Writer in Residence

Poetry as Joy: A Retrospective and Introduction

By Manahil Bandukwala

April in Ontario is unpredictable. There can be warmer days to soak up the sun by a river, or ice storms to coat everything with a perfect translucent film. In any case, April feels ideal for poetry—the pops of colour beginning to peek out, the parallel between life and the changing seasons, the “turn” that cinches a great poem in its last lines.

Welcome to National Poetry Month! It’s been an icy March after a very mild winter, but poetry, and more specifically, poets, have brought a real sense of warmth and joy into this time. This month, I hope to share a mix of practical advice for poets and a look into the world of poetry in general. I hope to share my own encounters with poetry, and while this can’t and won’t apply to everyone, I hope it gives some kind of insight, or interest, or laugh.

This first post will be a sharing of some of the insights from my poetry-event-heavy month of March—Ottawa’s Versefest and Seattle’s AWP—which feels like a decent lead-in to a National Poetry Month series. Poetry is a world that can feel so small and so large, and this March has certainly reminded me of that. I got to meet writers whose work I admire, whose poetry influences my own, who I have worked with from involvements in magazines, and who I have connected with online for years. It’s wonderful to experience that feeling of, “Yes, you’re a real person! You exist!”

Paper that says "Let People Be" hung on a tree

A wish from Portland's wishing tree

At AWP, I attended a discussion between Danez Smith and Donika Kelly (as an aside, I cannot recommend their work enough). Danez Smith said, “a lot of the big work of poetry happens outside of formal events,” which always feels very true of my experience with poetry during this current moment in time. The coffee breaks where we talk about traffic and the confusing streets in a new city. The pre-reading dinners where we share folk and family stories. The café lunches where we see the awe of our own city through a visiting poet’s eyes. What doesn’t seem like poetry reaches poetry nonetheless. The “big work” is the connections we write from, the care we hope to embody, the ethics we try our best to put into practice — the formal events give us an excuse to be in the same place, but the work of poetry is our own active doing.

Speaking of poetry in the everyday, Justin Million’s KEYBOARDS! brings exactly that: poems composed on a typewriter, comprised of snippets of conversations. In this case, these conversations happened on a Friday night after Arc Poetry Magazine's event at Versefest. You forget that poems are happening in the background, and then suddenly conversations about nuns and ChatGPT enter poems. 

Also at Versefest: the Canthius team curated a panel that I had the pleasure of moderating. The three poets talked about the act of not writing, because our day-to-day struggle to just keep going has to take precedence over poetry. I asked this question because a feminist look on writing has to acknowledge what stalls our writing as well. The nice thing about poetry is that when we need to leave it for a while, be it months or years, we can usually find it again along our paths.

Most of all, I left these events excited for the possibility of what is to come from poets: first chapbooks and first full-lengths, even ones not yet written. The impulse to write on and on about these poets is strong, but I’ll just leave you with links to the replays.

The League of Canadian Poets has selected the theme “joy” for 2023. The thoughts I’ve shared from these poetry events lead me to say this: if there is joy in poetry, it comes from the poets who build this world up. When we talk about the importance of poetry and its ability to change the world, we’re talking about poets. National Poetry Month is a celebration of poets, of the work they do not only in poetry but beyond that.

Graffiti that reads "The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too."

Portland graffiti as seen on a bike ride. "The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too."


Versefest is Ottawa's International Poetry Festival, and occurs every year in March. Versefest partners with Ottawa-based reading series and magazines to curate readers for festival events. Like all in-person events, the festival pivoted online for a few years, and March 2023 was its first year back in person. 

AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and is a U.S.-based organization known for its massive writing conference that occurs in different cities each year, and is a chance for writers of all genres to converge and connect.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Manahil Bandukwala is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. She is the author of Women Wide Awake (Mawenzi House, 2023) and Monument (Brick Books, 2022; shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award), and numerous chapbooks. In 2023, she was selected as a Writer's Trust Rising Star. See her work at manahilbandukwala.com.