My Poetry Bookshelf – What I Learned

In January 2020, I started a hashtag on Twitter and Instagram called #mypoetrybookshelf. I outlined my aims for this hashtag in a blog post last year but, essentially, I planned to reread a poetry book everyday and share one poem that spoke to me. I had no idea that two months after picking up the first book on my shelf, Covid-19 would hit and I would need to go into self-isolation. Two weeks after that, the whole UK went into lockdown. What turned out to be a fun little project became a routine which anchored me throughout a very uncertain year.

Years ago, when my poetry bookshelf was still neat and orderly!

Before undertaking this project I was a pretty swift poetry reader. I would usually read a whole book quickly, dog-earring the poems that spoke to me along the way. Then, in the same sitting, I’d return and perhaps make some notes or close the book, sip my tea and think for a while. However, this project reminded me of how essential those ‘unseen’ poems are and the importance of returning to pieces that perhaps didn’t leap off the page at first glance. Upon rereading, I often discovered new poems I hadn’t noticed before and entire new themes emerged. As the months went by, I began to form mental constellations between poets and started to consider the conversations their books were having about poetry and the world.

In August 2020, I decided to take a break from rereading and focus, primarily, on reading new works, inspired by the Sealey Challenge. This revealed more conversations between poets and their poems, but also raised questions about independent publishing, prize culture, poetic theories, representation, etc. I started to read more books on craft and branched out to explore new kinds of poetry. I also – after a slow year trying to get to grips with the pandemic – started writing more, every Sunday. Until this point, I had been working slowly on my third collection but reading everyday inspired me to sit more often with my notebook. Reading so much also scared me – some poets are geniuses whose talents are so huge you think there is no room for other poems in the world – but, still, I kept writing.

Although I knew when I started this project that I had a lot of books, I never imagined I would have more than a year’s worth of poetry collections, magazines, craft books, etc to share via #mypoetrybookshelf. But, at this point, at the time of this blog post, I have shared poetry from 396 books. There are more collections waiting in my locked down office and, surely, some will arrive in the post soon but, as of this moment, I have now shared one poem from each poetry-related book I own. So, from now on, I will only be sharing intermittently, whenever I’m reading a new pamphlet or collection.

When the end of this project was in sight, I decided to do a rough bookshelf audit to get a sense of the kind of authors I typically read. Of the 396 books I own and shared, I have the following:

  • 329 books by female writers (83% of my bookshelf)
  • 74 books by BIPOC writers (17%)
  • 27 books by LGBTQ+ writers (.06%)
  • 8 books in translation (.02%)
  • 6 books by disabled writers (.015%)
  • 3 books by non-binary writers (.008%)

I consider this to be a rough audit rather than 100% accurate because 1) some writers do not reveal their gender identities, sexual orientation or disability in their bios, 2) some writers have multiple identities so are counted here twice (i.e. female + BIPOC) and 3) with nearly 400 books to count I may have miscounted a few!

I also noticed that I almost exclusively buy books from independent presses (not hard to do with poetry!) and that I have a large amount of collections from Seren Books and Parthian Books, both Welsh publishers (not surprising, considering I’ve lived here for 11 years). I also reflected on the reasons I’ve bought poetry – many of the books on my shelf deal with themes that I have a strong interest in like grief, family trauma and illness. About 100 of these books were bought at poetry readings where I listened to the author speak about their craft and read poems.

I am still reflecting on what this bookshelf audit means for me as a white woman poet / reader but also in wider terms when it comes to the publishing industry and representation. However, on a basic level, what this audit has taught me is that I would like to read even more diversely in 2021. I am particularly interested in reading more work by disabled writers as well as more collections in translation. I also noticed that I read a lot of narrative poetry so I am interested in exploring more non-narrative poetry this year. If you have any recommendations please do let me know in the comments below or via Twitter / Instagram: @writetoempower.

It is going to be strange not to get up and sit with a poetry collection everyday going forward but I am incredibly grateful that I engaged with this process for the last 396 days. It has grounded me during these challenging times and has also opened up doors to new writers, new techniques, new curiosities and new hope. Thank you to everyone who has followed this journey with me.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I enjoyed reading more about your reading project, Christina, which I have been following on Twitter. Your shelves look beautiful, by the way! I love the idea of spending more time with a collection, reading slowly, returning to the poems that didn’t leap out at you first time. I can’t remember who said it but I often think about the comment “you learn more by returning to a poem you don’t like than only reading the ones you like.” I think my tastes are quite similar to yours, judging by your breakdown of your reading stats. I don’t have any recommendations as such, but I returned to the Penned in the Margins anthology ‘Adventures in Form’ recently (I think published in 2009?) a book I haven’t picked up in years, when I was thinking about experimentation and writing the absurd – more specifically writing *about* the absurd because of the strange, strange times we’re living through. The examples in the anthology helped me think about using form, re-making form, and creating form – to approach the subject I’m writing about in a different way. I think what I’m saying in a long-winded fashion is that certain books have their time and moment in our lives, and speak to us in different ways at different times, so returning to them can be very rewarding. Thanks again for your project and this post. You’ve given me lots to think about.

    1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment Josephine. I’ts great to hear that you enjoyed the posts and the physical bookshelf as well – I feel like the shelf itself got much messier over the course of the year! Thanks for sharing that quote too; I think that is so true. I feel I’ve grown so much by returning to these poetry collections, often more than the first time reading them, so I hope to continue this re-reading practice in the future. And finally, thank you for your book recommendation. I don’t have ‘Adventures in Form’ but it sounds great so will definitely pick up a copy! I hope you’re keeping safe and well during these strange times. I have found reading, rereading, writing and thinking about poetry to be quite a tonic during lockdowns.

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