Poetry Reading Month 2010: the upshot

my poetry library
My poetry library (click through to the full-sized image to read the titles)

My exercise in close reading is over: I read a poetry book every day of the month except for two of the days when I was putting podcast episodes together (typically a six- to nine-hour job). I’ve retroactively tagged all the posts Poetry Reading Month 2010, in case you missed some.

I enjoyed it tremendously, even when my blog posts in response to the books weren’t as creative as I would’ve liked. I found that if I’d read the book with the slowness and attention it deserved, then the response post practically wrote itself. It was actually kind of refreshing not to have to wonder what to blog about for an entire month, even though the focus on reading meant I had little time for anything else, such as writing poetry of my own.

Not all were first-time reads. A book of poetry isn’t something you just read once, like some trashy novel. The best books only reveal their mysteries slowly, after repeated readings, and I didn’t see any point in depriving myself of that pleasure this month. So twelve of the books — nearly half — were ones I’d read before. This saved me time only in the sense that it meant I didn’t have to worry about stopping half-way through a book and having to start another because the first wasn’t to my liking (I’m not interested in posting negative reviews of poetry). Otherwise, it’s no less demanding to read a book the second time than the first, I think.

Only nine of the 28 books were chapbooks, which is surprising to me: I had assumed limits on time and quality of attention would prevent me from reading more than a handful of full-length collections. But thankfully I’m unemployed. The longest book I read was the David Young translation of Du Fu, at 229 pages, which took me most of the day.

The plan had been to read each book in one sitting, adding it to my daily morning porch ritual. But many times I was only able to read half or a third of the book at that time, and had to finish up in mid to late afternoon. I often then put off writing the response post for several hours in order to give my thoughts time to gestate.

Six of the chapbooks were from this month’s featured publisher, Seven Kitchens Press, all but one (Christina Pacosz’ Red Zone) from their Keystone series of Pennsylvania authors. (See all six posts here.) If I do this again next year, I’ll continue to make an effort to focus on Pennsylvania poets, as my friend Sherry Chandler did with Kentucky poets on her blog this month. In his book Slow Reading, John Miedema suggests that readers should consider taking a page out of the Slow Food movement’s book and read locally whenever possible, and I agree. His description of “slow books” also fits with the hand-made aesthetic of literary chapbooks like those from Seven Kitchens:

Fast books are those produced for the broadest possible appeal, stamped out in assembly lines and distributed at points of maximum exposure such as Amazon or warehouse-sized bookstores. Fast books may be associated with movie deals and celebrity endorsements. … Slow books, on the other hand, may be characterized by local events which may be of great interest to residents and visitors seeking to learn more about a particular region, but too limited in market appeal for mass production. Slow books are not written for profit so much as for pleasure, developing a local tradition in writing and micro-publishing. As with Slow Food, there is a much closer connection between readers and their information.

I suppose nearly all poetry books in our culture might be considered slow books in terms of their limited popular appeal and the effort required to read them. A strong regional focus often presents a bit of a dilemma for literary publishers, though, because “regional” is typically taken to mean “provincial,” and reviewers for national publications tend to ignore such titles, because we all know that only that which is universal — i.e. written by sophisticated city-dwellers, or by those in approved regions such as New England — can be great. This prejudice ignores the fact that the American poetry scene itself is fairly provincial, with far fewer books in translation published each year than in any other industrialized nation — this despite the fact that poetry in translation from Spain, Latin America and East Asia has been a crucial influence on almost every major U.S. poet from the 1960s on.

Personally, I think poets and poetry readers need to become simultaneously more aware of diverse traditions from abroad and more rooted in our local and regional geographies if we want to stay engaged with the larger world, and want to have a chance at reaching those who don’t currently read poetry, and “die miserably every day/ for lack /of what is found there,” as William Carlos Williams put it (thanks to Howie for reminding me of the quote). Six of the authors I read this month were from different cultures, and eight from Pennsylvania (counting Liberian poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley in both categories: she’s been teaching at Penn State Altoona for five or six years now). If I do this again next year, I’d like to increase the number of international poets to at least ten.

Fifteen of the 28 authors (ignoring translators) were female. I did make an effort at gender balance as I went along and tried to include as many male authors as possible, but somehow the women poets still came out ahead. Actually, if I wanted to more accurately represent the proportions of published female versus male poets in the U.S. today, it would probably be closer to a 60%/40% split.

