The National Book Award Poetry Title You'll Love

Each year, the National Book Foundation celebrates four writers — each working in one of four genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or young people’s literature. If you’re a poetry lover, all the NBA-nominated collections are probably already at the top of your TBR pile — but with the National Book Award ceremony just over a month away, on November 16, now is definitely the time to get reading. And if you need a little help deciding exactly which National Book Award-nominated poetry collection you should read, I’ve got you covered, with this list of NBA finalists you’ll love, based on your favorite poetry collections.

With an impressive debut collection — Look by Solmaz Sharif, ranked alongside that of a former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner — Collected Poems: 1974-2004 by Rita Dove, and sharing the spotlight with other dazzling collections like Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, Peter Gizzi’s Archeophonics, and Jay Hopler’s The Abridged History of Rainfall this year’s list of National Book Award-nominated poets are as diverse as they are talented, exploring, and celebrating, and making sense of every intimate and complex aspect of the human experience through their verse.

Here is the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry finalist you must read, based on your favorite poetry collection.

1. If you loved Healing Earthquakes by Jimmy Santiago Baca, read The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky

Though approached from different directions — Jimmy Santiago Baca from the intimate and Daniel Borzutzky from the national and global — what both of these exceptional poets have in common is their understanding of borderlands and barriers, bureaucracies and institutions, and the injustices intricately intertwined in all. The NBA-nominated Borzutzky is a poet and fiction writer whose poetry often focuses on global and political themes, incorporating elements of satire amid his chronicling of myriad forms of violence and injustice. The Performance of Becoming Human is an edgy and sometimes-violent collection about how politics destroy people, how systemic and economic violence destroys communities, and how humans are defined by — and in spite of — the borders they face.

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2. If you loved The Complete Collected Poems by Maya Angelou, read Collected Poems 1974 – 2004 by Rita Dove

It is nearly impossible to take the complete collected works of one single poet’s career and compare it to that of any other poet — and when it comes to the Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, few writers can consider themselves lucky enough to share her literary company. But one writer who comes to mind is Maya Angelou. Both Dove and Angelou share poetry that both beautifully and often painfully tackles everything from childhood to womanhood, civil rights and women’s rights, the political and the personal — and both share the experience of having been extraordinarily celebrated during their careers. In Collected Poems 1974 – 2004, all of Dove’s finest writing — so far — is featured, in verse both experimental and traditional, earthy, exquisite, and sometimes irreverent. She explores girlhood and the female body, war and civil rights, Greek mythology and modern American mythology, and at least a hundred other things too.

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3. If you loved Duende by Tracy K. Smith, read Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi

In addition to exploring the history and significance of the poetic form within the verse of their own poetry, Peter Gizzi and Tracy K. Smith also happen to have selected invented words for the titles of their collections. (“Duende” is defined as the dark, elusive, creative, and ecstatic power an artist seeks to summon from within themselves, and articulate onto the page.) “Archeophonics,” on the other hand, is defined as the archaeology of lost sound — and based on my own investigative reporting skills, you won’t find it in any dictionary. So if you suspect Peter Gizzi invented the term, you’re probably right. (Poet Federico García Lorca is responsible for evolving the Spanish term “duende” from its traditional meaning “elf,” to the far more artistic interpretation above.) Archeophonics mines Gizzi’s understanding of the task of poetry — the poet explores the sound and shape of language as it has existed across the spectrum of human history, and from there, attempts to discover what poetry means to us as a species. Gorgeous.

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4. If you loved Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen, read The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler

Written in the wake of his brother’s suicide, Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture navigates that surreal, outside-of-time state that so often accompanies grief and staggering loss — and if it’s a collection that you connect with, you’ll no doubt appreciate Jay Hopler’s second collection of poetry, The Abridged History of Rainfall, as well. Out November 15, from McSweeney’s, The Abridged History of Rainfall is written as a series of melodies on love and loss in the wake of the death of his father. It’s 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 in the wake of heartbreak.

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5. If you loved Peace by Gillian Conoley, read Look: Poems by Solmaz Sharif

Both of these mesmerizing and challenging books not only play with the poetic form, listing and scattering words across the page, they also tackle the equally organized chaos of war and peace, violence and stillness. Solmaz Sharif’s Look explores the myriad ways how we go to war today reverberates through communities and states and across the world — taking a critical stance against the way humans wage war against other countries, wage war with ourselves, and even wage war against our own language and means of expressing (or not) the inherent truths about our lives. Into her often-experimental, varied poetry, Sharif incorporates words and phrases from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in a way that is as impersonal and clinical as it is intimate and haunting.

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