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Recommended Reading


Need help choosing what to read next? The virtual Narrative Library offers thousands of stories, poems, and essays—more than any physical library could ever contain—free of charge and available 24/7. Here’s a sample list that ranges genres, forms, content, and authors—the best of all worlds—to help you get lost in our stacks.


Essays

Dear America” by Scarlett Akeley
Whale Shark” by Rick Bass
My Daughter and God” by Justin Cronin
Sparrow” by Maria Hummel
Dear America” by Hugo Anaya de Jesus
The Lost Sister: An Elegy” by Joyce Carol Oates
At Lee” by Jack Schiff
Mysteries of Love and Grief” by Sandra Scofield


Fiction

The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress” by Gina Berriault
Devil’s Child” by Farnaz Fassihi
Vieques” by Kevin A. González
The Crossing Guard” by Sara Houghteling
Araby” by James Joyce
The Treatment of Bibi Halder” by Jhumpa Lahiri
Butterfly” by Vivian Ludford
Red Dress–1946” by Alice Munro
Friday Night Fish Fry” by Austin Smith
The Black Hole” by Patience Wallace
Übermensch” by Tobias Wolff


Best Advice

Letters to a Young Writer” by Julianna Baggott
Letters to a Young Writer” by Richard Bausch
Letters to a Young Writer” by Ann Beattie
Letters to a Young Writer” by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Letters to a Young Writer” by Robert Olen Butler
Letters to a Young Writer” by Lan Samantha Chang
Letters to a Young Writer” by Carol Edgarian
Letters to a Young Writer” by Louis Menand


Poetry

Looking for inspiration in your poetry writing? Narrative’s Library offers all kinds of amazing poems to kick-start your reading and writing. Here we suggest some of our favorites. You will find poems that center on love, grief, politics, pop culture, and more—in other words, something for everyone and every mood. —Mimi Kusch, managing editor

Let’s start off with a poem by Javier Zamora, winner of the 2017 Narrative Prize and our guest poetry judge for the Sixth Annual “Tell Me a Story” High School Contest! Javier traveled alone, at nine years old, from El Salvador to the United States so that he could be reunited with his parents. In his debut collection, Unaccompanied, from which this poem is drawn, Javier writes poems to humanize the immigrant experience and the highly politicized issue of border crossings. Notice the extraordinary images and metaphors he uses to infuse a heartbreaking domestic scene with beauty and compassion.


Then, It Was So
by Javier Zamora

            after my father

To tell my wife I was leaving
I waited and waited,
rethinking first sentences in my sleep,
I didn’t sleep,
and my heart was a watermelon
split each night. Outside,
3:00 a.m. was the same as bats
and my wife was a kerosene lamp.

Amor, I thought it was something
we were in that day, hiding
from bullets in sugarcane, my chest
pressed against the gossamers
stuck to your thighs,
when stars swam inside you.


The last second has passed
and I can’t forget one centimeter.
To kiss each cheek,
your lips, your forehead.
I miss our son. I miss the faint wick
on his skin. How I held him
and how I wanted to then, though
I didn’t wake him.


I promised you light
and running water. That dawn
I needed to say
you remind me of my father
and that leaving is a whirlpool. It was so
quiet when I looked into
your sandalwood eyes and swam
from your salted shore.


If you’re looking for an example of a great love poem, you can’t do better than Richard Jones’s lovely, accessible “Double Doors.” Notice how the poet imbues the simplest of scenes with intimacy and meaning, and how he seamlessly travels from present to past in one short poem, bringing us with him. Jones is the author of numerous poetry collections, including The Blessing, from which this poem comes.


Double Doors
by Richard Jones

Valentine’s Day breakfast at Baker’s Square:
Laura drinks coffee while I watch Andrew,
who refuses to sit but chooses instead
to stay in the restaurant’s vestibule where
he opens and closes the big double doors
over and over again, as if he’s practicing
a grand entrance—entering, crossing
the threshold, and letting the doors
close behind him. I’m thinking,

it wasn’t so long ago I carried my tiny son
piggyback through the woods to a waterfall;
wasn’t long ago I kissed Laura for the first time;
wasn’t long ago I lived in the house with my dog
and sat with my notebook at the kitchen table
on Sunday morning after working all night—
sipping burnt coffee and scratching out lines,
lighting my hundredth cigarette, starting over
again, determined to write a love poem.


Are you looking for a poem that tells a story? Read this fine example of a narrative poem for inspiration. Note how Chatti, a Tunisian American poet, tells her tale simply and how this simplicity renders the story that much more powerful and haunting. Notice also how she uses her poem to instruct us about racism in the US but without hitting us over the head with the message. Leila Chatti placed in both the Eighth and the Tenth Annual Narrative Poetry Contests and is the author of the poetry collection Deluge.


