If you aren’t already aware: it’s National Poetry Month! This month we’ve been tweeting recommendations of first books by astounding poets. Check out our Favorite Debut Poetry Collections for more info. We’ve seen a lot of great responses to these tweets–so we’ve decided to ramp up our game. We’ve asked our staff to think back to a time when they were unfamiliar with poetry–is there a poem or poet that spoke to them? Which collections would they recommend to new poetry readers? Their answers are below.
Creative Non Fiction Editor Anna Cabe
Thrall by Natasha Trethewey
Reading Thrall was the first time I understood what a “collection” of poems could be, that a book of poems can be carefully curated, can follow a narrative or explore an idea. In this case, Thrall places the complex relationship between Trethewey and her white father against the history of race in the Western hemisphere: “When he laughs, I know he’s grateful / I’ve made a joke of it, this history / that links us — white father, black daughter — / even as it renders us other to each other.” It’s brilliant, heartbreaking, and erudite and helped this prose reader and writer fall in love with contemporary poetry.
Poetry Editor Anni Liu
Electric Arches by Eve Ewing
Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches was a book I read while flying from the Midwest to a place I’d never been, which is an apt description of the book itself. In it, Ewing mixes poetry, prose, and visual art. There is an Afro-futuristic thread connecting many of pieces about black girlhood and womanhood and life in Chicago (which also happen to be my personal favorites). While complex and well-crafted, this book would work well for readers of a wide range of ages, from middle school and beyond.
Editor-in-chief Tessa Yang
Chen Chen’s debut collection struck me for its conversational quality. We jump into the collection with “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential,” and I feel like I’m in the room with this poet, listening to him declare how he is “not the heterosexual neat freak” his mother raised him to be. This is a book of queer desire and comic wisdom, a book that always manages to surprise with its selection of that unlikely-but-just-right combination of words. And it’s funny! I think people new to the genre might not realize that poetry can make you laugh out loud. This collection is about piecing together one’s identity with all the awkward striving that process entails, and it’s a joy to read.
Associate Editor Essence London
Elegy by Larry Levis
Larry Levis’ Elegy was recommended to me when I first started writing seriously. His often conversational tone and narrative approach make the poems easy to read, but the leaps! and the tangents! They make the poems so rewarding to read. New poets or readers interested in imagination should check Elegy out. Also, sad people should check it out. There’s something there for you.
Web Editor Hannah Thompson
Bringing the Shovel Down by Ross Gay
I first read this book in 2015 at a family reunion in New Mexico, surrounded by young boys zipping in and out of doors, stalking each other behind bushes, cleaning their nails with pocket knives. While they tumbled down muddy hills, I followed a speaker grappling with boyhood, violence, masculinity, and the way race and class shapes all of this. Ross Gay disguises these weighty questions as gorgeous imagery and enchanting language. Take for instance, these lines from the title poem, “a boy who only moments earlier had been wending through sticker bushes / to pick juicy rubies, whose chin was, in fact, stained with them.” Most memorable though, are the transformations of speaker and language. The title poem, “Bringing the Shovel Down,” appears twice–once at the beginning and once at the end–but in each iteration the ending is altered. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say this–the night before I flew back to Oregon, I gave my copy of this book to my sixteen-year-old cousin. It hooked him on poetry.