This week is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, a week-long celebration of our right to read, learn, and explore. One of the events this year is a Virtual Read Out. You can make a video endorsing a banned book, reading from a banned book, or explaining why the freedom to read is important. I'll be posting short readings from some of my favorite banned books throughout the week.

Just to be contradictory, this first reading is from a book I don't really love; in fact, when I first read it in college, I hated it. The main character of Kate Chopin's The Awakening annoyed the shit out of me. Barely out of adolescence myself, I found Edna immature and selfish, her suicide the ultimate cop-out of a person too cowardly to make a place for herself in the world. I hated how dismissive she was of her friend, Adele Ratignolle, a woman who seems to be truly happy in her role as wife and mother. I was 20 years old, single, childless, with barely any sexual experience, and I was outraged on behalf of the cheerful, fulfilled mothers of the world.

And then I got married and I had a baby and I ran full speed into the wall of society's expectations of parents in general and mothers in particular. I realized that I didn't want what many people seemed very happy to have--a house and two cars and a 9 to 5 job and three kids. I realized that, however much I loved my husband and my child--and I loved them a whole fucking lot--I wouldn't be able to keep loving them if they were all I was allowed to have or want.

And then I read The Awakening again.

I still think that Edna is immature, but I also see how she's treated like a child. I still think her suicide is a bit cowardly, but I also see how few choices she has. I find that I sympathize with her very much as a fellow mother, and I feel grateful to have found a way to be myself: an artist, a parent, a spouse, a citizen--a whole person. I wish Edna had had more choices. I think she could have grown up to be quite the human being.

The Awakening is often banned for its sexual content. It also has some old-fashioned racist language (in the section I read, she uses the word "darkies," which makes me cringe). It was challenged in 2011 because some editions show a bare-chested woman on the cover.

Coincidentally, my cousin also read from The Awakening this week at her blog. Her take is a little different from mine and includes more historical context.
 
 
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Alice, reading. Photo by Melissa J. Wilkerson.
At bedtime, I read Alice a story. This has been our nightly ritual since before she was born, but now, after we read together, she reads on her own. She's always loved stories, but more and more she's caught up in words. Almost nightly now she pops out to read her dad and me a short passage: beautiful descriptions, scenes that seem especially funny or apt to her.

Right now she's reading Philippa Fisher and the Dream Maker's Daughter. It's a silly book in a lot of ways, but she likes the main characters, Philippa Fisher and her spunky friend, a fairy named Daisy. She also likes the descriptions of Philippa's funny, hippie-dippy, vegan parents. She popped out one night to laugh and read, "Well, I always had Mom and Dad, I reminded myself. They might be the ditziest dingbats on the planet, but at least they hadn't deserted me."

"Does that remind you of your parents?" I asked.

She laughed again. "You guys aren't dingbats," she said, "but you are a little wacky."

A few nights later, she bursts out of her room with such intensity that, for a minute, I think something's wrong. "Listen to this," she says. "Her family is just like our family! It's hilarious. They're just like us!" She reads:

"Just as well I hadn't said anything, then. Heaven. Normal stuff! The kind of 'up there' people were officially allowed to believe in! Except Mom and Dad had never been big on things like heaven, so I'd never really believed in it, either."

Her excitement is palpable. She's had a revelation. She has seen herself mirrored in this story, put into words and reflected back to herself. Here is another imaginative only child of wacky, atheist, vegetarian, artist parents! Here is proof that she isn't alone.

One of the beautiful things reading gives us, of course, is empathy. Reading lets us imagine what it's like to be someone else, to see the world through different eyes. But it also comforts us by showing us ourselves, by reminding us that others have been where we are, have felt what we feel. It helps us understand our selves.

I remember feeling that sense of self-recognition intensely when I read The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt as an adolescent and when I read Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth in college. I saw myself more clearly when I read those books, and that was comforting to me. I think it helped me to be a little kinder to myself.

