Inspired by Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke,” Jason Diamond produced for Flavorwire the list “23 People who will make you care about poetry in 2013,” a list of poets that he believes dispels the notion that “poetry is dead.” The index of poets Diamond presents seems in fact to serve as evidence of the exact opposite of this claim, for upon reading the work of the authors on his list I continually thought to myself, “this is exactly why the larger American public don’t care at all about poetry.” Of course the listed authors are competent writers (and, I’ll add, Thomas Sayers Ellis is deservingly included, and “Rape Joke” is certainly an essential poem), but what about their work is supposed to make us care about poetry? Diamond, for one, never tells us. He never shares his criteria with the reader. This lack of a clear criteria only makes his choices seem all the more dubious in nature. The list seems to be willfully narrow in scope, representing only a tiny (and apparently connected) faction of poets working in what is actually the incredibly diverse landscape of American poetry. A movement of poetry that can be summarily described as 1% poetry.
His list consists of 20 white poets and 3 poets of color (a careful selection of one Korean-American, One White Latina, and one African-American, so as to hit each of the major ethnic demographics.) Diamond is not alone in promoting such an overt racial bias across the electronic cultural landscape. As Amanda Hess points out in the title of her piece in Poynter.org, 88% of the books reviewed in the New York Times are written by white authors.
Consider this statistic alongside the event of Helen Vendler’s public criticism of Rita Dove’s selections for Penguin’s Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Vendler takes issue with the number of writers of color Dove has chosen, boldly though indirectly claiming that Dove opted to include certain less deserving poets over others that are clearly more superior, not based on merit of craft and content (in Vendler’s allegedly sacred opinion), but as some kind of literary version of affirmative action. In a published open response, Dove defended her decisions and called out Vendler’s with eloquence and grace.
I’m guessing that Dove was frustrated that she had to even defend her professional decisions. Frustrated but not surprised, as the prejudice within the upper echelon of the American literary industry is for many of us an old and tired game, one that we are tired of having to either pretend to play or to speak out against, only to have our grievances fall on deaf ears. See, Diamond and Vendler are not isolated in their attitudes. Their attitudes are unfortunately still par for the course (Though, for the record, I do have the sense that this too is changing, that already many, if not most, white critics and authors in the industry are committed to inclusiveness and diversity). Despite the rapidly increasing number of writers and literary scholars of color, the industry is still privy to functioning with modes of white privilege. The fact that Dove had to even defend herself is proof of this, as The New York Times and Flavorwire don’t seem to have to defend themselves at all for their biases. If the needle on entirely contrived and always subjective lists of important work leans largely toward a privileged white collective there is no need to justify. It is somehow just common sense, as Vendler and Diamond and others seem to think, that the overwhelming majority of what is worth reading comes from white (primarily male) authors. If anyone would have the audacity to try to present a literary landscape that reflects the very real, considerably more diverse demographic of the country, it is all but required to question the expertise and tastes of inherent biases (because they surely have none) of those attempting to do so.
This unabashed prejudice is not merely an issue of skin tone and bone structure, it is evidence of an ideological and aesthetic bias, one that Dove keenly illuminates in her reply to Vendler. Racial exclusion is certainly a factor here, but inextricably linked to it are the issues of form, content, and intent. Vendler takes no issue with those writers of color who adopt the diction and forms of the Eurocentric legacy of poetry, or those who take on that legacy’s accepted themes and tropes. Her issue is with those who in their content, style, and structure are clearly drawing from the legacies of working class artists, of the homelands of the immigrant communities, of the urban griots, of the countless countercultures that have sprung from them, legacies and movements outside those accepted by the still very white gatekeepers of the industry. The anchor of poetry is language and one’s mode of language is derived from class, ethnicity, education, and geography. Here, the language of the unassimilated is unacceptable.
