On Reading Poetry

And nonfiction on poetry and poetics

I’m an on-again, off-again poetry reader. I teach poetry, so I am always thinking about it, but I’m not always reading new poetry books for fun. I went through a long stretch of not reading any — I’m not sure how long but it was a matter of years — and then last fall I began again and I’ve been reading steadily ever since. I hope to be an “on-again” poetry reader for a long time to come.

It was Rachel Zucker who got me back into it. She’s a poet, although I haven’t yet read any of her poetry. I did begin listening to her podcast Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People), although, I’ll be honest, it was the conversations with “other people” that interested me most. It wasn’t the podcast that got me to pick up a poetry book, though; it was Zucker’s nonfiction book MOTHERs that did it. I’m hesitant to write much about MOTHERs because it’s hard to find. It doesn’t seem to be in print, and the copies I see online are expensive. Someone on twitter found me a reasonably-priced copy and I snapped it up, but now it looks like the only copies available are at least twice the original price. (When I was searching for it, Rachel Zucker herself offered to sell me one of the extra copies she has; I didn’t need to take her up on it, but if you want this book, the best way to get it is probably to message her on Twitter.)

I don’t understand why this book is not in print because it’s so good! It’s essayistic, memoiristic nonfiction about Zucker’s mother, herself as a mother, and her poetic “mothers,” the women poets who taught her, sometimes in the classroom, sometimes through their writing. The book is intense and honest and beautiful. I won’t go any further into it, except to say that something about the way Zucker writes about poetry made me want to read it again. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, except maybe it’s the intensity that got me, the way poetry is so deeply meaningful to Zucker and the excitement with which she writes about discovering a poetic heritage and creating her own space in it.

In the last six months or so, I’ve read five books of poetry, almost all of which I liked. The one I struggled with is, ironically, by one of the authors Rachel Zucker writes about, Alice Notley. Notley is a huge influence on Zucker, so I thought I’d try her book The Descent of Alette, but it didn’t work for me. It’s a long narrative poem, and maybe I’d like her shorter poems better? Perhaps that wasn’t the best place to start. The other books I’ve read I really enjoyed: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, The Tradition by Jericho Brown, Anodyne by Khadijah Queen, and Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. I’m currently reading Book of Hours by Kevin Young.

I think I probably won’t write in detail about the poetry I’m reading. It’s hard to write about. I mean, to be clear, I teach how to write about poetry, so I know how to do it, but what I know is how to analyze a poem and how to write a close reading of it. Writing about a collection as a whole is harder — trying to describe its voice, mood, ideas, language — and I don’t want to do close readings here. Mostly, though, I just don’t feel inspired to write about it. Fiction and (maybe especially) nonfiction leaves me with thoughts and ideas I want to share. Poetry I just want to experience and leave it at that. It seems like a good idea to have at least one part of my reading that I don’t analyze and share.

This post is mostly about what I’m not going to write, so it seems fitting to end with a list of books I haven’t read. I absolutely love reading books about genre and form, so I asked people on Twitter for recommendations of nonfiction on poetry and poetics. For a lot of my reading life, I would have been more excited at the idea of reading about poetry as a genre rather than reading poetry itself. I’m trying to be more balanced now. But, nerd that I am, I really do love reading about language and form! Twitter people came through for me with recommendations, so I’m sharing them with you. If there are books about poetry, or books of poetry, that you love and think I might love too, please let me know. Here’s what people recommended (and thank you to those people!):

Here are a few more books on the subject, ones I happen to own but mostly haven’t read:

Okay, perhaps the uncomfortable truth here is that what I really love is thinking about reading books on form and genre and collecting books on form and genre, and less so actually reading books about form and genre. I don’t think this is quite true — when I read criticism of this kind I really do love it — but it’s still hits a little close to home. Ah, well.

Publishing This Week

(Mostly) small press new books out this week that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. There are SO MANY new books out this week! So many — this is just a selection. (Quotations from the publisher):

  • Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M. Low (New Directions, originally published in 1961): more Natalia Ginzburg! “With wit, tenderness, and irony, Elsa, the novel's narrator, weaves a rich tapestry of provincial Italian life”; she tries to imagine a future while being held back by the past.

