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For writers of poetry, and longtime lovers of poetry, the idea that the most ancient form of human expression is suddenly “having a moment” is both thrilling and amusing. Thanks to Instagram and Twitter, podcasts and YouTube, American poets are becoming cultural stars in a way that hasn’t happened since the rise of the Beats in the 1950s. Too restless to wallow in obscurity, too omnivorous to limit their diets to high art, these are poets who can pack a house and rouse a crowd. They’re breaking through with prose memoirs, yes, but they’re also branching out into media that might, on the surface, seem too frivolous for a poet. Instead of turning up their noses at technology, they’re deploying it in the service of verse.
Ada Limón lives in Kentucky these days, but if you catch a glint of California sunlight in her poems, there’s good reason. Limón, whose The Carrying won this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, spent her childhood in Sonoma Valley. “When I was growing up I thought the whole valley was somehow enchanted,” she says. “There is a slowness there, a sense of savoring things, a way of looking at the world through the oak tree leaves.” Her early influences were musicians—Joan Armatrading, Aretha Franklin, Rickie Lee Jones, Janis Joplin—but eventually a job at a local bookstore and an exposure to Elizabeth Bishop’s famous “One Art” set her on her path. But listen—music is still present. Like a chanteuse with a captivating voice, Limón grabs your attention and won’t let go.
Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles—Tommy Pico spent portions of his youth studying all of the diabolically rigid forms of traditional Western poetry. And when he finally decided to leave those labyrinths of structure behind, “it was for a reason,” he says. The loose, vital verse that he has subsequently churned out in four collections in the span of four years—IRL, Nature Poem, Junk, and his new one, Feed—roars along like a torrent that’s carrying everything with it: pop songs, film scenes, erotic trysts, dry wit, fast food, bad dates, apocalyptic debris, scary headlines, meditations and lamentations. A self-described autodidact, smitten with poetry but equally spellbound by performers like Janet Jackson and David Bowie, Pico grew up east of San Diego, on the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation. His poetic vision of the world is intentionally unpretty, with a tone that calls to mind our daily gush of tweets, emails, and Instagram captions. “My project of writing is to marry something very casual with something very sacred, which is quote-unquote capital-L ‘Literature,’” he says. “If I sat down and thought, ‘I have to write literature,’ it would paralyze me.But accepting flaws and limitation and imperfection is actually beautiful.”
It probably shouldn’t surprise us that Saeed Jones counts the fashion designer Alexander McQueen as one of his influences. The poems in Prelude to Bruise, Jones’s 2014 debut, are so painstakingly tailored that some of its lines seem to have been carved with a chisel. But shock, often brutal, crouches inside the coiled beauty. Jones says that he surprises himself during the process of writing. “I never know where poems are going to end,” he says. “It often startles me.” He has worked as the host of AM to DM, a popular morning news show on BuzzFeed News, and his new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, is already generating excitement. The coming-of-age stanzas in Prelude summon the dreamy Southern landscape of his upbringing in Texas and Tennessee, but they also bear the agonizing imprint of the 1998 deaths of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard—two men whose murders taught Jones, in his youth, about the perils of being black and gay. “Danger at every turn—it impacted and shaped me,” he says. Jones strives to create work that captures the world with all its twisted contradictions—“something that is beautiful,” he says, “but also a little wild and sexy and monstrous.”
Furious and obsessional, composed of litanies of declarative sentences that flare up like bottle rockets, Dorothea Lasky’s poems can be viewed as face-to-face encounters with someone whose subconscious doesn’t have a filter. Lust, longing, loathing—it all comes pouring out. Lasky, a professor at Columbia University who also happens to be one half (with poet Alex Dimitrov) of the hugely popular astrology Twitter account Astro Poets, grew up in St. Louis. “One night at age seven, I found myself writing poems in my bed, because I was searching for something to do instead of going to sleep,” she says. Sylvia Plath was an early touchstone—“my gateway drug,” she says—but Lasky’s incantations feel more unclenched than Plath’s. Hers are poems that a reader can’t pretend to pin down. Neither can their prolific author, who is releasing a prose meditation called Animal this fall. “Poetry comes in sporadically, usually as I am hard at work on something else,” says Lasky, whose latest collection, Milk, was published last year. “I learned long ago that trying to control its entrance can make it very wrathful, so I just am ready for it when it decides to visit me.”
There is a feeling of public celebration and declaration in Joshua Bennett’s lines—as if you can imagine him on stage, delivering truth into the mic—and that is no accident. He has been reciting verse, scripture, and stories for his family members ever since he was a child in Yonkers, New York. “My parents made ample space for all of this—including Sunday afternoons when I would give impromptu sermons for everyone gathered in the dining room—and that shaped my sense that poetry was something you shared with people,” says Bennett, whose debut collection is entitled The Sobbing School. A sharp dresser who’s both a Dartmouth professor and a YouTube star (his performance at the Obamas’ White House Poetry Jam in 2009 has been viewed nearly half a million times), Bennett traces his cadences back to the church. “All of the first poets I heard were preachers. There’s this Frank Ocean line I love: ‘Church was the hood Juilliard to me.’ He’s talking about music, but I had a similar experience therein as a writer. The black church taught me how to write for people, and that the stakes of that writing were life and death, eternity.”