Poet Laureate's blog: June 2018

Poetry is Not Dead!
In 1992, a survey of participation in the arts determined that 17% of North Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year; 20 years later that number was 6.7%–less than half. The conclusion at the time that poetry was “dead” was borne out by studies that determined poetry ranked lower than knitting as an activity people participated in, beating out only opera.
 
By 2016, something had shifted: poetry was evidently not dead, but alive, well and growing.  According to a publishing industry annual sales report, the number of print poetry books sold in Canada in 2013 increased 5% over the previous year, another 8% in 2014 and 10% more in 2015. Incremental growth, but modest. In 2016, poetry sales grew a whopping 79% over the previous year–the largest jump of any subject category–and the most recent data indicates poetry sales were up another 116% between 2016 and 2017.
 
What happened? For starters, 2014 saw the publication of milk and honey by Rupi Kaur, a young (b.1992)  Indian-Canadian poet/writer/illustrator/performer who followed up her debut book with a second in 2017 entitled The Sun and Her Flowers. Both of these wildly popular books comprise poetry, prose and illustrations hand-drawn by Kaur and others to help readers associate an image with each poem. So how popular is popular in the publishing world?  Sales of both books have surpassed the 5 million mark and milk and honey spent 77 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. 
 
And it’s not just Kaur. Either we’ve changed our attitudes about poetry or poetry has changed. The answer is probably a bit of both. In a recent on-air interview with John Eaton, morning host of The Peak’s Talk of the Town, I shared my opinion that popular modern poetry was helped enormously by rap music, an art form in which the words take precedence over the tune.  The connection is clearer when you look at the stunning collection The Rose that Grew From Concrete published posthumously by the manager of rap artist (and poet) Tupac Shakur. Thanks to artists like Tupac, we have become accustomed to hearing the spoken word standing on its own without any need of melody.
 
In addition to our changing perceptions, the topics explored in Canadian poetry have also expanded. In in a special last month to the Globe and Mail, journalist Russell Smith describes “Canadian poetry’s unlikely renaissance.” He notes the “fading of a certain kind of weepy folksiness” in contemporary Canadian poetry,  the prize-winning poems of yesteryear which “tended to be about aurora borealis and the great noble sorrow of being descended from rugged settlers” supplanted by poems “flirt with the nonsensical” in poetry that walks a fine line between the lyrical and the experimental. 
 
Carmine Starnino, a Montreal editor who hosts a blog for Vehicule Press concurs, arguing that Canadian poetry has entered what he calls a "steampunk zone." He comments that today’s poems of note are “neither formally avant-garde nor nostalgic” but vibrant and intricate. Combine this with the accessibility afforded by the Internet and you have conditions that Smith describe as making it “easier to read and share poems now, and people are actually doing it.”
 
Canadians are not only buying and reading more poetry, they’re also writing and publishing it in greater quantities with 25% more poetry titles in 2017 than the year before. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a bestselling poet in our midst, but Kaur’s books didn’t start something–they are part of something that was already happening. What’s notable about the upsurge and growth of poetry’s popularity is a renaissance of to poetry in younger generations. A phenomenon that may account for this greater comfort with poetry: while we may live in a visual and auditory age with images and sounds blasting us from all sides, if you want to communicate with a millennial, you better learn to text! Suddenly, the written word is “in” again.
 
Even so, poetry is not always easy. Reading and writing poetry requires thought, feeling and attention, and we might assume that it’s “not for us” if we don’t “get it” right away. But poetry cares less about being “understood” than noticed, contemplated, savoured and shared. And it’s a form that is very helpful in navigating an increasingly distracted world. Lesley Fletcher of the League of Canadian Poets notes, “Right now, one of its great benefits is that (poetry) gives us a kind of stillness among so much noise and bombardment of aggressive rhetoric.”  Unlike a short story or novel, poems demand that we slow down and patiently reach across the gap between our perspective and someone else’s experience. When we take the time to do this, poetry provides, as Fletcher says, a “kind of stillness hard to find now.”
 
So here we are in 2018, when, as Smith ironically observes, “the likelihood of a Canadian starting the day by reading a poem is greater now than it has been since about 1890.” If you’d like to get in on this growing trend, check out our resources section and learn how you can sign up to get a poem emailed to you each day and take a look at some of the poems by Collingwood poets posted in Poetry Corner. Long live poetry!
 
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The Griffin Poetry Prize – the world’s largest ($75,000) prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in English– is awarded each year to one international and one Canadian poet to “spark the public’s imagination and raise awareness of the crucial role poetry plays in our cultural life.”
 
Here are the nominees for the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize with a line from each poet; who would you pick as the winner in each category?
 
International Griffin Prize
Tongo Eisen-Martin for Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights): “I guess we’re all city people now / And we roam around carving ‘still alive’ in people’s foreheads / (preaching gently)” 
 
Susan Howe for Debths (New Directions): “A work of art is a world of signs, at least to the poet’s / nursery bookshelf sheltered behind the artist’s ear.” 
Layli Long Soldier for Whereas (Graywolf Press): “But / is the small way to begin. // But I could not. // As I am limited to a few / words at command, such as wanblí. This / was how I wanted to begin, with the little / I know. // But could not.”
 
Natalie Shapero for Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press): “I don’t want any more of what I have. / I don’t want another spider plant. I don’t // want another lover.”
 
Canadian Griffin Prize
Billy-Ray Belcourt for This Wound Is a World (Frontenac House): “grieve is the name I give to myself / I carve it into the bed frame. / I am make-believe. / this is an archive. / it hurts to be a story.”
 
Aisha Sasha John for I have to live. (McClelland & Stewart): “I do. / I did it. / I did. / I had to. / I have to. / I have to live.”
Donato Mancini for Same Diff (Talonbooks): “Freedom is the freedom to choose. / Freedom is a right. / The cage is already open; you only have to walk out.”