I had an idea while preparing the Favorite Fiction Reads of Summer 2018 post recently. Even though I read nonfiction (mainly on writing and creativity) and poetry as well as fiction, I only ever blog about fiction. But I’m not just a reader. I’m also a poet, a dabbler in speculative fiction, and a perpetual student of the craft of writing. So why not blog about the other kinds of books I read, since they’re just as important to my literary life?
Hence this week’s experiment. This round-up shares mini-reviews of five poetry books and four “writerly” nonfiction books I’ve read over the past few months. If any of them pique your interest, you can check out more information on Goodreads via the link in each title. Most importantly, if this kind of post is something you’d like to see again (maybe every 3 or 4 months), let me know in your comments. That’s the best way for me to know whether this is worth continuing as a blog series.
Eye Level by Jenny Xie
At the surface, Jenny Xie’s Eye Level seems like a poetic travelogue. (Many of her pieces focus on her experiences abroad.) But Xie, who was born in China and raised in the U.S., goes much deeper than that. Her poems touch not just on geography, culture, and immigration, but also on solitude, identity, and belonging – or, rather, the lack of feeling like you belong. Her “poetic voice” is spare and nuanced, yet thrumming with aptly chosen sensory details so that the reader’s mental picture of each physical space and Xie’s inner questions are sharp and clear. The journey she takes you on doesn’t necessarily offer answers to those questions. However, that searching quality makes the feelings, images, and insights that Xie shares all the more moving in the end.
Also, Eye Level was recently named a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry! 😀
You might like Eye Level if… you’re drawn to pensive, perceptive poetry that focuses on one’s outer and inner worlds.
How to Live on Bread and Music by Jennifer K. Sweeney
Reading Jennifer K. Sweeney’s How to Live on Bread and Music was, oddly enough, like listening to a classical pianist. There’s a musicality in her poetry, a graceful flow paired with sprightly language, rich imagery, and evocative metaphors. Sometimes I find that too much clever wordplay saps a poem of emotion. But Sweeney blends the two qualities in a way that heightens the impact each piece leaves on you by the end. Her approach brings out an unabashed joy that’s sometimes wild and other times meditative, turning the seemingly little things – listening to old records, watering flowers, rush-hour commuting – into transcendent events and emphasizing why we should embrace life in all its darkness and light.
You might like How to Live on Bread and Music if… you enjoy reading poetry, period. Seriously. This has become one of my favorite poetry books ever, so please do yourself a favor and add it to your bookshelf. ❤
I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley
I first read I Was The Jukebox after seeing Sandra Beasley’s reading at the Boston Book Festival a few years ago. Then I picked Jukebox up again recently and remembered why I’d been so impressed with her work. Beasley’s poems are witty and inventive, filled with unorthodox perspectives, thought-provoking images, and the occasional poetic form such as the formidable sestina (which, by the way, Beasley owns like a BOSS). Sometimes her tone is humorous and flirtatious. Other times, pensive and visceral. Still others, passionate yet philosophical. Then again, when your subjects range from animals and mythology to music and fraught relationships, of course your tone will vary. That’s part of the allure of Beasley’s poetry: No matter what she writes about, and how she writes it, it’s always smart, daring, and alive.
You might like I Was The Jukebox if… you like poetry that’s intelligent and slightly unconventional without being too experimental.
Nine Horses by Billy Collins
In a way, Billy Collins’s poetry reminds me of that of my all-time favorite poet, Mary Oliver. His style is straightforward, simple, and precise. Rarely will you need to search for hidden meanings or ruminate on metaphors. Whatever Collins has to say is right there, clear as pondwater. It’s an ideal style for highlighting the beauty, sadness, and humor in everyday life, as Collins does in Nine Horses. Astronomy, jazz music, traveling abroad, mortality – his topics vary widely, and his approach is consistent from beginning to end. He might not step outside his comfort zone the way other poets do, but sometimes you don’t need sophisticated vocabulary or clever intentions. Sometimes it’s nice to read poetry like Collins’s, poignant yet comfortable and nuanced.
