The Fall Classic: The Return of The Best Canadian Poetry in English (2011)

As a former poet, I can unabashedly say that I both admire and fear every Canadian poet in Canada.

So a large part of me is always glad when I never make it anywhere near Best Canadian Poetry in English. It’s as if every poem I’ve published has turned into Fun Dip powder in a forgotten convenience store that no one ever owned or ran.

Launching at Revival Bar (783 College Street) on Wednesday October 26th at 7pm Tightrope Books presents its latest installment of the popular and at times controversial (if that is even possible in Canadian poetry) Best Canadian Poetry In English 2011. This year’s anthology is guest edited by acclaimed poet Priscila Uppal (series editor Molly Peacock will be joining Priscila on stage) along with, yes, you guessed it, poetry being read by people in the book including Julie Cameron-Gray, Paul Huebner, Sandra Lambert, A.F. Moritz, David Seymour, and Daniel Scott Tysdal.

There will also be music and food. Now that the CSI portion of the article is over with, we can get into a casual conversation about what went into collecting these poems, poetry in general, stereotyping and apparently insulting Canadian athletes with whom Priscila is friends, and rethinking the standard “reading” model of the average poetry reading.

NGM: It can be argued that Canadian poetry is both marginalized and corporately promoted (Griffin Prize, World Poetry Month, other sponsored events and media focuses). Do you think this possibly existing debate deters people from or draws people towards all things poetry?

PU: I think that any initiatives that allow people, and especially school-aged children and youth, to have positive encounters with poetry, ought to be encouraged. To my mind the most pressing problem is how poetry is taught in our schools–relegated to a ghetto “segment” of an English curriculum, where students are tested on their knowledge of form (this is a sonnet, this is an iamb) without any discussion of why poets would write sonnets or iambs in the first place, what they find exciting about the form and poetics. Many teachers act as if poetry requires a special decoder ring in order to be appreciated, and so this turns off otherwise curious and bright and engaged students. One of the teaching techniques that I advocate in schools is to read a poem every day to the students–and not necessarily in English class, there are lots of poems that are relevant to science, geography, cultural studies, gym classes, and more–just read it, don’t force discussion or analysis. Soon the students will ask questions about the poems on their own and start to pick favourites and start to see poetry as a regular part of their day-to-day lives, and not a strange archaic activity. An anthology like Best Canadian Poetry is a perfect resource for teachers to use in this way.

I also think it’s very important as part of prizes and national campaigns to actually invite poets to speak to schools and wider communities. I always find it really satisfying to talk to people from different walks of life, and to discuss poetry in classes other than creative writing and English classes. I think poets ought to rethink the standard “reading” model of the average poetry reading, where a lot of poets simply go up and read their work without much context offered or engagement encouraged. We need to be much more creative in terms of how we promote poetry–and understanding of it, appreciate of it, and debates about it.

NGM: You’ve watched the BCP series evolve over the last four years, what do you hope your editorial infusion will bring to this year’s edition?

PU: I think that my taste is wide-ranging–I have the ability to appreciate poems from a variety of different traditions, schools, styles, aesthetic and political concerns. I’m the first person to include concrete poetry in “the best” of the year, and the first person to include text and image collaborations as well as sound poetry (in the long list this year). I wanted to include spoken word poetry, but little is actually published in print format. The same, of course, with the burgeoning genre of video poetry. Nevertheless, I’m very pleased by the variety that this year’s anthology will offer every reader, which should mean that everyone can discover some new favourite poems as well as finds poems to spark some exciting, even heated conversations as well. I’m also pleased to feature some genuinely funny poems (I think
Canadian poetry, in particular, tends to ignore humorous verse and doesn’t always appreciate how difficult funny poems are to write).

NGM: Were there any new journals from which you culled material?

PU: I don’t think so, but it was encouraging to see more journals and magazines adding Tightrope to their regular subscription lists (Thank you! As this reduces crunch reading for the guest editor, who is extremely overworked and seriously underpaid for such an arduous task as it is!).

NGM: Your sports book of poetry and your recent stint with the Rogers Cup (Tennis) not to mention your Olympic presence has made you (or maybe it hasn’t) a go-to Canadian poet for these crossover markets. As a poet, what was your experience like interacting with the boorish jocks?

PU: First of all, the elite athletes are not boorish jocks. Part of the project’s aim is to break down barriers and stereotypes between the sports and arts worlds (two worlds concerned with health and creativity and excellence and pushing boundaries and the beauty of form and restrictions), and so I was very pleased to encounter dozens of Olympic athletes who are also very educated and concerned with bettering their communities. A number are pursuing degrees (including Masters and PhD degrees) in subjects as far ranging as photography and pharmacology, political science and biochemistry. On the opposite side, I was able to demonstrate that not all poets are boring or pretentious or socially maladjusted or irrelevant to their lives. I loved reading poetry to the athletes and fans, and to listen to their surprise and astonishment and amusement that I could give them a new way of thinking about a beloved sport, or a sport they didn’t previously appreciate as much. I also learned a lot about athleticism, and made a lot of athlete friends, which has been enormously useful for my own health (I now run 5km races–my best time is 23:23; I’ve even won a couple of plaques for my age group!).

NGM: Tell us about this year’s crop of BCP and give us a typical editorial day for the project.

PU: This year’s crop is highly interdisciplinary in the knowledge they bring to the poems in terms of chosen metaphors, vocabulary, and hybrid forms. They are also interested in gazing outward, globally, and not just inward or parochially. There is a solid mix, I think, of established poets and emerging writers (one poem is from a poet’s first batch of published poems period), and writers from across the country.

My typical day of reading was to read anywhere and everywhere. I read in doctor waiting rooms, on subways and streetcars, on beaches, in restaurants, in elevators, during intermissions of theatre and hockey games, while walking, I even tried on a treadmill (but that didn’t work). I would dog-ear the page of any poem that interested me. By the end of the year, this amounted to over 200 poems. Then I re-read and re-read and sorted the poems into “shortlist” and “long list” and then “long-long list” piles until I had my 50.

NGM: What are you most excited about for the various PR stops and launches for BCP in English 2011?

PU: I’m excited to hear from readers across the country and in the States about what they think of the book. Molly and I were already on a U.S. poetry show a couple of weeks ago as pre-press for the book and it was very satisfying to talk about the poems for an hour with a reader interested in knowing more about the Canadian poetry scene and enjoying the selections. I’m also looking forward to meeting some of the poets, especially those emerging writers I may have given a boost of confidence to by including them in the anthology.

Find out all about the Best Canadian Poetry In English launch event on Facebook here. Pick up your own copy of the book at Tightrope Books here.

Priscila Uppal is the author of several books of poetry. She teaches literature and creative writing at York University in Toronto. She was a finalist for the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Nathaniel G. Moore is a retired Canadian poet obsessed with Canadian poetry. He is working on some new fiction. He is the founding creative director of Canadian Sadcore.