Poets of Colour Pick Poets for NPM16

Poetry is a community, without a doubt, but it hasn’t always been an inclusive community. We’re all the more thrilled, then, to feature eleven poets of colour and poems of their choosing…many times also by poets of colour. No more excuses: reading excellent, diverse poetry is right at your fingertips, all. Delight in these picks with us.


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Poetry is a community, without a doubt, but it hasn’t always been an inclusive community. We’re all the more thrilled, then, to feature eleven poets of colour and poems of their choosing…many times also by poets of colour. No more excuses: reading excellent, diverse poetry is right at your fingertips, all. Delight in these picks with us.quickjump: Jenna Butler | George Elliott Clarke | Asher Ghaffar | Sheniz Janmohamed | Chelene Knight | Soraya Peerbaye | Rollie Pemberton | Dane Swan | Gillian Sze | Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang | Yaya Yao

Jenna Butler

I’ve fallen pretty hard for Rita Dove’s poem “American Smooth” from her book of the same name. Partly, it’s because this poem shimmies on the page; it’s got a great groove, hinting at how Dove is known for her work as a musician as well as a poet. More than that, though, it’s got her trademark ability to lift the poem clear off the page in a series of compact observations: it “[achieves] flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence” (26-28). And then she nails the last few lines home, bringing down like a thunderclap the reality of living alongside grasping racism. It’s a case of holding the line, as it were, and not losing the rhythm or the joy of the moment to systemic biases.*Jenna Butler is the author of Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press) and is a professor of creative writing and ecocriticism at Red Deer College.

George Elliott Clarke

In my first half-decade as a poet, ages 15-20, the most exemplary poem for me—as an Africadian youth—was Conrad Kent Rivers’ “Four Sheets to the Wind and a One-Way Ticket to France.”  An African-American poet, Rivers (1933-1968) was part of the Black Arts insurgency in American culture in the 1960s, but published relatively little and remains little known. But that poem—a Sandburg-lyrical, Sartre-existentialist verse-memoir of a singular Af-Am who’s defected to Paris—was manna for my imagination. As a Haligonian out the North End “hood,” I thrilled to read of an exotic city of red scarves, erotic verbs, bilingual blues, sneaky intellectuals, and, of course, French wine, but a city where an Af-Am was also exotic. On the night that 1978 dawned as 1979, I penned my homage to Rivers, “Watercolours for Negro Expatriates in France.” The first poem I ever published, it was also the poem that told me that I was surely a poet. And I began to sport scarves and drink sake, and to suspect I shall die an old expatriate—perhaps in Bermuda….*An Africadian (African-Nova Scotian) bard, George Elliott Clarke was Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15) and is the Parliamentary/National Poet Laureate (2016-17). His 14th verse-work is Extra Illicit Sonnets (Guernica, 2015).

Asher Ghaffar

Finding Daphne Marlatt’s poetry again was like a déjà vu. When I first encountered Vancouver Poems (1972), I was struck by a form that bridged narrative and lyric in a singular manner. I was recently delighted to discover Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now (2012), published by Talonbooks. Marlatt has altered the original poems to account for significant urban changes, notably the liquid movement of global capital into the city. The undulating sonic movement of Marlatt’s line within its overarching cavernous form is mesmerizing. There is room for others to exist in the very formal cells of the work, as though a door has been left open without the need for an invitation. Despite its unitary lyrical voice, the form is the invitation. I love the way Marlatt includes discontinuous histories of the nation in the apparently seamless movement of the lyrical line, achieved through an understated use of alliteration that seems like a preternatural gift. Consequently, these histories smoothly transition with those of the nation and self in sound, but not in sense. In fact, the antagonism between alliterative sound and sense – between a nation’s potentiality and its actuality – is acute in these works. Lines and narratives are malleable, offering themselves to the reader. With profound subtlety, Marlatt’s persona unearths unsounded places in individual memory, linking these up with historical caesuras. The detritus of the past is endowed with the physicality of the present: sensations unfold into narratives and muted places become forces of desire. The lines gesture towards the silhouette of a nation and a self under water. *                                                                                      Asher Ghaffar is the author of Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music (ECW Press). 