Muslim Girlhood
by Leila Chatti

I never found myself in any pink aisle. There was no box for me
with glossy cellophane like heat and a neat packet of instructions
in six languages. Evenings, I watched TV like a religion
I moderately believed. I watched to see how the others lived, not knowing
I was the Other, no laugh track in my living room, no tidy and punctual
resolution waiting. I took tests in which Jane and William had
so many apples, but never a friend named Khadija. I fasted
through birthday parties and Christmas parties and ate leftover tajine
at plastic lunch tables, picked at pepperoni from slices like blemishes
and tried not to complain. I prayed at the wrong times in the wrong
tongue. I hungered for Jell-O and Starbursts and margarine, could read
mono- and diglycerides by five and knew what gelatin meant, where it came from.
When I asked for anything good, like Cedar Point or slumber parties,
I offered a quick Inshallah, as in Can Jordan sleep over this weekend, Inshallah?,
peeking at my father as if he were a god. Sometimes, I thought
my father was a god, I loved him that much. And the news thought
this was an impossible thing—a Muslim girl who loved her father—
assumed every Muslim girl-heart was a bomb, her love
suspicious. But what did they know of my heart, or my father
who knew it and so drove fifty miles to buy me a doll like a Barbie
because it looked like me, short brown hair underneath her hijab, unthreatening
breasts and feet flat enough to carry her as far as she wanted
to go? In my games, she traveled and didn’t marry, devoured any book
she could curl her small, rigid fingers around. I called her Amira
because it was a name like my sister’s, though I think her name
was supposed to be Sara, that drawled A so like sorry,
which she never, ever was.


This poem is a great example of how form can serve your message. Notice how Diaz uses the three triolets (poems of eight lines that repeat the first line as the fourth and seventh lines and the second line as the eighth to reflect the cyclic pattern of the brother’s behavior. Natalie Diaz, a Mojave American poet, is the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec and Postcolonial Love Poems. She was recently awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.


Downhill Triolets
by Natalie Diaz

1. My Dad, Sisyphus, and My Brother

The phone rings—my brother was arrested again.
Dad hangs up, gets his old blue Chevy going,
    and heads to the police station.
It’s not the first time. It’s not even the second.
No one is surprised when my brother is arrested again.
The guy fell on my knife was his one-phone-call explanation.
(He stabbed a man five times in the back is the official accusation.)
My brother is arrested again and again. And again our dad, our Sisyphus,
    pushes his old blue heart up to the station.


2. God, Lionel Richie, and My Brother

Ring, ring, ring at 2 a.m. means meth’s got my brother in the slammer

    again.
God told him Break into Grandma’s house and Lionel Richie gave him

    that feeling of dancing on the ceiling.
My dad said At 2 a.m., God and Lionel Richie don’t make good friends.
Ring, ring, ring at 2 a.m. means meth’s got my brother by the balls again.
With God in one ear and Lionel in the other, who can win?
Not my brother, so he made a meth pipe from the lightbulb and smoked

    himself reeling.
Ring, ring, ring at 2 a.m. means my brother’s tweaked himself into jail

    again.
It wasn’t his fault, not with God guiding his foot through the door and

    honey-voiced Lionel whispering Hard to keep your feet on the ground

    with such a smooth-ass ceiling.

3. My Brother, Geronimo, and Jimi Hendrix

The tribal cops are in our front yard calling in on a little black radio: I got a 10-15

    for 2-6-7 and 4-15.
The 10-15 they got is my brother, a Geronimo-wannabe who thinks he’s holding

    out. In his mind he’s playing backup for Jimi—
he is an itching, bopping head full of “Fire.” Mom cried, Stop acting so crazy,

    but he kept banging air drums against the windows and ripped out

all the screens.
This time, we called the cops, and when they came we just watched—we

    have been here before and we know 2-6-7 and 4-15 will get him 10-15.
His eyes are escape caves torch-lit by his 2-6-7 of choice:

crystal methamphetamine.
Finally, he’s in the back of the cop car, hands in handcuffs shiny

    and shaped like infinity.
Now that he’s 10-15, he’s kicking at the doors and security screen, a 2-6-7 fiend

    saying, I got desires that burn and make me wanna 4-15.
His tongue is flashing around his mouth like a World’s Fair Ferris wheel—but he’s

    no Geronimo, Geronimo would find a way out instead of giving in

so easily.

