by Powell's Books, April 5, 2021 9:51 AM
If the last poem you read was on a greeting card or from the office haiku contest, it’s time to address your poetry deficit; and who better to turn to for advice on what to read than professional poets? We asked 11 of our favorite poets to share their
favorite poets and poetry collections. The resulting collection is generous, rich, and diverse — it will have you luxuriating in verse well beyond Poetry Month.
David Biespiel is the author of 12 books, most recently A Place of Exodus and Republic Café. He is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature, been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian prize, and received two Oregon Book Awards, for The Book of Men and Women (poetry) and A Long High Whistle (nonfiction).
The Rest of Love
by Carl Philips
It’s hard enough to write a book of love poems, so Carl Phillips’s 2004 collection is especially stunning. Which is to say this is love poetry pulling triple-duty as spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle. As in: “it ends always / at desire — without which//would there have been/imagination, would there be folly, // one spreading itself / like a bay tree, the other / a green olive tree in the house//of God?” Isn’t that something? Uncanny, refined, desperate, and reverent toward unlocking precision and passion.
Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems: 1954-1986
by Tomas Tranströmer (Edited by Robert Hass)
If you come to poetry not only for psychological insight but also (perhaps, more so) for the feel of life, this is your poet: "The heat reaches islands far out. / The village doors are open except one. // The snake-clock’s pointer licks the silence. / The rock slopes glow with geology’s patience. // It happened like this or almost.” The Swedish Nobel laureate’s poems read like a strange quest for the memory of time — or time’s hallucinations. Tranströmer’s poems have had a profound influence on me — I’ll say that much. And, I’ve never met someone who read his poems who didn’t think, yes, yes, this is what I want from poetry, immediacy, beauty, sorcery.
Czeslaw Milosz: Selected Poems: 1931-2004
by Czeslaw Milosz
Find at Copper Canyon Press:
Deepstep Come Shining by C. D. Wright
Where to begin? The poems he wrote in the 1960s do something we shouldn’t even expect poetry to do. They combine idiosyncratic, linguistic, geographic, and political energy all into the question of: What does it mean to live? Milosz’s answer: It means to be responsible in the face of absurdities and horror: "On the day the world ends / Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas / A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn / Vegetable peddlers shout in the street / And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island? The voice of a violin lasts in the air / And leads into a starry night.” He’s an absolutely amazing poet — not a master, but something more. He’s a perceiver of unchanging and unchangeable human nature.
“Deepstep, baby. Deepstep.” If there’s another book published in the last 20 years in English that combines pilgrimage, generosity, “goblets of magnolialight,” lyrical precision, psychological directness, rage, and, compassion mixed in with a road trip, spots of time, and American history — all spoken with dreamy unease, I haven’t heard of it. This book has never not rewarded. Listen to this: "Everyone in their car needs love. Car love. Meat love. Money love. Pass with care. // Deepstep Baby. Deepstep.The boneman said he would take the blinded to the river. With a mirror. And then what. // The boneman said he would take the blinded into a darkened room. And put a hot-herb poultice on their sightless face. // Mullein for this mullein for that. We called it flannel." Its clear, languid mood has such a light touch you almost feel you’re living inside the secrets of your own past.
Mahogany L. Browne is a writer, organizer, and educator. Executive Director of Bowery Poetry Club and Artistic Director of Urban Word NYC and Poetry Coordinator at St. Francis College. Browne has received fellowships from Agnes Gund, Air Serenbe, Cave Canem, Poets House, Mellon Research & Rauschenberg. She is the author of recent works: Chlorine Sky, Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice, Woke Baby, and Black Girl Magic. As the founder of the diverse lit initiative, Woke Baby Book Fair, Browne is excited to release her newest poetry collection responding to the impact of mass incarceration on women and children: I Remember Death By Its Proximity to What I Love (Haymarket Books). She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
The books I’ve chosen feature heroes, friends, and poets who continue to light the path for writers like me. Each of these collections is necessary when building your poetry library. They are full of craft, consideration, and consistent in their ability to generate a murmur from your heart space. In alphabetical order:
by Ross Gay
Ross Gay’s Be Holding is a book-length poem that requires no knowledge of basketball or comprehensive American history. And yet, this collection of couplets includes ephemeral art and greets us, gently. The way an aging family member might. Remembering stories of mothering and time, as time flies and the pages turn, we are immersed in knowing. We learn. We are offered the metered breath as a study of becoming, oscillating between instances of Drakkar-reeked adolescence and pictures of grandparents tucked in the safety of the Library of Congress. This book is an offering to our human forms as we stretch into the psalms to (re)consider. Our insistence to hold on for a bit longer, agile, and warm.
