While this list highlights the books I’ve let change my life, express my sorrows and comfort me on my lightest and darkest days, the poetry by these poets is beyond words for me to describe. This list is my attempt to articulate how much I owe these poets for inspiring and changing my way of thinking, as well as celebrating their works collectively. The order I’ve drawn here isn’t necessarily whose poetry is better or more important, but rather explains how each book has helped me grow and come to me at a time I needed them most. I rank the books by personal value to me and the purpose they served in my life at crucial moments. Also, all the poetry here is bomb, so all the books deserve a read!
10. “Autopsy” by Donte Collins
To start off my list, I’m putting this one because I found it on accident when searching for a book to get my sister for her birthday. At the time, I’d recently found out my mother was sick and hearing Collins describe his own trauma and grief, I was able to relieve my fears and sadness by crying on the Barnes and Noble floor, a task that becomes routine to me throughout this list. Collins has some of the most moving poetry on grief I’ve ever read. He wrote this book after the death of his mother and explores her death as a way of moving forward. He brings the reader along in his exploration of such a dark alleyway of the mind. This book is something to carry with you, as is all of Collins’ poetry.
9. “Transit” by Cam Awkward-Rich
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to land myself a copy of “Transit” yet, but through various trips to bookstores across Brooklyn I’ve managed to read through it all. “Transit” explores gender and identity in a way that barely scratches the surface. Awkward-Rich leaves you pondering his poetics, but more so making you wonder-what is he leaving out? What else should I be seeing here? This book allows you to appreciate the beauty while asking tough questions. It demands respect and introspection, making it a perfect read at any time or any point in your journey with identity.
8. “Depression and Other Magic Tricks” by Sabrina Benaim
I stumbled upon this book as per my usual Barnes and Noble crying extravaganza, and I was familiar with Sabrina Benaim, but hadn’t had the chance to dive into her work. Benaim’s poetry can get melancholy, as it focuses mainly on depression and anxiety, but with twinges of hope sprinkled throughout it creating positivity in unexpected ways. Her language pierces straight through me and gets to the heart of what I know I need to see but try and stray away from. Benaim’s book doesn’t let you run away, but she brings you in even closer as you take this journey with her, removing the loneliness and emphasizing the love we can and will find.
7. “Peluda” by Melissa Lozada-Oliva
Melissa Lozada-Oliva has a style that is unmatched. Peluda explores her experiences as a Latina woman and emphasizes self-love in a way I can’t compare to other books on this list. Lozada-Oliva manages to achieve a sense of love, humor and awareness through poetry that kisses you yet also bites you in the ass; she knows just when to caress and when to sting. I met Lozada-Oliva at the same reading in Brooklyn where I met my idol Olivia Gatwood, and I watched her in action, spilling out her passion onstage with the same bite she possesses in her book. This book is heartfelt and expresses confidence in all areas, praising the body, its hair and the life we need to give our bodies by truly living in them. Buy this book and let it hit you in the heart.
6. “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” by Hanif Willis Abdurraqib
I would absolutely put this book higher on the list, but I haven’t been able to close-read Abdurraqib’s work enough yet to get the full experience of what he’s trying to say. This book demands attention and careful introspection. I have thumbed my way through it numerous times stopping at whatever poems called my name, but I’ve yet to read it cover to cover due to the density of the language and the depth to each individual piece. Abdurraqib is a powerful writer and speaks to that power in every poem in his book. His poetry is so rich you can taste it when you read it. His work has the power to send chills down my spine and shake my core in a way I can’t get enough of.
