One book cannot contain Michelle Antoinette Nelson, better known as LOVE the poet. The young Baltimore writer gained her monkier from the poetry slams she hosted in college, at which she had her audience chant “Love!” after each poet read. At thirty-one, Love is a multi-talented performer and poet, with a short film, several spoken word albums, and an HBO appearance under her belt. Her first book of poems, Black Marks on White Paper (self-published), is a hefty volume of Love’s confident voice. “I am black, gay, and a woman born in America,” Love said in an interview with Lambda Literary. “My work is a reflection of what I have seen and experienced as the complete opposite of what and who is deemed ‘the norm’ in America. Sometimes my perspective may be just as ‘normal’ as anyone else’s, or it could be completely to the left of the general consensus.” It’s a perspective that is loud on the page.
Slam poetry may not be the most popular form of contemporary poetry, but Love’s work is proof that naysayers are missing out. I would almost caution readers not to open Black Marks On White Paper until they’ve had a chance to hear Love perform, at best live or at least by way of one of her many YouTube clips or spoken word albums, the most recent of which is her indie music release, Gemini Moon. The influence of Love’s style and delivery were palpable this fall when she toured again with the black lesbian poetry salon, The Revival. That more poetry fans and devotees of queer literature do not know about Love and the other Revival poets—including the uber-talented Cave Canem fellows Bettina Judd and ta’i freedom ford—is criminal. They’re poets who’s work should be sought out and praised.
On the page, Love’s poems remind you that rhyme is the root word for rhythm. Contemporary poetry may have long shied away from the limits of rhyme, but Love’s wordplay is refreshing, executed with precision and a clear, performable quality. All of her poems have a direct relationship with their audience, relying on a rich sense of community instead of any writer-reader barrier. Even when writing her more personal poems, such as “Judgement” and “87-66,” Love doesn’t stray from the core of social justice that colors all of her work. She explicitly calls on people—her community in Baltimore, women, African Americans, teachers, family, artists, queers—to examine the hypocrisy and poverty of their actions. Several poems are dedications or riffs on existing literature and music, with influences ranging from Bo Diddley to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, to Nikki Giovanni to Love’s grandmother. Many of her poems begin with dedications, which while sometimes are distracting, at least illustrate Love’s vast presence as a poet in Baltimore arts community.
Many of the poems are fierce in their femaleness, and the few poems that lyrically showcase Love’s love of women are beautiful portraits of one black lesbian’s heart. The poem “Crimes of Passion” is subtly erotic and humble, with the pulsing lines: “Thank you for my highs through lows when our bodies / intertwine in darkness like shadows. / How deep does love go? / Because it’s slowly that it grows. / Thank you for your sweetness because it is the sweetest I / have ever known.”
Love’s poetry begs to be spoke aloud, but she also has control of the page, as seen with the small and clever “Fine Print,” a slab of blank page with two tiny lines near the bottom: “You wanted to be my type / but I just kept on writing.” And while there still is a strong segregation of queerness in LGBT literature—lesbians writing about lesbians, gay men writing about gay men—Love is not afraid to cross those boundaries, as evidenced by “Passion Fruit Tea,” a screenplay/poem hybrid that gives voice to men on the down low. And where many young writers rely on cynicism, Love is confident and forthright in her spirituality, a thread which illustrates hope through the bulk of her poems. Her ambition is palpable throughout the entire collection, and if any criticism could be given, it may be a desire for this large collection of poems to have more focus. What serves as one book may have done better as several smaller collections, where the energy of her voice would not be spread over several ideas and passions. What’s clear, though, is that Love has only just begun, and whatever her next move is, it will be bold, and it will be important.