Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer

Reflecting on Summer’s Poetry

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Connie Pan

Senior Contributor

Connie Pan is a writer and editor from Maui, Hawai‘i. She earned an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University. Her writing has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Carve, HelloGiggles, PRISM International, The Billfold, and elsewhere. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Instagram: @csnpan Twitter: @panlikepeter

Happy (almost) Autumn Equinox! That means it’s time to look back at last season’s poetry. To celebrate more sunlight, I spent Summer Solstice with the summery poems in Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency by Chen Chen. On page 85, “Summer” opens, “The sunflowers fall, right along with their mason jar, in the middle of the night.” I encountered that image after the sun had set on the longest day of the year. In the bouquet of pink roses and white lilies on the side table, I noticed a sunflower’s heavy face tipping forward.

Released from June 21st through September 22nd, 2023, this list of summer titles features only books that I have read. Twenty-three days into August, at the time of this writing, I have spent minutes to hours daily with poetry for The Sealey Challenge, letting words rush over and around me. So far, I finished 10 collections, six of those in a single day, and the unfinished books gather at my writing desk’s edge. Of those, three summer releases remain bookmarked, waiting for the return of my eyes, and my eyes can hardly wait: Simon Shieh’s Master, Ariana Benson’s Black Pastoral, and Sam Sax’s Pig. Courtney Bush’s I Love Information currently weaves its way to me, too. Also, I must mention The Ferguson Report: An Erasure by Nicole Sealey, the brilliant mind behind the abovementioned Sealey Challenge. I wrote about the new release here and here, so to sing about as much poetry as possible, the must-read doesn’t appear below, but you should absolutely add it to your bookshelves.

In a new city but still in the intense heat of the Gulf Coast, I turned to these summer collections in the dim light of the coolest room in my temporary apartment. They brought brain wrinkles, inspiration, and joy to the sweltering days.

Summer Poetry Titles

book cover of Negative Money by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Negative Money by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Captivating and lyrical, I started this on a Sunday afternoon and gulped it within 24 hours. Through a variety of poems, spanning abecedarian; duplexes, a form dreamed up by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jericho Brown; and the “World Map” pieces, a collaboration between Bertram and Yaya (Thirada) Chanawichote, a graphic designer, this collection delves into Blackness, the body, gender identity, value, and more. After moving to Texas, I touched this book’s spine at Brazos Bookstore. Ever since, I haven’t stopped thinking about it, and lines like, from “The woman says ‘do not eclipse my pain with your own,’” “Shake the rattles of our jazz.” I adore discovering a new-to-me poet with a long backlist. Next up: Travesty Generator.

book cover of So to Speak by Terrance Hayes

So to Speak by Terrance Hayes

Having devoured every book of poetry by Hayes, to say that I was relishing the writer’s seventh collection sounds the understatement alarm. Comprised of three parts, this stunning title contains American sonnets (Hayes praises Wanda Coleman for conceiving the form) and “DIY sestina”s. Soon after drinking in this meditation on Black icons, God, mythology, and the South, I perused “The Art of Poetry No. 111,” an interview conducted by Hilton Als in The Paris Review, soaking up the wisdom way past midnight. The next morning, I revisited dog-eared pieces, including “American Sonnet for the New Year” and “Continuity.” How I cherish the journeys reading sends me on. A peek at the first sentence of the also dog-eared “Bob Ross Paints Your Portrait”: “Today we’re going to get to work on the details / of your expression.”

book cover of The Kingdom of Surfaces by Sally Wen Mao

The Kingdom of Surfaces by Sally Wen Mao

Featuring concrete poems, aubade, and haibun (“Haibun: Kintsugi” has been a go-to reread), Mao’s third collection reflects on art and beauty, home and history, hauntedness and violence. My brain keeps circling silk dresses from thrift stores shared among beloveds, the stray red balloon living out its final moments against the New York Public Library’s ceiling, and the opener, “Loquats,” composed completely of couplets. One stanza I found especially gorgeous in the gorgeous piece, “Comatose in my love, my refuse, futility fuels / my every waking hour. The tree inside me isn’t loquat.”

