Tag: reading

A couple days ago I finished reading a novel that I’d been eager to get my hands on and had heard a lot of raving about on Twitter and whatnot. I’m trying to stretch beyond poetry writing and understand what makes fiction tick, so I’m reading more novels.

This particular book threw me for a loop. The first half was beautifully paced and threaded together. I was enjoying it as a reader and taking notes as a writer. But then, in a matter of about 10 pages (in a 300-ish page book), the climax arrived, was delivered via hasty dialogue, and dissolved without any real revelations or conclusions.

My first reaction was, So what? And that was quickly followed by, Wait, this counts? This counts as a finished book?

This tends to be my struggle with literary fiction. Poetry – and story for that matter – doesn’t have to resolve itself or present neat conclusions, but I do feel that strong writing has a revelatory quality. While literary fiction is often symbolic, that doesn’t always come together as meaningful, satisfying revelation.

Carl was next to me as I sighed through the last few frustrating pages of the book. When I explained myself, he offered his own revelation:

Every book a writer reads brings the target closer.

Before I read this book, I was sure this author must have some magical quality, some secret knowledge of fiction that must be an ocean away from me. Reading the reviews and blurbs certainly gave me that impression. This is where fiction always intimidates me.

But Carl is right — despite the disappointment in the end, when I looked up from reading the book, I saw a target instead of a vast ocean with no shoreline in sight. I saw a place to aim.

It’s always said that writers should read, read, read. And that is true, true, true. But the image of bringing the target closer is one that helps me a lot. I wonder how many books I need to read before I can push the arrow in the target like a pin?

fiction reading writing

1. Make the perfect cup of cocoa in a mug that sets the mood for a creative evening. (See this important piece of writing if you don’t know why such a mug exists.)

2. Enjoy said cocoa while reading in front of the fireplace. Watch Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards and feel incredibly grateful for the language and minds of poets, who carve out space we might not otherwise find. 

3. To continue your pre-game stretch, write in a journal, preferably one that was personally selected with great care after nearly an hour of browsing at a local bookstore and that happens to be in your favorite color (green is a suggested favorite color, in case you need one). 

4. Take up your mug on its suggestion and proceed to write like a motherfucker, polishing up a few earlier drafts of poems, generating some new ideas, and all the while celebrating that the week is young and you have already done something to create within it.

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I picked up a subscription to 32 Poems earlier this year and finally had the chance to spend time with the latest issue tonight. As the name suggests, there are 32 poems in each issue, with a straightforward presentation. Of those 32, I marked five for re-reading and deeper processing (heavy emphasis on processing, as my notes below are not meant to be “reviews” by any stretch):

  • Against Emptiness, by James Arthur. Something is sticky about this poem. As in I keep coming back to it, but I’m not entirely sure why. I think it may have something to do with the dichotomy of air/uncertainty/emptiness and definition/certainty/purposefulness. Or maybe it’s something about meaning and how we intend, or embed, it in the world. I don’t know.
  • Carbon, by Bruce Bond. I’ve been playing around with carbon dating in one of my poems, so I was interested in how Bond used the language. Beyond that, I’m wondering what felt incomplete about this poem for me. Something about the last stanza felt out of place, like the poem shifted its perspective — from meditative to almost instructive. 
  • Words for Words, by Taije Silverman. I’d like to keep unpacking this. I’m wondering about the specific word choices of the speaker, and if there are any consistent parallels in which word is exchanged for another. They all add up to the sort of perfectly anxious final thought: “I want to dig up streets.”
  • After the End, by Ashley Anna McHugh. Something about the voice in the poem makes me want to return and listen more. 
  • On Saturn the Sky is Blue, by Sarah Lindsay. I’m attracted to anything that borrows language from the mechanics of the universe, and there are some beautiful images here, such as: …watch a thunderstorm, thirty miles tall, / walking on stilts of lightning.

Something I’ve been wondering about, which resurfaced as I read 32 Poems, is the challenge of perspective and voice. I’ve been trying to move away from writing so much in first person, if only to use that as a constraint to spark new ideas.

I’ve been thinking about the self-consciousness of first person. When is it contributing to a narrative and when does it start to feel like a claustrophobic self-portrait? With some of the poems I’ve read recently and in some of my own work, I’m beginning to feel as though holding space for “I” and “me” gets in the way of the work the poem really needs to do. Poems weighted heavily in first person have started to feel itchy to me. 

I’m not entirely sure how to resolve this, because as I noted with “Carbon” above, other perspectives can be slippery slopes to tones or styles that may not be intended. In one stanza, the tone can shift from meditative to pedantic, from inclusive to authoritative. This seems to be an easier slip when we leave the realm of the self (I, me) and must project a bit more to get to the perspectives of others (you, we, us, them). 

Which then makes me wonder: Is excessive use of first person a bit of a crutch? I’m picturing it now like a yoga block. A steady place to put my hand while the rest of my body, or the poem as it were, plays around with other elements, such as language.

Ok, no conclusions here. But I had to capture that somewhere. I’m wondering if there is a writing exercise in this… maybe slicing the same question or concept from multiple perspectives and seeing how empathy, authority and voice play out across the resulting poems. What is more powerful? What is more inclusive, accessible, compelling, etc.?

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