This sonnet (a poem of fourteen lines) offers another searing treatment of racism in America. That Brown layers in lovely images from the garden makes the poem all the more affecting—we truly understand how flowers, and people, can be “cut down.” Jericho Brown won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for his book The Tradition, from which this poem is taken, as well as the Lambda Literary Trustee Award, given to writers who break new ground in LGBTQ literature.


The Tradition
by Jericho Brown

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Stargazer.
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

Are you moved to write about a movie you love or some other aspect of popular culture? Then read Maria Hummel’s compressed, elegiac sonnet about Star Wars for inspiration. Notice how the poet retells the story of the Alderaan tragedy by relating it to the lives of real people, “with chairs and beds and a table and children.” Her choice of using a traditional form to relate a contemporary tale adds to the interest. Hummel is a novelist and poet who lives in Vermont.


Alderaan
by Maria Hummel

They died in fire.
They died to prove the might of an empire.
They did not have time to flee or
shield the weak. No moments or months
to see what was coming.
Their trees and fields died with them.
Their hugest mountains and sunny seas.
The cities died as quickly as the towns.
The towns died as quickly as a single house,
a house like ours, lit gold within,
with chairs and beds and a table and children.
In the distance, a plot begins
and that’s all we are: a loss.
The princess weeps at her window of stars.

“Slow Dance” is a great example of long-form poetry, one with plentiful sonic gifts and amazing images and wordplay. Matthew Dickman is the author of several poetry collections, one cowritten with his twin brother, the poet Michael Dickman.


Slow Dance
by Matthew Dickman

More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dining room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
unfolding like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about
how all the stars in the sky are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance. The Unchained Melody,
Stairway to Heaven, power-chord slow dance. All my life
I’ve made mistakes. Small
and cruel. I made my plans.
I never arrived. I ate my food. I drank my wine.
The slow dance doesn’t care. It’s all kindness like children
before they turn four. Like being held in the arms
of my brother. The slow dance of siblings.
Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.
The slow dance of what’s to come
and the slow dance of insomnia
pouring across the floor like bath water.
When the woman I’m sleeping with
stands naked in the bathroom,
brushing her teeth, the slow dance of ritual is being spit
into the sink. There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed
the front yard. When the stranger wearing a sheer white dress
covered in a million beads
slinks toward me like an over-sexed chandelier suddenly come to life,
I take her hand in mine. I spin her out
and bring her in. This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scraping
for joy. The haiku and honey. The orange and orangutan slow dance.


Some of the finest poems are very short. In this poem we see the writer distilling a lot of feeling and meaning into a small space. There’s a whole story here, boiled down to the bones. Also a lovely little lesson in how we can keep a poem flowing by omitting punctuation; Merwin, one of the most beloved and influential American poets, was the master of this practice.


The Morning
by W. S. Merwin

The first morning
I woke in surprise to your body
for I had been dreaming it
as I do

all around us white petals had never slept
leaves touched the early light
your breath warm as your skin on my neck
your eyes opening


smell of dew


This poem is a great example of how to organize your poem using couplets (units of two lines of poetry). Xie’s line breaks, phrasing, and imagery all stand out, as do her stunning, shifting metaphors. Born in China and raised in New Jersey, Jenny M. Xie won first place in the Fourth Annual Poetry Contest.


A Separate Set of Signs
by Jenny M. Xie

A woman boards the overnight train,

her bag packed with rolls of candied


hawthorne and bouillon cubes.
A bulb in the station leaks its weak light.


Does she glow from toothache
or the loose sea winds,


is she heading to the capital
with no papers or is she someone’s


negligent daughter, the youngest of three?
Is she me having stayed behind,


a parallel life with a separate set of signs
and a diet of more rice, less white meat?


Is she dreaming of the rivers
soft with codling in her hometown;


when she wakes on the train car
mattress is her shadow straighter?


Does she feel a body larger
than her own dilated boundaries,


and when she looks out of the window does
she sense the city as closer than it is,


the light having met the smokestacks,
and her hunger small and neat?


Here’s another fine example of a poem’s form serving its message. Notice the gorgeous metaphors, the striking language and pacing. Pure music on the page—read it out loud and really listen. Ocean Vuong, winner of the 2015 Narrative Prize, is the author of the bestselling novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and the debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds.


