Arranged alphabetically by book title, I’ve compiled a list of pitch-perfect books of poetry written by queer writers, giving myself the constraint of having to pick from 2019 and 2020. Some of these titles perhaps you’ve become quite aware of at this point and others may not have crossed your radar, which is ultimately the goal here. As you rush to buy these, please consider purchasing them directly from the publisher or independent or local bookstores.
Advantages of Being Evergreen by Oliver Baez Bendorf (CSU Poetry Center)
If you haven’t read this book yet, go ahead and get it now, trust me. These pages are packed with stellar lines and compelling phrasing. Like, “The land in the holler weeps” or “We pull the river into our bellies” and then “we river in darkness.” Stylistically, there is attention to line, language, and voice in every poem. There is heat and desire. There is connection to nature, to self, to body, to a collective. With great precision throughout and the spirit of confessional poets past and O’Hara-esque immediacy, intimacy, and inviting yet withholding-ness, this collection explores limitlessness, multiplicity, identity, and the way beings hold abundance in one space, in one body.
All its Charms by Keetje Kuipers (BOA Editions)
The poems in this book are interested in power, body, vulnerability, and nature. In part, the speaker in this collection is a woman undergoing medical processes to get pregnant, which I know to be a theme that speaks volumes for many, queer or not. These lines: “every act/ is an act of waiting.” And then we get to see a deep exploration of motherhood in the collection as well. Kuipers is skillful in her construction of imagery. There is a strong sense of place throughout. The poems are full of delightful movement. The lines are truly beautiful. Take for instance: “on the hilltop, while along the tracks/ that laced the river’s fattened sleeve,// yellow trees—were they feathering// into bloom or withering their leaves.” The descriptions throughout are absolutely captivating and every choice seems to be made carefully with technical grace.
Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith (Graywolf Press)
Exciting in form, with a tone that is both down-to-earth and sharp wit, this collection feels, in part, like satire. Weaving in popular culture and contemporary touchstones—from rap lyrics to Instagram to Star Wars to Miss America to brief Game of Thrones references—there is a fine harmony and blending of complex ideas with the everyday. This collection asks the reader to pause. It surprises with compelling phrasing and strong poem-making. These poems address social justice issues head on and unapologetically, including examination of what it means to live in the US and to be a citizen. They speak of the sting of ignorance and racism. There is poignant commentary on what a poem can and can’t do, as we fight for equality, for equity. Throughout the book, there is a sense of lineage—familial and poetic and feminist. Lastly, to give you a sense of Smith’s craft work, take these lines from “I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice”: “Sometimes it is/ like a poem that is not quite realized/ filled with hollows and bursts,/ a stranger’s grief and rage.”
Birthright by George Abraham (button poetry)
“This book is dedicated to the Palestinian diaspora: to the Land and the millions of people Birthed by it.” The poems in this collection take shape through a variety of vehicles. The poems surprise. They are honest. They are experimental and resist category. The speaker in this collection is tired of layer upon layer upon layer of injustice, prejudice, and oppression. These poems speak out; they claim and proclaim. And in all manners of heat and passion, we get lines like, “i’m trying to love the shattered window of myself: the hands: the rocks: the broken religion left behind: my inheritance: this body of vandalized cathedrals: light me on fire: strip my god from my breath: watch as i dance amidst the flames:” Lastly, these poems educate—we all need this book if we are to be earnest in our activism and social justice.
dayliGht by Roya Marsh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This collection shines a light. The poet begins with a note saying “representation matters” and continues to articulate the importance, no, the necessity of black butch representation. Roya Marsh is an activist fighting for justice within the queer community and to dismantle white supremacy. These poems echo that mission in the most engaging ways. The poems are nuanced, layered, and brimming over with sustenance. The personal is layered with the political with the familial. The poems are at once local and global. The collection uses that satisfying mixture of repetition and variation through experimentation and various forms. These poems are ever confident and stand on solid ground. Take for instance just the title of this poem that sheds light on a growing conversation: “in broad dayliGht black mfa candidates look glamorous: or, the glamour of a systematically oppressive MFA program/or, questions I ask my future self/when the future was my impeding breath:” This book is A MUST-READ!
Exit Pastoral by Aidan Forster (YesYes Books)
I first read Aidan’s work in Best New Poets 2017 edited by Natalie Diaz. His poem “Landscape with Horse & Two Boys Kissing” totally won me over/ floored me in the best way. I read it over and over. It was my favorite poem in the 2017 edition, and when I turned to the bios in the back, I was thrilled to see that it was written by a high schooler. The poems in Exit Pastoral are so eloquently crafted. They overflow with crisp imagery, southern landscape, stunning phrasing, and exploration of queer coming-of-age in the south. This chapbook is an absolute delight. To give you a sample of Forster’s compelling lines: “In the end/we slunk into the forest//to sleep. In the end my body/ was a place I visited// but did not belong to:/ a bright green clearing// with a boy in its center, unable/ to touch his own skin.”
