National Poetry Month is, well, just one month long, but luckily poetry is for always. Here are some titles for reading all year 'round.
House of Mystery, by Courtney Bates-Hardy
About the book: House of Mystery is a beautifully dark and vivid collection of poems that tears down our familiar ideas about fairy tales. These are not poems about privileged princesses who live happily ever after; these are poems about monsters, mothers, witches and mermaids. They explore the pain of change and womanhood, and transform the way we think about fairy tales. Bates-Hardy moves through the childhood stories and delves into the violent and problematic origins of Cinderella, Snow White, and many other favourites. Lyrical and haunting, her poems will follow you long after you find your way through the forest.
Why we're taking notice: Any recipes that includes reimagined fairy tales, poetry, and the excellent ChiZine Publications (whose tagline is "Embrace the Odd") is bound to bake up something most intriguing.
100 Days, by Juliane Okot Bitek
About the book: 100 days... 100 days that should not have been... 100 days the world could have stopped. But did not.
For 100 days, Juliane Okot Bitek recorded the lingering nightmare of the Rwandan genocide in a poem—each poem recalling the senseless loss of life and of innocence. Okot Bitek draws on her own family's experience of displacement under the regime of Idi Amin, pulling in fragments of the poetic traditions she encounters along the way: the Ugandan Acholi oral tradition of her father—the poet Okot p'Bitek; Anglican hymns; the rhythms and sounds of the African American Spiritual tradition; and the beat of spoken word and hip-hop. 100 Days is a collection of poetry that will stop you in your tracks.
Why we're taking notice: Sometimes poetry is the best way to make sense of the incomprehensible. Critic rob mclennan writes, "Bitek’s poems are fierce, directly straightforward and unrelenting."
The Pillow Book, by Suzanne Buffam
About the book: Not a narrative. Not an essay. Not a shopping list. Not a song. Not a diary. Not an etiquette manual. Not a confession. Not a prayer. Not a secret letter sent through the silent Palace hallways before dawn. Making a daybook of oblivion, A Pillow Book leads the reader on a darkly comic tour through the dim-lit valley of fitful sleep. The miscellaneous memoranda, minutiae, dreamscapes, and lists that comprise this book-length poem disclose a prismatic meditation on the price of privilege; the petty grievances of marriage, motherhood, art, and office politics; the indignities of age; and the putative properties of dreams, among other themes, set in the dead of winter in a Midwestern townhouse on the eve of the end of geohistory. Feather-light in its touch, quixotic in its turns, and resolutely deadpan in its delivery, A Pillow Book offers a twenty-first-century response to a thousand-year-old Japanese genre which resists, while slyly absorbing, all attempts to define it.
Why we're taking notice: Buffam's first book was awarded the Gerald Lampert Award of Poetry and her second was a finalist for the Griffin Prize. And for indication of the delight one is likely to sample in The Pillow Book, check out Buffam's Q&A in Globe Books, which was terrific.
The Red Files, by Lisa Bird-Wilson
About the book: This debut poetry collection from Lisa Bird-Wilson reflects on the legacy of the residential school system: the fragmentation of families and histories, with blows that resonate through the generations.
Inspired by family and archival sources, Bird-Wilson assembles scraps of a history torn apart by colonial violence. The collection takes its name from the federal government's complex organizational structure of residential schools archives, which are divided into "black files" and "red files." In vignettes as clear as glass beads, her poems offer affection to generations of children whose presence within the historic record is ghostlike, anonymous and ephemeral.
The collection also explores the larger political context driving the mechanisms that tore apart families and cultures, including the Sixties Scoop. It depicts moments of resistance, both personal and political, as well as official attempts at reconciliation: "I can hold in the palm of my right hand / all that I have left: one story-gift from an uncle, / a father's surname, treaty card, Cree accent echo, metal bits, grit-- / and I will still have room to cock a fist."
The Red Files concludes with a fierce hopefulness, embracing the various types of love that can begin to heal the traumas inflicted by a legacy of violence.
Why we're taking notice: We love Lisa Bird-Wilson—don't miss our Q&A with her from 2014—and can't wait to read more from her.
Human Tissue, by Weyman Chan
About the book: Weyman Chan’s fifth collection takes poetry to the laboratory, splicing a layered, tactile network that is Human Tissue.
Short lyric poems navigate personal experience and memory, then weave into serial poems such as “Parables for Frankenstein,” diving into the material conditions of hybridity to construct the symbiotic self of a prototype misfit. “Panic Room,” another serial poem probes the loner whose isolation at a house party takes a sinister turn, and “Unboxing the Clone” explores the causality of creation, where “trace beings” are felt in flesh and voiced in colloquial speech.