No One Knows the Way to Heaven
by Ocean Vuong

but we keep walking anyway.
                                      When you get here it will be
different
but we will use the same words.
                                        You will look & look—& see
only the world. Well here’s
                                    the world, sweetheart. One
little word
as small & large as a father.
                                            Why are my hands always
empty
when touching those I love?
                                                      Lately, I wear black
shoes
to the keep the night in my eyes.
                                                   I tried to speak this
morning
but the voice only went so far
                                        as my fingers. Can you see it
now?
For the first time in weeks
                                                          I saw my own
reflection in the cup of coffee
                                                       & kept drinking
anyway.
Strange, what a face can do
                                                             to a face. Like
once, after days of clouds
                                                         the color of torn
wolves, I let a man spit in my mouth
                                             because my eyes wouldn’t
water
after Evan shot himself
                                               in his daddy’s December
barn. The word faggot a shard
                                                    of light growing into a
hole in his skull. Someone screaming
                                                           silent as a snow
globe.
I had been looking for a word to change
                                                             the light in the
room.
But all I could find was a man,
                                           his bright spit. I lifted my
tongue as he stood above me.
                                                  My jaw a ransacked
drawer.
I said Please, sweetheart,
                                                          because I was
shivering
& I thought every bit
                                                    of warmth should be
saved
& savored. Don’t worry,
                                          no one can hurt us now.
Not even
the speaker in this poem. I am wrong
                                                            often—but not
enough
to forget you. You
                                                 who are not yet born.
Not yet
yet. You
                                           who will always be what
remains
after I fashion my god
                                                         out of everything I
lost.
Because when a man & a man
                                                  walk hand in hand into
a bar the joke’s on us.
                                       Because a man & a man make
love
indistinguishable from rain.
                                            Rain. To give something a
name
just to watch it fall. What
                                                                    will I name
you?
Are you a boy or a girl or a translation
                                                                  of crushed
hours? It doesn’t matter. Even extinction
                                                                 is temporary.
Rain as it touches ground.
                                                 Hey, I’m right here.
Your dad
is right here. I will leave
                                         this page open so you can
find me.
& when you get here, I’ll tell you everything.
                                                               When you get
here,
I’ll show you what incredible things
                                                              we can do to
mirrors
just by standing there.

Did you know that a list can also be poetic? But what separates a list poem from a list is subtext; in her poem Lillian-Yvonne Bertram shows us how she uses each carefully selected image to tell a story. Bertram won first place in Narrative’s Eight Annual Poetry Contest and has published several poetry collections.


Am Looking For
by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

desperately,
children: a
toaster, many
coupons & 14
egg cartons are
offered; I need
men’s ties, a
queen
frame/headboard,
chimney
cleaning
supplies, cat
carrier for found
kitten, double
stroller and baby
gates; will trade
for sofa, extra
long: a few
cassettes, various
VHS films,
shingle remover;
am looking for
fake Christmas
tree, other
needed stuff;
needed in
N____ A ____:
flea bombs, a
basic beginner’s
telescope, copy
of a brief history
of time, time,
daybed, washing
machine; shirt
and tie or whole
suit would be
perfect! contact
me for an ant
farm & various
items: de-
humidifier &
soccer gloves,
women’s black
heels, clipboard,
dog feeding
thingy—three
drinking
pitchers.
Chinchilla dust
& whack-a-mole
to good home.
Bugkiller and pool
vacuum. I
need a couch
and wood stain,
am in desperate
need for
desperate need;
am in desperate
need for 2
controllers for
Nintendo 64,
one unicorn
costume.

Read this poem by a preeminent American poet Sharon Olds for inspiration in using killer metaphors, original language, and perfect line breaks (the right line breaks can make a poem!). This poem is also a fine example of crafting a poem in someone’s honor. And Olds has made a fascinating choice in using dialogue to build her poem.


Kunitzieform
by Sharon Olds

Did you know T. S. Eliot wore eye shadow
sometimes,
I asked Stanley, and he chuckled—one
gurgle in the bubble chamber
of the spirit level—and his eyes had that sensual
brightness, and his big, fleshless, elegant
hand lifted, and soared over, and dropped,
a couple of times, on the back of my hand, like
being patted by matter. I didn’t
know that,
he musicalled up.
Someone said he’d dust his lids
with green, so someone would say, “Are you
okay, Tom,”
and Stanley said,
It’s a hard way to go about doing that,
and I rubbed the heel of my hand over the rough
nest-material of Stanley’s tweed
sleeve, and said, You have a generous heart, I
sometimes laugh at Eliot for that, like some
kind of revenge on his politics—
what about you, Stanley, what were your
feelings about him?
And Stanley
drew on time, and space, he drew on
his powers, and their sleep, and their dreams, he worked,
like God not resting on the sixth day,
and then, when his thought was done, he turned his
long, loping engine toward the task
of telling it, word by word. He said, I was,
and paused—I love to pause with him, on the
long boat, our hands trailing in the
water of a hundred years—I was,
pause, pause, we breathe in,
we breathe out, I was fortunate
in my marriage,
he said, and we went, again,
out into the empyrean
of quiet, beyond the atmosphere,
overboard, and then the return,
and then the refrain, I was fortunate,
I think,
and I rubbed his invisible weaving
with my thumb, and said, You were, you were—
you loved and were loved.
He nodded, his arms and
body still, he wondered as he wandered,
out under the sky, I was fortunate
in my marriages, I think,
he said,
But still, there was all that sorrow, he turned his
face to me, I petted the wool like a
stanch made of spider wodge with some
roots and twigs in it, over his
forearm, he looked into my eyes with that stalwart look,
I put my hand on the mastodon
of his buoyant hand, which was resting, now,
as a swimmer at the end of a stroke may glide,
may glide, desire, desire, rest,
desire. When I
had let myself in,
he’d been facing the other way, signing
books, and I had put the huge
stargazer lily over his shoulder, like
a horse looking over a stall gate, and he’d
turned and seen it, in surprise and pleasure, and
recognized it, and took its head in his
hands and softly rubbed its five ears.