When I announced the plan on March 31, I speculated on the effect of reading this much poetry in a month: “Will it be mind-altering? Almost certainly. Will it change the way I read poetry? Maybe. Will it prove to be an overdose, and send me rushing naked and screaming into the streets? Well, let’s hope not.” I’m pleased to announce that there were no episodes of indecent exposure, frenzied or otherwise. But exposing myself to all that poetry did leave me feeling a little sun-burnt and raw. It was almost too much of a good thing. My usual pattern is to read four to six poems first thing in the morning, and this often leaves me energized to write. But extend that to 20 or more poems, and the creative energy dissipates, or more accurately gets transformed into reading energy.

Did it change the way I read poetry? I think so. In the past, I’ve only been able to sustain this level of attention sporadically, but now I think I can conjure it up almost at will, and if nothing else it does make me feel that the kind of quickie reading I was doing before, while fun and inspirational, isn’t quite as rewarding as this slower, more tantric kind of textuality. So I think you can expect to see a lot more book blogging here from now on.

Could this be a model for other bloggers, a fun challenge for those who perhaps are tired of doing the poem-a-day thing for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) — or even for those who don’t write poetry at all, and would simply like to focus on reading poetry for a month? I’m thinking there might be some real benefit to formalizing this next year as InPoReMo, International Poetry Reading Month, and launching a coordinating site sometime in January, especially if I can talk some chapbook publishers into offering special deals for bloggers: ten chaps for $50, that kind of thing. Because I do imagine that most people with full-time jobs aren’t going to be able to read a full-length book of poetry a day, but would be open to reading chapbooks, most of which take less than an hour to read. And what better way to advance the cause of poetry than to support poets and small publishers?

40 Replies to “Poetry Reading Month 2010: the upshot”

  1. InPoReMo has a real ring to it, almost like the chime of grandmother’s clock. A wonderful idea. Please sign me up! (Though perhaps for the smaller chapbooks . . .) (What a hypocrite I am. I haven’t been sticking with my plan to read a chapbook a day for a certain chapbook contest . . .)

    I’m glad you shared this postmortem: I was wondering what that much exposure to poetry would do to you. I would be interested to find out if, in fact, your increased level of attention does affect what works for you mornings.

    Great glimpse of your poetry shelves. I suppose no poetry library would be complete without “The Raven.”

    1. Peter, I’ll not only sign you up, but I may call on you for help and advice if I go through with it. Your archive of articles on reading will probably prove a very useful resource, in line with what Beth and Christina are suggesting below.

      I can’t remember if that Raven beer was any good, but it’s a cool label! There’s a quote from Poe’s poem below the picture. The brewery is in Baltimore, of course.

  2. I was staggered by the project, and I’m awed by your completion of it. Reading a couple hundred pages of prose in a day is something I do often, but I seldom read poetry at a rate of more than one or two pages per day. NaPoWriMo is exhausting to me. All those poems every day!

    I’m intrigued by the idea of reading locally, not least because it seems manageable. Catching up on what the world’s poets have been doing for the past eighty years does not seem possible, for someone who reads poetry as slowly as I do, but catching up on Willamette Valley poets — that might happen, some of it.

    I feel like I’m just learning how to read modern poetry. The fact that so much of it is nearly impossible to memorize — no regular meter or rhyme scheme — is a big stumbling block to me. But I keep at it.

    1. I think reading of any kind, poetry or otherwise, becomes much easier when you abandon any interest in “catching up” or mastering anyone’s version of the canon. I am a complete literary dilettante myself. One of the reasons why it’s fun to read contemporary literature is that, despite the best efforts of self-important critics, it’s not possible to canonize it yet, so you get to make your own discoveries of amazing writers no one else seems aware of — and then of course shout their names from the virtual rooftops.

  3. Multiple readings are often the key to poetry.

    I find myself pulling down old favorites and setting them aside to read in bits and pieces later, as I box up donations of my personal library in the attempt to pare down my books. (Never that many since the fire of 1987 which destroyed my books and killed my father.) It is odd to be doing this on many levels for me as a writer and a reader, that girl on her bicycle with the basket heading several miles to the Edison Branch of the Detroit Public Library. This was in the late 1950’s. I would make the return trip with many books in the metal basket and read the collection weekly during the long summers. The librarian questioned whether I was reading them and my mother had to phone her and assure her that yes, I was reading these books each week. Now, with my health issues, I am grateful to read what I do manage, far less than more than a half century ago, unfortunately.

    Thanks for what you have done to help promote poets/poetry/small presses.

    1. Wow, that fire of 87 sounds really tragic. I can see how that might dampen you enthusiasm for collecting books again.

      Naturally I would encourage the use of libraries on a InPoReMo site, should I go through with it next year. The problem is that very few libraries collect chapbooks, even university libraries.