Human Tissue creates a language that is intimate while acknowledging relations to the social environment. Accompanied by the tones of an erhu, archaic Anglo-Saxon language jostles with Chinese, and self-censure meets Faust and Judith Butler to ask the vital questions of origin. Chan shows us how we come to settle with histories of uncertain origin, the presence of science and technology in the mediated body, and how we forge “not-knowing” as a vibrant way of being.
Why we're taking notice: Chan's previous work has been nominated for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the 2009 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry.
Disturbing the Buddha, by Barry Dempster
About the book: Disturbing the Buddha, Barry Dempster's fifteenth collection, is disarmingly conversational and, like the best conversations, it moves between reverence and irreverence, sincerity and irony as it grapples with love, loss, loneliness and simple lack of luck—the "three-leaf clovers" so much more plentiful than the four.
Dempster's wit and playful metaphoric turns let us take for granted the courage needed to admit to life's ongoing intensities, disruptions, and indignities. In these poems, a forty-year-old man dons a pink plastic crown on his niece's order; a solitary man watches a Nicole Kidman rom-com with his cat; an aging Aphrodite, more mortal than god, suffers hot flashes. Like the mystic poets he addresses in the book's final section, Dempster respects the unknown as he comes to terms with the ups and downs of the all-too-human condition.
Shifting effortlessly from light-hearted ode to solemn elegy, Dempster offers no touch-up jobs; instead we find a love of the flaw, a generosity toward it even as he exposes it. This is a poetry of inclusiveness, engaging both our better and worse angels, baring its Achilles' heel and trusting us to do likewise.
Why we're taking notice: Dempster has been twice nominated for the Governor General's Award for Poetry, among many other honours over the course of his career.
How Festive the Ambulance, by Kim Fu
About the book: In this debut poetry collection by award-winning author Kim Fu, incantations, mythical creatures and extreme violence illuminate small scenes of domestic life and the banal tragedies of modern love and modern death.
A sharp edge of humour slices through Fu's poetry, drawing attention to the distance between contemporary existence and the basic facts of life: "In the classrooms of tomorrow, starved youth will be asked to imagine a culture that kept thin pamphlets of poetry pinned to a metal box full of food, who honoured their gods of plenty by describing ingredients in lush language."
Alternating between incisive wit and dark beauty, Fu brings the rich symbolism of fairy tales to bear on our image-obsessed age. From "The Unicorn Princess": "She applies gold spray paint to her horn each morning, / hoping to imitate the brass tusks / on the unicorns skewered to the carousel, / their brittle, painted smiles, harnesses / embedded in their backs and shellacked to high gloss." These poems are utterly of-the-moment, capturing the rage, irony and isolation of the era we live in.
Why we're taking notice: This is Fu's first collection of poetry, following her acclaimed first novel, For Today I Am a Boy.
Burning in this Midnight Dream, by Louise Bernice Halfe
About the book: Burning in the Midnight Dream is the latest collection of poems by Louise Bernice Halfe. Many were written in response to the grim tide of emotions, memories, dreams and nightmares that arose in her as the Truth and Reconciliation process unfolded.
In heart-wrenching detail, Halfe recalls the damage done to her parents, her family, herself. With fearlessly wrought verse, Halfe describes how the experience of the residential schools continues to haunt those who survive, and how the effects pass like a virus from one generation to the next. She asks us to consider the damage done to children taken from their families, to families mourning their children; damage done to entire communities and to ancient cultures.
Halfe's poetic voice soars in this incredibly moving collection as she digs deep to discover the root of her pain. Her images, created from the natural world, reveal the spiritual strength of her culture.
Why we're taking notice: As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concludes, it is essential that truth and reconciliation continue in the lives of ordinary Canadians, and reading books like this are part of the process. Halfe has been awarded the Pat Lowther and Gerald Lampert Awards, and she was a finalist for the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1998.
The Waking Comes Late, by Steven Heighton
About the book: Governor General’s Literary Award finalist and bestselling author Steven Heighton returns with a collection of laments and celebrations that reflect on our struggle to believe in the future of a world that continues to disappoint us. The poet challenges the boundaries of sleep and even death in these meditations on what lies just beneath the surface of contemporary life. These are poems that trouble over the idea of failure even as they continually recommit to the present moment. This is fierce music performed in a minor key.
Why we're taking notice: Heighton's fiction and poetry has been both critically acclaimed and received honours and awards. A Quill & Quire review notes that this new book contains "remarkable things."
