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Essay

The Five-Book-a-Week Diet

This is your brain on too much poetry.
Introduction
How much poetry should a poet read? Maybe the better question is how much can they read? Paisley Rekdal puts herself on a strict reading regimen to find out—and lives to tell about it.

Illustration by Marianne Goldin.

THE PROJECT

In March I attended the Associated Writing Programs Conference in Atlanta, an annual meet-and-greet of creative writing teachers from all over America, who are there ostensibly to attend panels, but really to gossip. During one panel, Timothy Liu—an Asian American, gay, ex–Mormon missionary poet whose frank and often brutal work about sexual abuse, homosexuality, and desire is lyrical and meditative—spoke about what he thought constituted teaching expertise, then smiled a little hostilely and announced that he reads five books of poetry a week. Some people gasped. The woman next to me began furiously writing in her notebook. Liu also said he drank five bottles of wine a week to improve the quality of his palate. No one batted an eye.

Liu’s point: we learn best through repeated exposure. Was he taking that to an extreme? A fellow poet I told about Liu’s regimen all but shuddered, as if so much verse might send her into anaphylactic shock. Maybe there’s something to this, I thought.

To find out what other people were reading and how much, I surfed the blogosphere. Some blogs listed poetry books purchased but not how many of the books these readers finished or what they thought of them. One New York poet said she’d stopped reading poetry altogether because she was tired of it. Others thought no one was worth reading past Wallace Stevens. The serious readers I spoke to agreed that reading a lot of poetry—even after Stevens—might help you as a writer, but that Liu’s volume seemed insane. Is there some magic number of books one should read? Too few books, and you’re left out of the loop. One too many and your head explodes. And what is that number?

Thinking about Liu’s project, I’m simultaneously irritated and guilty. My day job is teaching poetry to ambitious graduate students: if anyone “needs” to be an expert at reading poetry, it’s me. But my competitive side wants to match Liu’s stamina.

I try counting the books I’d read the previous week, can’t come up with one, panic, start counting up the past three weeks, then the past two months, for a total of five (a generous estimate, since one was so bad I hurled it across the room after 15 pages). Before Liu’s talk, I would have confidently announced that I read at least two books of poetry a week. Five minutes of generous self-analysis reveals that I’ve been reading, at best, five pages.

If I unconsciously inflate how much I read, does Liu? Does he pile five books on his nightstand and flip through them? Squeeze in a poem or two before sleep, thumb through a collection at his desk? Spend a frantic hour on the couch cover-to-cover? What exactly constitutes reading a book of poetry?

I decide to test myself by reading five books of poetry a week. To challenge myself, I establish a few rules:
1. Books I’ve read before won’t count toward the total.
2. I’ll make no period, length, or aesthetic restrictions.
3. Books must be published by a press more reputable than Kinko’s. (A serious consideration: I could fill a whole month with student manuscripts alone.)
4. I must finish books in their entirety, or they’ll be added to next week’s reading list in addition to the newest five. (Ouch!)
5. I must keep accurate records.


WEEK ONE, DAY ONE

I troll my shelves for books I’ve recently purchased. I choose “I Am,” the selected poems of John Clare; So What? , the selected poems of Taha Muhammad Ali; Bob Hicok’s This Clumsy Living; Quan Barry’s Controvertibles; and Michael Dumanis’s My Soviet Union.

The prospect of all this reading isn’t daunting, it’s liberating. In order to make my deadline, I even allot my precious writing time (two hours a day) solely to the task. Feeling self-satisfied about my supposed sacrifice of time and talent, I only sigh at my boyfriend’s bewilderment when he finds me in my office, lounging on the floor in my pajamas, eating cookies and reading John Clare at 11 a.m. on a Monday.

“I’m working,” I tell him piously. “This is a real project here. I’m reading five books of poetry a week.”

“And how much have you read?” he asks skeptically.

I wave my 300-page book at him triumphantly. “Fifty pages,” I reply. It’s a lie: I’ve read only 20. “I’m flying right through it.”

