In the foreword What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, editor Rob Taylor gives his inspiration for the collection: 2002’s Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood Editions) edited by Tim Bowling. Where Bowling’s editorial vision encompassed an homage to Al Purdy (who died in 2000), Taylor’s honours the work of deceased poet and Tragically Hip singer Gord Downey. The title, What the Poets Are Doing, echoes a lyric from the Tragically Hip song “Poets.”
Taylor and publisher Silas White brought together eleven pairs of poets from Canada, the emergent with the established: Elizabeth Bachinsky and Kayla Czaga, Tim Bowling and Raoul Fernandes, Dionne Brand and Souvankham Thammavongsa, Marilyn Dumont and Katherena Vermette, Sue Goyette and Linda Besner, Steven Heighton and Ben Ladouceur, Sina Queyras and Canisia Lubrin, Armand Garnet Ruffo and Liz Howard, Karen Solie and Amanda Jernigan, and Russell Thornton and Phoebe Wang. With the exception of the afterword by Sue Sinclair and Nick Thran, poems by each interviewee are included, which makes for an immersive reading experience where discussion and poetry become entrenched.
Where Taylor’s entry welcomes the reader, Sinclair and Thran’s afterword is rooted in relationality; they situate their own positions as poets, their ways of working, and as partners in life. As is the case for many writers, Sinclair notes, balancing “writing and other needs and responsibilities” is a challenge. A beautiful moment unfolds as the two talk about “‘conversation between poets’ as a form,” direct address, and embedded review.
They reflect on threads that arise throughout the book head-on. For example, sexual misconduct in Canadian MFA creative writing programs and writing communities. To Thran, Sinclair writes, “You referenced the fierce energy and urgency that has flooded Canadian poetry and which is on display in these conversations. This collection responds to the demand for BIPOC voices, and the shifts in power and consequent enriching of the poetic landscape are palpable and invigorating,” while at the same time she questions, “I wonder if we poets are ready, in our different ways, to do more talking across colour lines. I hope we soon are.”
On the differences between the editions of interviews, Thran notes that when it comes to “the failure of institutional structures” addressed in the previous edition, “they’re going to be more meaningfully broached in a volume that does a better job of showcasing the real breadth of people writing poetry in this country.”
What the Poets Are Doing is instructive. Not every interview reaches an ideal moment where expression and collaborative insight make sparks, but each brings forward, variously, vital questions, thoughts, and ideas related to writing practice, poesis, the body, family, community, isolation, place, position, racism, sexuality, freedom, and survival.
But there is more work to be done in this place we call “poetry in Canada” by those of us from the historically dominant white settler culture to make space for the breadth of diversity inclusive of race, sexuality, gender identity, ability, and socioeconomic status. With these things in mind, let this timely and necessary collection of poet conversations be but the second within this series of more to come.
Deanna Radford has written about sound art, music, and literature for Arc, The mRb, and Musicworks, and her poetry has appeared in The Capilano Review, carte blanche, The Headlight Anthology, and Vallum. Her poetry/sound group Cloud Circuit will launch its debut EP this fall with Archive Officielle Publications. Radford is completing an MA in creative writing Concordia University in Montréal.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.