“May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.”
– Sappho ( c. 630 – c. 570 BC)
Poetry, like so many art forms, has a way of expressing the inexpressible and exposing human nature through musical rhythms, vivid imagery, and powerful metaphors. Throughout history, female poets have used their voices to be catalysts for social and political change, and their words are just as important today as they ever have been.
My love affair with poetry began as a slow simmer — I long considered myself strictly a prose type of individual, leaving the iambic pentametric musings to what I imagined were elbow-patch-wearing and English-tea-guzzling lofty minds, sequestered away behind ivy-covered halls. So, if you’re a reader whose still wary of making room on your shelves for a little poetry, I totally understand — but believe me, the contemporary women poets on this list will change your mind in no time flat.
Every single one of these writers have a home on my shelves, and every time I read their words I learn something different about myself, about art, and about how to exist in the world — and I’m sure you will too. Here are some of the chosen contemporary women poets you should be reading.
1. Alice Walker
Alice Walker, in full Alice Malsenior Walker, (born February 9, 1944, Eatonton, Georgia, U.S.), American writer whose novels, short stories, and poems are noted for their insightful treatment of African American culture. Her novels, most notably The Color Purple (1982), focus particularly on women.
2. Jenny Zhang
There is no writer whose unafraid to explore the bodily mechanics of young womanhood quite like Jenny Zhang — from menstruation to bad sex, Zhang is a poetic powerhouse amidst a sea of soiled bedclothes, butting heads with society’s every preconceived notion about what coming of age as a girl really means. Her poetry and essay collections include Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and HAGS.
3. Megan Falley
Spoken word and slam poetry artist Megan Falley tackles feminist issues — sex, relationships, the female body, heartbreak, repression, empowerment — in a way that will make you want to raise your fist in the air and jump up and down. Her collection After the Witch Hunt is best read when accompanied by Falley’s own performances of most of the poems, which you can find on YouTube.
4. Warsan Shire
Warsan Shire is a 32-year old Kenyan born Somali poet and writer – based in London, England. Warsan definitely had a devoted cult following of readers well before her poetry was featured in Beyonce’s Lemonade, but since her pop culture debut, the author of Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth , and Her Blue Body has launched into poetic super-stardom. She writes about feminist issues, race, displacement, immigrant and refugee experiences, trauma, politics… the whole gamut.
5. Nikita Gill
Nikita Gill is a Indian Sikh writer brought up in Gurugram, Haryana in India. In her mid twenties, she immigrated to the South of England and worked as a carer for many years. She enjoys creating paintings, poems, stories, photos, illustrations and other soft, positive things. Although it was rejected a grand total of 137 times by publishers, Gill persevered, and has gone on to become a contemporary poet with the best of them. The refusal she used as fuel to better her creative process. Today, Gill has three published books, “Your Soul is a River” and “Wild Embers”, and her newest piece, “Fierce Fairytales: & Other Stories to Stir Your Soul” and is currently working on another.
6. Daphne Gottlieb
Writing unflinchingly about relationships, sex, and violence against women, if horror and poetry fused into their own sub-genre, Daphne Gottlieb would be the pioneering voice. Her collection, Final Girl , is written from the perspective of the lone woman left to tell a story — be it of tragedy, violence, destruction, loss, or desire. But unlike in traditional fairy tales, Gottlieb’s woman isn’t waiting to be saved. She’ll save herself — if she damn well feels like it. And if she doesn’t, more power to her.
7. Meena Kandaswamy
Meena is an Indian poet, fiction writer and activist for anti-caste annihilation movement. Meena’s work centers around feminism and her struggle to achieve social justice, which she expressed through her poetry. Her debut series of poems called ‘Touch’ explored the themes of caste and untouchability. Meena believes that her process of writing is how she began to come to terms with her uniquely oppressed identity as a woman, a Tamil and a member of the lower caste. She grew cognisant of how society labels her but remained determined to transcend and eventually redefine that, she took charge of her identity and image and worked towards empowering those in the Dalit community with her works. She explores the role of women bound my time, and their circumstances. Her poetry is riddled with memories and experiences of her yearning for freedom in an uncertain world. She even writes about female aggression and silence, how the two are tragically intertwined.
8. Key Ballah
Preparing My Daughter For Rain, Key Ballah’s poetry debut, is a revelation of sorts. It acts as a letter to her future daughter—a guide for navigating the world as a black, Muslim woman. It is love almost entirely captured by words. If a picture paints a thousand words, then this collection of poems paints at least a few hundred pictures.
9. Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker is the author of three poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (2015), There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce (2017), and Magical Negro (2019), the winner of the National Books Critics Circle. Her poems intertwine contemporary pop culture references, Black history, and her personal life. In an interview with The Paris Review, Parker articulated her commitment to capturing the Black experience in her writing: “I am hyperaware of patterns and repetition in society. The way that history repeats and rewrites. It’s a way of connecting with other people who are here, and also with people who are no longer here.“
10. Nayyirah Waheed
If you have not heard about Nayyirah Waheed you absolutely must look her up. In the technological era in which we currently live, Waheed has made herself one of the most famous Instagram poets. Her poems are simplistic in structure but deeply moving in content. She has published two collections: salt. and Nejima.