Poetry gives people a chance to express themselves and show their worldview.
Poetry may act as both a salve for our injuries and as a catalyst for change. Here are 15 feminist poets to read when you want to feel inspired, heard, or be reminded that there is always time to grow and change:
Morgan Parker is the author of the critically acclaimed There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, her second collection of poetry in which she sheds light on mental health struggles, race, culture, trauma and feminism by utilizing humor and unflinching honesty. She offers commentary on pop culture and her own personal experiences.
Parker features talented established and up and coming poets in her popular reading series Poets with Attitude which she hosts with fellow poet Tommy Pico that takes place in Los Angeles and New York City. Parker has been profiled by the New Yorker, and her work has been anthologized in publications including Best American Poetry 2016 and The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Parker’s numerous accolades include receiving a Pushcart Prize in 2016 and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in 2017.
“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”
-Margaret Atwood, The Paris Review interview
Though perhaps best known for her best-selling dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale, which was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning television series, Atwood has also published several collections of poetry including The Journeys of Susanna Moodie, Power Politics, and Two-Headed Poems. Atwood’s work has been published in 35 countries, and her first collection of poetry, Double Persephone, won the E.J. Pratt Medal in 1961. Her second poetry collection, The Circle Game, won the Governor General's Award in 1966. Atwood currently serves as the Vice-President of PEN International.
“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”
-Audre Lorde, "Poetry Is Not a Luxury"
Throughout her life, Lorde worked to shed light on the importance of understanding the concept of intersectionality by uplifting voices of those who belong to identities outside of the mainstream, which she referred to as the "mythical norm."
Lorde’s feminist poetry collection From a Land Where Other People Live depicts personal identity struggles as well as her personal irritation at social injustice. Through her interrogation of the interconnectivity of all forms of oppression, she sought to uplift people of various classes, races, ages, and sexualities.
After moving to the Greenwich Village and developing friendships with fellow Beat poets, Di Prima joined Timothy Leary’s intentional community in Upstate New York, then moved west to San Francisco where she went on to found the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts and be named Poet Laureate in 2009.
Her epic poem Loba follows the journey of a mythical she-wolf who goes on various adventures and shape-shifts into different creatures. Di Prima has published over 40 books that often celebrate the strength of woman without turning away from woman’s vulnerability. She chronicles her experiences of living as a woman in the typically male-dominated Beat scene in Memoirs of a Beatnik and in Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years. She has received numerous honors including receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Poetry Association’s Lifetime Service Award.
“The broken english of a mother
running across the street
the telephone lines
they’re all getting
caught up in my hair”
- Bushra Rehman, “You Say You Miss My Hair”
Rehman was raised in Corona, Queens and uses her personal experiences growing up in her darkly comedic autobiographical novel Corona. She served as a coeditor of the anthology Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism which was named as one of Ms. Magazine’s "100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time." Marianna’s Beauty Salon, Rehman's debut poetry collection, uses biting humor and wisdom to interrogate the true meaning of the American Dream. Among her numerous accolades, Rehman has received recognition from Cave Canem, the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, and Kundiman.
"The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.”
-Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Rankine’s incredible work Citizen: An American Lyric examines the ways in which race and gender are exploited. Citizen is the only book of poetry to ever become a New York Times bestseller in the category of nonfiction. Rankine's beautiful yet straightforward voice is fresh and uninhibited. Rankine describes the journeys of women and their lives by detailing discrimination that they face. She conveys the experience of being a Black woman in America in part by examining Serena Williams's treatment by the tennis community and by the media. Rankine has received honors including the PEN Open Book Award, PEN Literary Award, National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.
“Sometimes I’m telling other people’s stories to remove stigma and taboo, so that they don’t have to feel ashamed; sometimes you use yourself as an example...Character driven poetry is important for me – it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately.”
- Warsan Shire, Africa in Words interview
You may have first heard the name Warsan Shire after her work was prominently featured in Beyoncé's visual album Lemonade, but Shire’s other works are equally as compelling. In her debut collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Shire explores themes such as infidelity, emigration, and body image are explored. Her commanding, clever use of phrase shows the stories of many women, expertly capturing experiences of displacement and trauma. Shire was the recipient of the first Brunel African Poetry Prize and was named London’s first Young Poet Laureate.
