Amy King’s breathtaking poetry reflects the same unwavering commitment she brings to her role at VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts: aesthetics rooted in ethics; community advocacy and intersection. King’s gift, which has earned admiration from John Ashbery among many others, seems to be about letting the lyric take hold of modern life’s messy vibrancy as it falls together seamlessly:
This is what it sounds like outside,
fat geese and guinea hens holding hands.
I am 31, which is very young for my age.
That is enough to realize I’m a pencil that has learned
how to draw the Internet. I explain squiggles
diagramming exactly how I feel and you are drawn to read
in ways you cannot yet. Slow goes the drag
of creation, how what’s within comes to be without,
which is the rhythmic erection of essence.
Recently I walked into a classroom where the amazing Evie Shockley had just finished teaching a class of undergraduates Bhanu Kapil’s most recent and, to my mind one, of the most challenging books of contemporary poetry published in the 21st century. I stood in awe of the ambition to introduce the rigor of this work to beginning poets. Ban en Banlieue, essential reading, stands at the precipice between what is present and absent on a printed page. I often describe Kapil as the kind of writer who doesn’t settle for simply writing the books of poems she intended, but rather their exoskeletons. That is, books that chart her radical procress towards abandoning, revising, self-realizing across fragmentation, self-erasure and the unsayable. Look no further for a poet to fearlessly interrogate self, displacement, decolonization, geographic and cultural memory. Her blog, her Twitter, her teaching—are immense resources.
Brian Blanchfield is one more terrifyingly good contemporary poet, like Bhanu Kapil, published by Nightboat, one of our most reliably incredible small presses. I confess I often think of Blanchfield, a gay poet and fellow Hart Crane obsessive, as kind of my older, more talented brother. His second book of poems, A Several World, was rightfully lauded for its sheer encyclopedic majesty of subject matter. In his new book, part memoir part criticism (think Maggie Nelson), Proxies, he becomes the amazing chronicler of his own frangible, decaying memory. The book is written entirely as he remembers it (where it = friendships, sex, reading, homophobic encounters, tumbleweed), with a brilliant corrective afterwards to address the glaring differences between facts and experience as he (we) perceived them vs. their objective reality. Simply a brilliant book.
No poet’s presence on social media, nor presence on stage, seems to me more in keeping with the mystical wavelengths of imagination and reinvention that their own poems perform than CAConrad’s. To read, hear, follow Conrad is to be ever emboldened by a spirit of outrage and mercy, unapologetically queer, staunchly political, quirky and original. Contemporary poetry has proven to me many things in the last couple of years: foremost is its insistence that the breakdown between the formal distinctions of page/person, aesthetics/ethics, performance/lyric, is long overdue yet happily currently underway. And amid that much needed breakdown, CA leads the way. And still one should add, few beings tirelessly champion their fellow poets all across this country (and beyond) more fervently than he does. Check out the trailer to this feature documentary on him and his work here.
The work of Carmen Giménez Smith for me represents the entire package of what poets and poetry may aspire to: she is a teacher, editor of Noemi Press (which recently published Douglas Kearney’s new book of essays) and radical poetic innovator. Whenever I teach her Latina feminist poems, my students light up as if to say thank you for letting us know this too was possible. Recently featured on PEN America’s website, her newest work is as much a reckoning of lyric interiority as it is a wrecking ball of courage for social justice. With lines like the following, I will eagerly await Smith’s every publication and project:
I’d once have left
left the tribe behind
and her tongue
and the garb
that made me theirs
because it felt like
leaving hoi polloi
behind to put
behind the father
in my mother’s tongue
lingering in the
long and deep vowels
meant I could leave
not really or ever
but in theory
I leave behind
the house we kept
trying to make look
like the nation
and the past I know
I’ll leave my hurts
behind I hope I’ll leave
yours probably not
For the last two years especially, poets have modeled for me how sorely as a culture we must confront our historical legacies, to bridge the structural and the personal through not only theory and memory, but criticism and creativity. Cathy Park Hong’s poetry and essays have had a great impact on communities of poets seeking visibility in their experimentation. Her influential “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” published by the amazing journal Lana Turner was a game-changing piece of writing read by thousands. It signaled to poets of color and white poets alike, that the conversations we’re having about race, sometimes in the abstract, have intimate and immediate consequences for whose writing get’s to be grouped under the enviable banner of “experimentalism,” whose under the title of “identity politics.” Just as her poems deconstruct the English language’s global ubiquity, her recent prose writings have undermined the preconceived narratives inherent to “ethnic literature.” She has become one of our most conscientious voices as well as a poetry editor at the New Republic to be counted on to reflect the dizzying range of American poetics.
