20 Must-Read Poetry Collections by Queer Female Poets

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Alex Rouch

Staff Writer

As an editor, Alexandra Rouch finds joy in helping authors strengthen their work. In undergrad, she wrote esoteric English papers on queerness and power dynamics that vexed and exhausted her faculty. Her life ambition is to achieve the tranquility present in Mary Oliver’s work; until then, she spends her time thinking about the monstrous feminine and getting in fistfights with her own metaphors.

Alex Rouch

Staff Writer

As an editor, Alexandra Rouch finds joy in helping authors strengthen their work. In undergrad, she wrote esoteric English papers on queerness and power dynamics that vexed and exhausted her faculty. Her life ambition is to achieve the tranquility present in Mary Oliver’s work; until then, she spends her time thinking about the monstrous feminine and getting in fistfights with her own metaphors.

Because of social distancing measures, Pride celebrations might be looking a little different this coming June. That said, it could be a great time to discover some new favorite queer female poets! To get you started, I’ve rounded up 20 poetry collections by queer women from across the decades to keep you busy as you prepare for Pride Month. Whether you’re feeling sappy or revolutionary, these collections have it all.

Felicity by Mary Oliver

If you’re looking for a poetry collection to make you feel good about life, Felicity does the trick. One of Oliver’s more recent works, this collection is soft and sexy in turn. However, in every poem is the undercurrent of peace that defines Oliver’s style. One poem notable poem is “I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly.” The piece ends only a few lines later with “But, bless us, we didn’t.” Same, Mary.

The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde by Audre Lorde

No list of queer female poets would be complete without discussing Audre Lorde. In this collection, Lorde offers powerful exploration of the queer black female identity. Lorde writes about activism and sexuality with equal grace and impact. Her images linger with you long after you set the book down, with lines like “Touching you I catch midnight / as moon fires set in my throat” from her poem “Recreation.”

Mules of Love by Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass intertwines minimalism and intimacy masterfully in poems that are as accessible as they are intense. In this collection, she tackles motherhood, heartache, sensuality, and mortality with a stunning sort of immediacy. Pay attention to “On Seeing Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” where she draws the most charming comparison you’ll ever see between the titular statue and the image of her wife in a”leopard bra from Ross.”

Bestiary by Donika Kelly

In this collection, black queer poet Donika Kelly explores monstrosity, humanity, and where they intermingle. With the emphasis on animal imagery that unites these poems, she asks the reader to consider the beastly in all of us. This collection, as she says in “Love Poem: Chimera” explores “What menagerie / are we. What we’ve made of ourselves.”

Collected Poems by Adrienne Rich

One of the most famous queer female poets, Adrienne Rich is best known for her profound explorations of the individual and the society that forms them. Be sure to check out her poem “What Kind of Times Are These,” where Rich describes “picking mushrooms at the edge of dread” in difficult times. If there was ever a description for the current mood, that’s it.

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway’s lyric poetry offers a unique description of her experience as a trans woman and an indigenous person in 21st century Canada. Holy Wild is her third collection and is as beautiful as it is challenging. Favorite line from this collection: “a woman is as holy wild as / her body’s made to be.”

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa

In her book of poetry and prose, Gloria Anzaldúa examines divisions over sexuality and gender within the Latinx community. As she defines her own identity as Chicana lesbian, she emphasizes the power and importance of words: “Write with your eyes like painters, / with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are / the truthsayer with quill and torch. / Write with your tongues on fire.”

Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across by Mary Lambert

In this collection, Mary Lambert proves her poetry is as gorgeous as her music. She traverses the topics of body image, sexual assault, and queer identity with grace and honesty. Best line: “The world had taught me to dress up my trauma / in short skirts and secret bathroom crying, / to protect the fragility of boys at all costs.”

Poems by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop’s classical style and emphasis on the natural world has captivated readers for decades—so why not enjoy her full body of work? In “One Art,” she demonstrates the use rhyme and exploration of acceptance that makes her work unforgettable: “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

The Beautiful: Collected Poems by Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea’s collection cuts you to the bone with a casual sort of ease. She explores sex work, politics, queer identity, and sexuality, with boldness and without apology. Favorite line from the title poem: “america / you’re just so emotionally unavailable.”