  • The Touch System by Alejandra Costamagna, translated by Lisa Dillman (Transit Books): a novel about a woman who journeys across the Andes from Chile to Campana to visit her dying uncle. It’s a “portrait of alienation and belonging, and of two families and countries separated by a range of mountains.”

  • Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas by Henry Dumas (Coffee House Press): Dumas was born in 1934, moved to Harlem at 10, became active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and was killed at the age of 33 by a New York Transit Police Officer. “Africanfuturism, gothic romance, ghost story, parable, psychological thriller, inner-space fiction: Henry Dumas's stories form a vivid, expansive portrait of Black life in America.”

  • Notes from Childhood by Norah Lange, translated by Charlotte Whittle (And Other Stories, originally published in 1937): a memoir made up of vignettes describing childhood in Argentina. “Lange's notes tell intimate, half-understood stories from the seemingly peaceful realm of childhood, a realm inhabited by an eccentric narrator searching for clues on womanhood and her own identity.”

  • Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First People’s Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo (W.W. Norton): poems by contemporary Native writers that “reflect on the theme of place and displacement and circle the touchpoints of visibility, persistence, resistance, and acknowledgment.”

  • The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti (Hub City Press): a debut novel about “the long shadow of the Partition of India on the lives of three generations of women.”

  • The Renunciations: Poems by Donika Kelly (Graywolf Press): “a book of resilience, survival, and the journey to radically shift one's sense of self in the face of trauma.”

  • Personhood by Thalia Field (New Directions): this how book recommendations go for me: Anakana Schofield recommended this book on a podcast, and straight on my TBR shelf it went, in spite of the fact that I haven’t read Schofield yet, but I know I WILL read her, starting with her novel Bina, and I’m pretty sure I will love it. So any book she recommends is one I’m likely to like, right?

  • Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener, translated by Jessica Powell (Restless Books, originally published in 2009): a nonfiction exploration of sex, pregnancy, and motherhood.

  • Pop Song: Adventures in Art & Intimacy by Larissa Pham (Catapult): “Pop Song is a book about love and about falling in love--with a place, or a painting, or a person--and the joy and terror inherent in the experience of that love.”

New on the TBR

New books acquired:

  • Girlhood by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury, 2021): I really liked Febos’s earlier book Abandon Me and so am excited for this new collection of essays.

Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):

  • Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (NYRB, publishing May 18, originally published in 1981): Molly Keane is one of those names I’ve heard a lot but have never read. This one is described as “a biting, dark satire of 20th-century Irish society.”

Currently Reading

  • The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana (Dorothy Project, 2018): I’ve read Rivera Garza’s novel The Iliac Crest and her essay collection Grieving, and discovered she’s writer I admire, plus I am happy to read any book published by Dorothy Project, one of the best small presses (and it’s possible to read their entire catalog because they publish only two books a year!).

The Cormac Report

Cormac just now asked me what book I’m reading, so I told him it’s The Taiga Syndrome (see above), and he wanted to know what it’s about. Generally speaking, books published by Dorothy Project are strange and hard to describe — as this one may end up being, I’m only a few pages in so far — but I could tell him that it’s about an ex-detective who gets hired to find some people. I didn’t want to get into how the man doing the hiring is looking for his ex-wife. He latched onto the “ex-detective” description and wondered why someone would hire an ex-detective. Good question! I told him that the ex-detective herself wondered why he wants to hire her but hadn’t found an answer yet. He said he’s pretty sure that if his dad hired a detective to find me, he wouldn’t hire an “ex” one, and I agreed.

I remembered reading that The Taiga Syndrome has something to do with the Hansel and Gretel story and told him that, thinking it would be something he could relate to. But I immediately regretted it because I’d forgotten that he was mildly traumatized by the Hansel and Gretel story back in first grade. To distract him from that memory, I told him that the novel is sort of like a fairy tale and that the ex-detective goes on a journey into the woods. That could have backfired, as the woods are obviously important in the Hansel and Gretel story, but he got off on a tangent about why it is people think of forests as scary places, and we came up with a whole list (not being able to see far ahead, dimness, wild animals, etc.).

All this to say, talking about grown-up books with children can be weird. This conversation was fairly easy to handle, but what if next time I’m reading Madame Bovary or something!?!

Have a good week everyone!