I look up to Claudia Rankine as our most profound and consequential living poet. Citizen—which has now sold close to 200,000 copies, a feat unheard of for any poet let alone one as innovative and uncompromising as her—seems a radical re-centering of what is truly new about 21st century poetics. Modernist, autobiographical, conceptual, collagist, as filled with art as it is photographic essays, Citizen contains cumulative prose anecdotes that portray the most hidden lyrical aspects of consciousness in the daily wars of anti-black discrimination at large in America. While this work is to my mind a masterpiece future generations will look back to understand our persistent racial inequalities, her eclectic anthologies and prior collections—especially Don’t Let Me Be Lonely deserve their attention too. Rankine is the embodiment of poet as public force. Be sure to read her recent essays on Serena Williams, black mourning, Thomas Jefferson, white teachers, as well as her most recent New Yorker lyric poem, which resounds with the same unmatched precision and incomparable moral imagination that distinguishes all her writing.
Loma is a self-described “queer latinx punk poet & prison abolitionist.” They are also one of the bravest and most precocious young poets out there. With Lambda Literary, they founded Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (previously featured on LitHub) and have made an enormous impact for the most marginalized voices among us. This spring, they were heralded by Poets & Writers with Javier Zamora and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Together the three are known as “The Undocupoets”—a collective meant to build awareness throughout the literary world about fellow writers denied prizes and publishing opportunities due to their citizenship or legal residency status. As if this activism was somehow incomplete, Loma has also embarked on a campaign to end queer homelessness. Be sure to check out Sad Girl Poems and this poem published in American Poetry Review:
I can think of few poets more haunted by actual ghosts, in their intellect, imagination, and writing than Cynthia Cruz. Cruz’s latest book How the End Begins, which I think is her best yet, is feverishly populated with the dead female voices upon which her poetry not only lives, but thrives. They include Ingeborg Bachmann, Emily Dickinson, Clarice Lispector, Joan of Arc, among others. Yet finally, the strangest haunting is the one this poet plays upon herself. Towards the end of the book, lines, phrases, titles, and, almost verbatim, entire poems recur, repeat. The reader must stumble in the fog of Cruz’s mischievous hallucinations. It’s a pleasure.
Publishers Weekly is right to track the extraordinary originality of Don Mee Choi’s latest book, Hardly War, as part of a larger tradition of experimental Korean-American poetry that includes the legendary Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Myung Mi Kim (also included on this list). But as Kim told me once in person, Cha’s work includes so much more than merely poetic works. That’s part of what engages and excites me reading/learning to read this newest work. In its combination of artifact, memoir, family photography, textual and visual images, it claims that poetry is both enough and not enough to contain generational narratives. Choi is also one of our most acclaimed translators, most notably of Kim Hyesoon’s work (which if you don’t know about already, check out this recent work care of Choi in the Boston Review.)
Douglas Kearney is my favorite performer, on or off the page. At the microphone or in front of the camera, Kearney’s range of voices and tics, gestures and flow, simply command one’s absolute attention. On the page, Kearney proves to be the most versatile and acrobatic of poets: at one moment concrete, dithyrambic, visually kinetic, mimetic, shapeshifting; another moment combining topicality in ways no poet has ever thought to do so: in Patter, one poem combines minstrel show with the trauma of a miscarriage; while later in the same book, the entire project of the writing is treated in reality TV style. In his new book of essays, Mess And Mess And (whose publisher is also on this list, Carmen Giménez Smith), Kearney charts a space of black postmodernist aesthetics that swerves and interrupts enough to make the entire idea of genre tremble.
