Archives for posts with tag: reading

I’ve been carrying around this idea for a long time–maybe you have, too–that there is a right way to read poetry. The right way to read poetry is very serious and very slow. You are supposed to read each word one at a time and each line two or three times, and then you are supposed to ponder the meaning of each word and the rhythm of every line, and if you are very good you will write little dashes and lines to mark the tempo and look for patterns, or maybe you’re into imagery and circle all of the similes and metaphors.

When I was in school, I read poetry like this. The other day I stumbled on my marked-up copy of Mark Doty’s Atlantis, a book that was assigned during my first semester of grad school. Reading the marginalia just before I erased it–Thank God, I wrote in pencil–was like reading one of those classics books that they give children that have footnotes defining all of the hard words. It was useful, probably, when I was writing that paper on allusions, but I don’t read poetry like that anymore.

Lately, for me, reading poetry is like striking a tuning fork. I feel something, something I can’t articulate or name, and I pick up a book that feels like it might be vaguely in the right key. If I’m feeling a little bit moody, geeky, and very sentimental, I’ll pick up Come on All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder, and I’ll skim the pages very fast until something resonates. ZING! I’ve found the note: “which is why I am standing / here exactly, covered in shame and lightning” (Schwinn). Then I’ll read the words or line or (rarely) whole poem over and over again, tuning my heart to that one clear note, feeling that feeling through the words as loud as I can until the feeling is satisfied that it’s been heard.

The problem with this method is that it assumes not only the knowledge that something like this is possible but also access to a large and diverse poetry library and enough knowledge of poetry to navigate it. If I’m feeling the anger of injustice, I might need Adrienne Rich or Muriel Rukeyser. A poem about the Hadron Collider (“Screaming Skull,” Zapruder) isn’t going to help me, and if I’m not familiar with Zapruder’s work, I won’t know that until I’ve read the poem. On the other hand, if I know enough about poetry to reach for Pablo Naruda when I’m in love, ending up with a collection of his political work because that’s all they stock at the library isn’t going to help me, either.

Of course, many people process their emotions with music or visual art or yoga, and it’s relatively easy to stumble onto these things–even if it’s just through musak, paintings at the doctor’s office, or the odd yoga reference on TV. And this raises the question, of course, of how necessary developing this kind of knowledge of poetry is for most people. I process my emotions best with words taken in through my eyes, but it’s possible that I’m just odd. (Okay, maybe a little more than possible.) Still, short of taking classes and picking the brains of booksellers (who may or may not know enough to help), poetry that resonates is hard to find by accident.

This fact has been making me wish for something like a wine guide to poetry, a resource that would make it possible for a reader to say, “I need a gay romance with volcanoes, photography, and an essay on the history of adjectives in poetry,” and end up with a recommendation for The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson.

It would, of course, be a massive undertaking and not one I’m willing to spearhead. (Though, I would be willing to help, if someone took the idea and ran with it.) But I wonder if there’s something that people who do have some knowledge of poetry can do so that people who would benefit from the tuning fork method of reading poetry have a chance of finding what they need–short of tweeting links to Byron during National Poetry Month because clearly that hasn’t been working.


I get panicky when there aren’t any books in the house, which probably sounds like a humble-brag until you realize how dangerous this can be.

The first thing I did when the last box of books was packed in Berkeley was march out the door and straight to Pegasus an indie bookstore down the street. I intended to get one book. One book could fit in my purse, and I knew exactly the book I wanted needed. And we know this is a lie because it was about a week ago, and I can’t remember which book it was, only that I didn’t find it. Which was okay because I came out with a stack of six books instead. Six books could fit in the moving truck between the seats under the junk food and energy drinks…

You can see where this is going.

One of the books I picked up was The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch by Julia Cameron. I was attracted to the name that sounded a little bit like a koan. What is the sound of paper? Is it like the sound of one hand clapping? Is it the sound of infinite possibility? Is it the sound of silence?

The name of the author sounded familiar, but it wasn’t until I got home and read the back of the book that I remembered that I have a history with a Julia Cameron book.

When I was first starting grad school, I was desperate to prove to myself that I was a Real Writer, so I went out and got a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way because all the writers I knew swore by it. The Artist’s Way is billed as 12 Steps for writers, but for me it felt like a straight jacket. I struggled to keep up with the practices that she claimed every writer must do, pushed myself to do them for months, eventually I gave the book to someone I thought was more hardcore than I was, and tried not to feel like a miserable failure. Until I found another group of writers who swore all writing books were bunk, and I felt better for a little while.

