Poetry News

Poets & Writers Looks at 2015 Debut Poetry Collections

By Harriet Staff

Robin Coste Lewis

As the end of the year lists begin to stack up, we'd like to draw your attention to Poets & Writers' in depth look at debut collections from 2015. Dana Isokawa helps us navigate this rich terrain by looking at the work of Robin Coste Lewis, Alicia Jo Rabins, Jay Deshpande, Hannah Sanghee Park, Jonathan Fink, Rickey Laurentiis, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Harriet's own Corina Copp, Morgan Parker (our featured blogger this month), and Richie Hofmann. Quite the list! Isokawa introduces the portfolio by writing:

If you want to get a sense of where contemporary poetry is headed, there’s no better place to start than with recently published debut collections. Each year sees a rich, diverse lineup of debut poets whose work offers fresh perspectives, exciting new ideas and experiences of language, and unexplored subject matter. Even tried-and-true poetic topics—history, the beloved, nature, family, identity—are explored, interrogated, and lit up in new ways. This past year is no exception: In 2015, debut poets took on everything from Chinese unicorns and Mesoamerican shape-shifters to jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and The Real Housewives television franchise. They wrote sonnet cycles, erasures, conceptual poems, and lyric poems that skip across the page and open their readers’ eyes, illuminating ideas at turns thrilling, devastating, and always alive.

You'll want to spend time with each poet, but we'll ease your way in by considering some of the background to Robin Coste Lewis's National Book Award-winning title, Voyage of the Sable Venus.

How it began: Actually, I began writing poetry because of a very serious accident that left me with permanent traumatic brain injury. At one point in my recovery (because reading, writing, and speaking made me very symptomatic), my doctors told me I could only read one sentence a day, only write one sentence a day. After that shock began to wear off, I decided to use their prognosis as a formal writing restraint. I spent many months not trying to write a poem, but trying to write only one very fine line. It sounds romantic, but it wasn’t. At first, I was profoundly depressed. After years of teaching literature and writing, what was a life without books? Writing a line a day was an experience in tremendous discipline. It was thrilling to work again, yes, but to work silently in bed for hours, without writing or typing, working just inside my head, was also very macabre. Slowly, my illness became a sort of game. I’d find the milk in the oven and crack up laughing. It was pure poetry, brain damage. It was profoundly humbling.

In short, all those skills artists must acquire—stillness, concentration, discipline, compression, wrestling with the ego, all of it—walked in the door, hand in hand, with brain damage. That’s the real story behind my book. Poetry was the means by which I learned to reenter the world after traumatic brain injury. What compelled me to write was the desire to continue living an engaged life. Poetry allowed me to reenter my work, but from a different door.

Go now and read on!