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I discovered The Sealey Challenge last year, thanks to my fellow Rioter and poetry lover Connie Pan. During the month of August, poetry lovers from all over the world come together to read a collection of poetry each day. Yes, that’s 31 collections of poetry! But as I found out when I first took on the challenge, it’s not really about how much poetry you read. The Sealey Challenge, basically, is a big, loud, joyful celebration of poetry. It is an invitation to immerse oneself in words. It’s a way to connect with other poetry readers. This is an opportunity to make room for poetry in your life, whether that means reading a poetry book a day or a poem a day.
Last year, I read 31 books of poetry, and I admit that it was great. This year, I’ve only read 12, and guess what? It was still so good! This is only my second time participating, and both times the best part was falling in love with poetry all over again. For two years in a row, I headed into the fall excited about poetry, with huge lists of new collections to discover in the library and new poets to explore. This is the real gift.
So let me share this excitement with you! Here are ten poets I’ve discovered over the past two years through my fellow Sealey Challenge-doers. When I say “discovered” I just mean that I first read their work because of the amazing online community that posts and posts and posts about poetry in August. Many of these poets had long careers and won many honors. Others are just getting started. Some of them are giants in the world of poetry and some of them will be giants! They are all brilliant and I look forward to continuing to read and learn from their work.
Ashley M. Jones
I read Jones’ latest collection, Repairs now! for the Sealey Challenge, then I immediately added all his other books (gospel of the magic town, Dark // Thing) to my TBR because WOW. His poetry is playful and inventive, a dizzying mix of new and classic forms. She writes with incredible depth and openness, insight and anger, precision and fun — about darkness, femininity, American history, violence, pop culture. She is also Alabama’s Poet Laureate! Of course she is. I can’t wait to read what she publishes next.
Look, I don’t know how I ignored Carl Phillips until recently. All I can say is that luckily I’m here now. He has published over 12 books of poetry during his long (and continuing!) career and has won numerous awards. I’ve read and loved Double Shadow, and currently have two of its new collections, Wild Is the Wind and Then the War pulled from the library. His poems are often delightfully formal, and he mixes philosophical ideas with striking imagery and detail about the natural and human world.
Tishani Doshi is an Indian poet, writer and dancer of Welsh and Gujarati descent. In addition to numerous collections of poetry, she has written several novels, two works of non-fiction and an account of the Mabinogion myth. Her work is vast, exploring themes of home, migration, belonging, language, mourning, nature, history. I wanted to underline just about every line of A God at the door, which is full of long, luscious poems that are both celebratory and elegic. “We sew our days and our nights together, / and it’s like stitching a galaxy, but even the galaxies / are moving away from each other.” Swoon.
John Murillo is the author of two collections of poetry, Contemporary Amerikan Poetry and Up Jump the Boogie. Contemporary American Poetry is a breathtaking and searing work about violence against black people in America. Murillo’s poems sound like confessions and history lessons, condemnations and outbursts. He’s a great storyteller – I found it hard to walk away from each beautifully crafted line, despite how difficult it was to read them.
Oh, I just wanted to drink and drink and drink from Girmay’s breathtaking collection, Kingdom Animalia! She writes about family, home and grief, about loss and connection, about bodies and desire and about the natural world, memory and mystery. Even hesitant poetry readers, I suspect, will fall in love with his words. It’s so easy to fall into these poems and the worlds they create. They are not simple, but they are immersive. I can’t wait to devour his other collections, The Black Mary and Teeth.
Layli long soldier
Layli Long Soldier has only published one complete poetry book so far, but… look, this book is so good that I think it should have a few more, maybe five or six. It was shortlisted for the 2017 National Book Award, and if there’s one poetry book on this list that I think everyone should read, it’s this one. Whereas it is about the violence done to Native Americans by the U.S. government, the legacies of colonization and residential schools, and how Native people have kept their cultures and themselves alive. Long Soldier plays with language and form, questions what it means to be a Lakota woman, and invents new ways of writing poetry.
Seema Yasmin, in addition to being a brilliant poet, is an author, doctor and journalist. If God Is a Virus is an incredible book about the Ebola epidemic that broke out in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014-2016. There are traditional poem-like poems in this collection, but there are also flow charts, graphs, bingo cards, quotes from the World Health Organization, and more. It’s a powerful collection on the intersections of disease, racism, public policy, white saviorism, and medicine.
Monica Sok’s haunting debut collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs on, is about the Khmer Rouge genocide, generational trauma, healing work and the shape of memory, and what it means (and what we feels) growing up in the diaspora as a child of refugees. The poems unfold in a chorus of voices that is both painful and powerful. This is a book to sit and reckon with. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Sherwin Bitsui is a Dine poet from Arizona whose books include Shapeshift, Flood Song and Dissolve. flood song is a strange, beautiful and bewitching poetic sequence. It is rooted in landscapes — wild, dreamlike urban ones. Bitsui’s poems are filled with Dine history and lore, but they also have a surreal, gritty quality that feels a bit like being in a cerebral action movie. In summary: I have never read poems like these before.
I read my first Ellen Bass book for the Sealey Challenge last year, and loved it so much that I immediately added the rest of her work to my TBR. She published her first book, I’m Not Your Laughing Daughter, in 1973. Her last, Indigo, came out in 2020, and it’s my favorite (so far). Her poems are so cheerful and approachable – she writes about chickens, chores, cooking, quiet mornings, lying in bed with her partner. Mules of Love, which I read for this year’s challenge, is full of beautiful (and erotic!) poems about lesbian sex. If you’re a fan of Mary Oliver or Ross Gay, you should definitely check out Bass’ work.
If you’re looking for even more poets (it’s not too late – every month is a good month for poetry!), check out this list of books Chris M. Arnone has read for this year’s challenge.
You might also be interested in these 24 award-winning poetry books, poetry books of 2021 and, of course, our poetry archive.
If you’re curious what it’s like to read 31 books of poetry in a month, Connie Pan wrote a great article about it.