2016 was (for all its difficulties) an exciting year for poetry. This year saw the launch of Vallum: Contemporary Poetry issues 13:1 and 13:2. We were also happy to add two new chapbooks, Sonnets on a Night Without Love by Yusuf Saadi and String Practice by Jan Zwicky, to our chapbook series. And, after seven previous nominations at the National Magazine Awards, this year we celebrated a Gold Award with David McGimpsey for his poem “The High Road.”
To help us say goodbye to the year, we asked more than 20 recent contributors to tell us what made 2016 a special year for them. We asked them:
1) What was your Favourite Poetry Book?
2) What was your Discovery of the Year? and
3) What advice do you have for 2017?
Here’s what they said:
1. I absolutely loved Michael E. Casteels’ The Last White House At the End of the Row of White Houses, his first full-length book of poems. The collection is a wonderful blending of the strange and the ordinary, the mundane and the magical, and it was a pleasure to lose myself in Casteels’ surreal and dreamlike poetry. Each page offers a glimpse of an eerily familiar world, where robots and magic elevators are juxtaposed with bleak suburbia and office work. Funny and compelling, and imbued with empathy, Casteels’ collection definitely stood out for me this year.
2. I happened to pick up Sara Sutterlin’s I Wanted To Be the Knife at a book fair this winter, an extended edition of a booklet published in 2015. I was unfamiliar with Sutterlin’s work, and I was immediately grabbed by her awkward, erotic, and painful explorations of love and sex. Her voice is genuine, relatable, and comfortably intimate, and I couldn’t help but laugh and cringe and ache right along with her. I Wanted To Be the Knife cuts deep, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open for more of Sutterlin’s work.
3. 2016 was a difficult year, and I think many of us are looking ahead with concern and trepidation. When the future feels so unstable, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening in the day-to-day. My only advice is to live in the present as much as possible, and to fully appreciate the good times when they happen.
Megan Callahan is a freelance writer and translator from Montreal. She is currently pursuing a masters in translation studies at Concordia University, where she is researching the auditory features of French poetry. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in Matrix Magazine and PRISM International, and her reviews appear regularly in Vallum: Contemporary Poetry. See Megan’s review of Laurie D. Graham’s Settler Education in Vallum 13:2.
1. My favourite poetry book is Jorge Luis Borges’ Selected Poems. Earlier this year I was in Pages (my favourite independent book seller – they have a pretty good poetry section). Once I picked up this bilingual volume I was hooked. Borges has since become my go-to-poet. The way his words line up on the page really digs into my subconscious. It’s the book I pick up when I need inspiration. Two of my favourite poems from the volume are “The Hourglass” and “The Dagger.”
2. With regards to my discovery of the year, mine is more like a re-discovery. A few years ago I purchased Charles Wright’s Scar Tissue. I read a few poems, then for whatever reason put it on the bookshelf. I was rearranging the books on the shelf when the word “Tissue” caught my eye. I picked up Charles’ book and spent the afternoon engaged with his language and imagery. It’s one of those books where I’ll partly remember a line then I have to go back and re-read the whole poem. The two poems that stand out for me in this collection are “Wrong Notes” and “Archaeology.”
Edward Dewar‘s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Vallum, The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review, and The Dalhousie Review. See Edward’s poem “A Scar” in Vallum 13:2.
Antony Di Nardo
1. No one book was my favourite, but I kept returning to Vijay Seshadri’s work in 3 Sections and re-read with delight Tomaz Salamun’s Woods and Chalices and The Blue Tower for the umpteenth time. I kept a Pessoa next to me for a good part of the year—Pessoa is always full of surprises no matter where or when I read him. The two new books I very much enjoyed were Sue Sinclair’s Heaven’s Thieves and Matt Rader’s Desecrations. They bring an aesthetics to their poetry that I find inventive, musical, and mindful. Ashbery’s new book disappointed and I’m waiting for Seidel’s to arrive. Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry was promising, but never went far enough in exposing that hatred. It quickly ran out of margins. I preferred Tony Hoagland’s Twenty Poems That Could Save America – a collection of essays that offered fresh and creative ways to think and talk about poetry. Barry Dempster’s Disturbing the Buddha is next on my list.
