Despite popular belief, poetry isn’t exclusively the realm of stodgy white guys in tweed jackets waxing nostalgic about blades of grass and such. As one of the most visceral and versatile forms of literature, poetry is a natural medium for writers of color and writers from historically marginalized communities. In fact, writers of color have been bossing the poetry game from the very beginning.
Nonetheless, in the classroom and on bookstore shelves, poetry by non-white writers is underread, undervalued, and categorized as "other." Bestselling poet and author of Citizen, Claudia Rankine, spoke about diversity in poetry at AWP, pointing out that poetry by or about the experiences of people of color is considered “political poetry, sociology, identity politics poetry, protest poetry — many labels but none of them poetry. For in order for poetry to be poetry... white readers must find it relatable, and only then can it transcend its unrelatable colored writer.”
She has a point. In bookstores around the country, you’re probably more likely to find Rankine’s bestseller in the “African American Studies” section than the “Poetry” section. That’s where I found my copy.
It's time rethink our notions of what a poet looks like and what poetry is “allowed” to be about. Happily, we’re in the middle of National Poetry Month, and a little reading goes a long way. So, diversify your poetry shelf with some of these brilliant poets.
1. How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes
Hayes is a visual artist and a poet, because apparently being ridiculously brilliant at one form of art is just not enough. In this collection, Hayes proves that a poem is worth a thousand pictures. His poems bring to life visual art, music, and even cartography through words. And through this melange of art, he speaks about identity, race, politics, and history.
2. Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
Smith’s father was one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Telescope project, and this collection pays homage to him and his work. Futurism and space come together in this imaginative collection that begs to be called sci-fi poetry. But, like sci-fi, it’s not just about space and time travel. Life on Mars is very much about humanity and life on Earth.
3. Memory of Fire Trilogy by Eduardo Galeano
Galeano has become famous for his historical work Open Veins of Latin America , which offers an in-depth and narrative look at Latin American history. But Galeano is also a poet, and in his Memory of Fire trilogy, he gives readers a more lyrical take on Latin American history. Fusing poetry, prose, fable, and personal accounts, the trilogy tells the history of Latin America as a story. It’s a completely original and painfully beautiful epic poem.
4. Empire of Dreams by Giannina Braschi
It’s hard to classify Giannina’s Empire of Dreams , but I’m gonna go ahead and throw it on this list as poetry, because whatever else it is, it’s definitely poetic. It’s also largely about poetry. A thrilling blend of prose and poetry, humor and politics, it offers up a Latin American immigrant’s-eye-view of New York. But it’s also a love letter to Latin American poetry, a dissection of language and the politics that surround it.
5. The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde’s name usually gets thrown around with her two most famous books, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Sister Outsider, both works of non-fiction. But Lorde was a poet first — and a revolutionary one at that. So, now that you’ve read her experimental autobiography and her essays, it’s time to dive into her poetry.
6. Blues Poems edited by Kevin Young
Oh, the blues! Honestly, I feel like nobody can ever talk about the blues without sounding like they’re spouting poetry. The blues is poetry. So it’s only natural that some of the best writers of all time took pleasure in waxing poetic about the magical genre. This collection’s got poems by the likes of Nikki Giovanni, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, and more.
7. The Rose That Grew From The Concrete by Tupac Shakur
If you need proof that poetry isn’t restricted to dusty ivy towers and old white guys, just turn on the radio. Sure, there’s a lot of music out there with pretty inane lyrics, but then there’s Tupac Shakur. Just listening to his songs should be enough to prove that he’s got the heart of a poet, but pick up this book of poems he wrote in his teens, before his untimely death, and you’ll experience a more private, more raw Shakur.
8. When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz
A blend of poems about family, identity, history, and Diaz’s life growing up on a Mojave reservation, this collection is raw and open. It will make you feel like you were there, living through the pains and struggles she describes.
9. Born Palestinian, Born Black: & The Gaza Suite by Suheir Hammad
I first encountered Suheir Hammad’s poetry on Def Poetry Jam. I immediately hunted down a collection of her poetry, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Her poetry is on-the-ground poetry, contemporary poetry, unapologetic and straight to the core of things. She writes about her roots in Palestine, her experience as a Palestinian woman, a brown woman, an exoticized woman. She does it all without caving to the pressures of the Eurocentric “rules” of poetry and language. She uses BVE and jargon in her poems, and it’s beautiful.
10. The Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
The title is play on the Thousand and One Nights/Arabian Nights, suggesting a creative use of the frame of the Thousand and One Nights and Scheherazade's desperate attempt to paint a picture of life in the midst of the war and incredible violence.
11. Passion by June Jordan
If you don’t know June Jordan, go to the bookstore and buy this immediately. She writes raw, punch-you-in-the-gut poetry that doesn’t hold back. June Jordan’s poetry is all of the things that forces POC poetry into the category of “other” or “protest poetry,” and it’s freaking beautiful. She writes with passion and power and so much beauty. And as much as her poems are about politics and race, they’re also about humanity and love, because poetry can be personal as well as political.
12. Rhapsody in Plain Yellow by Marilyn Chin
Marilyn Chin’s poetry blends things you never knew could go together so well. You’ll get a mix of blues, politics, ballads, love, loss, traditional Chinese poetry, ghazal, allegory, and hard-hitting social justice. This is a woman with writing chops, and she uses it all to craft poems that hit you right in the feels.
Image: Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (via. Wikimedia Commons)