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

A collection of persona poems based around the experiences of famous women from mythology, The World’s Wife epitomizes the wry tone and crisp language that define Duffy’s work. As a former British Poet Laureate, Duffy knows how to spin a phrase that lingers. In “Medusa,” the lines “Wasn’t I beautiful? / Wasn’t I fragrant and young? Look at me now” conclude one of the most imaginative and chilling reimaginings of this Greek figure that you’ll ever encounter.

Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems by June Jordan

Writing on activism, racial tensions, inequality, black feminist poet June Jordan is not to be missed. Her words punch, and she is not afraid to play with the boundaries of poetic expression to deliver her message. As she contends in “Who Look at Me,” “I am black alive and looking back at you.”

Dark Testament: And Other Poems by Pauli Murray

A lifelong activist, the first African American to become an Episcopal priest, and a Yale graduate, Pauli Murray wore more than one hat over her career, and she brings those varied perspectives to her work. Her voice is captured in “To the Oppressors,” where she says “But ours is a subtle strength / Potent with centuries of yearning, / Of being kegged and shut away / In dark forgotten places.”

Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker

In this gorgeous collection, Marilyn Hacker’s irreverent voice and energetic style hold you tight. This particular collection follows the arc of the relationship between two women. Hacker has a way of talking about sapphic love that’ll leave you weak in the knees. She writes about desire and infatuation with careful attention to the enormity of these feelings. As she says in “[Didn’t Sappho say her guts clutched up like this?],” “sweetheart, it isn’t lust; it’s all the rest / of what I want with you that scares me shitless.”

Soft Science by Franny Choi

These poems, inspired by the Turing Test, are riveting, humorous, and heartbreaking by turn. As a Korean American woman, Franny Choi’s examination of the intersection of queerness and Asian identity isn’t to be missed. She also tackles technology, consciousness, and the human condition, giving this collection a unique flair.  Favorite quote: “When a cyborg puts on a dress, / it’s called drag. // When a cyborg gets down / on her knees, it’s called // behavior.”

Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color Featuring Denice Frohman

Although she doesn’t have her own book yet, Denice Frohman’s work is too good not to include. She’s best known for her slam poetry career (check out “Dear Straight People” ASAP), but her poem “once a marine biologist told me octopuses have three hearts” can be found in the Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color. Favorite line: “I know loving a woman can make you crawl / out from under yourself, or forget / the kingdom that is your body.”

Cold River: Poems by Joan Larkin

If you’re a sucker for unflinching writing and crisp, distinct imagery, Joan Larkin is for you. She covers a wide variety of topics in the collection, from mortality to sexuality, all with equal frankness. Favorite line from “Want,” a poignant poem about opposites attracting: “We’ve kissed all weekend; we want / to drive the hundred miles and try it again.”

The Complete Works of Pat Parker (Sapphic Classics) by Pat Parker

Pat Parker has been lauded as a foundational black lesbian voice in poetry. This collection explores a variety of topics, including celebrating black women’s creativity, sexuality, and activism from a deeply personal perspective. Be sure to pay attention to “My Lover is a Woman,” where she examines the layered challenges of interracial relationships: “i look at my lover / & for an instant / doubt // then—i hold her hand tighter.”

The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan

Earning the title of Poet Laureate in 2008, Kay Ryan has a style that is minimal but packed with meaning. Her poems will take you minutes to read but will be on your mind for days. One notable line: “A bitter pill doesn’t need to be swallowed to work. Just reading your name on the bottle does the trick.”

Head Off & Split: Poems by Nikky Finney

There’s a gravity to Nikky Finney’s poetry that’s hard to put to words. Some of her poems use figures and events from African American history as their basis, while others delve into the personal. Her knack for sensuality is exemplified in the beginning lines of “The Aureole”: I stop my hand midair. // If I touch her there everything about me will be true. / The New World discovered without pick or ax.”