One hundred poems. One hundred voices. One hundred different points of view.
Here is a cross-section of American poetry as it is right now—full of grit and love, sparkling with humor, searing the heart, smashing through boundaries on every page. Please Excuse This Poem features one hundred acclaimed younger poets from truly diverse backgrounds and points of view, whose work has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to Twitter, tackling a startling range of subjects in a startling range of poetic forms. Dealing with the aftermath of war; unpacking the meaning of “the rape joke”; sharing the tender moments at the start of a love affair: these poems tell the world as they see it.
Editors Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick have crafted a book that is a must-read for those wanting to know the future of poetry. With an introduction from award-winning poet, editor, and translator Carolyn Forché, Please Excuse This Poem has the power to change the way you look at the world. It is The Best American Nonrequired Reading—in poetry form.
About the Author
Brett Fletcher Lauer is the deputy director of the Poetry Society of America and the poetry editor of A Public Space, and the author of the collection A Hotel In Belgium. In addition to co-editing several anthologies, including Isn’t It Romantic: 100 Love Poems by Younger American Poets, he is the poetry co-chair for the Brooklyn Book Festival and lives in Brooklyn.
Lynn Melnick is the author of If I Should Say I Have Hope, named a Top 40 Poetry Book of 2012 by Coldfront Magazine. She teaches poetry at the 92nd Street Y and works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
Also by BRETT FLETCHER LAUER
Most poets begin writing poetry in secret. As with love and other experiences, there is a first time and it is remembered. The first poem might be written on the back of something else, or in a notebook shown to no one. It might be a poem where someone falls in love with someone but that person falls in love with someone else. It might be a poem about floating alone / in the cold blue, or about sex or the distance / between a missed train and love. The poet begins to understand that when she picks up her pen, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. The poet knows only that when he’s writing, his true self is speaking on paper or in his thoughts, strangely and without fear. This anthology is a collection of such poems. They are filled with ending up in the wrong adventure, and with the little things we tell ourselves about our pasts. One poet writes, Inside here are many moments, and it is true: the neighborhood, summer boredom, handsome drugs, suburban rabbits // and warrens of junkies and the number of clips emptied / into an unarmed Guinean man / on a dark Bronx stoop. A father’s embrace is here, and a grandmother who only wants to tell . . . who died / and how. Another poet writes, I hope we all die just like this, in someone else’s arms, young and beautiful and true. In these poems, we sleep under the stars, get stopped by the police, and hang from trestles as the trains come. In these poems a good way to fall in love / is to turn off the headlights / and drive very fast down dark roads. Inside the poet there is the burning chandelier . . . where the language begins. The poet tries to dance like firelight / without setting anyone ablaze. Inside, the poet is dreaming of tornadoes again, too many for the sky to contain. Another spent all night / collecting your photographs / and cutting them up. These poems were written young, but death isn’t absent here: there’s a dead woman in the river / dead baby in the cradle / there’s a dead soldier in the desert / & three crows wonder over and over / whether to cry out.
Most poets continue to write in secret until they trust someone enough to show her a poem, and this sharing continues one to another until the poems are strong enough to be sent out into the world, as these poems have been, the poems you are holding now, and as your poems may someday be sent, because why not? When you look down / inside yourself / what is there? It is a question any of us can ask ourselves as poems begin within us. There is often a feeling that precedes or accompanies the poem as it is born, and the poets write, I can’t shake that something is coming. I opened wide my door to it. I’ll sleep when I’m dead. These one hundred poems, drafted by one hundred younger poets firmly launched on their careers, will provide writers with inspiration and aspiration, and all readers with exhilaration. In poems you will never run out of ways to say I am here. And having read this far, you also know what it means to be waiting, like an animal, / For poetry.
