Our Favorite Poets
While no one needs a designated month to celebrate poetry, we’ll take the spotlight where we can get it and let Alternating Current staffers share some of their favorite poets with you for National Poetry Month.
Love me some Wallace Stevens, love me some Sylvia Plath, love me some Anne Sexton, love me some John Berryman, love me some Joe Pachinko, love me some Shane Allison, love me some James Tate, love me some Sandra Cisneros, love me some Antonio Machado, love me some Federico García Lorca, love me some Pablo Neruda. But the poetry collection I return to again and again is The Bedbug and Selected Poetry by Vladimir Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky is a motherfucker after mine own heart. His exclamation marks are not ironic or cynical. His exuberance for love and life bleeds across each page. My favorite poem ever is “Adults.”
But with me anatomy has gone mad: nothing but heart roaring everywhere.
Eventually, I’ll get those lines tattooed someplace on my body where only a lover can read them.
— Misti Rainwater-Lites
I discovered Rod McKuen as a happy accident while I was researching a paper in my college library. (Yes, you read that right. Researching a paper in an actual library.) His style of writing was unlike any of the poetry I had been force-fed in school, and it honestly took my breath away. I connected with his poetry in a way I had never connected with the form before, and I was immediately smitten. His poems are heartbreakers. They are so full of love and longing and appear so wide awake to every moment, to every breath, to every touch. It’s interesting to me, when I read reviews of his work, to see how Rod’s poetry polarizes people. I can’t help but wonder how his words don’t stir in others what they never cease to stir in me. Rod’s recent death came as a bit of a shock, mostly because I’ve just always thought of him as timeless. He’s been publishing poetry since the 60s, but the poems themselves don’t ever age.
RYAN W. BRADLEY
Ryan W. Bradley is second only to Rod McKuen when it comes to tickling my heart and lady-parts with his words. That’s right, I said it. His poetry touches me in all the most inappropriate ways, and I simply cannot get enough. Ryan, much like McKuen, has this incredible knack for taking a single, intimate moment and stretching it into a lifetime — one in which he is born, lives and dies, and becomes born back into. He visualizes love in ways I would never have imagined. His poems are tender and taut and love-drenched. He plays around with imagery, forcing his words to appear to you as actual, tangible things. Two of his most stunning collections are homages (The Waiting Tide is an ode to Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses, while Love & Rod McKuen is more of a satirical spoof.), and within You Are Jaguar, a collaboration between himself and David Tomaloff, Ryan showcases just how tight he can write, his prose conveying more with less, turning his poems into word daggers.
I might have had a Jim Morrison problem. Sure, I liked the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, and Floyd, but Jim was different. I wanted to listen to John and Paul. I didn’t want to be them. Even though I didn’t know what it meant, I wanted to be the Lizard King. I wanted to be the Sun King. I wanted to be Mr. Mojo Risin’. The Doors didn’t just open me to music, but also to words from new worlds. Jim brought the words, the ambition, the excess, the philosophy, the revolution, the poetry.
It was right before Oliver Stone and Val Kilmer tried to remake Jim in their own image. It was the late eighties when a friend of mine was taking a poetry class and, no offense to poetry classes at Iowa State — I’m sure they’re great — but that wasn’t poetry to me. Poetry was anguish in an empty dorm room. Poetry was the gut punch from a missing life. Poetry was written on the back of a junk envelope or the middle of a Political Science 201 spiral. Poetry was trying to Break on Through (to the Other Side) until I damn near broke myself.
It was when they started re-releasing Morrison poetry books and I bought them all. I read them over and over again. I folded pages back. I started highlighting lines and ended marking up entire pages. I wrote shitty poems of my own that I’d never show anyone. I listened to every Doors recording I could find. Eventually, it was obviously better to study his life than to try to live it. Unlike Jim, I made it past twenty-seven.
