The PEN Book Report is a weekly series that challenges the notion of “best of,” “top,” and “seasonal must read” lists and the default books and authors that regularly appear on them. We simply asked contributors to share with us a list of books they turn to over and over again, ones that both inspire and challenge how they engage with the world.

Founded by Hafizah Geter and Antonio Aiello, participants include Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Melissa Febos, Kelly Forsythe, Nathalie Handal, Abeer Hoque, Gene Luen Yang, Loma, Lisa Lucas, Joseph Mains, Colum McCann, Rick Moody, Darnell Moore, Celeste Ng, Gregory Pardlo, Khadijah Queen, Camille Rankine, Jeff Shotts, and many more.

Contemporary American poetry is experiencing an extraordinary wave of first books that are expanding our conceptions of what poetry is and what it means to be human. Just in the last few years, remarkable debuts have appeared by Saeed Jones, Ricky Laurentiis, Nate Marshall, Jamaal May, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Morgan Parker, Camille Rankine, Roger Reeves, Phillip B. Williams, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, and others, and Robin Coste Lewis’s resplendent first book, Voyage of the Sable Venus, won the 2015 National Book Award. And looking ahead, there are anticipated first collections coming by Layli Long Soldier, Justin Phillip Reed, Erika L. Sánchez, Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, and many others. It’s an exciting time to be a reader. Here are five more reasons why:
—Jeff Shotts     

Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral (Yale University Press)

Winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, selected by Carl Phillips, Slow Lightning is a book of lyric energy and emotion, and a new blend of the erotic and the political, the elegant and the jagged.

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon Press)

This is a revelatory book, one of power and depth. It is an elegy to a brother, a narrative of indigenous culture, and a new way forward in contemporary poetry.

Seam by Tarfia Faizullah (Southern Illinois University Press)

Winner of the Crab Orchard First Book Award, Seam relates a personal and family story of inheritance and memory, in part, as a series of poetic “interviews” to give voice to victims and survivors of the liberation war in Bangladesh.

[insert] boy by Danez Smith (YesYes Books)

Here’s a poet introducing himself as a little bit of everything—lover, vamp, performer, eulogist for those lost to violence and to themselves, and healer of everyone’s wounds but his own. [insert] boy won the Lambda Literary Award.

An Aquarium by Jeffrey Yang (Graywolf Press)

Winner of the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, An Aquarium is one of the great, exemplary first books because, like a marine ecosystem, it does so many things at once. It is simultaneously an environmental outcry, an abecedarian sequence, a treatise on translation, an aphoristic delight, and a catalog of advice imparted from father to son.  

Jeff Shotts is executive editor at Graywolf Press, where he has worked with authors such as Elizabeth Alexander, Harryette Mullen, Carl Phillips, Claudia Rankine, Tracy K. Smith, Vijay SeshadriMonica Youn, Kevin Young, and many others.