Why I Chose Eric Tran’s The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club


I imagine the first question I’ll ask Eric Tran when we chat about his debut collection in early March is about the book’s title, because it has confused me since I opened my advance copy. “Gutter” is one of those interesting words in that it has a lot of meanings but they usually come back to the same metaphor: some kind of channel or furrow, whether it’s attached to a house’s roof or part of a street’s drainage or even the blank spaces between pages in the middle of a book. But a “gutter spread,” near as I’ve been able to tell, is a hydrology measurement, and I haven’t been able to work out how it plays into these poems. (I’m writing this with the nervous feeling that ten seconds after it’s published, I’ll get a response on Twitter explaining it and it’ll be painfully obvious. Such is life in the digital age.)

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Eric Tran, you’ll need to subscribe by January 15!

The first poem in the book, “Starting with a Line by Joyce Byers,” begins: “You’re talking about grief. / This is different,” and while that might read like denial at first, the rest of the poem shows a speaker trying to get at something even more potent than grief, grasping for language that can help us understand loss at an atomic level. The poem ends with, “I’m saying / the dogwoods / cried themselves / sterile and still / my friend is gone.” This loss threads the collection together. Eric Tran wrote about this more-than-grief in an essay for 32 Poems: “I write of these poems because they facilitate space for queer grief, but in doing so, they also create space for queer joy—because of course a full queer life holds both.” That, I think, encapsulates Tran’s project here.

One of the motifs of this collection is a series of five poems, scattered throughout, with “Lectio Divina” in the title. An end note tells us this term “is a monastic practice of approaching a sacred text.” Tran’s sacred texts are specific issues of comic book series, and superheroes appear often in The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer, but the “Lectio Divina” poems are more personal somehow. They’re broken into discrete sections, with the first a retelling of a panel from the comic, followed by three meditations on not so much the comic as the speaker. For instance, in “Lectio Divina: Hektor the Assassin,” taken from Saga #9, here’s the speaker’s final meditation:

I don’t mean coffin. I don’t mean
escape, more like
stars flamboyant in the black
mouth of night.

That’s a really interesting way of engaging with a text, especially one that some readers might consider unsophisticated.

I’m looking forward to talking more about The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer with our members and with Eric Tran in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by January 15th to make sure you don’t miss out!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →