31 Poets Recommend 31 Poetry Books to Read Every Day in August
Poet Nicole Sealey challenges you to read one poetry book a day this month, and Ocean Vuong, Hanif Abdurraqib, and others are here to tell you where to start
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Back in the summer 2017 Nicole Sealey started to feel like she wasn’t doing as much reading as she normally did. This was understandable, seeing as she was serving Executive Director of Cave Canem—an organization dedicated to Black poets and poetry—and promoting her debut collection, Ordinary Beast, at the same time. And so she set herself a challenge: read an entire book of poetry every day during the month of August. Thirty-one days, 31 books.
“The Sealey Challenge was, initially, just a conscious effort to return to the habit of reading poetry,” says Sealey, who has since stepped down as ED of Cave Canem. “I posted across social media to ask if anyone wanted to join me in reading a book a day in August. Folks did, and the challenge caught on. Now, it’s in its third year. Now it’s tradition.” Sealey is no stranger to building community—Cave Canem’s programming is all about creating a legacy of Black poetry through workshops, mentorship, readings, and support. So it’s no wonder the challenge has caught on like wildfire. Both poets and poetry readers alike use the hashtag #TheSealeyChallenge and post photos of the books they’re reading during the month, creating a storm of poetry on social media.
But reading one book every day isn’t easy. Are they meant to be read individually, so readers allow them to sink in, or do we go through a poetry collection as we would a novel? Sealey recommends that “Poems should be consumed as individual readers see fit. As a poet myself, I read for pleasure and/or to better my craft. During the Sealey Challenge, however, I read for enjoyment. There’s no hard and fast rule. Really, I’m thrilled that folks are reading more books of poetry, many of which are chapbooks, and doing so together.”
She adds that the books she selects are ones she’s been meaning to read for a while, but hasn’t yet. She has some suggestions to help those participating in the challenge:
- DO select collections that can be read in one day (I’m a slow reader, so I tend to select books with no more than 100 pages).
- DO use your time wisely (read on the train, during lunch, before bed, et cetera).
- DO take your time—poetry is deserving of our full attention (if reading a selection carries over to the next day or the day after that, so be it).
- DO read chapbooks—for every full-length, read a chapbook (chapbooks need audiences too and this will help us keep pace).
- Lastly, DO return to and study these books between September 1st and the next year’s #TheSealeyChallenge.
- We can DO it!
If you’re new to the poetry world, though, finding chapbooks and short poetry collections may be a challenge in itself. There is a lot of great work out there, and poetry doesn’t often get publicized as widely as other writing does. To help you along, I asked (read: straight up slid into their DMs) 31 poets to recommend just one book of poetry they’ve loved. Thirty-one poets, 31 collections. Maybe you’ll find your new favorite amongst these.
Damn, just one, eh. Pardon My Heart by Ohioan poet Marcus Jackson.
—Nicole Sealey, author of Ordinary Beast
I’d recommend Harmony Holiday’s A Jazz Funeral For Uncle Tom, for how it blends lyric, imagery, and history to formulate a clear and striking narrative.
—Hanif Abdurraqib, author of A Fortune For Your Disaster (September 2019)
Sarah Gambito’s Loves You is a remarkable folksong and jubilee of the heart—and stomach. The connections of food, love, and landscape bubble and froth together here in a stunningly and dazzlingly original compilation.
—Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Oceanic
Sara Borjas’ Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff.
—Denice Frohman, co-organizer of #PoetsforPuertoRico
Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning. That book uses restlessness, in form, lexicons, languages, and styles to define a new way of living and thinking in otherness that is both homage to literary precursors as well as a treatise for healing and futurity for writers of color.
—Ocean Vuong, author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds
I love Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song. There’s so much beauty in that book. There’s also quiet in the book. You can hear the quiet between the lines. There’s also so much pain in that book. But the beauty overpowers all. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.
—Victoria Chang, author of Barbie Chang
If you haven’t read J. Michael Martinez’s Museum of the Americas, you are missing out; this is one of my favorite collections of recent years for its lyrical inquiry into Mexican heritage and imperialism, and the Latinx body that emerges from that history of oppression and consumption.
—Rosebud Ben-Oni, author of turn around, BRXGHT XYXS (forthcoming)
I would recommend John Allen Taylor’s chapbook Unmonstrous (YesYes Books). It is heart-wrenching and elegant, quiet and loud, recounting trespass, healing, and the beauty we find along the way.
—Diannely Antigua, author of Ugly Music
Olio by Tyehimba Jess. Olio makes me wonder about the future of poetry and consider how it could thrive both on and off of the page. The theatrical way in which the poems of Olio and the physical text itself are presented–resist institution and convince me that contemporary poetry is on the verge of yet another exciting renaissance!
—Faylita Hicks, author of Hoodwitch (October 2019)
Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey. An incredible experiment in quietness and solicitude.
—Camonghne Felix, author of Build Yourself A Boat
The last book of poetry I read with deep interest was Jay Bernard’s Surge, which reckons not just with history but also literary tradition to call attention to the recursivity of social violence/ anti-black racism in the U.K. In Bernard’s hands, form and narrative are melded to produce a truly political poetry (in every sense of the political)!
—Billy-Ray Belcort, author of This Wound is a World
Raquel Salas Rivera’s while they sleep (under the bed is another country) sees and distills centuries. As the aftereffects of the U.S.’s violent response to Puerto Rico, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, grow, this book, its nuanced analysis and use of language, is a tool for surviving the future.
—Andrés Cerpa, author of Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy
Franny Choi’s Soft Science. This book reads like a cross between an lyric erotic memoir and a Isaac Asimov story. In these formally inventive poems, Choi explores the complicated mess that is the human psyche and find us all (America and beyond) both monstrous and beautiful. You should really read this book.
—Jeffrey Thomson, author of Half/Life: New & Selected Poems (October 2019)
Joe Jiménez’s Rattlesnake Allegory: The lyric echoes & queer longing of Joe Jiménez’s Rattlesnake Allegory deftly deconstruct the space between the body & the environment it navigates. For Jiménez, the body itself takes form as “a nest braided in hush,” & desire a snake that coils within, & stays.
—Matty Layne Glasgow, author of Deciduous Qween
I recommend everyone read Teeth by Aracelis Girmay. Girmay’s first book of poems is full of balms and rallying cries. It is a book to carry with you at all times. If you can read the poem, FOR ESTEFANI LORA, THIRD GRADE, WHO MADE ME A CARD, and not giggle to yourself with joy, then you might want to check your pulse.
—José Olivarez, author of Citizen Illegal
I recommend Mend (The University Press of Kentucky) by Kwoya Fagin Maples. There are so many things to love and study here, namely how Maples beautifully uses both personal and persona poems to investigate what it means for black women to have (literally) made history but not be apart of it.
—Malcolm Tariq, author of Heed the Hollow
Etel Adnan’s Sea and Fog: A quote from the book: “The forest is shaking terribly. Waves howl and break in jets of water. What beauty, this fury! Sea: It is because she is that we are, and when she disappears we’ll cease to be. It’s only in relation to her that we find some worth to our existence.”
—Grace Shuyi Liew, author of Careen
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s Jazzercise is a Language: A friend thrust this book into my arms knowing what it would do to me and now I thrust it into yours. This book thinks, it sweats, it offers sweat-drenched leotards and leitmotifs of being doused in seltzer, it counts to a beat (one two one two, bodies impacting a floor) and inhabits/blows up the confounding — racialized, gendered, wild — language of FITNESS DANCE and its celebrities/practitioners/instructors — “when you’re smiling I know you’re breathing.” This is a fucking great book. Skip that cruel Richard SImmons podcast and read this instead.
—Hannah Ensor, author of Love Dream with Television
Domenica Martinello’s All Day I Dream About Sirens (Coach House Books, 2019): All Day I Dream About Sirens by Domenica Martinello is an intoxicating debut. She braids diction from mythology and late stage capitalism into language that’s vibrant and slippery. The varying linguistic registers and tone shifts both critique and enact our age of flickering attention spans. Her poems are dazzling, exhilarating.
—Eduardo C. Corral, author of Slow Lightning
Alberto Rios makes use of magical realism in order to infuse our world—which is full of such codified notions as nationality and gender—with the often-unacknowledged mysteries of our own shifting and mutable identities. Every one of his books is a lesson in sorcery, but The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body is slaying me these days: “What I could not have, / That’s what I was / Inside, an ache / Coming as I stood / Too many places.”
