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Now, more than ever, it’s important to read authors of color, and these picks from She Reads are the perfect addition to your summer and fall reading lists.
This 2018, the Women Poets’ Prize is honoring its first set of victors. The new literary prize commemorates beloved UK editor Rebecca Swift, who prematurely died of cancer in April 2017. A poet herself, Swift was dedicated to helping writers tackle the problem of the dreaded slush pile— the mound of un-agented manuscripts that most publishers don’t have the resources to read through. In 1996, she founded The Literary Consultancy (TLC), a group providing editorial feedback to developing writers. Throughout her life, she also performed charitable work with the goal of providing mental healthcare to underprivileged women. The Women Poets’ Prize celebrates Swift’s life, as well as her undying passion for women and poetry. Here are its first three recipients.
1. Claire Collison
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A breast cancer survivor, Claire Collison writes about the relationship between her mastectomy and her womanhood. For her piece Truth Is Beauty, she often performs with her one remaining breast exposed. Poets themselves, contest judges Moniza Alvi, Fiona Sampson, and Sarah Howe tout Collison’s work as “mesmerising, with unusual and subtle shifts, sharp, grounded and achieved with remarkable naturalness.” In her poem ‘Keeping Borzoi,’ Collison writes:
That was the summer you learned
there was a point to eyelashes,
and that having cancer didn’t
make you nice — wasn’t enough
of a thing in common.
2. Nina Mingya Powles
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An original voice from both New Zealand and China, Nina Mingya Powles explores her biracial identity and the bias of white, male poetry: “being mixed race and half Chinese Malaysian, it has been a particular focus for me to discover other mixed race poets, writers and artists… I am trying to find a new canon of my own.” Here’s an excerpt from Powles’ ‘Styrofoam Love Poem,’ published 2018:
my skin gets its shine from maggi noodle seasoning packets / golden fairy dust that glows when touching water / fluorescent lines around the edge of / a girlhood seen through sheets of rainbow plastic / chemical green authentic ramen flavour / special purple packaged pho / mama’s instant hokkien mee / dollar fifty flaming hearts / hands in the shape of a bowl to carry this cup / of burning liquid salt and foam / mouthful of a yellow winter morning / you shouldn’t eat this shit it gives you cancer / melts your stomach lining / 99% of all this plastic comes from China / if we consume it all maybe we’ll never die
3. Anita Pati
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Anita Pati is a poet and freelance journalist, whose poetry has great “linguistic and sonic quirk.” Her nonfiction journalism can be found in many household-name publications, including The Guardian and Cosmopolitan. Her linguistic originality is on display in this excerpt from ‘Dodo Provocateur,’ her prizewinning poem:
Europeans hunted you mercilessly,
because you beakies wouldn’t be doves or albatross.
Those whitish irises probably grotted and balled and seized,
black undertail coverts jutting at strumpet-starved sailors,
marooned on Mauritius, exotic, just not Bideford, Perth or Poole.
Why gobble pebbles big as nutmegs to temper your guts,
and prove fresh meat for rusky sailors, declaring you foul?
The Women Poets’ Prize is free to enter, true to Swift’s vision for female writers. In addition to the varied professional development opportunities, winning poets receive £1,000 and the opportunity for exposure. Maybe you’ve found a new poet whose work you can explore— and maybe, you’ve found an opportunity for your own writing.
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As a creative writing student obsessed with how poets today are redefining the genre, I think there’s a wealth of information that these female POC authors have taught me. Emily Dickinson once said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” These poets take your brain out, shake it up, spin it around, throw it into a forest, wash it, then put it back into your skull without you even noticing because you’re so fervently engrossed in their verse. They’re that good.
I think poetry doesn’t get as much love as it should these days. There seems to be a few authors that make their way into the mainstream like Rupi Kaur or Tyler Knott Gregson, but most of these talented poets don’t get quite the readership they deserve. These women have worked to make poetry accessible, while saying something irrefutably honest. These poets will make you want to pull out a pen and paper and get writing, or, at least, give you an existential crisis; but doesn’t all good literature do that?
1. Nicole Sealey
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Executive director of the Cave Canem Foundation, Sealey makes sure that black voices are heard. One example of this is in her poem, “Legendary,” which is dedicated to Pepper LaBeija, “the last remaining queen of the Harlem drag balls.”
I hate to brag, but I’m a one-man parade,
Jehovah in drag, the church in a dress.
Outside these walls I may be irrelevant,
but here I’m the Old and the New Testament.
She writes a series of these “Legendary” poems that serve as mini-biographies of these underground pivotal figures that have been forgotten by most of the world. Her latest poetry book, Ordinary Beasts, features these poems, a poem about Clue, the board game, followed by a poem called “C ue,” an erasure poem of “Clue,” and “candelabra with heads,” in which the second half of the poem is the first half, repeated backwards. Sealey’s choice to play with formal poetic structures nods toward a reclaiming of the old, while creating the new.
2. Morgan Parker
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Graduating with an MFA from NYU, Morgan Parker writes about many themes that cross over multiple conversations, one of which is being a black woman in America, today. In her newest book, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Parker tends to focus on black men and women in media, on how others perceive blackness, and on how black individuals may see themselves. The poem “The President Has Never Said the Word Black” was written when Obama was president, and it seems to talk about how, by not saying the word “black,” the president affects the black community.
The president is all like
five on the bleep hand side.
The president be like
we lost a young boy today.
The pursuit of happiness
is guaranteed for all fellow Americans.
3. Franny Choi
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She’s a badass and I want to be like her. Her latest poetry book Floating, Brilliant, Gone focuses on conversations around memory and identity. Aozora Brockman of [PANK] magazine wrote, that this is an example of “an Asian American woman…flinging back sickening truths hidden within a cat-calling man’s words, delving…into the consumerist desires that fuel sexism and racism.”
Choi is also known for her slam poetry. Featured on the Button Poetry YouTube channel various times, she attacks sexism and racism on the stage as well. In my favorite poem by her, entitled “Pussy Monster,” she reorganizes the Lil’ Wayne song of the same name to show the sexism that infects rap songs today.
4. Bhanu Kapil
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Kapil is a British-Indian poet who tends toward the prose/poetry genre that is not quite either genre. This in-betweenness, in my opinion, helps to tell her story. She tends to write in lists, finding the poetic value in prosy texts. Each sentence she writes becomes a puzzle to unlock. I find that her work follows me around as I go about my day.
In her most recent book of poetry, Ban En Banlieue, she compiles performances, notes, fragments of works that come together in a list, each “annotation,” a full narrative journey.
“78. ‘It’s getting dusky over the Makhatini flats. Last night, I told P. I did not want to continue seeing him when I returned to New York. I believe, in breaking up with him, I compared myself to a Safeway rotisserie chicken. I said I didn’t want to be one.'”
5. Natalie Diaz
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Born in the Fort Mojave village in California, Diaz often uses her upbringing, living in this community, to fuel her poetry. “For me writing is kind of a way for me to explore…a kind of hunger that comes with being raised in a place like this.” This may be why she often incorporates Mojave and Spanish into her poetry.
In her most recent book, When My Brother Was an Aztec¸ she plays with enjambment to create the effect of organization, that is then broken. This creates an effect of the message being uncontainable.
From her poem “When My Brother Was an Aztec”:
“It started with him stumbling along la Avenida de los Muertos,
my parents walking behind like effigies in a procession
he might burn to the ground at any moment. They didn’t know
what else to do except be there to pick him up when he died.
They forgot who was dying, who was already dead. My brother
Quit wearing shirts when a carnival of dirty-breasted women…”
Did I mention she’s also a basketball prodigy?
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