On Reading Poetry in a Day: The Sealey Challenge 2019

The post that caught my attention

I was cruising Twitter back in late July—the literary side, as I recall, not the library side—when I stumbled across something called #TheSealeyChallenge. The Sealey Challenge, in case you’ve not heard of it, is simple and also monumental: named for the poet Nicole Sealey, it challenges us to read a book or chapbook of poetry a day for the month of August. 31 days, 31 books of poetry. I was hooked. I’m going to do this thing, I said, or at least I’m going to do my damnedest: because, let’s face it, I’m severely dyslexic, and while words are (quite literally) my joy and my bread and butter, they don’t always come easily. But I went in planning to give it my best damn shot, and, by God, it’s the first of September, and I have successfully and fully completed this year’s Sealey Challenge.

I’ve done things a bit like the Sealey Challenge before, without the element of fun and of community: I have, after all, a Master’s in Spanish literature, emphasis early Modern/Siglo de Oro/Colonial. I read like a postcolonialist, because that is my theoretical positioning. How else, perforce, would I read? (It really hit home when I was reading through some of my Goodreads reviews, though: I don’t think anyone writes about interrogating empire unless they’ve got some postcolonial theories under their metaphorical belt.) I didn’t really start out with a List of Books to Read; I did start out rummaging through library stacks and dredging up my own books of poetry.

I was careful in my selections: nothing longer than 100 pages (preferably shorter, although I went all-out a few times); nothing with font too small or words run too close together. (I wanted to read The Octopus Museum, and even settled in to try; the small font, coupled with my misfiring neurons, made it impossible. Font—size, especially, though not alone—makes a big difference for dyslexics.) I also wanted to read diversely, outside my experience and my world; I needed to read poetry that hit at this moment in time, but I also hoped to find poetry that is, like all the best of its kind, timeless. While I left ever so many books off my 31 books this year—there are, after all, but 31 days in August—I think I managed to hit those goals.

The reading was its own experience. Poetry tends to require a level of concentration that prose, even the most luminous, does not, so I set aside time for poetry in a way I don’t set it aside for novels. So, in a way that little else does, the Sealey Challenge gave me time to myself, to set aside for only me. The books I chose, meanwhile, challenged me, demanding more in all the best ways. Some of them told stories, blending from one poem to the next (Pat Mora’s Encantado, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, Khaled Mattawa’s Mare Nostrum, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón, among others).

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Some hurt so much to read that I’d have to stop to clean the tears off my glasses before I could go on. I read Palestinian American poet Remi Kanazi’s Before the Next Bomb Drops as the massacre in El Paso was unfolding on the news, a book about racism and hate and empire at the very same time as a white supremacist was engaged in a killing spree of hate and racism and falsified empire in the borderlands. (Every border is, at heart, imaginary; Texas was part of Mexico, however, and the war that brought it into the U.S. was fought over slavery.) I have not read enough works from the Arab world in the past, and I tried to start rectifying that: I read Khaled Mattawa, and Fady Joudah, and Matthew Shenoda, and Deema K. Shehabi, and Tamim al-Barghouti, in addition to Remy Kanazi.

Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas hits hard—harder, perhaps, for me, because I know the lands she discusses, and because my father’s family home sits in Ho-Chunk territory. Lima :: Limón, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s fierce borderlands song, interrogates life along the border, fitting into a borderlands tradition clearly drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa and, just as clearly, stretching back hundreds of years before. (I see in Scenters-Zapico, Erika Sánchez, Mayda del Valle, and Kristiana Rae Colón fierce heirs to Sor Juana’s defiant critiques of a world that stands against women, her determined celebrations of women’s intelligence and creations, and her refusal to cede over her own voice.)

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The books I chose demanded that I engage with this world: not only the ugly present, but the ugly past, too, including the recent past. (Long Soldier’s Whereas, for example, does both.) Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, aching and beautiful, explores the world as lived by a Black man, forcing us to acknowledge that latent (and not-so-latent) awfulness has been here for a long time. Some of the books I read were so inherently Chicago that they made me gleeful, counting off locations and feeling the Chicagoness in my bones, while others me to worlds I’ve never visited. Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches swings from a science fiction future to the Chicago streets I know so well; José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal names malls I’ve visited, while taking me to worlds of which I know precious little. They are fierce and beautiful, these books I’ve read, demanding to read and worth every bit of effort that must go into reading them.

Now that the Sealey Challenge has ended for the year, I’ll change my reading habits a bit. I doubt I’ll read an entire book of poetry in a day until next August rolls around, when I’ll do #TheSealeyChallenge 2020. I’ll probably do it a little differently, too: stockpile chapbooks, set aside a few particularly poetic children’s books. After all, one never knows what changes a year will bring, and I may not have the time to read something as complex as Whereas all in a day, next year. But I plan to set aside time for poetry in all the days and months leading up to August 2020, all the same. I’ll start in on those books that were a little too long (or had font too small) for me to tackle in an August day. I’ll give myself room and time to savor, even if I can manage only fifteen minutes a day. And I’ll start stockpiling now, for the next strange and luminous and fierce and transcending August of the Sealey Challenge.

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My 2019 Sealey Challenge

  1. Graphite by Patricia Frazier (Haymarket Books)
  2. Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah (Milkweed Editions)
  3. Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine by Remi Kanazi (Haymarket Books)
  4. The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon-Bon by Willie Perdomo (Penguin Books)
  5. Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press)
  6. Bloodstone Cowboy by Kara Jackson (Haymarket Press)
  7. Tahrir Suite by Matthew Shenoda (TriQuarterly BooksNorthwestern University Press)
  8. Some Girls Survive on Their Sorcery Alone by Thiahera Nurse (Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry PrizeNorthwestern University Press)
  9. peluda by Melissa Lozado-Oliva (Button Poetry)
  10. The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press)
  11. Where Clouds Are Formed by Ofelia Zepeda (University of Arizona Press)
  12. Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez (Graywolf Press)
  13. In Jerusalem and Other Poems by Tamim Al-Barghouti (Interlink Books)
  14. Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral (Yale University Press)
  15. The University of Hip-Hop by Mayda Del Valle (Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry PrizeNorthwestern University Press)
  16. Amorisco by Khaled Mattawa (Ausable Press—now part of Copper Canyon Press)
  17. Build Yourself a Boat by Camonghne Felix (Haymarket Press)
  18. Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing (Haymarket Press)
  19. Encantado: Desert Monologues by Pat Mora (University of Arizona Press)
  20. Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez (Haymarket Press)
  21. Thirteen Departures from the Moon by Deema K. Shehabi (Press 53)
  22. The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named by Nicole Sealey (Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry PrizeNorthwestern University Press)
  23. Mare Nostrum by Khaled Mattawa
  24. promised instruments by Kristiana Rae Colón (Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry PrizeNorthwestern University Press)
  25. Hard Child by Natalie Shapero (Copper Canyon Press)
  26. Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarifah Faizullah (Graywolf Press)
  27. Enigma by Anita Endrezze (Press 53)
  28. Creance; Or, Comest Thou Cosmic Nazarite by Andrew E. Colarusso (Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry PrizeNorthwestern University Press)
  29. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin Books)
  30. Lima :: Limón by Natalie Scenters-Zapico (Copper Canyon Press)
  31. Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press)

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