The Blue Absolute by Aaron Shurin (Nightboat Books)
Aaron Shurin is known as a pioneer in LGBTQ studies and innovative verse and a member of the original Good Gay Poets collective in Boston. The poems in this collection show incredible attention to detail. The poems are atmospheric, effervescent, totally enchanting. A cinematic light sweeps throughout this book of prose poems. And somehow Shurin’s construction allows for space to breathe even within this form. This takes great control and skill from the poet. I return to these poems again and again, craving their magic. Taste for example these delicious lines from “Reverie”: “…I was lying on the couch, bucketed in a hollow of the cushions so deep I was almost submerged (then age with its aqueous shoes) in a vision of M, those thick eyelashes fanned-out like a ball gown…in a framed Mexican afternoon where no breeze blew but our breaths, drifted up the pink walls and fluttered the curtains by the lemon tree where the birds sang in the no-wind and the birds sing in the no-time…”
this body/that lightening show by Elizabeth Gross (The Word Works)
Selected by Jericho Brown for the 2019 Hilary Tham Capital Collection, this book celebrates its one-year publication anniversary this month. The collection is quite timely, unfortunately, during this pandemic as it explores, in part, the way we view disaster and how we navigate such tragedies as a local, national, and global body. It takes up the equity issues that come to light in the face of widespread tragedy (and specifically in the case of the book after Hurricane Katrina). There is an exploration of place and displacement, topographies internal and external. Equally, the poems are of wondering and wandering and family and friends and intimacies. With a selection of fragment poems sprinkled throughout, one can see a Sappho lineage. These poems pay close attention. Like in “Prague”: “The swans are having a conversation about power./ I like to watch// but listening is too terrible—everything/ too human—// the trees all caught up in their private melodramas/ posed just so.”
The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer by Eric Tran (Autumn House Press)
This collection won the 2019 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize. These poems are both cheeky and sincere. They will make you laugh; they will make you weep. They grieve loss of all kinds. And they rejoice/celebrate. They engage with popular culture and figures of the screen (like Joyce Byers in Stranger Things or X-Men or Fury Road or Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter). The poems are well balanced and will sweep you off your feet. To give you a taste, some lines from “A Favor”: “or when I forgot the word for rain/ in Spanish and settled for the sky/ is crying and since we’re talking/ about it I’d tell him I’m sad/ just sad because with him/ it was OK to sit in a storm/ of sad without unpacking/ the galoshes or an almanac/ and this week I’m graduating/ from medical school and wow.”
This Wound Is A World by Billy-Ray Belcourt (University of Minnesota Press)
This collection is just totally vibrant! Okay, I’m cheating a little bit here—this book was actually published in 2018. But I fell in love with this collection of poems when I read it last year (I had to tell everyone about it). Equal parts conversational, contemporary queer, finger on the pulse, sexy, and sincere. Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. There is an exploration of identity and the speaker’s intersexionality as a queer, Indigenous being in an age of social media and digital dating. These poems are incredibly touching and also fun. The poems simultaneously entertain and pack a gut-punch like in a poem where “love and heartbreak are fuck buddies who sometimes text each other at 10 in the morning.” And these moments exist alongside and within the same poems that explore tradition and belonging and expectations. I adored the story-telling, energy, and heat, but also the stunningly beautiful and devastatingly moving moments in every page.
Travesty Generator by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram (Noemi Press)
THIS BOOK SPEAKS TO OUR VERY CURRENT MOMENT, as peaceful protests and voices rise to proclaim Black Lives Matter across America (and globally) in the wake of continued murders of black lives. When Cathy Park Hong writes of Bertram’s Travesty Generator, she describes this work as “taking the baton from Harryette Mullen and the Oulipians and dashing with it to late 21st century black futurity.” This collection as a whole is largely conceptual in form and technique. Hong tells us that “Bertram uses open-source coding to generate haunting inquiring elegies to Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Emmett Till.” In this collection, Hong points out “how black experience becomes codified, homogenized, and branded for capitalist dissemination.” The use of repetition and stacking throughout the collection is masterful, and the effect is heartbreaking. The writing is pure perfection. Take these lines from : “He plays a game he knows he’s too old for: pinches/ the moon between finger and thumb, drinks it through his lips./ Sometimes he wakes feeling gone.” And then just complete intense beauty: “The sea air brackets/ him tonight.” Sigh. I have to stop myself from quoting more lines. LISTEN. UP. PEOPLE…. This book is ESSENTIAL reading.
Holly Mason received her MFA in Poetry from George Mason University in 2017. Her poetry, interviews, and reviews have been published in The Adroit Journal, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, The Northern Virginia Review, Foothill Poetry Journal, University of Arizona Poetry Center Blog, and elsewhere. She received a Bethesda Urban Partnership Poetry prize, selected by E. Ethelbert Miller. She has been a reader and panelist for OutWrite (a Celebration of Queer Literature) in D.C. and participated in D.C.'s Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here events as a Kurdish-American poet. Holly is currently on the staff of Poetry Daily and lives in Northern Virginia.