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A Curated Poetry Reading List by Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven shares the poetry collections that have inspired the themes and subjects in their own work.

This is a list of eight much-loved poetry collections that served as inspirations for my latest poetry collection, Throat. These works are experimental in form, experimental in language, unapologetically political and gorgeously intersectional.

Afterland  by Mai Der Vang

This book speaks to me from the first page, where the author dedicates the book ‘for the ancestors’. It’s a haunting lament for her people – the Hmong. Every detail is so beautifully and carefully chosen. I love the part-titles in this work, they are like whispers. I borrowed this idea for the part-titles in my book.

Favourite poem: ‘Matriarch’.

Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao

I love Norman’s poetic voice. It holds pain, joy and playfulness in the same breath. He speaks as an openly queer Toba-Batak-Indonesian of a working-class Christian background, creating beautiful new theologies. The book’s translator note is an extra joy, where Tiffany explains translating the genderless pronouns in the original Indonesian to the English third-person singular ‘they/them’, illuminating the translator process and overcoming the limits of language.

Favourite poem: ‘Curriculum Vitae, 2015'

Dirty Words by Natalie Harkin

Natalie Harkin is one of my biggest influences and her first book is one of my most treasured items. Her work always speaks radiant truth. Dirty Words is an A to Z index of poetry – writing from personal experience and in response to historical archives and racial oppression.

Favourite poem: ‘Resistance’

Nganajungu Yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green

Many Aboriginal poets use their language/s in their work. I don’t think anyone has done it quite like Western Australian poet Charmaine Papertalk Green, who uses Wajarri, Badimaya and Aboriginal English in response to letters from her mum that were written 40 years ago. This work is an absolute unique gem in Australian poetics.

Favourite poem: ‘Not Just Letters’

Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma

My best friend Krissy found this book for me when she went on a trip overseas. She just knew it was me. Koleka is young, South African and queer. This book is in three stunning parts: ‘Inherited Memory’, ‘Buried Memory’ and ‘Postmemory’. I love what I’ve read of contemporary South African writing. I love poetry that appraises the past and sings up the future.

Favourite poem: ‘Interview’

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

What can I say of this work that hasn’t already been said? Hands down one of the best books of this century. Citizen stretches the conventions of traditional lyric poetry by interweaving forms of text and media into a collective portrait of race relations in the United States. It extended my view of what poetry could be and do and I apply that creative scope to writing about race in Australia. If Throat had parents, they would be Rankine and Harkin.

Favourite poem: Honestly, the whole thing.

Even This Page Is White by Vivek Shraya

I picked up this book at my favourite bookshop for poetry, Better Read Than Dead. BRTD has a wonderfully curated poetry section that I browse every time I’m around. This book is gutsy and funny and makes me feel like Vivek and I would be friends. The author is South Asian Canadian and trans and she explores what it means to write about race as a non-black brown settler on Indigenous land.

Favourite poem: ‘amiskwaciwâskahikan’

Words Breathe, Creatures of Elsewhere by nhã thuyên, translated by Kaitlin Rees

When I went to Hanoi I fell deeply in love with the water, the city. I feel nhã thuyên’s Hanoi in her book. This gorgeous book is full of emotion, nature, desire, questions, rivers. Getting to know poets from Asia and reading their work make me feel connected and inspired; it’s made me raise my game as a poet.

Favourite poem: ‘ash’


Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning writer and editor. Of Mununjali Yugambeh (South East Queensland) and Dutch heritage, Ellen’s first book, Heat and Light, was the recipient of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize. Ellen’s second book, a collection of poetry called Comfort Food, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize and was Highly Commended for the 2016 Wesley Michel Wright Prize. Throat is Ellen’s second poetry collection.

Throat is available from Gleebooks