      I guess part of the reason why I re-read so many books last month was precisely to make that point: that re-readings are, as you say, so often crucial.

  4. Great idea, Dave (though I too was daunted by your project. I couldn’t believe you got through 30 books in 30 days.) I feel fortunate that you and I get to read so much poetry during the year and would love to encourage other people to read more of it. One thing you/we/others might think about to accompany this project is writing about HOW to read poetry. I keep hearing people say, “I’d like to read more poetry, but I kinda don’t know how to begin, or how to go about it…” as if “read more poetry” were interchangeable with “pray.” I think it occupies a similar place in many people’s minds: somewhat mystical, obscure, inaccessible. InPoReMo might address that too.

    1. Good point, Beth. Christina has added some useful tips below — way more useful than my main suggestion, at any rate, which would be: “just pretend it’s a newspaper. Sit down and read it!”

  5. As I noted on my blogpost, I find reading a poetry book a day daunting (but I also find writing a poem a day daunting). I could perhaps do such a project if I prepared ahead of time — like January. Otherwise, I enjoyed your posts and the books!

    1. Thanks. Yeah, I’m not actually not sure how many people would sign on to read a book or chapbook a day. Maybe it would make more sense to let participants in InPoReMo choose from a range of options — though I think it’s in part the extreme commitment involved in things like NaPoWriMo and the phenomenally popular NaNoWriMo in November that has most contributed to their appeal.

  6. Some tips I will pass on for reading poetry/poems:

    1. Take your time.
    2. Repeat often and aloud is even better.
    3. Have a dictionary handy.
    4. Don’t read too much at one time, just like good wine, poetry is best in sips.
    5. Check out a poetry book on CD/whatever to get a flavor of how a poem sounds read aloud, which is how a poem is meant to be shared.
    6. Be patient with the poem and yourself.
    7. Don’t be afraid of your imagination a la Muriel Rukeyser and her comments about this subject in The Life of Poetry.
    8. Read The Life of Poetry.
    9. Write down your dreams in a journal. These are night poems and often great gifts to us.

    1. These are good tips, Christina! If I do go ahead and set up a Poetry Reading Month site next year, I will definitely have to include a page of suggestions and links.

  7. Well, I did manage to replace some books but many volumes in any collection are irreplaceable.

    Chapbooks aren’t appreciated in most bookstores, either, because they don’t have spines. Same reason libraries don’t like the pesky things.

    1. Yeah. And yet they do sell or collect magazines, which are way more disposable and ephemeral. Maybe we bloggers just have to work harder to build a market for chapbooks.

  8. A thought-provoking exercise, Dave, and a thought-provoking post. Let me begin by saying, like everybody else, how awestruck I am that you actually read 30 poetry books in 30 days.

    Though, as a person with a full time job, I doubt that I could follow through on 30 full collections or even chapbooks in a month, I do like the idea of using April to read deeply rather than widely. In spite of my best efforts, I always find myself becoming querulous during April because so many “poem-a-day” places are poking so many poems at me by so many poets. I go into some kind of overload. I get behind. Then there are all those e-mails clogging up my inbox and making me feel guilty. I must not really love poetry.

    I don’t read too much in magazines and anthologies for the same reason. I like a fairly big bite of a poet.

    So I might participate in a more limited way – maybe two or three a week?

    I do like the idea of using the occasion to revisit books.

    Last, — and I’m running on here, I apologize — I do find much reward for reading locally. (Thanks for the link.) Though there is considerable unevenness in the craft skill of the various poets I post, I love the opportunity blogging Kentucky poets for a month gives me for revisiting old friends (in the literary sense) and discovering new voices.

    In light of what I’ve just written here, though, I wonder whether next year it might be fun to post 30 poems by the same Kentucky poet. It would have to be somebody out of print, I guess. But that might be a joy.

    1. Well, see, that’s the thing: I think it would be perfectly O.K. for someone to read just one poem a day and blog about that. But I’m just concerned that if we encourage all kinds of reading behaviors for an InPoReMo, it won’t capture people’s imagination the way NaNoWriMo and NaPoWriMo do. My bottom line is I’d like to launch something that would encourage people to celebrate poetry by reading it, not just writing it. Maybe a round number, like ten books in a month, would still capture the imagination without seeming too daunting…

      I agree about not reading magazines or anthologies too much. I read online magazines some, of course, but not print ones. Not worth shelling out all that money for a magazine only to find four or five poems I actually like, and then having to decide whether to take up shelf room with the thing.

