Too many of the "Best of..." lists I've read give me the uncomfortable sensation that I'm witnessing a small act of incest. It's natural to love the artists with whom one's close, of course, and to want to share their work with the world, but I find equal pleasure in the rush of discovery. Some of the artists on this list are brand-new to me, which has made this project all the more exciting.
Traci Brimhall's work was brought to my attention only recently – and that's one of the reasons I wanted her to be next in the spotlight. Brimhall is an excellent and acclaimed writer, no doubt, but in reading her poems, I also had the privilege of opening my mind to something I'd never before encountered. What I see in Brimhall is a fantastic balance between contemporary conventions and freshness of image. I see a profound understanding of music and meter coupled with the occasional abruptness only a very confident voice can carry. Brimhall's speakers burn with emotional certainty, even though they might not have the means to solve the problems of which they are so painfully aware.
For those of you who are also new to Brimhall's work, you're welcome.
The poem below was previously published in Rookery, Brimhall's first collection (with her permission).
Dueling Sonnets on the Railroad Tracks
Don’t admit anything. Don’t ask your question.
I tasted her sweat on your knuckles, her whispers
in your mouth like secondhand smoke. I’ve wandered
north to the railroad tracks, throwing gravel at the cars.
The small violence comforts me. I never told you
I met a man where honeysuckle withers against
the streetlight. We walked the deserted rail yards,
talking about love and its difficulties without ever
touching each other. But don’t you think I wanted him
to push me against the abandoned cars, rust and friction
bruising my backbone as he tugged at my zipper
with his teeth? Not for the rushed and furious pleasure of it,
but because if I could hurt you now, I could forgive you,
and forgiveness is all that makes love safe.
The summer we met, bull sharks cruised the coastal shelf
at dusk. Thunderstorms startled each afternoon,
bright and unforgiving. We closed the lifeguard stand,
and I held the rafters, and you held my hips,
and we never learned how lightning found the earth.
How did it come to this? The raccoon troubling
the garbage cans. A blooming apple tree sheltering
a nest of dead birds. The train wailing in the distance.
I know I will return home, and we will punish each other
long enough to outlast desire. While you pretend to sleep
I will pack quietly and whisper, Electrons. When the storm
wants to strike, something in the earth rises up.
But you already knew that, didn’t you? You already knew
the tree was the answer to the lightning’s question.
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Slate, The Believer, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Best American Poetry 2013. She’s received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the King/Chávez/Parks Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
To be a working poet in one's 30s these days is to be under the gun. With the kinds of opportunities available to poets these days, through grants, prizes, competitions and whatnot, many of us in this age range can begin to feel some serious anxiety around now if we haven't yet accomplished what we believe we ought. Although most poets still don't truly establish themselves until later on in life, this is the age when we begin to fret the world might not take notice of our talent and skill. Many of us begin to profoundly question our choice of profession: this can mean worrying about the financial solvency of an artistic career, growing disillusioned with any given poetic establishment, or losing faith in our own abilities to continually produce work that is both solid and innovative.
Happily, a plethora of poets in this age range are making all of this look easy to us mortals. In this series, I want to highlight a few that stand out – some of whom I've had the pleasure of meeting, some of whom I've only had the pleasure of reading, but all of whom have displayed an admirable seriousness when it comes to the craft of writing poems. I hope these names will be occasionally recognizable to Muzzle readers, and occasionally, entirely, surprising.
The first poet I'd like to spotlight is Aricka Foreman. Aricka first seriously caught my attention in 2010, long before we'd had a real conversation, long before we got to know each other. We became acquainted through mutual friends: Aricka is a part of what I like to call the Detroit School – a group of emerging poets whose talent has been cultivated, largely, by the poet and professor Vievee Francis (whom I previously interviewed for Muzzle).
Aricka's sharpness and brilliance - her understanding of the limitations and freedoms of form, her deftness with imagery and metaphor - startled me the first time I read her work. Three years later, I'm only more impressed. I have the pleasure of calling her a co-editor on this journal, so I occasionally have the opportunity to read her amazing insights on any given submission. This kind of dexterity deserves to be noticed. Her first collection is going to be ridiculously good. Read the poem excerpted below, and you'll see what I mean.
Between Heaven and The Most Southern Place On Earth
for William Foreman Sr. and Emmett Till
I watch my grandfather's morning fingers slip each button
in then out slotted cotton, sleeves starched to gleam.
