As Americans continue to weather the pandemic, many have been turning to poetry: According to the executive director of the Academy of American Poets, traffic to the organization’s site increased 25 percent since the Covid-19 crisis began. From the celebrity- and bestseller-status of former youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman to renewed interest in the beloved poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, the popularity of poetry has been surging.
To learn more about the effects of the pandemic on poetry and poets, we checked in with up-and-coming queer poets Andrea Abi-Karam and Jake Skeets, who shared some of their favorite recent poetry collections and how the literary form has helped them navigate a world upended.
Poetry was just amazing as an outlet for queerness and intensity and exhaustion.
Andrea Abi-Karam, poet
For Abi-Karam — whose new collection “Villainy” will be released in September — one of the most frustrating aspects of the pandemic has been losing the public readings they’d grown accustomed to.
“I do these performances where I staple mesh cables to myself as an act of cyborg fusion, and I also staple pieces of reflective silver mylar to myself to reflect back and implicate the audience — just these intense body modification interventions using poetry as my source text,” said Abi-Karam, who authored the widely praised 2019 collection “EXTRATRANSMISSION.”
Abi-Karam, who became immersed in poetry during college while studying neuroscience, said writing and reading poetry can help process deep emotion.
"I didn't have a lot of Arab American community in undergrad. I came into identity, both in being trans and Arab American, in my early to mid 20s," they recalled. "Poetry was just amazing as an outlet for queerness and intensity and exhaustion." Abi-Karam’s “Villainy” was written in response to “very intense experiences of grief” surrounding the 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that killed 36 people, including friends of Abi-Karam’s, and the institution of the 2017 Muslim ban.
Jake Skeets’ 2019 debut collection, “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers,” examines both queer and indigenous identity, as well as the legacy of trauma in the Southwest.
“A major theme in my first book was this concept of the border of some kind,” said Skeets, who grew up in Vanderwagen, New Mexico, which is in the Navajo Nation, and commuted outside of Navajo territory to nearby Gallup for school. “It's definitely a journey of discovery in terms of coming out and understanding sexuality, but it's also a journey into the harsh conditions of these border towns.
Skeets said Gallup, a setting for multiple films, has been a dangerous place for the Native population due to discrimination, lack of employment opportunities and violence perpetrated on Natives by non-Native people. It was at his Gallup school, however, that Skeets was introduced to poetry in his junior year. A teacher noticed his interest in reading and gave him a packet of poems by Native American poets like Joy Harjo, Luci Tapahonso and Laura Tohe.
“I feel like that was a very transformative moment in my life,” he said.
Poetry, Skeets said, has become a way for him to explore his Native identity and continue the tradition of indigenous storytelling.
“For us, as Navajo, we're very privileged and very lucky to be sitting on our ancestral land,” he said. “So we have a very strong connection to those types of oral traditions.”
Contemporary LGBTQ poetry to add to your reading list
We asked Abi-Karam and Skeets to share the poets they are reading now and compiled those below with some notable suggestions of our own.
“We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics” edited by Kay Gabriel and Andrea Abi-Karam
Along with fellow poet Kay Gabriel, author of the 2017 chapbook "Elegy Department Spring / Candy Sonnets 1", Abi-Karam edited this response to many of the mainstream narratives about the trans experience.
"A thing that happens in mainstream publishing around trans writers specifically is that the objectification of trans pain is the thing that has been decided to be marketable," Abi-Karam said. "So this is filled with desire and sex and celebration, while also talking about how to navigate, how to fight against and how to collectivise against all the horrible things in the world."
"water/tongue" by mai c. doan
A 2020 Lambda Literary Award nominee, mai c. doan’s “water/tongue” delves into the legacy of migration and war as expressed through doan’s own family tree.
It's a fragmentary narrative of intergenerational trauma," Abi-Karam said. "It's a piecing together of family history and Vietnamese history. It's really beautiful."
"The Activist" by Renee Gladman
Abi-Karam has long considered the poet and essayist Renee Gladman a mentor in the literary world, especially when it comes to Gladman’s approach to the written word.
"She's kind of a language architect," they said, noting “The Activist” is their “favorite book” by Gladman. "I love her because she writes a lot about the instability of urban spaces while revealing what's underneath."
"Slingshot" by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Poet Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s debut collection “Slingshot” delves into disability justice, the meaning of gender and sexuality and the complexities of desire.
"He writes these amazing, precise and perverse lyrics, which I love," Abi-Karam said of Johnson, whose book won the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry.
“GENESIS” by Crisosto Apache
Skeets said he’s recently been rereading poetry collections that “have stayed with me” in terms of emotional resonance. One of those collections is by fellow indigenous poet Crisosto Apache. Apache’s 2018 book “GENESIS” examines the power of reclaiming a cultural identity and ancestral language, as well as what it means to be both Native and part of the LGBTQ community.
“Wound From the Mouth of a Wound” by torrin a. greathouse
The allure of a beautiful face has been the inspiration of countless poems throughout history. In another title on Skeets’ recommendation list, greathouse ruminates on what it means to be simultaneously beautiful, transgender and disabled. The collection was awarded the 2020 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, with judge Aimee Nezhukumatathil noting that greathouse's poems and their “fusion of public and private desires dig into exhilarating terrain.”
“Catrachos: Poems” by Roy G. Guzmán
Both a depiction of the Latin American immigration experience and a coming-of-age story, Roy G. Guzmán’s debut, “Catrachos,” takes its name from a word for the people of Honduras. Released in 2020, “Catrachos” is one of the books Skeets has returned to this year.
Guzmán’s poems have been praised for their depiction of growing up in a working class Honduran American family in Miami and for the way they connect the struggles of queerness across borders.
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
The winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition” introduced the poetry world to a new form of verse Brown calls the duplex, which combines aspects of sonnets, ghazals and the blues. The poems that make up “The Tradition” alternately explore Blackness, Southern American culture, queerness, love and joy.
In its Pulitzer Prize citation, “The Tradition” was praised for its “masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.”
“Water I Won’t Touch” by Kayleb Rae Candrilli
Released earlier this month, Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s “Water I Won’t Touch” is a rumination on what it means to be trans in an often hostile world. Candrilli wrote the poems that make up their third book while recovering from a double mastectomy.
Candrilli’s examination of the transformation of their own body and the impact of that seismic change on them is presented alongside meditations on the impact of ecological harm and the legacy of familial violence.
“Mad Long Emotion” by Ben Ladouceur
Canadian poet Ben Ladouceur’s 2019 collection showcases the art of the sonnet and its power to express longing and the complexity of love.
The book opens with a set of sonnets, many of which explore queer love and desire. “Mad Long Emotion” also includes a love letter of sorts to readers, to whom Ladouceur dedicates the opening poem of the collection.
“Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across” by Mary Lambert
As the title suggests, processing shame and trauma are two central themes of Mary Lambert’s 2018 book.
In addition to being a musician and poet, Lambert is an activist and mental health advocate, and the pieces in this collection delve into what it means to heal.