12 evocative nonfiction and fiction books by poets

I often hear from readers who aren’t sure poetry is for them. They find it intimidating, perhaps, or obscure or nonsensical or any number of things. As with all categories and genres of books, you simply have to find the right ones for you. Or sometimes, as the case may be, you need to approach it from another angle.

There are a number of poets who write more than poetry. They pen memoir, nonfiction, YA, literary fiction, and beyond. Just as poets put a lot of thought into the specific words of their poems, they put that same care into their other work, making for evocative, lyrical reads. And if you see that a poet has narrated their own audiobook? That is almost always the way to go if you’re an audiobook lover.

This month the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club will be discussing The Light of the World, a memoir by poet Elizabeth Alexander. Reading this work again recently got me thinking about other nonfiction and fiction books by poets. It seems especially appropriate to share this list now since National Poetry Month is happening in April. Consider this an invitation to experience another side of poets’ talents. Once you’ve read their fiction or nonfiction, try picking up one of their poetry collections and see if that might opens up a new world of poetry to you.

12 evocative nonfiction and fiction books by poets

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Lit : A Memoir

Lit : A Memoir

Author:
In this, her third memoir, Karr delves into her experience of alcoholism and getting sober. She also shares stories from motherhood and how she, as a lifelong agnostic, chose to convert to the Catholic faith. Karr’s memoirs are often rightly referred to as master classes in the art of memoir but she got her start in poetry: her roots are evident in the way she chooses each word with great care. More info →
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The Light of the World: A Memoir

The Light of the World: A Memoir

In Alexander's words: "The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story." In Alexander's words: "The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story." The author's husband, an artist born in Eritrea, died just four days after his fiftieth birthday. A few years later, poet and creative writing professor Alexander looks back on their life together, their love, and the impact of that loss in her life. This beautifully rendered story is easy to read in a single sitting, and while sad, it exudes joy. Heads up for audiophiles: Alexander's narration of her own work is magnificent. More info →
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Salt Houses

Salt Houses

Author:
Author of four books of poetry, Alyan's debut novel follows three generations of a Palestinian family from the Six-Day War of 1967 to 1990 Kuwait to Beirut, Paris, and Boston. The story opens with Alia's wedding, when Alia's mother, Salma, reads her future in the coffee grounds left in the bottom of her cup and sees both turmoil and travel. While she keeps her premonitions secret, they nevertheless come true as the family is uprooted by war and loss. A lyrical tale of assimilation and the importance of family. More info →
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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Author:
Described by the publisher as “Big Love and The 19th Wife set against a contemporary African background”, this story introduces us to Baba Segi and his happy-enough household of three wives and seven children. But when Baba Segi takes a fourth wife, this one a university graduate, her arrival throws the family into chaos. An exploration of polygamy and all its complexities, this is the Nigerian poet’s debut novel. (Heads up for sensitive readers: please check for content warnings before diving in.) More info →
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With the Fire on High

With the Fire on High

At our MMD Book Club author event, Elizabeth Acevedo told us that her books are best read in both audio AND paper format so that you can hear and see her poetry. This one is written in prose, but it's just as poetic and vibrant as her novels-in-verse. Liz narrates her own audiobooks with incredible talent and voices seventeen-year old single mother Emoni, who's always been told she has a magical touch in the kitchen. She dreams of a career as a chef but she doesn't have the time or money for her school's new culinary arts class, not if she's going to still be able to work part-time and provide for her child. She's torn in a lot of directions but her passion for food is clear. This novel captured my heart—and made me want to bake! Acevedo creates fabulous characters to root for: I was cheering Emoni on as I listened. More info →
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How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir

How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir

Author:
Award-winning poet Jones's remarkable coming-of-age memoir about being a Black gay man from the South is told in a series of moments and scenes from his childhood through young adulthood. It’s a searing portrait of race and identity and the struggle to become who we truly are. The audiobook, read by the author, is excellent. His highly anticipated next book of poems, Alive At The End Of The World, releases fall 2022. More info →
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Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room

Author:
James Baldwin's iconic novel explores desire, love, and identity in 1950s Paris. The story follows David, a young American in Paris whose girlfriend just left him. Following her absence, he explores his own sexuality and grapples with modern masculinity, social expectations, and guilt. Baldwin draws on his own Parisian experiences and constructs the most beautiful sentences. There's so much to unpack in such a short classic. While Baldwin may be best known for his fiction and essays, he also wrote poetry and plays. More info →
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How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Author:
In his first full-length nonfiction work, poet and journalist Smith explores the legacy of slavery in the United States, and to do so he takes his readers on a tour of sorts, visiting nine physical monuments crucial to that history, like Jefferson's Monticello, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, Angola Prison, New York City, and finally Senegal's Gorée Island. Each visit is packed with stories from both past and present, as Smith examines the site's history and explores what that means for us today. This is a stunner. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by the author. More info →
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A Ghost in the Throat

