Review: The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014

Lori A. May, PQ Founder and Past Editor-in-Chief

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014
Guest Editor: Sonnet L’Abbe
Series Editor: Molly Peacock
Tightrope Books, Nov 2014
ISBN: 978-1926639833
This is a biased review. I confess bias since I’ve made no secret of my admiration for The Best Canadian Poetry series and, in fact, review the annual publication like clockwork. As a Canadian now living in the US, I cling to this annual anthology as I somehow feel it keeps me tied to my homeland, keeps me informed of which poets are writing what, and allows me to remain aware of who’s publishing whom on the other side of the border. I trust this series to keep me informed, as I am a fan of series editor Molly Peacock’s writing and curatorial eye, as well as of the Tightrope Books community-oriented approach to celebrating homegrown literature. I say community, as I believe a lot of heart and sweat goes into reading, pondering, and selecting the previous years’ poetry published in Canadian literary journals—so much so that it takes a small army to curate the final selections.

Molly Peacock has served as this series editor for seven years. At her side, and leading the scavenger hunt for best poems, have been guest editors such as Stephanie Bolster, Carmine Starnino, and Priscila Uppal. For this latest volume, poet Sonnet L’Abbé “sieved literary journals and zines,” according to Peacock’s foreword, in her quest to select the fifty best poems published during 2013. This is no small feat, as Peacock ponders “how many pages of over sixty Canadian literary journals in print and online can a person digest, value, and pick winners from?”

Yet year after year the daunting task transitions to results. Year after year, a “notable poems” list is published in the volume to supplement the top fifty selections. I am in awe of not only the pursuit of selecting a sampling of poems to represent a nation, but of the sheer commitment to read with passion, vigor, and an open heart so many hundreds more that do not make the cut for one reason or another. For an entire year, the guest editor fully immerses him- or herself in an ocean of poetry. What an honor and privilege this must be, intimidating though it may seem.  

What I look forward to most in this annual volume is the variety of voices and styles. For readers—or prospective readers—of Canadian poetry, the selections afford a succinct glimpse at what is being published today in journals such as Grain, The Fiddlehead, Room, and others, and provides two cues: to explore these literary journals further and/or to pursue individual poets that catch the reader’s eye. More than once I have been turned on to a voice I hadn’t previously recognized and then followed up with further reading. Isn’t that the best compliment to a collected volume—to encourage further reading?

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014 includes a number of Canadian household favorites, such as George Elliott Clarke, Sue Goyette, Susan Musgrave, Michael Ondaatje, and Shane Rhodes. Yet in my reading I have also come across Jane Byers, a shining star in the Canadian literary landscape. Her debut poetry collection, Steeling Effects, was published by Caitlin Press in 2014 and she has won awards in the last two years, but it was not until my reading of the Best Canadian series that I had the pleasure of seeing her work. Byers is not new to the lit scene, by any means, with work anthologized in half a dozen books and many handfuls of journal publications, but her work is new to me. I owe thanks to the Best Canadian series for introducing me to her poem, “Scrape,” originally published in Descant, and its immersion in manual labor:
Body broken from hard labour and hopelessness,
he rests in the truck cab,
while his workmates heft old toilets onto the back.
They poke him awake with their shovels,
stop just short of a beating.
Byers pulls me into a scene in progress. I am present not just as a reader, but as a witness to sweat, pain, and punishment. Through her language and form, I hear the sounds of disgruntled laborers and want to reach out to hear more of Byers’s words at work.    
This particular volume also introduced me to Aaron Kreuter, a young poet pursuing a PhD at York University in Toronto. His first poetry collection, Arguments For Lawn Chairs, is forthcoming from Guernica Editions and that’s something to look forward to after reading his Best Canadian poem, “Fan Fiction,” originally published in Vallum, and begins:
Why didn’t Dumbledore do more
as the trains glided into Auschwitz?
Discovery, through the Best Canadian series, is not only in the single poems selected to represent a year in Canadian publishing, but in the supplementary reading of biographies, annotations, and press notes that accompany the volume. Were it not for this reading, would I have heard of Kreuter’s role as a chapbook publisher with Picture Window: a Very Small Press? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Yet in exploring the contents of The Best Canadian Poetry I continually come across that which I did not know before and is precisely why I devour this volume each year.
The Best Canadian Poetry represents notable poems published in years past, but it also reminds us of all the goings-on in literary culture across a nation—and invites the reader in to explore well beyond the paperbound pages. It is in the discovery and then the supplementary reading that a true nation of poetry is revealed: fifty poems is the icing on a rich, decadent cake.
Lori A. May writes across the genres, road-trips half the year, and drinks copious amounts of coffee. You’ll find her writing in publications such as The Atlantic, Brevity, Midwestern Gothic, and Writer’s Digest. She is the author of six books, including The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Square Feet (Accents, 2014). She teaches in the nonfiction MFA program at the University of King’s College-Halifax. Canadian by birth and disposition, with a soft spot for Detroit, Lori now lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. For more info, visit