October 18, 2018

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Stunning stanzas

National Poetry Month offers ample verse for voracious readers

Aisha Sasha John’s <em>I have to live</em> offers stark, sparse, plain-spoken poems on the existential problem of how to exist, how to continue to exist, in the face of a world that would rather you don’t exist.

Aisha Sasha John’s I have to live offers stark, sparse, plain-spoken poems on the existential problem of how to exist, how to continue to exist, in the face of a world that would rather you don’t exist.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/4/2017 (551 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

‘April is the cruellest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, “breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”

For that ironic reason, April is National Poetry Month, and while Google returns 333,000,000 results for “poetry” in 0.65 seconds, I recommend a single site: NewPoetry.ca.

As the name suggests, NewPoetry.ca publishes new poetry by (primarily) Canadian authors, on an infrequent and absorbable schedule, with a strong backlog of work of exceptional quality and wide variety — from traditional lyrics to experimental visual art-poems, and everything in-between.

This site contains nothing but new poetry — no ads, not even author biographies, just excellent new poetry. There’s a search bar at the bottom if you want to try to find your favourite poet (or maybe your least favourite, since I’m in there somewhere). However, I suggest instead of searching, you just scroll down for about, oh, let’s say… a month.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/4/2017 (551 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

‘April is the cruellest month," wrote T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, "breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain."

For that ironic reason, April is National Poetry Month, and while Google returns 333,000,000 results for "poetry" in 0.65 seconds, I recommend a single site: NewPoetry.ca.

George Murray

George Murray

As the name suggests, NewPoetry.ca publishes new poetry by (primarily) Canadian authors, on an infrequent and absorbable schedule, with a strong backlog of work of exceptional quality and wide variety — from traditional lyrics to experimental visual art-poems, and everything in-between.

This site contains nothing but new poetry — no ads, not even author biographies, just excellent new poetry. There’s a search bar at the bottom if you want to try to find your favourite poet (or maybe your least favourite, since I’m in there somewhere). However, I suggest instead of searching, you just scroll down for about, oh, let’s say… a month.

The founder and curator of NewPoetry.ca also happens to have a new poetry collection out this month. George Murray’s Quick (ECW, 104 pages, $17) is a sequel to his bestselling Glimpse, a collection of aphorisms (short, wise sayings the poet has coined).

Many of them are humorous but cuttingly accurate: "The problem with panic is that it lasts an infinite span in a short time."

Other aphorisms focus less on the personal and more on social, political or cultural observations: "Models have that vacant look because they aren’t allowed to stare back" or "Only a beard can change your face more than religion."

In an afterword, Murray calls them "poems without all the poetry getting in the way," and the very best of Murray’s aphorisms are dense, compressed orbs of poetic power: "Shadow, not light, is the language of the sun."

Aisha Sasha John’s I have to live (McClelland & Stewart, 146 pages, $19) offers stark, sparse, plain-spoken poems on the existential problem of how to exist — how to continue to exist — in the face of a world that would rather you didn’t exist.

John approaches this conflict from the perspective of a black woman, but attaches her speaker’s anxieties to the broader existential problem of confronting not only a hostile culture, but also a hostile universe.

"I read the map wrong and got lost. / So I was home. / When I was physically lost that was home so I am crying." The turn from an everyday event toward viewing the event as a symbol for one’s larger life is a standard poetic move, but John pushes further: "I’m not crying. / The reason I’m not crying is I don’t care."

Whether these last two lines are taken literally or viewed ironically, John has complicated both our relationship to the speaker and the speaker’s own relationship to herself.

John’s great strength as a poet is her ability to craft simple, direct statements into complex arrangements that invite readers in and then trap them, spiderlike, in webworks of too-ordinary terror.

Suzannah Showler’s Thing Is (McClelland & Stewart, 80 pages, $20) takes a conversational tone around sharp corners: "I put a box beside the bed, / and all night long a noise / machine makes the sound / of light."

Whether pondering an iPhone or legendary groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, Showler’s voice is at once airy and dark: "What do I like best about being / a ghost? Hard to choose / just one thing. / … / … The life lost / becomes featureless, lovely / as sheet metal, directing quick / frames of light into nothing." An excellent follow-up to her stellar debut Failure to Thrive, Thing Is secures Showler’s position on the nation’s literary map.

Jamie Sharpe’s Dazzle Ships (ECW, 80 pages, $19) opens with false endnotes, offering additional information on poems that don’t exist. (Regarding " ‘The Forty-Six Page Haiku’: In retrospect, this isn’t a haiku.") It’s a nice, clean setup for a book filled with conventionally structured poems that still seem somehow "off" (in a great way), wry oddities where the poem seems to be going along just fine, but "Then a confusing metaphor is made / using the mutant, Kuato."

Sharpe’s poems often seem surprised to exist, shaking their own heads at the impulse to work out a poem about your problems rather than working to solve them: "When I enter the gym, which is to say my feelings, I hit the treadmill (my tendency to run from conflict)."

Although often silly and self-aware, the poems still twist into moments of sudden wisdom, that could easily be lifted out as aphorisms: "Happiness is hedonism now."

Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) lives online at JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

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