In December, The New York Times invited noted writers, actors and public figures to share their favorite poems, reaching out to people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Elena Ferrante Tavi Gevinson, Lena Dunham and Junot Díaz, among others.
After reading the published list, Tabia Alexine, a Los Angeles-based curator and creative, was disappointed. “It was a compelling group, but not as diverse and intersectionally colorful as I’d hoped,” she explained to The Huffington Post. Soon after, Alexine embarked on a project of her own, reaching out to young writers of color she admired to bring the original list the multiplicity both readers and writers deserve.
Alexine collected the perspectives of 20 new voices, each explaining the power of a single poem. “The responses reflect a spectrum of experience among the writers,” she explained. “But I did notice that several poems discussed discovery, social justice, and resistance through existence and survival.”
Looking forward, Alexine hopes future articles in outlets like The New York Times will represent a wider range of backgrounds and perspectives. And that the cultural landscape at large will follow suit. “I hope to see poetry and art by talented persons of color more widely distributed via TV, film, in commercials, at events, galleries, and conferences,” she continued. “I love seeing books like The Breakbeat Poets sold at major retailer, Barnes & Noble. I also believe performance poets and writers deserve increased honorariums for their work. I want to be a catalyst, pushing all of those things forward.”
Right in time for Black History Month, Alexine’s diversified anthology speaks to the importance of poetry to voices too often marginalized or silenced. “It can be such a powerful platform for truth-telling, disruption, affirmation, and empathy,” she said. “The vulnerability and realness I’ve witnessed within the poetry world is unlike any other medium in my mind. These 20 individuals are unapologetically taking up space and making noise as writers, activists, performers, educators, literary editors, students, and so much more.”
Learn about their favorite poems, and the stories behind them:
1. Jamila Woods
“I recently discovered Audre Lorde’s poetry collection, The Black Unicorn, on a friend’s bookshelf. ‘A Woman Speaks’ struck me because of the economy of language and her unapologetic declaration of her power as a black woman. I love the lines: ‘moon marked and touched by sun / my magic is unwritten’ and, ‘beware my smile / I am treacherous with old magic and the noon’s new fury.’
“To me this poem is a mantra and an affirmation. Black girl magic is not a new phenomenon. Audre Lorde’s poem gives me permission to own my magic and inspires me to constantly search for new language to describe it.”
Jamila Woods is a singer and poet based in Chicago. She is Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors and member of the Dark Noise Collective.
2. Fatimah Asghar
“I’ve read ‘Delores Jepps’ by Tim Seibles every single day since the new year has started. I love Tim’s work in general: his playful narrative explorations, his love songs to the world, his persona poems. He’s such a versatile and splendid writer. This poem is my favorite in the collection Fast Animal. It’s such a sweet memory of infatuation and the innocence in it is such a delight: ‘she’d be standing soaked / in schoolday morning light’ and ‘the gloss on her lips sighed / kiss me and you’ll never / do homework again.’
“I love the way that Tim explores these wonderfully simple moments, the loneliness of youth and how a teenage heart full of love and longing can sometimes be enough to serve as protection from the cruelty of the world.”
Fatimah Asghar is a poet based in Chicago, and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her chapbook, “After,” was published by YesYes Books in the fall of 2015.
3. Camonghne Felix
“I’m pretty sure that ‘Star Gazing’ by Dominique Christina will always be the most important poem I have ever experienced. ‘Star Gazing’ is the first poem about sexual assault that brought me to tears. It’s the first poem ever to bring me a concrete sense of healing and every time I watch it, I cry. Like hiccuping, mascara bleeding, ugly, joyful tears. It gives me new perspective by which to talk about and understand my assault.
“This poem allows me to feel joy and happiness while still confronting the violence of rape. Instead of reflecting on the pain of the assault and the person who hurt me, I reflect on the first time I willingly gave myself to someone. I reflect on how loved, protected and beautiful I feel every time I am with my current partner. It reminds me that, though the assault may have left my dignity compromised, it wasn’t stolen. My body is still mine. The choice is still mine. And I am nobody’s victim, especially because I survived. ‘God bless the girl who goes back for her body.'”
Camonghne Felix is a poet, writer and speechwriter to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Her first collection of poetry, Yolk, was published by Penmanship Books in March of 2015. You can find her work on various platforms, including Teen Vogue and Poetry Magazine.
