A new goal of mine has been to buy several books of poetry every week. As an emerging writer, it is crucial that I know what’s being examined by my peers and mentors. (A note on mentors: the wonderful thing about reading is that sometimes reading a poet’s book is almost like taking their workshop. I haven’t formally studied with Patricia Smith or Kim Addonizio, but I’ve read, studied, and re-read their work so often that when I sit down to write, it feels like they are looking over my shoulder.)
I read contemporary poetry to develop a certain competence. When I meet with other literary-minded friends I want to have something to talk about. When I make a suggestion in workshop, it’s helpful if I can mention a poet who exemplifies that suggestion. Also, I read for more specific reasons: How do people come up with titles for their poems? How are the titles structured and used? Lately, I’ve been playing with white space so it’s helpful to see how poets like D.A. Powell, for example, arranges his words on the page.
After the jump are some books I’ve been reading lately. I’ll also give a short explanation as to what I’ve been learning or trying to learn from each of them.
Body Betrayer by Beckian Fritz Goldberg
Recently, I was reading an interview of Anna Journey on How a Poem Happens (a great blog if you want to know how poems come into existence) and she kept mentioning this poet named Beckian Fritz Goldberg. “What an odd name,” I thought. “Did he write in the 19th century or something?” Turns out, SHE is a well established contemporary poet who has published several books. “Body Betrayer” is her first book and I’m so glad I bought it without knowing anything about her work. I read the first poem and was devastated by Goldberg’s imaginative use of dark imagery. My own writing has taken a turn for the dark as of late and Goldberg is teaching me how to examine these images confidently and without trying to be “creepy”.
Never Be The Horse by Beckian Fritz Goldberg
This is Goldberg’s third book of poetry and though I haven’t made it all the way through. (I love her poetry so I’m really taking my time, reading each poem 3-4 times before I move on.) I’m reading several of her books because I want to understand how poets sustain themselves over several years. How does their writing change? Do they simply “repeat” the same themes and images or do they break out in startling new directions? Also, I have to quote the opening lines of “Refugees” the first poem in the book: “There are too many shoes in the world. / Let’s burn them. There are too many / oceans — let’s not accept / one more. And let water fend / for itself.” If you haven’t already gone and ordered her book on Amazon after reading that line, I really don’t think we have anything else to talk about.
Inside the Yellow Dress by Mary Ann Samyn
Samyn is also poet I heard about through another poet. In this case, Blas Falconer & Helena Mesa both mentioned her work when they visited my workshop a few weeks ago. I’m really enjoying her book because she’s taking me about the use of white space. The description on the back of the book aptly explains “In Samyn’s poems, white space is not a surrender, but acknowledgement that this is space otherwise occupied.” Wow.
Quiver by Susan Somers-Willett
I met Susan as AWP and fell in love with her as a person before I got a chance to read her new book. Once I got back home and cracked open Quiver, let’s just say I had a whole new respect for her. This is probably the second or third time I’ve read this book and what it keeps teaching me is that every single line must sing. Not just the stanza. Not just the poem as a whole. Every single line must be able to stand on its own and sing. That is the difference between a good poem and a poem you remember.
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is another one I keep coming back to and for good reason. Though I have a love/hate/hate relationship with formal poetry (Yeah, I said it), Trethewey’s use of form is so skillful and well employed; her formalism teaches me how to be a better free verse poet. In addition to her fiercely intelligent examination of the Southern history and culture, her poetry teaches me about control and discipline. She teaches me how to pace a poem which is something that every free verse poet needs to learn.