What to Read When You Don’t Know You’re a Poet

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What I mean by this is before 2018, I wasn’t a big poetry reader. It’s not that I didn’t like it. I genuinely didn’t know walking into a bookstore and buying a book of poems was something you could do. I knew the names of poets like Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou and Tupac and Shakespeare, but growing up, I wasn’t finna read or attempt to relate to or have no interest in understanding no Shakespeare. Yet I wanted to be the type of person who did.

I loved poetry. I loved words. I knew I loved words when they were presented in a poetic, whimsical way; solely because I read song lyrics all day. More than anything, I watched poetry being performed. I watched clips of Def Poetry Jam on YouTube. I bought DVDs of Def Poetry Jam seasons with my check from my job senior year of high school. I wrote down the lines I didn’t want to leave me on loose leaf paper. I rewound the DVDs so often and fast-forwarded almost never. Here is where I found my own poets. Poets I understood. Poets who made me take interest in poetry beyond song lyrics and video clips and aesthetics. Here is where I began to see poets for who they are and what they do and how they dress and how they move and what they show you.

I was watching poetry, but I didn’t see poems on the page until later. I was familiar with how a line could break on the stage and change a poem’s meaning but unfamiliar with how a line could break on the page and change your feelings. All the while, I never thought I’d be a poet. I never thought I’d ever be called a poet, let alone publish a book of poetry. I desperately wanted to be a poet. I desperately wanted to be an artist of any kind really. But I knew I’d never be the type of poet to take the stage.

At some point, I learned that some of the poets I watched were publishing their work in book form. I started paying more attention. I started learning more poets’ names, and finding more meaning in written poetry. But this didn’t really come until I was in my early twenties. I fell in love with poetry because I got really sad. I was a graduate student. I was miserable. I was absent. I was writing essays; I had essays published. But I hadn’t written a poem I was proud of yet. I didn’t know how to write a poem—and, now, I think this helped me to write poems. I don’t know if I believe in the link between sadness and art-making but I knew it was hard for me to love anything other than the way reading poetry continued to make me face.

Poetry collections became, for a time, the only books I could read. I’ve learned so many names. I’ve read so many books. I still don’t know what a sestina is, or how to write one. Sometimes I don’t think I care, but I love the writers who show me the possibilities to be found in form, who make me value restraint in storytelling, whose words have made my words better.

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Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews
I feel like ima start each one of these by saying I love the book as a whole, and this is true; but I’m also gonna say loving the book as a whole is irrelevant to this list. Yes, Simulacra is so good and you should definitely get a copy as soon as possible. Yes, this is one of those books that was assigned to me in a classroom. And yes, this is one of those books I’ll carry with me always. But like I said, all that is irrelevant right now. I’m here to talk about one line and one line only. Yes, “Confessions from Here” is one of my favorite poems (and yes, everything is my favorite; leave me alone). This poem holds lines I mention in random conversation often because it makes no damn sense why “You called the plumber, didn’t you?” be hitting the way it be hitting, invading my brain when I’m tryna mind my business. (IT’S THE COMMA!!! IT HAS TO BE THE COMMA!?!) This line will hit me upside the head and sit me down and halt my day in the best way, so if you see me in a corner staring into space, I promise ain’t nothing wrong—I’m just thinking ’bout this line. I promise you, this poem is flawless. It’s brutal and loving and freeing and, wet. That’s all I’m finna say. Get the book.

 

The Vital System by CM Burroughs
This collection is one of the first I found on my own. It wasn’t assigned to me in a classroom or even recommended (which just seems wildly disrespectful). I was wandering through Wicker Park and stepped into Myopic Books and found a used copy among hundreds of other collections at the front of the store. By the time I got to the back of the store, I’d finished it. As I read, I started to comprehend what it takes to construct a collection in a concise, congratulatory way. These poems read like they were written to belong together—something I had no idea how to accomplish. Everything felt intentional, intrusive. Scoped into the body and pulled back out bloody. The way Burroughs activates then interrogates grief is so potent. “Some Young Woman” is a poem, but this line from the book’s opener “Dear Incubator,” hits hardest.  “What a tragedy to be powerless. And yet, I controlled the choreography of everyone around me…” This line has ruined my life and helped me shape a sort of literary ethos that wasn’t present before I’d read it. Burroughs uses memory to not only guide the reader into her world, but also to create a world and a body to accompany all the gut-spilling. She’s great at writing just enough, not letting the poem overextend, and this I appreciate most—knowing when to stop.

 

Sons of Achilles by Nabila Lovelace
It ain’t a poetry book alive that I’ve read more than this one. My book is so raggedy it’s a shame. I love every single book on this list, but I love this in a you took the words right outta my mouth type of way. I’ve taught it in every class. I read it anytime I’m stuck in a reading rut, or in my life. It somehow always jumpstarts my fingers, my thoughts, my adolescence, my creativity. Everything happening formally, structurally, communally, etc. makes for a visceral experience that should not be missed out on. Lovelace is one of the first poets I read that I felt were being themselves, that felt honest in a way that wasn’t performative, that felt like people I actually know in my real life. Ain’t too many people doing what Nabila be doing when Nabila be doing it.

