It’s a commonly held belief that no two people ever read the same book. This is because each person brings his or her own experiences and prejudices into any piece of writing. The occurrence is amplified when the reading material is poetry. Since poetry is exponentially shorter than a novel, memoir, or even a short story, poets must take great care when setting thoughts down. They are working with few words, but trying to encapsulate the same complex ideas found in other forms of written art. These shorter works, by default, leave more room for readers to bring in life experiences so they can fill in the blanks.
I decided to start reading poetry last year, mainly because I hadn’t read any since high school and I felt it was time. Despite never reading poetry as an adult, I owned a book of poems, Milk and Honey. It had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time. I kept hearing about it on social media and in my bookish news outlets, so I bought it. Once I decided to read it, I felt the need to go back and read poems I had liked. I took little blue stickies and put them on the corner of poems that resonated with me, so I could go back later. There was a specific poem about women of color that even now I can’t stop thinking about. Not because it was me; it totally wasn’t – I’m so white that I’m basically clear, like Larry. ** Space Jam reference for all you 90s kids. It stuck with me, because I thought, “This isn’t me. This is not my life. I empathize, I love this poem, but it’s not about me.” When I read that poem, I thought about the struggles of women of color. I understood only on a surface level. I wasn’t sitting there reading that poem reflecting on any racism that I had been on the receiving end of; I was actually sitting there thinking about how that had never happened to me and never would. What else was I not getting here? There were all kinds of things in this book that I loved and that resonated with me, but they probably weren’t the same as what others loved. This is what launched my idea to pass around this collection of poetry at work: to see what others thought, to see what else I was missing.
Now, bit of background, I’m a huge drug book pusher. I push people books on the reg. **Mean Girls reference for those of you who were teens in the early 2000s. People are not usually receptive to this. I get a lot of, “I don’t have time to read, but I wish I did!” or “I’ve not really read much since Harry Potter/high school/college etc.” Despite the usual hesitation, I decided to push Milk and Honey. I could feel the collective tensing and eye rolls starting as I began to explain to my gathered co-workers (yes, I gathered them so I could preach on poetry) why I wanted them to read this. I said not to be afraid of the “Capital P, Poetry” and tried to explain how this book was written. My elevator pitch was:
-It is separated into four sections: the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing. This book deals with life, love, body issues, and all the ups and down that come with them. You’ll definitely relate to something here.
-It’s easy to understand. – It won’t go over your head.
-You’re never wondering if the author is talking about a ghost of a man, or a literal man, or an idea of a man – it’s very literal. You’ll get it. I PROMISE.
-And it’s short – it’s so short. If you don’t like it, you won’t not like it for very long!!
I was begging people to read this book. After giving my sermon and explaining my whole tangent about individuals never reading the same book, I asked people to mark poems with the same kind of little sticky flags I had used, just different colors. I needed to see what poems others loved, if they were the same ones I did.
Instructions were to mark any poem that made you think, do a double take, tear up, or involuntarily agree with a whispered, “Hell yes!” I comforted my co-workers by saying we’d never discuss it as a group. No one is looking at the blue flags and saying, “Wow, Dimery marked a lot of poems about breakups… let’s sit and think about what kind of break up she’s suffered recently.” I tried to push honesty, and openness. Flag what you love. Flag what you can’t stop thinking about, but be honest; no one is going to call you out on it. No one will test you to see if you really got it. Read it in one sitting, read it twice, read a poem a day. Whatever. JUST PLEASE READ IT. And read it they did. Positive responses were overwhelming. I got texts from girls asking me to take a picture of a poem, because they loved it but forgot the exact wording. Girls asked for updates on how many people had read it and what the most popular poem currently was.
The best part of this project was getting the book back after each person read it. I didn’t remember who had what colored stickies, so I wasn’t thinking of individuals’ reading experiences. I just got to watch the top of the book get more and more colorful. I watched it grow. I saw shared, but still anonymous connections being made between girls at work over and over and over again. When I go back and read poems that I marked and see four other flags next to mine, I have a moment of “I know, right!” even though I don’t know who felt the same.
Though I started this project because I connected a poem I loved but wasn’t about me, the best part has been seeing the shared experience. There’s something to be said for truly seeing yourself in writing. Seeing your friends. Seeing your life. Sitting there reading a poem and crying because it’s YOU exactly and you thought you were alone, gasping because you’ve been there, or whispering, “Oh my gosh!” quietly to yourself because, by god, you fucking get it.
While the collection made its rounds at work, it was clear that certain poems were more universal than others: those that had eight or more different colored flags across the top. There were also still poems with no flags and ones with only one flag, which was still great. My plan was always to stop passing the book around once a poem had stickies all the way across, from spine to corner. Once there was a poem that could not hold any more flags, the book would be retired. I’d keep it on display (because it’s gorgeous), and read it sparingly when I need a lift. I didn’t actually want it to stop there though; I still wanted more people to read it.
Poetry needs a proper chance. My wish came true once two girls that I lent the book to bought their own copies to pass around in new circles. Same idea. I decided then to call it the Pay-It-Forward Poetry Project. I’m all for borrowing and lending books, but I think this idea of a mass borrowing works particularly well with poetry. It works because poetry doesn’t take long to read. The excitement isn’t lost because one person takes half a year to read the book. It’s a fast read and a fast pass.
At the end of all this, I have a beautiful, seemingly living and breathing book with celebratory flags waving at the top. I’m the type of reader who thinks all writing is alive. Each time someone reads a thing, those characters and circumstances come to life in that person’s head. When you live it like that, it becomes you; everything I’ve ever read is still banging around inside me. It’s a comfort to know that the positive things living in this book are truly shared and binding – I have the proof. They are living in its author, living in me, and living in various groups of girls who were part of this project either in its first round or one of its forwards.
Like this idea? Copy it! Let me know how it works. You can use anything to mark pages. I’ve passed poetry around and used colored pencils, tape, flags, and post it notes. I’ve even had people write names on the pages of people poems reminded them of.