First, there’s really nothing at stake. You are reading poetry books.
Even though it’s every poet’s job to read poetry books, this is a little bit extra. You’ve given yourself a goal and set a deadline, which makes it feel official! It could be like school without the interpersonal stress and financial hardship. It could be some glamorous-weird kind of work where the only objective is your personal enrichment.
Eventually, you’ll start feeling yourself. You’ll read, say, Sandra Cisneros’ Loose Woman and you’ll get a little sassy about it. Now you’re telling your friends about the goal and when you see them at poetry readings they ask how is the reading going?
Suddenly people are invested in your goal and to abandon it is to waste a lot of time explaining why you didn’t read 100 books like you said you would. Which is annoying. Then you read Carolyn Forche’s In a Country Between Us for the first time. After you get over the hurtful reality that no one who loves you has recommended you read this book sooner, you relish the awe (and the annoyance goes away).
Still, there’s nothing at stake…
Only you’ve started to realize that reading poetry books brings you more fully into the world. The great, gritty, necessary but ineffable world of language. The smaller, human-filled world of the poetry community. And you love these worlds. Once you’re there you don’t want to leave.
So don’t leave.
2. Setting Goals
Reading goals are like dieting: you’re going to try to find a way to get out of this.
Or sneak some chocolate into this.
There’s a lot of denial at the start of a reading project. There are a lot of reasons why you’re not sure this is something you can do. The first thing you should do is spend some time thinking about how amazing you are, how astute, how bright. I’m not being sarcastic—for some reason reading often seems like the most daunting task a writer takes on. Sometimes it seems (and is!) more difficult than writing. So after you set the goal, but before you begin you’ll probably need to change your mind.
Don’t think of yourself as someone who doesn’t read very much. Of course you read, you’re just worried you don’t read the right things (we’ll get to that). Or you’re worried that you don’t know where to begin (we’ll get to that too). So change your mindset from “I don’t read very much” to “I read all the time and I’m good at it and I love reading. Woop!”
A quick note on reasons not to read:
There are none.
Some poets have said “I don’t read other people’s poetry because it might affect my voice” or “I don’t want to sound like them.” This is nonsense. If you have ever said this yourself, don’t feel bad. I’ve said so many nonsense things in my life I can’t begin to count. When I was a teenager I used to say I wasn’t a feminist! And that, my friends, was total cuckoo bananas nonsense.
But the worry that reading poetry books will negatively affect your voice or your style or your top-secret communion with words is not the right worry. You don’t exist in a neighbor-less windowless vacuum and neither does your poetry. You are affected by the world around you—the poetry around you—whether you realize it or not, so why not realize it? Like I’ve said before, sometimes reading seems like the most daunting task. But it doesn’t have to be, it can be a place of freedom. A place to ravel in our shared pursuit: the love of language.
About your goals. You don’t have to be as neurotic about setting them as I am. Obviously, you don’t have to create a goal, just read! I decided to read 100 poetry books in a year and that was a deliberate thing because I do not usually read 100 books in a year. It required some oversight and some rigor. Without challenging myself I read an average of 40-50 books a year. To double that amount took planning.
If, by chance, you are like me and you love making lists, Venn diagrams, spreadsheets, then Hello, kindred. I suggest you write down your goal in a notebook and then decorate that shit with your fave Bic Mark-It pens, or fine point Sharpies or the pen you snaked from the gas station, whatever it is! Write it down and make it pretty, write:
Read 50 books in 6 months
Read 20 books in 3 months
Read 100 books in 1 year
Read 31 books in 31 days *
*This would mean you’re doing the #TheSealeyChallenge, if you would like to join me in reading 31 books this August, please follow on Instagram and track the Sealey Challenge hashtag on IG and Twitter.
Whatever your goal is, write it down. Then go to your bookshelf, pull down one of those unread poetry books you have—you know they’re there, three AWP Conferences deep—and begin.
If you haven’t been to AWP, I know you’ve been to a poetry reading. I know you purchase your friend’s books. READ YOUR FRIEND’S BOOKS!
Or read my friend’s books! Pick up one of my 2011 Squaw Valley classmates’ books: Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast or Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle.
3. Costs & other Practical Matters
After you’ve read all the books you already own you’ll need more.
Try your local library. There might be about five books there—not anthologies, not posthumous collections of every god-damn thing an old white dude ever wrote—but Digest by Gregory Pardlo or Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral. Definitely read those.
When you want to go online and start spending your cash on poetry books, let the rush of retail therapy propel you forward. When there are more books to buy than you can afford, set small rewards.
