Project Bookshelf: Max Stone

Everywhere I go, I bring at least one book with me—usually two or three—even if I know there’s a very slim chance I’ll actually read it; if I’m going to hang out with friends, for example. Having a book with me at all times gives me comfort for some reason. 

Right now, I have stacks of books piled on my desk and on a stool next to it. As part of my MFA in poetry, that I’m currently working on at the University of Nevada, Reno, I had to choose 30 books for my composition list to read closely and write annotations on alongside my thesis, which is a full-length manuscript. These books are supposed to inform my poetry. My list is a kind of queer lineage of all the poets who have paved the way for me, and really, have shaped me as a poet. Beginning with New York School poets like Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, to the next generations with Eileen Myles, Robert Gluck, and Kevin Killian, to young, contemporary poets like Chen Chen. I get so excited when I see one of the younger poets mention an older poet on my list—it means I’m on the right track. I’ve been living in these books for the past six months or so, and while I like some more than others, I’ve grown to care about each one. My favorites are Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov, IRL by Tommy Pico, Rabbit by Sophie Robinson, anybody by Ari Banias, and Great Demon Kings, a memoir by poet John Giorno about his wild life in NYC in the ‘60s and ‘70s running with artists and writers like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and William Burroughs. These books have guided, challenged, and inspired me. 

It’s probably not surprising then that I have an entire bookshelf dedicated just to poetry. It’s not organized in any particular way. Maybe someday I’ll alphabetize them or organize them aesthetically by color. Poetry books are so different from prose because you can just pull one off the shelf and flip to a random page and have an experience with one poem, or even one line. It’s immediate. Of course, I love to sit down and read collections cover to cover, but I love the way that you can open the book and arrive at a poem. And how if it’s the right poem for that moment the words will leap off the page and percolate in your head a while after. If I get stuck writing a poem I like to do what one of my professors calls bibliomancy, where you grab a random poetry book, go to a random page number, say, page 29, and go to a random line, line eight maybe, and write it down, then you begin writing from that line. This technique hardly fails to change my pattern of thought and shake me out of inertia. I can always justify buying another poetry collection—they’re such slim volumes after all! 

I also have a—considerably smaller—fiction collection. I haven’t read a novel that wasn’t required for a class for quite some time because I just haven’t had the time to read for pleasure. One of the first things I’m planning on doing after I graduate is reading a novel of my choice. I really miss the feeling of being so engrossed in a story that you don’t want to put the book down. I have Infinite Jest on my shelf and I have read it, but I don’t mention that too often because to some people that automatically makes you annoying or pretentious. It was difficult and tedious at times but I definitely enjoyed a lot of it. My favorite novelist though, is Willy Vlautin. His books are gritty and heartbreaking; they’re about people who have been dealt difficult cards trying to survive. Some people might consider his work to be too depressing, but I like it because there’s something so real and honest about his characters, I feel like they’re people I pass by on the street every day. Vlautin is also from Reno; he grew up here and attended the University of Nevada, Reno for a bit and also had Gailmarie Pahmeier, who is on my thesis committee, as a professor. I actually got to meet him at Pahmeier’s retirement party last year. He’s very humble and self-deprecating; when I complimented his writing he deflected and asked me about my writing, which I found very endearing. Some of his books are set in Reno, like Motel Life, which has since been made into a movie starring Emil Hirsch and Stephen Dorff. It was cool to read a story set in Reno where I grew up, especially one as poignant as that. 

My absolute favorite book that I own is a very old copy of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, published in 1951, that I randomly bought for $1 at a library clean-out sale when I was at Sierra College back in 2015. The pages are yellowing, the back cover is torn off, and the front cover is barely hanging on, but I love this book dearly. It changed my life; I stumbled on The Well of Loneliness at exactly the right time in my life. I will cherish it until it disintegrates entirely. Speaking of changing your life, another favorite book of mine is a book my dad gave me after he read it, You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett, a deeply moving portrait of the unlikely friendship between two artists who were opposite in nearly every way. Rodin’s ideas on art greatly influenced Rilke’s famous Letters to a Young Poet. This book illuminates so much about the lives of two very different artists and it’s so graceful and poignant, I think about it all the time. In fact, I think I’m due for a re-read.

Max Stone is in his third year as an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from UNR in 2019. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City. His poetry has been published in Black Moon Magazine, Sandpiper ReviewNight Coffee LitCaustic FrolicKCB Mag, and elsewhere. Max is also a book artist and retired college soccer player.

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