If poets are imagined as disheveled, absent-minded individuals lost in the world of words, James May defies that image. Of all the individuals we approached about participating in the Reading Habits series this semester he was one of the most prompt and organized. No pestering him for a photo, he contacted us to arrange a date and as you can see from the resulting picture to the right, he is a clean, crisp sharp dresser.
James May has lots of reasons to be so organized. Three days a week he is an adjunct professor in the Department of English where he teaches creative writing and two sections of the English 110 course. He is also a student finishing up his Ph.D in English from Georgia State University and a professional poet whose work has recently appeared in Green Mountain Review, The New Republic, The New Ohio Review, Pleiades and 32 Poems. Add on top of all that his newest role as a new father.
We caught up with him during the Winter Break and he gave us the following insights to his reading habits.
Do you enjoy reading? How would you describe yourself as a reader?
Well, of course, I love reading. I’m a slow and chaotic reader. When I studied with him, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski would tell his workshops that young poets should read everything, not just poetry. So I’ve taken this advice to heart, and usually have three or four books on my nightstand at a time. I don’t always stick to this recipe, but ideally that stack would consist of a poetry book, a biography, a novel, and then something miscellaneous. Right now the miscellaneous book is Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong, a book about, well, being wrong and how different thinkers have coped with error. Given my track record, I suspect that the book will be very useful.
What kind of books do you read for pleasure/entertainment?
Again, any and all kinds. I have an unusual habit: whenever my life seems overly stressful, I start reading a Russian novel. Maybe there’s something about their multi-dimensional worlds, all their characters and plot-twists – they’re overwhelming – that provide something of an escape. My wife and I are expecting our first child in February, and I have a seven-pound copy of War and Peace waiting on my desk.
Have you read anything recently that you would recommend? Who do you think would like it?
David Bottoms’ new book of poems, We Almost Disappear. The poems have a sort of elegant sadness, a sincerity that’s hard to find in contemporary American poetry—maybe because it’s difficult to be sincere and easy to be ironic? Either way, in many of the poems the speaker struggles with watching his parents grow old. They’re heavy but very beautiful poems. But I can’t recommend just one book of poems… Meghan O’Rourke’s Halflife, Jericho Brown’s Please, and Farrah Field’s Rising—I think any poet would like these books.
Do you have any memorable stories about reading that you can share? For instance, was there a book that changed the way you read or did you struggle with reading as a child.
I wasn’t a very good reader when I was a child—best case scenario, I was a C-student up until college. For some reason, though, I enjoyed a high school class on the British Romantics and fell for Coleridge’s Conversation Poems (“Frost at Midnight,” “The Nightingale,” “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” etc.). I can’t tell you why these poems appealed to me then. I like them now because they’re so warm and agile.
Where do you get your books from? Bookstore, public library, Agnes Scott Library, download to an eReader, etc.
I almost always buy my books, either from a store or from Amazon. Never lend me a book! Unless I borrow them from the library, I write in the margins and I almost always break the binding. I can’t help it—reading, for me, is a physical experience, so that’s why I’ll probably be one of the last people to buy an eReader.
Additional thoughts? Comments on how your reading habits connect to your classes?
It’s been incredibly enjoyable to discuss books with Agnes Scott students. This past semester, my Introduction to Creative Writing class read Louise Glück’s Meadowlands, one of my favorite books of poems. One of the prompts I assigned was to write a poem that either imitated or spoke to a poem in the book. I was floored by the diversity and the quality of these poems.