Our Reading Lives

Submerging Myself In Poetry For The Sealey Challenge

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Connie Pan

Senior Contributor

Connie Pan is a writer and editor from Maui, Hawai‘i. She earned an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University. Her writing has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Carve, HelloGiggles, PRISM International, The Billfold, and elsewhere. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Instagram: @csnpan Twitter: @panlikepeter

This August marked the fourth year of The Sealey Challenge and my first time completing it. Named by Dante Micheaux for poet Nicole Sealey in 2017, during the challenge participants read a chapbook or full-length collection of poetry a day throughout August. On social media, readers share books, poems, and excerpts using hashtags like #TheSealeyChallenge.

I wish I could tell you every way devoting my August to poetry has inspired me, but time and word count and my thumping mind. In “The Sealey Challenge” via The Rumpus, Sealey, the challenge’s founder, reminds participants, “Whether the book is your taste or not, there’s something to learn from each.” In this reflection, my goal is to honor every poet’s work that I spent time with, so whether you’re participating in Sealey September, “an offshoot” of The Sealey Challenge, or simply want to stock up on poems, here are the words I basked in.

As August approaches, I recognize the excitement vibrating in my body and grasp just how much I need The Sealey Challenge in my life. In “On the value of reading poetry together—and apart—in the current moment.” for Literary Hub, Sealey writes about the monthlong commitment, “Why then add yet another chore, reading poetry, to an already long list of to-dos? Because joy. Because we need at least one thing on that list to be something we want to do, enjoy doing.”

And joy is right. After trying to recall dreams upon waking, I spend mornings with poetry. Welcoming the sun with poems gives my August direction, enriches it. Minutes morph into hours as I read under my breath by the window and out loud whenever my partner finds a nook for a meeting. Whenever I fail to finish collections in one sitting (which is often), I indulge before sleep by salt lamp and book light. Considering how much poets adore the moon, reading about the celestial body as she rises in the sky feels like an excellent way to welcome night, too. From Federico García Lorca’s “Madrigal for the City of Santiago,” translated by Catherine Brown: “Grasses of silver and dream / cover the vacant moon.”

Devouring a book daily, how much exactly can my wrinkling brain sop up? It teems with information, lives in a continuous state of buffering. I run out of sticky flags twice. (I’m going through a phase where I don’t write in my books.) But while reading Layli Long Soldier’s “38,” not wanting to lose a line that steals my breath, I draw a heart next to “Everything is in the language we use.”

Unaccompanied book cover

Before the challenge, I vow to reread as often as I read. Like playing a beloved song on repeat, I read poems on loop. I reach for collections that I want to know more deeply, soak into my cells: Camonghne Felix’s Build Yourself a Boat, Jenny Xie’s Eye Level, and Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied. It’s interesting seeing what lines touched me on my first journey through. While studying “Cottonmouth” by Tiana Clark, I nod to the me who noted “I have my mother’s knees, crunchy and difficult. / Everything hurts when I’m about to go to sleep.” The me who, while poring over “Virginity” by Jake Skeets, hearted “Clouds in his throat / six months’ worth.” The me who, in “A Proposed Addition” by Donovan Kūhiō Colleps, lingered on “The cobwebs in your shoes, still on the front porch.” I know exactly which cobwebbed items my heart visited then, and I travel to them again.

All Heathens cover

There’s what I plan to read and where my reading takes me. Before August, my stack includes classics like Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work and new collections like Justin Phillip Reed’s The Malevolent Volume. While August wanes, my stack grows, gaining Marianne Chan’s All Heathens, Dunya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, and Danez Smith’s [insert] boy. Grieving, I look to Victoria Chang’s Obit. I fall in love with Ada Limón’s “A Name.” I copy it down and add it to the constellation of poems on my bathroom mirror.

The Year of Blue Water cover

As the month unfolds, I find myself excited to revisit collections as I dip into them. My first book of the challenge is Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s stunning Beast Meridian. I love it from opening with honoring ancestors to ending on a constellation. While wading through Yanyi’s gorgeous The Year of Blue Water, I feel like a good friend sits in the room with me, chatting about dreams, identity, tarot, and silences. Soon after closing Seeing the Body, I listen and re-listen to author and photographer Rachel Eliza Griffiths on Thresholds with Jordan Kisner. I’m moved by Griffiths’ lyric poems and how they share space with her breathtaking, visceral series of self-portraits, many of which compose the middle section, “daughter: lyric: landscape.”

In case you’re craving single poems, I’ve included 12 beauties floating on my heart’s surface. I hope you find them and fall in love, too:

For The Rumpus, Sealey, in conversation with Laura Buccieri, calls The Sealey Challenge a “tradition”: “I don’t necessarily return to the Challenge so much as August rolls around and The Sealey Challenge is just what we do now in August.” Already, I look forward to August, eager to be scooped up by this tradition, community, and immense joy.

Ordinary Beast cover

Speaking of traditions, I discover my own within the tradition: celebrating the challenge’s close with Sealey’s poems. On August 31, I reread the brilliant Ordinary Beast, and I’ll leave you with the end of “In Igboland” (hearted, on a dog-eared page): “I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.”