4. Alok Vaid Menon
“Author of ‘The Moon is Trans,’ Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, is consistently one of my favorite poets because she effortlessly captures the daily trials and tribulations of navigating the world as not just a trans body, but a body, period.
“In a cultural moment when trans narratives are only invited to the table when we are inspirational and resilient, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza creates a space for us to be trans and angry, trans and sad, trans and hurt. I think her work is so politically important this poem in particular is striking to me with how unapologetic it is, with how powerful the vision is of a world where transness is just accepted simply for being, not just for doing.”
Alok Vaid Menon is a South Asian trans femme performance artist and one half of the performance art duo DarkMatter.
5. Joshua Bennett
“I think of this poem, ‘My Story in a Late Style of Fire’ by Larry Levis, fairly often as of late, mostly because of the way Levis narrativizes loss throughout. And not only the loss of the beloved, but also the loss of a certain kind of life. I’m interested in what wrestling with that loss produces, what happens when we love and lose and try again with no evidence that anything will change other than the particular choreography of our efforts, and then give that process to the page, or even just live the thing out and see how it feels.
“Oh, and ‘I know this isn’t much. / But I wanted to explain this life to you, even if / I had to become, over the years, someone else to do it.’ is one of my favorite passages of text in the English language. Those are lines to live by, for sure.”
Joshua Bennett hails from Yonkers, N.Y., and is a PhD candidate in the English department at Princeton University. Winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series, his debut collection, The Sobbing School, will be published by Penguin Books in 2016.
6. Jacqui Germain
“Picking a ‘favorite’ poem feels impossible, but ‘Volver, Volver’ by Ariana Brown is definitely one I return to often. I believe that poets are cultural workers, as Toni Cade Bambara suggests. And ‘Volver, Volver’ reminds me that the work, as poets of color, is to excavate, to honor, to remember, to imagine, to resist, to attack empire with every line, every story, every poem. This is, in part, the work of legacy and heritage which, for people of color, is certainly in resistance to empire and as Ariana says, ‘the tongue must reacquaint itself with the work of legacy … the work is never done.'”
-Jacqui Germain is a poet and writer based in St. Louis. Her poetry chapbook, When the Ghosts Come Ashore, was recently released through Button Poetry and Exploding Pinecone Press.
7. Janani Balasubramanian
“As a sci-fi/speculative fiction writer, I often think about the linkages between racialized histories and the arc of major sci-fi narratives. Why is Jennifer Lawrence the star of ‘Hunger Games’? Beats me. My favorite poem isn’t quite a poem, but it is ‘poetic’ and those boundaries don’t make sense anyway since we’re all just trying to whisper truths into an unforgiving, acheful universe. So here’s a ‘poetic quote’ from one of my favorite nerds, Junot Diaz:
Look, without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Color, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense. What I mean by that is: if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t sense. If it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings in the New World through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many Indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science fiction’s contact stories doesn’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible, yeah. In the Green Lantern Corps, we are the oath. We are all of these things — erased, and yet without us — we are essential.
“I really believe in us: the nerds and the dreamers and the aliens and the bacteria not quite of this world. And I return to this pithy quote quite often while trudging through the unglamorous and lonely act of noveling (setting empathy to page). We have so much imagining to do.”
Janani Balasubramanian is an artist, nerd, and one half of the performance art duo DarkMatter. Janani’s working on their first sci-fi trilogy, Sleeper.
8. Joshua Aiken
“I love Dominique Christina’s poem ‘The Dream About Shouting.’ It reminds me that silence is not neutral. That people are told that their life and voice do not matter. Forces that use trauma, violence, and power to keep folks quiet. That for many people using their voice and speaking truth is a brave form of resistance. That the individual act of ‘burning / your mouth down’ means dismantling the mechanisms by which people silence you.”
Joshua Aiken is a poet and playwright whose work has been featured in publications such as the Winter Tangerine Review, Assaracus, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by cahoodaloodaling. Selected as a Rhodes Scholar, he is currently a graduate student at the University of Oxford.
9. Danez Smith
“Some poems never really leave you once you hear them. Ariana Brown’s ‘Wolfchild’ was one of those poems for me last year. Brown speaks on black and brownness with such complexity and rawness and grace in this piece. Every time I come back to it I’m amazed how through such stunning language she creatives something so magical and clear and needed in our conversations about reimagining America and Americaness. Hella stunning, hella important, and also just a fantastic poem. I’m voting for this poem in the primaries.”
