Poetry can be vivid, intense, and freeing. Talking about your journey in your own voice can be daunting. Poetry can feel like an invitation to a conversation. A verse format really helps ease both the writer and reader into it. Writer and professor Sylvia M. Vardell writes: “Many writers have found poetry to be the ideal vehicle for exploring issues of culture, ethnicity, and race. Others have framed difficult subject matter, such as personal trauma and family problems, in the form of poem memoirs.” We live such unique yet intertwined lives. The women on this list make sense of their lives with wit, charm, rage, and grace. These memoirs in verse are filled with insights about both exclusion and belonging. Reading these books makes us ponder, reflect and sometimes feel understood. They open the metaphorical door for difficult yet important conversations.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson recalls what it was like growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. She introduces readers to the harsh realities of being African American during that era. She does so with honesty and tenderness. The writing is simple enough to draw in a younger audience and insightful enough to engage an older one. The verse format captures the precious dreams of a young brown girl in a world that wasn’t ready for them. It’s about how she reached for them anyway and the ones who held her hand along the way.
“The first time I write my full name
Jacqueline Amanda Woodson
without anybody’s help
on a clean white page in my composition notebook,
if I wanted to
I could write anything.
Letters becoming words, words gathering meaning, becoming
thoughts outside my head
———–Jacqueline Amanda Woodson”
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lai
Inside Out & Back Again was inspired by Thanhhà Lại’s own experiences. The eloquent verse format explores the journey of a young, fierce Vietnamese girl. She navigates an unfamiliar world while craving the comfort of home. Protagonist Hà moves to Alabama with family and struggles with teasing and bullying at school. The family sticks together and finds their place and strength in this strange land. It’s a beautiful book highlighting the refugee experience and the bond of family.
“Everyone knows the ship
unable to hold
the piles of bodies
that keep crawling on
like raging ants
from a disrupted nest.
But no one
is heartless enough
because what if
they had been
before their turn?”
The Favorite by Lucinda Watson
This memoir in verse is brimming with insight and wisdom from Watson’s 71 years of being alive. It’s divided into three parts, which explore the author’s thoughts during different periods of her life. It explores a child’s innocence and curiosity in the first part. It goes on to explore themes of privilege, objectification, and being a woman in a patriarchal world. We grow with the writer as the book progress. The last part has her examining and understanding her life. The self-acceptance feels cathartic.
Remembering Isadora Duncan
“I asked for a womb with
Just a small picture window
to see what was coming.
Even then I wanted
to be prepared.
I think about routes before
I take them,
before I have them
and life before I
Even the garden
Is not spared from prediction
As all I do is prune and refuse
They think I dance for myself
But all I do is planned.”
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
This verse memoir follows an African American girl from 1950 to 1960 from ages 4 to 14. Her awareness, interests, and voice grow throughout the course of her book. Marilyn Nelson writes in her author’s note: “Some of the poems that seem to be ‘about me’ are as much about the ‘Red Scare,’ the shadow of the atom bomb, racism, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, or the first stirrings of women’s empowerment.” As someone who knew little about these themes, her voice ignited curiosity and the need to understand better. Written in 50 poems, this book is compact, powerful, and revolutionary.
“Daddy corrects white men who call him boy.
Even when they’re in police uniforms.
Even though the radio updates news
of sit-ins and white citizens’ councils.
I ride behind his beautiful close-cropped head,
my window slightly cracked for Speida’s nose.
Last night, awake alone, he parked the car
in the Grand Canyon visitors’ parking lot.
And this morning, he woke us up to dawn.
There’s more beauty on Earth than I can bear.”
Under The Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Guadalupe Garcia McCall interweaves both Spanish and English in her gorgeous verse memoir. Both languages flow effortlessly as the protagonist explores their place in her life. The book holds the reader’s attention with its tenderness and warmth. It explores themes of sickness, suffering, courage, hope and family. The protagonist makes sense of difficult things through writing her heart out under the resilient mesquite tree. Beautifully intertwined with love and loss, this short read is a great place to start if you want to get into verse memoir.
“It made me sad to know
that from our new home
I could not hear their voices
if they sang my name to the wind.
And I doubted los girasoles
would understand me anymore,
because now I was speaking
a different language.
I swallowed consonants
and burdened vowels with a sound
so dense, the words fell straight
out of my mouth and hit the ground
before they could reach the river’s edge.”