The Trouble with Poets Is They See Poetry Everywhere

Earlier this week my friend Liz introduced me to book spine poetry and now I’m obsessed. The idea is simple–the poet simply stacks his or her books vertically so that the text on the spines form a poem. Share. Repeat. When I saw the blog post introducing the concept, I thought it seemed like an interesting idea, one I would theoretically like to try but probably wouldn’t. For some reason poetry has always intimidated me, at least when it comes to approximating anything like it myself. My brother has always been the poet in the family (see his absolutely beautiful new poem “Expatriate” here) and I’m happy to let him have the title (that’s how it works, right?). But lately the constraints of poetry that once constricted and frustrated this committed narrative nonfiction writer have drawn me to it. I may have found in book spine poetry the “gateway drug” I needed to push me toward the harder stuff.

My first, and proudest, attempt.

My very favorite thing about my apartment (and this is saying something, I really love my apartment) is the built-in bookshelf in my bedroom. It’s more of a book WALL, as the shelves extend from the tops of the floor cabinets to the ceiling. I spend a lot of time staring at my books. On Tuesday night, with the challenge of book spine poetry set before me, I gave in to their call and give it a try. I did not expect to get as into it as I did. I started by pulling any books with titles that intrigued me (followed quickly by titles with verbs, these are more rare than I thought and necessary to a grammar freak) and for the next hour, I was climbing up and down the ladder (yes, my bookshelf requires a ladder, I’m basically Belle) trying to find just the right books to create the unexpected combination. Each poem took shape over dozens of drafts, as books swapped in and out, up and down, until I had three little book spine poems I felt happy with.

Poem the second.

The particular combination of structure and freedom that poetry requires has always paralyzed me. How can a few short lines even begin to express the fullness of an experience? Could one image embody the complexity of an emotion? But the discipline of poetry, this little exercise reminded me, is one that reinforces the playfulness and power of words. The unexpected combinations, the inversions of familiar phrases, and, in this case, the cathartic release of using someone else’s words to express something meaningful to me, are almost mathematical in their challenge and yet artful in their reward. It’s a small miracle how much can be found in so little.

One more, with feeling.

So here’s a little challenge. Try a book spine poem of your own! And please share, in the comments or on Facebook or with a friend. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself with the ideas and images that resonate with you!

From the title: Peter Mulvey, “Trouble with Poets”

Note: Peter Mulvey, aka One of the Greatest Live Performers I Have Ever Seen, will be playing at the Old Town School of Folk Music on September 20th. Plan accordingly.

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