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Punch-in-the-face poetry showcases poems that leave you sore, gasping, and possibly embarrassed.  They make you feel like you've got something to prove. They bring you out swinging.

Friday August 22, 2014
"Who Said it Was Simple?" Audre Lorde


There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.

Thursday August 21, 2014
"I’m not writing to be included in the canon. I’m writing to save something precious. I’m writing to get my pencil dimensionally around my little idea and work it out. Waiting for somebody to invite me to belong to something or be included in something was never my idea of being a part of this thing amazing journey called life. I just want to continue being a creative thinker and doer. I want to keep saving things and making history more inclusive by way of my particular alphabets and word arrangements."
Wednesday August 20, 2014


Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen: John Lithgow.

JOHN LITHGOW: To present the National Book Award for Poetry— in the presence of John Ashbury— is Elizabeth Alexander. Elizabeth’s most recent book is “Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010.” She is the author of five previous books of poetry, including American Sublime, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and two books of essays, including The Black Interior. Her awards and honors include the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, the Jackson Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among many others. It gives me great pleasure now to introduce Elizabeth Alexander.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: First I want to say just thank you to the National Book Foundation for its continued support of poetry. Every poem, every book of poetry, carries voices and histories and traditions along with it. Each book of poems takes readers into an engulfing, discrete world of language and each, also, rises from ancestral voices, fellow poets and poems, strange musics converging in the present year.

We think our five beloved book speak across time. We think each gives us a snapshot of American noise, a sip, a taste, a quaff, a feast. Our work was very hard. I’m so proud to have worked with judges of such intelligence, heart, and integrity. We didn’t turn from difficult conversations— I promise you. We listened to and learned from each other. We have up with five that we believe gloriously represents the richness of American poetry today. And so I want to sincerely thank my fellow judges: Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amy Gerstler, Kathleen Graber, Roberto Tejada.

(2:40) And so finally we had to choose. The five finalists are: Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press). Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Carl Phillips, Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Adrienne Rich, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (W.W. Norton & Company). Bruce Smith, Devotions (University of Chicago Press).

The National Book Award for Poetry goes to Nikky Finney, “Head off and Split.” [Cheering, an image of the cover of the book, showing a fish wrapped in newspaper]
[Finney, a Black woman with long dreds and a black dress, approaches the stage, crying. She collects her award and sets it down next to the lectern, sighing to steady herself, and takes out a few pieces of folded paper.]


We begin with history.

The slave codes of South Carolina 1739: “A fine of $100 and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone teaching a slave to read or write and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature.” The ones who longed to read and write but were forbidden —who lost hands and feet; were killed by laws written by men who believed they owned other men. Words devoted to quelling freedom, insurgency, imagination, all hope.

What about the possibility of one day making a poem? The king’s mouth and the queen’s tongue arranged to perfection on the most beautiful paper, sealed with wax and palmetto tree sap, determined to control what can never be controlled – the will of the human heart to speak its own mind.

Tonight, these forbidden ones move around the room as they please, they sit at whatever table they want, wear camel-colored field hats and tomato-red kerchiefs. They are bold in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best, their cotton croaker sack shirts are black wash pot clean and irreverently not tucked in. Some have even come in white Victorian collars and bustiers. Some have just climbed out of the cold, wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together.

If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl poet self, so too would I call out theirs.

To: Parneshia Jones, Marianne Jankowski, Northwestern University Press. This moment has everything to do with how serious, how gorgeous you do what you do. A.J. Verdelle, editor partner in this language life, you taught me that repetition is holy, courage can be a daughter’s name, and two is stronger than one. Papa, chief opponent of the death penalty in South Carolina for fifty years, fifty-seven years married to the same Newberry girl, when I was a girl, you bought every incendiary dictionary, encyclopedia, and black history tome that ever knocked on our Oakland Avenue door. Mama, dear Mama, Newberry girl fifty-seven years married to the same Smithfield boy, you made Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays out of foil, lace, cardboard, papier-maché, insisting beauty into our deeply segregated, Southern days.

Adrienne Rich, Bruce Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, simply to be in your finalist company is to brightly burn. National Book Foundation and National Book Award judges, there were special high school English teachers who would read and announce the highly anticipated annual report, even if it was stowed way down deep in some dusty corner of our tiny, Southern newspaper.

Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, great and best teacher of my life. You asked me on a Friday, 4 o’clock, 1977, I was nineteen and sitting on a Talladega College wall, dreaming about the only life I ever wanted, that of a poet. “Ms. Finney,” you said, “Do you really have time to sit there? Have you finished reading every book in the library?” Dr. Katie Cannon, what I heard you say once haunts every poem that I write. “Black people,” you said, “were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate.”

I am now officially speechless.

[Finney nods at the audience, gathers her award, and walks off stage.]

