John Eckerd-Leo is a game designer and writer with an M.F.A. from Butler University. He began his career as a fiction writer, but discovered his love for poetry after working on a project called the Divedapper Poetry Carnival, put on by Kaveh Akbar and Dan Barden. John sat down with us for coffee and divulged his top ten favorite books — after five or six drafts, of course!
The Remains of the Day
The plot synopsis, if you could give it one, is very simple. It’s just about a butler who goes on a road trip to visit an old friend. It’s constructed of these incredible, tight little feedback loops where the main character will take a certain step on his journey and whatever he encounters there will remind him of a story from his past, and that story will remind him of a different story, and that story will lead to some kind of small revelation about his life. Reading this book was kind of a lesson in game design in a really unusual way. A good game usually consists of a feedback loop, or gameplay loop, where you’ll do a thing and it’ll lead you to another thing, and that thing will reward you. This book is so deeply important to me in so many ways.
The Trees The Trees
The Trees The Trees is a book of poems that is so… magical. Christle, specifically, is just a master of the end line. She’s incredible at setting up this beautiful, tiny little house of cards. All her poems are very small, and then with the final line she always just pushes it out and it always collapses in this incredible way. One of the best poems from it is called “Soup is One Form of Salt Water.” When I’m having a difficult day, or I feel overwhelmed and confused, which is almost every day, I turn to that poem. It continues to surprise me and I’ve probably read it a hundred times.
Mr. Ten Years
Dril is this humor account on Twitter. [Mr. Ten Years] is so funny. All it is is a collection of tweets from this account, but the sense of humor is so… post-sense/post-truth, and I feel like we live in a society that’s very done with ideas of truth and objectivity and the world being a sensible place. I think we’re finally coming around, after the past few years, to the idea that the world just doesn’t make sense the vast majority of the time. I can always find a Dril tweet to make myself smile or make my coworkers laugh at something crazy.
Mr. West was the first book of poetry I ever loved and the first one I felt like I understood. It’s a collection of poems about Kanye West. Blake is a genius in the way she uses this idea of Kanye West as a vessel to access these very profound ideas about herself, about her own body, about issues of pregnancy, and motherhood, and race, and identity. She unpacks these different moments throughout his career, or his life, and is drawing these incredible fractal threads outward from him. She’s accessing something that isn’t normally accessed, I think.
This is a book about a group of mercenaries who venture into Mexico and basically become raiders and pillagers. It’s a work of historical fiction, but I would use that term pretty loosely. It’s sort of a Western apocalyptic story of brutality. To spoil the ending of this (almost) forty-year-old book, it all ends badly, because of course it does. And everything that happens in between is also bad.
Warhorses is such an amazing book. All of his books are amazing, but this was the first one I read. I was turned on to it by Adrian Matejka, who is the Poet Laureate of Indiana. He runs a free writing workshop. I attended that a few times and he sort of turned me on to Komunyakaa as a person who writes about horror and war and masculinity in ways that are really interesting. I often feel kind of like a helpless agent in my own life and I think Komunyakaa writes about that in a way that’s really beautiful. His command of the line and his command of rhythm is probably second to none out of any living writer.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
In the title story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, so much is revealed through this engine of dialogue that she builds that moves the plot forward, and in doing so reveals more and more of these characters. The other stories in the collection are just amazing. The one that has stuck with me the most over the years is called “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”. It’s about a man who only has one arm and he meets a woman and her daughter, and the daughter has some kind of disability or mental handicap (it’s not really revealed what it is). He ends up staying with them, marrying the daughter, eventually abandoning the daughter, stealing the car and moving on. It’s a very tragic story, and it’s one of those ones that changes every time you read it, at least for me. Sparknotes would say that this is a comedy, or humorous, but I find it to be a story about deeply troubled people in a way that’s too relatable.
This is the only book that stayed on my list through every draft. The premise is deeply, horrifically hilarious. It’s about a black man that joins the crew of a slaver ship and essentially teams up with slave captors to go to Africa and kidnap people. It’s so ironic, but the premise is just there to get you through the door. Without giving too much away, there’s an incredible turn about halfway through where it becomes an entirely different story. It’s a little bit similar to something like Apocalypse Now, where it becomes something very, very different and begins to look inward instead of outward in a way that I find very immediate and incredible. Also, this story is just a page-turner in a way that very few books are.
The Big Book of Exit Strategies
Jamaal writes with this incredible, chimerical sense of politics and the way that technology feeds into our lives. This book in particular is almost like my Bible for writing poetry. I turn to it so often to look at the way he can command a line, or volta. It’s just remarkable. I think he’s one of the great writers of our generation.
Step Aside, Pops
This collection of Beaton’s short comics is eclectic and hilarious. She bounces from “Edward the Black Prince” to “Napoleon” to her famous “Gorey Covers”. Beaton’s writing feels like a conversation with your most brilliant friend, and I can’t stop smiling while I think about it.