I smile condescendingly and go back to Clare. Smiles like dews of heaven. Cool. I concentrate deeply for about ten minutes before I have to go and change my shirt. I come back, turn a page, read 50 lines of “Helpstone.” Then my ankle itches. I scratch it, lose my place, go back and read the last five lines, start fantasizing about lunch, reread the last few lines again, turn the page, perk up at the entrance of one of my dogs, praise him for the interruption by scratching his ears and calling him the master of the universe, go back to Clare, reread the last few lines again. Smiles like dews of heaven. Forget it and move on to a poem titled “What Is Life?”

Reading is like exercising: you need to develop the right muscles for it. How long has it been since I’ve read for two hours straight? How long has it been since any of us have had the time to read for two hours straight? Typically I read just before I fall asleep, which takes about 20 minutes. I can’t even read in a chair anymore: I have to read lying down.

Which now makes me want to fall asleep. I doze and reread, doze and reread, get up, root around in the refrigerator, waddle back to my office, order some more poetry books from Amazon for next week, pick up the Clare, reread the last 50 lines again. What is life? I have no idea. Something about the long, slow slog toward death.

My boyfriend comes upstairs to see what I’m doing, and I glare at him.

“Stop bothering me,” I snap. “I am busy here. I am reading!”

“I just wanted to know if you want to get lunch,” he says.

I throw the Clare down and run for my coat.


WEEK TWO, DAY SEVEN
Books: Dana Roeser’s Beautiful Motion; Martha Collins’s Blue Front; Sherwin Bitsui’s Shapeshift; Rick Hilles’s Brother Salvage; Brenda Hillman’s Fortress

Need to avoid anything with “collected” or “selected” in the title. Getting through the 300 pages of Clare (do you realize how long Clare’s poems are?) forced me to skim at the end. So many haystacks, so little time. What with the dozing and the continual grazing, I didn’t get much from it. Clearly I’ve been reading too many living poets: to read a Romantic like Clare, I had to slow down calculably. I can see my goal of reading Milton’s Samson Agonistes will remain a dream. A diet of five poetry books a week necessitates shorter works (90 pages or less), preferably in contemporary English.

The other nine books I’ve flown through. My critical response is gut-based: it counts more if I immediately “get” the poem, since my enjoyment has to be taken in quick gulps, like sights from the back of a tour bus (Look, the Eiffel Tower! ). I can tell you that Michael Dumanis’s poem “My Mayakovsky” rocks, and that the Hicok poem about the cow is so funny that I read it again—but that’s about it. I can say this with authority: poets today really like the word “analgesic.” It appeared three times in my reading.

The smug part of me knew it would be like this: Paisley Rekdal Reads Five Books of Poetry a Week, Learns Nothing, Wallows in Self-Induced Anxiety. The optimistic part maintains this is only the “first-week effect.” The more and faster I read, the better I’ll know how to read more and faster. Perhaps I’ll soon ingest five books with the same efficiency I now apply to five pages. Optimism also tells me—in its passive-aggressive, Glenda-the-Good-Witch voice—that my reading habits are fostering better environmental habits. In order to keep up, I now take the bus.


WEEK THREE, DAY FOUR
Books: Myung Mi Kim’s Under Flag; Geraldine Kim’s Povel; Michael Palmer’s The Promises of Glass; Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s I Love Artists; Cathy Park Hong’s Translating Mo’um

It struck me last Tuesday that I was choosing books based more on proximity (what was lying on my floor) than aesthetics. Reading as fast and hard as I am, I’ve become obsessed with how other people read. I watch people on the bus as they read, tracking their eyes to see if they are (as I sometimes have been) skimming to finish pages, or carefully taking in every word. This afternoon, one woman laughs out loud as she reads, then looks up with a half-smile. Somehow I doubt she’s reading poetry.

