Mirrors, activists, teachers, truth-tellers: traces of who the poet is

Photo courtesy of Thought Catalog

the doctor says, brain tumor
and my mother does not answer
I watch my ghost leave her body
from where I am eye-to-eye,
confined to sterile bed & papery sheets
aging is tenuous in my small body
a carriage of all her favourite memories

Excerpt from “age nine”
(Nisha Patel in Coconut, Newest Press)

“Some of us are storytellers, truth-tellers, occupying a space in opposition to injustice,” says Nisha Patel, a queer poet from Treaty 6 territory, currently the City of Edmonton’s Poet Laureate and the Canadian Individual Slam Champion.

“We function as mirrors. Others are activists, organizers, curators of art and experience. We are teachers and speakers, in the business of instructing others through the world.”

The poet goes further.

“Poetry is a path into a person’s world, illuminating their perspective and their emotional connection to their surroundings,” she says.

Poetry as an exploration of human existence

April is Canada’s National Poetry Month. Its goal is to bring together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada’s culture. The League of Canadian Poets (poets.ca), established the National Poetry Month in April 1998.

Readers of poetry, Patel says, are seeking out a reflection and exploration of humanity, both their own and the writer’s. When someone reads, they do so to connect, to empathize, and to feel emboldened in their own story as a result.

She points out authors such as Titilope Sonuga, Jillian Christmas, Bahar Orang, Ian Keteku, and Mercedes Eng who show that the role of the poet is multiple – but necessary.

Why not sit and write? Ideas on the poetic power of community

“The challenge, always, is to write poetry that matters to yourself. Do my words make sense? Why should someone read what I have to say? And the answer is always: if you tell your truth, you will find those who need to hear your story,” says Patel.

Nisha Patel says poetry best captures the nuance of the human mind in relation to the world. | Photo courtesy of Nisha Patel

The poet remembers spending most of her time taking in and reacting to the world around – then poetry allowed her to distill and crystalize those complex emotions, celebrate or grieve, and then share with the world, deepening her connection to multiple communities of sensitive eyes.

To writers thinking of experimenting with poetry, Patel stresses the necessity of building a community of readers, as it allows the artist to share those impressions on the world and everything that emerges from the act of writing.

“If you want to be a poet, you need to write poems in community. You do not need to publish or create a 20k follower Instagram page. You need to write, and you need to have community, and if you do one without the other you will suffer, because you alone cannot see past all the gaps in your own understanding of the world,” she says.

She has found that poetry – unlike other genres – best captures the nuance of the human mind in relation to the world, and how it forms connections: often in imagery, comparison, and likeness, rather than in absolute terms or descriptive text alone. To write poetry, then, is the equivalent of being free – a possibility that is open to anyone with the urge to tell their story.

Poetry is freedom

Poet Kayla Czaga also acknowledges how poetry can make the author achieve some kind of freedom. “I’m no poetry-evangelist,” she says. “While poetry speaks to me personally, and it would be nice if more people read it, I’m not interested in convincing them to do so.”

For Kayla Czaga, poetry is about an attention to language and the world. | Photo courtesy of Kayla Czaga

Czaga is the author of two collections of poetry, was awarded by the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and is currently serving an online poetry program for SFU’s The Writer’s Studio. She believes poetry is an exercise of attention to the world and the writer’s surroundings.

She remembers how Oscar Wilde once said that poetry could be the only truly free literary genre because it doesn’t make any money. To Wilde, the poets can do whatever they want without having to think about market forces and other outside influences. That reads as freedom to Czaga.

“Although I’m allergic to generalizations, for me poetry is about an attention to language and the world”, she says. Czaga also points out to the fact that Canada has a rich literary culture with many exciting poets taking language to new inventive experimentations.

“To signal-boost a few debut authors: Molly Cross-Blanchard, Selina Boan, Tara Borin, Shaun Robinson, and Bardia Sinaee. All of these poets have their first books out now or soon from Coach House, Nightwood Editions, Brick Books, and House of Anansi. I’m incredibly thankful to live in a country with such a wealth of excellent presses”, says Czaga.

Talking directly to those thinking of becoming poets, she suggests: “read a lot; focus on the process of putting words in combinations that excite you onto paper; and fall in love with that process”.

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