I am sick of feeling
I never eat or sleep
I just sit here and let the words burn into me
I know you love her
And don’t love me
No, I don’t think you love her
I know there are clouds that are very pretty
I know there are clouds that trundle round the globe
I take anything I can to get to love
Live things are what the world is made of
Live things are black
Black in that they forgot where they came from
I have not forgotten, however I choose not to feel
Those places that have burned into me
There is too much burning here, I’m afraid
Readers, you read flat words
Inside here are many moments
In which I have screamed in pain
As the flames ate me
My junior year of high school I had
to go all spring to this
middle school on Barbour Street
for an afterschool thing for college
applications or whatever
& I tried to look like I wanted to
be there but those kids knew I didn’t
& they could see I didn’t know
shit about them or their neighborhood
so it’s not surprising they didn’t wave
that summer when Spencer
& I rode past them day after day
on the way to the gym where we were
getting ready for football
season or fucking off on our bikes
& Spencer kept pointing out to me
how even though a block
out there was about twice as long
as my block instead of there being
three hydrants evenly placed
along it there was only one at the end
of each so there had better not
be any fires in the middle
of those streets which I would think
about the summer I was back from
school when I’d drive
Ray Rose home from work at this
Italian restaurant where Kenny got
me a job. Ray had a tear
tattooed by his eye & somebody had
told me by then what that meant
so I never said no to him
& every night I got to be the white kid
in the North End past dark parked
on the edge of some huge
project waiting for Ray to finish
whatever lesson from jail he was
teaching me since
everyone from jail always has some
endless lesson they want to teach
& so I learned a little
more about the ghetto than I was
supposed to & I kept Ray friendly
& even got the chance to
teach him something I’d just learned
about Hartford which was that there
used to be a field where
his mom lives now & when the circus
came to town they put up these tents
which were rainproofed in
gasoline & then all these people died
in a fire which it turns out is actually
the first thing after
insurance Hartford is famous for.
IN DEFENSE OF SMALL TOWNS
Oliver de la Paz
When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there.
once filled with animal deaths and toughened hay.
And the smells
of fall were boiled-down beets and potatoes
or the farmhands’ breeches smeared with oil and diesel
as they rode into town, dusty and pissed. The radio station
split time between metal and Tejano, and the only action
happened on Friday nights where the high school
gave everyone a chance at forgiveness.
The town left no room
for novelty or change. The sheriff knew everyone’s son and
we’d cruise up and down the avenues, switching between
brake and gearshift. We’d fight and spit chew
into Big Gulp cups
and have our hearts broken nightly. In that town I learned
to fire a shotgun at nine and wring a chicken’s neck
with one hand by twirling the bird and whipping
it straight like a towel.
But I loved the place once. Everything was blond
and the irrigation ditches stretched to the end of the earth.
ride on a bicycle and see clearly the outline of every leaf
or catch on the streets each word
of a neighbor’s argument.
Nothing could happen there and if I willed it,
the place would have me
slipping over its rocks into the river
with the sugar plant’s steam
or signing papers at a storefront army desk, buttoned up
with medallions and a crew cut, eyeing the next recruits.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I could be anywhere,
staring at a hunk of asphalt or listening to the clap
of billiard balls
against each other in a bar, and hear my name.
Some. I shook loose, but that isn’t the whole story.
The fact is
I’m still in love. And when I wake up,
I watch my son yawn
and my mind turns his upswept hair into cornstalks
at the edge of a field. Stillness is an acre, and his body
idles, deep like heavy machinery. I want to take him
to the small town of my youth, and hold the book
open for him, and look. I want him to know the colors
to run with a cattail in his hand and watch as its seeds
fly weightless as though nothing mattered, as though
the little things we tell ourselves about our pasts
rising slightly and just out of reach.
There are better ways to break a heart than Facebook,
such as abandoning your pregnant girlfriend at Walmart
like that guy did to Natalie Portman. If you read this book
sequentially, bad things may happen to you, but only as bad
as the things that would have happened to you anyway.
If, however, you do not read this book sequentially you may
find that you are suddenly aboard a sunken pirate ship,
staring into the deep abyss, and wishing you had chosen
not to chase the manatee in your submarine after all. Do not
panic. If you end up in the wrong adventure just go back
three spaces and draw another card. Or go back to bed.