Where Hope Comes From: Poems of Resilience, Healing, and Light
by Nikita Gill
Where Hope Comes From: Poems of Resilience, Healing, and Light is a holding space for our softest parts. This collection is for the doubt that lingers. Each page releases the uncertainty that stutters our movements from freedom. With the poetic care of Gill our vulnerabilities have a place to rest, maybe even, heal. While these musical poems read small in size, they are hefty and profound. Each page its own lyrical haven to return to when needed. This is a house for both lovers of poetry and for those beginning to find their place on pages that dance. If home were a book, this would be the front door.
by Pamela Sneed
Funeral Diva is a collection of poems and poetic essays that serve as both memoir, queer opulence, and séance. Funeral Diva is a reckoning. Sneed threads time, blood, and her brilliance between femme and butch, marginalized and Black voices, and pandemics chartering the generations of both AIDS and COVID-19. The tile work these poems offer leads us back to us. A gift you “can’t get out from under” is a mantra.
Find at Copper Canyon Press:
A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok
A Nail the Evening Hangs On studies the language of resilience, citizenship, and longing. From Cambodia to the United States, the reader is propelled from static to chaos through this poetic excavation of heat and silt. Gentrification and colonialism. Smoke and soup. Sok is the heartbeat we follow, pulse to the softest part of the ear, the people’s collective memory asks us if “we have any respect for history.” A lyrical memory leads us the only way: forward.
Find at University of Wisconsin Press:
Fractures by Carlos Andres Gomez
Fractures is a testimony of the way fear can hold your hand lovingly, even when you’re busy raising Black children in a country of hate. The poems stare long and hard at the injustices that peek behind the sheet of Law and Order. The poems still find sweetness in living and loving towards the rise of a less pain-stricken day. The poems are a critical analysis of flesh, breath, and a precise indictment of who is afforded remembrance. “Blood has its own democracy” — is a finding from a son transitioning into a father and husband. The rebirth of both moon blessings and clap backs resides here.
Matthew Dickman is the award-winning author of Wonderland, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, and All-American Poem, winner of the May Sarton award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
I love waking up on a spring morning when the Oregon light looks like it could be summer but it’s still a little chilly out and the presence of rain is in the air. Coffee is a good idea on mornings like this. Coffee and poetry.
Coffee, No Cream:
Life Cycle of a Bear
by Steven Kleinman
In Steven Kleinman’s Life Cycle of a Bear (2019 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry) we find a meeting place of narrative, lyric, and deep image poetry, personal story turned mythic, and a poet who, though he is exploring the violent world men create, is still brave enough to love.
by Donika Kelly
In Bestiary Donika Kelly delivered a first book of wild importance. A book about transformation, of human and animal, of the Self, of cruelty and joy. Kelly engages with these worlds without self-promotion or the energy of a tase sage. Instead, she has given us a book to better understand ourselves, the animals we are.
Only as the Day Is Long
by Dorianne Laux
Something I love about a new and selected volume of poetry is that the most important poems of that authors work are instantly at my fingertips. Especially those whose earlier books are hard to find. So it’s a gift that Dorianne Laux’s Pulitzer-nominated Only as The Day is Long: New and Selected Poems comes with those poems plus a suite of heartbreaking, tender, generous elegies to a dead mother.
Here Is the Sweet Hand
by Francine J. Harris
Milk and Coffee:
Find on the author's website:
Kingdom by Joseph Millar
Loneliness and solitude as an access point to the world is at the center of Francine J. Harris’s stunningly beautiful third book of poems, Here Is the Sweet Hand. The whole lonely and complicated world is here no matter how terrifying or gorgeous, heroic, or disappointing.
