Reading to Discover What to Write Next
This month I finished the longest piece I’ve ever written -- which is not bragging, it’s shock -- and when it was done I needed to sleep a lot, and after that I had no idea what to read.
I really didn’t. I felt elemental. I started walking home from class and work and the library, over as many bridges as I could (in Chicago that doesn’t always mean you’re above water, sometimes you’re above gridlock or cement stretch or choked metallic grass) and by the train tracks, once I was South. My grandpa drove trains, he died before I was born but Mom says he made the very best vegetable soup, and his left hand was always tan because he rode with it out the window. There was a lunar eclipse this month, so now I’ll never forget Daniel Burnham built Chicago streets on a compass -- for a few days I’d walk down Halsted and turn on 18th, get beamed full in the face by the sun.
The first book I brought with me was Dana Ward’s This Can’t Be Life. The first poem (“I went to Buffalo to give a reading a week or two back.”) is called a poem because Edge Books publishes poetry (and okay, other pieces here have Poem written on their nametags), but it could also be a page from a zine, or a review in an alternative paper, or a letter, or prayers too I guess. Ward writes about passing by Robert Creeley’s house (“a converted fire station with a rooftop garden, a watchtower, & maybe a patio hidden by a fence?”), seeing rainbows by waterfall, and going through bookstore shelves with his friend Tisa, who “was writing a book that concerned an imaginary cinema playing an imaginary movie.” Ward describes “the part of the reading where we held pages or books” and so these earlier parts are part of the reading too, which I love. Me wandering Chicago is part of whatever I’m writing next.
I finished This Can’t Be Life in the light of the Friendly Firecracker sign at a bar in Berwyn where my friends’ band was playing, the light made the pages pink then green then blue then pink. It’s important, writing (and publishing) the space around poems too, which is different than taking pictures at readings. Cassandra Gillig and Anne Boyer are other poets I know who write in these details.
The second book was Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, by Frank Meeink with Jody M. Roy. I bought it at AWP because I loved Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water so much, and I wanted something else by the same press. Yuknavitch’s book has breasts on the cover, and I remember reading it on public transportation on purpose, however Meeink’s I wrapped in brown paper because it shows his neck tattoo, a swastika. I would stop for coffee and read parts while I drank; however, the chapter where he kicked this kid in the teeth made me want to throw up so I took breaks, to write in my notebook and think about my hands. While writing I remembered a boy I met when I was teaching in this juvenile detention center in Indiana, he had a swastika stick-poked on the back of his hand and fresh deep red scratches on top.
Other books were Alice Bag’s Violence Girl, which I read waiting at the nail salon, which has crystals in the windows so there were rainbows across her mother Candelaria’s face, maybe like the rainbows in Buffalo. I loved how intensely Bag talked about her gateway crush on Elton John, how straight she writes about her father beating Candelaria. It’s a fact, a bad one, and it exists just as she loves him and both her parents love her. I read all the stories in Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski’s Painted Cities in one gulp in the park. I shivered happily over Caroline Bergvall’s Drift and read some more of the essays in Biting the Error with a blue pen, as I always do when I’m not sure what to write next -- this time, fittingly, Camille Roy’s “Experimentalism,” where she calls writing about walking “a kind of spectacular innocence -- the moment of saturation feels dazzling, but there is probably no point.” I remembered Sara Veglahn asked us to read this essay in the Naropa Summer Writing Program, so I ordered her new book The Mayflies, which hasn’t come in the mail yet.
I read Fantagraphics’ Treasury of Mini Comics Vol. 1, edited by Michael Dowers, at the laundromat across the street, where one vending machine is striped full of Cheetos and Takis, the other pink Domo toys you can win with a claw. Domo has black eyes and a toothy mouth, he is sometimes brown but the ones in our machine are all pink. Domo hatched from an egg and his mouth is frozen open in fascination. Ron Regé Jr.’s cover art has a boy who might also be a pig, also pink, and so while I read he and the Domos looked at each other.
On those walks I kept repeat-listening to Ed Askew’s “Little Eyes,” which I first heard on a mix CD my friend Douglas made. Ed is a painter, a singer, and songwriter who lived in New Haven for a long time but now he lives in New York. He became a teacher to avoid the draft. “Little Eyes” has the sky in it too -- “Oh what have I / I see you in the sun / but the sun never sets” -- and its chorus is “little eyes, little eyes,” which reminds me of an ee cummings poem I love, “who are you,little i”. It made me cry, the first time I read it: looking out over your own younger shoulder, a window in front of you both. Eyes and eyes and the sun, inside and outside my head. It’s November in that poem, sunset.
I paced a lot in April. I missed sitting at the desk with purpose. On the last day I’d set aside for wandering I bought two fistfuls of fuschia ranunculus on the walk home. (Their entry in Mandy Kirkby’s The Language of Flowers always kills me: “You are radiant, I am dazzled by your charms.” That comma, so sincere.)
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, editor, and teacher. After eight years in Pilsen, this August she is moving to Denver as a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Denver.