6 Contemporary Poets

Learn more about 6 amazing women and their stories in their own words.

Joy Harjo at the American Writers Festival (2022-05-17) by New Fronteras Inc. PhotographyAmerican Writers Museum

Joy Harjo

In 2019, Joy Harjo was appointed the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold the position and only the second person to serve three terms in the role.

She is a member of the Mvskoke Nation.

"Back to the Art Studio"

Joy Harjo was briefly a pre-med student, but found her way back to the arts and felt a connection to the Native poets that she met while in university. 

Her schooling before that time had mostly exposed her to white poets.

"Poetry can speak across culture, boundaries...it has that power."
- Joy Harjo

Maxine Hong Kingston (2022-05-17) by American Writers MuseumAmerican Writers Museum

Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston was born to Chinese immigrant parents in Stockton, California in 1940 and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.

Kingston is the recipient of many prestigious awards, as well as the title of “Living Treasure of Hawaii.”

Kingston's First Poem

Kingston wrote her first poem in Say Yup, a Cantonese dialect. She was inspired by childhood memories of her family. 

Hey third grandfather,
Hey fourth grandfather,
where are you going?
Horseshoes, clippety-clopping.
Four feet, then four feet,
where are you going?

"I don't know that we teachers taught you very much. Maybe the main thing would be just keep going...
Because you're going to write that thing that's already in you."
- Maxine Hong Kingston

Sandra Cisneros (1998 (printed 2014)) by Al RendonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Sandra Cisneros

Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954, the third child and only daughter in a family of seven children.

She studied at Loyola University and the University of Iowa before teaching writing at many different levels. She has won many awards and created 2 charitable foundations.

Finding Mentorship

Cisneros shares that a key part of her writing process is sharing drafts with trusted colleagues and professional writers. These people find the flaws that she is often too close to be able to see herself.

"Becoming good is not an accident. It's work.
Are you willing to do the work?"
-Sandra Cisneros

Dessa at the American Writers Museum (2018-09-21) by Nate KingAmerican Writers Museum


Dessa is a rapper, singer and essayist from Minneapolis, MN. 

A Billboard Top 200 artist who appeared on The Hamilton Mixtape, Dessa is a member of the Minneapolis hip-hop crew Doomtree.

Balancing Different Forms

As a writer in many different forms, Dessa had to find her voice as a rapper, a poet, a speaker, and an essayist. 

One obstacle she had to overcome was her lack of control over how readers interact with her essays, versus the control she has over emphasis and timing in music.

"I think that it is possible sometimes to cannibalize poetry for lyrics, because those are more likely to traffic in both lanes."

Natasha Trethewey (2020-07-29) by American Writers MuseumAmerican Writers Museum

Natasha Trethewey

Trethewey served two terms as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States. She is currently a professor at Northwestern University. 

She has won many awards for her poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Native Guard (2006). 

How to Read Poetry

Trethewey recognizes that not everyone finds reading poetry easy or enjoyable.

In this video, she recommends that a viewer try reading poetry as prose sentences first before going back and re-reading the lines as written.

"I really believe there is a poem out there for everyone."
-Natasha Trethewey

Johanny Vázquez Paz (2021-04-15) by American Writers MuseumAmerican Writers Museum

Johanny Vázquez Paz

Vázquez Paz was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She studied at Indian State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She is the winner of the 2018 Paz Prize for Poetry given by the National Poetry Series in partnership with the Miami Book Fair. 

Why Poetry?

Vázquez Paz always loved art, but it was her grandfather's book of poetry that convinced her to try writing. 

Here, she talks about how poetry gave her an avenue to discuss tragic family history that was otherwise silenced.

"I discovered a way of expressing all of this [through poetry]...
I think I was born a poet because...I have a happy life, but a tragic history."
-Johanny Vázquez Paz

Credits: Story

We would like to thank Joy Harjo, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Dessa, Natasha Tretheway, and Johanny Vázquez Paz for their participation in programming at the American Writers Museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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