Or read up on the side effects of the medication taken
by your loved ones. The great R. A. Montgomery once wrote,
“Suddenly you’re surrounded by eleven Nodoors,” and I
guess what I’m trying to do here is ruin any hope
you may have had of coming out of this alive.
AT LAST THE NEW ARRIVING
Like the horn you played in Catholic school
the city will open its mouth and cry
out. Don’t worry ’bout nothing. Don’t mean
no thing. It will leave you stunned
as a fighter with his eyes swelled shut
who’s told he won the whole damn purse.
It will feel better than any floor
that’s risen up to meet you. It will rise
like Easter bread, golden and familiar
in your grandmother’s hands. She’ll come back,
heaven having been too far from home
to hold her. O it will be beautiful.
Every girl will ask you to dance and the boys
won’t kill you for it. Shake your head.
Dance until your bones clatter. What a prize
you are. What a lucky sack of stars.
THERE I WAS UNREQUITED
is like a
It is true
it gets in
so tell me,
reading in there,
I want to hear
throat tell me
I want to hear
your train voice
You get me there
like a single
night of rain.
birds out here
forever and we
while you lick
I will never stop
outside your door
So I guess
I am your
I started off
blasé feminist but
I grew prouder of my
your door treaty.
I have less
and it never
rains more than
when I want
to hurt near you
and share that
I hope for
in your breath
bird I have ever
You get me
on a wet page.
I need to
say it. Press
to the other side
and tell me
these birds and
rain and pages
like a nigger is what my white friend, M,
asked me, the two of us alone and shirtless
in the locker room, the bones beneath my skin
jutting like the prow of a small boat at sea,
the bones beneath his emitting a heat
that turned his chest red and if you’re thinking
my knuckles knocked a few times
against his jaw or my fingers knotted
at his throat, you’re wrong because I pretended
I didn’t hear him, and when he didn’t ask it again,
we slipped into our middle school uniforms
since it was November, the beginning
of basketball season, and jogged out
onto the court to play together
in that vision all Americans wish for
their children, and the point is we slipped
into our uniform harmony, and spit out Go Team!,
our hands stacked on and beneath the hands
of our teammates and that was as close
as I have come to passing for one
of the members of The Dream, my white friend
thinking I was so far from that word
that he could say it to me, which I guess
he could since I didn’t let him taste the salt
and iron in the blood, I didn’t teach him
what it’s like to squint through a black eye,
and if I had I wonder if he would have grown
up to be the kind of white man who believes
all blacks are thugs or if he would have learned
to bite his tongue or let his belly be filled
by shame, but more importantly, would I be
the kind of black man who believes silence
is worth more than talk or that it can be
a kind of grace, though I’m not sure
that’s the kind of black man I’ve become,
and in any case, M, wherever you are,
I’d just like to say I heard it, but let it go
because I was afraid to lose our friendship
or afraid we’d lose the game—which we did anyway.
FOR THE FAINT OF HEART
When you return from the asylum
be sure to gaze at the trees
covered in snow. When the train
enters the forest ask the waiter
for tea with milk. When in darkness
take seriously the lesson
of fluttering hands. If it is offered
take the class they call Ornithography
for it will teach you something
about love. On the subject of love
I have only a single observation—
if you love a grapefruit, you cut it open
and eat its flesh. Take my advice.
Take it home to your husband or wife.
Slip into bed. Turn off the lights.