Sheniz Janmohamed

A few months ago, I opened my mailbox and discovered a care package, sent to me by a dear friend and fellow writer.  Tucked into her handmade card was this poem. It resonated with me deeply because it reminded me of why I write- beyond the need to be validated, published or accepted by the mainstream literary community. It reminded me to write with authenticity, courage and grace – and in my role as artist-educator, to encourage others to do the same. This poem stands as a reminder to strike a balance.  I particularly appreciate the acknowledgement of honouring our first languages, traditions and ancestors, and the responsibility we carry in telling their stories.If I could, I’d tuck this poem into the notebook of every young writer in our city. Blessing for A Writer by Pat Schneider
May you hear in your own stories 
the moan of the wind around the corners 
of half-forgotten houses
 and the silence in rooms you remember.
May you hear in your own poems 
the rhythms of the cosmos, 
the sun, the moon and the stars 
rising out of the sea and returning to it.
May you, too, pull darkness out of light 
and light out of darkness. 
May you hear in your own voice 
the laughter of water falling over stones.
May you hear in your own writing 
the strangeness, the surprise of mysteries, 
the presence of ancestors, spirits, 
voices buried in the cells of your body.
May you have the courage to honor 
your own first language, the music of those
 whose lives inhabit your own. 
May you tell the truth and do no harm.
May you dare in your own words to touch
 the broken heart of the world. May your passion for peace and justice be wise: 
remember — No one can argue with story.
May you study your craft as you would study 
a new friend or a long time, much loved lover. 
And all the while, lost though you may be in the forest, 
drop your own words on the path like pebbles
and write your way home.
*Sheniz Janmohamed is an author, artist educator and spoken word artist. Her new collection, Firesmoke, is available now from Mawenzi House.

Chelene Knight

Dionne Brand’s book length poem, Thirsty, would definitely be considered my go to poem for many reasons. Like Brand, I too write about the city, home, and belonging. What does it mean to have a space to call your own, and what does it mean to not have one? I am constantly thinking about this. As a woman of colour writer, who grew up disconnected from many parts of my own family, and in turn, my own self, I’ve always felt like I am on a constant search for a connection with words that I can relate to, or for a connection with the person writing those words. When I relate or connect to a poem, it’s usually because there are certain lines or stanzas that make me say “oh my god, finally” and there is a stanza like this in Thirsty: 
Would I have had a different life
failing this embrace with broken things,
iridescent veins, ecstatic bullets, small cracks
in the brain, would I have known these particular facts,
how a phrase scars a cheek, how water
dries love out, this, a thought as casual
as any second eviscerates a breath…
There is something about that stanza that makes me feel like my flaws and mistakes are welcomed. There is something about that stanza that makes me feel like I am not the only one living in this skin and struggling and that it is OK to live in this skin, and struggle.It’s not always about finding the “meaning” of the poem, but about finding a spot within the poem. A place to rest, to think, and to lay your head down. I think about this all the time. How can I find comfort between the layers of words? How can I use poetry to answer my own questions about myself? I think when people start looking at poetry as a mirror, looking for a reflection, his will totally transform the way people approach poetry because then instead of looking for someone else’s meaning in a poem, we will be looking for our own.*Chelene Knight is the author of Braided Skin (Mother Tongue Publishing) and is the Poetry Coordinator and Managing Editor at Room Magazine.

Soraya Peerbaye

My “favourite” poem is always changing. “my city is a hard femme” is from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Bodymap, released just last year. I love Piepzna-Samarasinha’s gorgeous, deviant lyricism – think of “the girl gang of wild weed trees busting through every/vacant lot like a bank robbery” – or, “My city a broken/beautiful bitch/with a necklace of junk trees blooming”. I love her insistence on loving what is unloved.I encountered Piepzna-Samarasinha through her early work, when I was trying to write about growing up brown and awkward. Reading her published collections I recognize the radical divergences in our identities and experiences; yet always I’m amazed at the raw truths she exposes, the insight which sutures them together, how it pierces me. This is not an argument for the notion of universality. Piepzna-Samarasinha drives every question deeper – about love, living in a body, being with others, fucking, breaking, healing, belonging.*Soraya Peerbaye is the author of Tell: Poems for a Girlhood (Pedlar Press).

Rollie Pemberton

The poem I would like to select is ‘Numbers, Letters’ by Amiri Baraka.It’s a singular and personal manifesto that is evocative in a way that anyone can appreciate. It represents a commanding knowledge of self, a celebration of black identity that was as fresh in 1969 as it is in 2016. 
What was you doing down there, freakin’ off
with white women, hangin’ out
with Queens, say it straight to be
understood straight, put it flat and real
in the street where the sun comes and the
moon comes and the cold wind in winter
waters your eyes.  Say what you mean, dig
it out put it down, and be strong
about it.
*Rollie Pemberton is a Toronto-based journalist, poet, rapper and producer. His poetry book Magnetic Days was published by Metatron in 2014.

