If there ever was a Reading Series about being in love—well, in love with literature—Writers Reading is it. The monthly series began at the bookshop in January where Zoe Miller, local fiction writer, and I talked about James Baldwin, an author that’s had a significant effect on our work. We shared anecdotes about when we first read him and then we read aloud from Sonny’s Blues. Afterwards we had a great discussion with the audience.
On Monday February 21 at 6 pm, Lisa Johnson will be leading a discussion on one of her favorites: Sula by Toni Morrison. I’m new to this particular book and I can’t wait to hear Lisa talk about what it’s meant for her as a writer and a thinker.
I had a professor in undergrad that loved Elizabeth Bishop. He was so in love with her poetry that he brought her up at every opportunity. Our class was made up of twelve eighteen-year-old girls and we were skeptical of anyone he brought up over and over again. Especially someone dead and white.
“But she was gay!” He exclaimed, somewhat desperately. “She was a woman! Her life was a mess!” And so he started assigning us more of her work and when that didn’t work, he began to read to us.
There were three poets that my professor really harped on that year: Bishop, Hart Crane and Robert Lowell. I have an intense affinity to all three of them now, but it’s Bishop’s work that I fell in love with. It took some coaxing on his part. He read us the “Man Moth,” his voice softening and rising with emphasis, his hands calmly on the table, and I liked it but still wasn’t thrilled. He assigned “One Art” to us to read for the next class, and I went through it quickly, recognized it as a villanelle and moved on to my other work. That morning in class he asked us again, what did we think of this one? and we all shrugged. I remember someone said, in what barely amounted to a yawn that she, “used the form well.” My professor blinked at and rested his hand back into his hands. What else did we think? He let us make fools of ourselves, discussing why we weren’t moved, what didn’t interest us, and then he sprang forward, took the poem and told us to follow along. I think I learned something about how to read aloud that day, how to push emotion through the voice and how to capture everything that the words were simply hovering over. When he got to the last line, his voice shook. “Though it may look like,” he paused here, then. “Write it” and the harshness with which he squeaked out those two words, a sort of sneering last push made me start to cry. My professor had won. After that we begged for more stories about Bishop chain smoking British Ovals or losing her lovers.
People light up at the chance to talk about their favorite author. They also consistently become the best versions of their teacher self. I know that I look for any opening to read something out loud by a favorite poet or from a favorite story. There’s something so important about this, the chance to take something that you know is good, something that’s the whole reason you write anyway and get to consume it: put it in our mouths, breathe the writer’s inhales and exhales, and for a brief moment get to live in it. I think we all feel ownership over our favorite things and when we get the opportunity to swoon over a favorite, of any kind it almost makes that piece of art ours. It belongs to us. There’s also that extra thrill of watching someone else, hear those words and go absolutely wild for them for the very first time. That new person’s experience becomes ours as well.
I love learning about other people’s favorites if nothing else but to see them get fired up and to receive some insight into what fuels them as a writer.
In March we’ll get to hear Kerry Fergusen swoon about a favorite and then in April we’ll have a month’s worth of writers reading events in honor of poetry month. Come out and watch writers get flustered as they try to express their love for a piece of writing. You might fall in love too.