As you may or may not have heard, April is National Poetry Month, and while it is coming to a close at the end of this week (where has the month gone?!), there’s still some time to celebrate, if you feel so inclined, because we contain multitudes out here.
As BSH’s poet in residence, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite collections of poetry and single poems for you to peruse, if you’d like to feel you’ve participated in National Poetry Month, or if you just want to flex on your friends and show them you’re some kind of intellectual now. Something like that.
So let’s dig right into the list! I’ve included a quick little blurb about what these are about and/or why I like them, along with an expert to hopefully strike your fancy and help you decide if you want to keep reading. All of the single poems are linked, the books you may have to look a little harder for, through your generally preferred method of finding books.
Bright Felon - Kazim Ali
“Lonely in the coffee shop with funny shoes and a weird haircut, avoiding everyone’s eyes.
And remembering my hands, cold cables around a shopping cart, winter in Albany so cold there isn’t any snow, shopping for myself, buying in my hunger.
Shrimp cocktail in glass cups, eggs, cheese, meat, anything to fill myself.
Why go backwards in time. why paint yourself into a corner and why that memory here in the mountains, or at the crossroads where a promise was broken, suddenly that loneliness, suddenly.” (from “Corsica”)
This is actually one of my favorite books that I’ve ever read, period. It’s a neat narrative poetry hybrid, and if you’re a little afraid of poetry, this is a good place to start. It’s a narrative told in reverse, and deals in place, religion, desire, and how that all wraps up into identity. And the language is all so lovely, there are so many points in this book that stopped me in my tracks, that I’ve marked for circling back to. It’s all so lovely and profound.
Lunch Poems - Frank O’Hara
“...and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing” (from “The Day Lady Died”)
The idea around much of this project is a simple one—O’Hara walked around New York during his lunch breaks and wrote poems about what he saw. It’s an exercise in crafting a precise image, but also finding a way to capture the spirit of the place, while also leaving room for the self. How one body moves through a city, interacts with its inhabitants, its characters, and how in some ways the city itself becomes a character. I think there’s a lot to like about that.
White Blight - Athena Farrokhzad
“My mother said: Your difference is immobile, and mute
No, your difference is a conjured monster demanding its tribute
Your difference is doomed to repeat its question”
This book, on a purely surface level, is really interesting in how it looks. The cover is silver and reflective, and the poems printed on glossy white paper, but the words printed in white ink, and the lines blacked out so the words can become legible (it all ends up looking like this). This book deals in immigration, assimilation, and erasure (in how language can erase another), and how identity forms in all of this. It’s wrapped up in the dynamics of the family, generational divides, while lends an extra level of complexity. Everything about this is striking, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Indecency - Justin Phillip Reed
does the self ask at the body’s behest
that time won’t wrong from the body itself?” (from “Performing A Warped Masculinity En Route To The Metro”)
I picked up this book at work about a year ago and gave the first page a read and was immediately drawn in (that first poem is linked above, check that one out, and I’d highly recommend reading it out loud if you can). This collection is, at its core, a critique of different social systems and a look at the violence they inflict (literally and figuratively) in trying to group people. It’s heavy, but it’s wrapped up in a package that’s experimental with its language, and is so often really interesting and stunning.
Franklinstein - Susan Landers
“A poem for Tieshka telling me there are two sides to every story like a park where you can get everything you never wanted — or a mural of a park inside a park — with vines both real and imagined — vines that repeat like a drum like concrete — a poem about being all caught up in it, the vines of this place, this repeating.”
I read this book when I was in college and I still think it’s a really cool project. It started out as an experiment in mixing found text and merging the voices of Benjamin Franklin and Gertrude Stein, but as it evolved, Landers found a way to insert for some added flavor a bit of Philadelphia history, urban planning, as well as her own family history, and her experience of growing up in Germantown as the neighborhood was in the midst of its white flight. It’s a little denser than the other books in this section, but there are so many tender and human moments in it that it feels so rewarding.
“You up?” -Rachelle Toarmino
“there’s the age-old that goes
love is forgetting about death but
when I’m with you I also
forget about the internet.”
Shabby Doll House isn’t really publishing anymore, but theirs is a publication that I really liked, and this is one of my favorites that they published. The form, which I couldn’t preserve here, but which has lines drifting back and forth across the “page” does a lot of interesting work. It feels continuous in a way, like one long thought spilling out of you, like when you let your mind drift before you fall asleep. It’s compelling and it’s sweet.
“the feds don’t know i’m a scorpio” - Inam Kang
“i don’t do much alone unless it’s
feeding my skin to the outside world.
crave me, crave me, i’m a brilliant person
with a loud mouth and sometimes the work’s free
in the shape of a culling.”
