25 Protest Poetry Collections To Read Right Now
Much has been written recently about poetry in the age of Donald Trump (seriously, just Google it.) It brings to mind two questions: the first asks what is the role of poetry not just in Trumplandia, but throughout repressive and autocratic governments the world over; and the second, why do readers seemingly turn to poets as the last, lingering, reliable tellers of truth? Does poetry have an obligation to be political in the Trump era? (OK, that was three questions.)
Some die-hard poets and poetry scholars will claim that all poetry is political. Others will argue that poetry and politics exist in direct opposition to one another, the latter draining the art and authenticity from the former. But as a poetry reader myself, living in a world where the personal and the political have become so inextricably linked, I think poetry can’t help but speak to politics, intimately. Love poems are unavoidably political, and buried beneath the most didactic of protest poetry is often a story of love.
It was noted that like most of his Republican predecessors, Trump did not have a poet read during his presidential inauguration. Is there something overtly Democratic about poetry, that unlike Barack Obama — who famously featured Elizabeth Alexander in 2009, and Richard Blanco in 2013 — Republican presidents forgo the inaugural poetic reading? Tyrants, after all, have feared poets and other writers throughout history; for not only their ability to capture the imagination of an entire population, but for their dedication to factual, moral, and spiritual truths.
In the age of Trump, rage-Tweets, alternative facts, and Facebook feeds filled with deliberately-false news, it’s possible that all poetry is the poetry of protest. The mere act of mining your thoughts for truth and then putting that truth to paper is, in itself, an act of rebellion against the new status quo, where facts are fake and lies are protected beneath the guise of “opinion,” “free speech,” and “well, somebody told me…”. How many times throughout history have the poets been the ones to call tyranny tyranny first? And how many times have we neglected to listen?
Here are 25 protest poetry collections to read right now.
1‘Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness’ by Carolyn Forché
Featuring the words of more than 140 poets from five continents, all writing during the years between the start of the Armenian genocide to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations (1915-1990, for all you non-history buffs), Against Forgetting a thoughtfully compiled and comprehensive collection of politically-motivated poetry from the 20th-century. Bearing witness to conflicts or social movements throughout the century, i.e.: World War I, World War II and the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, U.S.-sponsored Latin American dictatorships, etc., Against Forgetting is above all a call for remembrance: to remember the past, lest we repeat it. Can’t stress that enough these days.
2‘American Anger: An Evidentiary’ by H.L. Hix
H.L. Hix's American Anger: An Evidentiary is a poetry collection that only seems to become truer by the day (unlike, say, Donald Trump.) The poems in American Anger seek to get to the root of America’s angst-as-national-identity, exploring the function of rage (those Tweets tho) as central to American politics and personal life, and the psychology and philosophy of anger as both a call to action and energy wasted. A beautiful, albeit difficult read, Hix takes a critical stance against American anger, and will make you question the flaws in America's preferred national identity.
3‘State of the Union: Fifty Political Poems’ edited by Matthew Zapruder
Published back in 2008, long before we knew how dire things could really get and poets would become our last hope for reliable truth-tellers, State of the Union compiles thought-provoking and politically-charged poetry by savvy writers like Wanda Coleman, Eileen Myles, Terrance Hayes, Tao Lin, Ed Roberson, and more. As critical as it is optimistic, State of the Union exhibits some of the finest and most timeless of what the genre of political poetry (if you can really call it its own sub-genre) has to offer — much of which is still disconcertingly relevant eight years later.
4‘Look: Poems’ by Solmaz Sharif
Shortlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, Solmaz Sharif’s debut collection Look is startling and thought-provoking, forcing readers to do exactly as Sharif's title says: look. This poetic debut explores the myriad ways we humans go to war today: against other countries, against ourselves, and against our own language, critiquing the ways we fail to express (or allow others to voice) inherent truths about our lives in the world today. Incorporating words and phrases from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms into her verse, Sharif has written a jarring and haunting collection of poetry that protests human (and political) dependency on violence.
5‘Poems of Nâzım Hikmet’ by Nâzım Hikmet
Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet dedicated his life to a career of political writing— including being arrested and imprisoned by the Turkish government for his work in a left-wing magazine. As a result, much of Hikmet’s poetry is about the experience of being incarcerated for his political beliefs, and what it's like to be an artist in a repressive state — something many of us have been contemplating more frequently these days.
6‘The Verging Cities’ by Natalie Scenters-Zapico
The terrain of the U.S./Mexico border has long been a hotly-politicized one, and has only grown increasingly more so in the wake of a Trump administration. The Verging Cities, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s debut poetry collection, will transport you directly to that borderlands landscape (the verging cities refers specifically to El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez) as she challenges immigration politics in both the United States and Mexico, and takes a critical look at two governments who are failing to consider the individual lives most-affected by national and international decisions.
