2020 Miller Audio Prize Runner-Up in Poetry: “Complete” by Troy Varvel

This week begins our featuring of the runners-up in each category of the 2020 Miller Audio Prize. We’re so excited to feature Troy Varvel‘s “Complete” today, which was selected by 2020 Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the runner-up this year in the poetry category.

Troy Varvel is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Licking the Splinter (Kelsay Books). He earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Creek Review, Dialogist, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Styx, and Yemassee, among others. Troy lives and teaches in the Texas Hill Country. Find out more at www.troyvarvel.com.

Listen to “Complete” by Troy Varvel below:

Artist Statement

A lot of the poetry that I write comes from my experience with a speech impediment—a stutter—that I’ve had ever since I could speak. In this way, poetry is a place for me to examine fluency, disruptions, full-blocks and starting over on the page to see what sounds and rhythms arise from this sort of frustration.

Toward the end of my second year in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I was sitting in the office that I shared with one of my good friends and closest readers, Ian Moeckel (who appears as the second voice in this poem), and he looked up at me and said something along the lines of, “You should try writing your stutters the way that they occur in real life. As line breaks. It’ll force the reader to hear them.”

My mind was blown.

Later that day I sat in the library and drafted out what would become “Complete.” Dialogist was kind enough to publish the poem and the recording in January 2020. As for the recording itself, Pinckney Benedict, a fiction professor at SIU, has championed integrating audio and sound into the MFA program and into our own writing. He has worked hard to provide for writers at SIU the resources needed to produce quality work.

2020 Miller Audio Prize Winner in Poetry: “Playing, Just for You” by Marcel “Fable” Price

Marcel “Fable” Price‘s “Playing, Just for You” was selected by this year’s judge, Alex Sujong Laughlin, as the 2020 Miller Audio Prize Winner in the poetry category. “Playing, Just for you” was scored/produced by Jay Jackson of The Last Gasp Collective, recorded by Ryan Payne (Mixed By Replxy), and was Mixed/Mastered by Crossworm.

Fable is a BIPOC North American writer, teaching artist, community advocate, storyteller, and executive director of non profit organization The Diatribe. Fable is the 2016 recipient of a Community Advocate Award, a 2017 40 Under 40 Honoree, and is the currently holding the title of Poet Laureate in Grand Rapids, MI. He is the author of “Adrift in a Sea of M&M’s” (2016) and is currently working to finish his second collection of poems titled New American Monarch: an extroverted caterpillars guide to becoming an introverted butterfly. Among other goals, Fable hopes to launch a youth center focused in preforming arts, writing, and community advocacy in the 49507. As the youngest, first person without a college degree, and only person of color to hold the title of Poet Laureate in Grand Rapids, MI his work has been heavily influenced by contorting personal experiences into a kaleidoscope used to examine glass ceilings for points of fragility.

He lives to be a beacon of vulnerability for those that can relate to his work.

His work has previously been used by PBS, The Flynn Foundation, Mental Health America, and Habitat for Humanity. His poems have appeared in Missouri Review, The Grand Rapids Grass Roots Anthology, The Spoon Knife Anthology, Button Poetry, and Write About Now.

We’re thrilled to be able to share Fable’s “Playing, Just for You” in its entirety below.

Artist Statement

This piece was designed to be sonic nostalgia that lives in the now. This collaboration audio poem adds layers of metaphor without language due to the breadcrumbs from the producer (Jay). The author (Fable The Poet) hopes that this message is a reminder to the well-meaning folks that their “advocacy” at times feels like the embrace of supremacy, and that it will serve as a call to action to remember “A brown trial is never a ‘hearing’ to white ears.” Also, understand that every “hot take” on a song like WAP, or Crucifixion of Michael Vick online is indeed a trial.

2020 Miller Guest Judge in the Spotlight: Alex Sujong Laughlin

2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin shares her journey to becoming an audio producer, the lens through which she sees the world, and how TikTok makes her laugh.

The Missouri Review: To start, could you tell us a little about how you came to be an audio producer? Was this something you always thought you wanted to pursue? What drew you to the medium?

Alex Sujong Laughlin: I’ve been in love with radio since I was little — I would sit in my bedroom floor and listen to NPR while I made collages out of garbage. I discovered my first podcast (The Ben Lee Podcast, RIP) when I was in ninth grade, and I listened to its six episodes on repeat on my iPod during gym class that year. Later on, I discovered This American Life (classic gateway), then RadioLab, and that was it for me. I took a little detour in college and post-grad to work in social media, but I always felt like audio was my home base.