      1. I do read some mags when they are part of a deal when submitting to a contest, but they get passed on quickly. I don’t find much to read in them, either, though occasionally I am pleasantly surprised. I read some online mags but that’s hit and miss, too. I have to limit my time at the computer. I can’t use a laptop, either.

        1. You know what my favorite paper magazine is? The Copper Canyon Press catalog. It’s free, I can roll it up and stick it in my pocket, and almost every poem is great.

          1. I guess I shouldn’t say I don’t read magazines when I try to get my poems published in them. Sort of biting my nose off to spite my face.

          2. Maybe. I’ll admit that’s the main reason why I’m not too enthusiastic about submitting to paper journals.

  9. Magazines aren’t really that popular in libraries either. They take up so much space. I worked for almost two years at a local library as a clerk, so I know about many of the regional libraries here. Poetry isn’t their typical fare and if a book is controversal they often don’t buy it in the first place. Or they figure the big University of Missouri system will take care of the esoteric. And many books are removed from shelves because they don’t circulate. Some of these are classics and should be kept but again space is at a premium. Or so the argument goes.

    1. Yeah, keeping up with contemporary poetry through the local public library would have to be nearly impossible unless you were good friends with the librarian and they had a budget for such things. Back when I was in high school, the library there actually had a much better collection than the town did, and the librarian would buy any poet I recommended. Didn’t realize how lucky we were.

      I’ve picked up terrific poetry books in the public library discard bins even in well-heeled State College, PA. Lucky for me, but sad for the town.

  10. So many great ideas here for next April! Your huge undertaking and gift of your reactions to readers here will have repercussions for a long time to come, I think, both in future Aprils and in all the coming months as many of your readers, me included, look to read some of the poets you’ve introduced us to or reminded us of.

    1. Well, I appreciate your confidence. All I can say for certain is that I will be trying this again next year myself. I have never been a very good leader or organizer, and the idea of other people imitating me even scares me a little.

      1. I think of you as a very good leader and organizer. Look at all the things you give to the poetry community. And look at all the comments here. Hmmm, well, maybe more of an innovator.

  11. Did you see Amy King’s post on FB about a chapbook celebration in NYC? It began today. Maybe some ideas for next year? This is the second yar for the event.

    1. Sounds like a great idea, b ut not sure how it would work for those of us in more rural areas where poetry readers are spread pretty thin. Might be possibble to do something in cooperation with the bookstore in State College (home of Penn State), though. Hmmm.

  12. Your project, when I first read about it, sounded daunting, but I had confidence in you (:)). I stopped by every day to have a “vicarious” read of the books through your words, but didn’t leave comments, since I didn’t want to burden you with even more reading. You have introduced me to new poets and work through this incredible “fast” journey through the naturally “slow” country of poetry.

  13. A great project, Dave, and I too loved the peek at your shelves.

    Perhaps Chicago participants can petition the Poetry Foundation for a NPM dispensation to borrow from its (public but non-circulating) 35,000 volume collection. Or at the very least, for leave to bring in sleeping bags. Why else construct a $21.5 million building, I ask.

  14. I’d be very interested in such a challenge, although chapbook length would probably be best for my time availability.

    I wonder if there could be a “sharing community” (trading chaps w/ others) for those whose pockets aren’t very deep to compliment supporting small presses by purchasing. Might be tough to pull off. Planning far enough ahead to make the selections would help. (Did you take a month to do that? I can’t recall now.)

    Daunting & intriguing are nice combinations for a true challenge.

    And frankly, I think I’d create better poetry by reading more than writing (which is already a goal for this year, one I am actually following through on).

    Thanks for being an instigator, Dave, & a reluctant leader. Both are good qualities.

    1. Thanks for comments, Deb. I like the idea of encouraging people to meet up and exchange books or chapbooks — or trade by mail. For people in a given area — say, Portland, OR — it might make sense to have a swap-meet half-way though the month.

      I hardly did any advance planning, other than buying a bunch of new-to-me books at the local used bookstore, ordering the bundle of chaps from Seven Kitchens, and getting two or three must-haves from Amazon. Then I made a big pile of candidates on the chair so I could pick what I wanted each morning. That made it more of an adventure for me than having some schedule all worked out in advance.

  15. I’d be willing to tackle InPoReMo– at the chapbook level. And since I also live in Stumptown, the meet/swap would work for me. We might be able to get the local OSPA chapter members to lend/donate some chapbooks.

    1. Cool. We’ll definitely have to set something up, then (though “we” is really gonna mean “you all” — Oregon’s a little far for me).

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