THE CROWDS CHEERED AS GLOOM GALLOPED AWAY
Everyone was happier. But where did the sadness go? People wanted to know. They didn’t want it collecting in their elbows or knees then popping up later. The girl who thought of the ponies made a lot of money. Now a month’s supply of pills came in a hard blue case with a handle. You opened it & found the usual vial plus six tiny ponies of assorted shapes & sizes, softly breathing in the Styrofoam. Often they had to be pried out & would wobble a little when first put on the ground. In the beginning the children tried to play with them, but the sharp hooves nicked their fingers & the ponies refused to jump over pencil hurdles. The children stopped feeding them sugarwater & the ponies were left to break their legs on the gardens’ gravel paths or drown in the gutters. On the first day of the month, rats gathered on doorsteps & spat out only the bitter manes. Many a pony’s last sight was a bounding squirrel with its tail hovering over its head like a halo. Behind the movie theatre the hardier ponies gathered in packs amongst the cigarette butts, getting their hooves stuck in wads of gum. They lined the hills at funerals, huddled under folding chairs at weddings. It became a matter of pride if one of your ponies proved unusually sturdy. People would smile & say, “This would have been an awful month for me,” pointing to the glossy palomino trotting energetically around their ankles. Eventually, the ponies were no longer needed. People had learned to imagine their sadness trotting away. & when they wanted something more tangible, they could always go to the racetrack & study the larger horses’ faces. Gloom, #341, with those big black eyes, was almost sure to win.
WE FALL IN LOVE WITH TOTAL STRANGERS
James Allen Hall
We were stopped in her car in the parking lot
at Winn-Dixie. It had begun to rain,
the wipers wouldn’t work. The red neon sign
failed to illuminate the darkness the storm brought.
My mother turned to me and said, “Will you forgive me?”
We hadn’t been talking before the storm.
I was barely fifteen;
I didn’t even know how to blame her yet. She said it again,
her voice hoarse and religious in the overdramatic rain.
Just one week before, I’d been kissed by a man.
In an empty
hospital bathroom he pressed me against the sink,
my back bending toward the mirror. The light
seemed to gasp.
The man—a nurse?—flattened his hand against my zipper,
lowered it until I emptied out. And then the kiss, like steel
softening in wettest dark. I kept my eyes open.
When he stopped, I told him I loved him. He was bending
to kiss me, I was closing my eyes when he lurched back.
His hand became a memory on my ass.
in him flickered. He saw me for what I was:
a flood of need.
I said, “I didn’t mean that.” But will you forgive me
is an incurable question.
The rain stopped. In the wet stillness I slid my hand
to my mother’s. It was cold and she was crying,
the man had hurried out on her too. In the well
of my throat,
everything I wanted to say was dangerous.
She was cold. The words a boy says to comfort
his mother swam closer. I drew them slowly
out of me. I left the rest to drown.
NEW YORK BOYS I MISS KISSING YOUR FACES IN THE BACKSEAT OF CABS
Angela Veronica Wong
dudes it is possible that i will make out with you after reading your poetry but then i’ve kissed some unforgivably awful musicians. liesel asked me if i knew how many hours she’s spent watching some guy mess around on his guitar. i wish this question weren’t so relevant to my life. maggie packed body glitter when she moved to paris and amy is just fantastic. i found hairspray here and already feel more grounded. when i was younger i hoped to grow up and spend a day on far rockaway beach talking about how much i like morning sex. the bangs situation in asia is serious. years ago we spent a weekend with ghosts in the mountains. the ouija board made us promises. i hope we wrote them down. leaving is only leaving in the context of returning. the letters i sent out can stay unacknowledged.
POSTCARDS TO THE OTHER BROWN GIRL IN MY WEIGHTLIFTING CLASS
Let’s say the word
saffron out loud, say
sari—do you see me
as a slut, or a good girl?
I do not want to ask,
where are you from—
your friend beside you
is tan, freckled, pearls
at her ears, a silver
cross at her throat.
Does your mother show
you pictures of eligible
bachelors from Jaipur,
Mumbai, Canada? Does
your kitchen house unused
monuments of your mother’s
immigrant heart: packets
of mixed spices, canisters
of rice, discarded coconuts?
If I must be the hand
pressed against the window,
let there be salt water waiting
Excerpted from "Please Excuse This Poem"
Copyright © 2015 Brett F Lauer.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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