7‘Reaper’ by Jill McDonough
Available on April 11 (so get those pre-orders ready) Jill McDonough’s latest poetry collection, Reaper, is disturbingly timely and critical, exploring the world’s past, present, and future on a non-linear timeline, hoping to offer readers a glimmer of something that might save us from the bleak future she imagines. McDonough navigates our growing dependence on technology, and especially that of America’s expanding drone program, which is actively destroying lives and landscapes around the world.
8‘Tyrannus Nix?’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
An oldie but goodie, Tyrannus Nix? is one of the first books that made me fall in love with the idea of poetry as protest in the first place. As one of the writers who took San Francisco by storm and helped spark the Beat movement in the 1950s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti uses his poetry to raise the political consciousness of the average American reader and challenge the popular opinions of the day. Published in 1969, Tyrannus Nix? is Ferlinghetti’s prose-poetry work of political satire and absurdity that perhaps resonates even better with the political landscape of America today than it did in 1969.
9‘Diving Into the Wreck’ by Adrienne Rich
For poet Adrienne Rich, poetry, activism, and social justice are intimately linked, and any of her amazing collections would fit in perfectly on this list. Written during the tumultuous convergence of the Vietnam War, the feminist movement, and the civil rights movement, Diving Into the Wreck tells the story of the feminist, political poet as she navigates 1970s America — not only her place in it, but America's place in the world at that time as well.
10‘Camp Notes and Other Writings’ by Mitsuye Yamada
During World War II, Mitsuye Yamada’s Japanese immigrant family was forcibly relocated from their home in Seattle, Washington to an internment camp in Idaho — a dark time in American history that is becoming uncomfortably relevant again under a Trump administration. As an activist, feminist poet Yamada’s poetry collection, Camp Notes and Other Writings, speaks to that experience of internment and documents the racial violence and discrimination she and her family faced after World War II: especially what it was like, as a woman, to be forced to feel like an outsider in her own country.
11‘Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard’ by Hart Seely
This book is just completely absurd — but hey, absurd is the new normal, in case you haven’t noticed. Written by award-winning journalist Hart Seely, this collection of political nursery rhymes was published during the 2008 election season (back in the days when we didn’t know a good thing when we had it, thought ourselves already quite familiar with crazy, and had no idea what fresh hell was on its way.) Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard will definitely make you laugh, and depending on what Donald Trump has Tweeted in the last 12 minutes or so, it might also make you cry.
12‘The God of Loneliness’ by Philip Schultz
The fact that we're even having to debate the presence of antisemitism in the United States in 2017 is beyond absurd to me, but here we are. Grapple with any frustration you might be experiencing by reading Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz's collection The God of Loneliness, a collection of some of Schultz’s finest work, featuring writing that is as fierce as it is gentle, and paints a portrait of not only immigrant life in America, but life for everyone living in America. Schultz is a poet unafraid of diving deep into human imperfections, uncomfortable experiences, and profound sadness; who has spent much of his career writing about the American immigrant experience, Jewish identity, life in urban America, loss, and despair.
13‘Violet Energy Ingots’ by Hoa Nguyen
Violet Energy Ingots is an expansive, thoughtful collection, taking on — somehow all at once — politics, war, the economy, global warming, love, feminism, religion, the Mayan calendar, menstruation, the solar system, the inadequacy of our limited language, and so much more. Poet Hoa Nguyen’s writing is vivid and kaleidoscopic, and you’re just as apt to get lost in her imagery as you are to be moved by her messages. Nguyen points to the serious imperfections in the modern world, in human history, and in people and societies as a whole, while still being in awe of the beautiful, the humbling, and the miraculous. We all need a little bit of this collection right now.
14‘Night Sky With Exit Wounds’ by Ocean Vuong
A poet that debuted on the American poetry scene last year and took it completely by storm, Ocean Vuong’s poetry has a depth and a complexity that you can’t help but become completely obsessed with. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a collection of poetry that will both deeply disturb you, and help heal your soul, tacking subjects like war and cultural upheaval, and written with language that conveys a visceral sense of loss, exposes violent undertones, and grapples with love, desire, grief, conflict, and disruption. Keep on disrupting.
15‘Masque of Anarchy: A Poem’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
With rare exception, when I think of Percy Bysshe Shelley (which isn’t actually often — shocking, I know) I usually think of his wife; aka: Mary Shelley, writer of the classic novel Frankenstein. However, Shelley’s (the former) book-length poem, Masque of Anarchy, has earned him his very own spot on my bookshelves, for writing what is considered the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance. Written in 1819, in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, Masque of Anarchy challenges the legitimacy of the idea of a divine right of kings, and is a call for political freedom.
