It took me a while to call myself a writer. When people asked me what I did, I answered with the current job that paid the bills. I’m a bartender. I’m a bookseller. I’m a teacher. Then, finally, I’m a writer. Like many writers, I’m a reader first, and I’ve always known it: folded it up into my identity as my favorite hobby, toted a book along, and read myself into reading glasses and back again.
As a reader and a writer, I’m fascinated by and always scour the acknowledgements. If the section isn’t at the beginning, I flip to the end matter early. (I like to be left with a story or collection’s last line.) I’m thinking of acknowledgements now, especially the ones that brimmed my eyes with happy tears, felt like poems in and of themselves. How, at the end of Inheritance, Taylor Johnson writes, “Light upon light to the trees that made this exchange possible.” Wow, right? Perhaps these emblematic moments compose an acknowledgements page for my bookish life.
My literary history is lined with gleaming formative moments, and I carry their magic dust, which pirouettes in my veins and makes me who I am. Emblematic moments like huddling under my comforter with a novel and flashlight past bedtime. Discovering Maya Angelou’s poetry in Poetic Justice then rewatching the film so often that I could recite lines of “Alone” and “Phenomenal Woman” along with Janet Jackson’s Justice. My gaping jaw and swelling chest the first time I read Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
When I was little, my mother read to me and my brother every night. Our beds parallel with a foot or so between them, she’d sit at the edge for one story each. Even though the titles and narratives escape me now, I know their words soaked into my pores, that I gleaned both spoken and unspoken importances, too: my mother’s unwavering attention, the holiness of ritual. One that has, in a way, lived on. I pick up a book whenever I can, but I read mostly before bed, book lights and lamps blazing while the house is at its quietest. Right now, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void by Jackie Wang adorns my nightstand with a polaroid of my beloved two Decembers ago in New Orleans for a bookmark, waiting for night.
In My Girl, Vada Sultenfuss, who harbors a crush on her English teacher, steals $35 from Shelly DeVoto’s cash-filled cookie jar to pay for a summer poetry workshop with Mr. Bixler. After Vada reads her rhyming ice cream poem to the classroom of adults, Mr. Bixler responds, “[Y]ou’re not expressing to me what’s in your soul. I want you to show me how you see the world. Your fears, your desires. Your innermost secrets.” It would be over a decade until I enrolled in my first poetry workshop, but I carried that lesson with me. Tender and learning and indebted to that brain wrinkle that keeps wrinkling, I searched for what crackled in my soul, trying to ignore the fleetingly sweet in order to pay attention to what was worth investigating on paper.
For Angela Chase’s poem in the first and only season of My So-Called Life, I rewatched “The Substitute” in an obsessive way that led to me eventually losing the second disc from my box set. Before an anonymous freewriting exercise, the English sub, unimpressed with the class’s work for the high school’s literary journal, says, “I want anger. I want honesty. I want nakedness. Whatever you feel like saying, write it down instead. What you never told anyone. What you never even told yourself.” Later, Rickie Vasquez, one of my favorite television characters, reads “A Fable,” which follows a sleepy girl who wakes up in a moldy gingerbread house. Students laugh, and one says the surreal poem, with its paper-doll people who blow away with a kiss, “doesn’t make any sense.” Mr. Racine counters, “It makes you feel. It makes you wonder. It wakes you up.” Maybe this is where my unabashed interest in feeling over meaning originated and my desire to seek out poetry that moves me, even if for unnameable reasons, and I’m ever grateful.
One summer, my brother and I stayed with our maternal grandparents in Michigan, and Grandma drove us to the library frequently. In that loop of dropping off and picking up books, I, an adolescent full of hormones with a water moon, fell in love so hard with a book that others glittered a little less. But I did fall in love again. That’s what a lifetime of reading holds for us — falling in love over and over again. I fell in love when I finished Kat Chow’s Seeing Ghosts. I fell in love when I reread Aria Aber’s “Waiting for Your Call.” I fell in love when I requested Milk Blood Heat at my library, and they acquired Dantiel W. Moniz’s stunning debut story collection. Whenever I check out a book, those humid Midwestern afternoons with my grandmother, where I walked into a mansion of books and left with an armful without spending a cent, return to me. How do you begin to thank someone for that?
Even if I had all the time and space in the world, I couldn’t begin to describe my appreciation for the unwavering joy that reading brings me. How many awestruck moments already flutter in my brain: reading the summer away for pizza and wondering over book-fair order forms and flipping through a title a teacher placed in my hands during office hours. Deep gratitude to you. And the myriad moments I forgot while adoration overwhelmed me: deep gratitude to you, too. So, what monumental shining moments constellate your reading life?