Danez Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017) and [insert] Boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Lambda Literary Award. They have been featured widely including on Buzzfeed, Blavity & in Poetry Magazine and are a member of the Dark Noise Collective.
10. Safia Elhillo
“I am so drawn to poems that showcase obsession, and often tend toward obsession myself. I read ‘Blue,’ by Carl Phillips’ almost every day. In this poem, I see blue where I am not usually told to look for it — not in calm sky or water, in the kind of boring, placid pastoral scenes usually reserved for blue, but in ‘the black, shot with blue, of my dark / daddy’s knuckles’ or ‘the lining of / certain fish split open and scooped / clean.’
“This introduces us to the violence that blue can also contain, that is not immediately associated with it but is just as much a part of it as a smooth sheet of lake or ocean with troubled waters just underneath. Everything in its world seems born of this single ‘blue vein / that rides,’ and one need not actively pursue it because it will be there, as it has always been there.”
Safia Elhillo is Sudanese by way of Washington, D.C. She is a Cave Canem fellow, Pushcart nominee, and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression. Safia’s is the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript, Asmarani.
11. Nate Marshall
“One of my favorite poems of all time is Martin Espada’s joint ‘Imagine the Angels of Bread.’ I came across it in high school and I’ve never been able to shake it. This poem speaks so powerfully about the possibility of a new kind of justice beginning today. I find a lot of poetry that speaks to social issues is either pessimistic, angry, or depressing and this poem always reminds me that the role of the artist is, in part, to imagine the next world of expanded freedom.”
Nate Marshall is the author of Wild Hundreds and editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of HipHop. He is also a member of the Dark Noise Collective.
12. Janae Johnson
“I’m particularly drawn to poets who write from vulnerability to triumph. ‘Trigger’ by Porsha Olayiwola speaks to the intersection of diction, class, race, and the politics of language. Porsha provides a ferocious response to the criticism associated with her ‘mother tongue’ as a black womyn, while cleverly providing social context and personal narrative. The poem itself is brilliant, fun, commanding, raw, and surprisingly elegant. As a black educator, who often struggles with articulating myself, I find this poem to be both validation and redemption.”
Janae Johnson is a spoken word poet, teaching artist, educator and co-founder of The House Slam poetry venue in Boston. She is the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion and 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion.
13. Hieu Minh Nguyen
“Out of all my favorite poems, I return most to Jason Shinder’s ‘Untitled.’ I am constantly in awe of its tenderness. It’s the last poem in his last book, Stupid Hope (published posthumously), and every time I finish the last couplet, ‘Let me / Let me keep on describing things to be sure they happened.’ my face becomes a hole.”
Hieu Minh Nguyen is the author of the poetry collection, This Way to the Sugar. He is a Kundiman fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine.
14. Franny Choi
“If the best poems contain a transformative element, Ross Gay’s ‘Small Needful Fact’ is actual magic. To me, this poem is proof of the necessity of the thought experiment as a tool for survival. And it is one of the humblest and most beautiful poems in the realm of poems addressing police violence that I have ever read. It does, I think, exactly what poems are meant to do.”
Franny Choi is a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fellow, a Project VOICE teaching artist, a member of the Dark Noise Collective, and the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing).
15. Porsha O.
“I believe in poetic monologues. I believe in narrative. I believe in the use of vulgarity to disrupt conventional language. In ‘Rhonda, Age 15 Emergency Room,’ I think what I believe in most is Letta Neely’s highlighting of intersectionality. Rhonda, the narrator is a teenaged person, a poor person, Black, a woman, queer, and an academically at risk student who is also a victim of the prison industrial complex. This poem completely tears at my heart with its blunt and consistent oppression while simultaneously giving me hope as a poor Black lesbian, who spends much of her time with young folk who walk through the world with so many things to carry.
“I have no choice but to believe in Rhonda’s potential because it is directly tied to my own. I know that even after the poem is over, Rhonda is alive, in an emergency room, narrating her story, and still actively waking up to survive everyday, in what I imagine to be, the most revolutionary of ways.”
Porsha O. is the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion, the 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion, and the co-founder of House Slam. She identifies as a Black, poet, dykegoddess, a hiphop feminist, an educator, and an organizer.
