Poets I’m Reading This Month

by Jeff Oaks

Last year I had a great idea (I thought). Every month for a year, I would choose a poet I loved or wanted to love more, read everything I could–poetry and prose, letters if possible, maybe even a couple of critical essays on the poet. I did this because I questioned how much I actually knew about some of my favorite poets and how much I’d made up or just assumed. I know that I have a habit of inhabiting the writing I most love, repeating it to myself, writing out sections of it, using quotations in classes, so that that work comes to seem like something I wrote. The danger is that sometimes what is true about a work in a historical sense often gets lost in what I want to be true about it.

On that list were some poets I also never felt like I knew enough about, like Celan, whose poems I have sometimes loved and sometimes struggled with. Like Ashbery. If I remember right, the list was about half poets I wanted to know better and poets I already loved, like Theodore Roethke, Transtromer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden. I think I might have even dared to dream about it as a book project, a “creative reading” project like Maureen McLane’s My Poets which I’d read pieces of and been intrigued by.

I started with Transtromer. Three months later, I was still on Transtromer. I read his poems over and over every night, every spare minute. I wrote poems in response to his poems. I got obsessed. I fell in love with the poems. I think it surprised me how much I loved them, maybe even that I could fall so hard in love with a poet, with poems again. I had thought I’d crossed some line between my former amateur self and my newish professional self, a professional line that required me to give up things like falling in love with anybody’s poems, that considered all writing now as “work,” as texts to be studied, lectured about, and/or assigned. A year later, I still haven’t really moved on to Celan as I intended. I’ve flirted with a few poems, opening a selected poems of his at random, but there’s no fire yet.

I’m hopeful, but as a serial monogamist, I think I’m going to have to start by just going out and reading in smaller doses than the enormous bodies of work I chose in my list. Luckily, a couple of friends’ books have come out recently, and I thought I’d spend some time reading them.

It’s weird in some ways for me to read my friends’ books when they come out. In some ways, there’s a similar problem involved in reading a “great” poet like Neruda, who comes with all sorts of expectations that can get in the way of reading the poems, as there is with reading a published friend. How much of the work is remembered from local readings, from private conversations, from being “on the inside” as it were; it’s hard to get to the poems in a fresh way, to read them without the wash of personal affection blurring everything. For a while, I couldn’t even open the two books because I almost didn’t feel I needed to.

But then this weekend, I had some spare time and wanted to use it reading a few books of the contemporary poetry I’ve bought in the last few months. My two friends were at the top of the list.

They’re very different poets, but similar is some ways too, not only because they’re both published by Tupelo Press. Stacey Waite, in her book Butch Geography, takes as her subject the difficulty of being between categories, of having always been between categories. She’s a narrative poet, mostly, and there are big-hearted titles like “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken For a Boy By an Umpire at the Little League Conference Championship,” which you can read an earlier version of

I think more is being made of it as a book about a serious subject (its category on the back is “poetry/gender studies”) which is of course good, since gender studies is still a subject of derision in some parts of the culture, and Stacey’s book gives example after example of why it’s necessary. But there’s not perhaps enough on the back about how much fun there is in the book too, how delicious a life that can slip between assumptions can be, how much creativity is required, how juicy the stories. The empathy is deep. There’s a great poem called “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken For a Man by Security Personnel at Newark International Airport” in which the narrator is subjected to a pat down by a TSA official who suddenly realizes who he’s got his hands on:

“But when I hold my arms straight out
and he traces the outlines of my underarms, he makes
that face, the face I’ve seen before,
the “holy-shit-it’s-a-woman” face,
the “pretend-you-don’t-notice-the-tits” face.”

and then a little later:

“Jimmy stares hard at the metal detector
with a kind of respect, like the arc of it became holy,
transformed me on my walk through.”

It is a book about empathy in many ways, for the self, for the family, for the ones who’ve made mistakes, for the ones who act as if nothing has happened at all. It’s full of complications. In many ways it’s about the complications of identity, a subject anyone can understand, even if they haven’t had a life full of these occasions and so had to think deeply about them. Since my new chapbook is similarly about the issue of mistakes, I’m particularly loving Stacey’s book. Maybe it’s time to admit mistakes as a culture even. The inability to do so might be our greatest threat right now.

The second book I wanted to write a bit about is CM Burroughs’ The Vital System. But I’ve run out of time this afternoon, so I’m going to devote my next post to that book.