Poetry and Nonfiction Reading Round-Up: October 2018

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.

Poetry Reads

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.

Writing Poetry from the Inside Out: Finding Your Voice Through the Craft of Poetry by Sandford Lyne

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?

21 thoughts on “Poetry and Nonfiction Reading Round-Up: October 2018

  1. Fabulous roundup of a range of interesting books, Sara:). Thank you so much for sharing! I love the sound of Writing Poetry from the Inside Out in particular, but I Was the Jukebox is also one that I think I need to read…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sarah! 🙂

      Inside Out was probably my “least favorite” of the nonfiction bunch. I didn’t learn as much from that book as I did the others, but I do appreciate the new techniques and perspectives I came away with. And I hope you’re able to find I Was the Jukebox. I’m not sure if it’s sold internationally, but maybe you’d be able to find it via The Book Depository?

      Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! Yes, there are quite a few books out there that help with the craft of poetry-writing. Poemcrazy is another one I might have mentioned before here. I don’t think I have any others left on my shelves right now, but I should probably get through all the other nonfiction and books on writing I own before getting more. XD Thanks, Tammy!


  2. I confess I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I do have a few favorites. Especially Gretchen’s Love & You and Amanda Lovelace’s style… I need to read her first bundle soon. Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur has been on my TBR for a long time as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I’ve heard of Gretchen… Will have to look up that book you mentioned. But I have read Amanda Lovelace’s first book The Witch Doesn’t Burn In This One, and I liked that one a lot. The super-short style took some getting used to, but I enjoyed her combination of blunt honesty, vulnerability, and metaphors / imagery. Plus, she’s a Harry Potter fan, so :).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gretchen is a fellow book blogger actually (chicnerdreads) and I remember falling in love with her poetry when I read it… And I read the second Amanda Lovelace bundle, but I’m hoping to read the first very soon.

        Liked by 1 person

      • *facepalm* I told you the wrong Amanda Lovelace title! The one I’ve read is actually The Princess Saves Herself In This One. Sorry about that. *lol*

        I’ll have to look into Gretchen’s poetry. Thanks again for mentioning it!

        Liked by 1 person

      • The titles are so long, that it makes it hard to remember which one I did read as well. 😉 I’m hoping to read The Princess next month, especially since I’m curious about the third bundle as well.

        Gretchen’s poetry is without doubt worth reading. I’ve heard she has a new bundle coming out as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Why We Write is on my TBR and from what you’ve said there, it sounds like something I should get to soon. I like this shake up providing poetry and nonfiction recs.
    My recs…for nonfiction, I’d say Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, which I recently listened to on audio and absolutely loved. I’m not a Springsteen fan and wasn’t familiar with him prior to his audio book but maaann…it was a great listen that I think all artistic, creative peoples can gain inspiration and tips from.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you mentioned Born to Run in your recent comments at your blog! I’ll have to look into that one… though I might want to read some of the non-writing-related nonfiction books on my shelves first! XD

      Glad you liked this post, btw! I wasn’t sure what kind of response I would get, but so far this makes me feel confident about doing another Poetry & Nonfiction round-up in the future. 🙂 I hope you enjoy Why We Write!


  4. I loved this! I actually read a lot of nonfiction, as it can be easier for me to read during and around school 🙂 I would read every one of these, and before I read this, I was only familiar with Jenny Xie and Billy Collins. I will definitely check out Layli Long Soldier, since her poetry sounds like the sort of thing I look for. To be honest, I haven’t read much contemporary poetry in a while (something your post reminds me that I enjoy). However, I read a lot of historical poetry (especially haiku), since it comes up in my studies. And a poet I have read more of recently would be Kim Nam-jo (reading both the Korean and the English translations). Poetry is a good way to work on language learning because it is short but so layered with meaning and nuance.
    I’ll probably have to wait to read “Light the Dark” till I get back to the States, but that sounds really good. I could use another writing book – it’s been too long since I’ve had time to read one. Some really promising looking reads here, thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! I’m so glad you and other readers here have enjoyed this post. 🙂

      I get the sense that a lot of people are the same way: Either they haven’t read poetry for a long time, or they like poetry but don’t read it as often as they’d like to. Maybe it’s because it’s layered and nuanced in a way that requires more deep thought and analysis at once, when with books that analysis happens at a more comfortable rate over time? What do you think?