5. “The Sun and Her Flowers” by Rupi Kaur
If you hadn’t noticed, this list consists almost entirely of books published by Button Poetry, however, Rupi Kaur’s book is not one of those. It’s interrupting my flow and stealing the middle of the list for a very personal reason though. My sister loves poetry just as much as I do, and we often communicate our feelings through sharing poems and books with each other. The first book I ever got her was “Milk and Honey” by Kaur because, while some say it tends to be cliché, Kaur achieves indescribable delicacy in very few words. Kaur’s poetry was the perfect gift for my 14-year-old, coming of age sister in a way I knew she could respect and admire. Kaur’s poetry is heartfelt and unintimidating, making it accessible and relatable to everyone, which is exactly what I knew my creative-writer little sister needed. She needed to see she could write like that too. Years later for my 19th birthday, my sister got me Kaur’s second collection as an extension of my gift long ago. The gesture moved me so much, especially since our relationship had been rocky after I moved to college. “The Sun and Her Flowers” focuses a lot on growth, on family and love. It holds a special place in my heart, and is definitely worth a read.
4. “Our Numbered Days” by Neil Hilborn
Hilborn wrote the poem that sparked my love for the art. “OCD” was the first one I saw on Youtube and it brought me to tears by helping me understand that for one, other people had compulsions similar to mine, and two, yes someone will love you anyway. Hilborn’s book feels like he’s talking directly to me, as if he’s in my head somewhere digging all these thoughts out and recording them on paper for me. His work is truthful and exquisitely teaches that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Hilborn makes it look easy to confess his fears while simultaneously writing beautifully on mental illness, love and life as a whole. Hilborn’s poetry was my foot in the door to a world of expression I hadn’t stumbled too far into yet, but was the shining light at the beginning of an amazing tunnel.
3. “Helium” by Rudy Francisco
Rudy Francisco is undeniably my favorite poet right now. I received “Helium” as a gift and form of communication from someone who knew I communicated best through poetry. He dedicated it to me because he knew Francisco could encapsulate everything he wanted to say in a way I would truly love and understand, and he was right. This book captures, better than any other on the list, what it is to be in love and fall in love. His imagery often has magnificent juxtaposition, so it’ll catch you off guard and demand attention. Not only does Francisco paint love in a new light, he also highlights the errors in culture today regarding race, class and gender. The book circles these ideas and finds a way to connect love and self reflection within them all. “Helium” is the perfect title because this book definitely floats above the rest.
2. “New American Best Friend” by Olivia Gatwood
Olivia Gatwood changed my life. Reading her poetry inspired me to start writing more, but hearing her poetry made me recognize my value and worth as an individual, as a woman and as a human being. Her writing gives life to the body, deconstructs shame and empowers girlhood. She even helped me through my recent break-up by giving me advice at her last poetry reading/book signing in Brooklyn. Gatwood’s understanding of womanhood and coming of age is excellently portrayed in “New American Best Friend,” as she tells the stories she identifies with such as being queer, being scared of tampons or feeling ashamed of your own body, and creates a universality among other people who identify as women to unite, empower and expand their way of thinking. This book helps remind me that I’m not alone and that other people feel this too and I’m going to be okay. Gatwood’s poetry is so relevant and so necessary for everyone to read, as she enlightens us all on the importance of self love, change and growth that we can all find in ourselves and each other. A signed copy of this book rests on my desk to remind me I’m not alone.
1. “A Study of Hands” by Edwin Bodney
This book contains my favorite poem to date, “When a boy tells you he loves you.” Bodney is a master at the craft and this book proves it. He is able to create incredible images in ways I’ve never seen done before, especially in contemporary poetry. Bodney describes smiling as “[cracking] your face into the fullest crescent moon at the tapered bottom of a blackened sky.” That image is so astonishing I had to reread it 5 times to get its full beauty. This type of elegance in simplistic images from Bodney allows them to transcend most other writing today, which shows his prowess over the English language as well as his artistic ability. Reading this gave me a deep appreciation for his work; I felt like I struck gold. The vocal delivery of his poems is superb and grants them new life as well, which further allows his words to go beyond the page and stay in your heart and mind for a long time after you put them down. I was in an extremely rough place and decided to buy myself this book as a form of self-care and in efforts to appreciate and love myself so I could get out of the hole I was digging emotionally. This book became one I can pick up at any time that will change my perspective and push me to look at things differently.