You might like Nine Horses if… you’re interested in clearly and cleanly written poetry that focuses on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
Whereas is no ordinary poetry book. With a stunning array of short lyrics, prose poems, and longer narratives, Layli Long Soldier reminds us of the power of language by challenging the words used by the U.S. government in its formal apologies and treatises to Native American peoples and dissecting the contradictions and presumptions she finds there. Long Soldier herself is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe / Oglala Lakota Nation, so the vignettes, historical research, and Lakota words she shares come from a place of urgency, intelligence, and raw pain. The unconventional structures and stylistic choices she uses enhance those qualities further. There were times while reading Whereas that I felt as though the ground had shifted under my feet – or maybe something had shifted inside me. It’s difficult to describe… But I do know I wasn’t the same person as when I had started reading it.
You might like Whereas if… you’re seeking literature by Native American writers, as well as poetry that informs, questions, analyzes, and is unafraid in sharing unvarnished truths with its audience.
Recent Reads on the Craft of Writing
Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler
Ever wonder which stories or poems inspired your favorite authors? In Light the Dark, 46 acclaimed authors share the lines and passages that have had the most profound impact on them. Some essays are deeply personal, focusing on how certain characters, themes, or words moved each writer on a fundamental level. Others are more technical and share creative breakthroughs and pivotal lessons on beginnings, endings, overcoming writer’s block, and more. And thanks to the diverse field of contributors, the range of literature examples is expansive and, at times, surprising. Some of my favorites include Neil Gaiman (on R.A. Lafferty’s The Reefs of Earth), Billy Collins (on W.B. Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”), Stephen King (on Douglas Fairbairn’s Shoot), and and Michael Chabon (on Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”).
You might like Light the Dark if… you’re curious about what inspires writers and want a glimpse into how their minds work.
Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch
Poet’s Choice isn’t a “craft of writing” book. Rather, it’s a celebration of the art and beauty of poetry – or, more literally, a collection of essays that originally appeared in Edward Hirsch’s Poet’s Choice column, which the Washington Post Book World launched the year after the September 11th terrorist attacks. This is a rich, sprawling reflection on poetry from all across the world that spans from ancient times to the early 2000s. Rumi, Pablo Neruda, Louise Glück, Robert Pinsky – the sheer number of poets and the breadth of styles and subjects covered is stunning. But Hirsch’s concise analyses, combined with his elegant, passionate writing style, allow each chapter to whet the reader’s appetite and illuminate why each poet, and each poem, is worth reading. I enjoyed Poet’s Choice so much that I’m planning to check out some of Hirsch’s poetry in the future.
You might like Poet’s Choice if… you love poetry in general or are looking to expand your horizons and discover more poets.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, edited by Meredith Maran
Why We Write is similar to Light the Dark in that it poses a question to the 20 participating authors. The question this time is, “Why do you write?” And as you’ll learn through Meredith Maran’s interviews, every author’s “why” is unique. They candidly share the ups and downs of their careers and how they’ve learned to persevere through it all. Chances are you’ll recognize many of the names: David Baldacci, Sara Gruen, Ann Patchett, Walter Mosely, Jodi Piccoult… My favorite interview, however, was Isabel Allende’s. Her answers are so lively and full of personality, and they reminded me that I still have The House of the Spirits somewhere in my TBR pile.
You might like Why We Write if… you’re often inspired by the experiences, lessons learned, and tips on writing from some of the masters of the craft.
Published after the author’s death in 2007, Writing Poetry from the Inside Out draws on Sandford Lyne’s experiences and teachings from his poetry workshops. Most chapters include exercises for shaping your unique poetry-writing “voice,” generating poem ideas, and paying attention to everything from diction to sensory details to the sounds of the words you use. Other sections focus on inspiration, encouragement, and the overall joy that Lyne and other poets (including his workshop students) experience when writing poems. The last three chapters, which offer insights on how writing poetry can lead to intellectual and spiritual growth, are particularly moving. It’s as if Lyne predicted how important poetry would be in today’s society, 10 years after this book came out. This is just further proof of poetry’s timelessness as a form of literature.
You might like Writing Poetry from the Inside Out if… you’re new to writing poetry and/or are looking for practical suggestions for exploring your craft further.
Have you read any poetry books recently? Or any books on the craft of writing? If you had to recommend one of either “genre” to me or other readers of this blog, what would they be? Also, would you like to see more blog posts about my poetry and nonfiction reads in the future?