In Joseph Millar’s Kingdom we have a book of balance: The bitter with the sweet, the hard and the soft, the male and female, the powers of a great narrative poet, and the ear of a musician. Millar’s poems are more than stories they are personal, vulnerable, meditations that can speak to anyone no matter the Kingdom they live in.
Brian S. Ellis is the author of four collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Often Go Awry from University of Hell Press. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. He lives in Portland, OR.
Allow the Light: The Lost Poems of Jack McCarthy
by Jack McCarthy
Jack McCarthy was one of the most important voices to come out of the reading series where I first found my poetry-legs, the open mic at the Cantab Lounge. Jack was a master of voice, and his voice was one that not only spoke but it seemed to listen. We lost Jack in 2013 but are lucky to have this new book published after his death. I learned a lot from Jack and selfishly, I hope to continue to learn more.
Kate Gray's passion comes as a teacher, writing coach, and a volunteer writing facilitator with women inmates. For Every Girl: New and Selected Poems was published by Widow & Orphan House in 2019. Her first full-length book of poems, Another Sunset We Survive (Cedar House Books, 2007) was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and followed chapbooks, Bone-Knowing (2006), winner of the Gertrude Press Poetry Prize and Where She Goes (2000), winner of the Blue Light Chapbook Prize. Kate’s first novel, Carry the Sky (Forest Avenue, 2014), stares at bullying without blinking. She has been awarded residencies at Hedgbrook, Norcroft, and Soapstone, and a fellowship from the Oregon Literary Arts. Her poetry and essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes.
by Amber Flame
Everything about Ordinary Cruelty is extraordinary: the grief, longing, language, sound. Amber Flame’s collection is a blues scale written in the body, losses of mother and mentor like missing thumbs or kneecaps. Flame uses language like tendons to stretch and connect meaning, deliver truth like “inescapable skin.” Read this and feel the joy and rage of survival.
Nastashia Minto is an African American woman who was born in South Georgia and raised there by her grandparents. She grew up in poverty and around drugs, alcohol, and family violence. Her life experiences led her to obtain an associate's degree in occupational therapy and a bachelor's degree in psychology. She has been writing since she was nine years old and has found that her writing offers her another way to help people. Currently residing in Portland, Oregon, she has been a featured at many popular local reading series, including Unchaste Readers, Grief Rites, and Incite. Her writing has been published in SUSAN and in the Unchaste Anthology, Volume III. She is the author of Naked: The Rhythm and Groove of It. The Depth and Length to It.
Find at LNU Chapbooks:
Call Me Ill and Left by T. S. Banks
Why I'm recommending T. S. Banks: Because representation matters. I read both of his collections and thought to myself, this was the first time I had read something by a Black trans individual who spoke about mental health in the way that he does. As a queer Black woman, it was eye-opening for me to sit in that awareness. I've seen how trans individuals and mental health are treated in the Black and Brown communities, and things have to change. T. S. Banks is a part of that change.
Anis Mojgani is the author of five books of poetry, including In the Pockets of Small Gods (Write Bloody Publishing, 2018) and Songs From Under the River. He serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit Literary Arts and lives in Portland, Oregon.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
by Ross Gay
One of my favorite books of all time is Ross Gay’s wondrous collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Ross so magnificently speaks to how joy and sorrow are irrevocably joined in our hearts, as we move through our lives, our hearts cracking and bursting at the same time. It is a book I have returned to time and time again when I have been looking for solace, for breath, for a letting of living’s weight that life’s lightness might find its way back in.
In the Language of My Captor
by Shane McCrae
I don’t know that I had ever read a poem that spoke so directly to what it means to carry different races in one body, before opening Shane McCrae’s collection In the Language of My Captor. The painful history of our country is one of a tangled and shared heritage that we must reckon with if we are ever to have actual freedom. Shane’s powerful book challenges our notions of race and colonialism, and using his mastery of language to lay his heart bare, brings us a little closer to our untangling.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the New York Times bestselling author of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, finalist for the Kirkus Prize in nonfiction, and recently named the Barnes and Noble Book of the Year. She is also the author of four books of poetry, and is poetry editor of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club. Awards for her writing include a fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Council, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for poetry, National Endowment of the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her writing has appeared in New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, and twice in Best American Poetry. She is professor of English and Creative Writing in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
by Adrienne Su
A book that crisscrosses the complicated terrains of growing up Chinese American in Atlanta, and the discovery and negotiations of what it means to find home in Asian grocery stores and restaurants. A dazzling array of forms: sestinas, ghazals, villanelles. I am teaching this one the first chance I get. No other poetry book in recent memory has made me more hungry than this one.
