In honor of finishing the edits on my first book, I'm taking a challenge posed to me by my dear friend Emily Carroll and rattling off, in no particular order, the ten writers Pelican couldn't exist without.
We share a first name, and a history of secretive behavior, and our hearts' burial in Amherst. Dickinson is the first poet I loved as a child, specifically and especially for her "I'm nobody" poem. I went through a phase circa middle school when I was convinced I was from outer space, and feeling connected to another "nobody" is probably what inspired my impulse to record--I wanted to be like Emily: bent over her desk, claiming space through language.
I read The Bell Jar for the first time much earlier than anybody would've let me had they known how I was spending my pocket money. I still have that copy, all my favorite passages underlined in pink, then black, then green, as I read and reread again and again. I became a huge admirer of Plath's poetry in college, but my connection with Plath will always be rooted in her prose and how simultaneously delicate and hysterical she was in her descriptions of a girl too deep into her own mind. I was that girl at 11; I'm that girl now. I go back to The Bell Jar time and again, and I always find some new moment where she shakes me by the shoulders saying you are only seen so far as you can see yourself.
I have a now-illegible text tattoo of a quote from Woolf's Orlando on my ribs: "if we survive the teeth, we succumb to the waves." It's pulled from the passage when Orlando wakes in the night transformed from man to woman, where the narrator steps back from the narrative to muse on the difficulties of accurately telling a story. No matter how you write, your biases will always get the better of you. But Woolf goes beyond her biases by asking more questions that she can possibly answer before the end of an essay or novel or life. In my mind, her prose is unparalleled in excellence, but her heart is what matters most to me. Her characters are so frequently overtaken by the world around them, and I see myself in that surrender every time.
If you haven't read Hotel World, begin there. My beloved fiction professor and thesis advisor Nell Arnold gave me this book as an assignment for one of her classes and I think about it constantly. Smith's play with tense and perspective is a joy for any admirer of experimental writing, but the true joy of her work is that she doesn't sacrifice earnest for technical backflips. If anything, her talent for manipulating mechanics only makes you feel more deeply for the scenes and stories she makes.
Love: An Index lives beside Hotel World as the only other book I urge all of my writing students to read. Both experiment with narrative in surprising and satisfying ways, but Lindenberg's poems are unique in that they are at once an archive of a personal story and a meditation on memory as the most personal of all storytelling acts. For us to remember anything, we must mark it somehow as ours, and Rebecca's poems are just the right marriage of the deeply personal and the curiously intellectual.
David Foster Wallace
Since we're talking indices and intellect, Foster Wallace seems a natural place to go. The summer my father died, I read Infinite Jest during interminable shifts manning the espresso machine and crepe griddle at a truly horrible cafe that very few customers ever patronized. All of our food was rotten, all our espresso pre-ground, and I had all the time in the world to flip back and forth from main text to endnotes to main text to earlier passage to next chapter to why the hell am I reading about puppets for this many pages and then suddenly I was crying into my coffee. People criticize Foster Wallace for being willfully inaccessible, but I really enjoyed the novel because it forces you to remember that a book is a narrative made physical--that you must interact with an object to access the story you're trying to understand, and that the object might end up being as difficult to deal with as the people it is cataloging.
It's getting awfully pretentious in here, but hear me out one second more: my first year of college I took a class called "The Bodies of Leo Tolstoy" taught by Polina Barskova, who also happened to be my advisor. The course was gorgeous--we talked about the physical descriptions of war, aging, family, and sex in his work--but the fact that my presence there gave me Polina as an advisor is the true reason Tolstoy makes this list. My father was having health problems again and I was thinking about dropping out of school. Polina frowned at me during one of our dozens of meetings that semester and said, "If you leave, you will never come back." It felt very Russian, but she was also very right. That small push for me to stay put kept me in the community I was beginning to build for myself as a writer, the one that made me a poet and pushed me to the point of telling a lot of really scary stories about myself in my work, many of which produced early drafts that ended up (after countless revisions) in Pelican.
Her narrators mytholigize like no other, and of that I'm so envious I could scream. But specifically, she ranks on this list because of The Autograph Man. The novel is about the rituals we take on in memory of what we've lost, and also the ways we sabotage ourselves instead of finding healthy ways to process grief. It's a beautiful, hilarious, essential read for anyone who's lost a parent. I read most of it on the commuter rail back and forth from Providence to Boston and wept openly, glaring at any stranger who dared interrupt my very intimate relationship with the book.
I would follow a cat down a well for this many an day. I don't care if you can make bingo cards from his personal vocabulary of tropes. I don't even care that I couldn't finish 1Q84. I love him for dropping the surreal into the most normal of circumstances. I love him for manipulating the same conditions and coming up with endless fever dreams. Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of The World is one of my favorite novels of all time for how deftly is rediscovers the human mind. Can our own memories lay dormant inside us? Certainly. Can we admit those dormant memories are ciphers for all we see and know about the world? That's much harder to face, but a concept important to me beyond words. I wish I could've given that book to my father. He would've adored every page.
Yes, I am blaming my debut collection on the frontman of Everclear. I said it in an interview for a forthcoming issue of Profane, and I'm going to say it again here: listening to Everclear as a grouchy adolescent made me realize that it's possible to be angry at your family while still loving them ruthlessly. You can expose the pain they've caused you and claim them and you won't tear yourself in two with the effort of either. Seeing the whole picture--the mess and the joy of being bonded by blood--is what makes family so important. I know that there are plenty of poems I've written that make my family unhappy or uncomfortable. I've already had countless conversations about many of those poems as they slowly see the light of day. But I also know that my family is proud of me for telling our truth, even the ugliest sides of it. Which isn't to say I'm not terrified of my book's birthday. I know there are more hard conversations to come. But I'm willing to have them, because telling the whole story is worth all the hard conversations in the world.