By Ava Zardynezhad, April 9, 2021—
Although less commonly known and celebrated, April is National Poetry Month. Between all the genres of literature, many might find poetry the most difficult to connect with, which is ironic, because it is — at least in my opinion — the rawest artistic expression of emotion there are. After all, as Allen Ginsberg puts it “[poetry is] that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”
So in the spirit of the month and in the hopes of encouraging more friendship with this artform, I’ve curated a list of some wonderful poets — from Canada — that everyone should read, regardless of whether you’re only starting out or you’ve been immersed in the world of poetry for ages.
You might know this queen of Canadian literature from her novels — notably The Handmaid’s Tale which has been adapted into a Hulu show of the same name. But verse comes just as naturally to Atwood as does prose — maybe even more naturally. She first established herself in the world of literature as a poet with her poem collection Double Persephone. She has won multiple awards for her works over the course of her career, including a Governor General’s Award. She’s also been a teacher and lecturer at many Canadian universities, including the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta. Her works often explore dichotomies and dualities and through her explorations of female suffering and oppression she has become an icon among women and in the feminist community.
Where to begin: “Siren Song” is one of my favourites and one that I go back to, time and time again.
Billy Ray Belcourt:
From Driftpile Cree Nation here in Alberta, Billy Ray Belcourt is an inspiration. Currently an assistant professor in Indigenous Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, Belcourt is a poet and a scholar. He is a Rhodes Scholar and the youngest winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize. In his works, he explores love, queerness, pain, grief and colonialism. His debut collection, This Wound is a World, is hauntingly beautiful and a must read. As artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes it, “[This Wound is a World] redefines poetics as a refusal of colonial erasure, a radical celebration of Indigenous life and our beautiful, intimate rebellion.”
Where to begin: “Ode to Northern Alberta” and “Love and Hearbreak are Fuck Buddies” are two great poems to start with. They give a snapshot of the topics and ideas Belcourt discusses in his works and help establish his poetic tone.
P. K. Page:
A painter at heart, P. K. Page illustrates with words. Her poems are visual and she creates whole worlds through them. She has published numerous volumes of her poems, which have been nominated and won the Governor General’s Award. Many of her poems are about nature or feature it in some way and conveniently, the landscapes she draws with her words are absolutely mesmerizing. She draws out small details and frames them with such wit that make her poems all the more enjoyable for the reader. But aside from her poetry, I would also recommend reading a little bit about her life and her other work. Throughout her life, Page has engaged in many forms of artistic expression and has lived and worked all around the world — she’s even lived here in Calgary for a part of her life. She has had a colourful life and her work definitely reflects that.
Where to begin: I would suggest starting with “Planet Earth” and “Autumn.” That being said, Page has written and published an abundance of poems, so I think there’s something in her repertoire for everyone.
Another winner of the General Governor’s Award on this list is Katherina Vermette. From Treaty One Territory — Winnipeg, Manitoba — Vermette brings her experiences, stories, hopes and laments to her poems. Her debut poetry collection, North End Love Songs, is filled with joy and heartache as she brings out all the parts of Winnipeg’s North End that fill her with love and make it home. Her second collection, river woman, focuses on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Her poems are anti-colonial, but even when she describes pain, suffering and anger, she brings in healing and hope. Through her words as well as her style and syntax she defies and rejects colonialism and creates a narrative that celebrates indigenous life, pain and resilience.
Where to begin: Her poem “Heart” is an ode to her community of North End. It’s a great introductory piece to Vermette’s style and tone. Although, I would also highly recommend river woman.
I was introduced to Marvin Francis in my first year of university when my English professor — shout out to Dr. Beaty — assigned a section of City Treaty. I am constantly grateful for it. From all of the poets I’ve mentioned here, Francis’ poems might be a bit more abstract. But don’t let that scare you, because even if you’re unsure about how to interpret them, they will be expressive enough for you to know what you should be feeling after reading them. His writing is ingenious and the way he plays with words will blow your mind. His poems express anger and grief towards colonialism and its consequences but they also tell his stories and experiences as an Indigenous person living in the city — or more specifically and in his words, the “Urban Rez.” His poems are a must read for anyone.
Where to begin: I would highly recommend City Treaty as a starting point. This work is written as a long poem, broken down into multiple sections.
Hana Shafi — aka. Frizz Kid:
Last but certainly not least, we have an up and coming poet, Hana Shafi. Shafi is mostly known for her art, specifically her Affirmation series, which features art on various subjects including mental health, feminism and more. Before publishing her first collection, It Begins with the Body, she used to post a lot of her poems to her twitter account. Her poems discuss numerous current topics, explore her experiences as a queer, Muslim woman of colour and also depict the anxieties that today’s youth — especially millennials’ — experience. Shafi’s poems put a lot of feelings and inexplicable experiences into words, creating relatable narratives.
Where to begin: You can go through some of her old tweets to find her older poems, one of which would be “it’s a taker, not a giver,” which is an expression of struggling with mental health. You can also hear her read a poem from her debut collection, here.
I hope you enjoy the works of these poets as much as I do and I hope these recommendations bring you closer to the world of verse this National Poetry Month. If you’d like to get to know more Canadian poets and their works, check out this “ultimate” list from CBC.