Example: if you finish 3 library books then you can purchase Tiana Clark’s We Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood.
After the cash is gone, you’ll need to beg, borrow, trade.
You know you have at least one friend who has 500 poetry books in her apartment. You can name at least 3 acquaintances that just finished getting their MFA in poetry. Ask these people if you can borrow books then be a good book borrower:
- Don’t dog-ear pages
- Don’t leave leaky Kombucha bottles in your tote bag
- Never write or highlight in someone else’s book
- Return it!
Remember, re-reading counts too! No one says this has to be 50 new poetry books. I get so much pleasure re-reading books that I love, Carpathia by Cecilia Woloch and Quantum Lyrics by A. Van Jordan.
Other practical advice:
If you’re feeling burned-out read a chapbook—sad boy/detective by Sam Sax—or try a book of erasures like A Little White Shadow by Mary Ruefle.
Also, during this challenge avoid anthologies and books of collected poems, simply because of their longer length. Especially if you’re doing the Sealey Challenge, you’ll want to keep your momentum going to read 1 book a day for 31 days. If you’re doing a challenge over a longer period of time, you can tackle a collection or two. I recommend Lynda Hull’s Collected Poems.
Maybe you’re thinking: wait a hot damn minute! How am I going to know which books to read? Aside from the slim pickings at the library, and aside from whatever my friends will let me borrow—how will I really know what is GOOD??
Oh, my dear and beautiful friend, you won’t ever know what’s good.
No matter how kick-ass the cover art is. No matter how many poets you respect have Tweeted about it, or how many times it’s appeared on a “Best ______ Under _____” list, you won’t know what’s good until you’ve read it.
You’re no professor, you’re no critic, but you’re a reader. It’s OK to dislike the book that everyone loves, it’s OK to love the book everyone dislikes (but hey, if you dislike the book for racist, xenophobic, sexist, or low self-esteem issues please don’t write book reviews of it!). Anyway, you’ll fill in the blanks on this journey your own way. Don’t worry about what’s “good” and what’s “bad,” find what you like and follow that thread.
Create your own canon. Create your own essential reading list. And fill it with all the voices that have been left off those lists for too long. I think you’ll find you already know what to read because you’re not just a reader, you’re a writer. A writer who pays attention.
You’ve heard or asked or someone has mentioned the name of a great book and you wrote that name down, didn’t you? It’s in that expansive Moleskin you bought—the one you swore was going to hold all your New Awesome Poetry Drafts of Brilliance! but instead is mostly grocery lists—you know the one.
So, (I know, this is shocking but) read the books you want to read.
Let yourself read the old books you think everyone else has already read and (you’re maybe ashamed to admit) you haven’t. Don’t be ashamed. READ!
Example: You know everyone goes ga-ga over the Duino Elegies, but you’ve never actually read them. Dive into Rilke and see what the fuss is about. Now you’re part of the conversation. And now that you’ve made the effort, you love the Duino Elegies…or
you don’t love the Duino Elegies and you’ve answered an instinct you’ve had since college (Letters to a Young Poet bleehhk). You realize you much rather read W. Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies. That’s what you wanted to read all along, ever since Neil recommended it and you wrote the title down in your journal: kale, eggs, dead wrestler elegies…
The other part of trust is knowing when not to.
After you’ve begun, people will start making recommendations. And after you’ve gone through all the books you already have, all the library has to offer, all the books you felt guilty for not reading, and all the books you genuinely wanted to read in the first place you’ll reach a new stage in the process called sheer desperation.
The “buying new books to read for 100 books in a year challenge” money has run out. You’re still 20 books away from your goal. And now you’re willing to take any book that someone passes you.
It isn’t a bad thing. You’ll learn whose recommendations soar and whose stink. And they come in all forms.
When you see Keetje Kuipers post a photo of the next book she’s excited to read on Facebook—that’s a recommendation. If you ask Keetje about the author and she tells you not to start with this, her most recent book, but to go back and start with another, you discover the elegant prose poems in The Nine Senses by Melissa Kwasny:
“You have walked the bridge of knives. You have unbuttoned your coat so you could twirl. These are the variations: your love will call you the Bird with No Excuses. The wind will think you, too, are the wind.”
Poetry books are full of poetry book recommendations. Look out for epigraphs that say things like “after June Jordan” or “after Larry Levis.” Learn from the teachers of your teachers.
There are also books you are sent through the mail, either because you belong to an organization or you submitted to a contest and the consolation prize is a copy of the winner’s book (ask me how I know). This is another kind of recommendation.
