A small selection of the roughly hundred portraits of America's most notable living poets- its poets laureate, its Pulitzer Prize winners, its best literary artists. The images, made over three years, are visual riffs on pieces by the poets themselves.


Featured on PBS NewsHour, Poets & Writers, Publishers Weekly, PBS Illustrated and Buzzfeed.


Featured in a six month exhibition at the Center for Creative Photography and in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

Published as the Amazon Best-Seller Children of Grass: A Portrait of American Poetry (Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound).


Praise for the book form of Children of Grass:

"The images are unforgettable. Van Sise has built a lasting tribute to the creativity flourishing in our country."  —  PEN America

                         

"Van Sise has created a singular and irresistible volume of poetry and collaborative visual lyricism that will enthrall poetry lovers and break down the hesitation of those wary of the form." — Booklist
                  
"A winning collection of portraiture and poetry. That the two complement each other so well in coffee-table format is the unexpected delight." — Foreword Reviews
                 
"This beautifully produced book contains poems that fit into all categories. Among the best are those where the images and beats take root."—Jacqueline Cutler, Newark Star Ledger
                 
“B.A. Van Sise’s photographs of contemporary poets, paired with their poems, are inspired, playful, and absolutely gorgeous. The word for what this book is, what this book gives me, is pleasure.” —Maggie Smith, author of Good Bones
               
"Van Sise’s imaginative, creative, and humorous eye reveals the ‘person’ of the poet and deeper meanings of their poems in ways that sometimes startle, but always feel truthful. That is the purpose of photography and poetry." —David Hume Kennerly, Pulitzer Prize winner and former chief White House photographer
                  
“Why do we desperately need books like this? At least for me, it’s because we occasionally need to be reminded that there are still mysteries out there, questions that have no answers. It is nice to be re-introduced to wonder.” —Arun Venugopal, NPR

Rita Dove, U.S. Poet Laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of the Arts, and the National Humanities Medal.

-----------------------

DEMETER'S PRAYER TO HADES


This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.

To understand each desire has an edge,

to know we are responsible for the lives

we change. No faith comes without cost,

no one believes without dying.

Now for the first time

I see clearly the trail you planted,

what ground opened to waste,

though you dreamed a wealth

of flowers.


There are no curses⸺only mirrors

held up to the souls of gods and mortals.

And so I give up this fate, too.

Believe in yourself,

go ahead⸺ see where it gets you.

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Mark Doty, National Book Award winner and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

---------------

DEEP LANE
 

When I’m down on my knees pulling up wild mustard
by the roots before it sets seed, hauling the old ferns
further into the shade, I’m talking to the anvil of darkness:

break-table, slab no blow could dent
rung with the making, and out of that chop and rot
comes the fresh surf of the lupines.

When the shovel slips into white root-flesh,
into the meat coursing with cool water,
when I’m grubbing on my knees, what is the hammer?

Dusky skin of the tuber, naked worms
who write on the soil every letter,
my companion blind, all day we go digging,

harrowing, rooting deep. Spade-plunge
and trowel, sweet turned-down gas flame
slow-charring carbon, out of which sprouts

the wild unsayable.
Beauty’s the least of it:
you get ready,

like Deborah, who used to garden in the dark,
hauling out candles and a tall glass of what she said was tea,
and digging and reading and studying in the dirt.

She’d bring a dictionary. If study is prayer, she said, I’m praying.
If you’ve already gone down to the anvil, if you’ve rested your face
on that adamant, maybe you’re already changed.

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Nikki Giovanni, winner of the NAACP Image Award.

------------------------

ALLOWABLES


I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn't
And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don't think
I'm allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened

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Anis Mojgani, national slam poetry champion.