Diamond, with his list, takes a similar position in its exclusion of these quite-hard-not-to-see movements, though he and Vendler are in effect rallying different camps. Her camp is the old literary guard, the sentinels of the so called American Canon. His camp is the too cool, up on everything, people 2.0 of the internet age. The poets he has selected, nearly all of them write in a similar diction and style of the young, white, privileged technophiles, poets aiming for hip quips, flarf, snarky phrasing, clever but smarmy uses of pop culture idioms, with a tone that seems to want to exclude the larger public and to ignore the histories, the concerns, the struggles, the values and myths, of those outside this privileged little sphere. If these poets were an office building, Occupy Movement members would be in their lobby protesting, demanding a seat at the table.
It is this impulse to exclude, as exhibited by Diamond and Vendler and company, that compelled me to create my own list, a list of 23 poets that will not only make you care about poetry, these poets also care about you. Unlike Diamond and Vendler, I will be transparent and admit that my list is subjective, flawed, most certainly biased, incomplete, and has a clear agenda. Unlike Diamond, I will make utterly clear and transparent my criteria by which the poets were selected. Each poet had to meet at least 3 of the following 5 markers.
One last bit of criteria I imposed on myself for the list as a whole was this: since the majority of the Earth’s population is female, then the majority of this list must also be female, as women are also grossly underrepresented by the literary gatekeepers at the top of the power structure. Lastly, the list is alphabetical to illustrate that there is absolutely no hierarchical ranking system in place. Without further ado, here’s my list:
1. Reginald Dwayne Betts
Why they will make you care about poetry: After doing 8 years in prison for a crime he committed as a minor, Betts has dedicated himself to helping at risk youth and to writing poetry dense with layered metaphors that engage with the hard questions, for he has already won awards and acclaim.
Read: Sometimes It’s Everything
2. Jaswinder Bolina
Why they will make you care about poetry: This is global poetry of the new millennium at its finest. He begins with old forms, then blows them apart, filling the space with philosophical treatises, humorous anecdotes, technological tropes and jargon, juggling social themes (globalization, race, class) with the personal (love and loss).
Read: Municipal Vistas
3. Jericho Brown
Why they will make you care about poetry: Jericho poems are intimate, rhythmic, and remind you that violence is best confronted with compassion and candor. I also identify with how he allows his love of music to guide his work, using music as thematic spine and tapping them for technical devices.
4. Ching-In Chen
Why they will make you care about poetry: Aside from being wildly imaginative in her use of white space and vernacular (particularly specialized jargon), Ching-In is a community organizer, an activist for LGBTQ issues, and innovates by performing and writing her poetry in non-conventional settings.
Read: Dream Upon Arrival to America
5. Teresa Mei Chuc
Why they will make you care about poetry: As documentarian of the experience of immigrants from Vietnam, her narratives will tear your heart right out of you. They puncture right through the bone of truth with their linguistic and structural clarity.
Read: Not Worth A Bullet
6. Natalie Diaz
Why they will make you care about poetry: Because she complicates the narrative about reservation life. And because her poems are rich with sound and imagery, and like Sherman Alexie, she uses sarcasm as a weapon.
Read: Small Thundering
7. Laurie Ann Guerrero
Why they will make you care about poetry: Because she peels back the surface of the small and ordinary things, probing them for the ugly little secrets and their hidden pearls. Because she exposes what is unsaid about motherhood.
Read: Preparing the Tongue
8. Vanessa Huang
Why they will make you care about poetry: Because she is a social justice warrior and because she is editing a Mixed-Class anthology. And her poems will make you cry and smile at the same time.
Read: Voice of Hunger
9. Javier Huerta
Why they will make you care about poetry: Because I randomly met him at a conference in New York and he never mentioned he was a poet. Someone else had to tell me. I find that humble poets are often the best poets. When I finally did read him, I was immediately taken by his wit and concision.
Read: Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor)
10. Rachel Jennings
Why they will make you care about poetry: Because her poems are as funny as they are heartbreaking. And because she’s like a surgeon with her lines, and because he characters don’t take any crap from anyone.
