Poet Evie Shockley’s collection “semiautomatic” was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. A professor of English at Rutgers University, Shockley is currently a fellow at Radcliffe’s Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She will read at Emerson College at 6 p.m. on March 12 and then at Radcliffe at 4 p.m. on April 10. Both events are free.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
SHOCKLEY: For fun I’ve been reading novels, which I really don’t do as much as I’d like. I’m out of my mind from finishing Min Jin Lee’s novels “Pachinko” and “Free Food for Millionaires.” I’ve been reading work-related things, but they are still in my pleasure zone, like Natasha Trethewey’s collection “Monument” and Brenda Hillman’s “Extra Hidden Life, among the Days.” I was reading Marilyn Chin because I have been writing about people who were influenced by Emily Dickinson. I can’t recommend her “Hard Love Province” enough.
BOOKS: Do you have a method for reading poetry collections?
SHOCKLEY: It depends. Book-length poems I read cover to cover. I used to read collections really haphazardly. But now having put together three full-length collections of my own, I’m attuned to the kinds of things poets offer readers in how they organize their work.
BOOKS: What are some book-length poems that have inspired you?
SHOCKLEY: “The Descent of Allette” by Alice Notley, a feminist epic. It’s gorgeously written. What I love about a book, whether it’s poetry or a novel, is that authors create a mood with the way they write. I want to forget where I am and just be in the world on the page.
BOOKS: Which authors create that strong of a mood for you?
SHOCKLEY: Toni Morrison can do that. “Paradise” is probably my favorite. Colson Whitehead can do that. My not-so secret passion is sci-fi and fantasy, so “Zone One” hit every note for me because he was playing around with the zombie novel. I read in the sci-fi and fantasy genres but also love the literary crossovers. I love poetry that has a sci-fi feel to it like Cathy Park Hong’s “Dance Dance Revolution” and “Engine Empire,” which are both set in alternative worlds.
BOOKS: Do you read mass-market sci-fi as well?
SHOCKLEY: I’ve read many Isaac Asimov stories over the years. Less so now. I’m always leaning more toward fantasy, so writers like Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany. There’s a debut novelist named Rivers Solomon who wrote “An Unkindness of Ghosts,” which is amazingly inventive and set on a spaceship carrying everyone who survived the destruction of earth.
BOOKS: What would people be surprised to find on your shelves?
SHOCKLEY: Maybe people would be surprised by how far I am into just-for-fun literature, like the Xanth series by Piers Anthony. It is just fantasy as an excuse for making bad puns. There is no literary redeeming value. I also have graphic novels and comic books, not Marvel but contemporary comics or stuff that was in the newspaper when I was growing up, like Bloom County.
BOOKS: Did growing up in Nashville influence you as a reader?
SHOCKLEY: Once a week a bookmobile stopped on the corner across from my house so every week I could have all the books I wanted. My parents had some adult books, but not a lot of children’s books. I remember getting Scott O’Dell’s “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” I plowed through the kid’s section in a year and then spent the rest of time reading everything else.
BOOKS: Did you bring a lot of books with you to Cambridge?
SHOCKLEY: I packed books that relate to my work and then some I’ve had on my to-read list. I quickly filled my shelves in Cambridge. Then the Harvard Book Store has seen too much of me. Grolier Poetry Bookshop has seen me much too much. I’m checking out books from Harvard’s vast library system, and I’ve got audio books. I’m an addict.