The Curious Case of Canadian Poetry

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No Canadian poets were mentioned in any of my high school English classes, and I’m certain that most of my hometown friends would be hard-pressed to rattle off the names of even two or three. They are not, however, entirely to blame: Their interests lie elsewhere, perhaps as a result of our shared high school experience, which did little to foster the consumption of Canadian literature, let alone Canadian poetry.  


Although I have been reading and writing poetry since elementary school, it wasn’t until moving to Toronto that names like Damian Rogers and Karen Solie began to circulate within my group of friends. I was first introduced to Solie’s work in Professor Nick Mount’s much-beloved course, “Literature for Our Time,” at the University of Toronto. Mount’s class was a springboard that launched my lasting interest in Canadian poetry, with Solie’s Modern and Normal acting as a literary gateway drug to the other Canadian poets—Lynn Crosbie, Al Purdy, Susan Musgrave—I feverishly sought out shortly after this initial exposure.


Even now, I feel as if I’ve only grazed the surface of the Canadian poetry repository. There is no shortage of compelling material, and I am thankful that local literary events, such as the International Festival of Authors, are bringing these poets and their work to the fore of Canadian culture.

 

In Conversation with Damian Rogers and Karen Solie

During this year’s IFOA, I was lucky enough to attend a double reading featuring Damian Rogers and Karen Solie. On a cool and misty Halloween afternoon I trekked down to the Harbourfront Centre to hear Rogers and Solie read and discuss their most recent works. Ken Babstock, another heavyweight in Canadian poetry, moderated the discussion.


Rogers read from her second collection, Dear Leader, which was published by Coach House in the spring. A Toronto transplant originally hailing from Detroit, Rogers has made a huge contribution to the Canadian poetry scene: she is the poetry editor at both House of Anansi and The Walrus, and creative director at Poetry in Voice, a recitation contest for Canadian high school students.


Had I not already been a fan of Rogers, the cover of Dear Leader (featuring a stunning painting by local musician and artist, André Ethier) would have convinced me to pick up a copy.


Solie read from her fifth collection, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (House of Anansi, 2015), which received the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize earlier this month. Originally from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Solie has held a variety of eccentric jobs—ranging from farm hand to academic research assistant—to support herself and her writing.

 

Is Context Necessary for Understanding?

Prior to reading, both poets remarked that they felt “liberated” from setting up their poems for the audience, since there would be a discussion that followed. By withholding context and simply reading what was on the page, the audience was encouraged to make connections between the poems and their inspiration without the usual handholding.


However, context can add emotional weight and complexity that might not be experienced without it. Having previously read the IFOA interview with Rogers in which she discusses her mother’s dementia, it was clear that her poem “Good Day Villanelle”—one that uses repetition as a literary device to address the concept of memory and its deterioration—was referencing this experience. “Maybe I was just trying to find some beauty in the violence of cognitive failure,” Rogers said in the interview. With or without context, the poem is astonishing; however, knowing the source of its inspiration allowed it to resonate with me in a more meaningful way.