This story was originally published on April 27, 2015.
I work at a bookstore and one thing I’ve learned is that a lot of people are overwhelmed by poetry. If I recommend a book of poetry, people will often tell me they’re intimidated by potentially dense language or they’re unsure of where to start with the genre.
I’ve been an avid reader since I was Hogwarts-entrance age, but until recent years, I, too, was afraid of delving into poetry. But fear not, poetry newbies: to celebrate National Poetry Month, I’ve compiled a list of six great contemporary poets whose writing you should savor this month (and every month hereafter). All of these poets write beautifully and powerfully about issues like race, gender, and sexuality.
1. Saeed Jones
Saeed Jones is the Literary Editor at BuzzFeed, where he’s leading a fellowship to help emerging writers get started. But he’s a writer in his own right, too. His first collection, Prelude to Bruise, was released in 2014 by Coffee House Press and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. In an interview with PEN America, Jones said, “My mind always finds its way back to the crossroad where sex, race, and power collide.” This intersection is the driving force of his powerful collection.
Excerpt from “Boy in a Whalebone Corset”:
Father in my room
looking for more sissy clothes
to burn. Something pink in his fist,
negligee, lace, fishnet, whore.
His son’s a whore this last night
2. Patricia Lockwood
Patricia Lockwood, sometimes referred to as the poet laureate of Twitter, gained immense popularity from her poem “Rape Joke,” published by the Awl in 2013. Since then, Penguin Books published her second collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, which will make you cackle as often as it makes you blush.
Excerpt from “Rape Joke”:
The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.
The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.
The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.
Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. “Ahhhh,” it thinks. “Yes. A goatee.”
The rape joke is that he was seven years older. The rape joke is that you had known him for years, since you were too young to be interesting to him. You liked that use of the word interesting, as if you were a piece of knowledge that someone could be desperate to acquire, to assimilate, and to spit back out in different form through his goateed mouth.
3. Eileen Myles
Eileen Myles has been a force since she published her first collection in 1978, but her breakout collection was Not Me, published by Semiotext(e) in 1991. In 1991-92, she conducted an “openly-female” write-in campaign for president, and in an interview with the Literary Review, she took issue with people not taking that campaign seriously: “People are always ready to undercut a woman. I mean, I ran for president in 1992, and I’m proud of it and it was an interesting thing to have done, but people always put it in my bio as a laugh line.” To date, she’s published 19 books, the most recent a two-in-one, Snowflake/different streets from Wave Books, which her bio states “basically slams her life in CA into her life in New York so the books shatter into poetry.”
Excerpt from “A Gift for You”:
because you’re going to make
me the greatest
the stones in the
let me fry an egg
on your ass
& I’ll pick up
4. Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is a poetry/essay hybrid published by Graywolf Press in 2014. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and was the first book ever nominated for two separate National Book Critics Circle Awards: it was a finalist for Criticism and won the Poetry award. Citizen is a remarkable, multifaceted book that documents racial aggressions from n-words spat in a Starbucks to the constant racism Serena Williams faces to the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Even the smallest remarks continue to propagate systemic racism, and Rankine shows that exceptionally well in Citizen. It’s a must-read in today’s world; hopefully, it won’t always need to be.
Excerpt from Citizen:
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
5. Maggie Nelson
Like Rankine, Maggie Nelson also deals in hybrid writing styles. She is perhaps best known for writing Bluets, a lyric essay published by Wave Books about falling in love with the color blue. But it’s also about emotional blueness, like pain, both physical and emotional, and loneliness. Nelson’s work is direct, careful, and emotional, and she’s especially adept at conversing with both the reader and other writers on the page. In a review of her latest book, The Argonauts, set to be released by Graywolf Press on May 5, the Guardian called her “one of the most electrifying writers at work in America today, among the sharpest and most supple thinkers of her generation.”
Excerpt from Bluets:
33. I must admit that not all blues thrill me. I am not overly interested in the matte stone of turquoise, for example, and a tepid, faded indigo usually leaves me cold. Sometimes I worry that if I am not moved by a blue thing, I may be completely despaired, or dead. At times I fake my enthusiasm. At others, I fear I am incapable of communicating the depth of it.
34. Acyanoblepsia: non-perception of blue. A tier of hell, to be sure—albeit one that could be potentially corrected by Viagra, one of whose side effects is to see the world tinged with blue. The expert on guppy menopause, whose office is across from mine at the Institute, tells me this. He says it has something to do with a protein in the penis that bears a similarity to a protein in the retina, but beyond that I cannot follow.
35. Does the world look bluer from blue eyes? Probably not, but I choose to think so (self-aggrandizement).
6. Danez Smith
Small Portland press YesYes Books published Danez Smith’s first collection, [insert] boy, in 2014. In an interview with the Rumpus, Smith said the way the collection separates different parts of the self—section titles like “[black]” and “[lover]” are meant to fill in the “[insert]”—was an important way for him to look at his work: “There’s power in trying to speak to one self at a time,” he said. “I wanted to talk to all the different boys that I am and give them a chance to say whatever it is that they needed to say.” [insert] boy is frank and urgent and playful and necessary.
& on the eighth day, god said let there be fierce & that’s the story about the first snap, the hand’s humble attempt at thunder, a small sky troubled by attitude // & on the ninth day, God said Bitch, werk & Adam learned to duck walk, dip, pose, death drop, Eve became the fruit herself, stared lion’s in the eye & dared to bite // & on the tenth day, God wore a blood red sequin body suit, dropped it low, named it Sunset // & on the eleventh day God said guuuurrrrrl & trees leaned in for gossip, water went wild for the tea, & the airtight with shade // & on the twelfth day, Jesus wept at the mirror, mourning the day his sons would shame his sons for walking a daughter’s stride, for the way his children would learn to hate the kids // & on the thirteenth day, God barely moved, he laid around dreaming of glitter; pleased with the shine, sad so many of his children would come home covered in it, parades canceled due to rain of fist & insults & rope & bullets // & on the fourteenth day God just didn’t know what to do with himself