Looking back on it I know that structure was the last thing I needed. I wish someone had told me not to worry about it. To play. To enjoy covering my hands in the ink from cheap fountain pens and making terrible messes on the page. A writer writes, and if writing doesn’t happen it’s not the death knell of creativity. Something else, something wonderful will present itself.

That was four years ago, but when I opened The Sound of Paper, I did so hesitantly. I’m further along than I was, but I still struggle to do the things that Every Writer Must Do. I do not write a thousand words a day. My process is seasonal. If I have a muse, she’s prone to incredible mood swings. There are weeks when I do nothing but write. I come up from the page like a mermaid flopping up on dry land, and there are long periods of time when the only writing I can do is in my journal. I’m still young. Maybe I will settle into writing a thousand words a day when I’m as seasoned as my heros are now, but right now my practice is unsteady and inconsistent.

Four years ago, I was desperate to prove myself. When I picked up The Sound of Paper, being a writer was a much more entrenched part of my identity, and I needed someone to tell me that being a writer doesn’t dissolve when the pen stops moving. I needed to know that there were still writerly things to do when I was dry and discouraged.

The Sound of Paper begins with a brief passage introducing three practices: 3 pages of journaling every morning, 2-3 short walks a week, and some kind of adventure every week.

They are the same practices that she prescribes in The Artist’s Way, but when I read them this time I almost cried because it felt so kind. I can’t write a thousand usable words every day, but I can go for a walk in the park. I can whine at my journal. I can go for an adventure. The advice felt a bit like hearing a knock at the door and expecting a drill sergeant to tear you out of the house and send you to run laps around the block and finding instead a neighbor with a casserole who sends you back to bed.

Books–and I think this goes for advice, too–are like medicine.  There is medicine that puts you to sleep and medicine that wakes you up. It suppresses some things and aggravates other things. There are books that will save your life one year and be completely meaningless to you the next.

How do you know which is which? Sometimes, you know, like I did with The Sound of Paper, but I think most of the time you try things and guess and try not to poison yourself and hope that someday, eventually you’ll know better.

Recently, I mentioned that doing interviews is one of my favorite things about being a lit mag editor. Another of my favorite things is getting to know the writers whose work we publish in the small way that you do writing back and forth about how you’re going to present their work.

All kinds of stereotypes fly around about writers, but really writers are as diverse as everyone else. Some are curt and professional, sending me exactly the information I need and nothing more. Others are chatty, and we keep in touch long after I’ve sent their work out into the world.

The other day one of the Epiphanies writers asked me how I was doing and then said that he would know soon enough when he saw what I’d chosen to publish in Epiphanies. It was a passing comment made days ago, but I remembered it while I was putting together the publication schedule for Epiphanies and noticed that, not only were most of the things I accepted about an epiphany, but most of them were also about place. I had no idea that being in the middle of a move was influencing my decisions, but looking at the work we’re going to publish now it would be obvious to anyone.

As an editor, I like to think that I’m a professional. I have taste. I can recognize quality work. But when it really comes down to it, after you’ve gotten past the obvious stuff, I’m a reader first, and reading is about a different kind of taste entirely.

In Rebecca Brown’s essay “Extreme Reading ” she compares reading to eating. “You eat because you have to. It sustains you,” she says, “But once you get past the basics of hydration and calories, what you eat and how you eat are determined by your own peculiar, and in the most literal sense, taste, by that can satisfy your sweet tooth or your sour tooth, your savory or unsavory desires.”

Editing is desire work. When I accept a story or essay what I’m really saying is, “I want this.” There are patterns in what I desire. I like to laugh. I like to know what it’s like to visit places I’ve never been before. I like essays that are deeply personal and ask hard questions. I like stories with complicated antagonists. I like magic and ghost stories and beautiful language. And, yes, I like work that is well-constructed, but most of the time what I really mean when I say “good story” or “good essay” is that I can understand it and it doesn’t bore me.

But there are times, like when I was reading for Epiphanies, that I need something different, something particular that I can’t articulate except to say, “Yes. This is it. This is what I want.”

Before I was an editor, I thought that the advice to keep sending your work out until it was accepted was a cheap way of letting inexperienced writers down easy or passing the responsibility on to someone else. But now I think it’s the only way you can reasonably deal with the fact that editors are human. And particular. And subject to bizarre cravings.

And, sometimes, our choices have nothing to do with the quality of the writing at all.