Everywhere you look these days, the world has taken notice of Eileen Myles. There’s been four or five features in The New York Times, almost as many online at The Guardian. The most recent, for T Magazine, places Myles as the triggering influence for generations of feminist writers and artists. What a relief to see an experimental dyke poet, I must say, not only getting their due, but aiding in shining the light on those she’s collaborated with and inspired. The continuing angle in much of her media coverage: she’s finally as famous as she deserves to be. But as Myles told me in a recent interview for Interview Magazine: poetry has always been about being in smaller rooms, that sometimes, as in her case, add up to a larger cross section of an entire culture or nation. And what’s something no one’s said yet, among this lovely deluge of attention? I think it’s that her recent poems are actually among her best. She’s only gets better.
To encounter Fred Moten’s thought—a biosphere of poetry, essays, art criticism, lectures, is to go deep and wide into the echo chamber of the black radical tradition, often among figures who still remain on the periphery of attention, whether inside or outside of the academy. To Moten, I credit the constant re-direct to Nathaniel Mackey, Walter Rodney, Cedric J. Robinson, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and scores of others. (Though many critics and admirers often describe Moten’s work as “difficult,” please refrain from the bogus scare-tactic of that word.) If sociality is a defining concept to Moten’s evocation of black life, his mind has become a seeming-infinite ensemble. We are beyond lucky to be alive in a time when his is the writing we can be listening to.
Mullen is perhaps the most clear cut example of a pure sonic genius in the landscape of contemporary poetry—an ear like no other, cut partially from the clothe of Gertrude Stein but bringing us back always to the mischievously joy of subversive black poetics. Never has a poet’s name seemed so apt: with its doublings of the letters r, t and l. In her classic poem, “Any Lit,” from Sleeping With the Dictionary (one of the great books of poem), the mayhem from sound to sound clusters and spills along such sticky, wily syllables. Who else writes like this? To jump nonchalantly from “mitochondria” to “Miles Davis” is typical Mullen magic.
You are a ukulele beyond my microphone
You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia
You are a union beyond my meiosis
You are a unicycle beyond my migration
You are a universe beyond my mitochondria
You are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis
You are a euphony beyond my myocardiogram
You are a unicorn beyond my Minotaur
You are a eureka beyond my maitai
You are a Yuletide beyond my minesweeper
You are a euphemism beyond my myna bird
Because Ashbery has been talked about for so long, it’s easy to forget his latest late poetry is among his most playful, queer-brained and intimate. Just as people prefer to talk about poetry, than consider specific actual poems, Ashbery is the embodiment of a widely accepted, yet controversial style of writing that defers our bad habit of needing meaning to be singular, immediate. And so his recent poems and books continue to be much easier to evade than confront. Even so, in his most recent collection, Breezeway, there is a revamping of his bricolage spirits that traffic in the Kardashians as much as Batman. The media world of news and headlines is there, of course, but also present is the sound of an America that has faded slowly away—a world born out in the 19th century, awash in radio jingles and black-and-white ‘moving pictures.’ Poetry akin to The Antiques Roadshow. That he will soon be eighty-nine, and has been publishing now for seven decades are facts that boggle the mind. But the bittersweet mortality of his Faberge lyrics, portable Cornel boxes, like “A Sweet Disorder,” persists to astonish.
Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics was a historic and monumental anthology, edited by TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson. And yet in its capacious sampling of 55 poets, it doesn’t begin to circumscribe the richness of contemporary trans poets. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a perfect case in point, of whom Tolbert talks about discovering after the anthology was published. Espinoza’s first full-length collection, I’M ALIVE / IT HURTS / I LOVE IT is a breathless tour through post-internet aesthetics, where poems can be at once improvisatory, heartbreaking and soulful. Here’s one example:
Layli Long Soldier is another poet on this list I know about thanks to the generosity of a fellow poet (in this case, the encyclopedic and brilliant Metta Sáma). While most of the poets on this list have already published their first full-length collections, Long Soldier’s manuscript Whereas is forthcoming debut (if anyone knows where I can find her rare chapbook, please let me know, I will pay you handsomely!). Still, online one can read excerpts at PEN (introduced by Maggie Nelson) and at Graywolf Press’s website that strike me as a new voice entering into poetry that not only I have not heard before, but one that is absolutely uncompromising as it is profound. I believe as more readers discover her for years to come, this will be only one of many books of hers we should be eager to anticipate. Long Soldier’s mixture of political reckoning and daring meta-syntax is stunning. Her poem “38” begins:
Here, the sentence will be respected.
I will compose each sentence with care by minding what the rules of writing dictate.
For example, all sentences will begin with capital letters.
Likewise, the history of the sentence will be honored by ending each one with appropriate punctuation such as a period or question mark, thus bringing the idea to (momentary) completion.
You may like to know, I do not consider this a “creative piece.”
In other words, I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction.
Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an interesting read.
Therefore, I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.
That said, I will begin:
You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.
For the last two years, I’ve had to scratch my head a little bit as some of our most underground and important poets finally get the mainstream attention they deserve, not only among august prize-awarding organizations and institutions dedicated to poetry, but among the larger cultural conversation itself. It’s almost like people are finally awake to the news that poetry is reliably six seconds ahead of wherever this insane place called America is heading. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is one such example. And yet for those who already know of it, and the cult classic Bluets, I advise discovering or re-discovering Jane and The Red Parts—two important works that personalize the excruciating event of her aunt’s murder. Nelson: shape-shifter poet, prose writer, memoirist, culture theorist.
One of the first poems published on Literary Hub, Morgan Parker’s “All They Want Is My Money My Pussy My Blood” is still the most viewed poem we’ve ever published. For myself, I can remember hearing the poem for the first time at The Poetry Project’s New Years Day Marathon reading (run by two of our great community-building poets, Stacy Szymaszek and Simone White). It knocked me in my tracks because I felt I was witnessing a new kind of confession—yes, something troubled with emotion recollected in the free space of metaphor, imagery and rhythm. But also a confession that went beyond any specific historical time. Parker’s poetry isn’t timeless, if anything, with its ruthless wits and mercurial melancholy, it feels written across multiple timelines, encompassing each of the poet’s past lives.
Cathy Park Hong and Dawn Lundy Martin have both cited to me the teaching of Myung Mi Kim as one of the transformative moments in their writing lives. Kim teaches her students to think of the blank page as not merely that, but also a piece of canvas—one that must be studied and filled, but also emptied. Turning to Kim’s masterful work, one realizes where this insistent wisdom comes from. For decades, she has made the spacing of the poem into a radical act that emphasizes the appearing and disappearing edges trapped behind, between words and syllables. Though her poems can sometimes contain more white space thank ink, I am tempted not to think of her as a minimalist since there are no poets who force me to strain so clearly to see the pockets of pauses, breaks and ruptures that only poetry seems capable of allowing for inside the house of language.
There are many now active Native poets transforming the codified, obsolescing traditions of American poetry. Layli Long Soldier (also included on this list) and Orlando White (recommended to me by Myung Mi Kim) are just two incredible examples. Natalie Diaz is yet another. Much has been written about her works fearless ability to write poems about life on the reservation, basketball and grief. But for me she is simply put one of our great erotic poets. In her stunning poem, “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips,” Diaz weaves together multiple languages, explosive alliteration, and the funkiest of hyperboles. I hope she and her publisher will forgive me for quoting so much here, which readers should read in its entirety on The The Poetry Blog:
Bells are they—shaped on the eighth day—silvered
percussion in the morning—are the morning.
Swing switch sway. Hold the day away a little
longer, a little slower, a little easy. Call to me—
I wanna rock, I-I wanna rock, I-I wanna rock
right now—so to them I come—struck-dumb
chime-blind, tolling with a throat full of Hosanna.
How many hours bowed against this Infinity of Blessed
Trinity? Communion of Pelvis, Sacrum, Femur.
