The Poet Scout

I would love to be able to sincerely express embarrassment that I am about to open with an account of a dream I had. However, even a cursory glance at my twitter account would make it clear that I hardly hesitate to share dreams publicly, so I will have to dispense with disingenuous apologies and get to the point.

I had a dream the other night that I was working at a bookshop when someone came in and asked where to find the literary journals of local colleges. This was, apparently, a section that existed in the shop, and while I showed him the way, he explained that he was a poet scout looking to make some new discoveries. 

I woke up utterly charmed by the idea: a poet scout! Of course, the charm lies in the counterfactual: we do not live in a world where the economics of the poetry market generate a need for such a person as a travelling poetry scout (a phrase I pronounce in my mind with a lilt to match the “travelling poetry bag” from my favorite Fry & Laurie sketch). And what do you do with a good counterfactual, but play pretend!

I think this would make a lovely reading project for a reader of any age or level of experience with the reading of poetry. In fact, it may be particularly fruitful as a route into reading poetry for people who simply don’t. Goodness knows it is probably the majority of us nowadays who do not read poetry, and I’m afraid that part of the barrier to entry is a perception of inaccessibility around the poetry world. While much poetry does reference other poetry, and it is true that the more you read, the more you enjoy the reading, taking on the figure of the poetry scout would allow any reader to center their own reading experience rather than anxieties about approaching the labyrinthine world of poets.

Here’s the reading project I propose: imagine you are a poet scout, on the lookout for poetry that stirs something in you. It doesn’t matter where you find it - you could try chapbooks on sale for a couple of dollars at craft fairs or local crystal shops, or you could sit a while with Poetry magazine at the local library (I also recommend their Poetry Mobile app, which allows you to spin themes and find new poems). Since we’re playing pretend, it really doesn’t matter if the poet you find is, in reality, fully “discovered” already. What you’re scouting for is a poet who speaks to you, whose use of figurative language resonates with your emotional experience of the world, whose account of unfamiliar experiences opens new pathways in your mind, or whose application of consonants feels like a warm and glowing campfire evening or a bright and candy-pink sunrise in your brain. Working out what you’re looking for is part of the fun. 

What comes next is the best part: it’s a self-regenerating reading project! Once you’ve discovered a poet, you can find more of their work to read. There is a good chance you will enjoy your poet’s books, if they have published some, but you should also seek them out in other journals (back-issues are often available for a discount if you’re hunting down a specific poem from a past year). You can continue to scout through the journals this leads you to, and you should also try reading interviews with poets you like, who will generally mention other poets you might find worth reading. If you’d like, you can go down a whole rabbit-hole reading essays on poetry, reading the poems and the poets that they reference, and then reading essays written by those poets. Or, if you’re not as big of a lit crit fan as I am, just stick with the poetry.

There is always plenty of poetry to read, and the beauty of reading this way is that you don’t have to worry about whether you are a “good enough” reader. In this reading project, your reading experience is the whole point, and the criterion for choosing further reading is just a certain feeling in your gut. Happy reading!

Reading the Dead

For some reason, out of the hundreds of times that I’ve heard the phrase “dead white men” in the context of the problematic amount of space they take up in the canon and in in public consciousness, it struck me differently when I heard it today. Of what use, I’m wondering now, is the word “dead” in there?

I can get behind the spirit of the challenge. Let’s read women! Let’s read people of color! Your reading project is yours alone, and after all, we each only get so much reading time on this earth. Still, I cannot imagine a world in which I could bring myself to read the living instead of the dead.

My dissertation advisor recently reminded me that “tradition” and “metaphor,” from Latin and from Greek respectively, have the same literal sense, a carrying-over. “Tradition” comes to mean a carrying over of the things of our ancestors to the younger generations, whereas “metaphor” is used to describe the carrying-over, or transference, of meaning from one idea to another. But even in these conventional uses, surely there is still a relationship between the concepts: on what can our metaphors subsist without the tradition? How quickly would our living art pale and wither without its inheritances from the art of the dead?

Of course, I would say this; my work focuses almost entirely on the dead, and one of my most pressing research questions is about the terms of ethical engagement between the reader and the long-dead creators of texts. And of course I see, from a practical point of view, why the word gets lumped in with “white men”: of the texts published and preserved and made available from earlier eras in western literature (not to even begin to touch on the complex cultural history of translation), a disproportionate number were authored by white men.

At the same time, the word implies a hope that lives in those who deploy it: that this will no longer be the case in the texts currently being produced by the living, that a new era is upon us, and from now on, the canon will look different. It’s a lot of hope to place on our canon, the canon of those living now, and it is, by now, a hope that has been shared by many who are no longer with us, who have joined the dead. So are they no longer part of our project? Won’t we count them among our number?

I believe in keeping company with the dead, and will continue to do so, not apologetically or as a concession, but as a point of primary interest and ethical concern for the living.


The graveyard in Grafton, Vermont

The graveyard in Grafton, Vermont

for the solstice

Persephone books is reading my mind this week. In Monday’s Persephone Post, with a Jane Peterson painting that speaks to me of warm-on-a-cold-day, they reference the joy known universally to reading women of “Boxing Day when they might be allowed a few hours on the sofa with a Good Book.” It’s St. Stephen’s Day to me, Mr. Wenceslas’s big day, but there was resonance here of a conversation I had only recently:

“What would you like to do on St. Stephen’s day?”
“Well, read, obviously, but I don’t know what else... don’t we sometimes bake?”

To complicate the dichotomy that the ladies at Persephone set up, between holiday preparations and quiet time to read, I have also often enjoyed baking on St. Stephen’s Day, but specifically because the pressure is off, and it feels like the first day when it is possible to bake on my own terms again (clean kitchen, music at whim, no time obligations whatsoever). But first and foremost, the 26th is a day for reading: everyone needs some quiet that day, all of the expectations of constant socializing must be dropped, and hopefully, one has at least one new book that's been tugging at one from the edge of all the socializing. So, perhaps a good day to bake something yeasty, and fill the long proofing periods with reading.

Still, before we get there, the solstice this week is the first of my December holiday trinity: this is the quiet one, spent in exactly my own way, sparkling between cool air and warm light, and hopefully out-of-doors and champagne and eating meat again for the first time in Advent (though I had some early solstice celebrations away from home this year with family—I, like many of my contemporaries, believe myself an inventor of flexibility in ritual).

The solstice has been special to me for a number of years, and it’s delightful to see it coming forward in collective attention recently thanks to the astrological renaissance underway on the internet and in millennial havens nowadays. My social circles include representatives of both sides of the polarization that astrology brings out, a conflict that’s amusing if you keep in mind how recently (half a millennium or so ago) there was no line as such between astrology and astronomy. For this, I see the rationalists and the astrologues as the conflict of the schism: the skeksis and the mystics of the world I inhabit. I have a guess, however, at which side would be happier to hear me describe the conflict as illusory.

Still, I feel that any version of modernity currently practiced will not prevent any of us from appreciating the turning of the year, the hope for the returning of the sun. In my life, too, this December moment is a symbolic one: the promise that eventually, later on in January, I will start to get some sunlight back in the morning, the only time I really care about it. Many people I know are delighted to start gaining light in the afternoon, since, I suppose, they find it gloomy rather than magical to leave work in the dark. For me, it’s still another month to wait for relief, but the solstice encourages: brighter times ahead.