Over the last few years, I have had the honour of working with the prolific and brilliant Molly Peacock. Her editorship and friendship has brought so many gifts, I would be hard pressed to adequately articulate them here. One of them, however, was a connection with the incredible team of innovators at Tightrope Books, who led my last book, Tourist, through editing and publication.
Building on that experience, I was delighted to begin working with them as Coordinator of the Online Teaching Program for the incredible Best Canadian Poetry Series. This anthology, which invites a guest editor to scour literary publications across Canada for the richest poems on offer, has recently celebrated a birthday; after ten years, Tightrope Books, along with Series Editors Molly and the equally gifted Anita Lahey, have compiled The Best of the Best Canadian Poetry Anthology.
I have been given the wonderful task of compiling teaching modules for a selection of the poems within, available for anyone who is interested in reaching a bit deeper into the poetry. We will be offering these modules online, over the course of the next year, and are kicking off the endeavor with my essay, The Reason for Poetry (inspired by a lecture from astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson). Please keep an eye and ear on this wonderful celebration of Canadian voices!
The Reason for Poetry
Making room for others is a skill that should not be left to urban planners. The walls of a community (and indeed the beds and floors and windows) are fashioned from human stories, and the job of teachers, among other duties, is to teach our students how to listen in. How I do this, how I engage my students into insight and empathy is by sprinkling the lives of others throughout their territory. Isolated? Poem. Exuberant? Poem. It is impossible to be lonely if you surround yourself with the voices of others, and learning to listen is a wellness tool that supports so many needs in the modern classroom.
Social media rules perspectives and distraction often rules the day, which is why I lean into Witness Poetry, in order to bring my students back to me. The peach-halved human ears in Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’ have never failed to still a classroom when I’m teaching about Marxism. Langston Hughes’ ‘Harlem’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Photograph’ raise the eyebrows of my pupils when I’m discussing literary devices and Feminist Theory. The tilt upwards of a chin, the stillness in features; I recognize the signs the way doctors see malady; I know when a student has been infected with empathy. And so I dole out poems, like oxygen, in the midst of lesson plans, due dates, pop quizzes, and texting. In a moment, with a life, we have stilled an ocean of fiddling fingers.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson refers to humans as nearly blind in their sensory abilities, and it makes me wonder about our time here. Why wouldn’t we make use of every sense, in order to orient ourselves on this planet, amongst each other, in our emotions? Distillation, condensation, immersion—all concepts championed in science, yet beating at the heart of poetry. Poetry is closer to mathematics and dramatics than any other humanity, built, as it is, on stories told by our own kin – so the question can no longer be, Why Poetry? but rather, How did Poetry get so isolated from its kin?
In today’s world, we encourage scanning (ever-movement) as a literacy skill. Then we tell students to sit still. Computers, doorless, are placed in front of every child, and we expect them to stay in the yardage we allot them. Poems, small postcards from someone else’s imagination, invite teenagers to listen, to read, to imagine a life outside of their own. The impact of this on development (not to mention emotional health) is appealing. A whiff of homophobia in a classroom? Place unexpected poems in their midst. Have them trip over other peoples experiences, through poetry, and help them to land softly outside the fence of ignorance. Do I want them to read The Odyssey, The Bluest Eye, Les Misérables? Of course I do. Do need to develop their palate before force feeding? Of course I do. Poetry can be served with every course, like salt and pepper, to whet the appetite for listening.
This is not an essay for the converted. We know what we love, and why it is necessary. A year of maternity leave afforded me the time to reflect on which lessons are truly relevant. How to unfold them, like maps, into the minds of the teenagers in front of me? What I really want to do is teach them how to draw their own maps, with words—recreate the places they have lived—silently, joyfully, painfully—orient themselves through the lives of others, be the cartographers of their own skin. Pause. Listen. Look inside yourself for the movie that is playing, just for a moment. Now we are in imagery. Embrace metaphor until you exhale the anxieties growing from your heart like leaves. Look for riddles to solve in structure and metre, replicate rhyme schemes in order to give yourself a path, and trace where you have been. Breathe poems out, so you can inhale those around you.
Study modules to come!