This year marks 20 years of Canada celebrating National Poetry Month in April. That's 20 years of readings, prizes, new collections, and a month long chance to fall in love with poetry all over again, every year.
The League of Canadian Poets, which runs the NPM initiative in Canada, has redoubled their efforts to celebrate poetry in all its forms, with a huge slate of literary prizes, new funding for public reading events, Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 26, and more.
As for us, we wanted to hear from some of our favourite poets about their personal highlights of the last 20 years, so we asked a tough question: What is your favourite poem from the last 20 years?
Read on to hear which poems made the biggest impact on Canadian writers like Erin Mouré, Sandra Ridley, Vivek Shraya, and many others. From classics to contemporary, Poet Laureates and Griffin winners to small press darlings, you've got enough great reading recommendations here to last you well beyond Poetry Month! (Fun fact: there are just two poets who appears twice in respondents' favourites - can you guess who before reading?)
"My Name" from Heaven's Thieves by Sue Sinclair (Brick Books, 2016). I love it because it meditates lightly on faith, which I've found impossible to do. When I read it first, I immediately reread it, and now I read it every month or so, with a feeling of being consoled but not settled.
There are so many to choose from but one Canadian poetry collection from the past 20 years that stands out is Coal and Roses: Twenty-One Glosas by P.K. Page. By borrowing a quatrain from another poet’s work, Page pays homage to the poets and poems she loves. Shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2010, the book is a gift to readers I’m grateful for.
P.K.’s glosas were the inspiration behind my fifth poetry collection Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, a book of deconstructed glosas. I spent a wonderful afternoon with P.K. in her art-filled home in Victoria a few years before she died. That visit is documented here.
I’m going to break the rules and suggest three favourites: Burning in This Midnight Dream by Louise Bernice Halfe, Inventory by Dionne Brand, and Now You Care by Di Brandt. Each deals with societal violence and failure using the recuperative tools of culture and craft. This I admire very much.
For me Sylvia Legris' Nerve Squall is the link between Gertrude Stein, Language Poets, and Canada's preoccupation with weather. Winner of the 2006 Griffin Prize, this collection was a forerunner and catalyst for much of the dense, playful lyricism that is so prominent in Canadian poetry today.
The work of Susan Howe (her recent Debths, for example). All the books of Norma Cole (her new book Carolyn will appear this fall), all of Chus Pato, all of Lisa Robertson. So a poem? Lisa Robertson’s “Wooden Houses,” which I translated into Galician with Chus’s help in 2009 as “Casas de madeira”. I still feel its chant in my bones.
It’s impossible, of course, for me to pick one as my absolute favourite, though I do want to give Jenny Sampirisi’s Croak (Coach House, 2011) a celebratory mention here. 7 years later and still this work gives me a limbic twitch! Croak is akin to a cabaret opera, or maybe a fairy-tale burlesque. If this sounds strange, it is, astoundingly so. It might be a mutant libretto. It’s an urgent catharsis. It’s an unrelenting revolt.
I love Anne Carson’s poem “The Glass Essay”. It’s a poem that both re-centres and surprises me every time I read it. I love the poem’s rigour, timelessness and humanity.
R's Boat by Lisa Robertson (University of California Press, 2010). This book disassembles the confines of narrative and discrete selves, and sings the porousness of existence. I freaked out with joy when I first read this book, and do again reading it now. "A pink city doesn't rise from the forest, but sometimes it does."
Back when I was an undergrad, I came across Stuart Ross’ Hey, Crumbling Balcony!: Poems New & Selected (ECW, 2003). It contained elements of so many things I was just discovering—Absurdism, Dadaism, Surrealism, the New York School—yet felt closer to home (and contained more poodles). The poems were silly but sad, ridiculous and true. They made me think my bespoiled pages might be poetry.
Amber Dawn's Where the Words End and My Body Begins has the best poetry book cover of all time
The Canadian authored poetry book of the last 20 years that I return to most often is M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! Philip composed this sequence of poems about the 1781 massacre of 150 African people, flung overboard to their deaths on the orders of the captain of the slave ship Zong, entirely from the text of the legal judgment of the insurance case brought in its aftermath. And somehow, in making visible the yawning absence at the heart of the legal proceedings, the erasure of the voices, bodies, humanity of the murdered Africans, Philip begins to fill it.
The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson. This was the first book I read by Carson. I bought it because of its title and cover design. I took a peek inside just as I was about to sleep that day and was immediately pulled in by the narrative, the raw description of the marriage, and the typical surprise of Carsonian language. Needless to say, I didn't sleep until deep into the night.
Ocean by Sue Goyette is part ocean biography, part creation myth, all Atlantic. But these aren’t merely nature poems. These are billowing poetics, existential queries, heart-swelling truths, and the bowels of human suffering.
For more information about National Poetry Month and the League of Canadian Poets, please visit their website.