Project Bookshelf: Mary Sims

One of my favorite pastimes to this day is exploring local second-hand bookstores. In middle school, my mom would take me to a small store close to our house, blending our time there with the small coffee shop across the street. My summers were spent rotating between them both and my local library, which was also within walking distance. After all of these years, I can’t count how many books I have bought from that store, but I know it was enough to have filled my childhood bookshelf.

Presently, I still visit that bookstore, and I love it just as much. Perhaps the biggest change I’ve experienced in the routine is the shift in content on my bookshelves. My days of Percy Jackson and John Green were left behind for my growing love of classics and poetry. Woolf and Wilde replaced Rowling; Mary Oliver and Danez Smith took the place of C.S Lewis. My break from middle school was marked by my transition into new genres. I became obsessed with classic literature and contemporary poetry. Kay Ryan’s The Best of It was the beginning collection that steered me into poetry. Even now, the book is still on my shelf, crowded against the more recent collections I’ve enjoyed. 

In taking one look at my bookshelf, my favorites become obvious. Poetry and plays litter the upper shelf, organized carefully so that no author overshadows another. Sarah Kane is able to meet Tiana Clark without distraction and Mary Oliver sits beside Franny Choi in an organized chaos of styles. This shelf is not only important to me because of the community they represent, but because these collections have inspired me to pursue poetry. Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris introduced me to the importance of movement within a poem. I would spend my time reading this collection between my classes and job, marveling at her ability to shift within her stanzas; I remember sitting out on my university library’s steps and highlighting lines in the sunlight.

In addition to Gluck’s collection, Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf is one of my most treasured books. This collection was my gateway into contemporary poetry as it showed me how to love poetry in all its different forms. I was fortunate enough to get it signed in January and keep it displayed proudly. Sitting beside Akbar’s poems is another one of my more recent purchases: Franny Choi’s Soft Science. This collection taught me the imperative role form plays in conducting the message of a poem. Beyond what I have learned from it, this collection holds a special place in my heart as it contains one of my favorite poems: Introduction to Quantum Theory. The first time I read this poem, I felt the world around me melt away. Predictably, reading Soft Science had the same effect as I tore through it. 

Many other notable books I still find myself enraptured by are Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes, Araclis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia, Sarah Kane’s collected plays, and Hieu Minh Nguyen’s This Way To The Sugar. Siken’s collection was a gift I received two Christmases ago after I had devoured his first collection Crush in under a day. His ability to condense emotion into action devastated me, and I simply had to have more of it. The relationship of the speaker and the reader seemed foundational to Siken’s emotional construction. Oftentimes, his poems gave the impression of an intentionally fragile structure, waiting to be torn apart. Similarly, Girmay’s collection is one I had on my list for a long time. I finally purchased my copy for a directed study course I took with one of my favorite professors. As expected, her collection was hypnotic. I was fixated on her use of images to place her reader into each poem as well as remove them just as quick. Her ability to deconstruct interaction within her own work was breathtaking, and I couldn’t tear myself away.

This past fall I was able to visit with family friends in Seattle, Washington — one of my favorite places to be — where I picked up a copy of Nguyen’s book at a local bookstore I come to each time I’m in the city. I carried his collection across the city and then over the ocean as I started to read it. Of course, it’s no surprise how quickly i became immersed. Nguyen’s use of careful violence in each poem entangled me, leading me to continuously marvel at each image he crafted. Sarah Kane’s plays were something I discovered indirectly, but I am very glad I did. Last summer I came across her work in a short quote shared by a book-review blogger I follow. I was so entranced; I hadn’t read many plays outside of school assignments, and I wanted to correct that. I ordered her collection, finishing the whole thing in two days. I was torn apart; I was resurrected. There is no other way to describe how I felt reading her work.

My second shelf is a little more disorganized, which also reflects my relationship with fiction. There is a blend of university assigned readings, high school fascinations, and ‘to-read’ piles all pressed together. This shelf contains my collected fiction and non-fiction. Writers like Jamaica Kincaid and Bram Stoker meet each other within the chaos. Last year I became very invested in non-fiction; I picked up the exploration that was Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life and snowballed from there. On my bookshelf is one of Terry Tempest Williams’ books Refuge, which continues to inspire me even a year after my first reading. I was stunned by her ability to blend dreamscapes with reality while remaining within her non-fiction genre. The structure of each realization throughout was framed by a careful preciseness, leaving the reader with a constant impression of standing at the edge of a cliff and refusing to look directly downwards. 

