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The non-profit National Book Foundation awards the best new books published by a US publisher every year.
Judges, nominated by former winners, finalists, and other judges, spend the summer reading hundreds of submissions (about 150 for poetry) before announcing the 10 best titles in each category (longlists) in September and the five best (shortlists) in October.
When the winner is announced on November 17, it’s news to everyone; no one knows who it will be until the judges decide on the very day it’s announced. (The Booker Prize follows a similar timeline).
Winners receive $10,000, and finalists receive $1,000. Both can expect a boost in prestige and book sales. Past winners include beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Mary Oliver and Frank Bidart.
Below, you’ll find the 10 books that made it onto the longlist for the 2021 National Book Award in poetry. This year’s longlist includes works from former Pulitzer Prize winners and emerging talent.
Descriptions are provided by Amazon and edited lightly for length and clarity.
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By turns aggressively reckless and fiercely protective, always guided by faith and ancestry, Threa Almontaser’s incendiary debut asks how mistranslation can be a form of self-knowledge and survival. A love letter to the country and people of Yemen, a portrait of young Muslim womanhood in New York after 9/11, and an extraordinarily composed examination of what it means to carry in the body the echoes of what came before, Almontaser’s polyvocal collection sneaks artifacts to and from worlds, repurposing language and adapting to the space between cultures.
Half-crunk and hungry, speakers move with the force of what cannot be contained by the limits of the American imagination, and instead invest in troublemaking and trickery, navigate imperial violence across multiple accents and anthems, and apply gang signs in henna, utilizing any means necessary to form a semblance of home. In doing so, “The Wild Fox of Yemen” fearlessly rides the tension between carnality and tenderness in the unruly human spirit.
Note: This book also won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.
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In “Ghost Letters,” one emigrates to America again, and again, and again, though one also never leaves Senegal, the country of one’s birth; one grows up in America, and attends university in America, though one also never leaves Senegal, the country of one’s birth; one wrestles with one’s American Blackness in ways not possible in Senegal, though one never leaves Senegal, the country of one’s birth; and one sees more deeply into Americanness than any native-born American could.
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The 115th volume of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, “What Noise Against the Cane” is a lyric quest for belonging and freedom, weaving political resistance, Caribbean folklore, immigration, and the realities of Black life in America. Desiree C. Bailey begins by reworking the epic in an oceanic narrative of bondage and liberation in the midst of the Haitian Revolution. The poems move into the contemporary Black diaspora, probing the mythologies of home, belief, nation, and womanhood.
Yale Series judge Carl Phillips observes that Bailey’s “poems argue for hope and faith equally… These are powerful poems, indeed, and they make a persuasive argument for the transformative powers of steady defiance.”
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“Master Suffering” moves between yield and command. Its bodies are supplicant yet seething ― they want nothing more than to survive. But how does a woman survive? A younger sister has died, from a liver transplant, and the remaining speaker struggles through life, and grief, herself. A healthy body helps one to survive, but illness is one of the masters of this book. Faith can be a salve for the body’s inscrutable ailments, but in these poems, God is unreliable.
This book is full of the questions and uncomfortable uncertainties that grief and the body bring; it is also full of speakers who are determined, and then unsure. The female bodies of “Master Suffering” want power to survive; they want to control and to correct the suffering they witness and withstand. But wanting can lead to suffering, too, and make speakers like Burroughs ask: “Why / should I have wanted so much / as to threaten my being?”
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The Vault is a quiet and vulnerable sequence of ethereal fragments, letters, and poems that trace a narrative of love and healing in the afterlife of a parental death. Seasons turn and a life is built despite the ruin. Each poem is a music box of prayer, of the decisions made and yet to be made.
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Martín Espada is a poet who “stirs in us an undeniable social consciousness,” says Richard Blanco. “Floaters” offers exuberant odes and defiant elegies, songs of protest and songs of love from one of the essential voices in American poetry.
“Floaters” takes its title from a term used by certain Border Patrol agents to describe migrants who drown trying to cross over. The title poem responds to the viral photograph of Óscar and Valeria, a Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in the Río Grande, and allegations posted in the “I’m 10-15” Border Patrol Facebook group that the photo was faked. Espada bears eloquent witness to confrontations with anti-immigrant bigotry as a tenant lawyer years ago, and now sings the praises of Central American adolescents kicking soccer balls over a barbed wire fence in an internment camp founded on that same bigotry. He also knows that times of hate call for poems of love ― even in the voice of a cantankerous Galápagos tortoise.
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While conducting fieldwork with a celebrated mycologist, Gander links human intimacy with the transformative collaborations between species that compose lichens. Throughout “Twice Alive,” Gander addresses personal and ecological trauma ― several poems focus on the devastation wrought by wildfires in California where he lives ― but his tone is overwhelmingly celebratory. “Twice Alive” is a book charged with exultation and tenderness.
Note: Forrest Gander’s book “Be With.” won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2019.
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Eschewing series and performative typography, Douglas Kearney’s “Sho” aims to hit crooked licks with straight-seeming sticks. Navigating the complex penetrability of language, these poems are sonic in their espousal of Black vernacular traditions, while examining histories, pop culture, myth, and folklore.
Both dazzling and devastating, “Sho” is a genius work of literary precision, wordplay, farce, and critical irony. In his “stove-like imagination,” Kearney has concocted poems that destabilize the spectacle, leaving looky-loos with an important uncertainty about the intersection between violence and entertainment.
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Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection is a poetic on historical, personal, and cultural pressures pre- and post-“Fall-of-Saigon” and comprises a verse biography on her mother, Diep Anh Nguyen, a stunt motorcyclist in an all-woman Vietnamese circus troupe.
Multilayered, plaintive, and provocative, the poems in “A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure” are alive with archive and inhabit histories. In turns lyrical and unsettling, her poetry sings of language and loss; dialogues with time, myth and place; and communes with past and future ghosts.
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The poems in “The Sunflower Cast A Spell To Save Us From The Void” read like dispatches from the dream world, with Jackie Wang acting as our trusted comrade reporting across time and space. By sharing her personal index of dreams with its scenes of solidarity and resilience, interpersonal conflict and outlaw jouissance, Wang embodies historical trauma and communal memory.
Here, the all-too-familiar interplay between crisis and resistance becomes first distorted, then clarified and refreshed. With a light touch and invigorating sense of humor, Wang illustrates the social dimension of dreams and their ability to inform and reshape the dreamer’s waking world with renewed energy and insight.
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