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Read As If Your Life Depended On It

In What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics the great American poet Adrienne Rich says “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”  She goes on to say

“To read as if your life depended on it would mean to let into your reading your beliefs, the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your ordinary carnal life; and simultaneously, to allow what you’re reading to pierce routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channeled.”

When I was writing my first collection, and in particular a sequence about domestic violence, there were moments when I became ‘stuck’.  I couldn’t get any further with what I wanted to say, or even work out what I wanted to say.  Reading became the thread that I followed to get me out of a maze where it felt like I was going round in circles.  I decided to read as many poets as I could that were writing about violence.  I read Helen Ivory’s Waiting for Bluebeard, one of the few contemporary collections I could find that explored domestic violence.  I read everything I could find by Pascale Petit, beautiful image-driven work exploring abuse and Europa by Moniza Alvi which explored the impact of trauma, which led me on to Ovid’s Metamorphosis.   This led me on to think and write about transformation, and how transformation of the self by another can be one of the most violent things one person can do to another

Reading in this way, methodically, widely, questioningly, helped me to make meaning and sense of past experiences, whilst simultaneously generating and creating meaning.  It helped me to understand and process things differently.   Perhaps this is what Rich meant when she writes about allowing reading to ‘pierce routines’, when she writes that you should let your reading into your life, and your life into your reading.

Reading as if your life depended on it might involve asking the self what you really want to write about and then searching out poets who have gone before you.  My writing tip is not just to read, but to read as if your life depended on it.

For me, there are four stages in the process of reading as if your life depended on it.  Firstly, read the poem ‘The Monument by Elizabeth Bishop and ask yourself what is the monument in your own work, what theme does your writing circle back around to. Secondly, find the poets who have circled around, sat on top of, climbed inside that same monument and read them.  After you’ve done this, your next job is to write to the poet (if they’re still alive of course) and tell them how much you enjoyed their poem or collection.  Finally, tell someone else about it – spread your enthusiasm for poetry around.  These last two stages feel important for me in the quest to bring reading into life, and life into reading.

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