2020 National Book Awards Longlist for Poetry

September 2020



The ten contenders for the National Book Award for Poetry

The National Book Foundation announced the Longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. The Finalists in all five categories will be revealed on October 6.

The 2020 Poetry Longlist includes emerging voices, mid-career writers, and more traditionally established poets. Independent presses are well-represented with nine titles on the list and the remaining slot is filled by a university press. Poets on this year’s list have received fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, MacArthur Fellowships and more. All the poets on the 2020 Longlist are newcomers to the National Book Awards.

Two titles on the Longlist are debut collections, Fantasia for the Man in Blue by Tommye Blount and Borderland Apocrypha by Anthony Cody. The title poem in Fantasia for the Man in Blue is a series of poems ranging throughout the book, a quartet that speaks to the experience and threat of police violence upon Black people. The complex and layered collection is drawn from reality, and exemplifies how desire lives in proximity to the danger of being a marginalized body. A work of documentary poetics, Borderland Apocrypha details the history of trauma and survival at the U.S.-Mexico border. Cody utilizes imagery, historic documents, multi-lingual erasure poems, and more to force a reckoning with history’s silence.

The desert setting of Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral contains the voices of undocumented immigrants and border patrol agents, capturing complex portraits of interiority as Corral seamlessly moves between English and Spanish in his second collection. Natalie Diaz‘s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, engages with love and history in an anthem of desire against erasure while simultaneously celebrating her survival as an Indigenous queer woman.

Two works utilize commonly assumed impersonal formats as their foundation. The poems of Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s Travesty Generator use computational processes to demonstrate that randomness offers no escape from familiar patterns of grief and misfortune. Python and Java are used to proceduralize the final moments of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin and through these programming languages, Bertram shows the complexity of mourning, discomfort, and collective responsibility. Victoria Chang utilizes the form of the obituary to craft her lyrical Obit, examining the many natures of loss and the litany of smaller forfeitures attached to every death and how we publicly express grief.

Several collections on the Longlist concretely look back in time. The galleon trade ships controlled by the Spanish empire colonized the Philippines and enslaved Filipino workers on the ships; in The Galleons, Rick Barot questions how descendants of the exploited laborers reconcile with this history. Engaging with perspective and story, Barot shows how both history and the creative process are inextricable from subjectivity. Deeply rooted in the personal and political, DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi is structured in eight sections and includes transcriptions of conversations with activist Ahn Hak-sop, her father’s work as a photojournalist, hand-written texts, and more. Choi deftly explores the histories of South Korea and the United States via her return from the U.S. to South Korea in 2016. In 1773, Phillis Wheatley published a book of poetry that challenged Western prejudices about African and female intellectual capabilities. Based on fifteen years of archival research, The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers reimagines Wheatley’s relationships in a fully realized life study in verse.

Unity guides A Treatise on Stars by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge which implores that we connect with the larger natural and cosmic world. This is Berssenbrugge’s thirteenth collection of poems, and a lyrical work that reveals constellations of our connectedness to fuel introspection.

Publishers submitted a total of 254 books for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. The judges for Poetry are Layli Long Soldier (Chair), Rigoberto González, John Hennessy, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Elizabeth Willis. Judge’s decisions are made independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors and deliberations are strictly confidential. Winners in all categories will be announced live at the virtual National Book Awards Ceremony on November 18.

2020 Longlist for the National Book Award for Poetry:

Rick Barot, The Galleons
Milkweed Editions

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, A Treatise on Stars
New Directions

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Travesty Generator
Noemi Press

Tommye Blount, Fantasia for the Man in Blue
Four Way Books

Victoria Chang, Obit
Copper Canyon Press

Don Mee Choi, DMZ Colony
Wave Books

Anthony Cody, Borderland Apocrypha
Omnidawn Publishing

Eduardo C. Corral, Guillotine
Graywolf Press

Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem
Graywolf Press

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Age of Phillis
Wesleyan University Press