There are way more poets than just the old dead white men we were taught about in English class. I know, you’re envisioning collars fluffed like starched folds of cauliflower or sharp mid-century chins resting on tweed-clad wrists, but don’t forget that contemporary poetry is full of young, thriving, sexy, sensual, and powerful writers. Lesbians poets can be hard to find, but they are writing and fighting the white male canon while producing amazing works of art.
Like Sarah Schulman recently said in her acceptance speech for the Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, “people in struggle are the most fascinating people on Earth. They produce new ideas and new formal strategies and transformative visions of social and artistic possibility that are the soul of new ideas in art and culture.”
In no particular order, here are five up-and-coming lesbian poets to watch out for.
1. Anis Gisele
Anis Gisele is a spoken-word poet and self-proclaimed “writer, girlfriend, and recovering daughter.” She has been featured at events in Vancouver, Seattle, and on The Feminist Wire. Gisele also says she “makes her income tutoring teens, cleaning houses, and folding your pool towels.” Her work across poetry and prose is very attuned to the tension of class and place, the surface of sound, and how identity is constructed through stereotypes which her poems then complicate.
In “Fear and Convenience” the speaker finds herself noting:
“you were finally free to call yourself gay… You are ensconced in the safest community you have ever been a part of. The bravest, brashest, hardest people. You read Audre Lorde and Autostraddle. You listen to Rachel Maddow and Erykah Badu. You don’t shave. You wear a beanie and chunky man-belt to really make your point.”
The point is quickly complicated, desire questions itself, until it turns back outward in an objective view of self. Every time I listen to Gisele I feel like I’ve gone through something, to borrow a phrase from St. Vincent, “like a birth in reverse.”
2. t’ai freedom ford
t’ai freedom ford is a New York high school teacher and Cave Canem Fellow on the “up” of “up-and-coming,” often anthologized as in The Breakbeat Poets and Nepantla: An Anthology of Queer Poets of Color. Her first book, how to get over, came out in 2017. Her poetry plays on the sounds of hip-hop and often comes in the form of life after hard love — almost formally constrained, carefully constructed, and aching.
As she says in “ain’t,” “this syntax these lines fragments wagging they fingers / at me this ironic ebonics this king’s English / bastard cockney bores me,” but it also presents a wonderful kind of instruction, an ars poetica of being different, being queer.
As in “How to get over [when the poem flirts]:”
should the poem slink
outta panties, stand
naked demanding touch:
finger her lines
till her stanzas beg
for an encore: come
again, explore, imagine odd
positions of sweet revision.
3. Sarah Pinder
Sarah Pinder has published two books, Cutting Room in 2012 and Common Place, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary award in 2018. Her work often contrasts individual bodies with a common desire for closeness, intimacy, and belonging.
In Common Place, she writes of what seems to be a communally Sapphic body saying “We have a longing – it is not dead, but it is very quiet.” It is “a hole in the middle of your occupations” which “shows a pile of bleach-blown linens/ shot through with supernovas.” It is an unapologetic body determined to desire.
I think of gusto,
sand in the crotch of your pants,
in the folds of your skin.
The tour bus passes.
I pledge to eat the crumb-cake
national project at the ceremony,
but scrape off the lavender icing
I try to will on rain.
4. Stephanie Dering
Stephanie Dering graduated with an MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis, and her work, which is filled with obscure relationships and desire being determined despite faulty science and a lack of precedent, has been published in Narrative, The Offing, and elsewhere.
In “How to Bludgeon with Math,” for instance, the speaker wakes up in the Sonora Motel 6, and recounts an affair with a siren and how it relates to her relationship with an unspecified “you.” “I remember the song she sang. It’s singing / from under your skin. It’s like the light: it’s everywhere. / We just don’t have the eyes for it,” she writes, and so this queer desire is hard to prove. The sciences and heterosexual precedents we’ve been given to chart relationships can’t process it.
If proofs can prove anything, I lie down and see you
one bed over; therefore God exists. The space between us
is divisible by zero. If all numbers are real between zero
and you, I will stand between you and death…
Your hand on my neck. I’m out.
I’m down and out.
5. Claudia Rodriquez
Claudia Rodriquez calls herself Compton’s poet and her work has been featured in Curve, Diva Magazine, and elsewhere. Eddie Alvarez writes that she is a “teacher, daughter, mythmaker, and lover.” Her work plays with gender, religion, and race, between languages and against proscribed borders and boundaries. In “Residuum” she writes, “Our father who are in heaven / do you listen to my prayers? / I rummaged through this shit…, time to bury / a pinche hacha / at your feet.”
She is writing for the queer kids, the kids of color, the kids “pushed by tradition… pushed by threats, / pushed into throwing down.” As she writes in “To My Butch Scholar:”
What is Butch aesthetic?
Is it when you reflect what you see before you into words?
… How you salivate at the thought
of your fingers
sliding up and down your keyboard
as you recreate me, separate me, turn me upside down
and label me.
For you to relive every time you, she, I read.
that captured by your eyes
digested by your mind
and ends up on everyone’s tongue.
For every poet I have named there are thousands more I did not. Not because they aren’t out
there — they are, and their work is as unique, varied, passionate, fun, and important as they are — but because women as a group, women of color and queer women especially, are under-represented, under-published, and under-heard. This is why we have to search for them, carry them, study them, and share them. Feel free to leave your favorites in the comments below!