Recommended readings for National Poetry Month

Sally Ball understood the question. She just didn’t understand why it was being asked.

April is National Poetry Month – it was started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets – so Ball was asked what makes poetry still relevant these days.

“Do we ask this question of other things?” responded Ball, a professor and director of Arizona State University’s Creative Writing Program. “Do we ask this question of math? Poetry is an art form that gives voice to the urgent questions, the most powerful feelings of being alive. So, of course, it’s relevant. And it’s not different in its relevance than it’s been over the years.

“I suppose there’s more entertainment, more things that compete for our attention. But I don’t think that makes poetry any less relevant or valuable.”

To celebrate National Poetry Month, ASU News asked Ball and other faculty in the Department of English for recommended reading.

Safiya Sinclair, associate professor, poet and memorist

"Mass for Shut-ins," by Mary-Alice Daniel

This book won the Yale Younger Poets Prize this year. This is a brilliant, curious, expansive debut collection where you can feel Daniel’s mind at work, and one can only admire following its myriad fascinating yarns of thought and inquiry. The poems are haunting and haunted, luminous and funny. It’s a book that deals with the inner architecture of dreams and hellscapes, threads of mysticism and religion, while also casting off those things, as the poet reclaims her own space and her own mythos in the world. I come away electrified each time.

"Judas Goat," by Gabrielle Bates

This is the debut collection of a poet that I have admired for some time for her lush lyricism on the page. This book is so rich in imagery, framed by the beautifully recursive motif of the goat as an exploration of sacrifice and redemption, while excavating the inner life of the poet with Bates’ unique voice and unmatched eye for detail. The best poems reference biblical allegory and myth, while also transforming them. The poems here explore the past, current love, and the complex dynamics of family, with just a very potent high lyric register which I really love.

"All the Flowers Kneeling," by Paul Tran

This book came out last year, and I’m just reading it now. And from the very first poem I was transfixed — like, why haven't I read this book already? It’s so beautifully written, so carefully painterly with exquisite detail and imagery, with a rich lyricism and fine-tuned eye for the subtle shimmers and raw mercies of life. Tran’s poetry is so very musical and precise; I was in awe with the rigorous movement of every poem and the brilliant way they explore the dynamics of selfhood, family, trauma, the horrors of the Vietnam War and U.S. history, all while forging the fire of their own identity. They weave all these really wonderfully lush and haunted threads seamlessly throughout the collection, while paving their own way forward. A truly beautiful and shattering book.

Jacqueline Balderrama, clinical assistant professor, poet, coordinator of Thousand Languages Project at Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing

"American Sycamore," by Lisbeth White

Essentially, it's exploring her mixed-race heritage. She identifies as white or identifies as Black but has white and Black parents, and then basically kind of looking at her identity linked back to that Black and white ancestry. The book has several sorts of series throughout it. There’s a series of bridge poems that I believe were written while she was traveling abroad in Europe. It kind of offers these perspectives of homeland from a distance, and for the Black body sort of outside in a foreign space. And there’s also these series on trees. And the trees become this symbol for growing roots of heritage and this catalyst for reflection. So, it’s beautifully written.

"Drink of Red Mirror," by Kim Hyesoon

She’s a South Korean poet, and she taught at ASU. It’s this surrealist feminist book of poems on intimacy and womanhood, and I kind of really enjoy just the unexpected nature of the poems. They don’t necessarily follow a narrative. You kind of bounce around. But it kind of shows there’s no boundaries, and where you can wo with poetry. It’s kind of connected more by language than maybe story. And the imagery is just kind of intensely beautiful, too. It’s both grotesque and beautiful.

Sally Ball, professor and director of ASU's Creative Writing Program

"Collected Poems," by Ellen Bryant Voigt

She is a MacArthur winner, like our own Natalie Diaz, and she’s the author of ("The Art of Syntax"). She has this kind of luscious southern language and voice. So, the sounds of her poems are really astonishing. This is her collected poems, her life’s work. She’s just turning 80, and there’s such a beautiful intelligence and expression in these poems.

"To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness," by Robin Coste Lewis

This is a book that I guess we would call a hybrid. When her grandmother died, she found this box of photographs that sort of went across her grandmother’s life, and she began writing about them. She sees this book as sort of tracing Black life in America across the last century. The photos are here, so throughout the book there’s this combination of image and text. It’s a very beautiful and moving book that sort of anchors her family story in kind of an under-told historical context.

"True Life," by Adam Zagajewski

He’s a Polish poet who lived quite a lot of his life in the United States. He’s always had a kind of political and social justice kind of consciousness, and then this deeply sort of painterly individual personal attention to the sort of smallest things in the landscape. There’s this poem in here called "Mountains," which says, "look greedily when dusk approaches, look insatiably, look without fear." He’s a poet who addresses these kinds of large subjects that are sort of hovering for all of us, either as a preoccupation or sort of anxiety-producing thing. And he really, directly addresses those anxieties, but he’s also anchored in the world in really beautiful ways.

Alberto Rios, Arizona poet laureate, Regents Professor, director of ASU's Piper Center

"Survival Strategies," by Tennison S. Black

It’s the winner of the National Poetry Series, and it’s coming out soon (September 2023). We hear so much loud in the world today. This is more fundamental to where that loud is coming from. It’s more personal. It shares something that I think we connect with, no matter who we are. I think it’s effective in conveying what everybody is trying to shout. There’s no shouting here, but it’s getting to the essence of so many things, including being a woman and a mother.

"Dear Diaspora," by Susan Nguyen (poet and ASU alum)

Generationally, we have a connection to Vietnam, but the aftermath, as we all know, becomes something flattened out. We don’t place our antagonisms or our interest there. She brings something of a next generational sensibility to that. She’s here, she’s American, but from a very clear and conscience-filled past. She labors under that. Do we all labor under that? No. She brings a sensibility that helps us to be tuned to something we were well in tune with for so long. I find that art that could have come out of that time is remarkable and heartening. This is not a writer writing about the Vietnam War. This is about what comes next.

Scott Bordow