TMR: You teach journalism at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, you work at Transmitter Media, you helped to create an alarm clock for Google Alexa, you are very active on social media, and the list goes on, yet, you also find time to write. How do you juggle so much at once and still find time for writing? Do you have any tips for those of us who are also trying to carve time out for our writing?

ASJ: It’s extremely hard!!! I don’t want to understate how hard it is!!! My mentor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, challenged me last year to carve out at least 15 minutes every day to work on my WIP, and once I started doing that, I found I could get so many more words on the page. Still, there are ebbs and flows. I had a massive deadline at work that took up a ton of time and brain space over the last month, so I haven’t made as much time to write as I did in months prior. It’s been important for me to learn to forgive myself for time not spent being “productive.” Sometimes I just need to sleep, and if I don’t do that first, my art will not be good!

TMR: You’ve done a lot of work that explores the concepts of race and identity, including your podcast, “Other: Mixed Race in America.” How do your thoughts on identity factor into your creative pursuits?

ASJ: I’m a mixed race, Korean and white woman who grew up in a middle class military family of divorce with a Korean immigrant mother. That is the only way I have experienced the world, and even though I read and research and interview folks, everything I make is created through that lens. I try to be aware of the blind spots that arise from that, but I also hope to represent the nuances of this particular intersection of identities. I published “Other” three years ago, but I still get emails from people telling me that it was the first time they’d seen themselves represented in media, and that it inspired them to tell their own stories. That is the best response I could have hoped for from that show, and it’s what I aim for with every piece of work I publish.

TMR: Now we’re going to do the thing that all writers do and ask you to tell us about your favorite books. We know you’ve compiled reading lists for your followers in the past; are there essential books/texts that always make your list?  

ASJ: Oh my gosh, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is practically a religious text for me. All of Ruth Ozeki’s work is amazing — I can’t even pick one book. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing turned my brain inside out last summer. I return to Anaïs Nin’s diaries in between other books — I love reading published diaries and hers are gorgeously written. I also have a deep love for all things Carson McCullers – we went to the same high school in South Georgia, and I always felt a kinship with her. I recently read Reflections in a Golden Eye and was tickled by the extremely accurate descriptions the houses I grew up in on Ft. Benning.

TMR: One of our categories that you will be judging in the Miller Audio Prize is humor, and we love that your social media handles (and website!) are “@alexlaughs.” We’ve got to ask: What makes you laugh, and what makes you laugh in a way that makes you want to hear the bit again?

ASJ: I have a really juvenile sense of humor. I feel like 2008-era Tumblr memes and Spongebob Squarepants are the roots of my humor… which is not cool, but I don’t care. TikTok always gets me laughing to tears. My sister and I discovered this video over Christmas break and it BROKE us for two weeks. Why is it called “pants hair”?!? Why is she standing like that in the picture?! I can’t explain it, and I am sorry.

TMR: A hard reality that all writers and artists have to deal with is rejection and you’re doing this incredible thing by collecting those stories @hellorejection. What is one of the most memorable stories about rejection that you’ve collected? Did it change the way you personally think about rejection?

ASJ: I think just seeing the accumulation of all the stories has been really comforting to me. We all know that everyone experiences rejection, but when you’re in the thick of it, it can really feel like you’re the only talentless reject in the world, and that you should probably give up. It’s comforting to see the feelings I’ve had reflected in so many other people across industries and disciplines. It’s a reminder to keep going!

TMR: And of course, as writers ourselves, we want to know if you have any advice for other artists/writers dealing with their own rejection?

ASJ: Just to remember that it’s part of the process, you’re not the only person going through it — and submit your screenshots to @hellorejection 😉

TMR: We couldn’t sign off without asking some questions about the adorable Pangur Bán that we’ve been seeing a lot of on your Instagram page. Can you tell us about his name? When is he at his most adorable?

ASJ: We usually call him Pong or Pongey, but we named him after a cat in an Old Irish poem written by a monk. My partner is in grad school, and we anticipated that the two of them would spend a lot of their days together in the apartment. Here’s an excerpt of the poem translated by Auden:

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are

Alone together, scholar and cat

Each has his own work to do daily;

For you it is hunting, for me study.

Your shining eye watches the wall;

My feeble eye is fixed on a book.

You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;

I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.

Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;

Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

Turns out, cats are little terrors, but Pong definitely has his moments when he crawls into bed while I’m reading and snuggles up with me.

