Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

National Poetry Month Exercise

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National Poetry Month Exercise

When Graeme Smith took the stage at the Art Gallery of Ontario last October, having just been named winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the first words out of his mouth weren’t of thanks or surprise, or even words of his own. They were the words of Emily Dickinson.  Poetry recital complete, Smith explained that a teacher once told him, “it's always helpful to have a little bit of poetry to pull out when you have absolutely no idea what to say." It wasn’t the acceptance speech anyone had been expecting, but it made everyone who heard it smile.

April in Canada is National Poetry Month, an attention-focusing force on behalf of literature’s middle child — the one we love and cherish but mostly leave to play all on its lonesome. Most people reading this (I know you’re a learned lot) can, like Graeme Smith, summon up some poetry if called upon to do so. Many of you have already penned entire volumes of the stuff yourselves. If you’re a poetry geek, then National Poetry Month is a celebration of the work you do all year. But if, like me, you’re a poetry-reading procrastinator, National Poetry Month may be a necessary reminder to do what’s good for you.

Herewith, a confession: I am a reader and frequent purchaser of books (ie. the kind of person publishers like), and yet I am a woefully infrequent reader of poetry (a condition we know to be rare within the poetry community but much more common among the public at large). As an engaged, book-reading, book-buying member of the public, however, I’m surely a coveted recruit (and soft target) for National Poetry Month’s message.

Having confessed my poetry-reading sins to Joanna Poblocka, Executive Director of the League of Canadian Poets, which runs National Poetry Month in Canada, I asked her to define the initiative’s goal. Her answer was simple: “To bring awareness of poetry in Canada.” National Poetry Month functions at a fairly grassroots level (though it does also receive Canada Council funding to pay honorariums to poets who give readings), with bookstores, cafes, bars and libraries across the country staging readings and discussions under the NPM umbrella. The concentration of events drives up media coverage, which in turn increases exposure to potential new audiences.

My conversation with Ms Poblocka circled around ideas of inclusivity and engagement, and the fact that some people are intimidated by poetry for its perceived “in-club-ish-ness.” This, she says, is exactly what the League hopes to achieve with National Poetry Month: “to expand... out of our community and into the public eye,” and to make poetry “more welcoming for people.”

Toronto is, I think, already a pretty inclusive and welcoming city for arts and culture, which was one of the reasons I found it so easy to settle in when I moved here without knowing a soul. And it was a poetry event — during National Poetry Month, as it happens — that was one of my first experiences of that. Attending the Anansi Poetry Bash at the El Mocambo in April 2006 I was impressed by how many people (young people, who were not employed by the publisher and not, therefore, “required” to be there) had chosen to spend their night listening to poetry readings over beer with friends. And in the eight years since, I’ve never been to an Anansi Poetry Bash or Coach House launch where I didn’t have to squeeze myself in to the room, peeping over the tops heads to catch a glimpse of whoever’s reading.

This year, National Poetry Month in Toronto features both Anansi and Coach House launches, and events ranging from coffee shop readings to big-stage bashes, in addition to a month-long invitation from poet laureate George Elliott Clarke to submit a poem at your local library. With multiple events every week it’s impossible not to have time to go to something.

But should we need an annual reminder to read more poetry, or is the fact that National Poetry Month exists an indication of a failing of some sort — of ours, of poetry’s? I asked a friend, an extremely learned poetry-reading sort, what he thought about National Poetry Month and he said, National Poetry Month is to poetry what January is to getting a personal trainer. We know exercise is good for us, and we really want to work out more, but sometimes motivating yourself to do it is just hard. “National Poetry Month,” he said, “means you don’t have to do it on your own.”

I thought back to the last time I grabbed a volume of poetry as I was heading out the door (never leave the house without something to read) and realized it was probably six months or more. I’m off track. Getting flabby. It’s time to start my new regimen. But National Poetry Month means I don’t have to do it on my own.

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In need of a few poetry push-ups this month? Here’s where you can get them.

Dozens of public events will take place across the country as part of the 16th National Poetry Month in Canada. Already the League of Canadian Poets has listings for events in Toronto almost every day in April, and most of them are free. Visit poets.ca for listings.

The Coach House Spring launch takes place April 3 with readings by poets Sina Queyras, Brecken Hancock, Jen Currin, and from new novels by André Alexis and Rhonda Mullins.

The Anansi Poetry Bash takes place April 22 with readings by Sarah Lang, Garth Martens, Anne-Marie Turza and Matthew Zapruder. I’ll see you there!

The League of Canadian Poets’ National Poetry Month blog runs throughout the month of April. Check it out here.

For ideas of how to stage your own National Poetry Month event, check out the Academy of American Poets’ website for US National Poetry Month (also April) where they have 30 ideas — one for each day of NPM.


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Becky Toyne came to Toronto on an adventure from London, England, and loved it so much she couldn't bring herself to leave. A books columnist, editor and publicist, she is a regular contributor to CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, and a freelance publicist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada and Freedom to Read Week. On her day off, she works as a bookseller at boutique indie Type. You can find her online at beckytoyne.com and follow her on Twitter @MsRebeccs

You can find past columns by Becky Toyne in the Open Book Archives.

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