Read: Chicano Studies
11. Douglas Kearney
Why they will make you care about poetry: His work is both music and visual art, futuristic and ancient. He subverts the narrative on race while inventing his own vernacular and syntax.
Read: The Black Automaton in Tag
12. J. Michael Martinez
Why they will make you care about poetry: His book “Heredities” bends the conventions of the medium. It’s a difficult read, and that’s a strength, as new gems arise from multiple reads. Martinez’s work is lyrical, complex, meticulous and challenges the norms of how Latinos address identity politics.
13. John Murillo
Why they will make you care about poetry: This is how urban street narratives and pop culture references are meant to be implemented. The poems are fun, real, and have heart.
Read: Practicing Fade Aways
14. Kristin Naca
Why they will make you care about poetry: Because her verses are so carefully constructed around an acute attention to details, like a Seurat pointillist painting. Because we share a love for Lorca. Because though her work is so candid and sincere, she’s always smiling, dispelling the stereotype of the melancholy poet.
Read: Speaking English is Like
15. Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Why they will make you care about poetry: Because at first glance her poems seem conventional, but then as you re-read them you are surprised by their quirkiness and sense of wonder.
Read: Aubade with Mosquito Bites
16. Urayoan Noel
Why they will make you care about poetry: 1. He’s Boricua. 2. He invents new forms and subverts old ones. 3. He’s unabashedly political. 4. He’s not afraid to rhyme. 5. He’s Boricua.
Read: In The Faraway Suburbs
17. Idra Novey
Why they will make you care about poetry: Her collection, Exit,Civilian , stretches the overarching metaphor of prisons in so many unexpected and mind-expanding directions. Also, her translation work is bringing many incredible Portuguese language authors such as Clarice Lispector to English readers.
Read: Meanwhile from the Watermelon Seed
18. Shailja Patel
Why they will make you care about poetry: Her collection/one woman show, Migritudeconfronts colonialism, sexism, religion, migration, and class courageously and profoundly. I got more history from this small book than I could from a whole shelf of history texts. I teach this book to my students.
Read: (Un)occupy Oakland: An Open Source Love Poem
19. Craig Santos Perez
Why they will make you care about poetry: He blends fragmented narratives from historical documents, dialogue, personal memory like a DJ with three turntables and three arms. And he’s writing about Guam. When have you read about Guam?
Read: ginen Organic Acts
20. Emmy Perez
Why they will make you care about poetry: Her line breaks, short phrases, and imagery are simply startling. Her poems make me feel peaceful. Also because she teaches creative writing in prisons in Texas.
Read: One Morning
21. Barbara Jane Reyes
Why they will make you care about poetry: Because she rocks anaphora like DJ Rob Swift rocks a house party. Because her work confronts imperialism with fearlessness and intellect. Because I love her use of white space and line breaks. And because she is married to another talented poet, Oscar Bermeo.
Read: Galleon Prayer
22. Camille Rankine
Why they will make you care about poetry: Oprah liked her enough to include her include her in an O Magazine spread, and Cornelius Eady likes her work enough to name her Poetry Society of America’s 2010 Chapbook contest winner. You trust them, don’t you?
Read: Necessity Defense of Institutional Memory
23. Patrick Rosal
Why they will make you care about poetry: He breaks my 2 book rule, as he’s on his third, but I had to include him becuase his last book, Bone Shepherds, really rocked me . He’s a natural born storyteller, possessing remarkable wit. There is a music to his poems even when they are written in prose, and he always makes that unexpected connection that sheds light on his subjects
Read: Delenda Undone
And there it is. I used the same number Diamond used for the Flavorwire list (23), but there are so many more I wanted to include. Perhaps I’ll add them later in a supplemental piece. But since the point of the article is to push for more inclusion, I encourage any and everyone to post in the comments section poets they love that they feel are underrepresented by the literary ivory tower and the popular culture outlets.