Derrick Austin

Derrick Austin (Poetry) | Madison, WI

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Derrick Austin is the author of Trouble the Water (BOA Editions), selected by Mary Szybist for the 2015 A Poulin Jr Prize. He is a Cave Canem fellow. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2015, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, New England Review, Callaloo, Nimrod, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. Currently, he is the Ron Wallace Fellow at the University of Wisconsin.


Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, 2016). A Poulin Jr. Prize. Poetry.

Blurbs, Press & Reviews

“‘Expect poison of the standing water,’ Blake warned, highlighting the dangers of imaginative stagnation. I’m now tempted to believe that Blake himself has sent us Derrick Austin and his remarkable collection, Trouble the Water. At once gospel and troubadour song, these deeply spiritual and expansively erotic poems are lucid, unflinching, urgent. This is an extraordinary debut.”
—Mary Szybist, winner of the National Book Award

“Skilled with the ability to harness detail and stringent images, Derrick Austin creates a lush and smoldering landscape in which the very soul is tested. Trouble the Water is a book of devotion, a metaphysical book that troubles God, the landscape of Florida, the always-fallible bodies of men, and even the body of art. Austin writes: ‘Lord in the pigment, the crushed, colored stones. / Lord in the carved marble chest. I turn away / from art.’ But you will not be able to turn away from this beautiful debut.”
―C. Dale Young

“This is a daring first collection that paints a series of illuminated estrangements. In forms that range from free verse to psalms and sestinas, Austin troubles the figure of Christ, conjures the Florida landscape, and worries histories of art and Eros. He calls up the saints―Zora and Nina and Marvin among them―making poetry out of the enfleshment of queer desire: ‘You look at me like a painting / you think you know all the names for,’ one speaker declares. Another laments, ‘Can’t you just suck me off? (I’m alive.).’ When you pick up this book, be prepared to dissolve into its atmosphere of gorgeous potential: that strain before storm, the blur before fire. ‘Listen, baby:’ the speaker in ‘Torch Song’ warns, ‘when I open my arms to the crowd and mouth / the night’s first note, I don’t sing; you singe.”
―Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

“Part pastoral, part ekphrasis, part witness, part eco-poetics, part queer pop culture―it is too easy to say that Austin’s poems live inside the elastic tension between high and low art, between religious devotion and queer desire; it is too easy to say that Austin contains multitudes. At times, Trouble the Water reads like four definitive chapbook-length projects, but it is his insistence throughout the book on art’s ability to reveal rather than salve, his insistence on the corporal holiness of the body, even (especially) a queer body, in a socially puritanical world, that allows these varied poems to converse with each other and ultimately complicate each other. Trouble the Water is a rich and rewarding collection.”
―Jacques J. Rancourt, Devil’s Lake

“Austin’s remarkable debut collection opens with a quote from John 5:4–6 … foreshadowing how water, religion/spirituality, and body focus become vehicles to explore being black, homosexual, male, and a human being in a troubling century. ‘San Souci’ epitomizes the sophistication of form and thought in Austin’s poetry by using an effect resembling Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors as the poem’s speaker reflects on paintings, how they reflect life, his body, his lover’s body, how he can see his lover as a painting or see the act of pleasuring another artfully reflected back to him. Whether encountering European catacombs or the Gulf Coast’s post-oil-spill devastation, all of Austin’s lyrical poems are poignant and empowered.”
Booklist, *Starred*

“This collection is well-suited to readers prepared interrogate what they love and what they distrust. In Austin’s hands, the exquisite can be ominous while the grotesque can turn charming, and his poems wisely assert that the world is unforgiving and yet full of mercy—that one can question beauty and yet still be beholden to it.”
Publishers Weekly

Trouble the Water is an auspicious debut, a deep and resonant volume which nurses wonder in the face of sorrow and anger, wonder in the presence of loss. Here we follow a speaker who proclaims early on, “my heart swims/ in gladness at the changeable world.” I want to keep these words as a credo, recite them often. I want to receive the world this way every day.”
The Rumpus

“Derrick Austin’s stunning debut, Trouble the Water, gives readers unique insight on what it means to be a queer, black man in today’s world. He navigates the complicated worlds of race, sexuality, and religion with such fearlessness that we as readers can’t turn away even if we wanted to… . Austin is an important voice in poetry. His book comes at a time when it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the social injustices these communities face. Trouble the Water is not just the title of Austin’s book; it is a command. The only question now is whether or not we will listen.”
PANK Magazine

“In the spirit of our richest religious traditions, these poems marry the humor and grief of being alive–that intersection where the human spirit begins to lift toward the transcendent. From “Dead Gull”: “Worms tunnel through your body: / blood, water, salt, flesh, / distilled into base elements— / everything you are is useful to everything else— / a transformation / I envy.“ Trouble the Water is unsettling, sensual, musical, enthralling: it is the rare book that is both deeply necessary and a sincere joy to read.“
Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion

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