contemporary poetry 1

taking culture’s temperature

english literature 3541
avi sato (


poetry is a reflection of society — where it is and where it’s headed. when we want to take our cultural temperature, it’s not useful to look at what was written a century ago. reactions to world war i are in many ways insightful and useful but they are not going to tell us anything about today. cold war poetry may tell us where we come from but won’t tell us where we are. in this course, we explore poetry that has been written (and usually published) recently. by recently, i usually mean within the last decade but this will occasionally be stretched and the majority that we look at will actually be written in the past three or four years.


we will be meeting three times a week for ninety minutes each session. these will all be seminar blocks — monday, wednesday and friday, 10.00-11.30.


this course focuses on you achieving the following. by the end of this course, you should be able to…

  • understand and discuss contemporary poetry in terms of its words and its overall meaning.
  • make comparisons between diverse forms of poetry both in discussion and in writing.
  • understand and discuss the relationship between poetry and its culture and society.
  • discuss the relationship between poetry and social issues, location, extremism, tribalism, politics, race, gender, sexuality and norms.
  • contribute to general understanding in a group setting of motivation, outcome and context of poetic expression.

learning outcomes

during the course, you will be able to demonstrate…

  • creative and technical reflection on works of contemporary poetry.
  • social and cultural understanding of the place of poetry in the contemporary world.
  • understanding of the relationship between content and expression across cultures and personal experiences as expressed in poetry.
  • cooperation within a group-editing situation.
  • self-directed and self-motivated working under short-term deadline and iterative workflow requirements.

curriculum details

this is a seminar course. this means that you will be responsible for participation at a level of engagement and depth in keeping with the level of this course. you will be called on occasionally to answer specific questions but most of your participation will be because you decide to contribute something. if you don’t contribute in class, it will be you who misses out on improving your understanding. you will not be graded on your talking but the effect will be visible in how well your submissions engage with what we have discussed. relevant discussion is encouraged and some of the topics will be those about which strong views are held but it is expected that you will be mindful of the emotional effect of your words.


while there will be the occasional supplementary piece assigned and distributed, this course uses twelve short poetic texts. it is my assumption that you will have read each of these completely at least once — not necessarily in order or in a single sitting but, indeed, end to end, so it were. you don’t have to purchase each of them but, in the interest of fairness, i encourage you to buy as many as you are able. i have several copies of each, as does the department — the library may also have several but i wouldn’t count on them being available. if you wish to get together with other students and share the cost of the books, that has worked well in the past for these courses, as long as you take responsibility for reading the work before class.

you don’t need to bring them to class with you. the poems we study will be displayed either on the screen or distributed on paper, if there are extensive written commentaries to be shared, so please don’t photocopy or print the books simply to bring them unless you feel the physical object will be useful to you in class. i am not going to ask who has read the works. if you haven’t, you won’t be able to contribute constructively to the discussion and i would ask you not to try to fake it. you are welcome to attend anyway. we will not be talking about each poem in these works but we will look at them as a group and several individual entries. i won’t tell you in advance which poems we are going to look at, as this is often taken as permission not to read the entire work, which would greatly detract from a discussion of the work as a whole.

isbn numbers may vary by edition, printing or format. you are welcome to acquire the electronic versions of any of these but i will give you the code for the paperback, when possible, more as a way of being standardized than as recommending that format.

  • a cruelty special to our species by emily jungmin yoon (2018, ecco, 978-0062843708)
  • girls are coming out of the woods by tishani doshi (2018, copper canyon press, 978-1556595509)
  • how to pull apart the earth by karla cordero (2018, not a cult, 978-1945649257)
  • invasive species by marwa helal (2019, nightboat books, 978-1937658939)
  • mitochondrial night by ed-bok lee (2019, coffee house press, 978-1566895323)
  • oculus by sally wen mao (2019, graywolf press, 978-1555978259)
  • small fires by josé angel araguz (2017, futurecycle press, 978-1942371281)
  • soft science by franny choi (2019, alice james books, 978-1938584992)
  • strange attractor by anne simpson (2019, mcclelland & stewart, 978-0771007125)
  • the dark between stars by atticus (2018, atria books, 978-1982104863)
  • the missing museum by amy king (2016, tarpaulin sky press, 978-1939460080)
  • wild embers by nikita gill (2017, hachette books, 978-0316519847)


