What I’m Reading Now… by Juliana Spahr

 

As I was going through my list of what I’m currently reading I really wanted to write a revisionary history of it. A few months ago I had been reading my way through “prize winning” books for this book I am writing with Stephanie Young and C. O. Grossman and I have some things to say about those books and my mixed feelings about many of them. But I put that reading on hold once the semester took over. I also have not included the books I am reading because I am teaching them, although those books are really excellent. We did Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land two weeks ago. Last week we looked at two plays that the State Department produced in Europe with all black actors to counter the Soviet Union’s claims that they were not racist: Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. This week we are reading the poetry of Langston Hughes from the 1920s (the revolutionary poems!) and Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead.” Those are all good, or interesting, books (interesting as in I’m not a big fan of the plays, to be honest).

But if I stay honest, here is what I’m currently reading:

Karl Ove Knausgård’s The End.

It’s long. I’m in the discussion of Mein Kampf section, not sure how far in because I am not sure how much longer it is but it already is too much. I confess I skipped a lot of the reading of Celan’s “Engführung.” It felt too much like a smart undergraduate paper. This is the third book of My Struggle that I’ve read. I only like the ones that are about him becoming a writer. I read the second one, about being a writer while having young children when my child was young and was sort of fascinated by his ability to get at the mundane and bad brain that defines those years. I read most of it while camping in Death Valley and I was up all night in the tent reading it on my iPad and my friends got angry at me and a year later they threatened to no longer go camping with me because I spent all the time reading and I had to apologize. I started this one before I left for a Thanksgiving trip to Death Valley over Thanksgiving and I was asked to keep it under control this time. But this one feels almost too meta to me and he felt more and more anxious and I had no trouble putting it down at night. That said, I will probably finish it; which is a sign of something.

Keith Richards, Life.

Also long. I am not sure I am going to finish it. It is a hard book to read and I wish he had hired a better ghostwriter. I am not a huge Rolling Stones fan so I am having to spend a lot of time on google to understand what is going on. I’ve searched the names of a lot of models from the 1970s, for instance. The fault of this book might be that Richards really wants to be a decent guy. Who knows, maybe he is but that is not why I am here. I picked this up because I wanted depravity and extremity and also some descriptions of how great it is to be high, which I confess is one of my favorite genres. My plan was always to stop when he got clean, which is how I usually read these rock and roll memoirs (or the moment when I turn off Behind the Music). Richards’s representation of his drug years (I think I am just at the end of them) are maybe too realist, as in they are just sad and myopic and nothing really happens in them but drugs. Right before this I read Cate Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life: a Memoir. And while it might not be a fair comparison, I couldn’t stop reading it. I was literally reading it on my phone while at the gym. But also as Marnell never really got clean, I never had to stop reading it.

Poets of the Chinese Revolution.

It has work by Chen Duxiu, Chen Yi, and Mao Tse-Tung (edited by Gregor Benton and Chongyi Feng) and I was writing a blurb for this a few days ago. It hits all my current scholarly obsessions: poetry, the relationship of literature to the state, to communism, to revolution. It helped me have some new thoughts about these relationships. That said, I am not sure I will return to the poems much even as I am really committed to reading poetry outside of the Western tradition and often seek it out. But whenever I read Chinese poetry, I spend the entire time thinking I do not yet know enough about Chinese poetry to read Chinese poetry that is written within the Chinese national or regional tradition. This is never the fault of the translations just that it is a form of poetry that is so richly allusive to a tradition that I know next to nothing about. For that reason, the notes by Benton and Feng were really helpful.

Andrew Piper, Enumerations: Data and Literary Study.

This book is full-on digital humanities. And while data driven and quantitative analysis of literature isn’t as fun to read as descriptions of getting high written by rock stars (before they realize it is a bad idea to do all the time), I am partial also to the really detailed descriptions of how literature is made. I think as a poet, and maybe also as a scholar, I am supposed to find data-driven understandings of how literature is made as a violation of all that I value about literary autonomy. But my interest in a book like Enumerations is because I am someone who sometimes tries to write literature (or it is the poet part of my brain that reads this work; not as much the scholarly part). I went through a phase as an undergraduate when I couldn’t stop reading those Russian formalists such as Roman Jakobson and Vladimir Propp. Literature at the time was something that felt so closed to me that I was convinced that if I could just figure out how it was made, I would begin to understand why it interested me and also how to make it. This work that is coming out of digitial humanities often reminds me of my early interest in that work. Enumerations has got a good chapter at the end on Wanda Coleman, someone who has not really gotten much attention from scholars.

Diane Hamilton, God Was Right.

It’s a good read and really, how many poetry books have you said that about lately? It tries to say some things that aren’t safe. Or at least it feels that way. (I am on a poetry is too safe right now kick; the self-obsessed right position-ness of it is boring me. Or maybe the way to put it is that there is the safe right position-ness of much of it and then there is this right wing part of it that is more awful and all I want is something else.) It might be more essay than poetry (which might explain why I have enjoyed it so much). I am having trouble describing it, to be honest. A lot of it is focused on sexual mores, without in any way being about love. Maybe that is why it is so interesting to me? Maybe it can be thought as a book that is more an anthropological look at the subject matter that concerns so much of poetry than poetry itself?