While in his early 20s and a student at Lincoln University, Langston Hughes published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, and penned his landmark essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In it, he implored young black writers to express their “individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.”
For National Poetry Month, we’ve compiled a list of 37 twenty- and thirty-something up-and-coming black poets who do just that.
Just as Hughes’ generation had its jazz as “the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile,” this generation has hip-hop.
The poems of Warsan Shire served as muse on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, and Kendrick Lamar became the first hip-hop artist to ever win a Pulitzer with his album DAMN., which the board described as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” These are merely the most literal examples, but hip-hop influences black poets who have yet to publish a poetry collection, as well as our two National Youth Poet Laureates and National Book Award winner.
This week, we’ll introduce you to this generation’s poet standard-bearers whom we believe will do amazing work over the next decade. We grouped them by categories. As you will see, they blur boundaries and defy definitions. Poets whose work centers on the experience of being queer might also be activists. Poetry scholars on the list may also be musicians.
Today’s category is Black Regionalism. These poets look at black life and society through the prism of geographic regions or culture, and their poems reflect local flavors, dialects and scenery. It’s a way of reversing historical black erasure.
Camille Rankine is from Portland, Ore., so it’s no wonder her poems are often concerned with landscape, as well as history and intimacy. Camille’s first book of poetry is Merciful Impulses (Copper Canyon) and she has been awarded a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize; MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Poetry Society of America’s New York Chapbook Fellowship. The former Cave Canem Foundation staffer directs the Manhattanville College Master of Fine Arts program and serves as editorial director for the online literary journal, The Manhattanville Review. Rankine received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University and an M.F.A. from Columbia University.
Excerpt from “The Increased Frequency of Black Swans”
I was listening for the dog
when the locks were pried open.
The man was dead. The dog, a survivor,
was dead. It happens
more often this way.
National Poetry Slam Champion Elizabeth Acevedo received the 2018 National Book Award for her New York Times best-selling novel, The Poet X. The Afro-Dominican performer is also the winner of the Boston Globe Hornbook Award Prize for Best Children’s Fiction and the author of the chapbook Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths. Acevedo holds a B.A. degree in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland.
Excerpt from “Iron”
I am not the coroner who will graze her hand
over naked knees. Who will swish her fingers
in the mouth. Who will flip the body over, her eye a hook
fishing for government-issued lead...”
Hiwot Adilow is an Ethiopian-American poet. In 2018, she received the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. The Philadelphia native is the author of the chapbook, In the House of My Father (Two Sylvias Press). Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, Callaloo and The Offing, and has been anthologized in The BreakBeats Poets Vol 2.0: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books, 2018). Hiwot earned her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she was part of the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community.
Excerpt from “no preponderance”
I’m drawing back from invocation now.
I’m leaning in, to the myth/the heresy/the hearsay.
what was it? whatever. what peeled me from the stage
and had me gnashing at the walls.
Jerriod Avant is the recipient of two Pushcart nominations and was a finalist for the 2015 Mississippi Review Prize. His poems have appeared in the Mississippi Review, Boston Review and Callaloo. Jerriod is a poetry and photography editor for Kinfolks, a journal of black expression, and he is co-lead curator for Voluble, a channel of Los Angeles Review of Books. A graduate of Jackson State University, Jerriod earned M.F.A. degrees from Spalding University and New York University, where he was a Writer in the Public Schools Fellow. He is also a graduate of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Brown University.
Excerpt from “Ode to a Pronoun”
It hung around
with wet hair and sweat it
told us we were
Keith S. Wilson is an Affrilachian poet, a phrase originally coined by Frank X Walker to reference black residents of the Appalachian region. His first book, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon. A Cave Canem fellow, Keith has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Kenyon College as the Kenyon Review Fellow in Poetry. He has also received funding from Bread Loaf, MacDowell, and the Vermont Studio Center. Keith serves as assistant poetry editor at Four Way Review and digital media editor at Obsidian Journal.
Excerpt from “A UNIFIED THEORY”
Call it aesthetics or beauty, but you privilege
a portion of her face, let’s say your eyes
are accustomed to a certain side
Warsan Shire’s poems were featured prominently in Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade. The Kenyan-born Somali poet is the author of the collections Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (flipped eye, 2011), Her Blue Body (flipped eye, 2015), and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us (Slapering Hol Press and Poetry Foundation, 2015). In 2013, she won Brunel University’s first African Poetry Prize. In 2014, she was named the first Young Poet Laureate for London and chosen as poet-in-residence for Queensland, Australia.
Excerpt from “Backwards”
The poem can start with him walking backwards into a room.
He takes off his jacket and sits down for the rest of his life;
that’s how we bring Dad back.
I can make the blood run back up my nose, ants rushing into a hole.
2018 National Youth Poet Laureate Patricia Frazier’s poetry chapbook Graphite (Haymarket Books) is a meditation on Chicago. She grew up as a queer, black woman in the South Side’s Ida B. Wells Projects with her grandmother. Both, she writes, were lost to her because of city- and state-sanctioned discrimination. The Columbia College film major was also the first Chicago Youth Poet Laureate.
Excerpt from “A Black Girl’s Attempt At Escaping Gentrification”
Black belt in redlining
Urban planned and dictionary decoded
Noun most ghetto neighborhood in all of Chicago
Nobody had to tell Marcus Jackson to represent. His first collection of poetry, Neighborhood Register, was all about the people and places that left impressions on him. For his most recent collection, Pardon My Heart (TriQuarterly Books), Jackson, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at Ohio State University, embraced strangeness and complication. Jackson earned a B.A. from the University of Toledo and continued his poetry studies at New York University and as a Cave Canem fellow.
Excerpt from “Letting the Emptiness Become My Government”
Within me, the sipped, iced bourbon enacts
the sense of a slow, April rain
blurring and nurturing a landscape.
Yolanda Young is the author of the memoir, On Our Way to Beautiful, published by Random House in 2002. She founded @DorpieBooks to ensure space for black voices. She is also executive director of Lawyers of Color. Follow her on Twitter.