So is Twitter, Instagram and this blog post. So is the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. So is Buzzfeed and what you see other (writers?) reading on the subway. Trust yourself. Choose wisely.
Say “no” sometimes.
It’s OK to reject some recommendations, even once you’ve hit the desperation zone. Reading a book that you genuinely dislike—for whatever reason, because it is poorly written, boring, frustrating, crude, by a colleague you are jealous of—can cause your book-reading momentum to stumble. And when you stumble, you psych yourself out.
6. Don’t psych yourself out
There’s no one who has read ALL THE BOOKS.
There are people who try: scholars, critics, passionate language lovers, Rachel Maddow. Maybe you will be one of the people who try, but first you have to catch up, but would it do any good? You have a terrible memory and that’s why you’re not cut out to be a scholar. And you’re not really that good at this, how do you even call yourself a poet…
See how easy it happens?
Repeat after me: You are a poet and your work has value.
Period. The End. You have the permission to read these books and have opinions about these books and start anywhere and to not read every book, or to read all the books. You are allowed to exist in this mission however you choose. So,
DON’T PSYCH YOURSELF OUT.
7. What changes
Just like writing a poem every day for thirty days changes you, suddenly you realize reading a high volume of poetry changes you too. It tunes your ear, it refines your senses. It raises the stakes…
The stakes become the language. The image, metaphor, sound, white space, line break, and caesura. The stakes are your vulnerability and your willingness to open a channel within yourself and keep it open as you read this one sentence over and over again because you cannot comprehend just how beautiful it is:
“The acre of grass is a sleeping
swarm of locusts, and in the house
beside it, tears too are mistaken.” – Saeed Jones
This invocation you can’t forget:
“Dear body I do not resent,
experiment with me.” – Jennifer Militello
This sonic list:
“Blizzard, a hum, a giddying
Bliss. First aid kits” – Cynthia Cruz
This revelation of the body:
“Even now, under this welcome
Rain, yellow roses and honey-
Suckle vines, I have to hunker
My cunt close to the earth,
This little pendulum of mine
Ringing, ringing, ringing.” – Sandra Cisneros
This new world Claudia Rankine is building:
“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”
This image you return to:
“[…] the cry
of a train slicing a field
leaving it’s stiff suture, a distant
tenderness as when rails slip
behind us and our windows
touch the field” – Carolyn Forche
The stakes are what you really hoped to find…:
we’ll know your shape, whatever species
in you answers when we put our faces
to the dirt & call you by
your old & human name.” – Aracelis Girmay
…when you decided to read 100 books in a year:
“Sometimes you learn words
By living them and sometimes
Words learn you.” – A. Van Jordan
Eventually, when you see what’s in store for you reading poetry books, the stakes will lead you to the same conclusion they lead me:
YOU MUST READ POETRY BOOKS IN ORDER TO WRITE POETRY BOOKS.
