I once organized my aunt’s library room by color when I helped her move, sweeping ROY G BIV around black shelves and bubble-wrapped packages I was expressly warned not to touch, much to her irritation. I was young, so I didn’t quite understand how or why that might be annoying, but now that I have bookshelves of my own to place, it makes more sense. I have three wide rows of a living-room-turned-office bookshelf that I share with my girlfriend sorted by genre: notebook, cookbook, scientific nonfiction, creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. In a perfect world, each genre would be organized by the author’s last name, but I once forgot how many letters are in the alphabet while I was teaching, so that dream hasn’t been realized just yet. For the most part, this system works. I do love that most of the books I’ve found and adore have brightly-colored covers. They are little gems, bright pops of jewel tones nestled together like the world’s best literary supermarket.
Most of my favorite fiction novels have been passed down to my youngest sister, a bookworm after my own heart, but I’ve kept a few close to me—a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s best gifted to me by my childhood best friend, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz—and am regrowing my collection as I stumble upon more. I’m always trying to find and read more creative nonfiction, and gems like Sarah Minor’s Bright Archives that play with form are what keep me going as I test out my own form-based experiments in essays. My sort-by-genre system has been falling apart the more I learn about and invest in non-traditional literature, however. Where does a hybrid chapbook go? What about an essay collection that braids pedagogy with real science? If it exists outside of formal constraints, does it have a home? I don’t have a solution for this yet, as silly as that sounds. I’ve been trying to make gradients between genres, like one big loop, where teal fits between green and blue, and it’s both working and not.
To the right of my desk, opposite the big bookshelf, are two floating shelves. My “academic bookshelf” lives on the bottom. This is where I keep books that I’m actively reading (Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Lavery) that aren’t on my bedside table (currently The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang), composition and rhetoric books I’m teaching, and books that I need for my own MFA classes. Right now, most of these books are for my thesis—Queer Phenomenology, Pale Blue Dot, Assuming a Body, and more—whether I am drawing inspiration from their form, style, or simply trying to wrap my head around the theory. The “dog” plant pot and tiny hand are for keeping the books upright and me smiling, a simultaneous bookend and serotonin slot machine. The shelf above keeps my mug collection in one place, because what is an office corner if not also a coffee station? I use my mugs as decor, in teaching my freshmen about twisting genre and tone, and for their standard purpose as drink vessels. If I think about it hard enough, they become part of my bookshelf gradient, tying the corners together by wrapping up all of my loose ends.
I keep two books on my desk with my darling marble queen pothos, color-coordinated calendar, and peach rings always in reach. Despite not being a poet, the beauty of poetry is so concentrated that it is my favorite way to re-inspire myself. Mary Oliver is one of my all-time favorites, and her anthology Devotions has enough familiar and new material that opening to a random page, reading the poem(s), and sitting with the images for a few moments is enough fuel to keep me going on long nights. I’ve done this recently with torrin a. greathouse’s new release Wound from the Mouth of a Wound and Clementine von Radic’s Mouthful of Forevers, too.
If poetry can’t save my writing brain when the wiring is faulty, though, my tarot cards can. I have a deck themed after the 2013 movie Pacific Rim, each card painted by a different artist, and take a moment, shuffling them through my hands, staring up at my big bookshelf until it feels right. I draw a card, read the interpretation from Michelle Tea’s fantastic Modern Tarot, and watch how adjusting the placement of my perspective gives me the opportunity to try again.
Lee Anderson is a nonbinary MFA student at Northern Arizona University, where they are the managing editor of Thin Air Magazine. They have been published sporadically but with zest, with work appearing or forthcoming in The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, and Back Patio Press.