Just One Reader
“I’m no academic. Just one reader.” That’s what I always say when someone shows me their work. If this post goes well I might start a series of “engagements” with books – or sets of books by the same author, if I have more time. Not reviews. I’ll pretend the author of a poetry book has asked me for my thoughts. Isn’t that why someone usually publishes a book, to “speak” to a stranger who might be ready to listen?
Youth, that joyful, troubled time
It is both brave and foolish to put your words out into the world. You open yourself to readers. Your work could be seen as a sample if not a summary of your very self, even when it’s mostly . It isn’t easy to distance yourself from the work, particularly if it is your very first book. But once the work is out, and a reader finds it, it becomes part of that reader somehow. Of course the assumption is that the reader will bother to respond in a certain way.
At least that’s how I see a piece of literary work, something for a reader to engage with.
To be a young poet at the same time is a dangerous thing. Your mind and body are in constant flux, which could make your output somewhat unpredictable. You might think you are mighty and invincible one moment, and then suddenly smaller than the legs of a flea the next.
I’m trying to make some room here for the possibility of growth.
Why bother with this?
I just finished reading rupi kaur’s first book, milk and honey. [The lower case is intentional, as the book cover had her name and book title like that – not quite original as ee cummings did it in the last century] I first saw her name on an online article. I decided to ignore the article – told myself to try and forget it actually – and went about looking for the book. I caught sight of one in a local bookshop.
Now books in South Africa are not cheap, and there isn’t a convenient secondhand distributor. The price was R250, too steep for my budget at the moment, so I thought I should try the library. But since I had it in my hands right there and then, I browsed the book. I nearly tipped over. A few pages were all I could take.
Later on I had an online discussion with friends about what I read, and it got more interesting. I wasn’t alone with my impressions. The library turned up with a copy for me, luckily, and less than 24 hours after starting it, I finished the entire book of nearly 200 pages.
I started writing the draft for this post last month, Poetry Month, when I should have been trying to write a poem a day. I only managed a few, it turned out. I’ve been planning to post this matter of milk and honey ever since, but other things kept cropping up. Still, I had committed myself to responding to the work as fairly as I can.
Before I go on, I’d like to point out a few things. I’m normally a slow reader. I fall asleep when what I’m reading either feels boring, or perhaps when I feel I’m just not the right reader for it at that time. milk and honey was a quick read for entirely different reasons.
I promised – to myself and among friends – to read the book from cover to cover before deciding what I thought of kaur’s work. I wanted to ignore as much as possible what everyone else had so far said.
I have to confess, there were many thoughts swirling in my head as I forged on page after page. The following are but some I remember now.
– Just listen to Alanis Morrissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” again instead.
– Madonna’s “She’s not Me” is in there in so many ways, just never as good or even danceable.
– Anne Sexton is a goddess who knew her craft and I’m lucky I read her when I was still at university, on my own and not as part of anyone’s reading list. kaur should at least read her to learn something.
– This writer sounds genuinely sincere at least. But this is not poetry. It’s self-induced vomiting.
– My reading might be read as anti-feminist, but then what a tragedy if those who call themselves feminists cannot go past their version of feminism and assess what claims to be poetry accordingly.
– Am I just not the target reader? How could so many see that this book is worth reading at all? Even pay for it?
– There are so many good young poets out there, also non-white, far more deserving to be read by a greater audience, as well as “not-so-young” poets who should be more recognised for continuing to publish truly formidable work that often gets ignored by so-called critics and apparent supporters of poetry.
– I’ve heard it before, and it comes back to me, the line “People love to celebrate mediocrity.”
Then I thought, those might be seen as rather mean. There are many views of what counts as poetry. It could also be argued that one person’s handful of strawberries could be a last killer meal for another.
When I engage with a piece – whether it is a bit of news, a piece of art, or something else that challenges my imagination – I often end up writing something about it. The best way I felt I could respond to my experience of reading milk and honey is by using her own words (or most of them, in some cases) and reconstructing or reconfiguring them to come up with entirely new pieces. Call it reconstruction. Remix. Searching for the pulse in what looks like a dead vein.
Where I decided not to use certain words, I’ve listed and crossed them out at the bottom of each reworked piece. I am reprinting only the words kaur used in her pieces and have not attempted to replicate special formats or illustrations. The online sources I used were either on rupi kaur’s own Instagram pages or from the following:
(ASIDE: A few years ago there was an anthology of flash fiction, Fast Food Fiction Delivery, that was released in Manila. I was among the long list of contributors. Soon after its publication, controversial poet and critic, Adam David, created a stir when he used something called a “Randomiser” that churned out “new” pieces from the original works. I tried to read the “Randomised” pieces and found them mostly incoherent blabber, so I could not fully comprehend how the publisher and editors felt that their original output had been violated so much that they then made use of corporate legal muscle to shut down David’s creative engagement.)