To every reader who was completely obsessed with poet Warsan Shire before she became, as the New York Times wrote: “the backbone of Beyoncé’s [latest] album,” (pats self on back) congratulations: you’re officially cooler than Queen Bey… at least in this one and only instance. And if you weren’t already a member of Ms. Shire’s ever-growing list of readers, chances are you’re about to be. If you caught the premiere of Lemonade on HBO last Saturday, April 23, which credited the Kenyan-born Somali poet with the album’s “film adaptation and poetry,” then you’ve probably done your fair share of Googling: who is Warsan Shire? What else has she written? And, most importantly, where can I read more of her work?
The good news is that the feminist poet’s work is widely available: Shire’s debut chapbook, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth — a small but formidable poetic force — was published in 2011, her spoken-word album warsan “vs.” melancholy is available on Bandcamp, and her first book-length poetry collection, Extreme Girlhood , is forthcoming. And, though Shire’s most enthusiastic readers consider her in a class of poetry all her own, there are tons of other powerhouse poets to satiate your poetic appetite until Extreme Girlhood is published.
Here are 11 poets to read if you love Warsan Shire. And let’s be honest, it’s impossible not to love her.
1. milk and honey by Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur is a Toronto-based poet and artist who immigrated to Canada from India as a young girl. After years of performing her poetry and spoken word, she self-published her first collection of poetry and prose, milk and honey , in 2014. (Later picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing, the book was Amazon’s bestselling title of “poetry by women” for over a year.) Focusing on themes of pain and survival, milk and honey explores issues of abuse, violence, loss, and love through a lens that is both feminist and sensual.
2. Breaking Poems by Suheir Hammad
Born in Amman, Jordan to Palestinian refugees who immigrated to Brooklyn, New York when she was just five years old, Suheir Hammad’s poetry is equal parts influenced by the New-York-inspired hip hop of her youth, and the life stories of her traditional Palestinian grandparents. Her collection, Breaking Poems , is all about the processes of destruction and reconstruction — of the female body, of culture, of language — and literally of the poems themselves, which are fragmented, disjointed, clipped, jumbled, and entirely beautiful.
3. The Distance of a Shout by Kishwar Naheed
Feminist Urdu poet from Pakistan, Kishwar Naheed has always been a woman — and a poet — who has stood up for the rights of women. Fighting to receive an education herself when women in Pakistan were forbidden to do so, she earned her high school diploma by taking correspondence courses from home. Naheed is possibly best known for her poem i am not that woman , a work that resists myriad forms of female oppression — from imprisonment to chastity to child brides. Her collection, The Distance of a Shout , compiles her best work in English, alongside the Urdu translations, and exhibits what a feminist force this poet really is.
4. Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones
A Pushcart Prize Nominee and Memphis-native living in NYC, Saeed Jones now writes as an executive editor for BuzzFeed. His poetry collection, Prelude to Bruise focuses on the experience of being a minority in America today, and deals with issues of grief and violence, race and gender, pain and bitterness, sexuality and relationships, prostitution and drug use, and above all: survival. The intensity of Jones’s words with reverberate through you long after you’ve finished reading.
5. bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
Born to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, Yrsa Daley-Ward grew up in Chorley, England (consult a Google Earth) and was raised by Seventh Day Adventist grandparents. So naturally she became a poet. Her collection, bone , is stark and spare, visceral and cerebral, filled with to-the-point verse that acts like a literary punch in the stomach. No word is wasted, no punctuation mark unexamined, no repetition insignificant. bone deals with themes of identity and growth and transformation, and will introduce you to pages of unforgettable women, all with unique stories of their own.
In addition to being a poet, June Jordan was an activist, essayist, and journalist who dedicated her life and her work to the production of courageous poems of rebellion that spoke out in defense of those against whom injustices were being committed. Active in the civil rights, feminist, antiwar, and LGBTQ rights movements, poetry and activism went hand-in-hand for Jordan. Kissing God Goodbye is a collection of some of her most celebrated work, produced between 1991 and 1997, and focuses on what it meant to be a woman, a minority, and an American in the years before the millennium.
Pairing poetry with photography, Cynthia Hogue’s When the Water Came captures one devastating moment in America’s recent history — one that has had ever-lasting repercussions for the communities it hit hardest: Hurricane Katrina. The collection bears witness to the stories of 11 residents of Mississippi and Louisiana, and explores, through poetry, not only what their experiences were during the terrifying, life-threatening hours of the hurricane, but also what it meant to have to rebuild their entire lives from the ground up afterwards.
8. The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde
Born and raised in New York City by two West Indian parents, Audre Lorde began her prolific writing career with a poem published in Seventeen magazine when she was just a teenager. She dedicated her poetic career to the practice of raising her voice against racism, sexism, and homophobia, and Lorde’s poetry is a place to call home for anyone who has ever walked the uncomfortable, difficult path against stereotypes and marginalization. Her collection, The Black Unicorn , celebrates and defends Lorde’s myriad identities — lesbian, black woman, mother, feminist — and rallies in anger against all who would discriminate against any of the above identities.
One of the most well-known poetic feminists of all time, Adrienne Rich wrote against the oppression and discrimination of women and lesbians, and was active in the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements of the 1960s Each of her collections is utterly empowering, mesmerizing, and essential; and An Atlas of the Difficult World is no exception. Taking readers through some of the major devastating events of the twentieth century, this collection truly acts as a poetic map for navigating the world’s heartbreaks.
Winner of the National Book Award in Poetry 2015, Robin Coste Lewis’s debut collection explores how the black female body has been thought of, used, portrayed, and imagined throughout history. Voyage of the Sable Venus is a collection of poems that dive unflinchingly into issues of race, sexuality, and feminism. In daring, difficult, and beautiful lyric, Lewis describes the painful history of the black female body, while simultaneously celebrating her own racial heritage.
An activist, feminist, and poet, during World War II, Mitsuye Yamada’s Japanese immigrant family was relocated from their home in Seattle, Washington to an internment camp in Idaho. Her poetry collection, Camp Notes and Other Writings , recounts her experience of internment, the racial violence and discrimination she faced during and after World War II, as well as what it meant to be a woman in the camp. At the heart of Yamada’s writing is the journey of a woman whose identity has been challenged for most of her life, and who, growing up, often felt like an outsider in her adopted country.
Image: Warsan Shire/Goodreads