2021 National Book Awards Longlist for Poetry

September 2021



The ten contenders for the National Book Award for Poetry

The National Book Foundation announced the Longlist for the 2021 National Book Award for Poetry. The Finalists in all five categories will be revealed on October 5.

Nine of the ten poets on the 2021 Longlist are first-time National Book Award honorees. The exception is Forrest Gander, who was Longlisted for the National Book Award in 2018 for his poetry collection Be With. Two of the poets have been honored by the Pulitzer Prize, and two have received Whiting Awards. Other prizes that have recognized the Longlisted poets include: the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, and the Pushcart Prize. One of the books comes from a university press and nine come from independent publishers, including Parlor Press, with its first title recognized by the National Book Awards. The list features poets in all stages of their careers, including four debut poetry collections.

Two of the debut collections consider what it means to feel like a foreigner in the United States. Threa Almontaser’s collection, The Wild Fox of Yemen, juxtaposes Muslim American narratives in post-9/11 New York with family histories in Yemen. Shifting between Arabic and English, the poems question if assimilation is possible for those who are visibly foreign, and offers language—its manipulation, mistranslation, and memory—as a tool for survival. Ghost Letters by Baba Badji uses a personal epistolary form, blending English, French, Arabic, and Wolof into an interrogation of what it means to be Senegalese, Black, and an outsider in America. The letters, written for a “ghost mother,” travel the African diaspora across distance, race, and colonialism.

Forrest Gander draws upon the five landscapes of Sangam poetics—forest, pastoral, sea, mountain, and wasteland—in Twice Alive. Gander addresses personal and ecological trauma, drawing from his background in geology to explore the interconnectivity of the environment and the human condition. In The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void, Jackie Wang documents her dreams to process collective trauma for both living and non-living creatures and to find hope in the sunflower still able to sprout.

Three works examine the intersection of historical events, politics, and the personal. In Floaters, Martín Espada celebrates his late activist father, condemns government inaction in the aftermath of Hurricane María, and pays tribute to the migrants who drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande. In Sho, Douglas Kearney plays with Black vernacular and performance to investigate race, masculinity, and current events. Desiree C. Bailey’s What Noise Against the Cane, winner of the 2020 Yale Younger Poets Prize, honors ancestors of the Haitian Revolution and mines the complexities of home for a Black woman in contemporary America.

Several collections on the Longlist contemplate mourning the loss of a loved one. CM Burroughs’s second collection, Master Suffering, is a vulnerable exploration of grief and female bodies after the untimely death of a beloved sister. Rooted in a sense of displacement and loss, The Vault by Andrés Cerpa contains fragments, letters, and poems that capture how to build a life after the death of a parent. In A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, Hoa Nguyen grapples with all she does not know about her mother land, her mother tongue, and her mother.

Publishers submitted a total of 290 books for the 2021 National Book Award for Poetry. The judges for Poetry are A. Van Jordan (Chair), Don Mee Choi, Natalie Diaz, Matthea Harvey, and Ilya Kaminsky. 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 National Book Awards Ceremony on November 17.

2021 Longlist for the National Book Award for Poetry:  

Threa Almontaser, The Wild Fox of Yemen
Graywolf Press

Baba Badji, Ghost Letters
Parlor Press

Desiree C. Bailey, What Noise Against the Cane
Yale University Press

CM Burroughs, Master Suffering
Tupelo Press

Andrés Cerpa, The Vault
Alice James Books

Martín Espada, Floaters
W. W. Norton & Company

Forrest Gander, Twice Alive
New Directions

Douglas Kearney, Sho
Wave Books

Hoa Nguyen, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure
Wave Books

Jackie Wang, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void
Nightboat Books