“Poetry always reflects the world that it comes from, that the poems get written inside of. Poetry also makes other worlds possible and knowable at once, and ideally sparks a lifelong desire to explore the infinite varieties of human experience—”
From the Introduction to Personal Best
Personal Best, an intriguing project conceptualized and overseen by Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips, offers readers unprecedented insight into the poets who have authored some of their favorite poems. The book gathers together 57 poets from across traditions and generations, each one tasked with identifying their “personal best” poem and explaining why their respective choices represent their “best.” Unlike interviews and panels in which audience members steer conversations toward reader favorites, Belieu and Phillips create a space for authors to reflect on those poems that mean the most to them, even if they do not necessarily resonate as the “best” among readers or award circles.
For readers who are often eager to hear what authors think about their own work, Personal Best is an especially exciting collection, as the bulk of the anthology consists of short essays from the poets. Alongside these essays are the poems each poet has chosen; in effect, readers get a phenomenal collection of 57 poems as well as 57 insightful and sometimes incredibly personal essays. As a career educator, I was immediately drawn to this structure, as it gives students an important window into the creative process and the ways in which creation acts as catharsis.
Kaveh Akbar captures this brilliantly in his reflection on the poem “Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic.” Recalling early drafts of the poem, Akbar recognizes, “I was slipping into the second person plural to hide from my own responsibility, to evade really looking at my own station.” This realization pushed Akbar to “acknowledge [his] own ugly evasion within the same poem,” which readers can see in the poem itself:
I write ‘we need’
knowing we dilutes
like watercolors dipped
in a fast river.
The effect of witnessing Akbar’s reflection alongside the poem is profound in that readers are able to see what the poet confronts during the process, and how that confrontation opens him to other questions about dishonesty within his work.
One of the poems I was most excited to see in Personal Best is “waiting on you to die so i can be myself,” by Danez Smith. Given the success that Smith has experienced for both their charismatic stage presence and immense talent on the page, it is no surprise that fans have identified poems they want Smith to include frequently at readings. While “waiting on you to die so i can be myself” may not be as recognizable for some fans, the poem immediately shook me when I first read it in Smith’s collection, Homie. For me, it is one of Smith’s most vulnerable and tender poems. Theirs is the first essay I turned to in Personal Best, and the one I’ve read the most. True to the poem, Smith is equally vulnerable in their reflection, telling readers, “This poem took the window out of me. It took about five years to get this poem right. I think it’s my best because it took the best of me to find it…” Later in the reflection, Smith speaks to a tonal shift in their work that they see manifesting in the poem. “Its music is not a drum like so much of my work,” they explain, “but a softer tone, more a hand to the thigh keeping time.”
Every poet has a different definition for what marks their best work. Patricia Smith admits that her poem, “Sweet Daddy,” “is by no means a notable poem” but defends her desire to see it everywhere because her father “never got to hear a single poem [she’d] written.” Erika L. Sánchez chose her poem “because it was a real artistic leap for [her] at the time,” while Craig Santos Perez chose his poem “not only because it captures a moment that is personally meaningful to [him]; [but because] it articulates a Pacific-centered and indigenous conception of poetics…” Ilya Kaminsky chose a brief poem that reminds him of the first public poetry reading he witnessed as a boy in Ukraine, an old man reciting a poem on the train as the Soviet Union collapses. These varying approaches to the idea of one’s “best” help to ensure that the collection balances technical poems with experimental poems, nostalgic and personal poems with poems waxing philosophic.
It is precisely these insights that makes Personal Best such an important project. Belieu and Phillips have put a finger to the pulse of American poetry with this anthology; they have demonstrated the importance of encountering poets in real time. Personal Best rejects the trend of venerating poets posthumously, centering the real and sometimes urgent motivations that drive some of the best authors of our generation. There’s something for everyone in this anthology, and I suspect that most readers will encounter at least a handful of poets who are new to them, and what a wonderful way to meet them.