#thesealeychallenge, Poetry

To All the Books I Read Last Month

Yesterday marked the end of #thesealeychallenge for 2020. It was a great experience and challenge that helped me reconnect to poetry. I read one poetry book per day from Monday to Friday for the month of August. It wasn’t always easy. I tend to get bogged down with basic life admin stuff and it can easily fill my day, but this challenge made me slow down, spend time with words, and connect with other people about my love of poetry. It was great to connect with other folks participating, and I’ve added a ton of new poetry to my ‘to-read’ list. I am already looking forward to next year. 

I tried to write daily about each collection but that was too ambitious. I didn’t want to just skip over the books I didn’t have time to write about so here are some shortened thoughts about them. These are in no specific order. 

Life of the Party by Olivia Gatewood

This book takes on themes of girlhood, violence against women, love, and friendship, and presents these themes in a frank and refreshing way. I have enjoyed Gatewood’s poetry for a long time and mostly knew her as a spoken-word performer. I think when spoken word poets put their poems on paper, the power of the poem sometimes doesn’t translate in the same way. That is not the case here. These poems are electric, and this book would make a great gift for any young woman in your life (and the not so young women too). Also, she is from Albuquerque, which I didn’t know, and it is nice to recognize the places and landscapes described. Here is a performance of one of my favorites. 

The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward 

This book is a mix of poems and prose and deals with themes of family, race, addiction, class, and so much more. This book balances between joy and heartbreak. The book is also considered a memoir. We are rooting for Yrsa and her family but we are also shown how they are not perfect, they are people who make messy decisions and mostly do their best with the hands they were dealt. Yrsa writes beautifully about what it is to be a girl and a young woman in the face of people who see you as an object, toy, or burden. Still, this book is about hope and about how we can pick up the pieces and leave the ones we don’t need behind. Here is a great, short interview with Yrsa where she discusses her poetry and how/ why she shares it with such honesty and vulnerability online:

Forward Book of Poetry 2020

This book is an anthology of the best poems from the Forward Prize, a UK-based poetry award. As an anthology, this contained writing from a range of poets. I like reading books like this to help me find new poets whose work I love, and it allows me to read poetry that I might not usually seek out. During this challenge, I tried to stay mindful that almost all of the books I read were ones I had bought myself. Naturally, I’m only going to purchase books that I think I will enjoy, which leads to missing out on lots of poetry that I might actually enjoy. Anthologies can help me break through my hang-ups. I don’t think I will ever like certain types of poems or poetic forms and themes, but reading them only adds to my understanding of poetry. It also allows me to see what themes and styles of poetry are current and reflect the world today. It introduces me to new voices in poetry, and writers from identities and communities outside my own. 

If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton

I had the opportunity to meet Stephen during the Seamus Heaney Centre’s Poetry Summer School. He was so nice and gave me helpful feedback on my poems which is invaluable. I really enjoyed the way he talked about and taught about poetry, so I knew I wanted to read his book. I was a little hesitant because this book uses the Super Mario World video game as a vehicle to explore themes of loss and grief. I have never played a video game in my life. No, really. Never. Thankfully my lack of experience didn’t affect my reading of this book. These poems are about Sexton’s experience of losing his mother at a young age. The way he addresses the subject of death and grief is so refreshing and beautiful. When I posted about this book on Instagram I mentioned that I wish I had this book in the aftermath of my dad’s death almost two years ago. I still haven’t had the chance the visit his grave or even go to his house. I find myself thinking of him in the most random moments, and I think that is just how grief is. Grief is always there and we just move closer or farther from it. If someone in your life or if you are dealing with grief, I highly recommend this collection. 

Witch by Rececca Tamas

This book was one I was very excited about, but that I sadly didn’t connect with it as much as I had hoped. The Sealey Challenge is great, but sometimes I found myself reading too quickly to really let the work sink in. This collection has elements of magical realism and surrealism, which made it fun to read, but a little more complex.  I know I will be returning to this book at another time. I think it would make the perfect Halloween read. 

Bloodroot by Annemarie Ni Churreain 

In a former life, I was a reproductive justice organizer. My main focus was on working with various community groups to decrease the stigma around abortion. I even gave several sermons at churches across the state of New Mexico. While I’m proud of the work that I did in that role, I  got very burnt out around that time. Like VERY burnt out. I went into what I call ‘retirement,’ but really it was me trying to avoid my triggers and preserve my mental health. This was going on when I moved to Ireland. I watched the abortion referendum in the South and then the campaign in the North from the sidelines. It is only recently that I have again been able to do or learn about anything social justice. I am very interested in learning about women’s rights in Ireland, and this book deals with that subject with poems about the mother and baby homes and laundries where young women would be sent if they became pregnant outside of marriage or were doing anything that the Catholic Church thought was sinful. These things were happening not that long ago and the ripples of that old way of thinking are still around today. The poems in this collection are beautiful and shine a light on a dark time in Irish history. 

The Women Are Singing by Luci Tapahonso

I’ve read this collection many times and each time I take something new from it. Tapahonso was the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. I had the good fortune to meet Tapahonso at university when she came to read to a poetry class. Her poems are so lyrical and beautiful while still using accessible language. I love how she describes landscapes, especially when she is talking about the northwest of New Mexico. She combines family stories with the history and beliefs of Navajo people and doesn’t hold back when describing the horrific atrocities faced by indigenous peoples at the hands of white folks traveling west. She weaves these stories into moments of the current day where we can see how this continues to impact her community. I am endlessly grateful for growing up in New Mexico and getting to be surrounded by so many different cultures and languages and ways of seeing and being in the world. Here is a video of Tapahonso reading some poems and talking about her process. 

Citizen by Claudia Rankine 

This book is so urgent, and I think it should be required reading. This book was recommended by many people this spring when the current wave of global Black Lives Matter protests started. Rankine blends poetry, prose, and images to tell of the black experience and how microaggressions, racism, and white supremacy have impacted her and black folks in her community. Check out this reading Rankine did from the book. It is so powerful. Definitely make plans to read this book. 

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

I am so glad that this was the last read of the challenge. I loved this book, and I can see it becoming one that I return to again and again. I don’t know what I expected because it is in the title, but so much of this collection is actually love poems told through a wonderful queer POC lens. These poems are humourous and heartbreaking in their themes of love, desire, race, class, and so much more. I loved that the collection included a quote from Rihanna and references to the history of Diaz’s tribe, and then used metaphor via Greek myth. Like Rankine’s, I think this collection should be required reading. This collection has some of the most beautiful and technically complex poetry I’ve read in a long time. I didn’t have the time to do a deep dive and dissection into this work, but I plan on doing that soon. It manages to be excellent poetry while also using accessible language and structure. I will definitely be checking out Diaz’s other work. Watch this moving video that features ‘American Arithmetic,’ one of my favorite poems in the book.

I struggle to write my own poetry in isolation. I find inspiration from interactions with people and places, and I love being in workshop settings. When quarantine started I knew I would find it difficult to write anything. I was honored to participate in the Seamus Heaney Poetry Summer School put on by the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, and I also took part in an online workshop. Outside of those experiences and despite all of the ideas I generated, I was struggling to write. Reading so much poetry has turned that around. Immersing myself in poems was what I needed to overcome the writer’s block. It feels good.