Somebody Else Sold the World
by Adrian Matejka
With blazing virtuosity, Matejka returns in prime form for a wildly syncopated romp — ballasted with earth and music and bombast — serving all the right notes. These poems sit at the intersection of revelation and delicious formal audacity, slyly snagged in our “mouths full of lace & clips upturned & licked in the late-night singsong.” Not out ‘till July but you will want to preorder this, stat!
Wound From the Mouth Of A Wound
by Torrin A. Greathouse
A remarkable excavation, multitasking in the best and most unforgettable ways. This collection attends to both beauty and “the ugly of my tongue lolling serpent curled in the slick of my jaw,” serving up visionary mediations and diagramming maps across the galaxy of a body, all while looking out for others as guide or oracle. In these pages, the fragments and fusion of public and private desires dig into exhilarating terrain I didn’t quite realize I had been thirsty for all along. The everlasting and intimate result of this book feels like we’re holding a small thunderstorm in our hands.
The Best Prey
by Paige Quinoñes
This outstanding debut sings the difficult songs of desire and mayhem laced with the coolest of fires. From cover to cover, Quiñones poses knife-sharp scenarios to jolt and jostle such as, “I do not know what you heard / only that your breathing never changed: / a whale’s body sinking despite its roaring grave.” Most importantly, this book is a gift, daring us to thrive despite our circumstances because of unexpected lights: “hummingbirds buzz at bright feeders. The water is too cold, but I challenge you to see who can stay under the longest." Reading these poems show that even in the face of personal and planetary tragedies, our reward will be the ability to excavate beautiful truths about the human condition. These are beautifully edgy and smartly carved poems.
The Tornado Is the World
by Catherine Pierce
A spirited exploration of a terrain where mercurial tornadoes turn up and leave “chickens plucked naked, goats in bedrooms, [and] trout silvering the cotton fields.” With a jeweler’s eye and an uncanny knack for embracing devastating truths and desires, Pierce rewrites what it means to sift through both heart and land wreckage, never letting us forget that “the tornado….will make sure the poor things / know what it is to be held.” This book is, simply, exquisite.
Elizabeth A. I. Powell is the author of three books of poems, most recently Atomizer (LSU Press). Her second book of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances was a Small Press Bestseller and named a “Books We Love 2016” by The New Yorker. Her novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost's Interpretation of J. Crew Catalogues was published in 2019 in the UK. She is Editor of Green Mountains Review, and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Vermont University. Find her at elizabethaipowell.com
by Kerrin McCadden
American Wake by Kerrin McCadden is an extraordinary collection of poems that gets its title from an Irish tradition of holding a wake for those relatives off forever to the USA. McCadden’s exquisitely crafted poems are quiet but pack a punch, always looking straight into the eyes of tragedy and addiction, the wages and healing of familial love, the journey back to the ancestors and their holy farms. This book answers the question: What is home, anyway?
Pale Colors in a Tall Field
by Carl Phillips
Pale Colors in a Tall Field by Carl Phillips was just released in paperback, and is one of my favorite books of this prolific and noted poet. The tender distances of desire and longing, the natural world and the elements, the mysteries of the life lived are revealed in exquisitely crafted sentences and lines. Phillip’s poems are alive with a language that once read becomes part of the human heart, making wildflower magic grow there, writing new spells.
God of Nothingness
by Mark Wunderlich
Mark Wunderlich’s book of poems God of Nothingness sings of the blessings and curses of rural life and life in the coldest reaches of earth. These poems ring and resound with a tenderness and philosophical understanding that warms the reader by the fire the poems themselves spark despite the hauntings of memory and solitude.
