In 2002, I was the subject of an interview in the poetry journal Contemporary Verse II. At that time, I was deeply concerned about the dramatic loss of ground that poets and poetry had experienced in Canada since I was an emerging poet, finding my feet in Toronto in the mid-1970s. I addressed several specific indications of poetry’s decline. Two of the indicators that most alarmed me were: most nationally known poets were migrating into writing fiction; the number of poetry books published each year had plummeted. As an emerging poet, I had role models of at least twelve poets who were known nationally. These poets devoted their writing lives to the art and vision of poetry. In the late 70s this began to change. The majority of nationally know poets increasingly focused on writing fiction. Although I enjoyed their fiction and appreciated the ways they “made it new” (Read: E. Pound), I missed their steady hand navigating the mysterious waters of the poem. I eventually asked some of them why they were concentrating so much on fiction. To be certain, they enjoyed the challenges of fiction but many of them also acknowledged that they “had” to write fiction. Being “only a poet” was no longer sufficient. This continues to today. We have very few poets, strict to their genre, that are nationally known and respected.
The second indicator was harder to evidence. In the 60s into the early 80s, Canadian-authored poetry books were abundant. They occupied eye-catching positions in our bookstores. Then poetry sections became smaller and smaller and eventually ended up in dull corners in the back of bookstores. I thought that the various publishing grant and promotion agencies would have statistics on the number of books published in each genre each year. I discovered that this was not the case: no company tracked these stats. There was only a total number of Canadian-authored books statistic for each year. Finally, I began the arduous task of trying to locate the right staff person in the National Library. Two copies of all books published in Canada must be sent to the National Library, thus, I thought they might have the data, right? Wrong. After several weeks I found the right staff person. There were no genre-based statistics. However, his department had just acquired new software and he was eager to rise to the challenge. The resulting data confirmed my concerns. In 1985, the number of fiction books and poetry books published were not that dissimilar: 262 books of poetry to 377 books of fiction. In 2000, 530 books of poetry were published but in one year that figure fell dramatically to 430 books of poetry contrasted to the 1,022 books of fiction published in 2001. I sent this information to our national poets’ organization, the League of Canadian Poets. I never received a reply. Only one or two poets I knew commented on it.
I consider myself very fortunate in that I grew up as a poet when poetry was leading the way on so many fronts: feminism, the Black Power Movement, the flourishing of Canadian writing, the sensibilities and politics of the 60s, Vietnam, etc.
What’s happened since then? Our publishing space in literary journals shrunk; poetry anthologies became a rare occurrence; the publication of collected works of established poets became a thing of the past. Spoken Word has grown in leaps and bounds. To my ear, however, the majority of writing performed is not deeply rooted in poetry. Rap has taken up the reins and speaks to a large “non-literary” audience. In 1998, when I first began teaching at the Writing and Publishing Program in Continuing Studies at Simon Fraser University, there were one or two poetry courses. Over the years I supported a gradual expansion of poetry courses that we offer and now we offer five to seven courses a year, and under current consideration is an additional advanced level of poetry courses. I wanted to make SFU Harbour Centre a destination spot for poets because we had so few places to meet; to access learning much beyond introductory courses. In 1999, I was asked to design a one-year intensive creative writing certificate program for the writing and Publishing Program, and The Writer’s Studio at SFU was born. This established another vibrant hot spot for poets who work with our TWS poetry mentor. In fact, Daniel Zomparelli, poet, editor and initiator of this blog, is a graduate of TWS. Along with a few other groups and institutions, we have been one of the significant contributors to rebuilding poetry in the city. And, there are pockets of poets in the city such as the poets of the Downtown Eastside at Carnegie Centre who have continued to write poetry as their life blood regardless of all the above.
Other encouraging indicators are the recent publications of Rocksalt – An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry and the creation of The Best Canadian Poetry 2009, an annual anthology of selected poems published in journals inspired by The Best American Poetry, a well-respected and read annual anthology.
“Poetry enters your heart the way idea enters your mind.”
(from my essay on poetry “Nose to Nose” in Breathing the Page – Reading the Act of Writing, Cormorant Books, 2010)
I deeply believe that poetry is a primary source for any culture to investigate and express its vision of what it aspires to be. It can spark our awareness and open our hearts in a few moments. In this respect, it is a form that still suits the rapidity of our technologically-based world. In our secularized world, poetry continues to connect us to the sacred and ritual: in times of trouble, celebration, honoring and grief, we still turn to poetry to sound out our collectivity.
Guest blog post by Betsy Warland.