Effortless magnolia of a man swaying throughout the house,
limbs bending to his own wind, pooling cologne into his palms,
blessing the edges of jaw, arch of neck, having remembered less
beautiful preparations of the body. Delta men know how precious
it is to age into the darkness of their own wine, and when his mouth
widens around darling, I'm so surprised, it's not the promise of
what a baptism might wash away, but what the 1955 Tallahatchie
River did not. Sometimes I forget which man lives inside my memory,
whose hands lifted me as close to the stars as his shoulders could
reach, making up constellations that didn't ladle the night. I push
against my waking years later to him curled beneath the kitchen
table, folded over and swatting away snakes only he could see,
his howling out writhing from blows his uncle's ghost unleashed
when he was a boy too young to understand why his shade of
gorgeous made people violently uneasy. There are no love songs
for Sunflower, Yazoo, or Money boys to sing to themselves, too few
moments to take in their reflections. They learn to make threading
ritual, pulling a string of slow breaths between buffing black
shoes until they catch every fleck of light. When my grandfather pours
into his overcoat I am young and full of possibility, not realizing the ease
in which he can return home before his musk fades from the front door.
Aricka Foreman's work has appeared in The Drunken Boat, Minnesota Review, Vinyl Poetry, The Bakery, TheThe Poetry, and others. A Poetry MFA Candidate at Cornell University, she has received fellowships from Callaloo and Cave Canem. She is a Poetry Editor for Muzzle Magazine.
We've decided to remove the write up about Danez Smith. He didn't want any confusion about his inclusion on the list compromising the integrity of the rest of the list. Danez is, clearly, a writer of note. Feel free to read the original write up about him here. And check out his website here.
It was been a pleasure to edit, read, and experience this 30 Under 30 series. Thanks to Danez for your remarkable work all month long. Thanks to Stevie Edwards and Muzzle for the platform. Thank you to all our readers, be you great or few. I hope you found something new to love in these last 30 days.
Muzzle is also proud to announce that Danez Smith will be joining our team permanently as a Poetry Reader for the literary magazine. Glad to have you aboard brother :)
Asst. Poetry Editor,
‘them mama tell them
it wild over there
she say over there buses quit
running like utilities
or dead boys’
-from god made the hundreds, man made it wild
The Black Boy’s song is one of the toughest things to sing. it is a ballad of funk, sorrow, love, violence, pride, sweat, teeth, summer, joy, and spirit. Some folks sing it off key, not able to get the right balance of night & day in the song. I trust Nate Marshall to sing that song. I trust Nate to sing for me. Often set up against the backdrop of Chicago, Nate’s work belts with a scratched, angelic voice to tell the tails of youth, sexuality, family, sports, blackness, masculinity, and all the things wrapped up in being one of the sun’s darker sons. His work is for the boys, for those who see themselves portrayed as beast in the media, those who have seen too many of their friends fade into ghost, whose neighborhoods have been labeled dangerous & wild. Beyond that landscape of the block, Nate’s work concerning other areas of black masculinity sing those lesser songs of desire and our body, too often denied of their human need. Nate also muses of the necessity of Hip-Hop, the 808 pulsing through his work, his lines filled with meter and verse improving upon everyone from Terrance Hayes to Nas. This dance of lyricism and poetics makes perfect sense: When Nate isn’t busy being a poet, he is an MC of formidable skill, a Paul Lawrence Dunbar of the 16, rocking with the crew Daily Lyrical Product. Their music, just as powerful and funky as Nate’s work on the page, is the after party of Nate’s work. If his poetry is the ballad of the Black Boy, then DLP is his favorite juke song he plays right after. Folks, get into Nate Marshall. I demand it. Your spirit demands it. You won’t be mad I told you so.
Thank you to Stevie Edwards and the entire Muzzle Magazine Staff for this opportunity to highlight 30 wonderful writer’s with full, bright careers ahead of them this last month. To the readers: this list is only a sampling. There could have been a list of 30 other writers that would have been just as vibrant, talented and promising. I encourage you to dive into Muzzle and other literary leaders that are promoting our world current class of young, emerging, damn stellar writers! Peace, Love, and Twerk!
‘Tell me from the ups and lower backs. The knock
know jokes of fame –ask me what’s right and I’ll
hurricane the morning sun to the horizon’
-from The Carter III (Transcriptions)
And like a storm sweeping through paradise, Franny Choi came into the world and we are damn lucky to be a part of it. This poetry reads with a clarity that shows you how skilled the artist is with craft & how honest the work is to the self that even if it is taking a major leap, the artist is guided by what the work wants to do. Franny is a medium for the spirits of her own work. The poems are not just written, but seem to come into the world through her. When you read her work, you get the feeling that she has moved her ego and most filtered self out of the way in order to allow the work to come out as authentic and masterful as possible. Franny’s work on race, culture, gender, sexuality, loss, & love is allowed to take whatever shape it wishes to take on. As a poet, she is not scared to grapple with the fantastic, to give ghost and things yet to be named the opportunity to exist. Everything and every one is allowed it’s own magic, and Franny is quite the magician. I do not trust my eyes and feet when I read her work. I know at the end of every poem that something in the world has shifted and has no intention on regressing. Franny is moving us forward with brilliant and innovative verse, images worthy of galleries, and stunning voice. Don’t even get me started on her readings! Franny is one of the most versatile and powerful performers you will ever meet. I dare you to look at her work and not become mesmerized by the passion and veracity she brings to her performances. Folks, get into Franny Choi, the best kind of lightning on earth. She will shock you, she will enlighten you, and she will burn you so damn good.
