Grappling with everything from identity to immigration to cyborgs, these 5 poets prove that poetry contains multitudes. Delving into the intimacy of the self and landscapes of history, these poets use their craft to prove that the personal is political, and that poetry isn’t just relevant, it’s everything we need right now. As the poet Safiya Sinclair says, poets must “probe the wound that made them.”
- Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion
In Lessons on Expulsion, Mexican-American poet Erika L. Sánchez explores xenophobia, the violence of borders, and womanhood as witnessing/bearing violence. With surreal, vibrant, wound-probing imagery, she wields language with the precision of a knife. She is unafraid to draw blood, to show us the colonial violence of the US-Mexico border, to pair the mundane with the otherworldly. Sánchez’s visceral language unravels borders and the body alike, showing us where we tread between desire and violence, trauma and self-forgiveness.
2) Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead
I had the absolute honor and privilege of participating in an online workshop with Danez Smith this past summer, and one of the best pieces of advice they gave me was to trust myself – and to trust what is gently said. In Don’t Call Us Dead, which was recently made a finalist for the National Book Award, Smith alternates between softness and ferocity, exploring the intersection of Blackness and queerness. The intimacy, vulnerability, and sheer force of Smith’s language leaves me breathless. This book is a study in selves, in myth-making, in survival. These poems remake and reclaim pleasure. Smith has roots as a spoken word poet, and this book demands to be read aloud, given to a friend, and whispered at night before bed.
3) Franny Choi’s Death by Sex Machine
In Death by Sex Machine, Franny Choi explores the hyper-sexualization of the East Asian female body in popular culture and racial imagination. Drawing from internet trolls, techno-orientalist movies (Ex Machina, anyone?) and anime, this book is poetry’s answer to the Cyborg Manifesto. Choi gives voice to those we assume are voiceless, with language that is at once playful, visceral, and heartbreakingly pleading. As usual, she’s a pioneer with form, and given the very graphic nature of objectification and digital misrepresentation, the visual aspects of her poetry re-stage/rearrange popular tropes and plunders stereotypes, reassembling the body in her own image.
4) Eloisa Amezcua’s Mexicamericana
Eloisa Amezcua’s chapbook Mexicamericana is a diaspora love song, a dissection of the violent deportation state, and a portrait of furious femininity. The velocity and ferocity of Amezcua’s work is underlined by love: for community, for her family, for self. Her poems feel as intimate and sincere as a trust fall, and she experiments not only with form but with language itself, creating her own vocabulary in the face of dehumanizing and colonialist language.
5) Tracy K Smith’s Life on Mars
Tracy K. Smith is our new poet laureate, and it’s something I give thanks to every day: her poems are their own worlds, and she can create and end whole universes in only a few lines. Her collection Life on Mars is a feat of imagination, blending Afro-futurism, science fiction, and the aftermath of hate crimes into a poetic world that is both recognizable and out-of-reach. She defamiliarizes our world to show us what is beautiful – and what is hideous – about our realities. Through a telescope that faces the stars, she examines humanity on a universal and a microscopic level, and the result is a kaleidoscopic effect. Reading her work is akin to prayer: within her poems we find both mystery and solace.