book cover of The Rivers Are Inside Our Homes by Victoria María Castells

The Rivers Are Inside Our Homes by Victoria María Castells

Told in three parts, this compelling debut from Castells examines Cuba, family, hurricanes, and migration. Bursting with fairy tales and interrogating “paradise,” images and lines continue to haunt me long after reaching the last page. In “Havana Syndrome,” “The sea fills up your stomach / and the rivers drain your heart.” And from “Wishing Game”: “Trees ran and twisted from the earth. Fruit sprung like stars.” When you hopefully revel in this, some standouts I highly recommend include “Rupture, Alternating,” “A Liking, Somewhat,” and “Hot Season.”

book cover of I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times by Taylor Byas

I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times by Taylor Byas

Consisting of prose poems, monologues, and sonnets, this unfolds in seven titled sections from “The Feeling That We Have” to “Believe in Yourself.” With The Wiz as an inspiration, this much-anticipated full-length debut from Dr. Byas explores life on the South Side of Chicago and Black girlhood, desire and dating, community and grandmother-love. Riddled with hearts and underlined text and lines along the margins, what a marvel of a book. Just a selection I see myself returning to time and time again: “The Mercy Hour: A Burning Haibun,” “The Therapist Asks Me, ‘What Are You Afraid Of?’,” and “I Spy.”

book cover of fox woman get out! by India Lena González

fox woman get out! by India Lena González

With ferocity and style, so much about González’s debut astonishes my poetry-craving heart: hyphenated phrases like “the people-with-too-many-ancestors-inside-of-us” in “una parda, which is me” and how the poet uses the page. My head recollects long lines, like “in the yearbook i was named ‘most likely to kill someone with my eyes’” in “FIERCER STILL, FIERCER YET.” And study the creative choices made in a sampling of titles alone: “C o N T I n e n T A L” and “I’M STILL ALIVE” and “afterwor(l)d.” Chosen by Aracelis Girmay as a “Blessing the Boats Selection,” this innovative collection ruminates on ancestry, performance, spirituality, and twins.

book cover of Grand Tour by Elisa Gonzalez

Grand Tour by Elisa Gonzalez

Pondering dreams and intimacy, literature and language, grief and survival, Gonzalez’s debut collection unfurls in four parts. Poignant and memorable, this shuttles bibliophiles to different locales from London to Puerto Rico to Berlin to Gdańsk. I find myself flipping back to “Weather Journal, Warsaw,” “Cyprus,” and “Lovers’ Discourse,” to name only three. Pick up this dazzling book with copious underline-able lines, especially if you adored Eye Level by Jenny Xie and I Do Everything I’m Told by Megan Fernandes. Let me leave you with a taste of the beginning poem, “Notes Toward an Elegy,” which appeared in The New Yorker, “Whenever her hands dance, I tell her how beautiful. She says there’s so much other movement I do not perceive.”

A Fall Poetry Title on My Mind

book cover of Personal Best: Makers on Their Poems that Matter Most edited by Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips

Personal Best: Makers on Their Poems that Matter Most edited by Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips

Scheduled to publish in late October, this anthology from Copper Canyon Press sits in my book stack on the breakfast bar, screaming my name. It marries many of my bookish passions: poetry, prose by poets, and craft essays. Highlighting writers I admire like Kaveh Akbar, Victoria Chang, Tarfia Faizullah, Donika Kelly, Ada Limón, Airea D. Matthews, Jake Skeets, Danez Smith, and Ocean Vuong, I can’t wait to inhale this cover to cover and learn which works poets consider their personal best.

If poetry calls to you, browse the previous season’s installment, Reflecting on Spring’s Poetry; Fall in Love With These 6 Beautiful Autumn Poems; and our poetry archives.