Why you should care
Because one good poem can remind you what you’re fighting for.
Just when I needed fuel for my activist fire, National Poetry Month issued a call to action. It sparked a discovery of new books by groundbreaking women whose work speaks to the current moment with insight and empathy. Their voices resonate at the crossroads of the personal and the political, examining the past to illuminate the present.
“Poetry opens up a conversation, a narrative of humanity for people to engage with that isn’t just based on fear,” says Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press, which publishes two of the poets on the following list.
“[T]hose who cannot forget the past are destined to remix it,” writes Evie Shockley in the new black. Using experimental forms that are visually exciting and challenging, Shockley’s style of “remix” collages history, culture and myth into musical poems that address race and gender. She celebrates Shirley Chisholm (the first Black U.S. congresswoman), stands up for gay marriage and elegantly exposes Thomas Jefferson’s racism, among other stories. Shockley’s upcoming book, semiautomatic, is dedicated to the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement and responds to a cycle of violence that is not only white on Black but also enacted against women, poor people, Earth itself. How do we break the cycle? Shockley’s poems ask. “Sometimes poetry does the work of resistance in a different way,” she says, “by framing a moment or telling a story, so we get an emotional response.”
There’s no place for female shame in Sharon Olds’ work. The Pulitzer Prize winner’s poems are fearless, intimate and unapologetically filled with desire, claiming sexuality as both natural and sacred. Considered a powerhouse of confessional poetry for decades, Olds, now in her 70s, blazes new territory with her collection Odes, a subversive chronicling of the pleasures and vulnerabilities of the body. The poems in Odes celebrate the clitoris and hymen, praise stretch marks and withered cleavage. Though not explicitly political, Olds’ poetry refuses to play by patriarchal rules. A woman’s multifaceted experience, Olds insists, is crucial to the future of our world.
Layli Long Soldier
With her March debut, Whereas, Layli Long Soldier skillfully dismantles the U.S. government’s resolution apologizing to American Indians, which was signed in 2009 by Barack Obama. The Lakota poet tells a history of atrocities that many Americans remain ignorant of. Her poems sing of mass executions and kitchen-table conversations, tribal grasses and centuries of injustice. In the sixth “Resolution,” Long Soldier braids together the words of two tribal leaders at Standing Rock. During the protests, the poet had to remain at home, with her daughter. “But my heart was there, my spirit was there,” she says. “All I could do in a personal way was say, ‘I can make something in their honor.’ ”
“Praise poets who split themselves open to save lives,” JP (Juliet P.) Howard writes in Say/Mirror, her debut about growing up in Harlem with a “diva” mother, a successful Black fashion model. Howard is an outspoken New Yorker whose politics inspire her poetry. “My identities inform what I write,” she says, “how I walk through the world as a Black woman, a lesbian, a wife to my partner, the mom to two African-American sons.” A finalist for the 2017 Freedom Plow Award for Poetry and Activism, Howard founded the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a creative community of mostly queer women of color. Howard read her poems in front of Trump Tower during a recent vigil for the NEA and has participated in the Black Poets Speak Out movement.
Solmaz Sharif’s debut, Look, speaks of her experience of exile and immigration while opposing the American military machine. Short-listed for the National Book Award, Look’s documentary-style poems examine war and its terminology, weaving personal stories with a lyrical response to the U.S. Department of Defense’s sinister Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. As a young Muslim American from an Iranian family, Sharif mourns the lost and the grieving, among them her uncle, a soldier killed during the Iran-Iraq War. Sharif pieces together his life through fragments and photographs. While the current administration seeks to ban Muslims and hunt down immigrants, Sharif’s poems reveal the faces behind the checkpoints.
Young writers are “risking this innovative, challenging poetry and finding readers who are hungry to engage,” says Graywolf Press’ Shotts. “Their books give us equipment with which to survive the present.”