Elizabeth Acevedo, Hieu Minh Nguyen, LGBT, Mary Oliver, Ocean Vuong, Poetry, Poetry Project, Thomas C. Foster, Timothy Liu, Verse Novel, Vietnamese

A Successful Poetry Month

For the last two months, I’ve pursued some themed-reading. This is something I tried a couple of years ago as a year-long project, changing my reading theme every month, but it didn’t quite work. It seems to work better if I choose something just prior to the new month beginning, because it allows me to read what I’m actually interested in in that given moment. So, in June, I read a whole bunch of LGBTQ+ books (most of which were awesome) and in July, I read a lot of poetry and/or books about poetry.

I specifically chose to read poetry this month because I’ve been writing my own young adult novel, and I found that reading creative works that are well outside of the genre I’m writing in helps me to stay motivated and to think about language without getting distracted by works that are too similar in genre, audience, theme, etc. Considering I finished the first draft of my novel yesterday, I’d say this was a good plan!

Here are the works I read in July, with some thoughts:

How to Read Poetry Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster: This is the third in Foster’s “How to Read…” series that I’ve read, after How to Read Novels Like a Professor and How to Read Literature Like a Professor. As always, I find his style approachable, his sense of humor engaging, and the examples plus explantations that he gives very helpful. Poetry has always been the weaker literary genre for me (fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry, in that order!), but Foster manages to explain a lot about the basics in a way that makes sense. The other benefit is I’ve added to my reading list quite substantially. I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu: What an incredible find, this was! Timothy Liu is one of my favorite poets. I’ve been a little obsessed with Asian-American queer male poets lately and recently re-read Liu’s collection, Burnt Offerings, which inspired me to find his other publications. This anthology covers self-identified gay poets writing and publishing in America since about 1900. It’s a hefty tome, but the diversity of style and theme are wonderful. I was introduced to a lot of new-to-me poets, many of whose works were quickly added to my TBR. I also found some of my favorites in this collection, like Dennis Cooper and Mark Doty. It was fun to revisit them, especially in the context of a gay poetry anthology, where one can see the communication that is happening between poets and poets, and between poets and their audiences. I rated this one 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong: I’ll admit right now that I’ve become obsessed with Ocean Vuong. It’s very strange to me to be a “fanboy” for any living writer (most of my mania is reserved for deceased writers, like Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck.) The only other living writer I’m so passionate about is probably Joan Didion. That said, Ocean Vuong is giving me everything I need right now, which is to say, an incredibly interesting and poetic exploration of language, life, and all their possibilities and complexities. I read Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, last month and was blown away. Night Skies With Exit Wounds is just as breathtaking. Vuong is one of the most unique, courageous, and honest writers I’ve read recently. I rated this one 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo: This one is a verse novel written as a series of prose poems. It explores the life of a contemporary Dominican-American teenager and her relationship with her very conservative-Christian mother. Verse novels are becoming more and more popular, in large part, I think, due to the successes of Ellen Hopkins, whose stories are compelling and beautifully told. Acevedo’s perspective adds a welcome and refreshing perspective to the genre, and I think it will go a long way to propelling this genre forward. I enjoyed the diary-like entries and the way Acevedo manages to treat the narrator’s road to becoming a poet as a theme in the development of the verses themselves. It’s delightfully meta! I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver: What can you expect from an “On Poetry” book by one of the most recognized and celebrated poetry writers today? It’s an inviting, edifying journey into form, style, history, and all the rules (many of which are meant to be broken.) Reading this one alongside Thomas C. Foster’s turned out to be an incredibly helpful and rewarding experience. They reinforced some of the major ideas, but each took different approaches to the various items of importance for readers and writers of poetry, including the examples they provide. If I could, I would spend an entire semester reading books like this one (and Foster’s). I already feel much more confident reading poetry and will be trying my hand at writing more of it soon. I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen: Reading this one in the same month as Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds was fascinating. Both writers are gay men, both are Vietnamese-American, and both write extensively about their relationship with their mothers. (This is a theme for Acevedo, too, which suddenly makes me want to research the theme of mother/child relationships in American poetry.) Nguyen’s collection is held together by intercalary poems about his white lovers and how his relationship to white men has defined, or ill-defined, him as an Asian-American. Nguyen’s pain, even resentment, brought on by racism and fetishization is strikingly powerful and deeply saddening, but his triumphs are powerful, too. I particularly appreciated the end poem, an exploration of depression that reads like an open wound. I rated this one a 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

So, I planned to read six books of/about poetry for my personal poetry month, and that’s exactly what I did. I feel accomplished, but even better, I feel inspired. Poetry has always been a little intimidating for me, but I allowed myself to relax into it, to read them as closely as I can, and to give myself a little support with the Foster and Oliver texts. All this to say: I can’t wait to read more poetry, and I can’t wait to write more of it.

Do you like poetry? Have any favorite poets or collections/anthologies I should try?

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3 thoughts on “A Successful Poetry Month

  1. I do love Thomas Wyatt, erstwhile lover of Anne Boleyn – especially the sonnet that goes:

    They flee from me that sometime did me seek
    With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
    I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
    That now are wild and do not remember
    That sometime they put themself in danger
    To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
    Busily seeking with a continual change.

    Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
    Twenty times better; but once in special,
    In thin array after a pleasant guise,
    When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
    And she me caught in her arms long and small;
    Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
    And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

    It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
    But all is turned thorough my gentleness
    Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
    And I have leave to go of her goodness,
    And she also, to use newfangleness.
    But since that I so kindly am served
    I would fain know what she hath deserved.

    Like

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