April is National Poetry Month. From left to right, poets: Kaveh Akbar, Fatimah Asghar, Ada Limon, Hieu Minh Nguyen and Ashley M. Jones.
April is National Poetry Month. From left to right, poets: Kaveh Akbar, Fatimah Asghar, Ada Limon, Hieu Minh Nguyen and Ashley M. Jones.
Poet Kevin Young says there are so many different kinds of poetry, even people who think they hate it should reassess. "I think of [poetry] more like music," Young told me last year. "Like, if someone said, 'I don't like any music,' I would be like 'Who are you? I don't understand.' They haven't found the right music to me, then."
Same with poetry, he says: "I think we have to help people find the right poem for them."
Well, in honor of National Poetry Month, we have an assortment of amazing poets for your consideration. A bouquet of poets! Their work covers everything from immigrants' lives to connecting with animals to the ache of a mother lost too young. Our poets are spread all across the country, and have roots all over the world. Dip in, find the poem—or the excerpt of the poem—that speaks to you.
Ada Limón writes about the expectations that other people's assumptions sometimes place upon her. She was inspired to write it after she was asked to read at an event, and the organizers wanted her to do it in both English and Spanish. Which she says was problematic "because I don't write in Spanish. I am not bilingual. I do identify as Latinx, but ...I felt at that time I was being asked to be someone I am not, and I take that very personally."
Excerpt from The Contract Says: We'd Like The Conversation To Be Bilingual
When you come, bring your brown-
ness so we can be sure to please
the funders. Will you check this
box; we’re applying for a grant.
Do you have any poems that speak
to troubled teens? Bilingual is best.
Would you like to come to dinner
with the patrons and sip Patrón?
Will you tell us the stories that make
us uncomfortable, but not complicit?
"It's like the difference between tokenization and representation," Limón concludes. "It's one thing to be on a stage because your work is being recognized. It's another thing to feel like your work is there because they needed someone brown."
Ashley M. Jones wrote a provocative poem called Slurret. "It's a Shakespearean sonnet which is comprised mostly of slurs used against black people, " she explains. "It's also sort of a retaliation against the literary canon, and the traditional sonnet form."
You a spade, a spook, an open-mouthed
black pickaninny. Ashy Aunt Jemima,
Americoon, you blue-gummed Beluga,
you cotton-picking jigaboo. You, drenched
in chicken grease, you watermelon head,
you tar-skinned porch monkey, ain’t never gonna
get a job, you yes suh shuck and jiver,
you hanging tree baboon—for years, we watched
you bleed beneath our skin-splintering whip,
we watched your eyes embolden, swell like veins.
You turned your begging hands to thick brown fists.
What are you made of? What fabric sustains
its fibers, stays elastic despite rips—
embossed with flame, but a brocade remains.
Jones says the poem uses "all the trappings of the oppressor "— iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme.
"It's a sonnet in every way, except it's not talking about the fair maiden, or a rose, or any of the other non-political white subjects that sonnets were written about in the past. Instead, it's attacking racism and elevating the black experience to this level of art."
Solmaz Sharif is an Iranian-American poet — although according to poet Kaveh Akbar, she should be known as "one of our greatest poets, without qualification." Her first published poem was written at age 13, and she hasn't glanced back. Sharif teaches at Stanford, and this excerpt from Expellee comes from her soon-to-be-published volume, LOOK.
Chest films taken at the clinic. The doctor’s softly
splintered popsicle stick. By five, I knew I was
a health threat. The daylong waits, the predawn lines.
Stale taste of toothpaste and skipped breakfast.
The No and Next metronome of INS. Numbered windows,
numbered tongues hanging out of red dispensers
you pull at the butcher shop. The ground meat left out
for strays, the sewing needles planted in it.
Jericho Brown has written three collections of poetry; his newest is titled The Tradition and the excerpt from this poem, Stand, talks about the dilemma of being human in an inhumane time.