Dane Swan

Honestly, I think the idea of having a favourite, single poem in print is antiquated. When I first transitioned from slam poetry to the page, one of the first things I realized is that writing for a collection and writing for an anthology (or lit magazine) are two completely different things. Currently, society rarely champions single poems – it’s all about having a collection/book. I’ve witnessed poets better than me struggle to publish that first book for decades because they were too busy writing single poems and not putting together collections that could be tied together.When people ask me who to read I’m pretty consistent in narrowing it down to two, or three poets. Hopefully, no one else picks Dionne Brand, not because I can’t go back and pick another poet, but because, to me, Land To Light On is a perfect collection. It’s more than just the themes, Brand has control of the page itself. The way she uses it – sometimes the blank spaces on the page are as powerful as the ink filled sections. Then there’s the complete mastery of language and its use to drive home the messages of this collection. To pull a collection like that off you need a typesetter who knows not to get in the way, and a publisher who is in step with you. There’s no way she was trying to write a singular poem that could be digested easily.Don’t get me wrong, anthologies and lit mags are important. But, if that’s your thing as a writer, what you strive for; you’re basically just seeking acceptance from editors. When I was a slam poet I literally had hundreds of people “accept” my work. Random people on the street would stop me to tell me how great a particular poem was. I could care less about conforming my work to the tastes of a single person for a page in a magazine. Personally, I want to become a great poet. You should too. In this day and age “greatness” is determined from our collections. Land To Light On is a great book by a great author. Go read it. Set the goal of writing a book of that ilk.(Sorry for high-jacking your question.)*Dane Swan’s second collection with Guernica Editions, A Mingus Lullaby, is out now. 

Gillian Sze

Like many others, I have been – and continue to be – drawn to the fragments of Sappho. The persistent mystery of her biography, her lost corpus, and tantalizing echoes in other works through the centuries are all powerfully alluring. I’m always surprised by Sappho’s voice. She’s there even when she’s missing. She’s always current. Most impressive for me is how Sappho can show us the shrapnel energy of words – whether survived, salvaged, or residual. One of her most popular fragments is 168B:
Moon has set
and Pleiades: middle
night, the hour goes by
alone I lie.
There are a number of translations of this fragment out there, but I like this one by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter. In four lines, we bear witness to the speaker’s insomniac solitude, felt in the “middle / night,” when dark is deepest, as measured here in celestial time, after the setting of the moon and the Pleiades. What struck me when I first encountered this fragment was how quickly I recognized the speaker’s restless loneliness. How singular to share someone else’s insomnia almost 3000 years later – and yet it happened! This fragment reminds me of the simple and remarkable things art can do: observe, record, express, and connect us to an experience that by all rights should have been lost forever.*Gillian Sze is the author of Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press).

Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang

One of my favorite poems is “Lake Ontario Park” by Sadiqa DeMeijer. Sadiqa’s writes without pretension, yet she can pack so much into so little: “Over the warming ground, swings toll like clock tower bells/ Squirrels spiral the trunk of a pine./ We fill a pail with sand./ The day is robin’s eggshell fine.” The childlike feel of the rhyme paired with the delicate and oh-so-breakable image of a day that is eggshell fine stays with me always. She intersects motherhood, race, privilege, and place in a poem that feels as light and sheer as a veil. She never shies away from either the beauty or the horror of life. Sadiqa is a poet with her eyes wide open, and her work reminds me not to look away when things get hard.*Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang is a professor of Creative Writing at Sheridan College, and the author of Status Update (Oolichan Books).

Yaya Yao

Singing is my favorite way to experience and offer poetry, so the poems closest to my heart are songs. I love the directness of my favorite songs, and I’ll always remember the first time I heard Abbey Lincoln’s “The World Is Falling Down.”I was in high school. I spent most of my time feeling like a gaping, firebreathing wound. The more I learned—the more I became aware of who I was to this world (queer, “Chinese-Canadian,” middle-class, nondisabled, etc.)—the more confused, depressed and pissed off I got. I’m lucky that my family was so loving and politically aware; it meant that I had enough self-esteem and enough information to get angry at the world and not just at myself. Because of my parents and the strong activist communities they took part in­ building, I had channels to do something about my anger, through activism and writing.I’d borrowed a random stack of CDs from Sanderson library, and here was Abbey Lincoln’s song, and I had to sit down. Then lie down, as if in her arms. The world was a raging mess, she knew, and she knew that we knew it too. It’s not trite when you hear her sing it: the main thing is that we stay the hell together. Connection, hope, vulnerability. Lincoln reflected what I needed, and still need, to focus on—connection, hope, adaptability, vulnerability. What we need as a species to get out of this mess.
The world is falling down, hold my hand
It’s a lonely sound, hold my hand
We’ll follow the breeze and go like the wind
And look for a place where the willows bend.
*Yaya Yao is a writer, editor, and educator, and the author of Flesh, Tongue (Mawenzi House).