  • 10% reading & reflections journal (due friday of week 12)
  • 25% bi-weekly assignments (each worth 6%, due friday of weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10)
  • 25% independent assignment (due friday of week 12, although i encourage you to think of this as a midterm project and submit it no later than week 6 for its first marking)
  • 40% final assignment (due friday of week 12)


  1. you are expected to keep a journal throughout this course to document your reading and share your reflections on what you have experienced — poetry is nothing if not being in touch with how we feel when we read the words. the minimum requirement for this is three entries per week, a minimum length of two hundred words per entry. you are encouraged to complete these on an ongoing basis throughout the duration of the course but, as there is no way to check that this is being done, you are welcome to write as many of these at a time as you desire. as the course extends for twelve weeks, this works out to be a minimum of 36 entries and 7200 words. while absolutely daily entries are not a requirement for an excellent grade on this assignment, you are encouraged to write thoroughly thought-out, short reflections often rather than longer ones that attempt to do more than tackle a single idea. reflect on the work, how it was written, how it felt to you, whether you think it was effective and why, how it relates to your experience of life. you can be as analytic or personal as you like and these works will not be shared beyond the bounds of the course without your express permission. they will also not be shared with other students in the course, even as examples, without that permission. no matter what length this works out to be or how many entries, i will be happy to read it completely and offer suggestions on anything you submit. you are welcome to submit this assignment as often as you like for ongoing commentary and suggestions rather than waiting until the last day to send it for the first time. frequent and repeated submission of the work is optional but highly encouraged. it may be useful to keep in mind that while this is called a “journal”, it is expected that it will be submitted in digital, typed format, not handwritten in a physical book.
  2. as there are twelve books and twelve weeks, it might be sensible to think that there will be one book a week — of course, that’s not quite how things work out when there are introductions and revision to be taken care of but it’s a good model. that means that every two weeks we will have covered two new books. you are expected to write a deep-reading analysis of one or more poems from one of those books. you may approach this in any way you like but these questions may be helpful. please don’t feel like you should be trying to answer all of them — just pick one and answer it in some depth. it is expected that these be submitted for the first time on friday of each even week (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) except the last week of the course. while word count is not the important thing here, a minimum of 1500 words would be expected. if you are not certain about whether your approach will be well-received, you are welcome to discuss it before you begin.
    1. what is the underlying meaning?
    2. how does word choice contribute to communication?
    3. how does the sound of the words contribute to the experience?
    4. what is the intended audience and is that different from the group to which the poet belongs?
    5. will this poem still feel contemporary in the future? the distant future?
    6. was this type of writing possible in the past?
    7. what difference does it make that this poem was written in english?
    8. what is the importance of the location and culture of the poet to the understood meaning of the poem?
    9. why was this poem written at this time?
    10. does this poem reflect a greater cultural or social experience or is it specific only to the poet?
  3. an independent assignment will take a work of contemporary poetry published in the past 5 years either originally in english or available in translation and in approximately 2500 words, answer the following question. why was this experience written in poetry, in this place, at this time, by this poet? how you wish to approach the answer is up to you but my guidance is to focus on specifics rather than general commentary and reflection. i recommend submitting this for the first no later than the halfway point of the course, to allow you to focus more thoroughly on the final assignment. if you are using pre-publication work (by an already-published author), please check with me first to ensure it is a good fit for the question. in theory, it may be possible to use a work whose english translation is not yet available if the language of the work is one in which you are comfortable and you complete the assignment in english but please discuss this with me before you begin.
  4. similar in form to the independent assignment is the final assignment. this assignment can be one of two possibilities. please complete one of them rather than both. it is expected that the length be a minimum of 2500 words and you are welcome to submit it at any time during the course. it is expected that you explore the question and the piece(s) you are studying thoroughly in terms of their language, their context, their poets, their audiences, their culture and society and their relationship to the present.
    1. select two works we have discussed during the course and answer this question along with a comparison between them. who is it written for, an individual, a group, a culture, and does it matter? an alternative to this is to answer the same question in more detail about a single piece and you are welcome to do this if you prefer.
    2. select a single piece (a poem, a selection of poems, an entire book of poetry) we have discussed during the course and answer this question. why was this written now?


