Wednesday, June 4, 2014
June 4, 2014: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Personals
[For the last couple years I’ve featured a summertime series on some AmericanStudies books you can pack along with the sunscreen and cold beverages. As summer approaches, it feels right to share some more beach reads—please share your own favorite or future summer page-turners for a weekend post we can all bring with us to the shore or the pool!]
On the poems that are as witty and page-turning as they are biting and potent.
I’ve written in this space on a couple different occasions about my friend and colleague Ian Williams: this early post on his challenging and inspiring work teaching poetry to prison inmates; and this brief post highlighting a particularly striking poem from his first published collection, You Know Who You Are (2010). Over the last few years, Ian’s writing and career have taken giant steps into our collective literary and cultural conversations: his first book of short stories, Not Anyone’s Anything (2011), won Canada’s prestigious Danuta Gleed Award; and his most recent poetry collection, Personals (2012), has been shortlisted for numerous awards, including one of Canada’s most prominent literary prizes, the Griffin Poetry Prize.
Any one of Ian’s books would make for fine accompaniment in your summertime travels, but I’m going to focus here on that newest and most accomplished work, Personals. My guess is that a lot of you would never consider a book of poems to be beach reading, and I can’t say that I blame you—much of the time, poetry is dense and demanding, something we read multiple times with a pen (not a drink) in hand and a frown (not the sun) on our face. I don’t want to speak for him, but it seems to me that one of Ian’s central ongoing goals is to push back on such images of poetry, to create instead poems that are witty and playful and engaging, works that do not lose any of the depth or complexity we associate with the genre but that at the same time don’t feel like homework to read.
He’s certainly done so in Personals, which is as fun to read as any poetry I’ve encountered since I first discovered e e cummings. But let me be clear—the voices, identities, and relationships Ian captures in Personals are emotionally and psychologically resonant and evocative, hitting us close to home and making us examine our own lives through the lens of these. Take the poem “Rings,” which Ian read as part of the Griffin Prize ceremony: in a series of one-line vignettes, Ian gradually captures numerous permutations on the things that keep us or drive us apart, the problems that plague our relationships and our perspectives, the excuses we make and the stories we tell. The poem made me laugh, made me cringe, and made me stop and think, all within a few stanzas—and it and its peers would make your beachgoing a lot more poetic this summer.
Next beach read tomorrow,
PS. What would you recommend for a good beach read? What are you hoping to get to by the pool this summer?