Kemi Alabi’s Manuscript, Against Heaven, Wins Academy of American Poets First Book Award

The American poet Claudia Rankine, who picked it as winner, called it “energetic and brilliant.”
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Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore.

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore.

Against Heaven, the Chicago-based poet and cultural worker Kemi Alabi’s full-length poetry manuscript, has been selected by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award, America’s “most valuable first-book prize for a poet.”

The prize includes publication of the manuscript, $5,000 to Alabi, a six-week fully-funded residency in a 15th century castle in Umbria, Italy. The Academy of American Poets will also buy and send thousands of copies of the book to its members.

Against Heaven activates multiple lexicons, seeking to construct the immensity of black queer subjectivity with guile and formal virtuosity,” Claudia Rankine said. “At once sonic and disruptive, these poems pull together everything in a world where nothing is sacred. In this energetic and brilliant debut, the thrust of the lyric dislodges all that is stuck and stagnant, creating new possibilities for utterance.”

Founded in 1975, the Academy of American Poets’ First Book Award has helped to bring the work of many emerging poets to a wide audience. Nicole Cooley, Alberto Rios, and Jenny Xie are among previous winners.

Kemi Alabi, born in Wisconsin in 1990, holds a BA in Philosophy and Political Science from Boston University. Their work has received a Pushcart Prize, the 2020 Beacon Street Poetry Prize, a Best of the Net, and has appeared in, among other places, The Atlantic, Poetry, and Boston Review.

Against Heaven will be published by Graywolf Press in April 2022.

Ernest Ogunyemi
Ernest O. Ògunyemi is a staff writer at Open Country Mag. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, Tinderbox, Sierra Nevada Review, Journal Nine, The Indianapolis Review, Down River Road, Capsule Stories, No Tokens, The West Review, The Dark Magazine, Mud Season Review, Isele, and in the anthology 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry III. He is the curator of The Fire That Is Dreamed of: The Young African Poets Anthology.
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