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FOSSIL
            

The stampede came rushing over the red hills, their bodies kicking the dust into the air. Father had to scoop me out of their path. He stood still as snow once the falling stops and the beasts just moved their way around him all thunder and muscle. I could hear his heart moving as fast as the animals running past. I could hear the fear in his body, how he had no idea what to do, only knew to hold me close, nothing given to him but an overturned skull with a candle, lit and turned south to drip into and then set inside. Nothing given but a small little light used to move across the stone walls only revealing what is right in front of the flame. He held me in both hands like that skull––skull made into lamp by an upside down motion, a cradle to carry what had carried him forth out of whatever soft world we come from and into this one, that the unknowing which surrounded he and my mother like the dark trees on both sides of the bank might also be the lantern hung upon the bow, not knowing what might lie outside its small circumference of light, only that the water moves us in this direction, from the source to the mouth. The animals passed. Their echoes hung in the air like moss. I was small as the skull of a bumblebee bat. Less than half an inch. My father placed me in his breast pocket. This actually happened. I was small enough for him to hold me upon his heart. He stood there with a bat skull pressed to his body until the beating in his chest became smooth as the state line of a distant state. I was a bat not yet born held to the heart of a man not yet father. This actually happened. It is from out of the shadow of the songs of wild creatures that we are all pulled and placed into this world’s dusty light.

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Gregory Pardlo, Pulitzer Prize-winner.

-------------------

Sam Cooke reminds you how Ol' Man River just keeps rolling
and you begin to wonder what makes a river tick so you go sit
on Union Street Bridge to study the unruffled Gowanus Canal
with its tempting reflections and perfect your knack for reading
water's Om through the clockwork of the air and you think it's like
you which is not much of a river but wise enough water to hush your
regrets for the bloated casualties of your myriad indiscretions since
the first African was made to scoop the marsh to irrigate Dutch arms
until this moment when you see you are that African and you are
the Gowanus just as you are the baby whale lost and barging so far
along the canal you are blessed now and breaking and love this
one the Daily News will name Sludgy whom you will birth still
upon your bay at Red Hook after the sewer spills a glum baptismal
across his fontanel and children will stand around and amen
the Coast Guard atop the fly-flecked carcass preaching that wisdom
bends light into the eye of the whale where if you look close children
you'll find the water bears a flower, and the flower bears your name.

(Gregory Pardlo)

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Joyce Carol Oates, winner of the National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal.

----------------------------

WOMEN WHOSE LIVES ARE FOOD, MEN WHOSE LIVES ARE MONEY

Mid-morning Monday she is staring
peaceful as the rain in that shallow back yard
she wears flannel bedroom slippers
she is sipping coffee
she is thinking—
—gazing at the weedy bumpy yard
at the faces beginning to take shape
in the wavy mud
in the linoleum
where floorboards assert themselves

Women whose lives are food
breaking eggs with care
scraping garbage from the plates
unpacking groceries hand over hand

Wednesday evening: he takes the cans out front
tough plastic with detachable lids
Thursday morning: the garbage truck whining at 7
Friday the shopping mall open till 9
bags of groceries unpacked
hand over certain hand

Men whose lives are money
time-and-a-half Saturdays
the lunchbag folded with care and brought back home
unfolded Monday morning

Women whose lives are food
because they are not punch-carded
because they are unclocked
sighing glad to be alone
staring into the yard, mid-morning
mid-week
by mid-afternoon everything is forgotten

There are long evenings
panel discussions on abortions, fashions, meaningful work
there are love scenes where people mouth passions
sprightly, handsome, silly, manic
in close-ups revealed ageless
the women whose lives are food
the men whose lives are money
fidget as these strangers embrace and weep and mis-
understand and forgive and die and weep and embrace
and the viewers stare and fidget and sigh and
begin yawning around 10:30
never made it past midnight, even on Saturdays,
watching their braven selves perform

Where are the promised revelations?
Why have they been shown so many times?
Long-limbed children a thousand miles to the west
hitch-hiking in spring, burnt bronze in summer
thumbs nagging
eyes pleading
Give us a ride, huh? Give us a ride?

and when they return nothing is changed
the linoleum looks older
the Hawaiian Chicken is new
the girls wash their hair more often
the boys skip over the puddles
in the GM parking lot
no one eyes them with envy

their mothers stoop
the oven doors settle with a thump
the dishes are rinsed and stacked and
by mid-morning the house is quiet
it is raining out back
or not raining
the relief of emptiness rains
simple, terrible, routine
at peace 

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Jeffrey McDaniel.