Throaty Wipes, by Susan Holbrook
About the book: In 1934, Gertrude Stein asked "What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose." Throaty Wipes answers this question and many more! How does broadband work? Does "chuffed" mean pleased or displeased? What if the generations of Adam had mothers? Through her signature fusion of formal innovation and lyricism, Holbrook delivers what we've been waiting for.
'Here is language that has a joyous physicality, reminding usthat language and, therefore, poetry is first and foremost a physical act involving the muscles of the lips, tongue and jaw; here is language that, for all its playfulness and humour, is honed against the hard edges of a post-postmodern, globalized world.
Formally adventurous, Throaty Wipes refracts a mash-up of consumer society replete with Disney Princesses; Barbie dolls; Biblical myth; romantically adapted fishing instructions; the hard, hard work of birthing; surgery; the body in all its vulnerabilities; medical procedures; running; and PIN numbers for starters. Holding it all together is an overarching intelligence shot through with a lambent compassion for the ultimately fragile human condition. Throaty Wipes shows us how poetry is always about risk-taking inside and outside of language.'
Why we're taking notice: Holbrook's previous book, Joy Is So Exhausting, was rich, beautiful, and invested with the most splendid sense of play—as well as nominated for the Trillium Prize. After that book, we will read everything else she writes.
Caribou Run, by Richard Kelly Kemick
About the book: At one moment, a pure abstraction; at the next, an incontrovertible presence of hooves, antlers, and fur. The beating heart of this assured début by Richard Kelly Kemick is the Porcupine caribou herd of the western Arctic. In Caribou Run, Richard Kelly Kemick orchestrates a suite of poems both encyclopedic and lyrical, in which the caribou is both metaphor and phenomenon; both text and exegesis. He explores what we share with this creature of blood and bone and what is hidden, alien, and ineffable. Following the caribou through their annual cycle of migration, Kemick experiments with formal and thematic variations that run from lyric studies of the creature and its environment, to found poems that play with the peculiar poetry of scientific discourse. to highly personal poems that find resonance in the caribou as a metaphor and a guiding spirit. Running the gamut from long-lined free verse and ghazal form to tightly controlled tankas and interwoven rhyme schemes, Caribou Run serves notice that a formidable new talent has been let loose on the terrain of Canadian poetry.
Why we're taking notice: "There are only so many free verse, confessional poems that you can write about caribou before your wife threatens to leave you," Kemick explains in an interview with Partisan Magazine, in answer to a question about how poems on a singular subject are so divergent and experimental in terms of form.
Metanoia, by Sharon McCartney
About the book: T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Buddha and Jesus, Jung and Heidegger. Love, solitude, obliteration, the ocean and a sad neighbor who feeds pigeons. Metanoia is an aphoristically narrative poem that engages all of these, a book-length meditation on transformation, enlightenment, on opening one's eyes. McCartney's work evinces that journey, the junket into the self.
Why we're taking notice: This little book can be read in a single sitting, and while the narrative is spare and full of space, that space becomes filled with these poems' resonance, a story of loves lost and misplaced, and a woman becoming.
Let the Empire Down, by Alexandra Oliver
About the book: Alexandra Oliver takes us on a journey of escape from the suburbs of North America to Glasgow, Scotland. Training her eye on the locals—on the streets, by rivers, in museums, in playgrounds, in their own homes, in the ill-starred town of Lockerbie—Oliver reflects on issues of escape, exile, memory and identity, while traveling back into her own past.
Why we're taking notice: The next best thing to hearing Alexandra Oliver perform her poems—this woman was born to enunciate—is to read them. These poems are sharp, smart and infused with a twisted sense of humour. A terrific follow-up to her Pat Lowther Award-winning first collection, Meeting the Tormenters at Safeway.
Barking and Biting, by Sina Queyras, edited by Erin Wunker
About the book: This collection brings together representative work from Sina Queyras’s poetic oeuvre. Queyras is at the forefront of contemporary discussions of genre, gender, and criticism of poetry. Her influential blog-turned-literary-magazine, Lemon Hound, published up-and-coming writers as well as work by established literary figures in Canada and abroad.
The title, Barking & Biting, makes reference to the tagline of Lemon Hound: “more bark than bite.” Erin Wunker’s introduction situates Queyras’s poetry within ongoing debates around genre and gender. It suggests that Queyras’s writing, be it literary critical, poetic, or prose, is precise and probing but avoids toothless critical positioning. It pays particular attention to Queyras’s poetic innovations and intertextual references to other women writers, and suggests that read together Queyras’s oeuvre embodies an engaged feminist attention—what Joan Retallack has called a “poethics,” where poetry and ethics are bound together as a mode of inquiry and aesthetics.
