Unless you count student essays and poems, I’ve been out of a focused-reading mindset for quite sometime, until recently when I began a sorely-needed sabbatical (thank you, SUNY Nassau Community College!). It’s difficult to narrow down five books to note as I have books strewn from sofa to bed to bathroom, some ravaged, some gently fondled, others lovingly caressed. While cliched, the puns are on point as my pleasure is as visceral as the ventricles in my brain, hungering, are stimulated anew after much neglect.

Mastery, Robert Greene

Having lost sight of myself as a writer, especially in the day-to-day ways that build one’s habits and therefore oeuvre, I have been reading through several of Greene’s books, especially Mastery. Greene himself is a master at researching and therefore couples his conclusions with examples. So for instance, he doesn’t just break down what it takes to “master” an art, he illustrates each step with examples of historical figures like the deep backgrounds of Leonardo da Vinci to Charles Darwin to Marie Curie to himself. Greene was unsuccessful at many professions for a large chunk of his life in a disconcerting way. He flitted about, never truly achieving success on any career-path or sticking with any one profession. It turns out his varied experiences led him to consider how historical stories of power struggles actually play out in various employment settings, and thus, the best-seller, The 48 Laws of Power, was born. He was a “failure” up to that point.

He demystifies “genius” and illustrates the “components”, behavioral aspects and choices that enable people to achieve mastery. Especially emphasized early on is cultivating one’s own apprenticeship. Green quite smartly gives permission to play, to wander, and encourages you to follow your interests, despite what your parents and society steer you towards as being logical, more certain paths to success. For example, if da Vinci hadn’t wandered off to do his detailed studies of birds and stuck with the standard basic sketches of the day, he likely would not have become interested in flight as well as anatomy and his paintings wouldn’t have been rendered with such precise detail. He was “playing” in the woods alone, drawing for hours on end where his interests led. He is also quite keen to get folks to understand how success is contingent on people as well, and so, understanding how relations with others factors in towards recognition and support (i.e. cultivating “social intelligence”). Sound familiar? My boiled down synopsis here doesn’t do Greene’s work justice. I am newly inspired and re-focused in ways that feel enabling and even strategic, as dirty as that word sounds, in a field premised on merit. As I become less inclined to self-promotion (and have been shamed for being so as a woman for quite awhile now), I want to work smarter, not necessarily harder when it comes to getting my work out there. As for the rest, Greene’s book is making me feel newly invigorated about writing and what I want in ways I haven’t consciously considered in the past.

The Social Construction of Lesbianism,  Celia Kitzinger

I’m a fan of queer theory, especially that which considers ideas and issues across the LGBTQ spectrum vis-à-vis intersectionality, and as such, I try to read along the lines of Jack Halberstam, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick & Jasbir Puar, etc. But resonating with Rosemary Hennessy’s seminal considerations in Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, I am going back to basics to look, specifically, at how lesbians, those transgressive but alternately invisible and muted entities, came to exist in contemporary culture. That is, lesbians in some way have been known historical threats to the patriarchal order based on the simplistic premise that we presumably are not defined in relation to men and have no need for them. Before the traditional conclusion we so often see played out in various film and TV stories: the death of the happy lesbians who finally find each other and come into the light, how do such women defy the social order? Which begs the question: What is a lesbian? Who gets to define us? How does her existence aid straight women? Turn to Celia Kitzinger’s The Social Construction of Lesbianism. Kitzinger considers science’s declarations over our lives, the depoliticization of our lives back to the personal to defang our effects on the social order, direct lesbian accounts of how and why they live the way they do via interviews, as well as an in-depth accounting of how lesbians themselves define and vary within the group identity and in relation to the social order via methodological studies. For example, she takes a look at several accounting mechanisms that absorb our anomalous existences:

2. ‘Minstrelization’ (Broyard, 1950), in which the person procures the approval of the dominant social group by behaving in exact conformity with the stereotype others have of such group members, thus being a ‘predictable’ or ‘safe’ deviant. The limp-wristed and effeminate gay man at least has the virtue of not disturbing the onlookers’ preconceived notions about male homosexuality. [Kitzinger 92]

Also of interest is how detailed the women’s direct accounts are, which go into more complex issues that surround specific lives and inform definitions. I am nowhere near done, but the issues raised in these attempts strike me as acutely relevant in 2019. It’s one thing to abstractly theorize about the concept of being a lesbian; it’s another to delve into numerous specifics of lesbians’ beliefs about their lives via first-person accounts:

I just came to the conclusion that women cannot have equal relationships with men. They just can’t. And what I wanted from him he could never give me — and what women want from men generally they can never really give us, not really: and that is this emotional identification, an emotional support and understanding. Vicky (24) [Kitzinger 107]

Obviously men’s lives have been changing since this book was published in 1987 and so Vicky’s “men generally” is today’s equivalent of #NotAllMen; nonetheless, the issues and concerns raised in this book resonate today, generally-speaking, especially if we consider something like the responses to Gillette’s recent commercial touching on toxic masculinity and how female politicians continue to be discussed as they announce runs for the 2020 presidency.

The Political Effects of Entertainment Media: How Fictional Worlds Affect Real World Political Perspectives, Anthony Gierzynski

I was co-parented by books and TV. I grew up reading late into the night and watching shows like Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger, The Hulk and Magnum P.I. The array of shows is telling; my father visited once a year until I was 15. I longed for a father, who was more than just an idealized annual blip.