---------------

THE QUIET WORLD

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.

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Anonymous 'Instagram poet' Atticus, author of "Love Her Wild.'

-------------------------

We are ghosts of ourselves
until they come along.
Love fills us in,
in all our thin places.
Love gives us skin.

(Atticus)

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Danez Smith.

--------------------

I hear music rise off your skin. Each hair on your arm a tiny viola.
A wind full of bows blows & all I hear is the brown

hum of your flesh, a symphony of pigment too often drowned out
by the gun songs & sirens. Don’t listen to that music.

You are the first light in the morning, the dark edge of the sun.
You are too beautiful for bullets. You, long the poster child for metal

wrecked bodies, are too precious for the dirt’s greedy teeth.
You are what was left when the hot, bright stars danced

with the black endlessness around them. You are the scraps
of the beginning, you are not meant to end so soon.

I want to kiss you. Not on your mouth, but on your most
secret scars, your ashy black & journeyed knees,

your ring finger, the trigger finger, those hands
the world fears so much. I am not your enemy,

not poison, not deadly sin, not ocean hungry for blood,
nor trying to trick you. I came from the same red clay,

same ship as you. You are my brother first, my lover
second & never a God. I am sick of people always

calling us Gods. What God do you know that dies this easy?
If I believed in fire, I would think you a thing scorched

& dangerous & glowing. But I no longer believe in embers,
we know you can burn down with no flame for miles.

So thank you. Thank you for not fading to ash & memory.
Your existence is so kind.

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Jane Hirshfield, chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim, and first female graduate of Princeton University.
-------------------------------------
THE WOODPECKER KEEPS RETURNING


The woodpecker keeps returning
to drill the house wall.
Put a pie plate over one place, he chooses another.

There is nothing good to eat there:
he has found in the house
a resonant billboard to post his intentions,
his voluble strength as provider.

But where is the female he drums for? Where?

I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding,
the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate.

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Joan Naviyuk Kane.

------------------

GIVE OR TAKE A CENTURY

A man goes on a journey, a woman does not.
Instead, birches murmur into the song
of a bird unseen, the forest endlessly receding.

To be alone and without purpose: a seed
borne on wind to flat stones arrayed
on the remote shore. Witness to news,

songs, myelin. One of our last
a succession of ribs distinct and vast
in sudden collapse. Mother, we make

no choices. Mother, he counts our frail bones.

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Erika L. Sanchez.

-----------------

SIX MONTHS AFTER CONTEMPLATING SUICIDE
 

Admit it—
you wanted the end

with a serpentine
greed. How to negotiate

that strangling
mist, the fibrous

whisper?

To cease to exist
and to die

are two different things entirely.

But you knew this,
didn’t you?

Some days you knelt on coins
in those yellow hours.

You lit a flame

to your shadow
and ate

scorpions with your naked fingers.

So touched by the sadness of hair
in a dirty sink.

The malevolent smell
of soap.

When instead of swallowing a fistful
of white pills,

you decided to shower,

the palm trees
nodded in agreement,

a choir
of crickets singing

behind your swollen eyes.

The masked bird
turned to you

with a shred of paper hanging
from its beak.

At dusk,
hair wet and fragrant,

you cupped a goat’s face

and kissed
his trembling horns.

The ghost?

It fell prostrate,
passed through you

like a swift
and generous storm.

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Terrance Hayes, poetry editor of the New York Times.

