God breathes life into us, it is said, only once. But this case was an exception. God drew back in a giant gust and blew life into the boy and like a stranded fish, he shuddered, oceanless. Dilruba Ahmed from "Snake Oil, Snake Bite" / Poetry Foundation
I heard Dilruba Ahmed’s work before I ever encountered it on the page, which seems fitting, given the masterful way she attends to sound and music in her work. She was reading poems that would become part of her debut collection, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf 2011), at a summer multi-genre reading at the low-residency program I was attending at the time as a (poet-disguised-as) fiction candidate. She leaned towards the microphone and, a stanza in, I felt the room lean forward.
A few months later, I would take leave from the program and I wouldn’t write anything for almost a decade, but I kept my memory of that reading as a bright spot and continued to seek out Ahmed’s work. In 2020, when the state of the world revealed/re-revealed poetry as an essential coping strategy, I picked up her second collection, Bring Now the Angels (Pitt Poetry Series, 2020).
Whether she’s writing about the personal, the environmental, or the political (and their various intersections), Ahmed’s work embodies a deeply sensory presence that echoes timelessly. Her attention towards the world is clear-eyed and piercing and (still, somehow) open-hearted. The range of her subjects and formal approaches diffuses texture, imagination, and surprise throughout her collections.
I’ve also been lucky enough to experienced Ruba as a teacher (at Hugo House’s and Murphy Writing of Stockton University’s online classes) and I can confirm both her sharp insight and generosity. My work has been enriched by the time I’ve spent with hers.
She is not, no, the Margaret Whiting who sang that song some of us might know. Rather: Margaret Whiting the artist who currently resides in Iowa, where I was introduced to her work back in 2013. Catalog was the piece in her solo show at the Dubuque Museum of Art that spoke to me, prompting one of my first ekphrastic poems. Comprised of library catalog cards and items from the natural world—an egg, a shell—the work spanned a gallery wall.
I walked its length more than once, stopping to study the honeycomb and the delicate seed pod, to make out what one book that one card spoke of. There’s a blurry picture I took of the egg—what I think might have been a quail’s—and another from the end, showing the gentle curve of the cards that called up for me, then, memories of water and a pier stretching out into the distance. Now, when I think back, the cards, lined as they were, resemble the underside of a Browning Parasol mushroom.
Whiting’s work, overall, focuses on the environment, something that matters to me. Her framed pieces that use human anatomy textbook illustrations and geologic survey maps illustrate the connection we have with nature. As she writes on her website, “Our impact on the land affects human health since air pollution and disposed waste will ultimately lead back to us.” Her installation piece Deforestation is a room full of tree stumps made from vintage law books. Like Catalog, the tight packing of paper—its semblance to another form—readjusts our view and, more importantly, provokes us to think carefully about what we are doing to save this place we inhabit. ~Kelly R. Samuels
There are poets we return to again and again and specific poems that—even on first reading—are indelible on the soul. Somewhere on my body is the entirety of Camille T. Dungy's "Trophic Cascade." What begins as an ecological exploration of wolves bring reintroduced to Yellowstone quickly escalates into the wild territory of motherhood. The writer shows immense skill: in structure, with tight line breaks that demand the poem be read aloud (although often my voice breaks when I try), and language that is at once compelling, scientifically detailed, and emotionally devastating. Dungy's ability to cast wide and quickly narrow makes this the kind of poem we all strive for—the global as told through the specific. She is talking about the reintroduction of the wolves, but winds up talking about her own reintroduction - as a person in the world of parenting and the ferocity with which this this wild love changes us in the world. Of course this is only one of Camille Dungy's poems—there are many and they are all so rich and powerful. But this one I like to read and I like to teach as it covers so much ground in such a short time.
I encountered Madge Evers and her spore print art at a neighborhood festival a few years back. Looking at her ghostly, exuberant work stole my breath, and I knew I couldn't take it in the way I wanted to while standing under a makeshift tent at a folding table in the last minutes of a one-day event while my kids begged for popsicles. I pocketed her card and not long after she invited me to visit her home studio.
I fell deeply in love with her process of using living mushrooms and other plants to build stunning impressions and herbariums on paper. I'm excited that since that time I've gotten to know Madge better and watched her work branch into cyanotypes and pieces that play off of, or "compost" as she puts it, other works. (Reimagining Audubon's birds, anyone?) Madge is an artist in conversation with the earth. She is both someone with keen vision and a brave channeler for what might happen that is out of her control. These qualities are perfect guidelines for art and poetry and life. Her work offers me true awe and wonder, joy, complexity and inspiration. It sings the unsung. I can't think of what else I could ask for.