2. Richard Siken. He read at the Edmonton Poetry Festival and I had just picked up his collections, Crush and War of the Foxes, which I found dazzling and compelling. Beautiful language, crushed and bruised between his fingers, his poetry an aesthetic of felt experience, obsessive, images to relish. Like all good writers do, he inspired me to respond to his work in kind, engage in conversation, so I wrote a suite of poems I entitled “Dear Richard,” talking to lyrics like “all paint is sent downstream, into the future.”
3. When you’re not writing, read. Read poetry everyday. Every single day of the year. Poems are so compact and portable – they’re on every device, on every shelf – and so rewarding with so few words. I read them for language, for words, for music, and rhythm and rhyme, for metaphors and ideas, for stories and characters and splashes of paint. And all of that usually in only one poem. A good line of poetry can so caress the eyes.
1. SONG by Brigit Pegeen Kelly (1951 – 2016).
2. Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol I: 1970s – 1981, by Ed Piskor.
3. Two propositions from Baudelaire’s “Three Drafts of a Preface” for Les Fleurs du mal:
Proposition 1. Rhythm and rhyme answer the immortal human need for monotony, symmetry, and surprise.
Proposition 2. Poetry is related to music through prosody, whose roots go deeper into the human soul than any classical theory indicates.
Jim Fisher is a music educator for school children in Richmond, California. See Jim’s poem “The Beast in the Garden” in Vallum 13:2.
1. Don Domanski’s chapbook Field Notes contains a single poem and is absolutely breathtaking. Every time I enter this poem, it makes me feel so alive, feeling and experiencing with all my senses, noticing new discoveries, within and without, because the poem itself and the language continue to renew themselves. It is mesmerizing.
2. Discovery of the Year: Leaves Like Spindrift by Isabel Chenot. Her graceful lines and exquisite music make me linger and forget time.
3. I won’t offer any advice, but I find stillness to be the most important space because imagination and waking dreams can come from there.
Miki Fukuda is the author of the chapbook Finality of the Morning (Baseline Press, 2016) and the leaflet small book Songs from Twelve Moons of the Bear (Leaf Press, 2015). See Miki’s poem “Bestiary” in Vallum 13:2.
Evan J. Hoskins
1. Laurie Graham’s book Settler Education. Laurie has written about a forgotten history that just has to be told, and she’s somehow done it clearly, strikingly, and poetically. It really is a book with voice. These poems highlight speckles of various Canadian locations and histories, including the prairies and Toronto—my two homes—so it’s hard not to love it.
2. Self promotion time: The discovery of the year has been Toronto’s new and incredible arts/reading series for emerging artists, Slackline Creative Arts Series! Every month I am stunned by what people present. In all honesty, the work that Canada’s emerging artists are doing I often find to be far more interesting than that of “established” artists/authors—and I read a-lot from all levels of authors these days. The discovery of the year was that emerging poets are doing just what they should be doing: taking risks, reinventing, and pushing the craft beyond itself.
3. The year is just a collection of days, which is a collections of hours, which is a collection of minutes, which are very easy to misplace in this busy life. Stop trying to clutch the slippery seconds and your hands will be free to type.
Evan J. Hoskins runs (with a big amazing team of co-volunteers) the Slackline Emerging Artist Series in Toronto. See Evan’s poem “Marks on the Ice” in Vallum 13:2.
1. Niche, by Basma Kavanagh (Frontenac House), winner of the 2016 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. I also had the good fortune to hear her read twice from the book, and she mesmerized both audiences. An extremely serious, but seriously unpretentious, work of eco-poetry.
2. I had the chance to review (for Arc) John Terpstra’s slim masterpiece This Orchard Sound (Wolsak & Wynn, 2014): 14 exquisite sections, loosely based on the Stations of the Cross, reflecting on the making of a new cross (in Hamilton) from wood found in an abandoned, traffic-drowned orchard (in Burlington). The book, appropriately, is full of both suffering and revelation, the old, entwined testament of nature and poetry – the “testimony of apples,” the “body memory” of trees – renewed.
