Like its country of origin, American poetry is rich in diversity. These ten women of color are changing the face of a genre you only thought you knew. Read on to get to know the American authors we can’t stop reading on International Women’s Day and every day.
Born in Jamaica in 1963, Claudia Rankine is one of America’s most celebrated poets. After earning her BA and her MFA from Williams College and Columbia University respectively, Rankine went on to author several poetry collections, including 2014 Citizen: An American Lyric. Her survey of everyday racial aggressions in modern America would earn her multiple coveted accolades, including the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. For readers who had followed Rankine’s career, this success came as no surprise: after all, the poet already counted the 2005 Academy Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, a group of which she would later be elected Chancellor. The current Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University shows no signs of slowing down: in 2017, she founded a multi-disciplinary collaboration called the Racial Imaginary Institute.
Tracy K. Smith
Massachusetts born and California raised, Tracy K. Smith has witnessed the multiple sides of America first-hand. Using her education from Harvard University and Columbia University, Smith writes about these sides for the rest of us. Her three award-winning poetry collections, The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), touch on everything from the intersection of race and history to the human existence as a whole. For fans who can’t get enough of the Poet Laureate of the United States’ work, Graywolf Press will publish Smith’s fourth collection, Wade in the Water in 2018.
The University of Massachusetts Lowell’s current assistant professor of English is as well-traveled as she is well-known. Born in Seoul, Korea, Sandra Lim lived in California before earning her MFA from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps it is this nomadic background which attracts Lim to poetry, which she says ‘always alerts [her] to the solitariness of individual consciousness, to the mystery of other people’. These other people, so it seems, connect with Lim’s poetry books, Loveliest Grotesque (2006) and The Wilderness (2014), the latter of which is a winner of a Barnard Women Poets Prize.
With roots in Mississippi, where she lives with her husband and sons and teaches English at the University of Mississippi’s MFA program, Aimee Nezhukumatathil is challenging what ‘all-American’ can mean. The child of a Filipina mother and South Indian father, Nezhukumatathil was born in Chicago, educated in Ohio, and awarded a fellowship in Wisconsin. Her honors include publication in American Poetry Review as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In true American fashion, Nezhukumatathil is working hard on two forthcoming books, Oceanic and World of Wonder.
It only took one collection to put Natalie Diaz on American readers’ maps. Her 2012 portrait of a fictional Native American family, When My Brother Was an Aztec, captivated consumers of all backgrounds. Mojave herself, Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, Diaz and is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community. With honors including a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellowship and a US Artists Ford Fellowship alike, she embodies two distinct American identities. Along with finishing her second poetry book, Diaz directs the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts Low Rez MFA program.
Cathy Park Hong
Cathy Park Hong is a Korean-American author whose national honors include a a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Village Voice Fellowship for Minority Reporters. The Iowa Writers Workshop-alum is known as much for her poetry collections (the most famous being 2007’s Dance Dance Revolution, a recipient of the Barnard Women Poets Prize) as her reviews and political writings appearing in outlets such as the Guardian and the New York Times. Currently, Hong is supporting a new generation of voices as an associate professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a regular faculty member at the North Carolina’s Queens MFA program.
Nikki Giovanni is a well-known poet, a Grammy-nominee, and a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. Before she was any of these things, however, Giovanni was a civil rights activist. Her first published collections, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967) and Black Judgement (1968), are considered crucial products of the Black Rights Movement of late 1960s America. Empowered by her education at Nashville, Tennessee’s prestigious, all-black Fisk University, Giovanni would go on to form her own publishing company through which she would promote her own poetry as well as work by other African-American women writers. On her website, the now 74-years-old Giovanni provides the only ‘status update’ one could need: ‘I’m a writer. I’m happy”.
When President Barack Obama was approaching his inauguration, he asked Elizabeth Alexander to compose and read a poem. Like much of her work, Alexander’s ‘Praise Song for the Day’ drew heavily on African-American history, a subject she previously explored in her first poetry collection The Venus Hottentot (1990) as well as in 2005’s award-winning American Sublime. The daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman Clifford Alexander Jr. has accrued some national honors of her own, including her current chancellor position at the Academy of American Poets.
Maxine Hong Kingston
With honors including a National Humanities Medal, National Book Award, and two National Endowment for the Arts Writers Awards under her belt, one may find it difficult to believe that Maxine Hong Kingston is a late-bloomer. Yet the 77-year-old author didn’t publish her first poetry book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, until 2011. While Kingston had already earned success as a fiction and nonfiction writer, her first foray into poetry was quickly followed by a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.
On her Facebook profile, Staceyann Chin described herself as a ‘Jamaican-Born, Brooklyn-Living, Woman-Loving, Writer/Poet, Political Activist and Performance Artist’. An obvious logophile, Chin has used her voice to co-write Broadway’s Tony-nominated Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam, perform her spoken-word poetry from Germany to South Africa and beyond, and currently, to teach a seminar at Brooklyn’s arts-oriented Saint Ann’s School. A leader in contemporary performance poetry, Chin counts the 1999 Chicago People of Color Slam and WORD: The First Slam for Television amongst her victories.