“when I want to eat I eat and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat” -Sophia Tempest Parsons
Sophia Tempest Parsons does what poets are supposed to do. Her writing is vulnerable and fearless. It’s brutal. Her sparse poems leave readers with no room to hide. She wants you to know what her world is like, and she refuses to hold your hand and apologize while she tells you how it is. She makes you look into dark places and acknowledge their existence. I found myself reflected in these places, which is one of the most healing aspects poetry can have for me. When I see someone bravely embracing their own darkness, it is easier for me to embrace my own without shame. I devoured her chapbook A Lamb Hangs by Its Own Foot (Ghost City Press) in one sitting. I give it as a gift to friends who love poetry. I encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading Parsons' work and following the beginning of her writing career, which I am confident will be a productive one.
Thi Bui's dynamite graphic memoir The Best We Could Do skyrocketed onto my all-time favorites list instantly: it's an intimate family story strung out on the pitiless frame of history, the way the membranous part of a dreamcatcher is stretched across its hard outer frame, such that every reader is drawn in -- implicated -- caught. Bui's visual art, not only in The Best We Could Do but also in her award-winning illustrations for the children's book A Different Pond (by poet and author Bao Phi), has a heartstrings-tugging watercolor-like tenderness: it's amazing to find an author so equally gifted with words and pictures. Many of us children of refugees have heard our parents tell stories bearing similarities to the tales Bui tells, but it takes talent to make the scenes spring to life the way she does, often with just a single thoughtfully chosen visual detail or scrap of dialogue.
Sheree L. Greer is a fabulous friend and mentor. Her writing is smooth, honest, and strong. I find myself returning to her essay in The Rumpus often. Sheree’s words are vulnerable and necessary. The way she stands firmly in her truth encourages me to keep standing in mine.
In addition to being a text-based artist, author, and educator, Sheree founded The Kitchen Table Literary Arts Center to showcase and support the work of Black women and women of color writers. This warm community celebrates the power of sharing stories and will definitely sharpen your writing skills. ~Jasmin Lankford
I first met Kristin Bock at a living room poetry reading on a dark January night. Years later she reached out to me and we became friends, sharing life stories and poems and favorite books. Meeting her eased the isolation I felt as a queer, rural writer raising children in a small town, struggling with depression and doubting my path. Our friendship gave me hope. And her poems haunted and stunned me with their precision and passion. I devoured her book, Cloisters, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and welcomed her insights about my work.
I just reread Cloisters under the covers by flashlight (my sacred time during this pandemic) and was mesmerized again by its emotional drive and spare, visceral imagery. Also its humor. “Watercolor Left in a Humid Kitchen” gets me every time.
Kristin lives in Western Massachusetts and teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she got her MFA. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals, including the Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, FENCE, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, and Sixth Finch. Her fabulous new book, Glass Bikini, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press late in 2021. For a taste, here are four poems from that collection.
I met Ebukun Gbemisola Ogunyemi when I got into SprinNG as a poetry mentee; she was my mentor and she taught me a lot about poetry (structuring, form and style) and writing in general. The most profound of it all is her ability to make me understand that I don't need to have any reservations or shame because my advocacy plays out in my writing, and at the same time I should explore diverse forms and not box myself. She taught me to find my voice and own it and above all because of her, I know that my art cannot be home for all; I have an audience and I can't possibly please everybody or cater to everything in my work and that's okay. I am completely smitten by her. She's great!
Ebukun is a creative writer, researcher, editor and content writer with more than four years experience in creating and writing stellar, original and engaging contents for digital and non-digital brands such as African freelancers, glance magazine, The odyssey etc. Ebukun is also the manager of the SprinNG Women's Authors prize (the_swapng) a literary award committed to promoting and empowering female Nigerian Authors by investing yearly in the buying and distribution of a select author's book.
I was introduced to artist Hillary Jones McCullough by a mutual friend after Hillary indicated she was looking for a writer to help her develop a grant application. We teamed up to work on the application, and I ended up helping Hillary develop her personal website in the process, learning quite a bit about her work with photography and digital storytelling. Primarily a photographer, Hillary's work focuses on conveying the complexity of the human experience. Her current project, which is titled The Birthmother Series, uses photography and interviews to tell the stories of women who made adoption plans for their children. Follow McCullough on Instagram @hillarymccullough