In honor of National Poetry Month, poet-theologian Brittany Deininger reflects on how poetry is a place of both radical resistance and beautiful intersectionality. Brittany reminds us of the fierce vitality of honest, embodied art, and she shares a list of her favorite contemporary women poets. Happy reading!
What does it mean to read? This question has been on my mind as we entered National Poetry Month. In a world where our attention has become the greatest commodity, which voices we choose to listen to in the cacophony is not a neutral act. Much of my own reading is driven by a deep hunger to hear a diversity of other women’s voices. The root of good writing is good reading. In particular, I gravitate toward women who wield the medium which Audre Lorde once referred to as, “a revelation and distillation of experience.” Poetry’s communication has immediacy that taps into the way we feel, forge memory, and make meaning. As both oral and written art, it has held the human voice throughout the ages with embodied particularity. And yet, there are so many voices and bodies that have not been heard. This art form so defined by active attention has much to teach us about how to listen and the empathetic responsibility we have to hear one another well.
In 1985, poet Audre Lorde wrote a fierce and stunning essay called, “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” In it, her poetic prose argued that, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” For Lorde, “poetry” was a soulful shorthand for an artistic and cultural process of women listening to their lives and finding a form of communication that gave it privilege, shape, identity, and freedom. She saw poetry as having a particular relationship with the ineffable. Where there was wordlessness and namelessness, this art form gave birth to voice, efficacy, and action.
“The root of good writing is good reading.”
For this very reason, poetry played a huge role throughout the women’s movement. In his chapter, “The Poetical is the Political” T.V. Reed highlights how the movement of the 1960s and 70s used the art form to claim public space and name oppressions and inequalities that were relegated to the realms of the private, the personal, and the “non-political.” The foundational act of poetry is to make visible the invisible world. Feminist and Womanist poets addressed the invisibility both of women’s experiences and the patriarchal systems that went unnamed and invisible to the normative eye. Through poetry, personal experience could become collective experiences, which made way for consciousness raising, theory, activism, and change. The epistemological shift within the movement and the poetry it wielded was to count women’s lived experiences as knowledge. That knowledge had language and power of presence to deconstruct the binaries of public and private, emotion and reason.
Now as then, poetry is a place of radical resistance. To celebrate one’s life and its wisdom through art is a kind of protest against systems that undermine and demand its silence. Spoken word and hip-hop artists, poets and storytellers around the world continue in the movement toward women’s equality by sharing the truth of their experiences in their own voices. What it means to read is to choose to listen. This April, I invite you to listen to contemporary voices of women through this ancient and ever-new art form. Poetry is not a luxury. Listening to the voices of women is not a luxury.
Where to Start: Recommended Reading
This list represents just 25 of my favorite books of poetry by women that have powerfully impacted the way I think, read, and create as a poet. To narrow the list, I chose women who’ve published books of poetry between 2000-2018. I’ve permitted myself exceptions by including newly published volumes of complete works by some of my favorite poets. These voices represent the beautiful intersectionality that we write from as women. Their art diversely navigates nationality, race, sexual orientation, embodiment, age, religion, and class. Some are prolific greats and others are exciting emerging voices. All have robust and prophetic insight from their locatedness in the world. Whether you’re dipping a toe into poetry or already have a robust practice, may these suggestions help you discover, return to, and share your favorites!
25 Recommended Books of Poetry by Women:
(Selections published between 2000-2018 appear in alphabetical order by last name.)
- Crave Radiance, Elizabeth Alexander (former US Poet Laureate)
- Of Poetry & Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, edited and compiled by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr. This anthology features work from a variety of poets.
- Bone, Yrsa Daley-Ward
- Head Off and Split, Nikky Finney
- Faithful and Virtuous Night, Louise Glück (National Book Award Winner)
- How We Became Human and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo
- The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, Marie Howe
- Milk and Honey, Rupi Kaur
- B and No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay
- Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhhà Lại (This is a children’s Newberry Honor book of poetry about immigrating from Vietnam to Alabama amidst the Vietnam War. It could be a great way to include children in this reading activity.)
- Whereas, Layli Long Soldier (National Book Award Finalist)
- The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, Denise Levertov, edited by Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey
- The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, Audre Lorde
- A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, Naomi Shihab Nye (This is a great selection to share with children and young adults.) See also Words Under Words, and Red Suitcase
- Thirst, Mary Oliver
- The Art of Blessing the Day, Marge Piercy
- Citizen, Claudia Rankine (Finalist for the National Book Award; Claudie Rankine will be at UW Kane Hall on May 15, 2018.)
- The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, Muriel Rukeyser edited by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog
- The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, Kay Ryan (former US Poet Laureate)
- Cries of the Spirit, edited by Marilyn Sewell (anthology of 300 poems celebrating women’s spirituality)
- Unbearable Splendor, 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin
- Here and Map: Collected and Last Poems, Wisława Szymborshka, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak
- Thrall and Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey (former US Poet Laureate)
- Salt and Nejma, Nayyirah Waheed
- Love Without Limits: The Bi-Laws of Love, Yazmin Monet Watkins
Resources for Further Reading and Engagement with National Poetry Month
Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” in Sister Outsider.
T.V. Reed, “The Poetical Is the Political: Feminist Poetry and the Poetics of Women’s Rights,” in The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle.
Alice Walker, “Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.
Looking for things to do in Seattle to celebrate National Poetry Month? Check out The Stranger’s calendar.
Seattle is lucky enough to have a poetry-only bookstore. Check out events or just wander into the sublime Open Books: A Poem Emporium.
April 26, 2018 is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Join the national tradition by selecting a favorite and carrying it with you.