3. Osip Mandelstam stressed the nature of reading as an activity, itself participatory and creative. (What he called ‘passive reading’ was a terrible danger, an affront against the nature of language [and, I’d add, in the spirit of Terpstra’s work, the language of nature]). I also think listening (not just, or even mainly, to words) can and should be an activity, a mode of creative perception requiring tome-consuming cultivation.
Sean Howard’s new book is The Photographer’s Last Picture (Gaspereau Press), an experimental reflection, in poetry and prose, on twenty photographs from the Great War. See Sean’s poem “Shadowgraph 141: To Trace Out a Shallow Figure” in Vallum 13:1.
1. Favorite chapbook: Let Me Be Clear (2016)—Poems from Bernie Sanders’ filibuster speech on December 10, 2010 as (re)written by 10 incarcerated men at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility in Wilton, New York, edited by their poetry class teacher Cara Benson, and published as a Dossier by Ugly Duckling Presse.
Favourite full-length collection: The Good Dark by Annie Guthrie, Tupelo Press, 2015
2. Two new-to-me poets discovered in a friend’s book divestiture pile: Erica Jong’s Half-Lives (Henry Holt & Co, 1973) and Leslie Ullman’s Slow Work Through Sand (University Of Iowa Press, 1998).
3. Dear Citizens of 2017: Listen.
Jami Macarty‘s chapbook Landscape of the Wait, a poetic response to her nephew William’s car accident and year-long coma, is forthcoming in May/June, 2017 with Finishing Line Press. See Jami’s poem “Nor’easter” in Vallum 13:1.
1. I think my favourite book of recent poems has to be Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property (Penguin, 2016). Schiff’s tightly-wound-yet-sprawling lines accumulate endlessly surprising sonic effects and resonant images—from “A Doe Does Not Replace Iphigenia on the Sacrificial Altar” to “Amerithrax.” Pure incantatory force!
2. My discovery of the year was Max Ritvo and his book Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016). Sadly, this is both his debut full-length collection and his final one. Just before his book’s release, he passed away from cancer at age 25. A deeply felt knowledge of mortality haunts his poems, but don’t let your guard down: Ritvo crafts explosive inner-worlds with humour, confidence, and precision.
3. My advice is to read Gregory Scofield’s shattering Witness, I Am. For a good time call Daniel Scott Tysdal’s Fauxccasional Poems. A few other very recent ones: Michael Prior’s Model Disciple, Courtney Bates-Hardy’s House of Mystery, and Richard Kelly Kemick’s Caribou Run (and the list goes on…)
Nathan Mader has an essay forthcoming in The Literary History of Saskatchewan Vol. 3 (Coteau, 2017). See Nathan’s poem “Eilmer of Malmesbury” in Vallum 13:1.
Stuart Ian McKay
1. My favourite book this year is Jay Millar’s esp Accumulation Sonnets: So beautiful, so interesting, a book to return to over and over again.
2. I just finished reading Milton, for the second time too. What an amazing poet!
3. My advice? Go outside often, walk around and clear your head. Read everything, especially the Bible, Milton, Du Fu and Kroetcsh. Support Canadian literary journals. Write longhand on paper. Creativity is best when messy – enjoy writing!
Stuart Ian McKay is a Calgary poet. See his poem “An Indentation Is Also A Where” in Vallum 13:1.
1. This year has seen some memorable chapbooks from poets with a full-length collection or two (or three) already on shelves, I’m thinking of Stevie Howell’s Summer, and its fierce, dialogic lyricism, as well as the labyrinthine-intelligence winding through Dani Couture’s Black Sea Nettle.This year has also been full of new talent publishing small press debuts: Curtis LeBlanc (Good for Nothing), Rebecca Salazar (Guzzle) and Michelle Brown (Foreign Experts Building) have each assembled striking chapbooks that work their poems’ emotional stakes through varied formal acumen: the results are memorable and well worth reading.