16‘Cold Pastoral: Poems’ by Rebecca Dunham
As one of the most anticipated (and most needed, IMO) poetry collections of 2017, Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral (available March 14) examines the man-made and/or human-influenced natural disasters of our time: the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath, and the Flint water crisis. Dunham’s writing is edgy, powerful, and transformative, and she blends interviews and excerpts from government documents with pastoral poetic traditions.
17‘Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin’ compiled and edited by Phil Cushway and Michael Warr
Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin features the poetry, personal essays, and images of 40 of the most iconic African American writers writing today. Throughout the collection, each poet is called to explore the modern history of racism and politics in America — from the Black Panther Party to the Black Lives Matter movement and more. Each poem features a photograph and first-person narrative about the inspirations and motivations of the poet, making this an essential collection for anyone interested in verse that moves off the page and into the world.
18‘The Panther and the Lash’ by Langston Hughes
First published in 1967, The Panther and the Lash is poet Langston Hughes final collection of poetry, and it’s considered by many to be his most explicitly political — and for a fearless critic of the status quo like Hughes, that’s saying something. Like all of Hughes writing, The Panther and the Lash documents the lived experiences of African Americans, and grapples with many of the racial and political tensions of the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s. Sadly, Hughes words are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
19‘The Black Maria’ by Aracelis Girmay
Exploring the history of racism in the United States, the racism that is still inherent in American culture, and the crisis of stateless people (in particular the experience of Eritrean refugees who have been fleeing to Ethiopia and/or Europe) Aracelis Girmay’s poetry collection, The Black Maria, is haunting and challenging, alternating between visions of disruption and grace, violence and gentleness; and it will make you think about whose stories get documented throughout history, and whose are forgotten.
20‘Not Me (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)’ by Eileen Myles
Eileen Myles is a poet, an activist, a feminist, and a one-time presidential candidate (1992 election) who writes about culture, gender, identity politics, and sexuality in a way that is refreshing, liberating and a little rough around the edges. First published in 1991, her collection Not Me is as necessary, powerful, and relevant today (maybe more) as it was then.
21‘Peace’ by Gillian Conoley
Gillian Conoley’s poetry collection, Peace, takes readers on a personal and political exploration of love and loss, violence and death, memory and forgiveness, and war and peace. Like current politics in America (only much more thought-out and illuminating) noisy words are everywhere in this collection: scattered across the page, strewn about in organized chaos, arranged in unpunctuated (or non-traditionally punctuated) columns, and making you think differently about the way words are used.
22‘Our Dead Behind Us: Poems’ by Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us is one of her most empowering, call-to-action collections of poetry (IMO, anyway). Lorde’s poetry challenges both the reader and the world — protesting systemic violence and androcentrism, defending feminism, female sexuality in all its forms, motherhood, and race. This collection will invite you to think more closely about your role as an oppressor of others and of yourself, the inherent prejudices you hold that you might not even be aware of, and the ways the liberation of every single individual is critical to the liberation of all.
23‘Burnt Rotis, With Love’ by Prerna Bakshi
Writing in the tradition of the great feminist political poets, Prerna Bakshi challenges the patriarchy’s construction of the female mind and body, and illuminates the feminist experience shared by women living in the developing world today, in her collection Burnt Rotis, With Love. Her narrative poetry is dedicated to the world’s stateless people, a murdered daughter, a Chinese migrant factory worker, survivors of domestic violence, and all those affected by the Partition — to name just a few. Writing about everything from sexual assault to the inability of some feminists to recognize their own privilege, Bakshi writing asks that you to be moved, haunted, angered, and empowered.
24‘Howl and Other Poems’ by Allen Ginsberg
You know a book has people riled when police arrest its publisher and editor, as well as the manager of the bookstore that was selling the collection in the first place. Allen Ginsberg’s iconic book-length poem, Howl, effectively defined the post-World War II Beat generation and features verse that is still as raw and edgy as it was when the book was first published in 1956. This inflammatory collection of socially conscious poetry about artists and musicians, political radicals and psychiatric patients continues to inspire plenty of political poets writing today.
25‘Ruins’ by Margaret Randall
Ruins is my absolute favorite of poet and social activist Margaret Randall’s collections. Invoking the ruins of the world: what is left of Auschwitz-Birkenau, what remains of Machu Picchu, and several other spiritual, mystical, destroyed, and mysterious landscapes-in-ruin, Randall explores the way that human beings experience time, both individually and collectively. She compares these global ruins with the more intimate experiences of traumatized bodies — those of people who have experienced ruin as well as transformation — and investigates how such experiences evolve through the passing of time.