The artists of Hell
set up easels in parks
the terrible landscape,
where citizens find anxious pleasure
preyed upon by savage bands of youths
I can’t believe this is happening
I can’t believe all these people
are sniffing each other
& backing away
hair raised, growling, here in
the slaughtered wind
I am ghost killer
witnessing to all
my blessed sanction
This is it
no more fun
the death of all joy
(“The Lords and the New Creatures,” p. 132)
— Al Kratz
Poetry for me has always been about shared experiences. What makes me really love something, what stays with me long after I’ve finished reading, are the words that I’ve felt before, that I’ve said before — words that I’ve even probably written before. So when I happened across Katrina Vandenberg’s poem, “On the Fate of the Tulip Sultan,” from her collection, Atlas, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, or about her. “Sultan” isn’t the only poem she’s written that I felt this intense connection with, by any means, but it’s the one that I’m the most influenced by. It’s the one that got me back into contemporary poetry to begin with. Her poems have also taught me a lot, not just about writing, but about myself, and about life: about the messiness of relationships, about how necessary travel is, and about how important it is to be honest in your writing.
Desireé Dallagiacomo has done the same thing for me, but in a much less tame environment. I was blindsided one night (very late, or early, depending on the way you look at it) when I was binge-watching some Button Poetry. Most of what I was listening to was amazing, sure, but when I heard Desireé speak, I was floored. Look up “Thighs Say” and “I Break Like a Fever” — you’ll understand. Even now as I listen to her while I write this, I have chills, and I’m 68% sure I’ll be crying in five minutes. She pulls her own life experiences and lays them out, gritty and naked, unashamed of who she is and what she feels. When I read her work, or listen to her perform, I can feel the difference between fiction writers and the poets: I can feel it in the aching of my heart and the way she has me crying inside of three minutes.
Saeed Jones is more than a poet. He’s a VOICE. He takes a broken 21st Century America and shapes it to give it meaning, beauty, perspective, and sense. He does this not only in his poetry, but through his tweets, his essays, his readings, and his editorial work. He’s not just my favorite poet; he’s the most important poet right now. I am hardly the first to think this. Aside from his 23,000 Twitter followers who turn to him for an interpretation of the elusive moment, he was just named by The Root as one of the “20 Black Poets You Should Love,” and he was recently a finalist for a 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press).
Let’s talk about Prelude. I’m guessing you’ve read it. Wait, you haven’t? O jeez. Let me open my copy and just randomly pick a poem.
“Boy in a Whalebone Corset”
The acre of grass is a sleeping
swarm of locusts, and in the house
beside it, tears too are mistaken.
Thin streams of kerosene
when night throws itself against
the wall, when Nina Simone sings
in the next room without her body
and I’m against the wall, bruised
but out of mine: dream-headed
with my corset still on, stays
slightly less tight, bones against
bones, broken glass on the floor,
dance steps for a waltz
with no partner. Father in my room
looking for more sissy clothes
to burn. Something pink in his fist,
negligee, lace, fishnet, whore.
His son’s a whore this last night
of Sodom. And the record skips
and skips and skips. Corset still on,
nothing else, I’m at the window;
he’s in the field, gasoline jug,
hand full of matches, night made
of locusts, column of smoke
mistaken for Old Testament God.
See how you’ve changed? How you are no longer the same person you were when you read the first line? This is hardly the half of it. You must hear Saeed Jones read. It’s an event, an experience. It’s to be in the presence of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. It’s to witness a VOICE.
The first time I read Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me, I thought I’d discovered what surely everyone already knew about poetry: it could be real. Tell Me changed how I approached poetry. There were no rules, no limits to what you should write about. If your work is good, you can say whatever you want. Later, I was delighted to discover she wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Each of her collections pack punches; some you see coming, some you can’t. A modern confessionalist. I envy Addonizio’s frankness, but mostly her talent. Her ability to convey honesty on the page without condescending — without judgment — always leaves me moved. And, of course, poetry should always move you. Always.
Beyond poetry, I’ve also enjoyed her nonfiction. The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (co-authored with Dorianne Laux) was assigned reading for my first college poetry class. The course of my life was altered in that class, and while it’s impossible to separate the bias forever connected with it, the book is a wonderful resource for poetry (and general writing) exercises that I find myself returning to years later. Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within is another favorite that I recommend.
— Cetoria Tomberlin
Post originally published on 4/23/15