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Jamila Woods
Jamila Woods

Black female poets you need to know

We publish the work of seven poets who are using prose to discuss everything from womenhood, the complexities of life, spirituality, and sci-fi

2017 has been a watershed year for Black women speaking truth to power while reclaiming their time, transforming the conversation and controlling the narrative. We have reached the tipping point, wherein new voices burst forth on the global scene, in every field from business to politics, science to sports, photography to poetry.

On September 3, Pulitzer Prize-wining poet Tracy K. Smith signed in for duty as the United States Poet Laureate – the highest position a poet is given by the government, with the express purpose of raising the national consciousness of reading and writing poetry.

Smith is in tremendous company, as a bevy of Black women are publishing new books of poetry, sharing their art, wisdom, and vision of life with the world. We spotlight seven poets whose work shows us the way that verse can transform the way we understand ourselves, each other, and life itself.


Poet and vocalist Jamila Woods was raised in Chicago, and graduated from Brown University, where she earned a BA in Africana Studies and Theatre & Performance Studies. Influenced by Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks, much of her writing explores Blackness, womanhood, and the city of Chicago.

Woods is the co-editor of The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books, March 2018), the companion volume to The BreakBeat Poets, one of the most important volumes of poetry in recent years, which features one of her most unforgettable works, “Blk Girl Art.”

“Blk Girl Art”

after Amiri Baraka

Poems are bullshit unless they are eyeglasses, honey

tea with lemon, hot water bottles on tummies. I want

poems my grandma wants to tell the ladies at church

about. I want orange potato words soaking in the pot

til their skins fall off, words you burn your tongue on,

words on sale two for one, words that keep my feet dry.

I want to hold a poem in my fist in the alley just in case.

I want a poem for dude at the bus stop. Oh you can’t talk

ma? Words to make the body inside my body less invisible.

Words to teach my sister how to brew remedies in her mouth.

Words that grow mama’s hair back. Words to detangle the kitchen.

I won’t write poems unless they are an instruction manual, a bus

card, warm shea butter on elbows, water, a finger massage to the scalp,

a broomstick sometimes used for cleaning and sometimes

to soar.

“Blk Girl Art” from The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Copyright © 2015 by Jamila Woods. Reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books, Chicago, Il


Eve L. Ewing is a writer, scholar, artist, and educator from Chicago. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and The Atlantic, among others. She is a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Social Administration.

Ewing is the author of Electric Arches (Haymarket), which sold out of its first printing the day after it released. Ewing’s poems are drawn from life and speak to the African-American experience through the eyes of a young girl on her path to womanhood.

“Origin Story”

This is true:

my mother and my father

met at the Greyhound bus station

in the mid-eighties in Chicago.

my mother, all thick glass and afro puff,

came west on the train when she was nineteen,

lived in a friend’s house and cared for her children,

played tambourine in a Chaka Khan cover band.

my father, all sleeveless and soft eye,

ran away from home when he was seventeen,

mimeographed communist newspapers

and drew comic books

like this one, for sale.

one dollar.

my mother bought one.

love is like a comic book. it’s fragile

and the best we can do is protect it

in whatever clumsy ways we can:

plastic and cardboard, dark rooms

and boxes. in this way, something

never meant to last

might find its way to another decade,

another home, an attic, a basement, intact.

love is paper.

and if my parents’ love was a comic book,

it never saw polyvinyl, never felt a backing.

it was curled into a back pocket for a day at the park,

lent to a friend, read under covers,

reread hanging upside-down over the back of the couch,

memorized, mishandled, worn thin, staples rusted.

a love like that doesn’t last

but it has a good ending.

“Origin Story” from Electric Arches. Copyright © 2017 by Eve L. Ewing. Reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books, Chicago, Il


Morgan Parker is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow.

The author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), which was selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize, Parker released There Are Things More Beautiful Than Beyoncé (Tin House Books) earlier this year. Her intense, direct, and powerful voice shows how poetry can be used as a means to mediate the complexities and challenges of life itself.


