Nietzsche once wrote, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book — what everyone else does not say in a whole book.” I feel like this is what poets do. They say in a few verses what cannot be explained even with an entire book. But what happens when they do decide to write a whole book as well? The results are just as wonderful. I love poetry for its unique ability to hold emotions and ideas, even when they’re conflicting, in a neat, concise mould. When someone takes this ability and uses it to churn out a story, it turns out to be just as lyrical and impactful.
It’s also really interesting to see how poetry is a recurring theme in YA novels that aren’t written by poets, as explored in this article by The Guardian. We’ve seen so many bestselling YA authors adopt this strategy — from John Green and Sarah Dessen to Ally Condie and Cassandra Clare. The characters in their books have quoted poetry, memorised it, left clues through it, and tried to live by it. As a young adult who always found and still finds tremendous comfort in poetry, this isn’t surprising to me. Poets like Elizabeth Acevedo, Renée Watson, Jason Reynolds, and others have channelled this into stories too. They’ve done this with verse novels as well as prose novels that still carry the essence of being penned by a poet. Peruse through the list below to marvel over writers who’ve given us interesting stories and soulful poems.
Erika L. Sánchez
Erika L Sánchez has a very distinct writing voice. This is evident across genres. Her poetry collection Lessons on Expulsion, novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and memoir Crying in the Bathroom carry her signature voice within them. They’re filled with insight, humour, and her unique ability for candour without any sugarcoating.
Read below an excerpt from her poem Instructions For Living:
“I can hate what is true, the thick beauty
of it. I am always in the school of the dead:
a bracket, an aside, a reordering.
I tell you language is always a failure,
a string waiting to be plucked. A song
you love and cannot resolve.
What’s the difference between
rupture and rapture? Not even salt.”
Amber McBride has an MFA in Poetry and has also been a professor of Poetry and English Literature. Her latest work is the verse novel We Are All So Good At Smiling. It has themes of dealing with clinical depression, navigating trauma, and healing. We also have her poetry collection Thick With Trouble to look forward to in February 2024.
Read below an excerpt from her poem Slow Dance Furious:
“I’d love you: present tense and remember
how you used to open me each morning,
astonished that the night could change a body so much.
I will build a something, with chewed paper for legs
and kite arms, to fly,
to slow dance furious in the sky with you while I sleep.
I won’t let you die alone.”
You’ve probably heard of Elizabeth Acevedo. She’s a Dominican American poet who wrote the brilliant verse novel The Poet X. She’s a long-standing spoken word performer, and her success in the literary field has also been astounding. Her novels With The Fire On High and Family Lore are worth every moment spent reading them. Her work centres around women, grief, abuse, solidarity, friendship, and courage.
Here’s a snippet from her published poem Iron:
“What is a good metaphor for a woman who loves in a time like this?
I am no scalpel or high thread count sheet. Not a gavel, or hand-painted teacup.
I am neither nor romanced by the streetlamp nor candlelight;
my hands are not an iron, but look, they’re hot, look
how I place them in love on his skin
and am still able to unwrinkle his spine.”
Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese American poet, spoken word performer, and author. Do check out her award-winning poetry collection, The January Children. Her verse novel Home Is Not A Country tells the story of a teenage Muslim immigrant girl trying to navigate her life in the U.S. Her upcoming verse novel Bright Red Fruit dives into a teenager’s journey into the spoken word scene. Elhillo’s work is unflinchingly honest and filled to the brim with culture.
Find yourself lost in this excerpt of her sweet poem A Memory Of Us:
“when i think of us i think of the lakewater
near longtown, what might not technically
constitute a lake but i prefer that word for
the open mouth of its vowel, how it called
us to its throat & held us there, in the sun”
Megha Rao is an Indian spoken word performer and surrealist artist. She has penned a YA novel, Music To Flame Lilies, and a verse novel, Teething. Her verse novel stems from personal experience and is set in Kerala. It explores sexuality, the experience of growing up in a dysfunctional family, and the trauma that comes with it. She also has a soothing podcast, Poems To Calm Down To.
Here’s a snippet from her poem Lost Jewels:
“Because in my land, I am how ittar is made.
Musk, amber, saffron, that’s how I taste.
My skin is a tea garden fresh from the rain.
When he sees me raging through the rubber plantations, the
messenger of the clouds
forgets the damsel he was meant to reach. Kalidasa, the
classical poet, vows to write about me, instead. The earth
forgets to spin around its own axis & begins to circle my waist.”
Jason Reynolds writes beautiful, real, heart-wrenching, sweet, and honest books for a middle grade and young adult audience. His verse novel Long Way Down follows a teenager down an elevator as he’s heading out to get revenge on his brother’s killer. It breaks your heart while making you wish for things to be better. I loved his work For Every One, in which he talks in verses about what it’s like to be a dreamer. Being a dreamer is hard, but it’s worth it even in its journey.
Here’s a snippet from his poem Match:
my face still the face in the hole of a
“hoodie just snatched out my own world
never mine and dragged and scraped
across the rough textured parts of this
being alive thing
i’m reminded of what it feels
like to have my head alight to
have it catch fire and blaze-lick
high above me and all this
i’m reminded to return to the truth that oh
yeah me my little self a match my little
self a cardboard cutout might could burn
this whole so-called kingdom down”
Renée Watson writes a lot of books for young readers. Her YA novel Piecing Me Together was well-loved by all audiences. It’s coming-of-age, lyrical, and grounding. Some parts of it have stayed with me even years after having read it. Her work centres around belonging (or the lack of it), identity, body image, and the intersectionality of race, class, and gender. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest as a Black girl, and her published work stems from this experience.
Read below this powerful snippet from her poem This Body:
1. Reference Lucille Clifton and every other big girl
who knows how to work a Hula-Hoop.
See Beyoncé. Dance like her in the mirror.
Do not be afraid of all your powers.
2. You will not fit in
most places. Do not
bend, squeeze, contort yourself.
Be big, brown girl.
Big wide smile.
Big wild hair.
Big wondrous hips.
Brown girl, be.”
Jasmin Kaur is a writer, educator, illustrator, and spoken word performer. She’s a Sikh woman of Indian origin, and her identity is reflected in her work. Her writing explores feminism, love, and social justice. Her published books When You Ask Me Where I’m Going and If I Tell You The Truth reveal their story in prose, poems, as well as illustrations. Reading them is a unique experience.
Peruse this excerpt of her poem an open letter to south asians:
“but what if you get dark
is to say that dark bodies don’t let light in
is to say that there is something dirty
about the biological makeup of skin”
If you enjoyed reading this, also check out 13 Moving and Engaging Poems by YA Authors.