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.
- 2019: On Reading Poetry in a Day (my 2019 Sealey Challenge)
- Intro: August & the Sealey Challenge 2020
- August 1: The Verging Cities by Natalie Scenters-Zapico
- August 2: Library of Small Catastrophes by Alison C. Rollins
- August 3: The Territory Is Not The Map by Marília Garcia
- August 4: Underworlds by Patrick Sylvain
- August 5: On the Pulse of Morning by Maya Angelou
- August 6: To Disembark by Gwendolyn Brooks
- August 7: Can I Kick It? by Idris Goodwin
- August 8: Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni
- August 9: All Heathens by Marianne Chan
- August 10: Black Girl Magic by Mahogany Browne & art by Jess Snow
- August 11: Mother Tongues by Tsitsi Ella Jaji
- August 12: Dulce by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
- August 13: Feeler by Heather McHugh
- August 14: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
- August 15: Say Her Name by Zetta Elliott with art by Loveis Wise
- August 16: Bitter English by Ahmad Almallah
- August 17: Mouth Filled With Night by Rodney Gomez
- August 18: In the Mecca by Gwendolyn Brooks
- August 19: I Shall Not Be Moved by Maya Angelou
- August 20: Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall
- August 21: Thrall by Natasha Trethewey
- August 22: For Every One by Jason Reynolds
- August 23: A Theory of Birds by Zaina Alsous
- August 24: Night Animals by Yusef Komunyakaa
- August 25: I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni & Ashley Bryan
- August 26: Closest Pronunciation by Ed Roberson
- August 27: Blood of the Air by Ama Codjoe
- August 28: Brood by Kimiko Hahn
- August 29: Celebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer by Maya Angelou
- August 30: Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey
- August 31: Matters of the Sea – Cosas del Mar by Richard Blanco