In Standard American English, writer and multidisciplinary artist Elisabeth Houston brings her readers deep into the world of baby, a persona she has been developing in performance contexts for nearly a decade. The poems in this debut collection emerge from the abject dialectic of baby’s psyche—where a self in formation staggers under the weight of sexual abuse, body image dysmorphia, rapacious materialism, fame obsession, and racial fetishism. What is witnessed here is the way late capitalism unfolds brutal games of power, affecting all dimensions of life, with the potential to consume and ravage individual actors, as well as entire communities and cultures. Standard American English is a blistering satire of contemporary American values. In the tradition of literary “outlaws” such as Kathy Acker, Marguerite Duras, and Jean Genet, Houston pulls out all the stops.
Standard American English was selected by Tracie Morris in our 2020 Open Call for first and second books.
Praise for Standard American English
A magnificent upending of language.
— Khadijah Queen
This heartbreaking, experimental cycle of surrealist poems by Elisabeth Houston is a helluva ride in the Kathy Acker tradition of Blood and Guts in High School. As a meta-commentary and indictment of self-congratulatory New York cultural denizens, academia, art circles and romanticized self-harm, Standard American English considers how language and its resonances can hurt, box us in, destroy us even as it purports to make and save us. There are two primary characters in S.A.E.: Baby and the dissociating narrator that observes Baby’s life, never once intervening to help, to save. Using the particularities of various New York representations, we see how people fall through the cracks, pick themselves up, harm and judge themselves, harm and judge others. Who is Baby? She’s everyone we callously don’t care about, everyone we’re too cute to embrace. This rollicking hybrid tour-de-force from Elisabeth Houston evokes introspections on society from Acker, Wanda Coleman, Alfred Hitchcock, Jennifer Jazz, Akilah Oliver and Natalie Wynn. Houston indicts every individual’s displaced capacity for cruelty under the patina of hipness. And yet, we root for Baby, we hope for Baby, and in doing so, in the end, maybe there’s hope for us.
— Tracie Morris, author of Who Do with Words
There are writers who write and use language that already exists and lead us into new ways of seeing. There are also writers who invent language and form, who carve out words and names and experiences from earth’s substance and bring a new universe into existence. Elisabeth Houston is an interdisciplinary artist, a poet, and is such an inventor, a new voice to ready ourselves for, a voice we need. What I admire in this debut book of poetry is not only the satire, social commentary, the swagger, the baby persona, the language fused from pop culture, but also the danger this writer flirts with, through subject matter, race and feminism, bulimia and sexual abuse and more… that in this book’s great moments exposes and makes truth stare at you unabashed and it is moving.
— Pamela Sneed, author of Funeral Diva
Standard American English explores, only to disintegrate and put on display, the exploitation and commodification of art, labor, identity, and the body. This book is an object to be read, interpreted, and reinterpreted. It is interested in dissecting what it means to exist under the authority of language—amalgamating identity, the body, and relationships into a spectacle.
—Olga Mikolaivna, Full Stop
SAE clearly addresses our cultural obsession with pleasure, sex, race, and money. It’s also about our addiction to violence. I find myself returning to these subjects, although I don’t begin with any clear intention… I also couldn’t avoid the whirling world outside. I wish I could stay bound in the small square space of the page, but I can’t. I’m not that kind of writer, I’m not that kind of artist. I resist and return to writing, but I also resist and return to the world.
— Elisabeth Houston, The Offing