Queyras’s poems trace a consistent concern with both poetic genealogies and the status of women. Thus far, twenty-first century poetics have been preoccupied with two ongoing conversations: the perceived divide between lyric and conceptual writing, and the underrepresentation of women and other non-dominant subjects. While these two topics may seem epistemologically and ethically separate, they are in fact irrevocably intertwined. Questions of form are, at their root, questions of visibility and recognizability. Will the reader know a poem when she sees it? And will that seeing alter her perception of the world? And how is the form of the poem altered, productively or un-, by the identity politics of its author? These are the questions that undergird Queyras’s poetry and guide the editorial selections.
Queyras’s poetics pay dogged attention to questions of both representation and genre. In each of her poetry collections she inhabits tenets of the traditional lyric but leverages the genre open to let conceptualism in. This is demonstrated in her afterword, “Lyric Conceptualism, a Manifesto in Progress,” which was first published on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet the Blog. In it Queyras puts forward a set of maxims about the possibilities of a new hybrid, the conceptual lyric poem.
Why we're taking notice: The volumes in Wilfred Laurier University Press's Poetry series are a really worthwhile reading experience, situating a poet's work within a critical framework and including an afterword by the poet herself. Queyras's award-winning work is perfectly cast in this spotlight.
A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, by Stuart Ross
About the book: Always willing to take aesthetic and artistic risks, Stuart Ross is the author of some of Canada's most daring, and also most rewarding, poetry. Long celebrated for his surreal narratives and humorous wordplay, here Ross focuses more intensely on intimate subject matter, investigating the often complex, often absurd, but always powerful connections between loved ones. The care and delicacy with which he renders these portraits of family members, friends, mentors—and even himself—is nothing short of arresting. And readers—both those familiar with his work and those new to it—will admire the dexterity with which he juxtaposes such pieces with more audacious inventions.
Why we're taking notice: A new book by CanLit legend Stuart Ross is always an occasion.
even this page is white, by Vivek Shraya
About the book: As a writer, musician, performance artist, and filmmaker, Vivek Shraya has, over the course of the last few years, established herself as a tour de force artist of the highest order. Vivek's body of work includes ten albums, four short films, and three books, including the YA book God Loves Hair (A Quill and Quire and Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Book of the Year) and the adult novel She of the Mountains (a Lambda Literary Award finalist).
Vivek's debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, is a bold, timely, and personal interrogation of skin?its origins, functions, and limitations. Poems that range in style from starkly concrete to limber break down the barriers that prevent understanding of what it means to be racialized. Shraya paints the face of everyday racism with words, rendering it visible, tangible, and undeniable.
Why we're taking notice: We dare you to read Shraya's conversation with our own Trevor Corkum and NOT come away intrigued to read this book. This one's generating a lot of buzz.
Waiting Room, by Jennifer Zilm
About the book: You're welcome to take a seat in (the) Waiting Room, the first full-length collection of poetry from award-winning writer Jennifer Zilm. Featuring a mélange of styles and forms (sonnets, erasures, unsent emails, footnotes, session notes, CVs, tweets, and other disparate source materials—including, the Gospels and the Dead Sea Scrolls), Waiting Room subverts, shares, and repurposes the vocabularies of psychiatry, dentistry, the Bible, and academia in a humorous investigation of the contained intimacy of appointments and therapeutic relationships. Ultimately interested in how we learn, the experimental and lyrical poems in Waiting Room seek lessons in what it means to wait, to be a patient and to be patient, to be a student and to be a teacher, to be a healer and to be healed.
In four unique sections, Zilm invites readers to investigate the curious boundaries of various therapeutic terrains—from an exploration of the esoteric world of graduate school, where the subject is religion, to a mash-up of Dante's vision of purgatory and Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES), to the improbable written intersections of van Gogh's doctors and Sylvia Plath's therapist.
Lovers of avant-garde and lyrical poetry will immediately connect with Zilm's engaging, observant, and probing work, as will readers familiar with the realms of Vancouver's neighbourhoods, in particular the DTES. And because of its many idiomatic forms (e.g., emails, tweets, recipes, etc.), its integration of a wide range of source materials, and its relatable settings and subject matter, Waiting Room could serve as a "gateway collection" for readers who don't always connect with poetry, but enjoy other forms of literature.
Why we're taking notice: A draft of Waiting Room was shortlisted for the 2014 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry.
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