PEN America Literary Award Shortlist: Which Books to Add to your Shelf

The PEN America Literary Awards are among the highest honors in writing. Since 1963, they’ve been given to honor the most outstanding voices in literature—spanning fiction, poetry, science, essays, sports, biography, children’s literature, and drama. For distinguished poetry collections, the annual PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection is given to a poet whose work has ultimately expanded the scope of American poetry. Poets of any age, any style, and any point in their career are eligible. 


With much anticipation, the 2021 finalists have been announced. The judges this year were the notable poets Sherwin Bitsui, Cynthia Cruz, Terrance Hayes, Claudia Keelan, and Bao Phi. If you’re excited to read some of the greatest collections of the year, don’t miss these five highly praised works. The waves they’ve made in the literary-scape are expected to leave a lasting impact. 


Conjure, Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press)

Rae Armantrout is a founding member of the West Coast Language poets. She is known for her lyrical voice and analysis of the interior and domestic. Her latest collection, Conjure, is no exception. Juxtaposing pleasure and dread, fascination and fear, Armantrout considers the emergence of new life in an increasingly toxic world. 


Obit, Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Victoria Chang’s iconic wit and irony shine in this remarkable collection. Written in response to the death of her mother, Chang captures the visceral and unique ache of loss. She writes an ode to her mother’s life and contemplates how she may live on in her own children’s memories. Obit marries grief, memory, and lyricism—creating a powerful testament for the living. 


The Age of Phillis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Wesleyan University Press)

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers brings culture, religion, race, and family to the forefront of her widely awarded and anthologized work. The Age of Phillis is a testament to Jeffers’s dedication to the art. Based on fifteen years of archival research, Jeffers reimagines the life and times of Phillis Wheatley in verse. The Age of Phillis transforms Wheatly from the mere symbol most know her as into the dynamic human being she truly was. 


Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, John Murillo (Four Way Books)

The award-winning poet John Murillo uses a mix of formal and free verse to explore family history and personal identity. His most recent collection, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry confronts institutional racism and violence head-on. Murillo speaks hard truths about the violence that affects Black and Latinx communities as he harnesses a burning rage with a powerful sense of rhythm and rhyme. 


Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems, 2000–2018, Gerald Stern (W. W. Norton & Company)

One of America’s most celebrated poets, Gerald Stern, is known for his ability to unite comedy and tragedy in verse. Reaching back through seven collections and two decades’ worth of work, Blessed as We Were blends philosophy and intellect with wit and humor. With his characteristic boisterous voice, Stern animates life’s most joyous and banal moments—reminding readers that life is lived “not so much for poetry, but through poetry” (New York Times Book Review).