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
Black. I thought then
Of holding you
As a political act. I
May as well have
Held myself. We didn’t
Stand for one thought,
Didn’t do a damn thing,
And though you left
Me, I’m glad we didn’t.
Even though Stand came from a breakup, Brown says he's glad he could write about something so human. Especially now, he says, when everyone feels the need to be an activist all the time. "What I'm really interested in is how love, and in this particular case, black love, stands up in the midst of so many trials. How black love — how love itself survives, no matter the world or the political climate."
Brown told us that one of his favorite poets is Lucille Clifton, who mastered the art of making even the mundane marvelous. Here's Lucille Clifton's poem, Homage To My Hips:
Homage To My Hips
these hips are big hips. They need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
That was a celebratory poem; this is a beautifully sad one, from Fatimah Asghar, who writes about the loss of her mother in, Kul. It's from her book If They Come For Us:
Allah, you gave us a language
where yesterday and tomorrow
are the same word. Kul
A spell cast with the entire
mouth. Back of the throat
to teeth. What day am I promised?
Tomorrow means I might have her forever.
Yesterday means I say goodbye, again.
Kul means they are the same.
I know you can bend time
I'm merely asking for what
is mine. Give me my mother for no
other reason than I deserve her.
If yesterday & tomorrow are the same,
Bring back the grave. pluck the flower
of my mother's body from the soil
Kul means I'm in the crib eyelashes
wet the first time they open. Kul means
my sister is crawling away from her
on the bed as my father comes home
From work. Kul means she's dancing
at my wedding not-yet-come
kul means she's oiling my hair
before the first day of school. Kul
means I wake to her strange voice in the kitchen
Kul means she's holding my baby
in her arms, helping me pick a name
Asghar says part of the inspiration for this poem came from realizing the possibilities that open up in different languages: "Sometimes when we think or read or write in one language, it actually can be these weird limitations on our imagination because there's all these words in other languages that show us different possibilities of meaning."
Asghar, in turn, admires the work of Ross Gay, an African American poet, writer and gardener, whose newest books of essays is The Book of Delights. The poem excerpted here is called Becoming a Horse, and he says it was inspired by the way he first met one "in a true way."
Becoming a Horse
It was dragging my hands along its belly,
loosing the bit and wiping the spit
from its mouth that made me
a snatch of grass and the things maw,
a fly tasting its ear. It was
touching my nose to his that made me know
the clover’s bloom, my wet eye to his
made me know the long fiield's secrets.
but it was putting my heart to the horses
that made me know the sorrow of horses
Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote "I Am Offering This Poem" (which we've excerpted) in tribute to immigrant mothers and their love.
I am offering this poem to you,
since I have nothing else to give.
Keep it like a warm coat
when winter comes to cover you,
or like a pair of thick socks
the cold cannot bite through,
I love you,
I have nothing else to give you,
so it is a pot full of yellow corn
to warm your belly in winter,
it is a scarf for your head, to wear
over your hair, to tie up around your face,
I love you
He says this is a poem about communicating love: "When you love somebody so dearly that not all the gold and all the silver and all the diamonds in the world would make them believe you love them, then a poem like this, as simple as it is, given to the person you love the most on earth, completely understands and appreciates its worth."
Sally Wen Mao grew up hearing the old myth that if you dig a deep enough hole in your backyard, you'll end up in China. In "Empire of Opposites," part of a longer poem called Antipode Essay, Mao sets us straight:
I. Empire of Opposites
Popular myth: if you dig a hole in the Montana badlands
through the earth’s private parts, your drill would end
up in China. Maybe then you’d tear open the floor.
I was born floating on a tendril of seaweed
and down the blue throat of that hospital corridor,
you’d ride your drill into a wall.
In that debris, consider: anti-ode, antipode,
the geography of fallacies on which we build our empires.
(Oh, and for the record: you won't end up in China. Mao says you'd end up in a clutch of islands that are largely uninhabited, and often referred to as the Desolation Islands.)