Alex Sujong Laughlin is a journalist and writer who works in multiple mediums. By day, she works at a producer at Transmitter Media, and in her spare time she writes fiction and essays about identity and technology. She teaches interactive journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and collects rejection letters at @hellorejection.

Enter the 2020 Miller Audio Prize on our Contest page here.

Last Call for Submissions to the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize

The LASY DAY to enter TMR‘s Editors’ Prize has arrived

And with it, the last call. The 29th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize Contest closes tonight! You have the rest of this Tuesday to go, so don’t fret. Let fly your poems, your stories, your essays. How many poems in a parliament of owls? How many stories in a skulk of foxes, or essays in a shrewdness of apes? How much soaring or falling in none of those things? Only you can tell us. We can’t wait to hear you.

Best of luck, and with gratitude for your art,
The Editors

Our April and May Recap

by Sherell Barbee, TMR Editorial Assistant

The last two months at TMR have been busy: we released our spring issue; our audio team conducted an interview with TMR Associate Editor Evelyn Somers; we heard Zadie Smith speak at Columbia’s third annual Unbound Book Festival;  we announced the winners of our 2018 Miller Audio Prize; we published new Poems of the Week from Mikko Harvey, Jessica Ankeny, Mitchell Jacobs, Olivia GatwoodJacques J. Rancourt, Corey Van Landingham, H. R. Webster, Derek N. Otsuji, and Amie Whittemore; and it is finally warm enough for us to hang up our winter coats for good.

This has been an exciting time for poetry, too. We were given many reasons to celebrate April’s National Poetry Month this year: Frank Bidart received a Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016; Kendrick Lamar sparked much conversation and sales by earning a Pulitzer Prize in music for his latest album DAMN.; you can now hear Eve Ewing herself read poetry and prose from Electric Arches on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, and Audible; Rita Dove announced that she will begin working as the New York Times Magazine’s poetry editor this summer (check out her past TMR Poem of the Week here); and our friends over at The Rumpus celebrated #NationalPoetryMonth by publishing new poems daily, including two poems from past TMR Poem of the Week contributor Ruth Awad. This month, Kayo Chingonyi won the International Dylan Thomas Prize for his debut poetry collection, and U. S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith delivered a lecture about the way poetry can “guide us toward the part of ourselves so deeply buried that it borders upon the collective.”

Get a sneak peek at our new Spring issue here

 

As May comes to a close, we want to remember 10 poems from our Poem of the Week feature, highlighting one poem per year, from the past 10 years:

 

  1. Andy Sia: At age 10, I get a bad haircut (2017)
    “From the orders of my mother, no less. I watch
    the barber chop me up, my little pieces, all innocent
    and unmanageable, falling and flying around the room…”
    Andy Sia: “At age 10, I get a bad haircut”
  2. Phillip B. Williams: “The Field” (2016)
    “The battered field is hateful without remorse,
    is as seductive as what is familiar: a wild horse
    who long ceased being horse, had become beauty itself…”
    Phillip B Williams (2016)
  3. Regina DiPerna: “Teeth” (2015)
    “mouthful, watch me
    use my jaw as a knife…”
  4. Janice N. Harrington: “Topoanalysis” (2014)
    “This is his childhood. This is Goshen.
    This is the room of play and prayer and griddle cakes,
    where women scrubbed brown babes in wooden tubs…”
  5. Darren Morris: “Fear of the Either/Or” (2013)
    “The neighbors’ new baby is home now
    from its little miracle, and we go by,
    obligatory, with our skin-of-lion blanket…”
    Darren Morris (2013)
  6. Monica Ferrell: “Planet” (2012)
    “You’re alive.  You stumble from the spaceship’s hull
    Testing your radio…it gives a promising fuzz,
    But the mother-craft does not return your call…”
    Monica Ferrell
  7. Victoria Chang: “Edward Hopper’s Conference at Night” (2011)
    “The man sitting on the desk seems to have no eyes or they are closed or they
    have
    been dug out the man sitting on the table sits in a way of a boss or perhaps he
    wants…”
    Victoria Chang (2011)
  8. Jason Koo: “Do You Hear Me, Poison Ivy?” (2010)
    “It is sweet to kiss the ear of your kitty
    as he sleeps. Sweet to pull the hi-top sneakers
    off your girlfriend’s feet as she sleeps.
    Sweet to discover she is not completely asleep…”
    Jason Koo (2013)
  9. Bob Hicok: “In the future, the future will be the past” (2009)
    “A woman screamed
    during the protest between supporters…”
    Bob Hicok (2008)
  10. Joanne Diaz: “Syringe” (2008)
    “Perhaps you’ve always known her obvious desire,
    her thirst for more, then more: the way she’d wish
    for more kissing after the warmth of sex…”
    Joanna Diaz (2008)

