swabbed for DNA, that it’s best to close your eyes…” to illustrate the changed reality of a post-Columbine America.

Of course, Sophomore Slump isn’t a dour poetry collection. Chadwick’s collection is still a daring and witty work of poetry, where she can receive a Grammy for pissing sunflowers or get “HUG LIFE” tattooed across her abdomen. The sections of the collection play with different styles and themes, such as the Duets section where Chadwick creates poems with other poets including Adrienne Marie Barrios, Mitchell Nobis, and Ben Niespodziany. There’s also the Demos section, where Chadwick writes about a young aspiring musician named [REDACTED] in several short pieces.

Sophomore Slump is a witty, complex examination of the work of an artist and the anxieties of being one in the 2020s. Chadwick’s surreal lines and creative choices will present a wide range of favorite lines from everyone who reads the work, while also making the reader wonder what it means to improve upon the person you were yesterday. It’s a collection worth multiple reads, even if it’s just to enjoy the table of contents and revisit some of the most audacious poem titles in any modern collection.

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