The paradox of contemporary American poetry is well documented: More people than ever before are writing, workshopping, and publishing poetry—and almost no one is reading it. To be an accomplished poet in 2015 must feel a little like having mastered the erhu or the banjolele, an archaic musical instrument that most of society has forgotten exists.
A new anthology, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation, attempts to alter this equation, in part by targeting young readers—the book is aimed at readers 14 and older—and in part by providing an extensive survey of some of the most engaging poetry around. Dorothea Lasky, Terrance Hayes, CAConrad, and Jericho Brown are a few of the poets featured in the anthology who can claim large, almost reverential followings within the poetry community and near-total obscurity without.
"We were both troubled teenagers who felt, in some part, saved by poetry," write editors Lynn Melnick and Brett Fletcher Lauer in an open letter on thevolta.org. "We wanted to create an anthology that would have spoken to our younger selves... as dorky and wide-eyed as it sounds, we want to make poetry 'cool.'" It follows that the works they present tend toward the ribald and risqué.
Many of the poems engage with sex, often a teenager's first encounter, as in James Allen Hall's "We Fall in Love with Total Strangers," in which the speaker, a 15-year-old boy, meets an older man in a hospital bathroom and shares a kiss that feels like "steel / softening in wettest dark." In "Sex Ed," Erika Meitner argues fiercely with the conservative pedagogy of a sexual-education classroom, asserting, "We don't need to ask forgiveness for exploring fingers, / roving lips and tangled lips, for baseball metaphors / and base desires, for holding each other close / in darkness." And in "Let a Room Be Made as Dark as Possible," Emily Kendal Frey addresses the teenager's most likely sexual partner of all—one's self: "You fuck yourself late at night / thinking of someone / just beyond imagination / third-grade teacher minus the smell / Tom Hanks or an equally partially comforting presence."
It's not all sex, however. There's also humor (Mark Bibbins's "Concerning the Land to the South of Our Neighbors to the North"), politics (CAConrad's "America You Don't Give a Damn About Their Dead"), heartbreak (Kate Litterer's "There I Was Unrequited"), history (L. Lamar Wilson's "We Do Not Know Her Name"), and religion (Phillip B. Williams's "Prayer"). In fact, the anthology's biggest strength may be its diversity. The poets here are black, white, Latino, Asian, and Native American; gay, straight, and transgender; able-bodied and disabled; and from all different social classes. (The one area in which the collection lacks diversity is education; nearly all of the poets included hold advanced degrees in creative writing.) The selections also represent notably different styles. For example, Timothy Donnelly's "Claire de Lune," which uses the antique form of the villanelle, follows closely behind Heather Christle's "Acorn Duly Crushed," which begins "Dear stupid forest. / Dear totally brain-dead forest."
For inexpert readers and writers of poetry, a category that contains most of us, such variety of style, form, subject matter, and identity can only feel like an invitation. The poetry world may be a miniscule one, the anthology seems to be saying, but if it can accommodate poets as diverse as Jenny Zhang ("Don't fucking text your friends when I'm reading a poem it took two years to write"), Eduardo C. Corral ("In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes"), and Matthew Dickman ("Ghost Story"), then there surely must be enough room for different sorts of readers, too.
"Most poets begin writing poetry in secret," poet and translator Carolyn Forché writes in the book's introduction. "As with love and other experiences there is a first time and it is remembered." The same is surely true for reading poetry. It's easy to imagine young readers, and maybe older ones too, turning to this anthology for their first (voluntary) encounter with poetry and coming away with a hunger for more.