By the time I reached Massy Books for the launch of Best Canadian Poetry 2019, all the chairs had gone. That’s understandable — it’s a huge claim. The book brings together 50 different poems which, according to guest editor Rob Taylor, represent the best Canadian poetry of 2019.
Since all the chairs had gone, I crouched awkwardly in the aisle between them, avoiding patches of melting snow. A kindly man looked at me with obvious concern and offered me his seat. I politely declined. This was a good move, as he turned out to be Dallas Hunt, one of the selected poets. There were ten poets in attendance, hidden around the room like plants in the audience. I started to suspect everyone around me of being a secret poet.
The atmosphere was relaxed and celebratory as Rob Taylor — who seemed happy and a little punch-drunk from the ordeal of reading all the eligible submissions and choosing his selection — introduced the poets. I always find it more interesting to hear lots of different poets read side-by-side than it is to hear one poet read several of their own poems. Above all, the event seemed to highlight how different poets are, although we tend to imagine them to be a particular class of person.
We started with Kevin Spenst, a flamboyantly extroverted poet who thanked Rob’s eyeballs, before launching into his reading, speaking rather too fast and breaking into pseudo-operatic singing at various points in his poem. Dallas Hunt followed, speaking first in Cree then in English to introduce his darkly funny Cree Dictionary. Ellie Sawatsky introduced her poem as though she was giving a presentation in English class, analysing her own use of metaphor. Sonnet L’Abbé was mesmerising in her re-writing of Shakespeare’s sonnet 127, a howl of anger addressed to “the culture that has surrounded me to the point it speaks through me.”
Mallory Tater read next and fleetingly — forgoing an introduction she read her slight, darting poem straight into the microphone and sat down again almost before I realised it was over. Laura Matwichuk’s voice was quiet, even with the microphone and she confessed to getting tongue-tied speaking about her own work. It spoke for itself, a haunting reflection on fear, pregnancy and volcanic eruptions. The fear of fire also ran through Shaun Robinson’s How Soon, How Likely, How Severe. Tall and black-bearded, he spoke confidently and a little self-effacingly about his experiences fighting forest fires. Christopher Evans followed — white-bearded and surprisingly young. He joked about his fears associated with reading in public (having to adjust the mic stand / farting) before reading an incisive, troubling poem about housing insecurity in Vancouver.
The last reader was Marion Quednau, and her poem was perhaps the most memorable of the evening. Her poem, read in a gentle, sympathetic voice, described the experience of accidentally seeing her father’s penis, which she compared to “bruised fruit / like something forgotten in a lunch pail.” Somehow, she took this unprepossessing subject and turned it into a poem full of warmth, dignity and humour.
The editors were at pains to call the collection’s title into question, pointing out that taste is subjective, and that, at most, this was a selection of some of the very good poetry produced in Canada last year. Based on the launch, it’s clear that, quibbling aside, there are some gems to be found in Best Canadian Poetry 2019.