What Am I Reading? by Sam McCormick

Friday, 6 November 2020

It’s hard to navigate the rattling in my brain at the question: what am I reading? Is it, also, what have I read? Read recently, or forever ago, which continues replaying? If it means reading in this very moment, is it not this which I’m coaxing to form in front of me? Is it not whatever memory might apply? The look on this kitten-boi’s face, pawing at my leg, as he begs for my attention? The calendar above my computer with black X’s & due dates? The assignment prompting me to do this?

The noise in my head is the same when I’m asked: how are you? It has never been easy for me to answer & now, to add to the trepidation, it’s 2020. We’re just a few days away from a most terrifying kind of election & COVID is spiking for (what?) a third time. Here is where I should maybe make clear my fears, but I know you’re afraid, too, so let’s spare ourselves for a moment. Let’s just breathe, on the Eve of Halloween & know, together, that it’s horrifying.

The thing about reading is – to me – it tends to feel like a kind a wounding. Most of the time it ruins me into newness & it takes time/ takes it out of me, leaves me dazed until I can come back to it later to understand what has happened. I think it’s in the knowing – in the awareness of what it’s doing – each thing you read becomes a part of who you are, everything you experience becomes a part of your existence. This makes it imperative – reading as much as you can – but, even at its most pleasurable, sometimes I still have trouble getting to it (as actively as it deserves to be done). I remember back when I was young – before I knew how little I knew/ how little I had read – it felt like a means of escaping (my body/ the world I was born to) & now, it only makes inescapable the all of everything. I’m so grateful, for this staying, but damn if it isn’t exhausting/ if it doesn’t leave me a little dizzy, on top of all the other humaning.

***

I’ve been reading poems written by the people around me – thinking: how’d I get so lucky?

Maybe it’s silly to say, but it’s the first thing that comes to my mind – this packet of poems by the people in workshop with me (here at UNCG), laying on my desk & the email chain (filled with attachments) between my comrades & I who meet once a week, in a room on ZOOM. When I came ‘round to the idea of attending a graduate program, it wasn’t out of desperation to make better poems – it was out of a need to better my ability to read yours. I wanted to see better – what was on the page, what magic or madness was at work on the things in front of me. I wanted to do better by others, to better grasp what support I have offer, & to build my stamina at being altered. I came here to read the work of my peers, to believe in what they were willing to bring to the table & share. If I can see what’s happening in their work more clearly, I know, in turn, my work will light brighter in my own eyes – no such thing as total selflessness when you’re only human – I came for the osmosis, for the exchange of experiences. I came here to read the work of the people around me.

& with the sap out of the way, & it being the season of Halloween, let me also throw my hands in the air in admiration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Derek Palacio (for our Structure of Fiction class) asked us to choose a book to read over the course of the semester – to drag it through the days & contend with it over many weeks – a challenge for a person like me, who tends to bender. I chose Frankenstein – I’ve wanted to read it for years now. I knew it had to do with the responsibility that goes hand-n-hand with creating, knew it dealt with alchemy & poetry, & I knew that it would be scary (& who doesn’t love a good horror story?). It’s a book I can’t wait to read in different ways. For this assignment, since the focus is in analyzing the structure of the fiction therein, I was on the lookout for structural elements. I was trying my best to stay put in the text, but the thing about this story is: it begs you to leap from it.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of William Godwin & Mary Wollstonecraft – she was born to radical figures, both of whom were writers & political philosophers. Godwin is known as one of the first advocates of anarchism & Wollstonecraft championed the rights of women – the daughter of two stirring persons, Mary, grew up in a household of intense thinkers. She witnessed things in her childhood home that would later influence her story – like hearing Samuel Taylor Coleridge reciting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to her father. She would eventually marry the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, & befriend people like Lord Byron, & all of this (& more) would help feed her capability of producing work that would live through the ages.

This is what I mean by “begs you to leap from it”. In trying to honor the goals of the course, I haven’t been able to read the book in the way it asks me to. How can I truly understand it without reading the texts which are mentioned within the piece: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, or having some comprehension of Plutarch’s Lives. How can I hope to know this story fully if I haven’t gone back to Coleridge, Percy Shelley, or Lord Byron? How can I understand the depths of the implications if I haven’t entirely explored the beginnings of galvanism (“animal electricity”) & anarchy, or read the old ghost stories Mary & her companions had been retelling, during their stay in Geneva? Even the title itself, which is (technically) subtitled or A Modern Prometheus, invokes yet another realm of mythology coursing through, begging for my flight. All these things are at work on this story & this listing doesn’t even tap the surface of what has become of Mary Shelley’s piece in our collective consciousness, in our culture, as the years have passed by.

Once the semester is over & we break for winter, I can’t wait to read this newer copy I’ve found – it’s out from MIT Press, called Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, & Creators of All Kinds. It’s rammed through, so thoroughly, with annotations that they begin to dominate – nearly full pages of space are dedicated to their presence. I can’t wait. Maybe after I read this version, I’ll feel like I’ve actually read Frankenstein.

***

I’m so grateful to be where I am (alive/ in this program). I’ve been reading more than I have in the past several years – more than I can (properly) articulate here, with my jellied-brains.

There are multiple books we’ve read this semester that have given tons to me: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, There There by Tommy Orange (to name only a few).

I’ve read a ton about political rhetoric & (most recently) about voter suppression – how it’s as old as voting itself, how it’s as racist as most any system is in this country (of stolen land & capital by way of cruelty). I’ve never taken a “rhetoric” class before & all it’s done is made me angrier – solidified the truths of our youthful, abuses & failures as a nation (which continue to this very hour).

Outside of classes I’ve been re-reading Etheridge Knight & Kenneth Patchen & Bridgett Pegeen Kelly & Frederico García Lorca. I’ve been reading Be Holding by Ross Gay & old letters dear friends have sent me – I’ve been practicing my gratitude towards all that has produced me, as best I can.

I’ve been blessed to have befriended a fellow Patchen fan, at our local Scuppernong Books, who brought in his entire collection for me to look at – a whole box of rare, hard-to-find works. He let me sit in the window & read as much of as I could before they had to close the shop for the day. (I’m still in awe of it.)

I’ve been reading text messages from my friends, & checking in on my brother, back home in Cincy. I’ve been reading Japanese folklore about kitsune – in preparation for the mask I’m painting for this weekend’s holiday. I’ve been reading tarot cards nearly every morning with my first cup of coffee. I’ve been reading the To-Do lists I continue to make & grimacing at the lack of crossing-out on those pages. I’ve been reading this, as I’ve been going, & smiling at how aging rids the body of some fears while amplifying others.

I’ve been listening, too.

Hallelujah to the IDLES & the radio play The City Wears A Slouch Hat & the conversation between Nikki Giovanni & James Baldwin I keep replaying on Youtube – to all that is looping, over & over, in my head.

& hallelujah to you, whoever you are, if you’re reading this.

Sam McCormick is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Category: Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Students

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