Can We Talk About Our Favorite Living Women Poets?

In my industry -- literary agenting -- it’s the first cliché you learn: don’t represent poetry. It’s commercial poison.
Publish date:
September 2, 2013
women, poetry, greats, famous

In my industry -- literary agenting -- it’s the first cliché you learn: don’t represent poetry. It’s commercial poison. Readerships are tiny, advances even tinier. After hours and hours prepping and negotiating a poetry book deal, we agents might make enough commission to take ourselves out for Endless Shrimp at Red Lobster, but chances are we won’t even get that much.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Just the other day, a major New York publisher -- Little, Brown -- bought a poetry collection from Kevin Powers, whose novel The Yellow Birds was a big bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award. And earlier this summer, Doubleday published David Rakoff’s beautiful, posthumous novel-in-verse.

However, if you’re not in that literary stratosphere in which editors publish whatever the fuck you do because you’re Just So Great, fuggedaboutit.

As a former grad student in English literature, I am depressed by this. I love poetry. It’s like Adderall to me, in that it’s something I regularly ingest to bring my thoughts and feelings into sharper focus.

It might be Pollyannaish of me to hope that I can bolster the poetry market in one post, but I know there are others of you out there who love poetry as much as I do and want to support the people writing it. So can we have a poetry swap? You tell me what underappreciated living poets I should be reading, and I’ll tell you about a few my friends and I love?

I’d like to concentrate on women poets for two reasons:

  1. This is xoJane.
  2. In my casual observation, women are as underrepresented in the canon of Great Contemporary Poetry as they are in Great Contemporary Literature. For instance, since the Library of Congress started calling its poetry consultants “Poet Laureate” in 1986, there have been 14 male Poet Laureates and only 5 female. That's ridiculous.

Without further ado, here are my friends' and my picks:

1. Lavinia Greenlaw

Relatively well known in the UK, Greenlaw doesn’t have as much of a following here in the States. She should. I discovered her in a grad-school course on the relationship of poetry and science, and she’s been one of my favorite poets ever since.

Quoted by the Library of Congress as saying “The poem…has to be as tightly constructed as any scientific hypothesis,” she writes poems of alienation and longing in precise metaphors borrowed from astronomy, medicine, and other scientific fields. Reading her work, I feel like someone has taken my most intimate emotions and given them both physical substance and galactic significance.

Check our Night Photograph, Greenlaw’s first big collection, to see what I mean: “I meet my brother in a bar / and he shows me a piece of outer space: / six degrees by six degrees / a fragment stuffed with galaxies. / He explains how you get pairs of stars / that pull each other into orbit, / forever unable to touch or part….”

It’s amazing stuff if you’re a science geek like me.

2. Naomi Shihab Nye

This one came to me via recommendation from my friend Liz, 29, who loves the Palestinian-American poet “for the feeling of outsider-ness she captures.”

Like Greenlaw, Shihab Nye explores the relationship between intimate, personal longing and something physical and shared: in this case, ethnic displacement.

See her poem “Two Countries” for a particularly vivid example of this: “Skin remembers how long the years grow / when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel / of singleness, feather lost from the tail / of a bird, swirling onto a step, / swept away by someone who never saw that it was a feather.”

3. Anne Carson

Justifiably famous throughout North America, the Canadian Carson was introduced to me by another friend: Caitlin, 28.

Carson’s two most famous books, Autobiography of Red and Red Doc, “are novels in verse, so prose readers have a plot and characters to latch onto,” Caitlin wrote to me. “Autobio has a queer following, and much of it is about impossible longing -- the myth of Geryon is that Heracles kills him, [and] Geryon the character falls immediately in love with Heracles.”

Caitlin continued, “But there's another element to Geryon's queerness; he's a red winged monster, and it's at times ambiguous whether we are supposed to read this metaphorically. Because I don't feel like I fit neatly into even a marginalized subgroup, the compounded queerness appeals to me -- the sense that there may or may not be something the matter.”

Reading Caitlin’s email, I was reminded of a quote from Alan Bennett’s play “History Boys”: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something…which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else…. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

4. Thylias Moss

Moss, professor at the University of Michigan and former MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, might be better described as a multimedia experimentalist than a poet these days. Her work explores interacting systems of language and sensory input.

Although I’m not as familiar with her avant-garde stuff, I love some of the traditional poetry she's written, which -- can you see a theme in what I like to read?! -- couches intimate observations on identity and alienation in metaphors of music and the natural world.

Take a look at some of her best poems here. My favorite is “Tornados” (sic): “Truth is, I envy them / not because they dance; I out jitterbug them / as I’m shuttled through and through legs / strong as looms, weaving time. They do black more justice than I, frenzy / of conductor of philharmonic and electricity, hair / on end, result of the charge when horns and strings release / the pent up Beethoven and Mozart. Ions played / instead of notes.”

5. Sharon Olds

I’m so glad that my friend Stephanie, 30 reminded me earlier this week of this brilliant, justifiably famous Pulitzer Prize winner. (Stephanie herself is publishing a book next year, and it's going to be awesome.)

Olds' "language is so vivid, and the emotion she captures so authentic,” Stephanie wrote. “She goes for blood and guts. Reading her work is invigorating.”

She continued, “she is often criticized as confessional, as if writing about women’s experience is gossip instead of considering the human condition. She writes a lot about family, and motherhood, without being removed or maudlin.”

Stephanie pointed me toward “The Language of the Brag,” Olds’ absolutely amazing poem about childbirth, which has become my rallying cry as I waddle through my last trimester of pregnancy.

“I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body, / some heroism, some American achievement / beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self, / magnetic and tensile,” Olds writes. “My belly big with cowardice and safety / stool charcoal by the iron pills, / huge breasts leaking colostrum / legs swelling, hands swelling… / I have lain down.”

Reading Olds’ poem, I feel for the first time a measure of pride in this transformed body of mine.

I’m ready for my next poetry fix. Whose poetry are you reading these days? Whose collections should I buy?