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, there’s going to be two more awards tonight and I don’t want you two other winners to be intimidated, but that was the best acceptance speech I have ever heard for anything in my life. [Loud cheers, clapping, laughter.] It’s also the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone cheer for an award for poetry. [Laughter] Isn’t that wonderful?

Wednesday August 20, 2014
"Providence," Natasha Trethewey


What’s left is footage: the hours before
      Camille, 1969—hurricane
            parties, palm trees leaning
in the wind,
      fronds blown back,

a woman’s hair. Then after:
      the vacant lots,
      boats washed ashore, a swamp

where graves had been. I recall

how we huddled all night in our small house,
      moving between rooms,
            emptying pots filled with rain.

The next day, our house—
      on its cinderblocks—seemed to float

      in the flooded yard: no foundation

beneath us, nothing I could see
      tying us      to the land.
      In the water, our reflection
when I bent to touch it.

Monday August 11, 2014
"I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power Is Out," Andrea Gibson


Video transcript:

You know how you go through times in your life when you are having a hard time with your body? It’s hurting or something, or just making you angry or whatever. I’ve been kind of going through that lately. Um, not feeling so awesome, um, not feeling so well. And I’ve-i’ve been having days when I was feeling just really bad, um, what I decided to do was write a love poem in the days that start writing a love poem to my body. You know the Walt Whitman poem, “I Sing the Body Electric?” Okay, so th— I titled this “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially when My Power Is Out.” [Laughter] And um [takes a sip of water] thanks for being open to this, um, new experience.

This is my body.
I have weathervanes. They are especially sensitive to dust storms and hurricanes.
When I am nervous, my teeth chatter like a wheelbarrow collecting rain
I am rusty when I talk:
It’s the storm in me.

The doctor said some day I might not be able to walk
it’s in my blood like the iron
my mother is tough as nails,
she held herself together the day she could no longer hold my niece
we said,
"Our kneecaps are our prayer beds
everyone can walk further on their kneecaps than they can on their feet.”

This is my heartbeat
Like yours, it is a hatchet.
It can build a house or tear one down.
My mouth is a fire escape,
the words coming out don’t care that they are naked,
there is something burning in here.
When it burns,
I hold my own shell to my ear,
listen for the parade when I was seven.
The man who played the bagpipes wore a skirt
he was from Scotland;
I wanted to move there,
wanted my spine to be the spine of an unpublished book,
my faith the first and last page
the day my ribcage became monkeybars for a girl hanging on my every word
they said,
"you are not allowed to love her,"
tried to take me by the throat to teach me
I was not a boy,

I had to unlearn their prison-speak
refuse to make wishes on the star on the sheriff’s chest,

I started asking the sun about the Big Bang
the sun said, “it hurts to become.”
I carried that hurt on the tip of my tongue
and whisper “bless your heart” every chance I get
so my family tree can be sure I have not left
you do not have to leave to arrive, I am learning this slowly

So sometimes when I look in the mirror
my eyes look like the holes in the shoes of the shoe-shine man
my hands are busy on the wrong things.
Some days, I call my arms wings while my head is in the clouds
It will take me a few more years to learn flying
is not pushing away the ground
safety isn’t always safe
you can find one on every gun.
I am aiming to do better.

This is my body.
My exhaustion pipe will never pass inspection
and still my lungs know how to breathe like a burning map
every time I get lost in the curtain of her hair
you can find me by the window
following my past to a trail of blood in the snow
the night I opened my veins,
the doctor who stitched me up asked me if I did it for attention.
For the record:
If you have ever done anything for attention,
this poem is attention.
Title it with your name
it will— scour the city bridge every night you spend kicking at your shadow,
staring at the river,
it does not want to find your body doing anything but loving what it loves
love what you love
Say “this is my body,
it is no one’s but mine,
it is my nervous system
my wanting blood,
my half-tamed addictions,
my tongue tied-up like a ball of Christmas lights

if you put a star on the top of my tree, make sure it is a star that fell,
make sure it hit bottom like a tambourine
'cause all these words are stories for the staircase to the top of my lungs,
where I sing what hurts
and the echo comes back
"Bless your heart"
Bless your body.”
Bless your holy kneecaps, they are so smart
You are so full of rain,
there is so much growing,
hallelujah to your weathervanes,
hallelujah to the ache
hallelujah to your full, to the fall,
hallelujah to the grace,
and every body
and every cell
of us all.

