Talking About Poetry

Why do poets write poetry? There’s no big payday in it, at least from my perspective. Poets write to decipher what’s inside of them and to elucidate the world around them. Words can only describe a fraction of the giant universe of feeling and philosophy, but verse can illuminate in so many ways. Rhythm, constraint, and placement form a macrocosm of expression on a page. It is because of how poetry can connect so well to an audience that it’s often used as a tool for political discourse.


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Why do poets write poetry? There’s no big payday in it, at least from my perspective. Poets write to decipher what’s inside of them and to elucidate the world around them. Words can only describe a fraction of the giant universe of feeling and philosophy, but verse can illuminate in so many ways. Rhythm, constraint, and placement form a macrocosm of expression on a page. It is because of how poetry can connect so well to an audience that it often used as a tool for political discourse.There have been continual discussions lately about who is being heard in poetry. Are we hearing all of the voices? There is a lack of diversity in academia, publishing, and in everything that encompasses the poetic realm. When I speak of diversity, I am talking about the lack of representation of anyone who is not white and male. We are looking at racism and sexism within poetics.For example, look at your childhood. If you were born in North America, who were your teachers and who taught you literature there?  Who were the first poets or writers you were exposed to in the classroom? Did your educators speak to the backgrounds of the students in the room? Did they teach any Indigenous poets at all? How many female poets where you taught and where were they from?The poets we are taught in school are mostly white and male. As people of colour we are taught in a colonialist language with colonial attitudes still living in our textbooks and in our teaching methods. The English language is still a colonial language. It eradicated many Indigenous languages in its wake.A personal example: in my parents’ homeland, Colombia, Spanish is the colonialist language. King Charles III of Spain officially banned the native Chibcha language there in 1770. Today, there is only one public school in Colombia that teaches Chibcha. It is a dying tongue.I was not taught Spanish in school nor was I taught Chibcha. I was taught Spanish by my parents and English in Canada, the home I was born in. The first Colombian poet I was exposed to was Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Spanish through my father.While it is not up to the Canadian school system to educate me on my familial language history, it is up to Canada to teach its citizens the story of their native peoples. How many native poets are we exposed to when we first learn of poetry? Why aren’t we taught the power of oral poetry? Why is it put aside and not made part of the literary canon? If we are born and raised in Canada, shouldn’t we respect and honour the languages and the art of the people that first inhabited this land? Are we eradicating these cultures still by not including it in our textbooks?It is imperative that we make native culture a part of the academic canon. It is imperative that we also make the abounding immigrant literary cultures a part of the academic canon because Canada is not comprised of only white people. Canada is a land of many. To change the canon though, we need to decolonize the education system.To decolonize schools and our poetic communities, we need to take a long hard look at the students in the classroom. We need to address their backgrounds, the communities they come from, and the struggles they might face at home and outside in the real world. School is meant to prepare children for the chaotic life of adulthood. A few of these students also become poets. Many of these poets are people of colour.When a person of colour walks into a poetry reading or book launch our instinct is to look for others like us. Frequently we find ourselves alone in that room. There’s a quiet sense of relief when we find someone who looks like us even if we don’t speak to each other. It means, “I am not alone in this room that is supposed to be a room of my peers.” If we are reading we wonder if our poetry connects to our audience. Of course, poetry is an art of interpretation as much as it is one of expression. However, if a queer dub poet of colour performs a piece of spoken word to an all-cis, non-queer, all-white crowd, is this the type of poetry we are learning in the classroom? If not, how is a homogenized audience connecting?When I first got into poetry it felt odd for me to read social media discussions by well-established writers about the legitimacy of spoken word and slam poetry. Poets talked about the “forced verse” and “lesser poetry” of these poetic mediums. Toronto is the one of the great capitals of dub poetry. It was built in a community that fosters it, celebrates it, and takes great pride in it. Are academic gatekeepers, the ones who form the canon, aware of how the words “lesser poetry” comes across? Is that racism? In my eyes, it is an accepted form of racism because no one questions it.Another issue that needs more discussion is that of sexism and sexual harassment within literary academia. The CWILA and VIDA counts are helping reveal some of the issues, but what I am deeply concerned about are the cases where men in positions of power in literary academia have violated the trust of female students. These accounts have been related through social media and personal blogs. To dismiss this issue as pure gossip is dangerous considering the numerous accounts that have come to light.Our education system should not be a toxic environment for women. Women have the right be safe, to be heard, to be believed, and to be taken seriously. These cases must be talked about in the open. Why is sexual harassment and assault occurring within our literary communities? Why is it happening in literary academia and what is it about that environment that fosters this behavior?In order to make Canadian literature and its poetry accessible to all it must exist in an environment that is equally nurturing of its talent, free of harm, and conducive to growth for everyone.As a writer who is a woman of colour, putting this out there gives me a lot of anxiety. It scares me because the opportunities afforded to me were ones I have worked hard for within networks that can be constrained to maintaining the status quo. To speak out sometimes is seen as a form of rebellion or that I am not staying in my place as an emerging poet. I often here the phrase that, “It is a moral imperative for a woman of colour to take up space.”If you want to be heard there are times you have to scream over the voices that are trying to keep you silent or in your place. Thus, many times when I find myself in a room where I have been asked to read my poetry and find myself with an audience of only white people, I hesitate to say, “Here I am in another white room.” Sometimes I say it, other times I don’t. When I do say it, more often than not, it is received with a nod or some form of acknowledgement. I don’t know if it’s made me lose gigs. It is a risk because it is a privilege to get to your read poetry to an audience, but it is your right as a writer to tell it how it is. Speaking out with the power of your words is the only way to create change.As a writer, I may know my literary rules and how poetry is made, but I do not maintain the status quo. As poets, we are not made to keep order. We are meant to use and even break the constraints taught to us. We are meant to create works of art that subvert the old. We are here to break free of language and make it new all over again. Poetry doesn’t exist to be tamed. Poetry is an ever-evolving art form, like language, meant to run free screaming into the night to make itself known.My beliefs and opinions are my own, but these broader questions are worthy of discussion. To that end, I am the host and organizer of The Toronto Poetry Talks, where we’ll be talking about the racism and sexism that exists in the poetry world. The Talks aim to have a discussion in a salon-style environment with free admission in a safe space where everyone in the room will be able to have their say, bring their questions to the table, and maybe even put forth solutions to make poetry what it should be: an expression made and available to everyone that takes part in it.For those attending and those reading the social media feeds running for the event, there are no hard-set questions being made for it. Our aim at The Toronto Poetry Talks is to make the discussion spontaneous and free flowing. We encourage all who attend to bring some topics to the event ahead of time though.The Toronto Poetry Talks exist as an anti-conference to enable change by forgoing closed room environments. It will hopefully be a place where anyone can have their say. Writers of all kinds, established, new, old, and of various backgrounds will be speaking and conversing together. My hope is that we can share and take that back to our respective literary spaces to continue the conversation.Poetry is freedom and as such it is a creative force to move and effect change into the world. Let’s talk.The Toronto Poetry Talks will be taking place on June 11, 2016 at Toronto’s Metro Hall 10am-5pm in Room 308/309.* * *Jacqueline Valencia is a Toronto-based writer, dj, and critic. Jacqueline is a senior literary editor of The Rusty Toque, a member of Meet The Presses, and a CWILA board member. Her debut collection There Is No Escape Out Of Time will be out with Insomniac Press May 2016.