April is National Poetry Month, which means now is a great time to check our bookshelves: How many queer poets are there? Queer poetry is blooming with talent right now — and these books are a great place to start.
1. [Insert] Boy by Danez Smith (YesYes Books, 2014)
Smith made a huge mainstream name for themselves with 2018's Don't Call Us Dead, but their first collection deserves just as much attention. Already proving themselves a master of wordplay, rhythm, and truth-telling, Smith explores many of the same themes here as in Don’t Call Us Dead — bodies, mourning, lust, life, gender, joy, ancestors, and black lives. Smith comes from slam poetry, and their shrewd lines are evidence of this: They are sharp-edged and full of life. [Insert] Boy won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, the Kate Tufts Poetry Award, and the John C. Zacharis First Book Award, so if you haven’t been reading Danez Smith, join this firecracker of a bandwagon and be amazed. (And if you ever have a chance to see them perform live, do it.)
2. Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Mawenzi House, 2015)
Another Lambda Literary Award winner, this collection from a legendary writer, activist, and self-described queer disabled femme of color is a must-read for everyone. Drawing bodies as maps — of diaspora, class, language, trauma, drive; of glitter and grit — Piepzna-Samarasinha writes bold, blunt, tight lines that are felt in the body as one reads. She also explores hunger — for food, sex, joy, and the divine — as well as the idea of rewriting maps and bodies. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s other works (including the memoir Dirty River and her recent release Care Work) are also pillars of the queer activist literary canon.
3. Bestiary by Donika Kelly (Graywolf, 2016)
Winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award, this collection is a menagerie of the corporeal — an ark of memory and pain, of earthly objects and mythical creatures. With love poems to a Centaur, Mermaid, Pegasus, Werewolf, and more, Kelly brings the divine to the ground. With in-line literary references to The Bluest Eye and This Bridge Called My Back, stanzas are rooted in black queer women’s history; by using imagery of bodies inside other bodies, both in grotesque and beautiful ways, Kelly examines the past within the present, the animal in the human, the wild in the domestic, and vice versa.
4. Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)
Whiting Award winner Vuong is one of the most celebrated modern poets, and his memoir On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous comes out this year. In his first full-length collection, he uses spirited language and hypnotic cadence to question masculinity and femininity, to inspect violence and family, memory and romance. Vuong’s work is both painful and joyful to read.
Read: "Trevor" by Ocean Vuong
5. You're the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened by Arisa White (Augury Books, 2016)
This collection from prolific poet Arisa White was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and if you haven’t read her, this is a great place to start. White has a knack for using line breaks, italics, repetition, and lyric prose to craft poems that convey multifaceted narratives full of grace, rage, eroticism, and the deceptive simplicity of mundane moments. The poems in You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened take their titles from a Wikipedia entry titled "List of terms for gay in different languages," with words like "tail," "effluvium," "kokobar," "queen," "pedal," "with feathers," "drag up," and "beechnut." The poem "Auntie" is worth the price of this collection alone, but the entire thing is, well, the most beautiful thing.
6. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen (Boa Editions, 2017)
This debut collection from young poet Chen Chen, which won the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize, embodies the phrase "delight to read." It explores love, family, adolescence, longing, introversion, violence, and imagination from a queer Asian American immigrant perspective. Chen uses humor to side-stitching effect, but doesn’t sacrifice vulnerability. His inventive use of rhythm, form, and metaphor really make an impression, and his poems seamlessly braid repeated words and images in a way that makes them so satisfying to read.
7. Nature Poem by Tommy Pico (Tin House Books, 2017)
Another celebrated and prolific poet, queer indigenous writer Tommy Pico takes the stereotype of indigenous land connection and uses it as a jumping-off point to explode the white supremacist narrative around who Native people are. Written in shorthand and vernacular, this single book-length poem subversively brings nature imagery into an anti-nature poem. Emotion moves through the reader like weather, like storms, bringing tears and laughter on the same page. This book is only not a nature poem in that it exists in the (white settler) psychological divide between humans and nature, between city and rural, and in this way Nature Poem shows how artificial this divide is.
8. Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway (Book*hug, 2018)
Benaway is an indigenous Canadian trans poet, and in her third collection she digs deep into the idea of a trans indigenous body as a site of resistance, love, inherited trauma, agency, and grief. She uses Ojibwa words within these poems, conveying both power and loss that result from colonial history and the resilience of herself and her ancestors. Through her exploration of gender, grief and trauma both personal and intergenerational, love in the trans indigenous body — and in navigating her own fear and frustration — Benaway arrives at the fact that “the wild ones are holy.”
9. Lord of the Butterflies by Andrea Gibson (Button Poetry, 2018)
This latest from queer slam poetry icon Andrea Gibson sings with metaphor and imagery that probes gender, loss, family, and emotion. Like Danez Smith, Gibson continues to make a name for themselves performing spoken word around the country, but the poems in Lord of the Butterflies flutter off the page of their own accord. Gibson uses evocative imagery to describe how bodies experience such concrete and ethereal things as panic attacks, Lyme disease, and gender, describing precisely what it means to continue growing up throughout one’s life.
10. Black Queer Hoe by Britteney Black Rose Kapri (Haymarket Books, 2018)
This book took the poetry world by storm in 2018, and with good reason. It’s a dynamic reclamation of power and an utterly readable collection. It is rooted in the (very queer) now of Twitter and Tinder, in the proliferation of astrology, and in the grammar and slang born on and of the internet. Kapri embraces what Danez Smith (who writes the book's foreword) calls the “Black female oral tradition” and hip-hop pulse. These poems explore labels — both their usefulness and their limits — as well as the complexities of human bodies, specifically black bodies, visible, not hidden, but not for consumption.
11. Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across by Mary Lambert (Feiwel & Friends, 2018)
Mary Lambert is a well-known queer musician, but her book of poetry is worth picking up in addition to her albums. While the book comes with lots of content warnings for sexual abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation, the poems elegantly navigate shame, vulnerability, fear, and the work of building joy. Lambert isn’t afraid to get detailed and visceral, but her thoroughly readable poems are gorgeous, dealing with rape, body acceptance, mental illness, gender, friendship, loving women, and the art of simply being where you are.
12. Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, edited by Christopher Soto (Nightboat, 2018)
This anthology — which is born from the online journal of the same name, founded by Soto and Lambda Literary — spans decades of QTPOC poets, including Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Natalie Diaz, Ocean Vuong, Tommy Pico, Joy Harjo, and many more. The term "nepantla" comes from Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s This Bridge We Call Home, and refers to an in-between state. The poems here make up a wide-ranging mosaic of theme, form, and content, and bring together some of the most important modern QPOC poetic voices.
13. The Year of Blue Water by Yanyi (Yale University Press, 2019)
This sublime new volume from Foundry Journal editor Yanyi uses spare, artful language crafted into small proselike paragraphs to traverse the land of rootlessness and community — the rootlessness of immigration, being queer, and being trans; the community of writing and art. Yanyi deftly captures the desperate search for one’s identity, using tarot and dream interpretation, other people’s words and art, and one’s own desires — which can be so much scarier than one’s needs. This is a poet to keep an eye on; his work will no doubt continue to dazzle.