 

UNBOUND Book Festival Podcast: An Interview With Heather Derr-Smith

This week on The Missouri Review’s Soundbooth Podcast we interview poet Heather Derr-Smith, who was recently in Columbia to participate in the Unbound Book Festival. Derr-Smith is the author of four books of poems: Each End of the World, The Bride Minaret, Tongue Screw, and Thrust. Poems from Thrust were previously featured in The Missouri Review, and the book won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Prize.

Interview conducted by TMR Audio Intern Kelsey Hurwitz.

TMR Soundbooth Podcast: Poet Christopher Citro

This week on The Missouri Review’s Soundbooth Podcast we interview poet Christopher Citro, whose work was featured in our Winter 2016 issue. Chris is the author of The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy (Steel Toe Books). His awards include a 2017 Pushcart Prize and the 2015 Poetry Competition at Columbia Journal. Recent and upcoming publications include poetry in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Best New Poets, Blackbird, The Iowa Review Blog, Mid-American Review, Meridian, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. His creative nonfiction appears in Boulevard, Quarterly West, Passages North,and Colorado Review. Christopher received his MFA from Indiana University and has taught at the University of Kansas, Indiana University, SUNY Oswego, the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and The Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, New York where he lives.

Interview conducted by TMR Audio Editor Traci Cox and edited by Audio Intern Emily Standlee.

Anxiety of Influence

You may have heard of the poet Patricia Lockwood. Her poem Rape Joke made quite a stir in 2013, and her recent book, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals was reviewed widely (see, for example, The New York Times, Slate, and The Rumpus, and, for commentary on the discomfort of male reviewers of the book, The Toast). Over 50,000 people follow her on Twitter @TriciaLockwood.

lockwood picture

By Leanna Petronella

She’s one of the scrappy up-and-comers in the contemporary poetry world, and while “Rape Joke” has deservedly garnered much attention as a cornerstone of her book, there’s another poem in there that keeps blowing my mind for its wildly irreverent, wildly thoughtful treatment of literary ancestry. This poem is “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics.” In this long poem, Lockwood declares Walt Whitman is the “mother” of American poetry and Emily Dickinson is the “father.” She turns the question of influence on its head with her gender-bending, hilarious, oddly touching reverie on narcissism, writing, and American poetry.

Every writer struggles with what Harold Bloom termed the Anxiety of Influence. We wonder if we stray too far away from literary traditions or if we stagnate within them. The brains of other writers sit on our shoulders like slimy, lumpy, terrifying birds. Lockwood’s poem uses the outrageous metaphor of “tit-pics” to mull over the impact of the two biggest icons of American poetry. The poem begins with Emily and Walt (the poem uses a first-name basis, so I will, too) having returned from the dead for a day. They climb out of their graves and their first act is to exchange tit-pics with each other. Then Lockwood says,

When you want to say a poet is mysterious, say, “Very few tit-pics of him exist,” or “Reading his letters and journals, we are able to piece together a pic of his tits—they loved butter and radishes and were devoted to his sister.”

Here, “tit-pics” act as a metaphor for some private internal secret that is the “key” to Emily and Walt’s poetry. The phrase suggests that our hunt of this key, or our exposure of it, is unseemly. In terms of literary influence, this excerpt implies that our relationship with those who came before us is prurient and inappropriate. We want too much from them. We need to stop acting as paparazzi to their souls.

Lockwood builds on the tit-pic metaphor when she turns her camera towards the speaker. She says,

I admit that I brought them back from the dead because I was standing in front of the mirror taking picture after picture of my tits in order to establish once and for all time what a tit actually looks like, since according to the dictionary lots of things can be a tit, even including a bird and an idiot.

Now the tits seem to represent poems and poem making: the speaker wanted pictures of the poets’ tits (their poems!) so that she can make her own best tit-picture (her poem!). This ridiculous metaphor refuses to be only ridiculous, though—it’s trying to tell us something about how writers use writers, and how that use is fraught.

