8 Women Poets You Need To Know About For National Poetry Month

by Myra Pearson

This April is the 20th National Poetry Month, and what better way to celebrate than by curling up with a good book? While most of us can name at least a few women in the field, here’s a list of contemporary poets you may not be familiar with.

Author Photo of Claudia Rankine

1. Claudia Rankine

Rankine is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and has published five volumes of poetry, two plays and various essays. Her 2014 book, Citizen: An American Lyric, won the PEN Open Book Award, in addition to numerous others, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In it, she confronts the persistent reminders of America’s history of racial violence and the harsh reality of everyday racism.

Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. 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.

Tracy K. Smith006

2. Tracy K. Smith

Smith’s book Life on Mars (Graywolf 2011) was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In this lyrical and vivid collection, she speaks about birth, childhood, the universe, the death of her father — who worked on the Hubble Telescope — and takes on the personas of victims of recent fatal hate crimes.

The earth gunning it around the sun. / 
The earth we ride in disbelief. / 
The earth we plunder like thieves. / 
The earth caked to mud in the belly / 
Of a village with no food. Burying us. / 
The earth coming off on our shoes.

Natasha Trethewey during book signing at the University of Michigan

3. Natasha Tretheway

Tretheway’s work often explores the lives and jobs of working-class people, as well as the experience of being mixed-race. Native Guard (2006), her third book, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry and is told from the perspective of slaves fighting against the Confederacy. She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

We know it is our duty now to keep / white men as prisoners — rebel soldiers, / would-be masters. / We’re all bondsmen here, each / to the other. Freedom has gotten them / captivity. For us a conscription / we have chosen — jailors to those who still / would have us slaves.


4. Cathy Park Hong

Dance Dance Revolution (W. W. Norton 2007) takes place in an imaginary desert and is narrated by the Historian, who searches for the woman her father loved. Hong experiments with language, in particular the idea of language in transition. Engine Empire (W. W. Norton 2012) continues her lyrical and narrative style, this time confronting myths of prosperity.

do not mention how Officials used to dump all the cripples from / the Capital into Shangdu. / Now that Shangdu is booming, they have / rounded all the cripples and exiled them to a remote outpost up north. / That outpost is also beginning to boom.

bio photo 2Photo via maggiesmithpoet.com

5. Maggie Smith

Smith’s book The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo 2015) is a haunting reinterpretation of fairy tales and an exploration of danger and perceived safety. She has earned numerous awards — most recently the Gold Medal for poetry in 2016 by the Independent Publisher Book Awards ‚ and is a contributing editor to the Kenyon Review.

Nothing stays good for long— / not the new neighborhood with its wrist full of charms, / not the last tier of wedding cake in the icebox, white / and glittering like a glacier. No one was preserved, / an heirloom apple. Not even the three daughters / would taste exactly as girls did hundreds of years ago.

Carolyn Forche NBCC 2011 Shankbone 1

6. Carolyn Forché

A poet and human rights activist, Forché’s work often blends the personal and political. She describes the importance of merging the two spheres: “We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between ‘personal’ and ‘political’ poems…The distinction…gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough.” Her anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (W. W. Norton 1993) is a painful indictment of the cruelties of war.

You will be asked who you are. / Eventually, we are all asked who we are. / All who come / All who come into the world / All who come into the world are sent. / Open your curtain of spirit.

1977Photo via poetryfoundation.org

7. Hannah Sanghee Park

In 2014, Park won the Walt Whitman Award for her book The Same-Different (LSU Press 2015). Her debut book, it dazzles with word-play and nearly missable meanings which demand a second reading.

Each step conquered territory, / at last, the sleeping prince-once-bull, torrid tearing / of clothes, tearing on one’s clothes, three nights of this /until the prince awakes. How she, exhausted, / must have felt in the at long last, the ever after. / Happily, I guess, but a long time until laughter.

2065 copyPhoto via poetryfoundation.org

8. Tarfia Faizullah

The author of two books, Seam (SIU 2014) and Register of Illuminated Villages (Graywolf 2017), Faizullah received a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to Bangladesh to explore the history of the birangona, Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War of 1971.

I take my place among / this damp, dark horde of men / and women who look like me— / because I look like them—/ because I am ashamed / of their bodies that reek so / unabashedly of body— / because I can—because I am / an American, a star / of blood on the surface of muscle.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons except where noted. Top photo via Flickr/takomabibelot.

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