Poetry is having a moment.
The literary art form has long been relegated to the musty corners of bookstores and associated with elitism. But that perception is changing, and it’s in large measure because of a surge in young talent across Canada that is challenging the boundaries of what it means to be a poet. Many of these emerging writers are not even trained as poets — and that, they say, is the point.
In Edmonton, the city’s poet laureate is a 28-year-old business and political science grad. Nisha Patel says her job is to “reflect the times and the thoughts and the feelings of the people.”
She may be the city’s scribe, but that’s never stopped her from being “critical of the institutions around me.” In her poetry, she challenges the Alberta government on its environmental policies and even takes on the municipal government for its response to homelessness in Edmonton.
Patel’s work covers deeply personal narratives as well, and often there is a political hue:
I was an ocean once
bare shoulders and whale-song in my ribcage
watched as the rigs drilled holes in my body
they left no part of my trenches unmanned
turned me into a war instead of a homecoming
I should have evaporated sooner
left this ozone and oozed into stars
— Nisha Patel
Publishing poetry, Patel says, was never her first goal, but she has had remarkable success to date. Her first book, Coconut, is coming out on April 1 and she says she is already working on two other books.
“I feel momentous. I feel like I’m caught up in something that is bigger than me and I want to see that through till the end,” she told Global News’ The New Reality.
Poetry speaks to the moment
Poetry as an art form is especially suited to speaking to people’s experience. It’s raw, honest and in the moment.
Poetry has helped Vancouver’s Ivy Edad come to terms with her identity. She writes about ecological devastation and personal yearning, two topics that do not necessarily go hand in hand, but ones that she juxtaposes with grace.
Vancouver is a demolished rainforest
surrounded by sacred mountains
flattened for skyscrapers.
Surrey is the pavement where mama tells me to dream.
— Ivy Edad
If the audience does not understand her poems, that’s OK, she says. “The point is not for you to understand it. The point is for you to hear it and feel the discomfort of not knowing what it is.”
Covering difficult ground is a major part of what poetry is all about.
“Poetry can do different things, and one of the things it can do is speak directly to a person’s emotions, frustrations and experience,” says Kevin Connolly, the poetry editor at House of Anansi Press, one of Canada’s biggest publishers of the form.
He says poetry blooms during periods of turbulence and turmoil. Some of the world’s best music and poetry has come out of periods of strife, such as when the Soviet Union was collapsing or during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.
“At times like this, people are at a loss for words,” Connolly says, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. He says poetry can make sense of the world in times of turmoil “because it’s so specific to the moment, a particular person’s experience, even something that happened that day.”
Poets, he adds, are rarely comfortable in their own skin. “People write poetry out of a position of anxiety,” he says. “They’re much more comfortable with anxiety than regular people. That’s their strength and their weakness. But at times like this, it seems like a strength.”
Social media, and Instagram in particular, are the avenues of choice for young poets in Canada to promote their work. Some have been incredibly successful. Toronto-based poet Rupi Kaur has an audience of four million followers. Instagram has helped her succeed.
But publishing on social media is also criticized for producing work that is more geared toward attracting ‘likes’ than living up to any standard of quality.
“Clichéd, banal, derivative, portentous and manipulative” is how the author Thomas Hodgkinson describes so-called Insta-poetry, in a searing critique that appeared in the British weekly The Spectator.
But rebukes like that are the minority. For Nisha Patel, Edmonton’s poet laureate, the unvarnished nature of poetry shared on social media is precisely what can make the work so rewarding.
“For us to treat poetry as a conversation starter is, I think, more important than to treat it as a final destination or a finished product that has to be sophisticated or eloquent at all times,” she says. “I think young poets are not always eloquent. Some of them have difficult feelings, complicated feelings, messy feelings.”
The healing power of a poem
Toronto poet Andrea Josic believes the healing power of poetry is immense. The 22-year-old champion of last year’s Toronto Poetry Slam says she discovered poetry while navigating her own personal challenges, including mental health struggles.
“And then as I started to unpack more of my healing, I moved toward dealing with survivorship and dealing with being a fem body in a society that is very male-focused and a society that discourages femininity and discourages the woman,” she told Global News.
Josic points out how accessible poetry is — “all anybody needs is a piece of paper and a pen” — and she says that putting words to paper can be an incredibly powerful tonic for examining issues on both a personal and a societal scale.
For the next generation of poets — many of whom are queer, Black, or Indigenous — poetry is a powerful way of confronting the white, masculine, heteronormative realities of life in Canada.
“I think a lot of what I talk about boils down to kind of an umbrella term of oppression but it manifests itself mostly as talking about sexism, talking about racism, talking about ageism,” Patel says. “And a lot of my work has really focused in on those themes in order for me to feel empowered,” she added.
Poetry is potent because it is so personal and because there is so much meaning packed into every single word.
Unravelling the power of the word, and then deploying those words for maximum impact, is the art of what it means to be a poet. It requires a tremendous amount of mental energy and creativity to embed such deep meanings, emotions and insights into a poem.
But for poets, it’s a challenge they live for.
“I think it’s a mark of the creative to be always thinking beyond your own capacity,” Patel says. “If I didn’t have words, I don’t think I would be alive today.”
See this and other original stories about our world on The New Reality airing Saturday nights on Global TV, and online.