Mesmerizingly Sadly Beautiful
by Matthew Lippman
The art of timing in a poem’s lineation is akin to the timing of a comedian’s delivery of a joke. That is what the great poet Charles Simic has said, and that idea is on full display in the masterworks of poet Matthew Lippman’s Mesmerizingly Sadly Beautiful. Full of voice and insight, Lippman takes the reader through the purgatory of middle age with a keen and fresh eye, a verve for language and life. My favorite poem needs no explanation, the title is enough: “If You Don’t want Your Kids to Have Sex Don’t Finish the Basement.” A tour de force.
You Don’t Have to Be Everything
by Diana Whitney
Edited with aplomb, grace, and deep insight, Diana Whitney’s necessary and timely poetry anthology for teenage girls You Don’t Have to Be Everything is a good kind of medicine for this crazy, mixed-up world. The depth of talent here sings to the female experience in all its glory and pain, with poems from various poets including Margaret Atwood, Joy Ladin, M. J. Fievre, Amanda Gorman, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Acevado, Sharon Olds, and Leila Chatti. These poems take on issues close to today’s teens (as well as the teenage girl that still lives on inside older women like me) and offers a map on how to find a way that really works.
Jenny Zhang is a poet and writer living in New York City. She is the author of the poetry collection My Baby First Birthday and the story collection Sour Heart.
by Tommy Pico
I reread this every spring and fall. It’s a book-length poem that you’ll eat up like vitamin candy, delicious and good for you. Nature Poem is full of jokes that make long elliptical dizzy orbits, referencing all the news I never retained and history that wasn’t recognized. “It’s hard for me to imagine curiosity as anything more than a pretext / for colonialism / so nah, Nature I don’t want to know the colonial legacy of the future.” This is the pleasure of reading Tommy Pico’s book-length poem, the second in a tetralogy. Is it cheating if I think you should read the other three — IRL, Junk, and Feed — as well?
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
by Morgan Parker
An iconic poet and an iconic book. Every poem is an instant classic. In “Hottentot Venus” Parker writes, “I wish my pussy could live / in a different shape and get / some goddamn respect. / Should I thank you? / Business is booming / and I am not loved / the way I want to be.” Another book I reread several times a year and offer up to anyone who says they can’t get into poetry. I have yet to meet someone who can’t get into Morgan Parker.
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
by Audre Lorde
In the last lines of “Making It,” Audre Lorde writes, “we are hung up / in giving / what we wish to be given / ourselves.” It’s become a mantra, something I regularly send to friends and, of course, I’m not alone. Audre Lorde is widely quoted, and like all figures of genius and tenderness, her radicalness and context have often been erased and distorted. Her critiques of power and her deep understanding of liberatory erotics have been flattened and made palatable. The only antidote is to savor all of her work, one by one! Start with her poetry. Enjoy her gifts and then bestow them ideally upon someone in your life who does not benefit from the spoils of power.
The Arab Apocalypse
by Etel Adnan
How to even describe this book? Consuming. Epic. Mythical. Alchemical. Engaged in mystery and possibility. Anti-colonial cosmologies. Symbols and signs. Time is not linear. The story is not teleological. You’ve never seen anything like it. Thank god.
Amie Zimmerman lives in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published, or is forthcoming, in The Iowa Review, Guesthouse, West Branch, Sixth Finch, and Seneca Review, among others. She is author of four chapbooks, including Oyster (REALITY BEACH, 2018) and Compliance (Essay Press, 2018), as well as 31 Days/The Self (Ursus Americanus, 2021) with artist Samantha Wall, out later this year. Amie runs the reading series family portrait and is an editor at YesYes Books.
Autobiography of Death
by Kim Hyesoon (Translated by Don Mee Choi)
Recent recipient of the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation award, Autobiography of Death by Korean poet Kim Hyesoon — translated by the brilliant Don Mee Choi — deserves all the attention we can lavish. This collection is both visceral and ethereal, structured by 49 poems (the number of days a spirit roams before rejoining the reincarnation cycle) which interrogate our sense of death as spiritual/physical state, omnipresent “other,” and ultimately the “you” replacing the “I” as each of us experiences the “moment that death cut across our bodies.” Hyesoon states, “Poetry’s climax is that moment when you discover the absence of everything — only a mustard-seed-like death remains.” Hyesoon also has three other titles translated into English, available from Action Books.