I discovered The Sealey Challenge last year, thanks to my fellow Rioter and poetry lover Connie Pan. During the month of August, poetry lovers all over the world come together to read one poetry collection every day. Yes, that’s 31 books of poetry! But as I discovered when I did the challenge for the first time, it’s not really about how much poetry you read. The Sealey Challenge, at heart, is a big, raucous, joyful celebration of poetry. It’s an invitation to immerse yourself in words. It’s a way to connect with other poetry readers. It’s an opportunity to make space for poetry in your life — whether that’s by reading one book of poetry a day, or one poem a day.
Last year I read 31 collections of poetry, and I admit it felt great. This year I only read 12, and guess what? It still felt great! This is just the second time I’ve participated, and both times, the best part has been falling in love with poetry all over again. For two years running, I’ve headed into fall wildly excited about poetry, with huge lists of new collections to check out of the library and new poets to explore. That’s the real gift.
So, let me share that excitement with you! Here are ten poets I’ve discovered in the past two years thanks to my fellow Sealey Challenge-doers. When I say “discovered,” I just mean I read their work for the first time because of the amazing online community that posts and posts and posts about poetry during August. Many of these poets have had long careers and won many honors. Others are just starting out. Some of them are giants in the poetry world and some of them will be giants! They are all brilliant, and I cannot wait to keep reading and learning from their work.
I read Jones’s latest collection, Reparations Now! for the Sealey Challenge, and then I immediately added all of her other books (Magic City Gospel, Dark // Thing) to my TBR because WOW. Her poetry is playful and inventive, a dizzying blend of new and classic forms. She writes with incredible depth and openness, insight and anger, precision and delight — about Blackness, womanhood, American history, violence, pop culture. She’s also the Poet Laureate of Alabama! Of course she is. I can’t wait to read whatever she publishes next.
Look, I don’t know how I didn’t know about Carl Phillips until recently. All I can say is that, thankfully, I’m here now. He’s published over 12 books of poetry in his long (and ongoing!) career, and has won numerous awards. I read and loved Double Shadow, and I currently have two of his newer collections, Wild Is the Wind and Then the War checked out from the library. He poems are often delightfully formal, and he blends philosophical ideas with striking imagery and details about the natural and human world.
Tishani Doshi is an Indian poet, writer, and dancer of Welsh and Gujarati decent. In addition to many books of poetry, she’s written several novels, two works of nonfiction, and a retelling of the Mabinogion myth. Her work is far-ranging, exploring themes of home, migration, belonging, language, grief, nature, history. I wanted to underline just about every line in A God at the Door, which is full of long, luscious poems that are equal parts celebration and elegy. “We stitch our days and nights, one to the other, / and it’s like embroidering a galaxy, but even galaxies / recede from one another.” Swoon.
John Murillo is the author of two poetry collections, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry and Up Jump the Boogie. Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry is a stunning, searing work about the violence done to Black people in America. Murillo’s poems feel like confessions and history lessons, condemnations and explosions. He is a great storyteller — I found it hard to tear myself away from each and every beautifully crafted line, despite how hard it often was to read them.
Oh, I just wanted to drink and drink and drink from Girmay’s breathtaking collection Kingdom Animalia! She writes about family and home and grief, about loss and connection, about bodies and desire and the natural world and memory and mystery. Even hesitant poetry readers, I suspect, will fall in love with her words. It is so easy to fall into these poems, and the worlds they create. They’re not simple, but they are immersive. I’m looking forward to devouring her other collections, The Black Maria and Teeth.
Layli Long Soldier has only published one full-length poetry collection so far, but…look, this book is so good I think it should count for a few more, maybe five or six. It was shortlisted for the 2017 National Book Award, and if there’s one book of poetry from this list I think everyone should read, it’s this one. Whereas is about the violence done to Native American people by the U.S. government, about the legacies of colonization and residential schools, and about the ways that Indigenous people have kept their cultures, and themselves, alive. Long Soldier plays with language and form, interrogates what it means to be a Lakota woman, and invents new ways of making poems.
Seema Yasmin, in addition to being a brilliant poet, is an author, doctor, and journalist. If God Is A Virus is an incredible book about the Ebola epidemic that broke out in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in 2014-2016. There are traditional poem-shaped poems in this collection, but there are also flowcharts, graphs, bingo cards, quotations from the World Health Organization, and more. It’s a powerful collection about the intersections of illness, racism, public policy, white saviorism, and medicine.
Monica Sok’s haunting debut collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs on, is about the Khmer Rouge genocide, generational trauma, the work of healing and the shape of memory, and what it means (and feels like) to grow up in diaspora as the child of refugees. The poems unfold in a chorus of voices that is both painful and powerful. This is a book to sit with and reckon with. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Sherwin Bitsui is a Dine poet from Arizona whose books include Shapeshift, Flood Song, and Dissolve. Flood Song is a strange, beautiful, mesmerizing poetic sequence. It is rooted in landscapes — wild urban, dream. Bitsui’s poems are filled with Dine stories and traditions, but they also have a surreal, gritty quality that feels a little bit like being in a cerebral action film. In summary: I’ve never read poems quite like these before.
I read my first Ellen Bass book for last year’s Sealey Challenge, and loved it so much that I immediately added the rest of her work to my TBR. She published her first book, I’m Not Your Laughing Daughter, in 1973. Her latest, Indigo, came out in 2020, and it’s my favorite of hers (so far). Her poems are so joyful and accessible — she writes about chickens, domestic chores, cooking, quiet mornings, lying in bed with her partner. Mules of Love, which I read for this year’s challenge, is full of many gorgeous (and erotic!) poems about lesbian sex. If you’re a fan of Mary Oliver or Ross Gay, you should definitely check out Bass’s work.
If you’re looking for even more poets (it’s not too late — every month is a good month for poetry!) check out this list of books Chris M. Arnone read for this year’s challenge.
If you’re curious about what it’s like to read 31 collections of poetry in a month, Connie Pan wrote a beautiful post about it.