      I think you’d like Layli Long Soldier’s work immensely. And I also can’t help but feel that her poetry is incredibly relevant right now, given what’s going on in the States politically right now… But I hesitate to say more, just because it’s such a minefield topic. :S

      That’s a really good point about poetry and learning languages – one that I hadn’t actually thought about until you mentioned it. It’s funny, because I’m slowly making my way through a massive collection of Pablo Neruda’s poems, and it features both the original Spanish versions and the English translations side by side. And when I read the Spanish versions, of course many of the words are new / unfamiliar, but it also amazes me how much I remember from my high school Spanish lessons.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh – I do agree about poetry! I think that’s why another group of readers dismisses it altogether. It takes a lot of time to digest a poem, if you read it the right way, compared to a book where you read more pages and words but the story seeps into you. Sometimes you have to read a poem five or six times through just to figure out what it is saying – and that’s not a bad thing. So I think it is a time and mental investment that you have to have the time for. But seeing that many readers like poetry, I think it is more just about having the right time and the right poetry. Some authors are more accessible too.
        Yes – I was thinking the same thing (about Layli Long Soldier’s work), that it would be relevant. But I ALWAYS hesitate to say more because every other internet/social interaction I see or am involved with is so political, and while I’m no stranger to mentioning personal opinions or “worldview” perspectives IF they are relevant (for example, probably anyone who reads my blog knows I am a Christian and was homeschooled), but that isn’t the point of my blog either. So that was a really long way of agreeing with you, and understanding WHY you wouldn’t want to say more, <3.

        Yes – isn't it cool how much your brain retains!? I prefer to read translated poetry with the side-by-side even if I'm not learning the language, to be honest. Sometimes there are words I recognize, but sometimes I just want to read the original words aloud to hear what the author imagined it sounding like. I find, like with music, textual understanding is always the most important factor. It's important, but not absolutely required for appreciation.


  5. Ooh, many of these look great. I definitely want to pick up “How to Live on Bread and Music.” I love the “you might like [title] if …” feature—very helpful! I’ve been reading through a book of Robert Frost’s poetry this year. I’ve never read all the way through one poet’s collected works, and I’m loving the experience. You start to think in their style and get to know their quirks, favorite techniques, even their heart (if that doesn’t sound too cliche/dramatic).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! I figured the “You might like [title] if…” bit could help, especially with the poetry books. Poetry can be very subjective; we often prefer certain styles over others. So I figured it was worth distilling each book’s themes and overall style into a single sentence to help readers decide if it might appeal to them.

      Funny you mentioned Robert Frost! I bought one of his “best of” collections recently myself. 🙂 And no, what you said makes perfect sense to me and doesn’t sound cliched.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, E.! This series will definitely continue. The amount of positive feedback this post has received has been very encouraging. 🙂

      Jenny Xie has links to some of her poems that have been published online: http://www.jennymxie.com/work.html. Most of these can also be found in “Eye Level.”

      Sandra Beasley has a couple links to “Jukebox” poems here: https://www.sandrabeasley.net/poetry/i-was-the-jukebox/

      Lots of links to Jennifer K. Sweeney’s poems here: http://www.jenniferksweeney.com/Books.html

      Billy Collins has been writing and publishing poetry for so long that you could probably just Google “Billy Collins poems” and find bushels of his work. I imagine that method would also work for any of the other poets mentioned in this post.

      You can also go the Academy of American Poets website (https://www.poets.org/) and enter each poet’s name in the Search bar, then select their Poet pages. At the bottom of their Poet pages, you’ll find links to poems of theirs that have been published through the Academy’s Poem-A-Day enewsletter series.

      *whew* Hope that’s not too many links! *lol*


  6. Your post reminded me that I haven’t read poetry in a while, so thank you. Since lines from some of my favorite poems were lately in my head, I guess it’s time to refresh them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.