Inspired by the lovely Mari-Elizabeth Mali, here is my list of 15 books of poems that have had some kind of impact on how I think about and interact with poetry. I narrowed it down to 15 because, to be perfectly honest, I’m very, very picky.
— Please by Jericho Brown
I mean, really, there is no other way to say it – I’ve been waiting for this book for a while. These poems are made of blood red glitter and butterfly knives.
— Macnolia by A. Van Jordan
I love persona poetry and “documentary” poetry. Welp. In the 10th grade, I came across this book and saw these two interests combine with stunning results. Read it and you’ll shiver every time you hear the word “nemesis”.
— Tell Me by Kim Addonizio
My junior year at WKU, Tom Hunley assigned several of Addonizio’s poems. A few weeks later, a boyfriend bought me this book. It’s still one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. Not too long after that, I changed my major to creative writing.
— Archaic Smile by A.E. Stallings
If you have any uneasiness about formal poetry, Kim Addonizio and A.E. Stallings will put you at ease. Though both poets are very different, they demonstrate quite masterfully that form doesn’t have to get in the way or distract from subject matter. As an added bonus, Stallings seems to love mythology as much as I do.
— Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith
Like A. Van Jordan, Patricia Smith uses persona poetry to put people at center stage who usually are condemned to the periphery. Hurricane Katrina becomes a woman with control issues. 34 elderly people left to die in a flooded nursing home become choir who curse us even as they pray. And damn if New Orleans isn’t a lover we just can’t shake.
— Wind in a Box by Terrance Hayes
What a fitting title for a book of poetry that refuses to sit still. The moment you are seduced by his lyric poetry, Terrance Hayes switches to prose poems and then he switches to persona poems, so forth and so on. These words are restless and shape shifting. They are reminders that we really can write whatever we want and however we want.
— Gathering Ground: The First Ten Years of Cave Canem – Edited by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady
This anthology of poetry reminds us that contrary to what we are so often told, there is no such thing as one African-American voice. Yes, these poems dance on the same floor, but each poet in the collection definitely has a unique set of moves.
— Tales From Ovid by Ted Hughes
As I’ve already said, I love mythology. Persephone and that damn pomegranate, Narcissus and his grinning reflection, Arachne and her ego… these were the bedtime stories I memorized and told myself. Ted Hughes updates Ovid’s Metamorphoses and they are tantalizing as ever.
— Heroides by Ovid
Now, you know I had to give Ovid his full due. The Heroides is a collection of epistolary persona poems from the women of Greek mythology to their lame ass lovers. Penelope writes to Odysseus, explaining that she knows exactly what’s keeping him from coming home. Medea writes to Jason. Helen writes to Paris. This book doesn’t get as much attention as Metamorphoses, but it’s definitely a worthy read.
— To Bedlam and Part Way Back by Anne Sexton
I don’t even know how to explain my relationship to this book. Regardless of your stance on confessional poetry, her work continues to haunt my own.
— Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
Such a painfully beautiful of memory and all of its trapdoors. She reminded me that so often poets really are the last guard against erasure.
— Strike Sparks by Sharon Olds
Last semester, I was having a particularly horrible day. Nothing was working in my favor. I crawled into my bed and started reading this collection of poems. Such heat. Such blood. It was like Sharon flipped a switched and turned the sun back on just for me.
— Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady
Although I considered putting “You Don’t Miss Your Water” on this list. The inventiveness of a Brutal Imagination cannot be rivaled. Susan Smith isn’t the first person to conjure a magical negro and unfortunately, she probably won’t be the last.
— Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen
I’m fascinated by the journey Mullen has taken from writing more traditional narrative poems to experimenting with language in ways that reinvent and renew assumptions about the written word. This book will break your mind right open.
— Meadowlands by Louise Gluck
If you’ve read this whole list, you know good and well, why I’ve included this book.