The poem gets even stranger when Lockwood reverses Emily and Walt’s genders. She turns Whitman into quite the exhibitionist with,

Walt Whitman with a bra on his head, which is keeping his thoughts from being totally bare. The bra is too small and the bra is made of lace and his friends are saying, “Walt you are falling OUT” and “Wow Walt you are giving everyone a show” and “Why are you giving away the cow for free when I only wanted to hear the moo.”

Are the poems still tits? In that case, is this a form/content dichotomy, in which tits equal content and form, as the scrap that’s barely restraining the breasts, is the bra? Whitman’s lines are long and meandering, so is Lockwood slyly insinuating that his form is minimal? Lockwood spends a long time lovingly details Whitman’s breasts, declaring,

 I mean he’s had two hundred years to develop them.

 Perhaps that’s why breasts have gotten bigger, because American poetry is accumulating in our lungs and has to push its way out somehow.

Lockwood is insisting that we view American poetry through the lens (fatty tissue?) of the breast, and yet that comment about lungs rescues the image from total silliness: breath gathers in our lungs. Breath is part of speaking. We have so much breath in our lungs, so much American poetry, that it is desperate to get out.

Tit-pics as anxiety of influence, tit-pics as narcissism, tit-pics as American poetry—Lockwood keeps turning and turning her metaphor-wheel. I find the metaphor to be quite gutsy. While some critics might brush it off as reveling in shock value, I think it’s building towards an argument about how we use our literary heritage (a boob-bard thesis, if you will). I’d argue that Lockwood actually uses these two primary figures in American poetry to do something not particularly related to these poets. She’s using them, but not in imitation: she’s creating her own idiosyncratic argument about influence.

The poem ends with Walt and Emily dying again. They are once more inside the grave. Lockwood says,

Above them floating their tit-pics.

And floating above their tit-pics our eyes.

If the tit-pics are, in some sense, Emily and Walt’s own self-reflection (the metaphor wheel still spins!), then our eyes gaze at their introspection. It’s a pretty apt encapsulation of what many writers (perhaps especially poets) do with the Keats and Bishops of their pasts: they stare obsessively at others’ words, which are allegedly mirrors to the soul.

Is that what writers do with other writers? What’s the problem with having a relationship with these foremothers and fathers, any way? It seems easy enough to see the problem in zealous imitation. At the very least, this produces unoriginal work; at the very worst, plagiarized. Yet don’t most creative writing teachers assign imitation exercises? At what point do these exercises stop being generative? I wonder, too, how the market plays into this. As a poet, I find that many literary journals seem to publish the same kind of poetry, in the same kind of style, with the same kind of content. If the same kind of poem appears everywhere, it means this poem is getting published. A poet who wants to make a living off their poetry (read: residing in academia) needs to have published a book, and, often, in order to publish a book, needs to have a healthy number of published poems. I don’t know any poet who consciously writes to the Fad Poem, but does it seep into us unconsciously?

These, in my mind, are some of the dangers and issues of investing in a reading relationship with current and past poets. What about the other way around? Can a writer have too shallow a relationship with authors of yesteryear? I always recommend Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell to my beginning poetry students who write in a Confessional vein. But why do I do this? I suppose I assume it’s wise for a poet to be familiar with their ancestors, but to what ends? So they don’t repeat what’s been done before? In other words, do I want my students to familiarize themselves with similar styles and subject matters in order to depart from them? Maybe. Or maybe I want them to join the voices, to riff off of past members of the school. That kind of riffing, though, would only be evident to a very select group of well-read readers. By cultivating a relationship with our literary ancestors, do we risk insular, elite readership?

At the same time, if we don’t cultivate that relationship, it seems like we risk sounding ignorant. Perhaps we lose out on inspiration. Ultimately, perhaps influence, or even cross-pollination, is simply inevitable. While I didn’t find Lockwood’s poem to be in the vein of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, I did wonder about John Donne. Lockwood’s poem essentially turns on an extended metaphor, known otherwise as a conceit. The metaphysical British poet John Donne was known for wacky conceit-driven poems such as “The Flea,” which uses a flea as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. To me, a flea representing sex is no stranger than a tit-pic representing American poetry. Does it matter that Lockwood’s conceit recalls Donne’s? If so, in what way? Perhaps I feel like I understand the poem better. Clearly, it makes me begin to invent a sequence of literary heritage. I know that in my own poetry, I find it useful when others see echoes of certain poets, as it helps me frame myself to myself. It gives me a reflection that is not overwhelming, a small pool of poets that I can try to swim around in. Perhaps knowing who your influences are is as much as knowing who they aren’t. To make my own (terrible!) metaphor, in a vast sea of porn (contemporary poetry!), it helps to know which tit-pic is actually going to turn you on.