is an apple pussy
as a wormhole
meaty meat and
never any seeds’
-from “Frieda Kahlo to Diego” or “the ways my body feels empty sometimes”
Oh My God. ‘Use Me’ by Bill Withers just came on while I was starting to write this. This is important to point out, for that is exactly how I feel about Jamila Woods’ work. She uses me as a reader so well, using language that is complex in design and brilliantly human in emotion, language that is intellectual & inventive in the same breath that is of the neighborhood, familiar, & a different kind of innovative. Jamila’s writing pulls us part, spreading us wide and showing us the map that was been living on our skin, leading us on a journey to wherever her brilliant mind sees fit. Her explorations of race, sex, gender, the body, and all her touches become queen’s gold, but the accessibility to her work, despite its ability to exist in and shatter academia, throws the gold out the window into the hands of the people. Jamila takes her skills from the page to the stage effortlessly, performing sometimes with a breathtaking subtlety and sometimes with fierce and toothy theatricality, but the best representation of her transferrable fierceness is in her singing & songwriting. Jamila is one part of Milo & Otis, a Chicago based band that is making wonderfully fresh, undeniably funky, and tear jerking music in one hand & twerkfest anthems in the other. Her versatility as a songwriter is only strengthened by her skills as a poet & playwright (check out her theatre works, they are so outer space fly it’s ridiculous), the music hits every level you need it to, making even the most stubborn of stones find something to shake in place of hips. And Jamila’s Voice? CHILE! I come undone whenever she opens her lips for air to come out. Her voice is everything & full of disguises. At first it seems sweet and humble, until she decides to let you have it, at which time you understand that the power and glory is real. Folks, if you haven’t already, get into Jamila Woods. Get into Milo & Otis. Your soul sho won’t be disappointed.
‘I will not pretend
to be lost in the yoyo tug of her tongue.
I know the word for ‘alone’
in every stuttering language I speak.’
Thank you to all the spirits who put Fatimah Asghar into the world. It is clear that she was placed here, for she is not a writer who happens by chance, but rather a writer that seems to have the gift of language in her blood. Fatimah writes of culture, gender, loss, love, war, & sex over a lush landscape of language and imagery that is over ripe with wit, honesty, and truth. In that same light, Fatimah plays with our definition of what can be true, creating a realm where the idea of truth itself is complicated and often a lie. She gives herself space to maneuver wildly and vulnerability in the emotional field of the work, able to invent truth without ever being in danger of pretending. This is the dance of her work, to blur the space between what we believe and what we know, to muddy reality, or rather, to finally see reality for what it is. Fatimah draws us into her world, sets the rules, gives us the privilege to view upon it, all the while we are seduced into whatever she allows light. A gifted writer in multiple genres (poetry, playwriting, and the beautiful and often unsung lyric essay), Fatimah is doing the work with a fresh voice, one that sings as unique as a voice can get. Her gifts of craft and raw, needed fight prove the work of a woman with graceful and experienced hands, of gentleness and overwhelming strength. Folks, get into Fatimah Asghar! Let her work put its hand to your pulse, let her remind you how unreal you are.
‘He said look in the mirror / naked / if it ain’t black—jewish
If we don’t do it to ourselves / first / then they do it to us
Said he loves countin’ stacks / is that black? / jewish?
Said we loves eating chicken cause we black-jewish!’
from Broken Ghazal
Aaron Samuels, should he ever get tired of troubling & thrashing the waters of poetry, needs to become a sculptor. He understands craft in way that only masters of stone can understand the delicate nature of a stone and how to bring it into life. While others remain marveled at the sheer size and marvel of the mountains, Aaron sees an opportunity to deconstruct, to discover and unearth, and to build. Aaron puts his hands right into grand questions on masculinity, violence, race & culture, sexuality, faith, and he doesn’t just allow himself to feel the weight of trying to push their massive entities, but he actually moves them forward. Aaron is at once blunt & subtle, about to say what needs to be said and not a peep more. This skill to alternate words so swiftly from blade to feather makes to lines and images that caress until it’s too late to realize the gash, that come for us head on, rushing and threating. It makes poems that embrace and makes us realize those poems need our embrace just as badly as we need theirs. Aaron transfers those same lethal and lovely tools to the stage, where he becomes a case study on the word precision. Aaron gives himself to the words, not getting in their way, but rather letting his voice and body become a vessel for the work. I am all the way here for Aaron Samuels, whose debut collection is forthcoming from Write Bloody Publishing. Folks, if you ain’t know, now you do. Get into the man, the non-myth but always legend that is Mr. Aaron Samuels.