Was there a book like that for you?



 
 
When I write, I don't think too much about the one I write for, but I know who she is. She's me: the barest, truest, sternest version of myself. She knows when I haven't been brave enough to tell the truth. She knows when I'm bullshitting her. You could call her the Muse, I guess. She's my internal reason for writing.

The first person to read my poems is usually my friend Jae Newman. He is an ideal reader. I can count on him to understand what I'm trying to say, to see the poem I'm trying to write, and to tell me straight up when I've failed to write it. When it comes time to revise, his voice often surfaces in my mind (and my email). If my poems could find an audience as kind and perceptive and receptive as Jae, I would be very lucky.

Like a lot of "page poets," though, it's hard for me to imagine my real audience, the people that might actually stumble across my poems online or in a little bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky. Once, my friend brought home a stack of literary journals from a conference and found one of my poems in one of the magazines, and I thought with some surprise, "Oh, wow, they really exist out there on their own."

Musicians, dancers, theater folks do their art face to face with their audience. A poet's audience is more abstract most of the time. Of course we're as susceptible as anyone else to pandering for approval, but the audience isn't right there in our face when we're doing our thing. We get to keep our motivations internal for longer than some artists.

I was thinking about this while choosing poems to read at the Maitland Art Center's Summer Concert Series and even more after a "poetry cover night" at Urban ReThink a few days later. Who is my audience? What do they know? What do they need to know? Both events turned out to be really fun, in large part because the audiences were really varied. Especially at Urban ReThink, there were slam poets and page poets and performers, readers and artists and prose writers, teachers and students and know-it-alls, and they were all excited about poetry!

I've been thinking about that room full of poetry lovers a lot over the last few weeks. Which of those people would I most want to reach with my poems? Determining that determines, to some extent at least, what kind of poems I want to write. I'm a little surprised to find that it's mostly the non-poets I want in my audience: the artist who delivered Yeats as a terrifying dramatic monologue; my friend, a fiction writer, nervous but not showing it, who admitted she tried to choose poems the poets would find cool; the poised young woman who said, "I've never read a poem in public, but this poet is a family friend and I like this poem," and then beautifully delivered the hippest poem by the hippest poet anyone read that night.

Of course, I want the approval of my big, weird tribe of fellow poets too. I want to be accountable for my work in a way that only they can provide, but I'm really not interested in inside jokes or showing off. The poet who starts her reading with an obscure literary reference, and condescendingly points out how obscure it is? I don't need her in my audience. The one who's more interested in showing how cool or clever he is than sharing something real? I'll never seem cool to him, and I think he's a jackass.

I want an audience that teaches me something, and I don't think I have a lot to learn from those guys. I'd rather open the circle, find out what the sculptors and mathematicians and carpenters and bartenders know.  How about I read you a poem and you sing me a song? How about we all listen?

 
 
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Canaveral National Seashore
I recently finished/abandoned the longest poem I've ever written. It feels like the only poem I've ever written or the poem I'm always writing. I don't know. I can't really talk about it yet. It's about the things I love most--family, art, the idea of home, this place--and I've been writing and revising it for a long time, scribbling lines here and there, adding and taking away, looking for the thread that might tie it all together.

What's been great about writing this long poem is having a focus. It's not really true that "the hardest part is getting started"--I think we all know that the hardest part of any creative endeavor is finishing--but starting is one of the intimidating parts of writing, and it's been nice not to have to face a blank page for a while. Now that this long poem and the bigger chapbook project that's gone with it are finished, the new page seems especially blank.

I'm not sure that I want to write another long poem, at least not right away, but I do want to get started on another specific project in order to maintain the focus I've had over the past few months. I think this blog might be a good tool for that eventually, but for now I'm casting about among infinite possibilities, looking for the idea that will grab me next. I expect my creativity will be fairly random for a little while.

After you finish a creative project, how do you find the next big thing? How do you know when you've found an idea worth your energy and focus?