The National Book Awards' Poetry Longlist Celebrates Diverse Writers

On September 13 the National Book Foundation announced the longlist for the 2016 National Book Award in Poetry, and the 10-title listing celebrates not only a diverse group of American poets, but also ranks two debut collections (Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, and Look by Solmaz Sharif) alongside those of veteran writers (like former Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Rita Dove, and four-time National Book Award nominee Donald Hall). It’s an honor any writer, emerging or seasoned, would love to have. And while not all the NBA-nominated titles have hit bookstore shelves yet, there are enough in print to keep you in reading material until the winners are announced (when you’ll be able to snag the rest.)

Established in 1936 by the American Booksellers Association, the National Book Award was originally open to any writer around the world — now the NBA, which strives to "celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America" is open to books written by U.S. authors and published in the United States during the award year, writing in the genres of fiction, nonfiction, and young people’s literature, in addition to poetry. For six of the last 10 years the National Book Award in Poetry has been awarded to women and/or writers of color.

The five finalists for the National Book Award in Poetry will be announced on October 13, and the winner will be announced on November 16 — in the meantime, be sure to check out the amazing collections that made the NBA in Poetry longlist. Here are the 10 poetry collections that made the National Book Award in Poetry longlist

1. The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky

Daniel Borzutzky is a Chilean-American poet and fiction writer whose writing tends to have a global and political — and often satirical — focus. In addition to his own writing, Borzutzky has translated the writing of Chilean poets for English-reading audiences. Out in April from Brooklyn Arts Press, The Performance of Becoming Human is Borzutzky at his finest — an edgy and sometimes-violent collection about how politics destroy people, how systemic violence destroys communities, and how humans are defined by the borders they face. 

2. Collected Poems: 1974-2004 by Rita Dove

As a Pulitzer Prize and National Medal of Arts-winner (among other notable awards) and the first African American to be appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, Rita Dove is the writer to beat on this list. Her poetry often includes meditations on other artistic mediums: dance, painting, black-and-white photography. Collected Poems: 1974-2004 features the best of Dove’s 30-plus-years and seven books of award winning and worldview-altering poetry.

3. Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi

If you think narrative poet, essayist, and educator Peter Gizzi invented the term “archeophonics” you might be right. Archeophonics is defined as the archaeology of lost sound — but you won’t find it in any dictionary. (At least, not any dictionary I consulted.) This collection explores Gizzi’s understanding of the task of poetry — to explore the sound and shape of language as it has existed across the spectrum of human history, and from there, to discover what poetry means to us as a species. 

4. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall by Donald Hall

Donald Hall is like the fine wine of poetry — he’s classic and nostalgic and only gets better with time. As a four-time NBA nominee, and one-time winner (1988) Hall is no stranger to the award. His poems tell stories of regeneration and decay, of love and good-naturedness, of humor and acceptance, and often feature explorations of nature and the environment. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall features an expansive collection of some of this writer’s best work.

5. The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler

Jay Hopler is a Puerto Rican writer who has written his second collection of poetry, The Abridged History of Rainfall, as a series of melodies on love and loss in the wake of the death of his father. Out November 15, from McSweeney’s The Abridged History of Rainfall is a lyrical collection that will take you around the United States and Italy as Hopler explores what it means to be left behind after a loss, and how humans confront the tasks of the living. 

6. Bestiary: Poems by Donika Kelly

Spend only a minute or two in Donika Kelly’s poetry, and you’ll almost begin to feel your body moving along with the rhythm of her writing. Her lines pound, and declare, and expose and challenge — and often explore the gendered experiences of our world. One of the two debut collections on this list, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary: Poems, out November 1 by Graywolf Press, tells the story of the world through creatures — particularly beasts: great animals and mythological monsters, as well as the beasts that exist inside all human experience. 

7. World of Made and Unmade by Jane Mead

Jane Mead is the author of five collections of poetry, including her latest: World of Made and Unmade. Earthy and beautiful, homey and sad, and often touched with an energy that is uniquely southern, the poems in this collection explore what it looks like to die — what death means, what death teaches us about life, and whether or not death is simply a long return home.

8. Look: Poems by Solmaz Sharif

Solmaz Sharif is an Iranian-American poet who has already made quite an imprint on the poetry scene. The second debut collection on this list, another Graywolf Press title that was published earlier this summer, Look: Poems explores the reverberations of how we go to war today — waging war against other countries, waging war with ourselves, and even waging war against our own language and means of expressing (or not) the inherent truths about our lives. Sharif uses words and phrases from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in a way that is eerie and impersonal and clinical — and devastating and haunting and must be rebelled against. Which is why we write poetry. 

9. Blackacre: Poems by Monica Youn

Previously nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry, Monica Youn is the author of three collections of poetry, including Blackacre: Poems, which explores everything from racial identity to infertility. The collection is filled with echoes from the darkest of fairy-tales — grim and bleak and haunting, Blackacre reads like the private meditations of a girl lost in a woods she may never escape from.  

10. Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015 by Kevin Young

Another writer previously nominated for a National Book Award, Kevin Young’s poetry explores the intersection of verse with other art forms — paintings, film noir, blues music. Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015 features two decades of Young’s best poetry, and offers previously-unpublished pieces as well. Personal and political, musical and infused with a sense of hometown hospitality, Young’s poems are not to be missed. 


Images: Álvaro Serrano/Unsplash

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