you are what you read

Originally published on Medium, November 2013. Words and photographs by Melanie Dunea.


Would you say this pile of books defines you?

Not really—I mean as you can see, I have literally thousands of books I've gathered or was given over the years. It was hard for me to pull only a few for you to see ... I just grabbed some first editions here and old copies I have of books I love. Speaking of definitions, this college dictionary [American Heritage Dictionary] I got right before my senior year of high school. I still use it twice a week. I read it—all of it!

You seem to have a passion for old, rare books.

For me, getting the earliest editions of the book tells you something crucial, something lost in the digital. Who owned it maybe, how it was well-read—or well-loved. I love the textures and the stories that the old copies tell. Used bookstores are the best in that way.

Is there is one book you return to over and over?

Yes and no. I feel like all of these books are versions of that. There's not the one book. These three poetry books are a first edition of Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville, and then Good Times by Lucille Clifton. These are all first books, remarkable debuts that really sing to me.

Poetry or prose?

I actually haven't been reading much poetry lately because I'm working on prose, a follow-up to my nonfiction book The Grey Album. I rarely read fiction; the prose I usually read is nonfiction.

Do you write in your books?

Oh yeah, I have to. I don't like dog-earing pages it because that hurts the book physically. But I have to mark in them, usually in pencil.

Do you always use the same writing diaries?

I have ten million journals I've written in. Well, not literally—I do wish they were all uniform in a way, but they tend to be whatever is handy and blank. They no longer make the kind of notebooks I really loved that I used to use—Carta I think they were called. In notebooks, I write in pen mostly, black pen, but I'll write in or with anything really.

Do you feel like you have to finish a book?

You mean writing one? Since I'm trying to finish this new book, that's a pointed question! In terms of reading, I don't need to finish a book. I realized at a certain point that I read like a poet — slowly with attention to language, even more than story. I’m used to opening a book to the middle, which is fine with poetry, moving frontward and back. I learned to recognize and accept that way of reading was okay. More recently, ever since I've started writing prose that requires research, I have had to get over reading slowly like that. With nonfiction, now I'm more likely to read straight to the end of a book.

Do you have book envy?

I have look envy. I love the look and feel of books so much it's almost like, “Oh, I'd love a book like that” rather than “Oh, I can't believe they did that with that book," or “Oh, I would never do that.” It's more participatory. I feel like reading is this great shared project where, across, time you're connected with people who wrote long ago and never imagined you or maybe somehow did. That's what I like about books as physical objects.

If you could have reincarnated yourself into being any great, great writer, is there anyone that comes to mind?

I wish I had met James Baldwin. I think his work is tremendous and his sensibility is so interesting. He influenced me a lot. He is probably the first person that comes to mind.

Did you have a naughty book you would read under the covers?

When I was a kid people would pass around Judy Blume books, but I read comic books. That was the thing I binged on. And I still have them all which is probably how I started collecting. Like many people did, I read Richie Rich kid comics—but then I'd visit my cousin in Louisiana who was away at school and he would have The Hulk and Captain America and the Falconunder his bed; not really clandestine, but still quite a thrill to discover.

Was there any book that made you fall in love?

Good question. I think there are books that are so important to you when you're younger, that later, you either remember them fondly or you forget just how much they influenced you. E.E. Cummings has those great love poems and sonnets; I think of those as the first love poems that I knew and loved as a teenager. I'm sure it shaped my romantic streak, along with blues music, which I play with in my book Jelly Roll: A Blues. Then there's nothing like looking in bookstores for the exact right book for someone—or with someone—special.

When people read your work what's the takeaway that you hope for?

I'm a poet, so you just want them to read it! I guess you want them to see the whole of it somehow. I think I want people to come away with a feeling and then return to the world with some of that feeling. The great thing about poetry and art is that it can take you out of the world because it is its own world. All of those sayings, like “art's a mirror,” etc., are in this way not quite right; art, I think, is more a world unto itself. A large and expansive single-minded thing, too. Some books I want to immerse myself in, and others we readers just want a little moment that's going to send us somewhere else; some, a piece of music that, returned back to earth, we can carry with us.