Electric Lit’s Favorite Poetry Collections of 2021
Featuring Kaveh Akbar, Donika Kelly and eight more
Despite its setbacks, this year has been an abundant year in poetry. Throughout 2021, we read lyrical, rhythmic, political work that spoke to our collective horrors, as well as our collective joys. The poets on this list battled at the cross-roads of their internal and external lives. Through them, we traveled across space and time, and at every turn, there was another poet, a prophet whose words reminded us that through our journeys, we were never—not for one moment—alone. Electric Literature staff and contributors voted for their favorite poetry collections of the past year, and here are the top two, followed by additional favorites (there were many ties!) in alphabetical order.
The Top 2 Poetry Collections of the Year
Pilgrim Bell: Poems by Kaveh Akbar
Kaveh Akbar’s linguistic precision is crucial to his sophomore collection, Pilgrim Bell. One of literature’s most exciting contemporary poets, Akbar explores deeply personal themes surrounding his family’s immigrant experience, being Muslim in America, and his quest to stay sobor. Akbar is a consummate wordsmith, shaping and molding language to embody the spiritual landscape his poetry traverses. Pilgrim Bell was a highly anticipated 2021 collection, and it more than fulfills its immense promise.
The Renunciations: Poems by Donika Kelly
Donika Kelly’s sophomore collection lives inside some of the darkest traumas a person can face: child abuse, racial violence, the dissolution of a marriage. Kelly blends formal structure with more liminal elements of human survival like memory, employing lyrical virtuosity to explore the pain of the most intimate relationships—how familial harm spans generations—and how a person must shapeshift in order to survive. Kelly’s resilience is at the heart of these poems. Read more about The Renunciations, and other queer poetry collections here.
Electric Lit’s Other Poetry Favorites
The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser
Threa Almontaser’s critically acclaimed debut, The Wild Fox of Yemen, questions language, voice, translation, and how these basic elements of communication are formed and maintained by imperial violence. Alternating between English and Arabic, readers might want to keep their phones handy to translate a few words. This collection thrives at the intersection of dualities—New York and Yemen, English and Arabic, foreigner and native. Almontaser brings us Muslim girlhood in the wake of 9/11 but never loses herself or her centrality as she meditates on the fox: a dream creature representing both sacrifice and scavenger—perhaps the most visceral of all dualities at the heart of this collection.
Doppelgangbanger by Cortney Lamar Charleston
Doppelgangbanger invites readers to time travel with Cortnet Lamar Charleston back to the 90s, when hip-hop was king, to the streets of Chicago’s South Side. Charleston’s poems explore a Black boy’s struggle with destructive definitions of masculinity and the conflict between inner and outer life. Charleston’s playful, musical language creates a foundation upon which honesty and self-discovery soars. This highly anticipated collection is a journey from performative self to authentic self, and an ode to Black boys in urban cities everywhere.
Hoarders by Kate Durbin
This timely collection, inspired by the A&E docuseries, soars where the docuseries fails. The poems in Hoarders are an exercise in empathy, telling the story of a person and the beloved items they hoard. Kate Durbin then complicates this narrative by examining the larger context: a society beleaguered by gross consumerism. Durbins gives voice to her characters, using surrealism to inject humanity and tenderness into lives and stories that are often treated with disdain. Durbin reminds us that life under late capitalism is complicated. In 2021, who doesn’t need that?
Sho by Douglas Kearney
Both dazzling and devastating, Sho, Douglas Kearney’s seventh collection is a literary high-wire act that both employs Black vernacular strategies and uses various modes of performance to examine history and current events. These poems are wildly sonic, musical in their construction, and Kearney’s linguistic virtuosity creates a memorable all-sensory reading experience. Kearney dances at the intersection of entertainment and violence, and a good reader is left wondering where one starts and the other ends.
My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long
This much-lauded debut collection, My Darling from the Lions, tells a story of Black girlhood through the complicated lens of sexual politics and familial inheritance. Black identity is the geography of the book, which is divided into three sections, but additional recurring themes explore femininity, divinity, and familial shame, all in the context of modern culture. If it sounds as though this collection is uniquely wide-ranging, it’s because of Rachel Long’s ability to emphasize the power of every single word in every single poem, facilitating a collective impact that lingers long after a reader has put the book down.
Black Girl, Call Home by Jasmine Mans
A searing sense of longing permeates Black Girl, Call Home. Written by a renowned spoken word artist, it is an ideal literary companion for any woman wandering the annals of her mind, her life, or the collective experiences that have shaped her. A love letter to Black queer womanhood, Jasmine Mans’ poems are lush, free, and meditative, lucid and lyrical. They don’t shy away from difficult questions. The reader will be reminded of Mans’ spoken word roots, just as the book calls for Black women to find their paths home.
The Sunflower Casts a Spell to Save us From the Void by Jackie Wang
The Sunflower Casts a Spell to Save us From the Void, a 2021 National Book Award Finalist, is an amalgamation of dreams shaped and molded into poems—itself an act of literary translation spanning multiple realms. Jackie Wang dreams and writes of solidarity and resistance, individual and collective conflict. These concepts are vehicles to portray historical trauma and communal memory, and the way these collective forces seep themselves into our collective and individual psyches. Ultimately, Wang’s ethereal poetry bridges the gap between the spiritual realm and real life.
How to Not Be Afraid of Everything by Jane Wong
Jane Wong describes the feeling of her sophomore collection, How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, as “That turning around when I walk down the street, always feeling like I have to look behind me.” These quiet poems burrow under a readers’ skin, yielding small, intensely physical responses—fists curling and uncurling, a sharp intake of breath or an inability to look someone in the eye. The fear Wong’s collection addresses is the kind that calcifies into rage. These poems are a warning: America might not expect anger from a Chinese American woman, but you never know when her rage might release, when her fist might curl.