Peach Mag is another cool literary magazine (founded in part by Toarmino, how’s that for continuity?), and we’ll see another piece that they published later on. I still distinctly remember seeing a preview of poem on twitter (including the few lines I included above) and it stopping me in my tracks. To get a little technical, the line breaks and the work they’re doing is fantastic, and the whole thing is just so sharp, the language, and the aboutness. It’s biting.
“Genius Loci” - Brian Teare
“is it, the how
to live it
so it doesn’t
to touch it,
sing your name
so it sounds
like a place
you can live?”
I love so much of Teare’s work (and I promise it’s not just because he was also one of my favorite professors when I was studying poetry at Temple), and this poem as a standalone is just fantastic. The images are tight, the sense of place, and there’s a real feeling of nostalgia, of longing, of some sadness here. It’s all working together beautifully, along with the sound (read this one out loud if you can!). And I love the ends of poems, how they wrap up all of their loose ends, and this one here is just perfect.
“Always” - Alex Dimitrov
“Finally knowing you, I know I cannot know you.
This body’s terrible at your religion.
And why eternal life if pleasure’s time-bound
and each new year’s a killing…”
It was really hard to pick just one Dimitrov poem to highlight here as a favorite, but this is one that always seems to stick with me. It’s quiet and a bit sad, and this one more than anything feels to be about getting the feeling across. It’s precise and it’s effective, always finds a way to strike a chord no matter how many times I go back to it.
Bonus: if you’re a fan of the Astro Poets twitter account, Dimitrov is half of that!
“A Woman Walks Into A Bar” - Julianne Neely
“A woman walks into a bar but it’s not a joke
A woman walks into a bar and doesn’t want to focus on staying alive
A woman walks into a bar and she’s been here before
I walk into a bar”
Our other Peach Mag piece, and this one is just brutal, but in a good way? The subject matter is difficult and relatable for too many, and the directness makes it even more poignant. Repetition doesn’t always work for me, but I think this is a perfect example of how it can be used effectively to elicit the emotional response you’re looking for.
“poem I wrote sitting across the table from you” - Kevin Varrone
“if I had two nickels to rub together
I would rub them together
like a kid rubs sticks together
until friction made combustion
and they burned
a hole in my pocket”
This poem is so short, it’s hard to include a healthy excerpt because that’s like half of the poem. Just click the link, it’s a quick one. Anyway, I really love the way this poem moves. Maybe this feels a little abstract, but it feels like you’re bungee jumping—you’ve just jumped off the bridge and you’re falling farther, and farther, and farther as you move through the poem, and then the last line is when the cord reaches its end and yanks you back up to the top. It’s jarring in the best way. (And the message is just really sweet).
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” - T.S. Eliot
“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
This one kind of feels like an outlier, here, as we have a whole lot of contemporary poetry on this list. I’ve read this I don’t even know how many times in school, it’s a classic, and there’s a reason for that. There’s so much working here, repetition and sounds. It’s a longer read, but it’s still a good one.
“Skin And Other Weapons” - Courtney Kampa
“You worry me, jumping out the shower
so quickly, contrails of soap
in your wake to where I’d fallen, smallest splinter,
of Tennessee pine in my foot, bit of lightning
through this body you sweep up to set down on the rim
of the tub”
I’m sorry this link just takes you to an instagram post, this is the only place to find this poem outside of its main collection itself (but, hey, at least the poet posted it herself?). Anyway.
God, I just love this one. The language here is sparse, but so precise, and the voice so clear. If you’re looking for a good love poem, this one is at the top of my list. It’s simple (but in the best way). It’s the sweetness in small moments, precise images, that makes the story here work so well. Really the best word I have for this is sweet. It’s perfect.
“Vertical View of a City” - Nikki Wallschlaeger
“If you know me you know the sky
forever remains a nonstop miracle
& so does the opportunity for joy
living on the ground is the problem
there’s a higher risk of getting killed”
What’s immediately striking about this how clear and precise the imagery is, and that’s usually one of the biggest things that stands out to me. But this isn’t just about the image of a city, but about the bodies that inhabit it, and the dangers faced when that body is a black woman’s.
Further reading: Wallschaeger has a really fantastic chapbook, I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel, of visual poems presented like memes. They’re funny but also really real. You can check out the PDF here.
“Mouthfeels” - Kaleigh Spollen
“sentences stay asleep on my tongue
in this city,
i am trying to be good
when they tell me to make roots,”
I had a sudden brain block when trying to come up with just one more addition to this list, so I took a suggestion from my sister and it was nice discovering something for the first time. I think this poem is quite lovely, There’s vulnerability to be found here and, as seems to be the point, that might not be the worst thing.