My love for fiction fluctuates between fixation and fascination. During my sophomore year of university I set a challenge to read fifty books I hadn’t read before. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher and the Rye was something I had been recommended by a friend in passing and thus became the first on my list. Though the novel is surrounded by controversy, it is still one of my favorite classics. Stream of consciousness is something I lean heavily towards — my annotated copy of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway speaks for itself — so it may come as no surprise that I found Holden Caulfield’s narrative intriguing and relatable. Lastly, lying beside Catcher in the Rye is another classic that influenced me heavily— Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I started this novel in high school after one of my best friends recommended it to me; I would finish my classwork early to read it at my desk, glancing over at my friend occasionally as if to say, can you believe this? She would simply raise one eyebrow across the room, and I knew we were in agreement. 

Literature is an imperative piece of the person I am. If I were to explain my personality in objects, books would certainly be a necessary part of the picture. I am sure these pictures of my bookshelf reveal more about me than I have written, but I do hope that the stories I’ve tied to each book help to shape a perspective. I think the most important part in my journey with literature is where it started. I didn’t learn the importance of literature from my school system growing up, but rather I learned it from who I discovered each genre with. I found literature with the people I care most about: my mother and that bookstore, my best friend and Wilde, my coworkers and I arguing over Stephen King’s inability to write a decent ending. 


Mary Sims is an undergraduate writer working towards her BA in English at Kennesaw State University. She is currently a poetry editor for Waymark Literary Magazine and a former student editor for the Atlanta based magazine Muse/A. Her work has appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, Peach Mag, and more. She can often be found filling her shelves with poetry collections, roaming antique stores, or laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.

The Poet at the Art Museum

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The Chrysler Museum of Art, recently re-opened in Norfolk, Virginia after being closed for more than a year for an extensive renovation and expansion, is a goldmine of knowledge and inspiration for visual artists and writers alike. The space is cavernous, with soft sunlight in the inner courtyard and tastefully chosen lighting in the galleries. There is a quality of the place that muffles sound and lends it a sacred feeling.

I am reminded of Larkin’s poem “Church Going”, only the holy here is still holy. Here in quiet beauty are some of the greatest images that the human inner eye and hands have ever wrought. Highlights include Mary Cassatt’s The Familywhich depicts, in golden summer light, a mother, young daughter and a chubby baby, forming a kind of mystic triangle. Works of art like this never fail to suggest images and stories to other kinds of artists who deal in images, writers and poets. Possible questions for the writer who stands before this painting are who is this woman, what does she feel holding the baby in her arms, what thoughts are going through the mind of young girl as she stares so intently at the baby? Love or jealousy or both? What is the building is behind them, and who waits there?

But beyond this are the colors and shapes of the piece and the way they stimulate the poet’s image making faculty: the purple of the woman’s dress, the black of the girl’s dress, the shiny round flesh of the baby’s belly. I believe that you can’t force inspiration, but you can definitely put yourself in situations that make it more likely to come. No situation is as viscerally powerful as standing in front of this painting, or any of the dozens of others there, not to mention the Greek, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese art, the glass collection, and the mirrored abstract sculptures out in the garden.

Oh! There’s a new café in case all this art makes you thirsty for a beer. Yes, I said beer. Local craft. Try the Smartmouth Art Mouth, brewed just for the re-opening. But if you can’t make it to out to Norfolk, go to an art museum near you. Any good museum can be an essential resource for the creative writer.

Gary Charles Wilkens, Assistant Professor of English at Norfolk State University, was the winner of the 2006 Texas Review Breakthrough Poetry Prize for his first book, The Red Light Was My Mind. His poems have appeared in more than 50 online and print venues, among themThe Texas Review, The Cortland Review, the Adirondack Review, The Prague Revue, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume II:Mississippi.