 

Sacrilegion by L. Lamar Wilson
I wish I was as tender with words as L. Lamar Wilson is, I truly do. I feel so safe when I read this book. So loved. So terrified. Any book that begins with “I talk too much. I cannot tell a liar / from a preacher” is a book that got my soul both literally and figurately. I feel as if each poem prepares me without pimping me, which is just another testament to its tenderness. Nothing about this book is uninspired or undesirable.

 

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
I honestly don’t even know where, or how, to start. Although this collection gets a tremendous amount of warranted love and admiration, I still feel like it don’t get enough. From the cover to the content, I just can’t seem to find anything wrong with it. I’m never bored. I’m never not moved. I’m never not laughing. I’m never not throwing the book across the room because a line got me fucked up. I’m fascinated at how Danez is equally as effective on the page and the stage; it’s not something I see often. Don’t Call Us Dead is the first poetry collection I loved—like really loved, reread, revisited, revived. For the first time, I found myself paying attention to the movement and grace that was going on without distracting myself. Everything fit. Such an inspiration. Never wanna stop reading it.

 

Betwixt-And-Between: Essays on the Writing Life by Jenny Boully
Aight, so listen: this book is what I be tryna do but I don’t be knowing how to do it, let alone do it effectively. As in, talk deeply about two things at once in distinctive ways while giving the reader room to jump to their own conclusions and also instilling passion into them while discussing practice and living simultaneously. See, I can’t even explain it right, but it’s doing the thing and doing it well. This book gives what it was supposed to have gave, and then some.

 

“Truth Is” by Black Ice
This ain’t a book, but it’s one of the first poems I ever obsessed over and memorized lines to and wanted to emulate. Black Ice has a confidence—a presence—that I will never forget, and an urgency that quickly builds itself to the point of silencing a room. This poem probably is one of the many reasons why I think I’m a rapper in my head. I reference it as an awakening all the time. The way he directly addresses the crowd/the reader/the listener, pauses, creates a tempo, then unfolds his story in his own timing was something I thought about often while attempting to break a line in a way that was forceful but not forced. At this point, I don’t know if I watch it because I care about what is being said more than I admire the patience it takes to say it clearly. Actually, I’m lying. I take that back. The shit is still fire I’m sorry.

 

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez
Part of me is very glad the genre of writing books about old men taking young girls on as conquest is frowned upon now and the other part of me is just really happy I stumbled upon this book. It’s so good. It shouldn’t be. It’s flawed and gross. But also, I couldn’t put it down. It’s clean, short. I loved the tone—the ickiness of it but also the loneliness of it. And it’s kinda funny. And that title? Stop playing. Top tier material.

 

Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos
So I was sleeping on Melissa Febos, but not on purpose. I’d been having it on my mind to read this book for some time; I had it ready for checkout in multiple carts but never got around to it—which didn’t stop me from seeing this pink cover everywhere. Something was holding me back from getting it in my possession. I kept seeing the word “Memoirs” glaring, in black, on that pink cover. Seeing the word pluralized only made me wanna read the book more; made me wonder how “memoirs” would be different from “a memoir.” Finally, after months of procrastination and lack of movement on my own projects, I bought it. When it arrived, I dug right on in. By page twelve, I had ordered and pre-ordered every other book by Melissa Febos available for purchase. Her writing felt necessary to not only the type of work I wanna do, but also to the life I wanna live.

 

You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down by Alice Walker
Everything I’ve said about not knowing the intricacies of poetry collections applies to short stories as well; it’s not that I didn’t read them, it’s just that I didn’t know they existed. I thought you wrote singular stories, and got them published online. Or you wrote a story that would eventually become a chapter in your novel. I ain’t know nothing about how to construct or present multiple stories as one project. It wasn’t until I came across You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down that I began to understand how special and ethereal story collections can—and should—be. From page one, I was hooked, and wanted to read more of it and more of others. It’s perfect. And it’s included on this list because it’s perfect, but mostly because without “Coming Apart,” I don’t know if I’d even be brave enough to approach the topics and themes I do so viciously. “Coming Apart” had me coming apart—and throwing shoes across the room because of how sad and sexy and smart it is. It’s been on my mind with everything I’ve attempted to write since; whether I’m writing a poem, an essay, or even a tweet, I feel like I’m writing to make this story proud.

 

And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Kendra’s debut poetry collection, The Collection Plate, out now from Ecco! – Ed.

The Collection Plate by Kendra Allen
Looping exultantly through the overlapping experiences of girlhood, Blackness, sex, and personhood in America, award-winning essayist and poet Kendra Allen braids together personal narrative and cultural commentary, wrestling with the beauty and brutality to be found between mothers and daughters, young women and the world, Black bodies and white space, virginity and intrusion, prison and freedom, birth and death. Most of all, The Collection Plate explores both how we collect and erase the voices, lives, and innocence of underrepresented bodies—and behold their pleasure, pain, and possibility.


Kendra Infinite Allen is the author of award-winning essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet and poetry collection The Collection Plate. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, she loves laughing and leaving. Her work can be found on and in Repeller, Southwest Review, Frontier, The Rumpus, and more. More from this author →