16. Carvens Lissaint
“‘Isms,’ by the 2013 Nuyorican Poetry Slam Team, is a poem that rocks the foundations of my soul. Having spent this last decade as a professional artist, it is so important for me to get a jolt of revelation and inspiration. This poem is a reminder of the value we all have as poets, and that our stories are unique pieces of light that have supernatural strength, while shedding light in the darkest corners of the earth.”
Carvens Lissaint is an international award-winning poet and currently a MFA candidate at NYU Tisch School of The Arts Graduate Acting Program.
17. Aziza Barnes
“Ross Gay is a master of getting down to the real, peeling away the lies we tell ourselves to make the words of our personal narratives pretty. The reason I chose his poem, ‘Feet,’ is for Gay’s heart shattering vulnerability, how the poem isn’t about his feet or the woman Tina, who compliments his feet; that the poem is in fact about the impossibility of handing to the reader the way he sees the world. The ‘little factory in my head.’ This is the reason I write poetry, cuz we can’t just hand each other our little factories. I’m incredibly thankful for this poem and this writer.”
Aziza Barnes is blk & alive. Born in Los Angeles Aziza currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Aziza’s is the author of i be but i ain’t (Yes Yes Books, 2015) and me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun published from Button Poetry. Aziza is a member of The Dance Cartel and the divine fabrics collective.
18. Malcolm London
“‘Beverly Hills, Chicago’ by Gwendolyn Brooks was the first poem I read giving a honest observation of inequity without any blame not that there isn’t centuries of oppression, pervasive white supremacy and indifference to how it continues to deny access by social death to blame … but this poem, to the 15-year-old-me who was traversing a city swelled with segregation like a puffed pigeon, it was holy text. When Gwendolyn Brooks says, ‘We do not want them to have less / But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough …’ is exactly what I felt growing up going to high school in Lincoln Park and living in [the] Austin neighborhood on the city’s westside.
“I was in classes with kids wealthier than me and though I loved them, I envied them and this poem told me it was natural to want to have. That wanting to not be stopped by police on my way home, to want to not see my mom and pops struggle just to keep a roof over their heads, to want to be able to afford college, to want to have money to go out to off-campus lunch with my friends, to ask why can’t we live in a world where all kids in Chicago can have access to all the things my more wealthier white double honors classmates had. This poem, incredible in the way it humanizes people, both well off and not so, empowered me to start asking the right questions.”
Called the Gil Scott-Heron of his generation by Cornel West, Malcolm London is an internationally recognized Chicago poet, organizer, performer and educator. London, who is mostly known for declining modeling opportunities to dedicate his life to art education and activism, is currently working on releasing two anticipated art projects in 2016.
19. Aaron Samuels
“I have watched the world murder, exploit, and devalue Black bodies my entire life. This past year, an eerie wave seems to have emerged where mainstream news publications are finally now discussing ghosts that have haunted my community and my heritage. Aziza Barnes’s poem ‘My Dad asks, ‘How Come Black Folks Can’t Just Write About Flowers’ speaks to the experience of a child of color learning what it means to grow up in this world, and the pressure to live in a perpetual state of fear. Through a brutal description of a childhood scene the poem also forces the reader to ask for more than pain, and more than death. Through expressing its opposite, Aziza Barnes demands for Black joy, and by doing so, emboldens the reader to demand it as well.”
Aaron Samuels is the co-founder and chief operating officer of Blavity, a digital community for Black Millennials. His debut collection of poetry, Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps, was released on Write Bloody Publishing in fall 2013.
20. Yosimar Reyes
“I love poems but more than poems I love the story behind the poem. I like digging into the words until I find that living thing that resonates with me. As a Latino writer, it is seldom that we get taught our own writing. When I read ‘Beautiful and Cruel’ by [Sandra] Cisneros not only did I feel proud that I could understand and know a story so similar but I also felt proud that Cisneros also challenges values in our culture.
“Being raised by women, gender dynamics of labor were evident in our Latino household, but here was Cisneros writing about a quiet revolution, one where a young girl made the choice to live a life free of cultural expectations. As a queer feminine latino boy, this helped me imagine a world where my Latino culture did not limit me but one where I could embrace the good and leave what did not seem appropriate to me.”
Yosimar Reyes is a nationally acclaimed poet, educator, performance artist and public speaker. Born in Guerrero, Mexico, and raised in Eastside San Jose, Calif.k Reyes holds a B.A. in creative writing and is an Arts Fellow at Define American, an organization founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.
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