Poetry Reading Month 2010: the upshot

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
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?