any supplementary readings will be provided electronically at least one week before the class discussing them and you will be expected to have read them and be prepared to comment and engage in discussion. it is further expected that you will have read (completely) the work to be discussed in a particular class, although it is not necessary that you have a copy of the work with you, as all discussions will be accompanied by the work being showed on the screen or distributed on paper, in the event that supplementary materials are necessary.

each seminar will be divided into three pieces, each lasting a half hour. the first piece will be a general background discussion of the work, the poet and your emotional reactions to the work as a whole. the second piece will examine specific poems within the larger work, their context and the language used within each. the third piece will be a more general discussion of the context, culture, social implications and impacts of the work. in the second class dedicated to each book, these pieces will each examine a different question specific to the book in the context of what was discussed in the first class. you are encouraged to reread at least the selections we discuss in the first class in preparation for the second.

there are twelve weeks in this course, thirty-six classes, each book receiving two classes of discussion, leaving twelve classes for introduction, revision and more general study of contemporary poetry through the lens of society.

this is the first course in a pair. while you are encouraged to take both, they are both stand-alone in their content and discussions. what i should point out is that the second course takes up some of the same social and cultural topics in greater depth.

class 1

introduction and discussion of the assignments of the course. if we have time, we will look at a few short poems that i will share in class and talk about what makes contemporary poetry different. why “if we have time”? that will depend on how many questions there are about the course content and assignments because it’s best to get those out of the way so there’s no confusion later about expectations and grading.

class 2

what is contemporary poetry?

class 3

what is the relationship between poetry and popular culture?

classes 4/5

the missing museum

classes 6/7

wild embers

classes 8/9

mitochondrial night

classes 10/11

the dark between stars

class 12

what impact does society have on poetry? what can be published? what can be shared? what can become popular?

classes 13/14

girls are coming out of the woods

classes 15/16

invasive species

classes 17/18

a cruelty special to our species

classes 19/20

small fires

class 21

what impact does poetry have on society? does poetry create movements? can poetry be more than just revolutionary in the academic sense?

classes 22/23


classes 24/25

soft science

classes 26/27

how to pull apart the earth

class 28

with the assumption of a 100% literacy rate (whether that’s true or not is a different discussion) in a modern, digital-focused world, what’s different about contemporary poetry now that we have become separated from the notion that writing is only for the educated? is that a distinction without a difference or is that a bloodless social revolution?

classes 29/30

strange attractor

class 30

the overwhelming majority of poets don’t live on their publications — they can’t. what is the impact of the need to work outside the publication sphere on contemporary poetry?

class 31

who gets to write poetry? who doesn’t? where?

class 32

is there still a class division in poetry between the professional and the amateur in an age of self-publishing and instant sharing?

class 33

what is the place of politics, extremism and tribalism in poetry?

class 34

what is the place of gender, race and minority in poetry?

classes 35/36

these classes will be open to general questions related to the final assignment and revision of already-submitted work. i will encourage discussion of new topics and provide other samples of poetry with whatever time is not used for these questions.


this document was last updated on 2019.12.20 and corresponds to the upcoming version of this course. for earlier course outlines, please get in touch directly as only the most recent version will be displayed here to avoid potential confusion.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.