We asked six queer poets, each with a recently published collection, to recommend poetry books that are vital to them. Here's what each picked. Links to PW reviews are provided when available.
Fatimah Asghar's If They Come for Us captures her experience as a Pakistani Muslim woman in contemporary America, while exploring identity, violence, and healing.
1. [insert] boy by Danez Smith - Both Danez’s writing and friendship have taught me so much about queerness, body, and sexuality. I feel blessed to be alive in the same time as them, to be able to write alongside them towards broader definitions of humanity and bravery. Danez has such an accurate way of capturing the complicated hardness of growing up queer, in their poem “Faggot, or When The Front Goes Up” they write: “you were a sweeter thing, a delicate sun/ then he called you that word enough/ & you turned action figure”… “a boy made of war./ a boy who swung to keep from singing,” chronicling the transition from softness to violence, as a result of shame.
2. When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz - I adore Natalie’s work for the way that it complicates and refuses to be flattened. Her blend of lyric and narrative makes these poems feel cinematic. Natalie is unwilling to shy away from self-interrogation in these poems (such as in “Why I Hate Raisins”), which is so important in terms of creating a rounded humanness in the collection. These poems don’t feel one-sided, but rather interrogate all sides and refuse to assign blame.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo's debut, Cenzontle, creates a nuanced narrative of life before, during, and after crossing the US/Mexico border.
3. Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal - This book acts as a palimpsest over which she rewrites history to reflect a complex and pained life as an immigrant, as well as the violence of assimilation, the cause of irreparable damage. This is an essential book that interrogates how the brown queer body is punished into the ground under the auspices of white fragility. It’s a book that recognizes the tenderness in open wounds; “don’t cry, don’t be afraid, don’t cry, don’t be afraid.” It’s a book written “For the great violences hidden inside women / For the women hidden inside great violences.”
In a virtuoso array of forms, Villarreal uses the smallest things of the earth—roots, feathers—in order to draw the celestial beasts made of constellations that come down to wander through our primal forests tearing everything open and in turn are torn open themselves. The book moves through narratives of queer love, ecology, labor, and myth as “parallax, (n) the effect whereby an object appears to differ according to viewer position.” As such, the book de-centers and disrupts the ideas of borders, desire, and nature, restructuring along the way, re-imagining, how in the “blooming mourning,” there will come “the return of the beasts” to “repair the seams between worlds along its meridian.” Part art object, part memoir, it uses the family album as artifact and map to convey that “everyone knows how it works unless it works against them.”
Hieu Minh Nguyen
Hieu Minh Nguyen's most recent book, Not Here, is a flight plan for escape and a map for navigating home; it shows us a queer Vietnamese American body in confrontation with whiteness, trauma, family, and nostalgia.
4. Letters to a Stranger by Thomas James - For me, “queer” has always been a word that attempted to name a kind of loneliness, a longing that shaped the way I observed the world—observing as a way of participation when I couldn’t name my desires. I think a lot about Thomas James’s collection of poetry, Letters to a Stranger, I think about how queerness is, yes, a kind of isolation, but also a gift that trains our imagination—our imagination: a world we build and control: a world we inhabit to escape our own lives: a world where we can be both monstrous and worthy of love. James, from the title poem of his collection, writes:
I have learned to camouflage myself in church,
Masking my body
With the body of a saint.
Last night frost glazed the face of Mary Magdalene,
And snow rode up to the altar windows.
Before morning, the sparrows came down
To the body of Saint Francis.
Now he is upholstered in oak leaves
Like a living room chair.
This morning we are preparing a crucifixion.
I am thinking of you now.
With the velvet at my knees
And the silverware shining on the altar
And the stained glass moving out of focus
And the cross veiled in black,
I am present for the news of an enormous death.
I take the bread on my tongue
Like one of Christ’s fingers,
5. Imago by Joseph Legaspi - The Asian body has been the subject of many jokes—we are often fetishized while simultaneously fed the idea that we should be grateful to anyone who finds us desirable. We subject our bodies to our own cruelties, questioning the body's worth as currency. Often, I return to Joseph Legaspi’s first collection of poetry, Imago, when I need a lesson on tenderness. Legaspi, a fellow queer Asian-American poet, has a way of talking about the body that estranges it from the gazes of others. Legaspi reclaims the voyeuristic curiosity that surrounds the queer Asian body, and takes what is overly sexulized and magnifies its intricate designs. Legaspi, from his poem “The Circumcision,” writes:
Light diffused through the blanket. I faced the rise
and fall of my father's stomach and plunged my hand
carefully through the elastic waist bands of his shorts,
startled at how different his penis
looked from mine: darker, not only the skin
but the hair around it like tree shadows.
Its head, a gravity-defying, moth-eating house lizard,
had no flap of skin over it. How free it looked,
powerful, shaped like a bullet, and instead of taking life,
it gave life. I petted it. My father
shifted to my direction and continued his snoring. Slowly,
the penis rose as if it was absorbing the light, the air,
my touch. It stiffened, flaunting itself
as the center of the universe.
I wanted my penis to be
like my father's, the union of beauty and purpose,
and five years later, on a thirsty July afternoon,
he asked me and my brother to hurry up,
he was taking us to the doctor for our circumcisions.
I buttoned my pants cautiously as my sisters teased:
They are sending you both to the butcher.
My mother stood on the threshold
and sent us on our way, the most important men
in her life, her father many years dead. I held my father's
hand, all two blocks to the clinic
Justin Phillip Reed
Justin Phillip Reed's debut, Indecency, experiments with language to explore inequity and injustice and to critique and lament the culture of white supremacy and the dominant social order.