My mouth—terrible angel, ever-lasting novena,
O, the places I have laid them, knelt and scooped
the amber—fast honey—from their openness—
Ah Muzen Cab’s hidden Temple of Tulúm—licked
smooth the sticky of her hip—heat-thrummed ossa
coxae. Lambent slave to ilium and ischium—I never tire
to shake this wild hive, split with thumb the sweet-
dripped comb—hot hexagonal hole—dark diamond—
to its nectar-dervished queen. Meanad tongue—
come-drunk hum-tranced honey-puller—for her hips,
I am—strummed-song and succubus.
They are the sign: hip. And the cosign: a great book—
the body’s Bible opened up to its Good News Gospel.
Alleluias, Ave Marías, madre mías, ay yay yays,
Ay Dios míos, and hip-hip-hooray.
Nathaniel Mackey has been writing poetry for five decades, his first full-length collection Eroding Witness was selected by Michael Harper for the National Poetry Series. In 2016, arguably no contemporary poet now practicing, with the exception of Harryette Mullen (also included on this list), has exerted so much influence on radical black poetics. It’s for good reason that Fred Moten has said that to call him derivative of Nate Mackey would be the highest available praise. In an early interview, Mackey describes discovering the work of William Carlos Williams in high school as a formative influence, but to Amiri Baraka he gives credit for synthesizing his approach to music, poetry, performance, and much else. Mackey’s poetry and criticism (of which Paracritical Hinge is the best place to start) have reinvented modernism for our time. In Blue Fasa, his most recent poetry collection, he continues his two, ongoing serial poems “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu” with a formal dexterity, lyrical muscle and sonic joy. Listen to Douglas Kearney on NPR explain the risks and rhythms of our greatest living epic poet.
There are many special moments in the life and career of a poet. Perhaps nothing is as special as the first poem in their first book. When I turned to the first page of Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior, his debut collection, I read the following lines: “Was a vastness over me / like a great system of clouds pursuing each other, / colliding into one another like fists that bloomed / like devotions like—” I marvel at how this poet’s lyricism is full of interruptions—into and out of history, in and out of metaphor, in and out of the violence of being a body. No less than the genius Dawn Lundy Martin has praised this phenomenal work for its ability to “pierce through the gape-mouthed howls produced by the missing gay black body and sing a brutal broken song that energizes and revives the contemporary lyric.” Formal, graphic, elegiac, erotic, Williams is a poet—as in his poem “Sonnet With a Cut Wrist and Flies” demonstrates—willing to do it all.
Robin Coste Lewis, whose title poem “The Voyage of the Sable Venus” was featured in part on Literary Hub, is that rare thing—a completely new kind of poetry. Conceptual, historicist, her mosaic of the black female body portrayed or titled throughout Western art is a reclamation project with roots in Robert Hayden’s lyric epics. Yet one of my favorite moments occurs very early on, with an epigraph of Reginald Shepherd—one of the continuing secrets in American poetry whom sadly died too young. Shepherd writes, “And never to forget beauty, / however strange or difficult.” About which Lewis, when asked in an interview for BOMB magazine, poignantly says:
There are few books, whether debuts or not, more anticipated than the publication of Solmaz Sharif’s Look—which Graywolf will publish early this summer. Sharif’s political imagination, as the child of Iranian parents, is able to span continents, timelines, and even war zones. Part of what readers respond to is her unflinching gift to confront tragedy, inequality, cultural and psychological displacement. What I hear in her title, as well as read in her poems, is not only the imperative mandate for poetry to pay attention to the forgotten and marginalized. It’s also the colloquial sound of someone beginning a conversation to cut through the bullshit of small talk, lies, and everyday misrecognitions. Whether writing about erasure or elegizing the inescapable violence of the body, Sharif’s poetry is built to outlast the blindnesses of empire.