We close this guide with an offering from the winner of the 2020 Narrative Prize, Nigerian writer Gbenga Adesina. This poem is so many things at once—a call to action, a song of mourning, an honoring of a father and of all the other refugees lost at sea. Notice how the directness of Adesina’s language—“The purr of the electric guitar was my father’s body”—keeps the poem grounded in reality, making it harder for us to look away. Here is a terrific lesson on how to write an intensely emotional poem without being sentimental or cliched.


I Carried My Father Across the Sea
by Gbenga Adesina

1.
I Carried My Father Across the Sea

He was a child. He was dead.
He was the shaft of a Long-tailed Astrapia. He was a forest


of bruise. He wore a door on his face.
He wore the black suit


of his wedding. The square pocket
was still full of his vows.


He was light to carry,
his burdens and vows had bled out of him.


He was heavy
with the responsibility of the dead.


What sort of a son
leaves his father


chained to fatherhood?
I lifted and propped him up with my frame.


I measured the length of him with my length.
The feet stuck in sea sand, his weak knees,


his arms gripped my sides.
As the currents rose, the collar on his broken neck


flared into a float.
The gash the surgeon’s knife left on his head


became a halo, it signaled in the dark.
I put my nose to his nose.


I put my finger in his mouth.
I tied his IV tubes, now a human gill, around our waists


and swam in the vein
of the water.


“Look,” a sphinx in the waves said,
“A son carries a father.”


Death is not silence.
It is where I hear you most clearly.


What sort of a son
leaves his father’s body


chained to the dark grievance inside the earth?
I carried my father on my back.


I felt the bracing inside his afterlife heart
on the skin of my spine.


He wore his face as a door
he promised to open to me.


He bled
out his vows.


2.
Vows

When my father fell


into himself and the waters


within him broke their
vows                                                    She


wilted to half of her carp.
She wrapped herself in a black shawl. She,


my mother, crawled
to his side, put her


ear to his chest. Said: if a body
is yours, you


can hear where silence
throats in its skin. She,


my mother, put her mouth
to my father’s ear,


said I’ll call your body,
which is mine, by name,


you’ll come back to me.
How can a body the whole length


of which you once
traveled with your tongue close itself to you.


When he, my father, closed his eyes
and breath and his body became


a bridge he had left behind on a journey and
they wheeled him down the stairs,


she sprang after them.
She cried out:


My name is
inside his tongue.      I need to get it back.


3.
Thirteen Ways of Naming My Father’s Body

My father’s body knew pleasure. It tasted like
thorn on his flesh.


Once on a bus, a child smiled at me, and I knew
it was my father’s body


On some days, the morning is my father’s body.
I wear it like loneliness.


When I’m dancing and twisting alone in the dark,
my father’s body joins me. He brings in night as his
dance partner.


Once, on a street in New York, afraid for my life
I shouted at my father to stay back indoors. I told him
not to come out of my body.


I’m the light of the world. My father’s body is the world.


Sometimes when I’m singing, a door opens and gives
my father’s body back to the night he was born.
Fela Kuti dancing on the stage is my father’s body.


I sat beside a man a while ago at a garden; his hum was my father’s body.


I love the magpie. It has my father’s body.


The man sitting beside you is my father. He’s dead.
His body is a sigh.                 Where I come from, rain
leads home the father’s body.


Once, at a rock concert, I asked for a dirty martini,
my hand wanted to find a way to hold the night. The
purr of the electric guitar was my father’s body.


In the beginning God made heaven and my father’s body


Now that you’ve heard from all these amazing poets, it’s time to find your own voice! We hope these poems will guide you in your poetic pursuits. We can’t wait to read what you have to share.




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