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I wrote a poem after every book I read in 2020. I’ll do it again in 2021 and I think you should too.
At the end of 2019 I had a reading slump. Hard. Where I usually read four, five, six books a month, I read zero. Post Code. Nada. I kept picking up books, putting in about 20 pages and putting them down so I never pick them up again. Of course I wanted that. But I looked at her and didn’t feel the excitement I wanted, the itch to read and read now. My bedside table turned into a cemetery. My relationship with reading somehow changed without my noticing. All the joy ran out.
As an experiment, I decided to write a poem inspired by every book I finished in 2020. Yes, every single one. Yes, for the whole year. I read my technical writing and professional textbooks for my master’s degree and everything. I had done this with all of the films I had seen in 2019 and it changed the way I consumed films. I had to think about them from different angles. I didn’t let movies boom in the background while I was doing something else. I couldn’t if I wrote a whole poem about it afterwards. No, I put all my attention on her, looking for the spark that could turn into something new, creative and fun. A line or an attitude or a concept that I hadn’t thought of before. So, I thought, why don’t you try books?
The first book I read was The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. I cheated on this a bit, I suppose. What better inspiration to write than a book about writing? And boy delivered it. My subsequent poem couldn’t keep up with the book. It didn’t have the guts. But I loved writing it. And I also enjoyed reading the book under this new light. It was like putting myself back in the reading process and doing this.
Where I previously devoured books and immediately forgot them as soon as the backs closed, I still remember entire lines from The Writing Life without trying. Simply because I spent time combing through what I highlighted or noted down to analyze exactly what I had to say about it. I can still recite passages from it over a year later.
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After the first book, I started reading with more intent. And read more. I was immersed in every book I picked up, found lines to play out, or rummaged through the book for new topics to write about. I started picking books that I thought would inspire me: Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls and Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and The Seas by Samantha Hunt. Where I’d previously stuck to my usual YA LGBT + coming-of-age novel, which I still love, I started to branch out more and more. Non-fiction, self-help, adult fantasy, I’ve tried everything. What inspiration could I find in genres that I hadn’t explored yet? What about audiobooks? Magical Realism? Poetry?
Some of the books weren’t actually my jam, but what did that mean? There was always something to pull out to roll around like a marble in your mouth trying to place exactly what it tasted like. Exactly what I liked or didn’t like about every page, every style and every thought. Whether I liked it was less important than how much it fascinated me.
I’ll be honest, a great majority of the poems turned out terrible. Never again see the terrible daylight. I didn’t make a statement that I was a poet prior to this project and that hasn’t changed. But they were like that. a lot of. Fun. Now I understand more and more what I’m looking for in a novel, things that really caught my eye and that I’ve never put into words. I can still quote from Little Women and Mr. Splitfoot and The Low, Low Woods because for the first time in a long time I haven’t read to complete these books. I read to understand them and how I relate to them and the topics buried in them. I have taken an active role in reading again.
Writing a poem after every book I read in 2020 has been a challenge. The list of poems I had to write sometimes piled up and mocked me from my to-do list week after week. I tried sonnets and long forms and haiku and rhyme. I’ve tried Truman Capote, Stephen King, and TS Eliot. And although it was difficult, where I was used to boredom I found my wonderful joy in old friends instead.
If you want to change your relationship with reading or are looking for a different type of reading challenge, you can do so for the rest of 2021 as well.