The longer I pursue this exercise, the more I think I should be getting something out of it. Isn’t reading supposed to be entertaining? So why can’t I let myself be entertained? I find myself thinking instead about what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. I’m competing now not just with Liu’s quota, but with the quality of books he might choose. Liu’s a smart, cool, and savvy guy. He probably wouldn’t be caught messing around with someone as narrative, as confessional, as Dana Roeser; he’d be reading Mr. Stone-Cold Seriously Oblique Michael Palmer.

But I like the confessional poems of Roeser. I’m interested in her bad mother and the problems of aging and being angry and female. I revel in the books that are the most narrative: I love Geraldine Kim’s Povel for its insane humor, its overt navel-gazing. The narrator is smart and awful, self-absorbed and inventive, evasive and too revealing. The speaker is an actual, evolving character—like one you might find in a good novel. Still, I can’t decide whether or not the book is really “good.” Do I like it only because I’m reading it side by side with the much-harder-to-ingest Berssenbrugge and Palmer? I’m starting to realize that I’ve always thought that novels were for entertainment and poetry was for intellectual self-improvement. So it should be no surprise that the book of poetry I am most entertained by reads a hell of a lot like a novel (hence its title, invoking both forms).

But what about the poetry I’m supposed to be intellectually improved by? The inherent problem is that there isn’t just one “POETRY,” one monolithic national art. Instead, there’s a collection of fractious city-states: neo-formalists, Language poets, post-confessionalists, maximalists, minimalists, neo-Christian spiritualists, lyric nature poets, New York Schoolists, postmodern experimentalists, Black Mountainists, Beats, neo-Beats, neo-Lite Surrealists, flarf poets (!), etc., etc. In the past few years, these different “sides” have picked up other groups’ aesthetic strategies. Post-confessionalists now write epic poems filled with advertising jargon. Neo-Christian spiritualists sound like Robert Creeley. Language poets write pantoums. So much aesthetic intermarrying suggests that contemporary poets must be reading a lot, and without aesthetic loyalty.

I am particularly struck by Translating Mo’um and Under Flag, since both books approach identity politics—a topic that’s often dealt with in autobiographical poems—in fragmentary lines filled with wordplay. It’s clear that Hong and Kim have woven together different aesthetics. Isn’t this what poets are supposed to be doing—writing across time and party lines? To achieve that myself, don’t I have to read the way Liu proposes: constantly, and with little reverence for sides? Or is this all, frankly, a little naive?


WEEK FOUR, DAY FIVE

It’s naive.

Over lunch, a colleague asks what I’ve been reading. She says she’s out of the loop, “hopelessly unhip.” I mention some of the titles by the youngest poets I’ve read in the past weeks, and she blinks at me. “Huh,” she says. She looks horrified when I try to describe Povel: a book of completely unmetered, unlineated paragraphs that describe everything that happens to the poet over the course of a few days, from breaking up with her boyfriend, to recalling her abusive father’s favorite joke, to looking for the perfect bubble tea. “Jesus,” she mutters, unsettled. “Who has the time?”

Perhaps the real problem is that there are so many books of poetry being published. If you aren’t a poet but are interested in reading poetry, your reading is limited to what you can get your hands on: the poets who publish at the biggest publishing houses. Do these books really reflect what’s happening in poetry today?

At home, I stand in front of my growing stack of books, looking at the authors’ names and pondering their similarities and differences. Considering the parameters of this project and my inherent love of narrative, am I reading widely enough? The more I look, the more the stack seems to expand, to thicken, widen, until it resembles a wall. I feel claustrophobic and begin to shake a little. I have to leave the room.

By Thursday, I no longer react to the stack of books I’m reading. I simply move my eyes across the page, processing words but not caring about them. Poems have become little machines to be studied, broken apart, reassembled into arguments and images. I struggle to decide which I prefer. I begin to wilt at my desk, unsure whether this stanza is as strong as the following one, whether this or that image is a cliché. I look at the last book I’ve yet to finish—goddamn Michael Palmer—and think, You are not helping. I stare at the pile I’ve assembled for next week. I throw the Palmer under my desk and meet up with friends. “I am having an existential crisis,” I tell them. “I think I am this far away from having to force myself to believe in God!”

