Our Fourteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets
Our fourteenth annual look at debut poets.
THIS year’s focus on debut poets features ten of the most notable first books of poetry published in 2018. The selected books, which encompass a broad range of styles and subjects, take on complicated and weighty topics— Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come for Us traces the impact of the Partition of India, Tacey M. Atsitty’s Rain Scald draws on Navajo ceremony to elegize and pray for the land, Mario Chard’s Land of Fire reckons with a sense of exile, and Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood and Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency contend with, among other issues, the injustices Black people have endured in America. Each poet seems to address the question Jenny George, author of The Dream of Reason, asks: “How much of our aliveness can we bear?”
For all the gravity of the poets’ concerns, though, there is also a sense of play and invention throughout their work. Asghar’s book contains poems written as riffs on Mad Libs and bingo grids and crossword puzzles, José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal crackles with jokes, and Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin flashes with self-deprecating wit. When we asked the poets to describe the stories behind their books and how they work through writing impasses, many pointed to this balance between the serious and the playful. While writing his book, Olivarez says he wanted to tell stories with an “eye toward mischief.” Jenny Xie, author of Eye Level, says that when she reaches an impasse, it feels “completely necessary to lower the stakes, to restore some sense of play, or to build just for the sake of chasing a question, a sound, or the mind’s movements, wherever it leads.” Other poets describe it as the willingness to experiment—Clark discusses toying with different forms and syntax when she’s stuck—and other poets present it as daring: Diana Khoi Nguyen, author of Ghost Of, advises writers, “Dare to take on ambitious, large poetry projects that terrify you.”
Whether it’s through mischief or experimentation or rebellion, through anger or pain or the process of recovery, the ten poets featured here all seem to seek the freedom to write without expectation, to eradicate feelings of obligation, and to proceed with a sense of possibility. And this, after all, is what we hope for most from a debut book of poetry: that we might meet language spoken in ways we haven’t previously encountered, that we might, as Xie says, find “wilder forms.” And perhaps the work of these poets might inspire you to play with new forms and move, as George says, “without attachment in a purposeful direction toward what it is you don’t know.”