Tia Haynes and Jonathan Roman are recipients of a Touchstone Distinguished Books Honorable Mention for 2021 for their volume After Amen: A Memoir in Two Voices (self-published, 2021).
Commentary from the Panel:
After Amen: A Memoir in Two Voices by Tia Haynes and Jonathan Roman is a noteworthy contribution to English-language haiku. Haynes and Roman are innovative for the way they widen the scope of haiku through the sustained scrutiny of their fundamentalist religious experiences, their “similar pain, rejection, and abuse,” and for the fresh way they present their poems in a narrative arc. Indeed, it is a collaborative work that is remarkable for its unflinching and emotional honesty as well as its search for identity.
Haynes and Roman present a deeply personal journey of religious trauma in a blend of one voice. This collaborative aspect is particularly intriguing, in part because they have not explicitly indicated who wrote which poems. One could argue that not knowing adds to the impact — much like listening to a song performed by two powerful voices, sometimes it is clear who is singing, sometimes not. It is very effective and reflects the universality of their questioning and pursuit of faith.
Divided into four parts, After Amen begins with “No Buyers,” followed by “After Amen,” “Starless,” and ends with “One Day,” each section a movement forward on a spiritual journey rooted in moments of belief, many in emotionally charged moments of trauma. The narrative arc, recurrent motifs, and pacing in terms of number of poems per page, their length and placement on the page as well as the thematic connections all create a varied yet cohesive experience for the reader across the four sections.
One of many effective sequences for its pacing, emotional qualities, tragic humor, and imagery is the sequence that extends from pages 32-35 on the theme of marriage, suggesting in part how one’s fundamentalist beliefs can shape the actions of a believer.
On page 32, there is a single poem that cuts into the white space, a five-liner that lengthens the moment of a hidden, deep pain, creating room for the reader in which to contemplate what scars these might be and how they might relate to the one’s faith:
only my husband
the hour I first
On the next page, there are 4 three-liners, which quicken the pace, and seem to expand upon the trauma that has been suffered and what is allowed to the faithful in a romantic relationship, presenting ideas of what was sacrificed, salvation, propriety, deception, and identity:
the things I did
only our feet
he’s my first
my first name
On page 34, the layout again enhances the pace, providing space to absorb the tragic humor and irony we are experiencing as readers, as imagined mothers, and partners:
of our beliefs
Finally, on the following page the sequence ends with the perceived judgment of others, a final irony:
they all look at me
as if I’m dead
By the end of the book, readers discover the life in this life, the here and now, rather than in a believed afterlife.
There are many such extended moments of religious experience in tension with the significance of these two lives, forming an arc from suffering and personal questioning to reconciliation with a self that will engage the reader for years to come.
See the complete list of winners of both Individual Poem Awards and Distinguished Books Awards in the Touchstone Archives.