“You want my advice?” Jennifer asks me.

I nod, as sweat beads my back.

“Stop reading,” she says.


WEEK FIVE, DAY THREE
Books: Michael Palmer’s The Promise of Glass; Albert Goldbarth’s Budget Travel through Space and Time; Mark Ford’s Soft Sift; Dan Beachy-Quick’s Spell; Tracy K. Smith’s Duende; C. Dale Young’s The Second Person

I can’t do it. I cannot do it. I’ve drifted through Soft Sift, gotten caught up in the Goldbarth, but trying to finish the Palmer on top of all this new work is killing me. I stuff the book in my boyfriend’s truck: the most cluttered, least sanitary place I know, the place we’ve lost lunches, shirts, backpacks, shoes (and once, for a terrifying moment, our smallest dog), the one place where it will assuredly disappear so that—in all good conscience—I can say that I tried to read the book but hey, it got lost, nothing to do but go on, which I do. Or don’t. In my office, I break rule number one and pull down books of poetry I’ve already read but want to reread: Robert Hass, Alice Fulton, Jack Gilbert, Larissa Szporluk. I’m reading H.D. and then, oh shit, I’m taking down Rilke’s Duino Elegies, I’m deep into the eighth one, getting slobbery and gross over those animals who make us all look like zombified monsters, yes, yes, only they know what it is to be alive, so screw Liu’s reading grind, I’m going on his drinking plan instead, which is when my boyfriend appears in the doorway, Palmer in hand and what by God better be a smear of custard on its cover, saying, “Babe, I think you left this in my truck—”

NO NO NO!


WEEK SIX, DAY ONE
Books: One bodice-ripping novel, The Blood of Flowers

I always knew I’d quit the project—office-space constraints require it and someday I hope to have a child—but even I’m surprised by how quickly I abandon it. All this month I’ve come up against the platitudes I once spouted about the “usefulness” of reading: read what you love, read as much as you can, read what will teach or inspire you. But it’s clear these statements break down when applied so (im)practically. Liu’s assumption that there is an essential connection between reading, learning, and writing now makes me want to laugh: What, really, do these activities have to do with each other? What if reading actually impairs this connection? What if reading only points out how isolated we all are, how isolated each part of our conscious life is from the other parts? Or—to be accurate—what if reading this much impairs my connection and isolates parts of me? Last week, I kept sadly recalling my favorite bookish moments: the pleasure I experienced reading Ovid’s The Art of Love in college, the sensation of thumbing through Dante on the couch, book propped up on my knees as I stared at Doré’s dark etchings of Hell, those insomniac nights of my late 20s plowing through Henry James, or the way I thought I was going to pass out with excitement on the airplane reading Inger Christensen’s Alphabet. This is what I miss: complete, uncontrollable absorption, to be in someone else’s mind and for once just want to stay inside it. I miss the attention reading meant to me then, that it must occasionally mean to me still, though less and less so. A lot of writers complain that reading loses its charm once you enter the profession. An ironic and completely bourgeois tragedy: to get paid to do what you learn to dislike.

And yet I’d never say, Forget reading. Or now, conversely, Read more. I wouldn’t even say, Don’t read five books of poetry a week. I’m back to square one on this. There’s a magic number of books for each of us for sure, and I’ve passed mine.

I sit on the couch and open my only book for the week. It’s a novel, so it takes a second to readjust from poetry to prose. I turn the pages. From the floor, one of my dogs grunts in its sleep. The sky outside the window turns black. Lights go on in the valley. A gray moon rises. I turn the pages. I keep on reading.
  • Rekdal grew up in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. She earned a BA from the University of Washington, an MA from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies, and an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the...

Essay

The Five-Book-a-Week Diet

This is your brain on too much poetry.
  • Rekdal grew up in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. She earned a BA from the University of Washington, an MA from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies, and an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the...

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