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.

Five books is an unfair list. It’s both too short and too long. The additional limitations I gave myself to help: A) don’t repeat a press; B) no one I’m personally close to or published with Octopus Books; C) books I’ve read more than twice in the last five years; D) emphasis on craft, sophistication, and emotional & intellectual resonance; E) regionally & stylistically varied. -Joseph Mains

Cruelty by Ai (Perseus Books Group)

Vulnerability has the connotation in our culture of weakness, but its true spirit is more akin to being able to withstand an attack. I know no other poet who writes with the emotional fortitude of Ai.

Heredities by J. Michael Martinez (LSU Press)

In a time fraught with younger poets examining scale and certainty — epistemologically, culturally, personally, politically — in their work with language, heredities is exploratory and authoritative at once. Once you’ve read it, there’s no settling, and there’s no returning to whatever came before.

Great Guns by Farnoosh Fathi (Canarium Books)

If poetry at some point emerged from deep song to cast its lot with the future, we are all lucky that musicality can exist in such subtle, reinforcing ways as the language in Great Guns. Rare is the book that sustains nuance and complication while feeling redemptive.

Cocktails by D.A. Powell (Graywolf Press)

D.A. Powell writes lines that stretch into poems that stretch into books that stretch into a catalogue of work that feels somehow eternal, heavenly, belonging to all time. Cocktails is so well-wrought, so dexterous and knowing it feels intimate as a lover.

Talk Shows by Monica de la Torre (Switchback Books)

The weave and weft of de la Torre’s poems in Talk Shows is meticulously textured, stunningly controlled. This book is a virtuosic performance that lands its assertions and critiques with the timing of Muhammad Ali.


Joseph Mains was born in the Sonora desert and lives in Portland, Ore., where he co-does Octopus and the reading series Bad Blood. & @joseph_mains