8 Poets Share Their Favorite Words

Some of these descriptions could be poems themselves
joy harjo
Photo: Karen Kuehn

From Joy Harjo:

This is hard. The word beautiful is considered overused and even too romantic these days, but I use it often.

So then I went to shimmer. I love the onomatopoeia. Shimmer is shimmer. It is what it is, and the word can cast a quality of light or lightness of being over the whole area where it is placed. It’s a light that carries within it many layers of shimmering worlds.

I also went to jetty, which would be opposite shimmer on the word spectrum. It’s action, not diffuse. Punchy, and it juts.

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. Her seven books of poetry, which include such well-known titles as How We Became Human, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, and She Had Some Horses have garnered many awards. These include the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, and the William Carlos Williams Award.

Photo: Eric Plattner

From Douglas Kearney:

I love contronyms because the tensions between their meanings are ideal for the ambidexterity I prize in poetry. Refrain, of course, means both to cease and to repeat; thus it conjures silence and song, revulsion and desire. It's a mess of potential, relying on the attendant context of the poem to ravel.

Douglas Kearney's books include Mess and Mess and, Patter, The Black Automaton, and Someone Took They Tongues. He was the guest editor for 2015’s Best American Experimental Writing and is the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award, among other distinctions. He teaches at CalArts.

From Claudia Rankine:

Even as this word stands still it gives itself over. Or, all positioning is an offering.

Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry including Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; two plays including Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue; numerous video collaborations, and is the editor of several anthologies. For her book Citizen, Rankine won both the PEN Open Book Award and the PEN Literary Award, the NAACP Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. She is the Aerol Arnold Chair in the University of Southern California English Department.

robert pinsky

From Robert Pinsky:

Words are like musical notes for me, it depends what they do with others. And I love what a cold, even inert word can do in the right place. Robert Hayden ends his great “Those Winter Sundays” with “What did I know, what did I know/ Of love’s austere and lonely offices?” The word offices . . . so penetrating and unexpected. It’s like the disappearing weapon in the old-time murder mystery, with the victim stabbed through the heart with an icicle.

Robert Pinsky's Selected Poems was published in 2011. His previous books of poetry include Gulf Music, Jersey Rain, The Want Bone, and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996. Among his awards and honors are the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Harold Washington Award from the City of Chicago, the Italian Premio Capri, the PEN-Volcker Award and the Korean Manhae Prize. Robert Pinsky founded The Favorite Poem Project while serving an unprecedented three terms as United States Poet Laureate. He recommends that you check it out.


From Matthew Zapruder:

One of my favorite words is island. I like how, if you look at it closely, it contains the essential question to ask as it starts to appear over the horizon: “is land?” And how spoken aloud it sounds like what you would say stepping off the boat and onto its shore. And I adore the definition of it in Merriam-Webster: “A tract of land surrounded by water and smaller than a continent.” That seems both very accurate and also generous.

Matthew Zapruder is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Sun Bear. His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a William Carlos Williams Award. An Associate Professor in the MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California, he is also editor-at-large at Wave Books. Why Poetry, a book of prose about reading poetry, is forthcoming from Ecco Press in 2017.

dara wier

From Dara Wier:

I like because it has a Q of course and I like that it acknowledges the essence of any one thing being essential to it being exactly what it is and that it involves pixie dust.

Dara Wier's dozen books include You Good Thing (Wave 2013) and Selected Poems (Wave 2010). Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Cultural Council and awards from the San Francisco International Poetry Center, the American Poetry Review, and Phi Beta Kappa have supported her work. She teaches in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

carmen gimenez smith

From Carmen Giménez Smith:

My favorite word is faucet. I love how the eff and the cee are soft, blue and rolling like the water coming into the sink.

Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir and four poetry collections— including Milk and Filth, finalist for the 2013 NBCC award in poetry. She co-edited Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing, published by Counterpath Press. A CantoMundo Fellow, she teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University, while serving as the publisher of Noemi Press.

gregory pardlo
Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

From Gregory Pardlo:

There are certain words with meanings that my mind insists on inverting or bending in some way. For example, my first impulse is to associate the word hoi polloi with a kind of upper class snobbery. Maybe it's something specific to the way my mind works. It could also be that the general usage of the word and its etymological past really are at odds, and I’m just caught in the crossfire. Either way the tension is interesting. Nonplussed is another one I want to flip.

Gregory Pardlo's ​collection​ Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Digest​ was also shortlisted for the​ 2015 NAACP Image Award and was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf. Pardlo joins the faculty of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden in the fall of 2016.