For the past four years, The Sealey Challenge has indeed challenged its participants: read thirty-one poetry books or chapbooks in the thirty-one days of August. Each summer I can feel August approaching not only because of the dense humidity in New York City but also because my social media feeds starts to fill up with books from #TheSealeyChallenge, started in 2017 by the poet and educator Nicole Sealey. I scroll through covers from a myriad of voices, from chapbooks to essential collections, from Jericho Brown to Sharon Olds. I love learning about new poets, and revisiting some of my favorites.
To me, the Challenge is more than a reading group. It provides a unique sense of community that I feel lucky to be a part of each year. Seeing everyone post, hearing friends talk about the Challenge, and piling up the collections I’m reading next to my bed all surround me with poetry in the best ways.
Recently, I spoke with the brilliant Nicole Sealey about how she’s approaching the Challenge this year and what advice she has for those attempting it once again—or for the first time.
Laura Buccieri: Every time I do this challenge, I feel anchored by the books I read. Like no matter what kind of day I had at least I can go somewhere inside these collections and just be. Are you looking at the Challenge any differently this year, given the pandemic and political chaos?
Nicole Sealey: I hear you, and same. Though many of us are at home, carving out time for ourselves will likely be more difficult this year. I live in New York City so, in the past, I spent much of my commute to and from work reading. That was one of many buffers between my work and home lives. Now there’s no buffer at all. I work from 10 a.m. to about 10 p.m., with little time for anything else. In a sense, with this year’s Challenge, I’m reclaiming my time.
Buccieri: How do you feel reading a book a day impacts your routine? Do you think our current circumstances will change the way the Challenge functions this year?
Sealey: It’s different each year, at least for me. In 2017, I was still getting acclimated to a new job. The next year, I was working remotely at a writer’s conference for ten days, smack dab in the middle of August. Last year, this time, I was visiting my folks in Florida and readying myself to live abroad for the academic year. Here we are, August 2020. For many, given everything that has gone down and the foolery to come, I understand if this year’s Challenge functions as a reprieve. Who could blame anyone these days for wanting a bit of time for self, to catch one’s breath?
Buccieri: I look forward to the Challenge each year; the way I can feel part of a community by reading is really something. Why do you keep coming back to this challenge?
Sealey: Honestly, that first year, I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think beyond the invitation to others online to join me in reading a book-a-day in August. Now in its fourth year, The Sealey Challenge has become somewhat of a tradition. Even if I don’t say anything about the Challenge, around early summer, folks will begin asking each other for recommendations online and curating their reading list. It’s really beyond me now, which is how I prefer it. (I’m still a bit squeamish about the Challenge being named after me because of that initial invitation. Thank poet Dante Micheaux for that.) All that to say, I don’t necessarily return to the Challenge so much as August rolls around and The Sealey Challenge is just what we do now in August.
Buccieri: I’m also wondering if you curated your list any differently this year?
Sealey: No, not really. This year, like years prior, I read across difference and ask for recommendations. I tend to read a handful of debuts each year. I have to read the OGs—the Lucille Cliftons and the Sharon Oldss. And, contemporary Renaissance poets—the Krista Franklins and the Sami Mirandas. Still, knowing this pattern, I won’t know whom I’ll read until the day of. My choice can change on a whim. I have a stack of more than seventy-five books, so I suspect that I’ll be reading these into October, maybe November.
Buccieri: As I said before, I feel very much a part of a community when I participate in this challenge. How do you see the Challenge creating community?
Sealey: I’m so glad you feel this way, as community was part of the point of that initial call. The Challenge creates community through ongoing engagement with it. Given the excitement beforehand and the sense of accomplishment that comes after, participants spend at least a quarter of the year knee-deep in the Challenge. Readers are tagging authors and publishers in posts. Poets are responding with thanks and more recommendations—”if you like my work, you’ll like so and so.” The Challenge is comprised of people who don’t necessarily know each other but who are passionate about poetry. The Challenge is itself a community.
Buccieri: Any advice to those participating for the first time?
Sealey: Of course! Here are my annual suggestions, with modest updates, to help not only the first timers, but all of us meet the Challenge:
- DO select books that can be read in a day. I myself am a slow reader, so I tend to choose books with no more than one hundred pages. And, if I read a collected, each section counts as one book.
- DO use your time wisely. I read somewhere that “a clean house is a sign of a wasted life,” which is to say those dishes can wait until September… Just kidding. Try listening to an audio book, while doing those dishes.
- DO take your time. Poetry, like any other genre (if you believe in those things), is rich and textural. It deserves our attention. If the reading of a chap/book extends beyond that day, so be it—it is what it is.
- DO read chapbooks. For every full-length collection, read a couple chapbooks. Chappies need audiences as much as full-lengths, and this will help us keep pace.
- DO return to these books again. Whether the book is your taste or not, there’s something to learn from each.
- Lastly, we can DO IT!
Buccieri: Any books you’re particularly excited about this year?
Sealey: Oh, goodness—there are too many to name! I’m excited about Diannely Antigua’s Ugly Music, Youmna Chlala’s The Paper Camera, Franny Choi’s Soft Science, Jameson Fitzpatrick’s Pricks in the Tapestry, Major Jackson’s The Absurd Man, selections from the New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (I read work from this annual series every year and am never disappointed!), and others. Check out my first tweet of the Challenge season about prepping for the readathon. There you’ll find hundreds of recommendations. And, follow #TheSealeyChallenge and #SealeyChallenge to see what folks are reading throughout the month.
My participation in The Sealey Challenge this year is dedicated to Breonna Taylor, a twenty-six-year-old Black woman murdered by police in her Louisville home on March 13, 2020. Arrest the cops who killed Breonna.
Photograph of Nicole Sealey by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Photograph of books by Nicole Sealey.