For many years I felt resistant to the genius of Susan Howe’s work. Everything I had been trained to love in poetry, the baroque diction and rhetoric of Hart Crane, for example, seemed challenged by the dry, indexical language of Howe’s bibliographic spirit. And yet with time it has simply become some of my favorite work to read, learn from, and realize how foolish we are when we narrow the definition of poetry to only what we first knew, or once imitated. Howe’s critical poetics are based, like Duchamp’s, in the powerful way in which we can reframe, re-contextualize what has been excluded from our traditional frames of attention. And so when she writes on Emily Dickinson, as she has done throughout her life, there is attention to American history (such as the Indian Wars of the 18th and 19th century)—all that informs (and exceeds) what is merely ‘present’ on the page. But Howe’s telepathic poetry is also the most attentive to materiality: handwriting, spacing, the slightest fold or crevice which might contain fragments, marginalia, a scribble of poesy. And that’s just it—Howe’s attention is the essential rigor of all poetry.
The granddaddy of culture critics Theodor Adorno never ceased from warning us about our modern living in a totally “administered world.” It’s a world often nefarious as it is nebulous. With unbreakable rhythm, the soaring lyrics of Donnelly find themselves constantly pit against it, expounding our insane lament from feeling almost always trapped inside the machinery of corporate greed, gross environmental decay, consumer ennui. And yet Donnelly’s sublime melancholy as a poet is, nevertheless, heroic in its indestructible persistence of feeling. His 12-page poem “Hymn to Life”—a manic, plangent catalogue of mass extinction—is to my mind not only his greatest poem but one of the best yet written in this new century.
Tess Taylor has just published her second book of poems, Work and Days, featured in part just last week on Literary Hub. In it, she explores life on the farm as a would-be mother while living in the Berkshires. It is a humbling, lapidary, moving book that for me shows that across thousands of years, these smallest acts—to grow, harvest, mourn—still remain central to lyric utterance. Is such a pastoral sensibility possible in the mediated world of 21st century American life? Taylor’s answer is not only yes, but to focus on the thousands of workers both here and abroad who live a life based on laboring with the earth. These subtle poems, like those that explore her lineage to the Jefferson family in her first book, are not without harder-to-confront agonies. As she draws the world closer, proximate to touch, the intuited sense of apocalypse—whether ecological disaster, or global political chaos—draws even closer.
One of the great things about being a poet is having poet friends constantly telling you who should be reading, what book has entered their orbit and refuses to leave. Thanks to Eileen Myles, TC Tolbert’s Gephyromania is one of those books I now know and love. Such readership that’s rooted in constant sharing, what Lewis Hyde refers to as the gift economy of artists and poets, is something I also know that Tolbert knows well, as co-editor, with Trace Peterson, of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. Its an anthology, the first of its kind in scope and scale, that not only celebrates trans and genderqueer poetics but allows for large sampling of poems as well as statements by the poets included to amplify, in yet another way, the richnesses of gender perspectives in American poetry. The discoveries to be had there are akin to Tolbert’s own formally challenging poetry. Read this excerpt and interview at PEN’s website to see why s/he is one of our most innovating poet minds.
It was my father who first gave me the love of poetry—once defining to me what a poem was as “something you must read at least twice before you can say anything about it.” He also loved Mississippi and Texas blues. In Tyehimba Jess’s new poetic masterwork, Olio, the ancestry of 19th century black music and politics is explored in the most original and encompassing treatment I think a poet has ever attempted. Jess turned, importantly, primarily to musicians who did not live to have their voices recorded on wax cylinder or vinyl. Instead, his Olio is a mixture of dialogues, interviews, reportage, found text, sonnets, fractured sonnets, appropriations, and believe when I say much much more, that reveals nearly a decade’s worth of work in bearing witness to the first generation of freed slaves and their relationship to what he calls “freedom songs.” The book, which reads like a compendium of thousands of forgotten or only partially remembered lives, also includes artwork and pages which need to be cut out and folded into various geometrical shapes to explode the possibilities of what it means to “read,” “hear,” or “see” poetry. Available this month, Olio is the very best of what American poetry still has in store for us.
Listen: Claudia Rankine talks to Paul Holdengräber about objectifying the moment, investigating a subject, and accidental stalking.