Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Blogger Appreciation Week - Interview

Please help me welcome Serena, of Savvy Verse & Wit to Lit and Life! I'm delighted to have, as my Book Blogger Appreciation Week interview partner, a blogger who is very instrumental in convincing other readers to read outside of their comfort zones. Serena is the co-host of the War Through The Generations Challenge (now seriously, how many of us would have thought: "I know - let's get people to read books about war!"). I'm in my second year with this challenge and very glad that Serena and her partner-in-crime, Anna (Diary of an Eccentric), had that very thought. Serena is also the host of the Fearless Poetry Exploration challenge, is a poet herself and is a new mother.

1. With your writing, photography, all of the things you're involved with in the blogosphere plus a little person to care for, you've got a lot on your plate. How do you find a way to balance everything?

Gosh, I have no plan whatsoever.  I try to keep a calendar of hard dates for certain books, but lately, it's been fly by the seat of my pants.  The War blog is a toss up between Anna and myself and who has time to get some posts of reviews scheduled and linked on the reviews pages...we tried to have a schedule, but life gets in the way and we just take over for each other when the time comes.  Photography is more on the back burner these days, unless its photos of the little one, and those get posted on Facebook for the families to see, etc.  I miss photography, but I have little time for it, but I do take the camera out with us when we go places.
Property of Serena Agusto-Cox
2. War Through The Generations is such an interesting challenge. You and Anna always have so many resources for participants to draw from - how far ahead do you start working to plan the challenge for the coming year? Where do you find your book suggestions? Can you give us a hint about next year's challenge?
When we started the blog, we knew the first year would be WWII and the second would be Vietnam War because those are the wars we were most interested in.  For the third year, we wanted to have the participants decide and Civil War won the poll.  For this year, we went with the other big war, WWI, which we figured out a couple months before.

As for book suggestions, those actually come from a number of places, recommendations from participants, publicists who email us books about wars we aren't currently doing, and our own shelves.  We've also done Internet searches to find book titles, and for Vietnam, we asked a former professor from Suffolk University, who taught our Vietnam and Literature seminar, for suggestions.

We've decided on next year's challenge, but will not announce it until mid-November.  We'll definitely be doing another read-a-long, but that's up in the air as to which book.

3. As the host of the Fearless Poetry Exploration challenge, are there any suggestions you might offer readers for getting the most out of a collection? For example, do you read straight through a book of poetry or do you prefer to read a few poems a day? Some people think that it's not necessary to "get" what a visual artist is trying to say in their work as long as it speaks to a person. Do you think poetry is the same way? Do you have any poets or collections that you always find yourself going back to?
To get the most out of a collection, I always suggest reading the first poem out loud.  I know that sounds funny, but it really helps to hear the rhythm of the poem, which often can lead you to feel the poem's meaning and understand it better.  I personally read poetry collections straight through the first time and mark certain poems that strike me when reading them, and those I go back and read first to find out why I liked them best or why they resonated with me.  Then I'll reread others to see what I missed on the first pass.

I think poetry can be about getting what the poet is trying to tell you, but also about what the reader understands about themselves by reading the poem.  It is a reciprocal relationship with poetry, which in its earliest forms was an oral tradition. 

Collections that I often return too are Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa, which is about his time in Vietnam during the war, etc.;  Blake's Poetry and Designs by William Blake, which has the original sketches he did with his poems and it includes criticisms of his work that I used when I began reading poetry before reading it in school; Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser, a collection I love to recommend to beginning readers because he has some great observations about life and death that don't get lost in technique; A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who in my opinion was the better Beat poet; and City of a Hundred Fires by Richard Blanco, which is an excellent look at the Cuban immigrant experience through the eyes of a younger generation trying to fit in with American society, while an older generation is trying to keep traditions alive.