Tuesday July 15, 2014
"Dream Song #16," Daniel Borzutzky

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes    …    Yo no sé!
— César Vallejo

They sniffed us out of the holes with the animals
they had programmed and there are blows in life so
powerful we just don’t know and there were trenches
and there was water and it poured in through our mouths

and out of our ears and there were things we saw in the
sand at that moment of sinking: mountains and daisies
and tulips and rivers and the bodies of the people we
had been and the bodies of the people we had loved

and we felt hooks coming through the trenches and we
felt hooks coming through the sand and I saw hooks coming
through my child’s clothes and I wanted him to know that they
would never be able to scoop us out of the sand but of course

it wasn’t true they had scooped us out of the sand and our
mouths were so full of dirt it is what they do when you’re
dead and they made us spit and they beat us until our mouths
were empty and they paid us for constructing the mountain and

it was me and L and we looked for S and we looked for J and J
and we looked for O and we looked for R and we looked for J
and S in the holes in which the bodies of those we loved were
hiding or dying or sinking or stealing some shelter some little

worm’s worth of cover to keep their bodies from dissolving
into the maniac murmurs of this impossible carcass economy


Monday July 14, 2014
"Seawater Stiffens Cloth," Jane Hirschfield

Seawater stiffens cloth long after it’s dried.
As pain after it’s ended stays in the body:
A woman moves her hands oddly
because her grandfather passed through
a place he never spoke of. Making
instead the old jokes with angled fingers.
Call one thing another’s name long enough,
it will answer. Call pain seawater, tree, it will answer.
Call it a tree whose shape of   branches happened.
Call what branching happened a man
whose job it was to break fingers or lose his own.
Call fingers angled like branches what peel and cut apples,
to give to a girl who eats them in silence, looking.
Call her afterward tree, call her seawater angled by silence.


Tuesday June 17, 2014
"On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City," Sherman Alexie


The white woman across the aisle from me says, “Look,
look at all the history, that house
on the hill there is over two hundred years old,”
as she points out the window past me

into what she has been taught. I have learned
little more about American history during my few days
back East than what I expected and far less
of what we should all know of the tribal stories

whose architecture is 15,000 years older
than the corners of the house that sits
museumed on the hill. “Walden Pond,”
the woman on the train asks, “Did you see Walden Pond?”

and I don’t have a cruel enough heart to break
her own by telling her there are five Walden Ponds
on my little reservation out West
and at least a hundred more surrounding Spokane,

the city I pretend to call my home. “Listen,”
I could have told her. “I don’t give a shit
about Walden. I know the Indians were living stories
around that pond before Walden’s grandparents were born

and before his grandparents’ grandparents were born.
I’m tired of hearing about Don-fucking-Henley saving it, too,
because that’s redundant. If Don Henley’s brothers and sisters
and mothers and fathers hadn’t come here in the first place

then nothing would need to be saved.”
But I didn’t say a word to the woman about Walden
Pond because she smiled so much and seemed delighted
that I thought to bring her an orange juice

back from the food car. I respect elders
of every color. All I really did was eat
my tasteless sandwich, drink my Diet Pepsi
and nod my head whenever the woman pointed out

another little piece of her country’s history
while I, as all Indians have done
since this war began, made plans
for what I would do and say the next time

somebody from the enemy thought I was one of their own.

Friday June 13, 2014
"Termites: An Assay," Jane Hirshfield

So far the house is still standing.
So far the hairline cracks wandering the plaster
still debate, in Socratic unhurt, what constitutes a good life.
An almost readable language.
Like the radio heard while travelling in. A foreign country—
you know that something important has happened, but not what.

Monday June 9, 2014
"7:17," Elijah Patterson

you come back to me in a memory
of frantic morning primping,
a hurricane of flat-ironed hair and unironed pants.
the bathroom mirror still fogged
by your shower and breath as you squintingly apply eyeliner, shouting
“time check!” every few minutes.

you are always late.

it takes some time to trace the memories
of women i have loved and not deserved
before i get to your name and face,
two words instead mean the essence of you.

i    have never been good with time.
i    have never been good with months or years.
i    looked after those hands with unblinking dedication.

sleepless tuesday mornings, i wonder
who it is that now attends
to the ticking of your clocks.

Wednesday May 28, 2014
"Postcard from a Place I Have Never Been," By Steve Kistulentz

One condition of work-release is daily to confess
my obsessions, which I then write in disco glitter,
one gluey blossom across my permanent record.
When I eat too much of the local fruit, it gives me
clairvoyance. But I forget to write down the predictions,
instead crush cherry pits into a fine powder, chop
the powder into lines with an expired credit card.
The homeless give me quarters. Union rules require
at least one mention of the weather here. My flight
leaves on an inexact date in the nebulous future,
arrives late afternoon, two days before our first kiss.
I pay the airline $25 extra to lose my dignity between
here and Chicago. At the airport you buy it back.
When I walk to the market to buy more cherries,
a parade of kittens follows, marching in formation,
singing precise and bawdy cadence about prostitutes
and crack houses. They change the names to protect
the innocent. Signs say this mile of interstate is paved
with the bones of the great mastodons, and kept clean
by the well-meaning gentlemen of the Kiwanis Club.
Vacationers from further south sit in the lobby
watching guests from the north put on
one-act plays. On even-numbered days, only, of course.
Registered letters from the clerk of the court inform me
that it won’t violate my probation to drag you across
state lines as long as I promise to return you by 8 p.m.,
mostly whole. The desk clerk is also the milkman
is the town orthodontist. Instead of leaving Bibles
at bedside, Gideons leave individual soaps printed
with couplets from the Song of Songs, or corkscrews.
I did not catch last night’s plays, but promised to attend
this evening’s performance. I play a slightly amplified
version of myself, with one line: Wish you were here.
It’s a song and dance number. Everyone applauds.

