For Future Reference: Notes on a Writer’s Desk

by Gerry LaFemina

Like a lot of people these days, my students have a stated conviction that the internet is better than print materials for research. It’s easy to think so. If you know what you’re looking for it may even be true. Need to know what a grackle eats? You can find out. Want to know the history of coffee or the cost of it at your local grocery? You can find both out. More often than not, as a poet, I’m looking for stuff that will catch my attention, give me information, images, language that I don’t already have. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I can’t type Things that might interest Gerry into Google and believe that it will come up with something to engage the poetic imagination.

That’s where my reference books come in. If you’re a writer, it’s good to consider what’s on your desk (and neighboring book case!). I believe it’s important to have a good library of reference books that are both helpful and deeply personal. By reference books I don’t mean only dictionaries and thesauri and encyclopedias; I mean, also, those books that can provide information I didn’t know I’d needed to know.

Right here’s where my students complain—I can look up any word on dictionary.com or thesaurus.com. Yes, you can. But the reference books provide more than just definitions, synonyms and antonyms, and etymologies. What I love about the dictionary is not its ability to give me a definition (or multiple definitions) and/or word origin, but also the field of the page of words with definitions. What I mean by this, is that by looking up a word I get a two pages worth of others that are phonically close to it: I find this particularly useful when drafting poems. Let’s say I want to emphasize the word conspicuous. I might look it up in the same American Heritage Dictionary I’ve had since grad school, and find conspirito–“with spirit and gusto”; or I might look up words which start with spic and find spicule–“a small, needlelike structure.” (I particularly like how needlelike is one word in the dictionary, but my autocorrect doesn’t like it spelled that way.) To get such words into a new draft help shape and change the thinking of the poem itself and broaden the field of language that I have open to me.

Or I might use the Webster’s Unabridged Encyclopedic Dictionary. Dating to 1957, it has 4800 columns of facts and pictures. It suggests spikenard, “a perennial herbaceous plant…being the source of the ointment referred to in scripture…. It has a short, thick, carrot-like root, spatulate leaves, and small red or purple flowers in dense heads.” Now we’re talking! What I like about the encyclopedic dictionary is that it includes names of famous people in history in alphabetical order, too. This allows for history to come into the poem.

I keep a Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, too, for quick information about literature, a rhyming dictionary, a style guide. At one time I kept a Bartlett’s Famous Quotations close at hand. More recently, I keep a Schott’s Miscellany close by to rummage for random facts that engage my poetic imagination. For instance, beyond giving me the names of “Some Palmistry Lines” it also lets me know that the area between the Line of Head and the Via Lasciva is the Mount of the Moon. Surely, there’s a poem in there. If not, perhaps the book’s list of “Some Notable Belgians” (none have made it into any of my poems) or “The Hierarchy of Falconry” (itself a potential title for a poem) could provide inspiration.

Because I grew up in New York City and know few birds beyond the common pigeon and starling, I keep a bird book at my desk. I bought it on the remainder table at a chain bookstore years ago. I buy a lot of my miscellaneous reference books on the cheapie rack. A $3.99 guide to mythology may come in handy. More likely though a book called 50 Physics Ideas. Physics fascinates me, and although the math is beyond my ken, the concepts of physics get me thinking. Beside that is Reg McKnight’s Wisdom of the African World, which reminds me, always, to not think solely in my white Western thinking. For a while there was other philosophy (The Art of War, an assortment of Platonic dialogues), a book on tarot cards, a bartenders’ guide, and a Depression-era guide to putting on a pretend circus in your backyard called The Big Time Circus Book. Various books of folklore from all over the world show up. It’s good to shake up the list: bring in an I Ching or a cookbook or a book of common phrases in Portuguese. Of course, I keep the books I walked away from in my adolescence, a Bible and a book of Roman Catholic Catechism close by to make sure I get the details right.

None of these books have anything to do with poetic craft: those books spill off the book case next to my desk. Those books help with my essays and my thinking about poetry but they don’t help with the crafting of poems. The books at my desk, on the other hand, have the potential to help change the direction of a poem-in-progress, can give me language I didn’t know I was looking for, metaphors I didn’t know I needed. Like my own poems, these books reflect my obsessions, but they also provide scope beyond my own go-to knowledge: an important tool. Yes, the internet gives me an avenue to find what I’m looking for; surely, I could look up “fun physics facts” in a search engine and it might provide me with something similar from the books, but I can’t say sometimes where the fact I need is, and the books provide me a way of looking things up without the interruption of emails and IMs showing up. There’s a joy to referring to the reference books, a kind of guided randomness that help shape my poems.