In the same way that you can know a person by his/her friends, you can know a writer by what he/she reads.
Not all poets read poetry, but I always do have a book of poetry in my bag, and the poetry section of a book store is the first section I check out. The other thing I always have in my bag is a notebook, because for me, poetry begets poetry: When a poem speaks to me, I engage with it. My engagement might result in an idea, or in a dialogue, or in a response. Sometimes a single word prompts a direction.
The book of poems in my bag presently is Joan Naviyuk Kane's recently released Sublingual, winner of the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Competition. I attended Joan's launch at the Anchorage Museum earlier this month, and I hear her voice as I read these poems. Never has a collection of poems felt so personal to me. This is not so much about sharing a landscape, that is, about recognizing the ice, the migration, the guttural language, the diesel, the oil, the spills, the glaciers, the myths, the magpies, the fox, the woods, the mountains, the weather, White Alice, snow, winter, root and sinew, river and rut,...as about the shared colleagues from the Institute for American Indian Arts whom she names in the titles of poems: Terese Mailhot, Sherman Alexie, Sherwin Bitsui.... And about a shared passion for words such as Lirula (referencing spruce needle blight), haltlose (a personality disorder), quondam (former), hysteresis (the dependence of the state of a system on its history), Z. atricapilla (the golden-crowned sparrow), polyna (a natural ice hole), pibloktoq (a psychological phenomenon associated with the cold, dark, snowy parts of the world).... And about recognizing the sources of her epigraphs. And about the French phrases she sprinkles here and there, which are comprehensible to me, and therefore make me feel momentarily keenly intelligent.
Of course I love fiction. The walls of the log house in which my husband and I have lived for some eighteen years now, and in which we raised three children, are lined floor to ceiling with mostly fiction, because everybody in our house loves fiction. Even before it came out that the reading of novels increases empathy and prosocial behavior, the one thing my husband and I never said no to each other about, or to our children about, is books, which almost always meant novels. So, yes: Fiction.
Due to an IAIA colleagues recommendation published on the front page of last Sunday's NYTs, I have been reading Friday Black, a short story collection by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Tommy Orange, author of the acclaimed novel There, There, is right: Adjei-Brenyah's stories are astonishing, captivating, frightening, and necessary to our times. I've already told my husband he has to read them. I'll pass the book on to my daughter next, and then to my sons. I can't remember another book that I've felt compelled to urge upon every member of the family. Within the genre of novels, I have a special predilection for novels in translation, and the current novel-in-translation in my stack is Antwerp, by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish. I came across this small gem (I also have a special fondness for small books) at the Brookline Booksmith store when I was visiting the son who lives in Boston. This Booksmith store is the last of a chain started by my husband's uncle, which makes it a pilgrimage stop. Bolano's novel is especially interesting to me for its format: His enviably self-contained chapters range from a paragraph to two pages long. I'm also studying how he handles his multiplicity of voices. Did I say that Bolano was only twenty-seven when he wrote this?
My secret: I love non-fiction at least as much as I love fiction. I read more non-fiction than anyone else I know. History. Biography. Science. Philosophy. Criticism. Cookbooks. Anything, really. Everything, really.
The two books in which I am engaged right now are This Little Art by Kate Briggs, about translation; and Thinking Without A Bannister: Essays in Understanding 1953-1975, by Hannah Arendt. They are both keeper books. I'll tell you more about them later.