Tuesday May 27, 2014
"Boardinghouse with No Visible Address," Franz Wright

So, I thought,
as the door was unlocked
and the landlord disappeared (no,
he actually disappeared)
and I got to examine the room
unobserved. There
it stood
in its gray corner: 
the narrow bed, sheets
the color of old aspirin.
Maybe all this had occurred
somewhere inside me
already, or
was just about to.
Is there a choice?
Is there
even a difference? Familiar,
familiar but not
yet remembered …
The small narrow bed.
I had often wondered
where I would find it, and
what it would look like.
Don’t you?
It was so awful
I couldn’t speak. Then
maybe you ought to lie down for a minute, I heard myself
thinking. I mean
if  you are having that much trouble
functioning. And when
was the last time
with genuine sorrow
and longing to change
you got on your knees?
I could get some work done
here, I shrugged;
I had done it before.
I would work without cease.
Oh, I would stay awake
if only from horror
at the thought of waking
up here. Ma,
a voice spoke from the darkness
in the back seat where
a long thin man lay,
arms crossed
on his chest,
while they cruised slowly up and down
straining to make out the numbers
over unlighted doors,
the midnight doctor’s;
in his hurt mind
he was already merging
with a black Mississippi
of mercy, the sweat pouring off him
as though he’d been doused
with a bucket of ice water
as he lay sleeping. “I saw the light,”
they kept screaming. “Do
I saw the light!”
Ma — there ain’t no light
I don’t see no light.

— Dayton, Ohio

Monday May 26, 2014
"For the Man Whose Son My Son Killed," Gary Earl Ross


You must understand this: my son
called me after his first firefight,
distraught that he had taken life
when I had taught him to cherish it.
He called me, said he felt weird
and needed to talk to somebody.
Who better than the father who
carried him in a backpack, read
him a bedtime story each night,
and would always love him?
I’m here, I said. Tell me about it.
He did, and I listened, offering
mmm-hmms and yesses and words
of comfort when his voice caught.

Afterward he felt better and returned
to his duties in this dubious war.
Meanwhile, I was relieved he had
survived another day of the insanity.
On his second tour his vehicle hit a
roadside bomb. Bleeding from his
eyes because of a concussion, he flew
to the military hospital in Germany and
later came home. Again I was relieved.
Today, on the first leg of his third trip
to the Twilight Zone we’ve made of
your home, he called. I was glad to hear
his voice. Glad every damn time, ever
terrified your experience will be mine.

Later, when NPR broadcast a wailing
Iraqi father who’d lost two sons in this
chaos, I thought of you for the first time,
wondered if you were that father. It was
purely chance that your son aimed at mine
and mine squeezed off an auto burst first.
Two—no, three fathers in agony because
our leaders are all fools. Still, someone
should recognize your pain. I do, sir,
and so does my son, himself a father.
We are both sorry for your loss.

(Source: black-poetry)

Sunday May 25, 2014
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Friday May 23, 2014
"A Secret I’ve Said Three Times and Still Feel As If I’ve Never Told," Elijah Patterson

I appointed myself the guardian of this breath.
This man, nearly a stranger to me in eulogy,
rasping and gurgling his final days
while I sat at the head of his bed reading
      (a good tribute)      
      and my grandmother smoothed his quilt
            and asked if I was ready,
                  and if I was strong.

When she left to wash the same dishes again
      (how important it is to be useful,
      how important it is to be needed);
I apologized to him
for her speaking over his head
as if he were not there.

Hours pass, and positions change,
our bodies follow the hands of the clock,
chairs in the house stops on the dial.
We rotate from his bed,
to couch and kitchen and bedroom—.
And then,
across the room,
I heard it—
      the silence.

      He’s quiet now.

            I said, after a longer pause
            than I have ever admitted,
            these three times I told.

And his son said


      And then—


We walked to his father’s hospital bed,
                              (seven paces).
He pressed his fingers to his father’s silent throat
feeling for the rubbery tube of the carotid,
opened his own mouth—

and then—

      a gasp—

            —bright, upright, lungs full,
            teeth a decrepit grey fence
            with its gate swung open—

and then—

            a fall—.

And I spoke again to the shape of his ear:

      Didn’t mean to scare you.
      Just checking.

Even though I knew he couldn’t hear.