The Sealey Challenge 2020

31 books of poetry, (almost) all in a row
My Sealey Challenge 2020 stack: aka #PostYourStackChallenge

Poetry requires concentration, and concentration’s not exactly easy to come by, in this year of plague and fascism. I’d already planned to do the Sealey Challenge again this year—in fact, I’d started plotting it out as soon as I complete my 2019 challenge—but then came plague, and implosions right and left, and the words I’d read during August took on a new importance and a greater weight.

Because I actually planned out what I’d read this year (at least somewhat: I always leave room for alternatives, because every day isn’t the right day for every book), I came into August with a number of rather shorter books than I’d read last year. (Although, of course, they were definitely not all short books.) Initially, I’d planned to read a lot of works by Asian American poets—after all, anti-Asian hate crimes have spiked. But then came Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubery, and George Floyd, and a list of names that spools on, and I changed direction, a bit. I am a white woman, that cog of white supremacy’s wheel, but I’ve never lived in white neighborhoods, and it was an awful reminder that my neighbors’ lives are always, always at risk.

It also changed the tone and tenor of the poems I read. I mean, a lot were still dark: I gravitate, I think, to darkness: I assume it’s something in my personality, just as I’m drawn to, say, this podcast episode about villains, because I guess I feel them in my soul. But I was very careful, this year, to read joy, too. (And it turns out that hope can make me cry harder than most anything, which should not, I suppose, have been a surprise.)

I read poetry that, in the midst of anger and despair, made me laugh out loud. (Idris Goodwin’s Can I Kick It? is amazing for that.) I read Nikki Giovanni, whose works are a full-throated, musical celebration of life and of love. I read Maya Angelou, who carried hope in her words no matter what. I read Jason Reynolds’s beautiful For Every One, reaching out to everyone who’s dreamed, no matter how small.

Someone I didn’t really expect kept me company throughout my Sealey Challenge, too: a guy I actually met back in grad school, though he’d always been there on the periphery, as he is for every American kid: Christopher Columbus, who sailed the ocean blue back in 1492. The Columbus who dogged me throughout the Sealey Challenge was very much the guy I’d met in grad school: brutal, violent, and not too bright. He is, in short, no hero, but a murderer, who slaughters his way through the ages, coming back in the form of American interventions in Haitian poet Patrick Sylvain’s Underworlds, and elsewhere as well. Columbus popped up again, and again, waving a blood-stained hand, and the timing was, I guess, impeccable, in a summer of uprisings and statues falling.

This is a hard year, in a string of hard years: a plague year, again, as fascism rises. And, in this hard year, the poetry with which I spent this August was a reminder, of joy, of light, of the necessity of confronting darkness in order to emerge on the other side. Gwendolyn Brooks and Nate Marshall and, occasionally, Ed Roberson, brought Chicago exploding to the page: Chicago, in its horror and its roughness, but also in its great beauty and its eternal communities. Blood was horror but also life and celebration; the past tangles, as it does, with the present. And all of it, even the darkest and the bleakest, even the shortest, walked with me in a hard month in a hard year, reminder of something better.


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