4. You live right in the hot bed of politics. Does your interest in books include books about politics or those written by politicians?
Ah, yes.  Politics.  I do read some political books, but rarely review them.  They are more to inform me of the political world around me and to make more informed voting decisions.  I'm originally from the hot bed of Democrats in Massachusetts and loved reading about local Mass. politicians like Tip O'Neill, Ted Kennedy, JFK, John Kerry, etc.  I still love learning about the Kennedy mystic, etc., but I also have a greater sense of how flawed politicians are and how their ideals are less than ideal after being in office for a long time.  I'm not a registered Democrat and do read Republican books as well.

5. You read a lot of different kinds of books. Were you raised in a household of readers? Are there books that you find yourself recommending again and again?

I was not raised in a house of readers.  My nana was a reader and encouraged me to read by letting me pick out any book I wanted when we went to Spags, a local store, and she always made sure she bought me books for birthdays and holidays, etc.  My mom actually did not read much in front of me and my father does not read.  My mom does read more now that she's retired, and I always thank James Patterson for that because had she not picked up one of his books one day, she might not have read.

I recommend tons of books based on the person's likes in dislikes, but I'll mention some of my more recent favorites in poetry, YA, short story, and fiction:

Beth Kephart's Small Damages or Undercover
Thrity Umrigar's The World We Found
Alma Katsu's The Taker and The Reckoning
Carolina De Robertis' Perla
Joshua Graham's DarkroomPatricia Falvey's The Yellow House
Sarah McCoy's The Baker's DaughterEric D. Goodman's TracksJanel Gradowski's RevengeSusan Dormady Eisenberg's The Voice I Just HeardLaurie Soriano's Catalina
Osip Mendalstam's Stolen AirErica Goss' Wild PlaceNatalie Diaz's When My Brother Was an Aztec

Not only has Serena added to my list of books to pick up, I think she's talked me into giving poetry another chance. Of course, I hope she understands that if I don't "get it," I know where to find her now! Thanks, Serena, for the interview and for all you do to make the blogosphere a more interesting place!


  1. I would not have guessed that Serena grew up in a household of non-readers. Glad she got the bug, including reading poems out loud!

    1. Yes, my nana was an inspiration in many ways. She taught me piano and how to hear tone and musical notes -- she had a gift of hearing a song and writing the notes by ear and teaching herself to play those songs from the radio.

      In my mom's defense, she was a bit busy with my brother, who is only a year younger than I am.

  2. Serena is so awesome - thanks for the great interview!

  3. Thanks for the interview. It was fun to see what questions you had. I think my recommendation list from this year alone is huge! Please forgive my typos in the answers...that little one seems to interrupt at the most opportune moments. :)

  4. I love Serena and her blog, and have always longed to have a great love of poetry as well. I did read a lot and write a lot in college, but haven't really stuck with it, so perhaps her ideas for getting the most out of a poem might help me. Great interview today!

    1. I hope you try out the tips and I hope you'll let me know if they work for you!

  5. BTW, I think you picked one of my favorite photos to include.

  6. Thanks for interviewing Serena! She is too modest to mention it, but she is one of the most active and respected book bloggers down here in the DC area. She is particularly plugged in to Maryland literary life and a great supporter of local authors. Her breadth--poetry, fiction, non-fiction--is amazing. Great to read more about her. best, Alma

    1. Alma, you are too kind. I try my best to stay in tune with the literary community...and to write my own things beyond the reviews, but with this little one, it's time that is chopped finer and finer.

  7. Great interview! I think Serena's advice to read poems out loud is very wise. Thanks for the kind words about WTTG.

    1. Love WTTG, and I think all our participants would agree that it rocks.

  8. What a great interview! Two of my favorite blogs. :-) The War of the Generations Challenge is such a great challenge and I just love Serena's blog.

  9. I never knew you were such a talented photographer, Serena.

  10. It was great to learn more about Serena in your interview! I can relate to her fascination with the Kennedy mystique - there always seems to be more to read!