Poetry as balm during a pandemic

The world is in a time of turmoil and many people are looking inward for peace and comfort. Reading poetry, during National Poetry Month and beyond, can satisfy the desire to travel outside of living rooms as well as discover some inner peace in an uncertain time.

Sonja Grgar and Jeff Derksen are poets who can help take people’s minds off of crisis, and focus on the beauty of literature and the feelings it evokes within readers all over the world.

The beginnings of a poet

Born in New Westminster, Derksen is the author of several poetry collections, including The Vestiges (2014), Transnational Muscle Cars (2003), Dwell (1994), and Down Time (1990). He is the recipient of the 1991 Dorothy Livesay Poetry award, a founding member of the Kootenay School of Writing and a former professor of English at Simon Fraser University (SFU). His research and teaching revolves around the vital issues of culture, space, politics, and contemporary poetics and art.

As is the case for many writers, poetry was Derksen’s gateway to a life and love of writing.

“Poetry was a vehicle that led to people who became a world for me,” he says, “People and the experience of that community made me want to get into the writing life, and later into the world of artist-run centres as well.”

Jeff Derksen. | Photo courtesy of SFU

Grgar also used poetry as a vehicle while growing up in former Yugoslavia, now Serbia. She moved to Canada at the age of 16, studying English literature and film. She began writing intensely when she moved back to Vancouver 9 years ago, focusing on poetry, essays, and short fiction. Grgar has shared her works as a featured reader at SFU’s The Writer’s Studio Reading Series, and (the now-defunct) Hogan’s Alley Café in Vancouver, and at New Westminster’s Poetic Justice. Grgar is also a participant in Surrey Muse, a self-described “interdisciplinary art and literature presentation group”, leading their Open Mic, and hosting the group’s gatherings.

Grgar has been published in the Globe and Mail, as well as in several anthologies, including Family Ties Anthology (Hidden Brook Press, 2014), That Not Forgotten (Hidden Brook Press, 2012), and Grandfather, Father and Me: Memories, Poetry and Good Food (Hidden Brook Press, 2013). In Grandfather, Grgar’s poem entitled Emil, invokes her grandfather, whose “quiet smile/undoes the darkness”. Grgar describes her sense that though he has passed away, Emil lives on, still lovingly supporting her.

“I do feel like the capacity for capturing beauty, pulse, shape, and meaning in language has always been such a core part of who I am,” she says. “And I can largely attribute it to my father who is a creative and intellectual genius – film director by training, photographer, artist and an incredible storyteller.”

Commonalities in poetry

Both Grgar and Derksen have shaped their poetic lives around different cultures of the world. Derksen has done substantial research on Asian North American poetics, and the Cuban culture resonates deeply with Grgar. Both cultures have faced their respective obstacles in society, which is more relevant than ever in the present day.

Sonja Grgar | Photo courtesy of Sonja Grgar

Grgar feels that the complexities of the Cuban culture have permeated her poetic style.

“What fascinates me about Cuba is its complexity, its resilience, and its contradictions. I find complexity to be very poetic,” she says. “It has been a country that bravely defied global capitalism and hegemonic oppression of the United States and had indeed elevated its people out of abject poverty after the 1959 revolution.”

Derksen feels a deep connection to the poetry of Asian North Americans for similar reasons. “Asian North American poetry in particular has been an amazing intersection of poetic experimentation and political conviction,” says Derksen, “It’s been unflinching, sensuously material, historical and present for a good 50 years.”

Strength in uncertain times

Both Derksen and Grgar’s strength in times of struggle is something that people can all learn from today. While not experiencing military coups or going to war, many may feel threatened and trapped in a place they cannot safely escape from. Poets, like Grgar and Derksen, can pull people out of their everyday routine – out of their ruts – transporting them to somewhere beyond the four walls that confine them for the time being.

“In this unprecedented time, it will take poetry that tries to address why we are not together,” says Derksen, “[poetry] that looks at what it is that keeps us apart, and poetry that speaks to another way of being together to really bring us together.”

For more information, please visit:

Jeff Derksen: jeff_derksen@sfu.ca

Sonja Grgar: sonja.grgar@gmail.com