2. In particular, I wanted to draw attention to Couture’s Black Sea Nettle, with its elaborate circumlocutions (“If the relationship to one’s body is expressed / algebraically, let every variable be a decorative tuber”) and its sprawling, but deliberate accumulations of images that suggest the speakers’ unfurling worlds, both personal and public: “The waters / no longer run red or court fire. / We’ve found better blends // to run off. Crushed pills in spoonfuls / of corn syrup. Come, the algae blooms / are so thick, we can walk on water we can’t drink”). When compared to Couture’s latest full-length collection, Yaw, Black Sea Nettle‘s poetics are sonically denser and more rhetorically complicated, marked by sudden shifts in register: Couture’s phrases echo, riff on, and torque the logic of myriad popular and academic discourses in order to evoke her speakers’ oscillating interest in “all opposing mirrors–the universe / trying to both see and collapse itself.” Black Sea Nettle is a slim volume, a scant nine poems, but all are intellectually and emotionally resonant.
3. Read more poetry; read more chapbooks!
Michael Prior‘s debut collection, Model Disciple, was released by Signal Poetry in 2016. See Michael’s poem “Godzilla Versus Mothra” in Vallum 11:1.
1. My favourite book that I read this year was probably The Snow Party by Derek Mahon, which was published in 1975. It has some really great poems, including the poem many consider to be his best, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.”
2. I really enjoyed reading Kayla Czaga’s poem “Song,” from her collection For Your Safety Please Hold On. I remember reading it at about 4 am and feeling emotionally-punched; it’s so powerful. I feel that if a poet can write maybe three or four poems of that caliber in their lifetime, they have done well as a poet.
3. I think I’m in need of advice more than I’m in any position to impart it. What I can offer are the same questions to others as I’ve been asking myself. Given that we’re living in a politically dark time, I think it’s important to ask ourselves again what role poetry has in our contemporary world. Clearly it’s not simply for the dissemination of information, as not a lot of people read poetry; I don’t think it’s merely cathartic release either. What is it then? What power does it have? What do we hope poetry can do? Answering or at least re-thinking these constellations of questions will hopefully allow us to purify our poems, and maybe ourselves.
Yusuf Saadi is the winner of Vallum’s 2016 Chapbook Contest. You can find an excerpt from Yusuf’s chapbook, Sonnets on a Night Without Love in Vallum 13:2.
James W. Wood
1. My favourite poetry book this year is Noel Duffy’s Summer Rain (Ward/Wood Publications, London, UK) – Duffy is a younger Irish poet whose reputation is flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic, with recent appearances in The Irish Times, The Financial Times, and on BBC Radio Four. His work evinces the delicate interplay between modern scientific knowledge and our human capacity for wonder and, at its best, remains in the memory long after reading, inviting us to re-read in wonder.
2. My discovery of the year was the work of the nonagenarian American Poet Stanley Moss thanks to the brilliant new English poetry journal The High Window, edited by poets David Cooke and Anthony Costello. Through decades of practice and observation, Moss has honed his craft, bringing subtlety and light to memories as varied as his service at Normandy in World War II and his life on a farm in rural New York State. Highly recommended.
3. I don’t consider myself sufficiently successful or august to dispense advice, though I now believe pleasure – the pleasure of writing, when we are fortunate enough to be afforded such pleasure, and the pleasure of reading, which ought to be obvious – to be fundamental to poetry’s future purpose and survival. I am concerned that too many poets subsume themselves in the seriousness of their craft, and focus on the development of their “career” as writers (egged on by creative writing courses, etc), without thinking of the sensual pleasure Gerard Manley Hopkins must have derived from writing, or the wit and play of the best of Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc; the passion Donne brought to his verse, and so forth. Without such pleasure, there will be no readers, and poetry will be reduced to a chore or a career, instead of what it should be, which is the endlessly fresh expression of how it feels to be human, and to live.
James W. Wood is the author of five works of verse. His next book, Time Signatures, is forthcoming in 2018. Find him @James_W_Wood. See James’ essay “Perspectives on New Poetry from Britain and Ireland” in Vallum 13:2.
Come back tomorrow for even more thoughts on the Year in Poetry.
And be sure to check out our Poem of the Week blog for 52 of our favourite poems this year.
Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!