—Keetje Kuipers, author of All Its Charms
Jay Wright’s The Prime Anniversary (Flood Editions, 2019): With incomparable poetic vision, Jay Wright again reminds us of our sonic birthright. At the meeting place of Góngora and Ogotemmêli, his lines thoroughly reconfigure the perception of time and geography. With astounding lyrical precision—a music composed of fractions, infinity, proper names—The Prime Anniversary makes it desirable to inhabit the immensity beyond “this countable, nameable thing we call an individual.” Wright’s example allows us to rejoice in the justice that prevails in the present tense of what numbers know: “Nothing overcomes the radiant iambic; / no one forgets the geometry of lyric.”
—Roberto Tejada, author of Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness
I recommend anything by Marosa di Giorgio (Ugly Duckling’s issuing of The History of Violets was my first introduction). Di Giorgio’s prose poetry locates and then often identifies with the perilous beauty of the natural world as it applies to selfhood, longing, ancestry, and eros. In her voice, I feel the coiled-up burgeoning of a lily caged because of its murder history, even as she praises its perfume.
—Justin Wymer, author of Deed
Deciduous Qween by Matty Layne Glasgow: The poems of Deciduous Qween excavate the body and talk about it fearlessly, with exact attention. They rustle with honest statements that fall as they become part of a greater nature. They exist in a desert where loss and restlessness have come to play and be. You will find yourself attached to these funny, pensive and tender poems. They will follow you around helping you name what you were actually feeling, not what you think you should feel because others have said so. Read this when you want to feel free.
—Analicia Sotelo, author of Virgin
The Year of Blue Water by Yanyi—I keep returning to this book and it keeps returning me to myself, in all these gorgeously unexpected ways. Within these pages, memory, dream, friendship, and the everyday are sites of rigorous meditation and imaginative reconfiguring.
—Chen Chen, author of When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities
View With a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems by Wislawa Szymborska—Nobel Prize winner, hotel soap stealer, beloved scientist-poet-philosopher, and Patron Saint of Perpetual Noticing, Szymborska illuminates the paradox and wonder of being alive like no one else. She’s funny as hell too.
—Shira Erlichman, author of Odes to Lithium
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay (2015): One of the healthiest books I’ve ever read, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has recharged my own commitments to studying/exploring the radical observations and critical challenges of joy.
—Geffrey Davis, author of Night Angler
Although listed as an essay collection, Lily Hoang’s genre-defying book, A Bestiary, is an absolutely groundbreaking tour de force that took my breath away and compelled me to read it in one sitting late into the night, and then many times since. With its objects, statements, poems, movements, gestures, essays, recollections, fairy tails or however you want to define them, one thing is certain: I don’t think I will ever be the same writer after having read this beautiful book.
—Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of Cenzontle
Of Mrs. Dalloway, Michael Cunningham says it’s the “first novel to split the atom.” Mai Der Vang’s Afterland continues in that nuclear spirit: stretching line breaks, imagery, and syntax to ambitious extremes. These poems are testaments to memory, war, exile, and trauma; they never forget to remind us why poetry is a powerful vehicle for survival.
—Roy Guzmán, 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow
It’s August, and your poetry should be as fierce as a NYC subway platform in a heat wave, so I recommend Beshrew (Dusie, 2019) by Danielle Pafunda. This snapshot-sized (4×6) feral book-length poem epigraphed with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 133 is love as crime-scene, duende, pleasure, and catastrophe. We are all on fire and these couplets roar through the ways in which we try to inhabit one another—the litany and ecstasy.
—Erika Meitner, author of Holy Moly Carry Me
Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child (Copper Canyon, 2017) is brash and poignant and hilarious and upsetting. As a new parent and a misanthrope, I had never felt so seen by a poetry collection. Reading it was like hearing someone say the inappropriate thing that you’ve always known to be true but haven’t been able to articulate and you’re like OOOOOOH YEAH SAY IT LOUDER. My copy is dog-eared and the margins are thickly be-hearted. Next to the lines “It’s/ awful, to be a person” I have written “hi, yes.” You can too.
—Claire Wahmanholm, author of Wilder
I would like to recommend Zaina Alsous’ A Theory of Birds. It’s a deeply rebellious, wild book that, like Dionne Brand’s work, attempts to map a radical vision of the world onto a girl’s body, give an Arab girl back her power to name the creatures, avenge those gone extinct, time travel. I’m thrilled by the formal experimentation and the referential nature of the work, using citation as a spiritual act to account for all the radical thinkers that made this debut possible.
—Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, author of Beast Meridian