Sealey Challenge Summer
Summer is not my favorite season. But for the past few years now, The Sealey Challenge has given me something to look forward to each August. What I dislike about summer—the way it distances me from a built-in community of fellow readers, first as a student and now as a teacher, and how it disorients me with too little structure to my days—is exactly what this challenge helps to return to my life amid these humid and blurry days.
Before I go any further, a moment of praise and celebration for Nicole Sealey, the brilliant and kind poet who first created this challenge. I had the joy of meeting her briefly in 2018 at the Dodge Poetry Festival in my hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I spoke with her then about how much the challenge meant to me.
It meant a lot to me then as someone who, for several years, had been disconnected from poetry. The Sealey Challenge was a door back into that world. And it was more than a door: it was rooms of people excitedly talking about poems and why they love them. I had forgotten about that kind of magic.
That I still, too often, forget is why the challenge continues to mean so much to me. The challenge reminds me that like Mary Oliver, when I die, “I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.”
The Sealey Challenge gives me permission to be amazed, encourages me to focus in deep wonder at the poetry I love. It helps me clear the dust off the shelves and open all those books I have been meaning to read. It adds a meaningful goal to each of my scattered summer days and it lets me do so in a community of readers gathering across all sorts of distances to say, Look— and to know, too, that this paying attention is also a way of reaching out to each other in a way that matters and is beautiful.
This is my fourth attempt at the Sealey Challenge and I’ve only completed it in full once before, in 2020 . . . several months after the challenge officially ended on literally the last day of the year. Given my own experiences, my upcoming schedule (which has me teaching in late August), and who I am as a reader, I’ve set a few guidelines in place for myself to help me make the most of this challenge.
I encourage you to use what’s helpful and to adapt the challenge for yourself in whatever ways work best for you. The goal of this challenge, as I see it, is not to be married to the rules, but instead to amazement.
This year, I decided to start two days early since I am always falling way behind. I figured this head start will help me later in the challenge as my August schedule gets busier. Today is August 1st, official day one of the challenge, and I've already read two books, so I'm feeling good about it!
I’m making sure half of my books are microchaps (20 page or less chapbooks) so that the reading can stay sustainable for me.
In particular, I’m checking out microchaps from the wonderful Ghost City Press, which also published my own tiny book in May 2019. It’s both a great way to stay on top of the challenge and to support the work of my pressmates.
Important to note that Ghost City Press microchaps are free, and you can opt to pay the author what you can. So these are also a great way to keep your reading within budget.
I’ll also be listening to audiobooks for a variety of reasons:
Simply put, I love audiobooks; they’re just a rad way to read. Reading with your ears is just as much reading as reading with your eyes, and suggesting otherwise smacks of ableism to me, so get over it and go read a book (any way you’d like!).
They’re convenient for when I have other things to do, like laundry or preventing my cat from once again knocking over his box of treats from the top shelf (as he obviously did again, while I was writing this).
As a poet, I need a lot of practice reading my own work out loud. Audiobooks of poetry are an exceptional way of learning how to do this and provide me a little in-home reading with nobody but me doing all the weird poetry snaps. (Not a negative judgement on poetry snaps: they are weird and I love them.)
I will not be listening to any audiobooks from that app run by that company that enables billionaires to joyride to space while I, a high school English teacher, am still filling out paperwork to get my student loans forgiven. No need! Public libraries are awesome and they’ve got you covered.
My favorite free public library-powered audiobook app is hoopla, which allows you to check out 8 pieces of media each month. It has a wonderful collection of poetry books, both audio and ebooks.
There’s also Libby, which does not have as wide of a collection for poetry, but is also another great free library app that lets you borrow e- and audiobooks.
Speaking of that anonymous billionaire company that does not pay its share of taxes or its workers living wages, please support your independent and local bookstores if at all possible. I’m long overdue for writing a separate blog post for all of my faves, but quick shout-outs to New York City area bookstores Housing Works, McNally Jackson (the one that’s across the street from them!), and Book Culture. If you're ordering books online, please consider ordering from your local bookstore's website or from Bookshop.org, which helps support local bookstores.
There are some bigger poetry collections that I might be tackling, including Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems and a novel in verse by Elizabeth Acevedo. For sustainability, I am counting every 100 pages as my quota for the day.
Lastly, I’m setting a hard deadline for myself on September 12th. I know that I struggle to organize my time. This challenge has actually helped teach me how to better do so. And I still know that I need to give myself a little extra wiggle room to get it down or else it will be me reading 5 microchaps on New Year’s Eve, like last year. Honestly, not a bad way to end the year, but still, I’d like to finish the challenge a bit closer to the original deadline.
I would write a much lengthier conclusion to this reflection, but I have some poetry to read and I hope you’ll join me!