A Change of World, Rich's first collection of poetry, was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Rich is credited with bringing the visibility of oppression faced by women into poetic discourse. Her 1963 collection Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law analyze her female identity and explore the tensions that arose while she was raising a family.
In 1997, she refused to accept the National Medal of Arts to protest ending funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Among her many distinctions, Rich received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Frost Medal, MacArthur Fellowship, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lannan Foundation in 1999.
“I made a cup of this funny
kind of tea I’ve had hanging
around. A little too sweet
an odd mix. My only impulse
was to make it sweeter.”
- Eileen Myles, “The Honey Bear”
Through their writing about the body and the many ways it interacts with the world, Myles delivers autobiographical accounts alongside the mythic. They have published 21 volumes of fiction and poetry. Myles has garnered numerous accolades including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Creative Capital grant, and four Lambda Book Awards. Myles held to position of artistic director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project from 1984 to 1986. Bust Magazine has called Myles ‘the rock star of modern poetry.’ Myles has an exhibition showing from November 2018-January 2019 at Bridget Donahue Gallery in New York City.
“How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?”
- Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Nelson’s stunning lyric essay Bluets earned critical acclaim for its integration of academia with verse. Her poetic memoir The Argonauts offers both meditation and analysis of her own romantic relationship, motherhood, family making, and beyond. She has received the Glassock Award for Interdisciplinary Scholarship and grants from the MacArthur Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning earned distinction as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
First-generation college student Kristina Marie Darling advocates for women working in that arts and higher education. She has written over thirty books of prose and poetry including Je Suis L’Autre: Essays & Interrogations, which The Brooklyn Rail named one of the Best Books of 2017. She is currently the editor-in-chief at Tupelo Review, and she has received three residences to Yaddo, two grants from the Whiting Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kitteredge fund.
“Who knows why you decided, of all words,
to say sorry? History didn’t force
you to; men in your place, looking tired, hurt,
have groaned I regret and The failure’s mine, not yours
but never sorry…”
-Marianne Kunkel, “Lip Gloss to Hillary”
Kunkel’s most recent poetry collection Hillary, Made Up combines humor and political commentary in a series of persona poems, spoken through the voices of various beauty products. The seemingly trivial is juxtaposed against the significant in this collection that does not seek to understand ‘what happened’ in 2016, but instead examines the crushing standards to which women in power are held.
Kunkel served as the managing editor at Prairie Schooner while she was earning her Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She currently serves as editor-in-chief of The Mochila Review.
Sotelo’s “I’m Trying to Write a Poem About a Virgin and It’s Awful” was included in the Best New Poets 2015 by current Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith. She has received honors such as the 2016 DISQUIET International Literary Prize and publication in the New Yorker. Virgin, her collection which was selected by Ross Gay for the Jake Adam York Prize, combats female stereotypes by delivering an honest depiction of heartbreak, desire, and self-discovery through her sardonic, intelligent feminist narrator.
“I think that art is a mirror. It shows you the parts of the universe and the parts of yourself that you may not like and that are unconquerable.”
- Camonghne Felix, New York Women’s Foundation Magazine interview
Poet and political strategist Camonghne Felix has received accolades from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and Poets House. Felix began writing poetry in high school after watching a film about Malcolm X that moved her to tears. After a teacher read her poem and encouraged her to continue pursuing poetry, she began working with Urban Word NYC. Felix was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize, and her collection Build Yourself a Boat, is forthcoming from Haymarket Books in April 2019.
“But even with masculine dominance, we mares and mistresses
Produced some sleek saboteuses, making their cracks
Which the porridge-brained males of the day were too thick to perceive,
Mistaking young hornets for perfectly harmless bumblebees.”
- Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina”
Pulitzer Prize-winning Carolyn Kizer was published in the New Yorker at age 17 and founded Poetry Northwest in 1959. Kizer was the first director of Literary Programs for the National Endowment for the Arts, and she resigned from her post of Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets to protest the lack of women and minorities on the board. Her 2000 work "Pro Femina" mimics the hexameter employed by misogynist poet Juvenal to call for change that will end patriarchal control of women’s lives.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.
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