Reading underwater

When you’re deep in a book, do you become irritable about pesky interruptions like sleep, mealtimes, and the basic human needs of your dependents? I do. Unfortunately, I’m like that about long writing projects too. I spend summers and sabbaticals, when I’m lucky, bobbing in the surf: under the wave of the book I’m reading or the chapter I’m writing, then breathing for a span in the trough between them. I’m lousy company, my not-very-social twelve-year-old tells me, and he sets a low bar, mainly wanting someone to chat with about computer game triumphs.

My mood these days is totally tied to the daily fortunes of writing—I’m apocalyptic when the prose-building isn’t going well, elated when it is, frustrated when I can’t make time. The latter is pretty frequent, even though I’m luckier than many. On summer weekdays I can almost always carve out a couple of hours of actual writing time, but I crave fuller spans I can only attain irregularly. My writer-spouse and I are juggling incomplete camp coverage and various other family needs.

I’m a lot more cheerful, though, than I described feeling in the Vomit Post. I’m hip-deep in the new critical book now, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, and beginning to see the shape of it. It springs from several goals. I’m thinking about how lyric poems map possible worlds that readers enter immersively, a practice of absorption or entrancement usually associated with long narratives, especially novels. Victor Nell calls it “ludic reading” because it’s a kind of play; if you read addictively, you probably know the experience of the language becoming invisible as if you’ve entered an alternate universe. Lost in a book, deep in a book, transported. I’m going against the grain of narrative and poetry studies, but I know lyric poetry can do this too. That’s the part of the book, the how and why of poetry immersion, I hope will interest creative writers and literary scholars. I’m aiming at a general reader, though, by interspersing argument with narrative and writing as engagingly as I can, with a scandalous paucity of endnotes. Each chapter, based on a single twenty-first-century poem placed right up front, involves close-reading, autobiographical writing, and theorizing. I’m choosing poems that I hope will appeal instantly. I know a lot of novel-addicts who are put off by contemporary verse, don’t even try to read it. This is probably the Sisyphus in me, but I want to convince them that as in novel-reading, they have a right to like whatever they like, and they will like some of it. I’m choosing the poems and reading lots of background stuff as I go, so I’m never more than a couple of steps ahead of myself.

I decided last week, as I was reading about reading, that I needed to consider my own novel-entrancements more consciously. I chose The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy novel of the type set at a school of magic; a friend recommended it as to me as the only book she knew in which a student magician received financial aid. I have mixed feelings about The Name of the Wind. The main character hates poetry and is really stupid about gender, and while these are character traits, they implicate the authorial world-builder. One more scene in which men muse about feminine mysteries might kill me. On the other hand, the book treats poverty intelligently and it’s every bit as absorptive as I’d hoped. Many writing strategies are supposed to encourage engrossment: sensory detail, suspense, free indirect discourse, the historical present tense, round characters, first-person or figural narration, a logically consistent fictional universe, some adherence to genre formulas. Most of those are tricky to test; there isn’t actually a science of immersive writing, and reader reactions are heavily dependent, anyway, on culture and context. Still, these are smart guesses, and it’s not surprising to find most of these in Rothfuss’ book. I’d even say, two-thirds through the sequel, these books are about narrative immersion—I just finished a section in which a song pulls the hero into another world.

Some reflections: I do visualize scenes as I read. The main character has no distinct facial features but I see his red hair and his green cloak with all the pockets (why does it have a crazy-quilt lining?—that can’t be appropriate). Turns out I have a generic Fantasy Tavern where I’ve been placing scenes from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and various other novels for years—if it ever had a real-life inspiration, I can’t remember it. The landscape is western Virginia with some Welsh mountains and Irish stone walls pasted in. I also feel with this character, whom I do not much like, in startling ways. When Kvothe can’t breathe, my chest constricts. When he’s hungry and cold, I get a chill despite the hot weather. Those specific realizations surprised me, but other feelings are perfectly familiar: the slow concentration of the first few pages, when I’m still distractible and getting acclimated, followed by increasing absorption and finally, when something interrupts me, disorientation. I never fully leave the book, experiencing a double-citizenry in “real” life and book-world. And now the next Neil Gaiman just came in, so I’ll never get to that drift of lit-mags…

I’m also testing the immersiveness of verse novels, so a round-up of those will come one of these days. For some other stuff I’ve been up to, see my goodbye to Fringe Magazine, a review of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Unexplained Fevers in Strange Horizons; and new poems in Avatar Review. But if I wind this up now, I can squeeze in a chapter before my son gets up and whines about those basic human needs. 

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