Now that I’m outlining a memoir and writing memories in spurts, I’m thinking deeply about the effects of television, especially as I consider myself something of an addict. There are themes throughout my life that I associate with specific TV shows. Though I’ve certainly outgrown the desire to have Charles Ingalls ride up in his wagon and carry me to the all-loving family on a small farm, I have long-experienced the compulsion to turn the tube on for comfort. I find life in the stories, I feel kinship with characters , and I cry over the loss of them. Despite the notion that TV is a waste of time or mere entertainment to distraction, it is not so for those of us who have relied on it in order to avoid being drowned by our own real life circumstances. Whatever value folks put on television, there is no denying its pervasiveness (even now, Generation Z is watching a web series on their phones) and, like it or not, influence on our values.

Much like the linguist George Lakoff suggested that people see the president through the personal lens of the figurative “father figure”, Gierzynnski explores the ways in which stories that fill our screens also influence our values and the ways in which we view issues of the day. He considers how shared culture functions, identifying how content might have a political effect, and delves deeper into speculative effects and impact via Game of Thrones and House of Cards. Relatedly (a la Lakoff), one of the final chapters is about fictional leaders and their effects on the traits valued in leaders, specifically noting “support for female candidates.” I haven’t read that far yet, but I plan to before the female presidential campaigns get off the ground.

Bonus, related suggestion: I especially love television series, and I fell in love with several characters in the mini-series called, Treme. I recently acquired a book of essays that explores the effects of the show on New Orleans itself, filmed locally while enlisting many New Orleans’ residents to participate along with others looking to the show post-Katrina for some form of catharsis or as a vehicle through which their experiences might be known. The book is HBO’s Treme and Post-Katrina Catharsis.

The Posthuman, Rosi Braidotti

I enjoy reading above my pay grade. Or rather, beyond my intellect. I find having my set ways of thinking, my ideals and notions of reality, challenged, shaken and even undone is conducive to the very nature of our world: ever-changing and not entirely within our control. Despite our inclinations towards homogenization and security, nature thrives on diversity and change. We can fight it to the death or learn how to live symbiotically as a part of nature – to the death. To this end, I have been diving into Braidotti’s book, grappling with theory and concepts I find challenging but compelling. At minimum, I’m asking questions that will certainly inform my poems: What does it mean to not consider myself an animal? How have I been commodified and what role have I played in that production of identity (see aforementioned Social Construction of Lesbianism)? What does it mean to build community in the midst of relationships that often feel fragmented by technology?

I offer an excerpt that may compel poets:

Finding an adequate language for post-anthropocentrism means that the resources of the imagination, as well as the tools of critical intelligence, need to be enlisted in this task. The collapse of the nature-culture divide requires that we need to devise a new vocabulary, with new figurations to refer to the elements of our posthuman embodied and embedded subjectivity. [Braidotti 82]

There is also much consideration of death, which of course spurs me to no end. Ba-dum tsss.

The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, César Vallejo

I cannot convey how many books of poems are open at the moment in my home and van (apartment on wheels). Ever since I was awarded my sabbatical, I spent my most recent semester ordering poetry books, primarily by living poets, each time I came across a poem I loved. The house is rich and alive with stack of books and poems!

In turn, I have been making a concerted effort to avoid letting this current political regime kill me. It’s all so personal and each new’s lede is like death by a thousand cuts. If I took it all in daily and gave in to responding to every update, combined with my depression-prone psyche, I would bow to breaking. I am not the reed yet. As someone who has for much of her life spoken out in the face of injustices, it has also been painful not to rail each day. I made a conscious decision a few months ago to change my outlook so as not to destroy myself with stress. It is no small feat, determining to strive for happiness, or something close to it, a calmness even, within a toxic environment. It may even be radical. They would like our demise. Figuring out how to be happy or at least even keel, while maintaining a healthy critical mind, requires risk, strategy and determination. Also, a recognition: My voice is not always the one to prioritize or even be heard; it is as important to support those who have not been amplified, whose voices have been suppressed, for so long. That support may even be more important when it comes to the need to change our current situation. See the newly elected women to Congress for testament to that.

That said, I also recognize, in a larger historical context, we are not the first poets to live within an atrocious regime. I think of Cesar Vallejo and often return to him. He was imprisoned for his political beliefs under an oppressive regime in Peru. He immigrated to France to avoid being murdered. He was depressed, rightfully so, before dying at 46, but before it took him, he wrote beautiful poetry, including Trilce while imprisoned. The ways in which he makes the internal organs a landscape, how he turns the political into the personal, the seemingly illogical turns and unusual juxtapositions  — his poems, to me, are the deepest of depths and the creative mind in visible action, connecting what seems disparate, unrelated, bringing to the fore that which we take for granted and ignore. Folks like to cite Neruda for his political and romantic prowess, but to me, Vallejo marries far more adeptly, with revelation, much of the things I’ve touched on in the book descriptions above in ways that ignite my slumbering ventricles again to feel fire and passion and, most of all, potential:

For several days, I have felt an exuberant, political need
to love, to kill affection on its two cheeks,
and I have felt from afar a demonstrative
desire, another desire to love, willingly or by force,
whoever hates me, whoever rips up his paper, a little boy,
the woman who cries for the man who was crying,
the king of wine, the slave of water,
whoever hid in his wrath,
whoever sweats, whoever passes, whoever shakes his person in my soul,
And I want, therefore, to adjust
the braid of whoever talks to me; the hair of the soldier;
the light of the great one; the greatness of the little one.
I want to iron directly
a handkerchief for whoever is unable to cry
and, when I am sad or happiness hurts me,
to mend the children and the geniuses.

I want, finally,
when I am at the celebrated edge of violence
or my heart full of chest, I would like
to help whoever smiles laugh,
to put a little bird right on the evil man’s nape,
to take care of the sick annoying them,
to buy from the vendor,
to help the killer kill–a terrible thing–
and I would like to be kind to myself
in everything.

–Cesar Vallejo