5 Debut Queer Poets on What to Read for the Sealey Challenge

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Poet Nicole Sealey, former executive director of Cave Canem, began the Sealey Challenge as a way to seriously commit to reading poetry in spite of artistic, professional, and everyday personal demands. The rules are simple: read one book or chapbook of poetry for each of the 31 days in August. Because starting and finishing a book every day for a month can seem like a marathon, Sealey encourages readers to go back and give books thorough reads after the month is over. For this year’s challenge, Cave Canem asked five Black queer poets with 2020 debut books to offer suggestions for readers who are looking for new poets to discover during the Sealey Challenge. These recommendations are, of course, in addition to their own books, which we encourage you to read or preorder.

Jubi Arriola-Headley
original kink (Sibling Rivalry Press, October 2020)

  • George Abraham, Birthright
  • Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Travesty Generator
  • Malika Booker, Pepper Seed
  • Douglas Kearney, Mess and Mess and
  • Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS
  • Jean Toomer, Cane

It’s been a little more than 24 hours since I learned that our lion, John Lewis, is no longer with us. I think that’s why the word trouble, from that essential John Lewis quote, is consuming my thoughts. I’m thinking about trouble particularly as it applies to poetry. How poets can trouble conventional poetic forms and/or construct entirely new ones. How poets can atomize language and reconstitute it in the most exquisitely troubling of ways. I think perhaps yesterday I might’ve had a different set of recommendations – but today is today.  I can’t promise you’ll finish any of these works in a day – only that you’ll be troubled by them, however much or little of them you read.

Tommye Blount
Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books, March 2020)

  • Nandi Comer, Tapping Out
  • Aricka Foreman, Salt Body Shimmer
  • Marlin M. Jenkins, Capable Monsters
  • Tariq Luthun, How the Water Holds Me
  • Matthew Olzmann, Contradictions in the Design
  • Wendy S. Walters, Troy, Michigan

Marlin M. Jenkins gets at what I see is at the core of poetry coming out of Detroit, “someone handed you something / and told you it was valuable // what you do with it is your business.” Jenkins, Aricka Foreman, Nandi Comer, Tariq Luthun, Matthew Olzmann, and Wendy S. Walters make it their business to make something new with their collections. The reach of each poet is vast and varied—all finding lyric in the most unassuming places: Comer unties the luchadores masks to reveal a complicated Black identity; Foreman conjures Yoruba water deities to address communal trauma and grief; Jenkins combs the Pokémon universe in order to name America’s monsters; Walters turns stale land charters into 49 sonnets on white flight; Luthun builds his Palestine in a flattened Midwest; and Olzmann finds the deeply human, and humorous, in the bleakest terrains. Detroit is a hard city to woo, but once it leaves its impression, in the words of Foreman, “This city, always in my face.”

Chekwube Danladi
Semiotics (University of Georgia Press, September 2020)

  • Zaina Alsous, A Theory of Birds
  • Jasmine Gibson, Don’t Let Them See Me Like This
  • Thabile Makue, ‘mamaseko
  • dg nanouk okpik, Corpse Whale
  • Minnie Bruce Pratt, Crime Against Nature
  • Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, When the Wanderers Come Home

What binds these collections in my celebration of them starts with their lush and explosive lyric, each poet so attentive to song and sound. Each very pensive and self-assessing. Each communicating of their survival in states of contestation, in the wake of warfare, apartheid and occupation, ethnic cleansing, and ongoing psychic and social assaults. These are poets who do magic with their fury, who don’t sublimate shit. Their poems leave me with weird and powerful feelings.

Romeo Oriogun
Sacrament of Bodies (University of Nebraska Press, March 2020)

  • Chris Abani, Sanctificum
  • ‘Gbenga Adeoba, Exodus
  • Angel Garcia, Teeth Never Sleep
  • Tsitsi Jaji, Mother Tongues
  • Vladimir Lucien, Sounding Ground
  • Mahtem Shiferraw, Your Body Is War

I encountered my first poem in a crowded secondary school class in Benin City, my Literature in English teacher introduced us to Call Of The River Nun by Gabriel Okara, and that moment began my love for reading poetry. I believe in a poem’s ability to lead a reader through grace as I have been led through grace. The first time I read Chris Abani’s Santicificum, I realized that a poem can lead one to grace. When I read a poem, I wonder to whom it calls other than the obvious, who it speaks to other than those who see themselves in the poem.

Reading for me is a delight, it is a journey, one that I begin without knowing where it will end. I am always looking for wonder amidst despair. I am always searching for joy in a world that offers sadness at the doorpost of each morning. Perhaps poetry is a way to learn gratitude at the end of a journey, perhaps it is a way to understand that at the end of a journey there is wonder. And more than wonder, perhaps I am always searching for a poem to lead me home.

travis tate
Maiden (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, June 2020)

  • Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem
  • Jameson Fitzpatrick, Pricks in The Tapestry
  • Audre Lorde, The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
  • Carl Phillips, Pale Colors in a Tall Field
  • Xandria Phillips, Hull
  • Richard Siken, Crush

I’m finding it difficult to focus on my writing at the moment. So I’m going back to reading. I find myself coming to others’ work to cull my inner restlessness, to smooth my furrowed brow, to tap the well of feeling. And ultimately, to help find my way back to the page. The poets in these books are leaping into pools of desire and showing, in different ways, how it manifests. And in these days, I’m thinking a lot about the desire of the body and the despair of longing.


Jubi Arriola-Headley (he/him) is a black queer poet, storyteller, and first-generation United Statesian whose work explores themes of manhood, vulnerability, rage, tenderness, and joy. He’s a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and holds an MFA from the University of Miami. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Ambit, Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. Jubi lives with his husband in South Florida and Guatemala.

A Cave Canem alum, Tommye Blount is the author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books, 2020) and What Are We Not For (Bull City Press, 2016). A graduate from Warren Wilson College, he has been the recipient of a fellowship from Kresge Arts in Detroit and the John Atherton scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work has been featured in Magma, New England Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Ecotone, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye now lives in Novi, Michigan.

Chekwube Danladi is the author of Semiotics (University of Georgia Press, 2020), selected by Evie Shockley as the winner of the 2019 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She lives in Chicago.

Romeo Oriogun was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He is the author of Sacrament of Bodies (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). His poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and others. He currently is an MFA candidate for poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he received the John Logan Prize for Poetry.

travis tate (they/them) is a queer playwright, poet, and performer from Austin, Texas. Their poems have been published in UnderblongBorderlands: Texas Poetry ReviewMr. Ma’amMiniarets, among other publications. Their first collection of poetry, Maiden, was published in June 2020 by Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. They are currently a fellow in the Liberation Theatre Company’s Playwriting Residency and Theatre East’s Writers Group in New York City. They earned their MFA in playwriting and poetry from Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Find out more information at travisltate.com.