One of my favorite times of year, August exudes new-school-year vibes. It radiates fresh notebooks, new pens, and a meticulously selected outfit for the first day. Now, another big part of adoring August is The Sealey Challenge.
Founded in 2017 by poet Nicole Sealey, participants read one poetry chapbook or full-length collection every day for 31 days during the month of August and share their reads across social media with hashtags including #TheSealeyChallenge. Reading titles by diverse voices and purchasing books from independent bookstores close to home is also in the spirit of this challenge.
After dabbling in the month-long challenge for one work week in 2019, I’ve participated in all and every August since, making this my fourth year. Every March, I begin gathering a poetry pile early, so my book budget feels the squeeze a little less. If a glimpse at my current Sealey Challenge stack interests you, I plan to read Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s Beast Meridian, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish, Etel Adnan’s Sea & Fog, and K. Iver’s Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco, to name only several titles.
Find here, in order of publication date, eight titles ranging from works celebrating their first birthday to new releases and a forthcoming book perfect for Sealey Challenge piles.
Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble
Published last July, I happened upon Tibble’s propulsive U.S. debut about hair, Māori identity, pop culture, and representation in the poetry corner at Sundog Books. The titled vignettes and mythological references of the first, titular piece gripped me so. I left with a copy in my hand and snapped a picture of the breathtaking cover before the storefront. My mind keeps returning to “Pania,” who yearns for the ocean: “When she was little and lived by the sea, she swam a lot and was fearless with her body . . . Her grandmother always said Never turn your back on the ocean, because you never knew what might be coming in. She used to think about sharks and stingrays, then tidal waves, then she thought about a horizon full of big white sails.”
Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe
Last December, I left Octavia Books with this title wrapped in navy and gold, and I placed it under the little Christmas tree in my reading nook. My final read of 2022, it proved a spectacular way to close out my reading year. One Sealey Challenge tradition of mine is that half of my books consist of new-to-me titles, and the other half are rereads. Presented in four numbered sections, I’ve been wanting to revisit Codjoe’s captivating debut collection since New Year’s Eve. Pondering art, sadness, trauma, and water, it opens with “Blueprint.” A sticky flag draws my eyes back to three of its lines, “I soaked black beans for the color they left. My blue / was a habit, a kind of river I stepped into—sometimes / crossed—because it held the sky so perfectly.” I can’t wait to see which lines I linger on and which pages I dog-ear during my second read.
The Symmetry of Fish by Su Cho
One of the five winners of the National Poetry Series in 2021, Paige Lewis, the author of Space Struck — one of my comfort reads — chose Cho’s incredible debut for publication, which catapulted it into my auto-buy category. Across three parts, these poems examine coming of age in the Midwest, Korean folklore, language, and love. During Christmastime, I devoured this in New Orleans, in parking lots, wherever I could fit a poem, and I’m delighted to return to this collection this summer, especially “The Old Man in White Has Given My Mother a Ripe Persimmon Again,” “She Arose,” and “Another Door to the Moon.”
Phantom Pain Wings by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi
In addition to The Sealey Challenge, August marks Women in Translation Month, so celebrate by mixing in some translated poetry by women. Told in four titled sections that culminate in an essay by Hyesoon, these poems are funny, surreal, and teem with longing. Bird enthusiasts especially, reach for this reflection on making, mourning, sound, and war. An endnotes fanatic, I deeply appreciated the “Translator’s Diary,” drawing hearts in the margins my entire way through. Insights into the process of translating poetry from Korean to English, the weather and bird reports, and dreams and nightmares fascinated me.
Things I Didn’t Do with This Body by Amanda Gunn
Meditating on kitchens and perfume, grief and romance novels, and family and memory, I found Gunn’s debut collection luminous. Comprised of six parts, visit these pages to fall in love with phrases, lines, poems, entire sections, the poet’s work. The opening sentence of “Notes on a Dream of Dying” introduced my jaw to the floor, “I know this dream like the lines of my hand.” Throughout the book, the mentions of food and the care involved in the preparation of dishes like “a pot of stuffed cabbage,” “graham / cracker cake,” and “paprikás” are all chef’s kiss.
Freedom House by KB Brookins
Unfolding in four parts titled after areas of a house, these stunning poems of Brookins transport readers to 2029, to the gynecologist, and to the moon. Delving into desire, gender identity, loss, and violence, this book absorbed my attention. In Florida, I carried it to the beach. The blue of the cover and the blue undulating before me mesmerized me. In utter awe, I read “I take my therapist’s suggestion & correct worrying to caring” to my partner and nearby umbrellas. Additional dog-eared pieces I keep flipping back to: “It’s 6 am & the Sun Is Out,” “Good Grief,” and “Finally, a Slow Weekend.”
Once a City Said: A Louisville Poets Anthology edited by Joy Priest
Edited by the author of Horsepower, this compelling anthology highlights the words of 37 Louisville poets, a fantastic way to read a variety of writers in a single sitting. In the introductory essay, Priest chronicles driving from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Houston, Texas, in June of 2020. While stopping to rest in familiar and home cities during the height of the COVID pandemic, Priest encounters protests in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In response, Priest facilitated a writing workshop via Sarabande, and many of the pieces workshopped appear throughout these pages. With the title and four section epigraphs spotlighting poem excerpts, this compassionate exploration of community and home, Kentucky history and memory, and race and resilience moved me.
The Ferguson Report: An Erasure by Nicole Sealey (8/15/2023)
Past Augusts, I have ended, begun, and begun and ended The Sealey Challenge with Sealey’s work, Ordinary Beast and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named. This August, The Sealey Challenge creator has a new title forthcoming. In Sealey’s second full-length poetry book, the poet redacts the investigation by the Department of Justice of the police department and court system in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown in August of 2014. With the entirety of The Ferguson Report present, this erasure is organized into nine parts, and the last features the eight “lifted poems.” Preorder this much-anticipated release so it arrives in time to fold into your book stacks.
If you want to peruse more poetry posts inspired by The Sealey Challenge, check out 10 New-to-Me Poets I Discovered Thanks to The Sealey Challenge, 15 Poetry Books for the Upcoming Sealey Challenge, and Will You Join The Sealey Challenge? by yours truly.