on reading (& articulating your poetics)

If you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader.

In undergrad, I forced myself to read 1+ book a day—whether that be poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. Now, with a full-time job and several part-time jobs, I don’t always have the time. Still, I’ve managed to read fifty books in 2021, and there’s still time to read a few more.


Today, I’m reading Catherine Owen’s The Other 23 & a Half Hours, or Everything You Wanted to Know that Your MFA Didn’t Teach You. In it, Owen gives some context about her own experience as a writer and also provides a fairly comprehensive look at avenues that allow you to contribute to the writing community without being in academia.

Indeed, the likelihood of me getting an academic tenure-track job is as low as ever—something Owen (like everyone) states clearly and backs up with statistics. Sigh. So this book is serving as a helpful reminder that there are myriad other ways to be involved in the literary community.

Anyway, within this book, there’s a chapter about the importance of reading, which reminded me that it’s something I wanted to address on here.

So, without further ado,

here are some writers speaking to the importance of reading:

You run into people who want to write poetry who don’t want to read anything in the tradition. That’s like wanting to be a builder but not finding out what diferent kinds of wood you use.

-Gary Snider

I was convinced if I devoured every single title, then, at the end, I would be able to write a good poem. Definitely not a shortcut. And the better poems only came after much reading, then scrawling and discarding. Without devouring so many words, there is no way I could have trained my ear and eye to what works.

-Catherine Owen

Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.

-Angela Carter

Quite simply, reading gives poets energy to create, it nourishes the core of their art and it enables them to endure as artists.

-Catherine Owen

I feel I learned to write by reading, and that’s still how I learn things that allow me to grow and take on new challenges.

-Carl Phillips

First of all, we are the culmination of our influences and the more you read, the more you can develop a unique approach to your art. Secondly, if you don’t read, you have little sense of history, theory, stylistic methodologies or perspectives to draw from.

-Catherine Owen

I’m reading, I’m always reading. Reading is for me, more important than the act of writing. If I’m not reading, I’m definitely not writing.

-Chase Berggrun

When I first started reading so extensively, it was out of a deep desire to become a better writer. I talk about it in my recent interview with Alphabet Box:

I started to seriously get into poetry after my first advanced workshop during college. I had a new professor who expressed ambivalence about my work and—because spite fuels me, or maybe just because I’m eager to please—I decided to commit to learning as much as I could and to honing my craft. I started reading two or three poetry collections per day (more “rabid” reader than avid) and started getting better at writing my own poems from there.

It’s true: at nineteen, I wasn’t a great poet. I had read Snyder and Plath and Gibson and Chaucer, but I didn’t have a big sense of what contemporary poetry looked like with all it’s lyric possibilities. That awareness only came with actually reading books of poetry.

Reading shows you everything you can do in your own writing, but it also serves as a tool to help contextualize your own work. Because I took a lot of workshops in college—and then wrote a master’s thesis in grad school—I’ve been asked many times to articulate my work and contextualize it within the greater poetic scene and tradition.

Even if you’re not studying writing or poetry per se, I think it’s invaluable to know which other writers you’re in conversation with; who your foremothers/fathers are; who serves as a model for you and, alternately, which poets you write against—poets whose work you hate or think is gimmicky or terrible.

Here, as an activity, are some questions you might ask yourself about your own writing:

  • What am I investigating in my writing? Why?

  • What influences me the most?

  • Whose canonical work is mine in conversation with? Who are my literary influences?

  • Which contemporary poets are like me, or have similar concerns?

  • Which traditions or poets am I writing against? Why? In what ways?

  • What questions am I posing in my work? What questions am I afraid to pose?

  • What are the major themes within my work?

  • What critical lens(es) does my work engage with?

  • What critical texts have been influential to me?

As with basically everything else, it can be beneficial to be able to articulate where you stand and where you fit in. And I think reading—figuring whose work you enjoy and whose work you don’t—can be a major tool to help you determine your own poetics.

If you need some reading materials, The West Review will send you 5 books for $30 or one every month for $10/month.

Or, if you don’t like surprises or live outside of the US, here are the best books I’ve read this year, in no particular order:

& what’s new with me, you ask?

  1. Brenna McPeek has a gorgeous review of the anthology Best Microfiction 2021, in which my included pieces get a lil shoutout! eep!

  1. I am hilarious.

  2. & here are the tweets I’ve enjoyed:

Until next time,