The 100 Poetry Books that I Read
1 David Hernandez Hoodwinked
2 Eugenia Leigh Blood Blood and Sparrows
3 Carrie Fountain Burn Lake
4 Robert Hass Human Wishes
5 Carolyn Forche The Country Between Us
6 Yusef Komunyakaa Warhorses
7 A. Van Jordan Quantum Lyrics
8 Catherine Barnett A Game of Boxes
9 Albert Goldbarth The Kitchen Sink, New and Selected
10 Terrance Hayes Wind in a Box
11 Rebecca Lindenberg Love, An Index
12 Sandra Cisneros Loose Woman
13 Cecilia Woloch Earth (chapbook)
14 Richard Siken Crush
15 Tarfia Faizullah Seam
16 Patricia Smith Teahouse of the Almighty
17 Cathy Linh Che Split
18 Jericho Brown Please
19 Tracy K. Smith The Body’s Question
20 Victoria Chang The Boss
21 Toi Derricotte Captivity
22 Angela Veronica Wong How to Survive a Hotel Fire
23 Rebecca Lindenberg The Logan Notebooks
24 Elizabeth Alexander The Venus Hottentot
25 Victoria Chang Salvinia Molesta
26 Stephen S. Mills He Do the Gay Man in Several Different Voices
27 Jennifer Militello Body Thesaurus
28 Danielle Pafunda Natural History Rape Museum
29 Paige Ackerson-Kiely My Love is A Dead Arctic Explorer
30 Mark Leidner Beauty was the Case they gave me
31 Jericho Brown The New Testament
32 Carrie Fountain Instant Winner
33 Beth Bachmann Do Not Rise
34 Divya Victor Things to Do with Your Mouth
35 Cheryl Strayed Tiny Beautiful Things (technically not poetry!)
36 Ada Limon Sharks in the Rivers
37 Elissa Washuta My Body is a Book of Rules (maybe not poetry!)
38 Mary Szybist Incarnadine
39 Anne Carson The Albertine Workout (chapbook)
40 Carmen Gimenez Smith Milk and Filth
41 Claudia Rankine Citizen
42 Aziza Barnes me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun
43 Saul Williams The Dead Emcee Scrolls
44 Danez Smith Insert Boy
45 Yusef Komunyakaa Neon Vernacular
46 Kim Addonizio What is This Thing Called Love
47 Geoffrey O’Brien People on Sunday
48 W. Todd Kaneko The Dead Wrestler Elegies
49 Carl Phillips The Art of Daring (poetic theory)
50 Mahogany L. Browne Smudge
51 Lynda Hull Collected Poems of Lynda Hull
52 Rainer Maria Rilke The Book of Hours & Book of Images
53 Brenda Shaughnessy Interior with Sudden Joy
54 Gregory Pardlo Digest
55 Stephanie Ford All Pilgrim
56 Marie Elizabeth Mali, ed Villanelle Anthology
57 James Baldwin Jimmy’s Blues
58 Leah Noble Davidson Poetica Scientifica
59 Melissa Kwasny The Nine Senses
60 Saeed Jones Prelude to Bruise
61 Ted Berrigan The Sonnets
62 Richard Siken War of the Foxes
63 Simone Muench Wolf Centos
64 Patricia Lockwood Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals
65 Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet (not poetry!)
66 William Matthews Selected Poems & Translations
67 Anne Carson Men in the Off Hours
68 Dorianne Laux What We Carry
69 Martha Rhodes The Beds
70 Michelle Chan Brown Double Agent
71 A. Van Jordan MacNolia
72 Aracelis Girmay Kingdom Animalia
73 Ross Gay Bringing the Shovel Down
74 Santee Frazier Dark Thirty
75 Stacy Gnall Heart First Into the Forest
76 Angelo Nikolopoulos Obscenely Yours
77 Anne-Marie Cusac Silkie
78 Ricky Laurentis Boy with Thorn
79 Caki Wilkinson Circles Where the Head Should Be
80 Lucille Clifton Mercy
81 Octavio Quintanilla If I Go Missing
82 Dorianne Laux Facts About the Moon
83 John Berryman 77 Dream Songs
84 Monica Youn Ignatz
85 Evie Shockley The New Black
86 Anne Shaw Dido in Winter
87 Cynthia Cruz Wunderkammer
88 VieVee Francis Horse in the Dark
89 Laura Kasischke Space, In Chains
90 Reginald Dwayne Betts Bastards of the Reagan Era
91 Inger Christensen alphabet
92 Rebecca Hazelton Fair Copy
93 Jason Shinder Stupid Hope
94 Heather Christle What is Amazing
95 Corey Van Landingham Antidote
96 Rachel Eliza Griffiths Mule & Pear
97 Jill Osier Should Our Undoing Come Down Upon Us White
98 Louise Mathias The Traps
99 Nate Marshall Wild Hundreds
100 C.D. Wright The Poet, The Lion Talking Picture, El Farolito…
P.S. A note on real life
In 2015, I read 96 poetry books.
In the end, it was December 24th (six days before my deadline) and I had four books left to read. I brought them home for the holidays, but didn’t read them. No matter how astounding those books were, I knew I wasn’t going to give them a fair reading when I rather be drinking red wine and gorging myself on mini cheesecakes. So you should know it is also OK to not make your goal. But to try to make your goal and honor the spirit of the attempt and eat your cheesecake instead.
I don’t think reading books has to be a scholarly thing. I think it’s a human thing.
I wish more of us non-scholarly types could be more vocal about the books we read and what we love. Reading isn’t about privilege, although sometimes it is. It’s about money and access and confidence. I’m just a poor kid who grew up with a reading disability, the first person in my family to go to college, a working class worker, who did not make it to grad school. But reading books levels my own playing field. What will you do when you go to graduate school for an MFA? You’ll read a shit ton of books! So, that is something we can all do. Something we can all give ourselves access to. And even though that still takes time, money, and privilege, I hope we can continue to find ways to help each other out. To share, borrow, and pass along books, as well as buy, hold dear, and recommend books we love (and support writers we love!).
I want to walk in the world without a strict syllabus while also sharing the love I have of all the books I carry with me along the way.
What you should know: I got nothing out of reading 96 poetry books in a year. I got everything out of it.
And, yeah, I did read those last four books—in January—but seriously, who’s counting?