Michelle Otero is the Poet Laureate of Albuquerque, Nex Mexico—something she would not have foreseen as a young person, when she saw poetry as something for people who didn't look like her. But she realized later, she says, she'd been looking for poets in all the wrong places: "I was surrounded by artists and poets and stories my whole life, even though in their day jobs, they were mechanics and teachers and people who worked with their hands."
Now that she's a poet, she finds herself going back to her family and neighbors "and trying to recapture their speech patterns and the way they spoke and told stories." Her poem Hair Ghazal takes the formal structure of a Ghazal — a poem in stanzas in which one word is repeated to form a rhythm.
To walk the Río Grande in March means grit
in the teeth, means always I am eating my hair.
I hardly know the tall boy living in my house.
He speaks monosyllables. Above his lip, hair.
To boost sex drive, my doctor prescribes testosterone,
warns, “You might notice unwanted hair.”
Under a bridge in El Paso, children warm
their hands in the nest of Amá’s hair.
A father in Christchurch prays Allah is sufficient.
He is my protector. Blood soaks his boy’s hair.
Lover says to Michelle, “Feed your hunger.
Bite my nails. Always. Eat my hair.”
Denver poet Diana Khoi Nguyen writes about family, dislocation and grief in her poem Ghost Of, from a collection of the same name. She believes generational trauma shaped not only her parents' lives, but her and her late brother's. As teenagers, her parents fled Vietnam during the war. Here's an excerpt from Ghost Of:
Let me tell you a story about refugees. A mother and her dead son sit
in the back seat of his car. It’s intact, in their garage, and he is buckled
in; she brushes the hair behind his ear. This is the old country and this
is the new country and the air in the car is the checkpoint between
Haunting. "That poem was a way for me to investigate and reconcile all the things I'm angry about—but also tender about."
This excerpt from Serpent Diosa is from an upcoming work, hood CRIATURA in which writer and creative writing teacher Féi Hernandez examines immigrant voyages and personal evolution. Hernandez says Serpent Diosa (goddess) speaks to crossing all sorts of borders: ethnic, gender, geographic.
There is an ancient woman dug beneath the rubble.
My immigrant male body.
She pushes against my mestizo pelvis, her coffin
door, to rise from her grave every morning.
She tickles my tongue avidly finding puertas
to snicker or howl her way out of me.
My father doesn't know I'm his daughter too.
He doesn't know how this single woman
has built a village in me
Finally, as George Harrison wrote in Here Comes The Sun, "It's been a long, cold lonely winter." And if you thought yours was bad, think about this: Hieu Minh Nguyen lives in Minnesota. Minneapolis, to be specific. He writes about the end of winter, when it's not quite yet spring, but he can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Most people think talking about the weather is small talk," Nguyen says, "but for us in the Midwest, it's also a way of checking in on each other."
Uptown, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Even though it’s May & the ice cream truck
parked outside my apartment is somehow certain,
I have a hard time believing winter is somehow,
all of a sudden, over — the worst one of my life,
the woman at the bank tells me. Though I’d like to be,
it’s impossible to be prepared for everything.
Even the mundane hum of my phone catches me
off guard today. Every voice that says my name
is a voice I don’t think I could possibly leave
(it’s unfair to not ask for the things you need)
even though I think about it often, even though
leaving is a train headed somewhere I’d probably hate.
Crossing Lyndale to meet a friend for coffee
I have to maneuver around a hearse that pulled too far
into the crosswalk. It’s empty. Perhaps spring is here.
Perhaps it will all be worth it. Even though I knew
even then it was worth it, staying, I mean.
Even now, there is someone, somehow, waiting for me.
We loved so many of these poems—we hope you found ones that resonated with you. Happy Spring!
Have a favorite poem, or memory of one? Send it to us with a couple of sentences about how it affected you, and we may include it online. Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "CS Poetry."
And to hear some of these poets read and talk about their work, listen to the latest episode of the Code Switch podcast.