I’m hiding secrets & weapons in there: buttermilk

pancake cardboard, boxes of purple juice, a magic word

our Auntie Angela spoke into her fist & released into

hot black evening like gunpowder or a Kool, 40 yards of

cheap wax prints, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a Zulu

folktale warning against hunters drunk on Polo shirts &

Jägermeister, blueprints for building ergonomically perfect

dancers & athletes, the chords to what would have been

Michael’s next song, a mule stuffed with diamonds &

gold, Miss Holiday’s vocal cords, the jokes Dave Chapelle’s

been crafting off the grid, sex & brown liquor intended

for distribution at Sunday schools in white suburbs, or in

other words exactly what a white glove might expect to

find taped to my leg & swallowed down my gullet & locked

n my trunk & fogging my dirty mind & glowing like

treasure in my autopsy

“Afro” from There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Copyright © 2017 by Morgan Parker. Reprinted with permission from Tin House Books, Portland, OR, and Brooklyn, NY


Yrsa Daley-Ward is a writer and poet of mixed West Indian and West African heritage. Born to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, Yrsa was raised by her devout Seventh Day Adventist grandparents in the small town of Chorley in the North of England.

The author of bone, Daly-Ward has become a powerful voice of Black womanhood, speaking of her experiences and wisdom gleaned from growing up as a first-generation British woman of African and Caribbean heritage.

“the not quite love”

I haven’t been home in nearly two


My new lover has a fridge full of beer

and can almost make jollof rice

also the sex is good

and we are falling into something we

will soon mistake for love


“home” is a problem. There are the

bills and there

are the mice


there is that feeling you get

when you catch up with yourself.

“the not quite love” from bone. Copyright © 2017 by Yrsa Daley-Ward. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Books, New York, NY


Aja Monet is a Caribbean-American poet, performer, and educator from Brooklyn. She has been awarded the Andrea Klein Wullison Prize for Poetry and the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam title, as well as the New York City YWCA’s “One to Watch Award.”

The author of The Black Unicorn Sings (Penmanship Books), Monet’s new book My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Haymarket Books) honours the matriarchy: the spirit of the resilience, resistance, and revolution from mother to daughter, and shared between sisters and uses poetry to address racism, sexism, genocide, displacement, loss, love, motherhood, spirituality, and transcendence.

“564 park avenue”

abuelita’s hands were a time card she clocked

in and out, morning and night. they were

a pile of dirty sheets at the foot of a bed,

gnarled broomsticks, dustpans, and sooty vacuums,

her hands were soiled rags in yellow gloves,

they were two pillows beaten of mites

and dead skin, her hands were paper towels

and windex on greasy mirrors.

they were many rooms each day.

her hands were a slice of wonder bread

dipped in dark coffee with sugar,

they were cinnamon sticks oozing in farina,

they were ketchup squeezed over a plate

of scrambled eggs and white rice

they were what fed and cleansed

her hands were my hands

rushing to school before work.

“564 park avenue” from My Mother Ws a Freedom Fighter. Copyright © 2017 by Aja Monet. Reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL


Mahogany L. Browne is a Cave Canem and Poets House alumna and the author of several books including Smudge and Redbone. She directs the poetry program of the Nuyorican Poets Café.

Along with Jamila Woods and Idrissa Simmonds, Browne is the co-editor of the forthcoming The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books, March 2018), which shows that hip hop is not quite the boy’s club that the music industry would like it to be, as a great many women have mastered the form, taking it to new heights with their distinctive styles, experiences, and insights.


who clean the house

who cook the food

who bless the babies

who stay too true

who make the clothes

who buy the shoes

who sleep too little

who sing no blues

“nameless” from The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Copyright © 2015 by Mahogany L. Browne. Reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL


Tracy K. Smith, the current United States Poet Laureate, is the author of three previous poetry collections, including Life on Mars (Greywolf Press), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a memoir, Ordinary Light (Vintage), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. In April 2018, Smith will publish Wade in the Water (Greywolf Press), a new volume of poetry.

In Life on Mars, Smith gives us a vision of Afrofuturism in its purest form, using science fiction as a metaphor for how we live now. Written as an elegy to her father, one of the engineers on the Hubble Space Telescope, Smith takes on the mysteries of existence with her sweeping verse, casting us into an epic journey that firmly returns us to beauty of Earth.

“The Universe is a House Party”

The universe is expanding. Look: postcards

And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim,

Orphan socks and napkins dried into knots.

Quickly, wordlessly, all of it whisked into file

With radio waves from a generation ago

Drifting to the edge of what doesn’t end,

Like the air inside a balloon. Is it bright?

Will our eyes crimp shut? Is it molten, atomic,

A conflagration of suns? It sounds like the kind of party

Your neighbors forget to invite you to: bass throbbing

Through walls, and everyone thudding around drunk

On the roof. We grind lenses to an impossible strength,

Point them toward the future, and dream of beings

We’ll welcome with indefatigable hospitality:

How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch

At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise,

Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.

Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.

Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.

“The Universe Is a House Party” from Life on Mars. Copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Tracy K. Smith author photo credit to Rachel Eliza Griffiths