------------------

MUSIC TO INTERROGATE BY

I will have to admit I was one of them. I believed the holes
would be erased. Our leader knew this floating up a mountain
on the backs of soldiers. I wanted only to be free, a cup of water,
if not rain. But the war spread to the edges of the state, narrow
closets opened in the field, the petals were white as cuffs.
What I had was the same as power, a dampness in the thread
of an old jacket. There was something sad and unforgiving
about our leader's accent, his short yellow tongue like a pencil
with no eraser. When they ask or wonder without asking
what I did when I saw the slick and shameful, the naked men
hanging an inch from the ground, when they ask what I did
when I heard of the prisoners, when I heard of the wars against
ideas, when they exiled strangers, what will I say? That's why
God et cetera? Who said you need not arm your children,
nor send them off to war? Who cares about the past worn
smooth by error and friction? The water of damage lay charged
in my mouth, bleeding its oil. I walked the back roads
of my property with one shoe untied and the other in my hand.

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Sharon Olds, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.   Seven thousand still photographs.
---------------

STILL LIFE 


At moments almost thinking of her, I was 

moving through the still life show while my mother 

had her stroke. She was teaching someone, three

time zones away, to peel and slice

a banana, in the one correct way,

and I was with the little leeks,

near the sweated egg, near the newts quick 

and the newts gone over on their backs. An orange

trailed from its shoulders the stole of its rind, 

the farther from the tree the more thinged and dried, 

the wasp was done with one sable guard-hair

in oil that had ground gold in it. She had 

alerted me, from the start, to objects, she'd cried 

out, in pain, from their shining. She held the 

banana and lectured like a child professor on its

longitudes and divisible threes, 

she raised her hands to her temples, and held them, 

and screamed, and fell to her bedroom floor, and I 

wandered, calm, among oysters, and walnuts, 

mice, apricots, coins, a golden 

smiling skull, even a wild flayed 

hare strung up by one foot like a dancer 

leaping, I strolled, ignorant 

of my mother, among the tulips, beetles in their 

holy stripes, she lay while I walked 

blind through music. When I learned her spirit 

had left her body while I was immersed 

in pretty matter, I almost felt something had 

served her right- what my mother had thought 

when her mother had died, what I'd comforted her for thinking. 

Once, in that comfort, I saw my face over her 

shoulder, in a gilded mirror. 

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Javier Zamora.

----------------

DISAPPEARED

as in you’re dragged to the darkest alleyway where dirt becomes beach for hours you can’t find a place to stand without noticing the stars’ sickness there’s a voice where forceps flay you can’t recall your hair memorizing
ditches the voice is built like invasion and says how did you raze the lines in the sand cerote your face sizzles as a wave the weight of bodies dressed in the uniform of a question blue crabs clamp your voice to night and your hands are no longer yours released all you can say is there’s not enough sand where blue crabs eat sleep out of me

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Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate.

-----------------

DROWNING HORSES

She says she is going to kill
herself. I am a thousand miles away.
Listening.
To her voice in an ocean
of telephone sound. Grey sky
and nearly sundown; I don't ask her how.
I am already familiar with the weapons:
a restaurant that wouldn't serve her,
the thinnest laughter, another drink.
And even if I weren't closer
to the cliff edge of the talking
wire, I would still be another mirror,
another running horse.

Her escape is my own.
I tell her, yes. Yes. We ride
out for breath over the distance.
Night air approaches, the galloping
other-life.

No sound.
No sound.
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Ted Kooser, Poet Laureate of the United States.
-----------------------
ABANDONED FARMHOUSE


He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say. 
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Dana Levin.

-----------------

SCHOOL OF FLESH

And blush for a cheek of stone.

Blush for the lips sewn tight with thread, no speech for the dead
maker—


You’ve got the razor. You can make each suture snap.


And watch the mouth
bloom up with foam,
as if he’d drowned himself in soap—

You lift the neck and let the head drop back.
The mouth yawns wide its prize—


White thrive.
The larval joy.
Hot in their gorge on the stew of balms,
a moist exhale—
as if there were a last breath, a taunt
coiling
into your inner ear, Good Dog, you dig your hands in,
up-cupping
the glossal
bed—


saying, Graduate
of the School of Flesh,
Father Conspirator—

I will learn it.
I will bite the tongue from the corpse.

