Black, Queer, Trans, and Millennial: A New Generation of American Poetry: Part III
Author: Walter Holland
May 5, 2023
And to pick up where I left off, a few more poets of this generation particularly stand out. Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House Press, 2014) reconstructs a childhood past with a lyric intensity not seen since Jean Toomer’s Cane during the Harlem Renaissance. Called “brilliant, unsparing” and “visceral and affecting” by NPR, his book was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and took the 2015 Barbara Gittings Literature Award. Jones’ 2022 Alive at the End of the World is a stunning achievement as well.
Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency (Coffee House, 2018) won the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry, deservedly so. It was followed by his equally skillful 2020 The Malevolent Volume; Reed is a wordsmith who creates complex soundscapes of language that interweave Black cultural referents with a sensory barrage of audacious images, making strange and disturbing what feels classically aesthetic.
Danez Smith’s Homie (Graywolf, 2020) was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and a 2021 NAACP Image Award for Poetry. Their 2017 National Book Award for Poetry Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press) was a seminal achievement. These two publications follow their first book [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), which won innumerable awards, including the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Finally, Phillip B. William’s Mutiny (Penguin, 2021) was a 2022 American Book Award winner and a finalist for the 2022 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. Mutiny is a touchstone book, one where Williams achieves a haunting eloquence that blends the political moment in deep contemplative literary dialogue with Black identity in the past. Williams’ eloquence is matched only by his fierce, historically informed cadenced address that blends the stately with the polemical language of a legal writ. In “Final Poem as Tidalectic Elegy,” he writes:
` prepare to disclose their semblances within me, bountiful
with the sweat of the thrown-overboard,
who jumped-into-freedom, before the Lord
could be given like a disease. Freedom bored
with freedom’s language. (p. 32)
Of course, my focus on Black Queer Millennial poets was not meant to overlook the amazing work of other Black LGBTQ+ poets such as Carl Phillips, John Keene, Pamela Sneed, and Jericho Brown, to mention just a few others. These poets, though technically not Millennials, are still very much active today and breaking new ground. All of them have won many fine honors. Brown’s The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) took the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. The Tradition questions the violence and terror that informs Black lives while at the same time calling for love and healing. Brown reaches deep into the myths of the Black male body and the traditions under which Black men are raised and taught to live and love.
John Keene’s Punks: New & Selected Poems (The Song Cave, 2021) received the 2022 National Book Award for Poetry and displayed sexual candor and vivid language, passionate as it is exceptionally well-crafted. Carl Phillips has become a major American poet and man of letters who enriched and expanded American poetry as a whole through his poetry, essays, and critical work. And Pamela Sneed, experimentalist, performer, visual artist, poet, and memoirist, continues to create and influence Black Queer and Black feminist writing.
Overall, though, this younger school of poets is revivifying American poetry with its innovative energy, challenging language, and lexical richness. We might apply to this generation what Tyehimba Jess says singularly of John Keene’s poetry: the work is “masterfully inventive,” and its “inquiry of self and history” is equally “queered. Blackened, and joyously thick with multitudes of voice and valence.”
But perhaps there is no better description however of this new Black Queer poetic school than what Claudia Rankine says about Kemi Alabi’s Against Heaven:
Against Heaven activates multiple lexicons, seeking to construct the immensity of black queer subjectivity with guile and
formal virtuosity. At once sonic and disruptive, these poems pull together everything in a world where nothing is sacred. In
this energetic and brilliant debut, the thrust of the lyric dislodges all that is stuck and stagnant, creating new possibilities
In summation, I would say read these American poets as they are nothing short of virtuosos of this vibrant, transformative American literary period.