A Ghost in the Throat

"This is a female text." These beginning words are repeated, over and over, throughout. But what to say about this story, how to define it? Words fail me here, because it's so unlike anything I've ever read: part memoir, part meditation on the female creative process, part biography of a long-dead Irish poet, plus a translation of the poet's best-known work. If you're stirred by the offer of gaining a glimpse inside the mind of a modern poet grappling with her brilliant predecessors, read this immediately. This is going straight on my Best of the Year list. I listened to the exceptional audio version, narrated by Siobhán McSweeney. More info →
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

Award-winning poet Nezukumatathil’s blends memoir with what she’s learned from the great outdoors in her debut essay collection. She extols the virtues of wonder and curiosity as she conveys facts about insects and plants and her own experience growing up as a nature-loving brown girl. This wonder carried her through her family’s many moves from Kansas to Arizona to New York and Ohio. Accompanied by illustrations from Fumi Nakamura, Nezukumatathil’s perspective will leave you inspired. More info →
Children of the Land: A Memoir

Children of the Land: A Memoir

A timely memoir about displacement and uncertainty, prize-winning poet Castillo shares his experience growing up undocumented in the US. He was 5 when his family crossed the US border from Tepechitlán, Mexico and 15 when his father was deported. He was finally able to get his green card when he was 26. Castillo gives an unflinching account of his family’s encounters with a draconian system in their quest for a safer, better life and the ripple effect these unforgiving policies had on them all. (Heads up for sensitive readers: this deals with child abuse and domestic violence.) More info →
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Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

Author:
Poet and professor Hong’s essay collection is a mix of memoir and cultural criticism, exploring a range of issues, from race to female friendship to depression. She examines her relationship to the English language as the daughter of Korean immigrants and the “minor feelings” that arise at the discrepancy between the so-called American dream and her lived experience. Gorgeously written and thought-provoking. More info →
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Do you have any favorite nonfiction or fiction books by poets? Please share in the comments section!

P.S. A few of my favorite poetry collections (and a promising bedtime ritual) and 3 poetry anthologies to try for National Poetry Month.

12 evocative nonfiction and fiction books by poets

27 comments

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  1. I have loved poet Luci Shaw’s writing for SO long, and her prose is elegant and challenging. My favorite is God in the Dark, her memoir of the season in which her husband was dying of cancer. Her struggle to believe, to let go of the life she knew and trust that something just as good was ahead spoke to my own struggle

  2. Lisa F. says:

    World of Wonders was one of my favorite reads from last year. It was such a pleasure to read, I wish Aimee Nezhukumatathil would do a follow-up volume! Now this goes back in time, but when I think of poets writing novels, the first who come to mind are Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte.

  3. Robyn Ertwine says:

    I immediately thought of Michael Ondaatje reading The Cat’s Table and how it was such a pleasure that I should listen to it again. I guess I know what I’ll read next!

  4. Cady says:

    I’m not really a poetry reader, but am increasingly unsurprised when I find out that the writers of perfectly written prose started out as poets. Kathleen Jamie’s books of essays, especially Findings and Sightlines, are simply cracking. Helen MacDonald (the sublime H is for Hawk, Vesper Flights) started with poetry, and the best non-fiction description of depression I’ve ever read was Sunbathing in the Rain by Gwyneth Lewis, who writes poetry in both English and Welsh.

  5. Kacey says:

    I’m currently reading Salt Houses, upon your recommendation in an WSIRN episode. I agree the writing of a poet is so fantastically tight and rich. I’m enjoying the book, though I find her vocabulary so impressive, I’m often looking up words or keeping my Kindle Word Wise on!

  6. Summer says:

    You read my mind! I thought about this kind of a list so much after reading “Light of the World” for your book club. I’m excited to start chipping away at this. Thank you!

  7. Susan Lemagie says:

    We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry. Wonderful writing, rollicking story, told from “we” perspective.

  8. Kara says:

    I thought Minor Feelings was masterful! I’m about to finish How the Word Is Passed. Knowing that the author is a poet explains how he creates such vivid imagery of the places he visits and people he meets!

    Thanks for this list!

  9. Kerri V says:

    I’m reading The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honore Fanonne Jeffers. It’s her debut novel after she’s written poetry previously. Highly recommend!

  10. emmaclaire says:

    I felt the inner poet come through in Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. I was such a lyrical story, made more impressive by the post-apocalyptic subject matter. I enjoyed his other novels, some more than others, but didn’t feel the same degree of lyricism in them. I’ll definitely look into some of the recommendations on your list!

  11. Stacey says:

    I’d add The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. It’s a very slim book with the story being told in “vignettes”. So much conveyed with so few words…

  12. Monica Simpson says:

    I must add:
    Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey with an Exceptional Labrador by Stephen Kuusisto.
    Beautiful expressions of love only a poet can make.

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