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Tony Hoagland.

----------------

BIBLE STUDY

Who would have imagined that I would have to go
a million miles away from the place where I was born
to find people who would love me?
And that I would go that distance and that I would find those people?
In the dream JoAnne was showing me how much arm to amputate
if your hand gets trapped in the gears of the machine;
if you acted fast, she said, you could save everything above the wrist.
You want to keep a really sharp blade close by, she said.
Now I raise that hand to scratch one of those nasty little
scabs on the back of my head, and we sit outside and watch
the sun go down, inflamed as an appendicitis
over western Illinois — which then subsides and cools into a smooth gray sea.
Who knows, this might be the last good night of summer.
My broken nose is forming an idea of what’s for supper.
Hard to believe that death is just around the corner.
What kind of idiot would think he even had a destiny?
I was on the road for so long by myself,
I took to reading motel Bibles just for company.
Lying on the chintz bedspread before going to sleep,
still feeling the motion of the car inside my body,
I thought some wrongness in my self had made me that alone.
And God said, You are worth more to me
than one hundred sparrows.
And when I read that, I wept.
And God said, Whom have I blessed more than I have blessed you?
And I looked at the mini bar
and the bad abstract hotel art on the wall
and the dark TV set watching like a deacon.And God said, Survive. And carry my perfume among the perishing.
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Vijay Seshadri, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
------------------

THE DISAPPEARANCES

On a day like any other day,
like "yesterday or centuries before,"
in a town with the one remembered street,
shaded by the buckeye and the sycamore--
the street long and true as a theorem,
the day like yesterday or the day before,
the street you walked down centuries before--
the story the same as the others flooding in
from the cardinal points is
turning to take a good look at you.
Every creature, intelligent or not, has disappeared--
the humans, phosphorescent,
the duplicating pets, the guppies and spaniels,
the Woolworth's turtle that cost forty-nine cents
(with the soiled price tag half-peeled on its shell)--
but, from the look of things, it only just happened.
The wheels of the upside-down tricycle are spinning.
The swings are empty but swinging.
And the shadow is still there, and there
is the object that made it,
riding the proximate atmosphere,
oblong and illustrious above
the dispeopled bedroom community,
venting the memories of those it took,
their corrosive human element.
This is what you have to walk through to escape,
transparent but alive as coal dust.
This is what you have to hack through,
bamboo-tough and thickly clustered.
The myths are somewhere else, but here are the meanings,
and you have to breathe them in
until they burn your throat
and peck at your brain with their intoxicated teeth.
This is you as seen by them, from the corner of an eye
(was that the way you were always seen?).
This is you when the President died
(the day is brilliant and cold).
This is you poking a ground wasps' nest.
This is you at the doorway, unobserved,
while your aunts and uncles keen over the body.
This is your first river, your first planetarium, your first popsicle.
The cold and brilliant day in six-color prints--
but the people on the screen are black and white.
Your friend's mother is saying,
Hush, children! Don't you understand history is being made?
You do, and you still do. Made and made again.
This is you as seen by them, and them as seen by you,
and you as seen by you, in five dimensions,
in seven, in three again, then two,
then reduced to a dimensionless point
in a universe where the only constant is the speed of light.
This is you at the speed of light. 

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Bryan Borland.
----------------

SUMMER IN AMERICA

It’s summer in America
and no one knows
how high to fly their flag
or which flag to fly
for our part we have again pledged allegiance
to one another but this isn’t a love poem
there are no love poems in America today
only the poetry of necessity of documentation
written at a time when we can make no promises
of life in twenty years or less than that
if our skin is brown or black look back
that same number of years to what the poets
were trying to tell us and who listened
and why we didn’t look at the revolutions
that begin when we remember to point
the camera outside ourselves the enemy
of our enemy is our enemy is what they
teach us but what does that camera catch :
the murder in front of our smiling faces
the blood splatter on our shirts
they tried to tell us was decoration
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