As sales of poetry books continue to rise, author and poet Rosalind Jana shines a light on some of the most exciting voices to add to your reading list
Poetry is thriving.
Glance at your phone and it’s easier than ever to find scribblings, videos, screenshots and links that send you off in all sorts of poetic directions. Spend any amount of time browsing on the Poetry Foundation’s website and you’ll be immersed in a whole galaxy of thrilling contemporary work. Head to any bookshop and you’ll find that the poetry section is bustling with treasures.
It’s no surprise, then, that we’re buying more poetry than ever before. In fact, recently released figures from the Nielsen BookScan showed that sales of poetry in the UK increased by 12% last year – with teenage girls and young women making up the majority of consumers.
It’s particularly interesting – and heartening – to see this trend being fueled by women, especially younger ones. There are all sorts of reasons for this sudden surge of success, from living in an age of acute political uncertainty, to increasing access to a range of diverse voices, to a general hunger for work that effectively distills modern life and opens up new worlds.
The effects of Instagram also can’t be ignored. Rupi Kaur is immediately cited as one of the most successful ‘Instagram Poets’ (and indeed, her works remain firmly at the top of the bestseller list, with her debut milk & honey translated into more than 40 languages), alongside other writers including Cleo Wade and Nayyirah Waheed.
Elsewhere on social media, Twitter has also amplified the power of a single poem’s impact, from Maggie Smith’s Good Bones capturing the bleak fear of a world that’s “at least/ fifty percent terrible”, to the late Mary Oliver’s now much-repeated exhortation “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ With your one wild and precious life?”
But the thrilling rise of poetry isn’t just down to social media. Or rather, social media is just one element in a wider, even more exciting picture. Smaller presses are doing well, too – from 3 of Cups to Offord Road Books – and often have a resounding emphasis on publishing a plurality of perspectives. Tinyletters like Close offer poems and essays direct to your inbox, while live readings and performances continue to flourish.
Whether the medium is page, stage or screen, it’s undeniably a brilliant time for poetry.
In that spirit, here are some further female poets to add to your reading list, and to your shelves. Tackling topics from the mundane to the extraordinary (and often both at once), these are just a handful of the very many exciting writers producing work worth paying attention to.
Charly Cox’s collection She Must Be Mad was an instant hit, becoming the bestselling poetry debut of 2018. Relentlessly honest – and often darkly amusing – in its examinations of mental health, relationships, desirability, bodies, online performance and self-worth, it’s no surprise that Cox’s writing has proved so popular.
Poet, playwright and performer Sabrina Mahfouz is impressively multi-talented. From editing an anthology of Muslim women’s writing (recently picked as the next read for Emma Watson’s book club) to penning essays on clothes and identity for The Good Immigrant, Mahfouz stretches her words to many ends.
In her most recent poetry collection How You Might Know Me, Mahfouz sensitively explores the narratives of four women working in the UK sex industry, with her verse consistently startling and gorgeous.
Hera Lindsay Bird
Fresh, funny and wonderfully inventive in her approach to language, Hera Lindsay Bird swoops and soars through TV shows, dead male poets, ex-girlfriends and more in her titular debut collection, with her follow up chapbook Pamper Me to Hell & Back treading similarly delicious ground. For an immediate taste of her work, see/listen to Pyramid Scheme.
“See, nobody warns you/ about yourself.”
Yrsa Daley-Ward’s first collection Bone resonated widely with its pithy, raw evocations of love, loss, hunger and resolution, and was hailed by Florence Welch as a work that “sweats and breathes before you”. Her follow up memoir The Terrible has only furthered her reputation as a superb – and sensitive – storyteller.
Witty, forthright and consistently powerful, Salena Godden’s poetry is a joy to read and even more of a joy to hear. Her recorded album LIVEwire was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award, while her latest release with Rough Trade Books, Pessimism is for Lightweights: 13 Pieces of Courage and Resistance, makes for a stirring cry against injustice and prejudice. You can sample a rousing preview of the pamphlet here.
“I measure myself against/ the sky in its winter coat,/ peat traces in water, air/ locked in the radiators at night,/ against my own held breath,/ or your unﬁnished sentences.”
Helen Mort’s work is quietly stunning. Whether writing on the miners’ strikes, the significance or place, or the daring legacy of female mountaineers, her poems remain nimble, energetic and bracing.
Mary Jean Chan
With her debut Flèche coming from Faber & Faber later this year, poet, academic and editor Mary Jean Chan’s poems beautifully tackle language, belonging, queerness, the intricacies of relationships both familial and romantic, and more.
In Clare Pollard’s fifth poetry collection Incarnation, she writes of pregnancy and mothers and children, of fairytales and news headlines and horrors. The follow up to her 2013 reimagining of Ovid’s Heroines with its emphasis on the possibilities (and necessities) of revising old stories, Pollard’s poems remain sharp and compelling.