6. Discipline by Dawn Lundy Martin – Trees that grow into themselves….The body acts the same way it always does and has to guard against nights in parks. That one can have an awareness of wearing the body as garment through which flashes the violence that is leering, possessing, and departing is a knowledge that found me in this book’s vexed, cornered, and rabid poetry. In addition to being the volume that teaches me how to read the rest of Martin’s necessarily defiant work—which we all should—Discipline illustrates best what I understood: living a life bound and textured by the threats of systematic death, illness, and mental and spiritual ruin does not make me a saint. My queer precarity does not relieve my complicity. Indeed, it’s the felt self-revulsion that approaches the honest sense of “revolt,” for who can even touch this world’s grotesquery to turn it without reaching in, dirty-nailed, and bringing back the bile? Discipline’s speakers say the things we barely admit to ourselves. “Just order the fucking latte.” I am a living example—bootstrap fool, hanger-on-er. They say the lonely things. I waited all my life for my father to die and when he did I felt empty. Its title is imperative.
7. Speak Low by Carl Phillips – Speak Low is the 10th of Phillips’s 14 collections of poems and the one I’ve cherished most. I think it’s that, for one, in a life marked by more than racial and sexual differences, it’s crucial to read these poems that cleave distinctions sharply, insistently, as if sculpting, knowing that erosion is promised; that take up precision as a kind of faith, earning again and over the wisdom that language is fickle, godlike, ruinous, and what we have to clarify this endlessly mystifying, sometimes absurd existence. Reading “Conquest” (We’d sworn / never to do harm; then sworn instead to keep trying hard / not to— A kind / of progress…), “Porcelain” (…yes, it was / mostly like that, sex as both an act of defacement and— / as if the two were the same thing—votive offering…), “Directions from Here” (You / as Oblivion riding bareback on Notoriety, my / favorite horse), and all the rest—interrupted by moments of the poet’s plain, mortal doubt about the articulation of likeness or is-ness—gave me the permission (and the courage and the mandate) to face the life I think I know and find its new names budding there and there.
Sam Sax's bury it begins with poems written in response to the spate of highly publicized young gay suicides in the summer of 2010, and features meditations on death, rituals of passage, translation, desire, diaspora, and personhood.
8. Ceremonies by Essex Hemphill - There’s a special relationship one has to the books they come to on their own, that weren’t assigned, recommended, or prescribed—the books that find us (especially, when said book goes on to change our lives). I bought Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies from a radical bookstore in Minneapolis when I was 17 and was NOT prepared. From the collection’s hybrid poem-essay form to the confessional, revelatory, unflinching, and embodied pulse that runs through the text, this book unquestionably altered both what I saw as possible in a poem and in my life. Hemphill centers black queer love as a politicized and radical act, he mines the archive of his memory and bodily experience, he’s brave, urgent, generous, and clear in the poems. Before reading this book, I wanted to die… after reading this book, I wanted to die less. It revealed to me how poems hibernate inside their pages and come alive only once we take them into our bodies. It gave me concrete, lyric, and intimate examples of how you can grow powerful by centering your desire in your writing and life and not only be destroyed by it.
9. Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys by D. A. Powell - This is the first collection of poems that caused me to reach for the dictionary in pleasure instead of disdain. It’s one of the few books I return to often and leave the page changed, the poems affecting my voice, and how my voice moves and participates in the world. I first read Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys after meeting D. A. Powell at some poetry slam I’d been featured at and I scrambled to read something of his before we had tea. I read this book on the bus from Mission to Haight and was so engrossed and lost I missed my stop. The scope of the book is vast—mapping the landscape of our city, a state, a disease, desire, histories, and the body all at once. It rattles between the nostalgic naiveté of queer youth and the fishy-slop-bucket of desire age offers up. The language wanders through various Latinate and Greek wildernesses only to emerge out the other side with a line that’ll break or re/build your heart, that anyone with a pulse would get tatted on their lower back, “Triumph over death with me. And we’ll divide the air” or “The world is full of lovely but tragic boys’ and so it is, and so it is.
Rachel Wiley's Nothing Is Okay simultaneously deconstructs the lies that we were taught about our bodies and our beings, and builds new ways of viewing ourselves.
10. Please by Jericho Brown - The first time I read Please by Jericho Brown it was 3 a.m. on Christmas morning, 2013. My partner slept in the middle of our bed across the room. We’d had a nasty fight before he finished off another bottle of wine and passed out. We would be broken up in another couple of months but for the time I was chain smoking next to a dim lamp and reading. And then, I was reading and chain smoking and sobbing. Jericho Brown writes loneliness like he’s etching the grooves of a blues record by hand. To read Please is to page through a photo album where tenderness and aggression are relatives you came up with and know too well to ever out and out dismiss. These poems are intimate in a way few things are, in a way few people know how to be, in a way we are shooed away from being and the danger in this is that you might end up seeing exactly what you’ve been missing and how much you need it.
11. When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz - The outcome of more than one date has depended on a potential lover’s reaction to "I Watch Her Eat the Apple" from Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. I have a sneaking suspicion that I may have actually known I was queer much sooner had I been able to read that particular poem earlier in my life because Natalie Diaz’s work has a way of teaching you about yourself while telling you about someone or something else. When My Brother Was an Aztec is a wonderfully dense body of work that you can move into for months at a time, a book worth wandering through and getting helplessly lost inside of. The way Diaz intertwines personal and the historic, mundane and mythological, individual and universal all stretch a different muscle as you read, satisfying deep stretches.