Holes In The Mountain

A few weeks ago, we received an email from our friend, poet Kai Carlson-Wee. He told us that he had spent the summer traveling, and along with working on new poems, he had created a “poetry video.” He wanted to know if we would be interested in showcasing his poetry video since the audio is “Holes in the Mountain,” one of his five poems from his 2014 Editors’ Prize winning entry. We weren’t really sure what a poetry video would look like, but we said, yeah sure we’d love to sit down and check out his work. So he sent us the link. And we watched it. Then watched it again. And again. And again.

I don’t want to give too much away here, and I’m not sure my words could adequately prepare you for this four minute video anyway. But. Kai and his brother Anders created this video during their summer trip up the western coast, when they took a train ride from Oakland to Portland, and captured images, still and ooving, from their trip.

It’s a stirring, evocative video, and one that we’re sure you’re going to love. We proudly featured Kai’s poetry in our magazine earlier this year, and once again, thrilled to have the chance to show you more of his wonderful work.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

How to Succeed at Reading Poems Without Really Trying

NJHOWTO

 

By Bradley Babendir

During my senior year of high school, I happened upon The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010, a collection edited by Dave Eggers. The anthology opened with an introduction by David Sedaris, a writer with whom I was currently (and still am) infatuated.  He wrote about finding old poems that he’d written in elementary school and growing annoyed with his younger self. When he begins talking about the views he formerly held of poetry, he summarizes it with this sentence: “Why not make things easier and just say what you mean? Why be all, well, poetical about it?”

At the time, I read this statement as a little bit funny and a little bit true. It felt validating to have a writer I admired share in my confusion on the subject. I had English teachers who either disliked poetry or liked it in a passive way. Infrequently did the work of poets enter my classrooms, and when it did, it was equally frustrating and brief. My personal deviations towards the poetic consisted of buying a book by Mary Oliver and a book by Li-Young Lee on a recommendation from a friend I considered both smarter and more cultured.

I read the books or attempted to read them. One was stacked on top of the other next to my bed for quite some time. Each time I opened them, I felt as though I was missing something fundamental, like I couldn’t crack the code. In a lot of ways, I felt like Nicolas Cage in National Treasure, except without the triumphant ending.

The common metaphor is that most people view poetry like I did —a s a puzzle to be solved. Instead of a work of art to be taken in and interpreted, it’s a set of pieces that can only go together in one specific way.

Despite its inherent subjectivity, people bookend their opinions on poetry with undermining qualifiers. When those who consider themselves ill-qualified to discuss the subject are called upon to do so, the knee-jerk reaction is to treat it as if they are being asked about a geopolitical issue they know nothing about. “I don’t really know much about poetry,” they’ll say. “But if you really want my opinion, I guess I think…”

It’s not a problem that other types of art have.

With music or film or fiction, there are layers of analysis that can be applied to any given piece. An average moviegoer doesn’t have to understand or interpret Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb the same way that a film student or scholar would. The film is perfectly open to being enjoyed without a deeper discussion of the psychosexual coding that director Stanley Kubrick litters throughout the film. It’s possible to enjoy the film because it’s, you know, funny.

Poetry, though, rarely gets that type of lenience. Instead, it has a bit of an image problem.  It’s as though readers feel it’s not good enough to have read a poem and laughed or felt sadness. It’s not good enough to read poetry; you have to read poetry.

Yet in the same way that someone can appreciate an exceptional meal just because it tastes really good, someone can appreciate a poem. It’s not necessary to recognize and ruminate on all the different spices and textures.

If you’re still struggling to find satisfaction within the lines of a poem, try to think about the whole thing less. In other words, the best way to read a poem is to read it. Poetry is better without the preconception. Reading a poem with an open mind, allowing the language and images to wash over you as they are written, can do wonders for enjoyment.

If it suits your fancy, there are levels of depth that can be tapped into without much prior knowledge. Think about the tone of the poem and the way the images connect. Scan the poem for motifs or other forms of repetition. Most importantly, don’t stand in your own way. Believe in your own ability to understand what’s in front of you, and you will.

Very recently, I dusted off my copy of The Best Nonrequired Reading 2010 and reread the introduction. The lines that had stuck with me for the last three years weren’t near the end, as I had imagined them, but tucked in the middle. Instead, Sedaris closes with a thought that’s much more in line with what I’ve learned since: “Why don’t poets just come out with it? Uh, actually, I think they do.