Presenter of the National Book Awards

The Book That Changed My Life

Timothy Seibles

Timothy Seibles pictured at The National Book Foundation's 1996 Summer Writing Camp where he served as a guest author.

When I think of poetry that touched me early in life, I immediately think of authors from the Harlem Renaissance, poets like Countee Cullen, Margaret Walker, Claude McKay, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. I was introduced to these poets through an old anthology compiled by Arna Bontemps called American Negro Poetry (first printed in 1963). Later on, in college, as I began to get more serious about words, I was really dazzled by James Dickey's collection, Poems 1957-1967 and W.S. Merwin's collection, The Lice. In my early 20's I was captured by the daring inventiveness of Ai's Cruelty and The Killing Floor. (Her work with persona poems gave rise to a series of my own persona poems.) Then came my fascination with Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa and Cemetery Nights by Stephen Dobyns. Also, there was a collection by David Ignatow entitled Rescue The Dead which, though I've long since lost, I still think about the variety of poems, the humor and soulful honesty.

This is just a skeleton of the vast body of works that have influenced my own sense of poetry, but I know your time is limited. If I had to dsicuss briefly one book that influenced my own writing in important ways -- though there are several -- I would say the anthology, Neruda and Vallejo, edited by Robert Bly really shocked me awake. Pablo Neruda's poems were so enchanted, his sense of fire so finely fit into workds. Cesar Vallejo's ability to cry and laugh at the same time in his poems just squeezed my heart. I realize I was getting these works in translation; nonetheless I loved the tonal range I found in their poetry -- from the unblinkingly political to the surreal, from the lovelorn to the existentially embittered. The poems of this collection really caused me to push harder on the boundaries of my own writing in ways I don't think I can ever entirely explain.


Timothy S. Seibles