The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011
Reviewed by Lori A. May
Every year, since 2008, I have looked forward to the release of what has quickly become known as the go-to guide representing what’s happening in Canadian poetry. The annual Best Canadian series, published by Tightrope Books, aims to draw awareness to our ever-changing poetry landscape while shining light on how diverse, how challenging our sense of a national poetic is and continues to be. Defining Canadian poetry is, indeed, like trying to define Canada. We are a complex nation. We have many voices, styles, schools of thought. As Shane Koyczan’s spoken word reverberated in the Opening Ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics, “We Are More.” We defy definition, in country and in poetry, which is why scanning ‘the best’ of the previous years’ published poems will lead you no closer to a definitive answer, but it will most certainly open your eyes and ears to a cornucopia of all that is excellent in this country.
In the Prologue, Series Editor Molly Peacock warns readers how the selected poems “will astonish — and unnerve you….” Indeed, readers will at once be surprised, amused, shocked, and challenged as selections range from the traditional to the experimental and, for the first time since the series began, visual poetry takes its rightful place alongside more traditional forms. Poems selected this year arise from “the most inventive or complex or surprising or moving example” of what we think of when we think of Canadian content.
Editors of the Best Canadian series, especially this year’s Guest Editor Priscilla Uppal, have the daunting task of selecting and then refining those selections to a narrow fifty poems that represent Canada’s best. The longlist, adding an additional fifty poems to the acclaimed list, prompts further reading and eases the task of selecting such a small number. It is no mere feat to read every single poem published over twelve months within the fifty-something literary journals published in Canada. I imagined Uppal sat up many a late night with tea at her side, journals stacked to her knees, and, oddly, enjoying every minute of this task / honour bestowed on her. I wasn’t far off. In her introduction, Uppal confesses to reading the journals at every opportune — and inopportune — moment: riding elevators, at the beach, between classes, and during intermission at the opera.
As Uppal promises, the best of 2011 challenges even the most conventional forms of poetry. Julie Cameron Gray takes on the elegy with gusto and spunk as she defies our expectations with “Widow Fantasies.” Yes, we Canadians are known for our sense of humour. Yet, in combining playful language and imagery along with the threat of grief and mourning, the elegiac form takes on a new life — no pun intended. As Gray’s speaker dreams of “quick and painless” deaths for her husband, she longs for his “perfection that exists only in absence.” In his absence, as the speaker imagines her life as a fresh widow, we see regret and shame for having expressed such a death wish:
I never wanted this to happen. I never
really meant it. It was just a thought.
Only a thought.
Do we believe the speaker’s remorse? Maybe. But as the poem ends on her note of joy in newfound widow freedom, in relishing the “delicious cut … the severing” of her relationship, we have to wonder. It is this playfulness and unexpectedness in form and execution (again, no pun intended) that signifies all that is delightful in this collection. Just when we think we know what we’re about to read, we are surprised. Isn’t that what makes the best The Best?
Keeping with the theme of unexpected delight, the new — and perhaps overdue — addition of visual poetry provides a counterbalance to the more traditional poems we come to anticipate. Poets Christian Bök and derek beaulieu redefine text by challenging the poetic line and presenting complex, stunning layers of letters, numbers, and punctuation to represent the avant-garde. Sandy Pool, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Calgary, steps up to the visual plate in her collaborative work with artist Blair Prentice. Together, the two create a Victorian-surrealist world in which short, contemporary lines are layered into intricate (and sometimes creepy), old-world depictions of social interaction and scientific progress.
No Best Canadian collection would be complete without the inclusion of poems we come to desire, no matter their familiar theme: love, landscape, geography, family, history, politics, and — yes — poems about poetry. Yet the familiar is anything but as we see new takes, new forms, new and exciting departures from convention, and this is what Uppal set out to showcase in her task of hand selecting the best of the best.
In her call to action for literary publishers and editors, Uppal asks that we seek out and celebrate the risks and diversity our poets are embracing, but perhaps not seeing as readily in print. For whatever reason, we are still a “conservative” nation of poetry when it comes to publishing. Uppal’s selections for the Best Canadian, however, highlights those publications willing to take risks, showcases those poets eager to challenge form and convention, and we, the reader, benefit from such conviction that Canadian poetry and indeed Canadians “are more,” as Koyczan announced to an international audience.
The Best Canadian Poetry In English 2011 celebrates, and encourages celebration of, all those complexities of our nation’s poetic landscape. Alongside national gems like Patricia Young and Barry Dempster, we see newer voices like Nora Gould, whose first collection has just been published this year by Brick Books.
Too, we are a complex country able to poke fun at our own lack of, or perhaps multiple, definition, as David McGimpsey suggests in his poem “My Life as a Canadian Writer”:
I learned the beauty of socialism
from writers so passionate they’d cry
when they didn’t get a grant….
We define ourselves, our country, through poetry and the act of writing. And no matter the theme, no matter the form, The Best Canadian Poetry In English 2011 urges us to look at our poetry with new eyes, new appreciation for what our nation is writing and, hopefully, publishing.