Ten BIPOC Poets You Should Read

Edited by Aneesha Chandra

In the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, the festering wound of racism and police brutality in the US was exposed again. While it launched a wave of support in all fifty states of the US, and abroad, it also brought to light the plague of performative activism and virtue signalling in our communities. From participating in the Black Lives Matter movement because it was trending, to performative white tears, to black squares on Instagram drowning out news and updates — we saw it all. As BLM gets less and less media coverage, people are less concerned about challenging their complacency, taking action, and above all, fighting the anti-blackness prevalent in their own families and communities. 

With Jacob Blake, this long-ignored wound is yet again visible. We must all confront and actively work against structural, systemic, and pervasive racist violence.

I’d argue that revolution and allyship begin with reading, with exposing oneself to a ‘foreign’ experience, and with thinking about one’s complicity in the oppression of others and how we may do our own part in the fight towards justice.

The term BIPOC is gaining support in how Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour are talked about; they are not amalgamated. While linguists have arguments both for and against this term, I’ll be using it for the sake of its relevance to this article.

Here are ten BIPOC poets, ten individual experiences, ten opportunities to be a better ally:

1. The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes: Best known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was one of the earliest innovators of the literary form, jazz poetry. The poet offers a simply written, heart-wrenching look into the experiences of African Americans during the segregation era. He combines a strong hold over verse with the capacity of being vulnerable. 

“And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.”

 

2. Peluda, Melissa Lozada Olivia: The word ‘Peluda’ literally means a mythical beast that appears shaggy, hairy, or with projections on its body. The author examines what it is like to be Latina in America  —  the shame that comes with body hair as a woman, immigration and how it shapes the psyche. Charming, honest, and humorous, her workshatters lethal narratives with the utmost grace.

 

"before this, yosra jokes about lining her hijab with safety pins while we waited for a white family to clean up their table, the white father stared at yosra for too long & said i’m so sorry, referring to the crumbs & coffee stains he & his family had made they had made this mess not thinking we would have to sit here in it.”

 

3. Who Look at Me, June Jordan: The poet traverses the history of black people in America through paintings and intertwines them with her reactions. The author shows how not being ‘looked’ at or being marginalized because of colour can chip away at one’s love for the self. Jordan’s way with words makes her verses land as blows—disturbing you, waking you up like any great book would.                

“A white stare obliterates

the nerve-wrung wrist from work

the breaking ankle or the turning glory

of a spine”

 

4. Red Suitcase, Naomi Shihab Nye: A Palestinian-American poet, novelist and teacher, Naomi Shihab Nye picks up on the commonalities of the human experience, finding poetry in the smallest things and relying littleon what the world calls beautiful. The Palestinian experience of exile and migration is also brought up. Poems like Arabicand Voices will stay with you long after the book ends.

“Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite. And let me know.”

 

5. Kora, Tenzin Tsundue: Tsundue is a Tibetan poet and activist living in Dharamshala, India. He is the General Secretary of Friends of Tibet (India) and has won major literary prizes for his stories and poetry. Korais his second book and has been translated into French and Malayalam. This book covers themes of occupation, exile, ethnic cleansing, language, and the thirst for a home you’ve never known.

“We are refugees here.

People of a lost country.

Citizen to no Nation.”

 

6. The Country Without a Post Office,Agha Shahid Ali: Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali was brought up in Kashmir and moved to the US at the age of 27. He taught at the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His work revolves around memory, death, history, and nostalgia, set against the violence of 1990’s Kashmir. Ali was a noted writer of ghazals and was influencedby the work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Begum Akhtar.

                “nothing by Interrogation gates

                so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:

                Drippings from a suspended burning tire

                Are falling on the back of a prisoner,

                the naked boy screaming, “I know nothing.”

 

7. Night Sky with Exit Wounds,Ocean Vuong: Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong debuted thisfull-length poetry collection with Copper Canyon Press in 2016. It won the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2017. The poems in this book revolve around the Vietnam War, the absence of the poet’s father, and the experience ofa refugee. Vuong combines mythology, morbidity, and tenderness tocreate one of the most beautiful books of poetry of our time.

“Ocean, are you listening? The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother’s shadow falls. Here’s the house with childhood whittled down to a single red trip wire. Don’t worry. Just call it horizon & you’ll never reach it. Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not a lifeboat."

 

8. A Cruelty Special to Our Species, Emily Jungmin Yoon: [TW for SA, r*pe and brutality.] The poet confronts the histories of sexual violence against Korean women, “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual labour by the Japanese army during World War II. Reminiscent of Han Kang’s Human Acts, a persistent theme of this collection is intergenerational trauma and the question of whether there is “a way to move forward from grief.” 

“Colonial-era Japanese historians were sure the white pottery and clothes of Korea show perpetual sorrow. Poverty of color, incapacity for pleasure--countless foreign invasions turned the people blank and hollow, cursed to eternal mourning.”

 

9. If They Come For Us, Fatimah Asghar: This book captures the experience of being a Kashmiri woman in post-partition South East Asia. It explores identity, exile, longing, and the violence of the Partition. It also has elements of coming of age and learning to accept your race growing up in America. The way Asghar has written about the violence that has festered in South Asia for almost a century is compelling and tear-jerking.

“Everyone wants Kashmir but no one wants Kashmiris. Aren’t I a miracle? A seed that survived the slaughter & slaughters to come. I think I believe in freedom. I just don’t know where it is. I think I believe in home, I just don’t know where to look.”

 

10. And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou: Angelou was a renowned poet and civil rights activist who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.This is the author’s third volume of poetry, published in1978. It deals with womanhood, loss, strength, family, Southern racism, and aging. Mary Silva Cosgrave, in her review in Horn Book Magazine, praises Angelou, stating, "To her third collection of poems the author has brought a life full of zest and style that is phenomenally her own."

                “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

                I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

                I rise

                I rise

                I rise.”