‘His body, a throne
I bow down to--
He knows this: power
begins with knowing
you can beget the loaves
and the fishes from
your leftovers, that each miracle
-from The Diplomat
What can’t this womyn do? it might seem odd to put the editor of Muzzle on this list, but when I had no clue where I was going to post these entries, I knew that I was going to write about Stevie Edwards. Besides being the Editor-in-Chief of one of the flyest literary magazines out, she is a writer who is leading us into new explorations of desire and human emotions that we have never seen. Stevie’s work is guided by her needs, which are complex in their mannerisms, but clear in their aims. They are allowed to sink their teeth into the world and flesh, able to suckle and delight and devour, but not always without question. Stevie is a critical writer of the world and of self, able to dissect and rebuild the subject and the reader in the span of a poem. In the same poem where she uses the pen as a wand to summon the body’s wants, she can transform it into a pick to chisel away at the structures of humanity, the foundations of our innermost emotions and sensibilities. Stevie also has a knack for being silly in poems. I have laughed out loud in real life, not just in the text word. I have blushed and hid my face from the wit and raw heat that radiates from the page. Stevie is doing the work to actualize the whole human in her work and I am here for it. Her work spans subjects & styles, but always resounds with honesty, brilliant language, great meter, and an urgency that drives you to read more. If you are already here at Muzzle, you might already know, but if not? Get in.
‘There is a town in Poland
where every house silenced by a suicide
gets its front door painted black. Elsewhere,
they bury all the deed with music boxes.
Here, we do nothing out of the ordinary.
Maybe we forget to walk the dog.’
-from Dictator, By Which I Mean the Mother Brandishing a Pistol with a Piñata over Her Head
Man, I love watching people have fun with language! At times I forget that it is not just ours to use, but to invent, to conjure, to transfigure. Michael Mlekoday’s work does exactly that. The way he takes words and places them on the page next to each other shocks me, even if I am reading words I’ve been seeing & spelling my whole life, he has a way of ordering them into new, surprising phrases that leave me feeling all kinds of outer space, but also right at home. His work harbors a Midwest sensibility of family, race, home, and the politeness and magnitude of our joy/sorrow that makes me feel like I am standing in the middle of a blizzard in St. Paul, the world around me blind white and I have no choice but to sing. These are poems that make us work for that song, too. His titles are just plain delicious and the poems that lay under them are no slouch either. His work is that of a working man, of someone who is fully aware of the possibility of hands. These poems scream with sparks and gears, they work & sweat, laboring stanza after stanza and I have no choice but to rest when I am done, amazed by the ways in which I have been moved, reminded of the simplicity and majesty of our lives. Michael has a book coming out as well, and when The Dead Eat Everything comes out, you best run and grab it. Folks, I am HERE for Michael Mlekoday and you can be too. His work (which is everywhere) is just a google away, and you will be that much closer to understanding the true potential of a poem.
“You will not fade me,
dim my design,
turn my bright
into your shadow.”
-from List of Demands
Sometimes people are just plain talented and it is insane to watch. What’s even more beautiful is to see fluidity in someone’s work, where you can’t separate what they do in one medium from another. As a poet, MC, dancer, organizer, and simply extraordinary human being, Sofia Snow is about the work of healing and calling us to action, putting more purpose to our blood and minds than just being. Sofia, whether using her pen on the page or her body on a stage, calls us in with her fierce, sharp wit and cunning bravery. Sofia demands the world to get in line, to act like it has good sense; whether she is waxing on God, love, race, gender, or whatever blade she chooses, Sofia cuts us to the core, lets the most tender parts of us bathe in the light, and asks us to be critical of the world we shield our most delicate selves from. Sofia does the work to make the spaces we live in better. It makes sense that her art does that: she has been a youth organizer since she was a youth herself. She is constantly going above and beyond to improve the lives of young people and all of us. The city of Boston named a day after her. Sofia Snow is a perfect day, folks! Her work has the audacity to grow, to need and claim it’s wants. Sofia is able to juggle all of her blessing and talents, all of her obligations, and still come up with the time to create brilliance. She is a Bostonian to the core, her resilience, her strength, her humor, her power, all demands it’s space and gets it too. If you aren’t already, get into Sofia Snow folks. It’s a good thing for you, for your world, for the world we want to be.