Culture | Poetic pandemonium

National Poetry Month event brings the Anglophone community together, but linguistic divides remain

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, Montreal Poetry Pandemonium – a collaboration of three of the city’s indie presses – will bring together six poets and their creations.

April in Canada is National Poetry Month. Established by the League of Canadian Poets, it aims to promote poetry in its many forms and to increase the publication, distribution, and sales of poetry within Canada.

Helen Guri, part of the event’s line-up, believes that the idea behind National Poetry Month is to foster an engagement with a substantial proportion of society. “Anything that happens in a whole bunch of places at once is kind of exciting…like Earth Hour is kind of exciting and all that is, is just people turning out their lights…in that sense, National Poetry Month fosters a sense of community,” she said.

In Montreal this idea of community building is central, and the poets are a tight-knit group. Events like the Pandemonium bring together poets from different publishing houses, representing diverging stylistic preferences. Local presses often attempt to create diversity within their aesthetics, to allow greater flexibility and flow between different works at collaborative readings. “They’ll try to publish a number of quite different books in a batch, anything that can cross-pollinate between presses and bring people together whose work is [similar]… to allow those people to meet each other, and the audiences to see their work… it creates a sense of community,” Guri said.

However, the longstanding linguistic divide of the city has its limitations for the local poetic scene. The Pandemonium features only writing in English, and so cannot be representative of Montreal’s poetry scene in its entirety.

“There’s a language barrier for both sides…unless people are fluently bilingual, it’s hard for [them] to fully enjoy poetry in a language they can’t understand very well… I have attended a lot of readings that are in French and English, and are collaborative… [where] it is difficult for a lot of the audience, who doesn’t have the language skills, to connect both sides… it is pretty insular,” said Gabe Foreman, another poet who will present his work at the event.

The aim of this event is in keeping with National Poetry Month’s concern with engaging the wider community, as independent presses interact to expose readers to emerging poets within the Anglophone poetic niche. “A lot of poets [at the event] will be known by a few people. The [event] exposes people to what different presses are doing and the aesthetic of different publishing houses,” Foreman said. Foreman’s own book, Encyclopaedia of Different Types of People, which will be launched at the Pandemonium, is a stylistic combination of poetry and prose encountered less often.

Local poetry readings aren’t exclusive in their line-ups, presenting emerging poets with the chance to interact with established writers. “We get people from all walks of life and from all levels of experience with poetry, sharing their material,” Foreman said. This exists as a quality-control mechanism within the community, as critique from experienced poets in response to emerging poets’ work is available as feedback.

Interestingly, the very structure of poetry readings is conducive to fostering a sense of community, as engaging the oral characteristics of a poem involves an audience with a profundity that reading off a page cannot.  “When [people]  come to something like a reading, it is sort of a different exposure for people who are not necessarily poetry readers in general…it’s just quite a different experience to go to a reading and then compare it to reading off the page.  It’s more of a community setting, because a lot of the people are writers themselves, they’re poets themselves. It’s more of a get-together of likeminded types,” Foreman said.

Events like the Pandemonium are essential for the continual growth of Montreal’s relationship with the genre, but linguistic divides remain paramount. While the city’s English and French poetry scenes are substantial in themselves, they remain separated due to the city’s identity leading to the continuing implementation of three local poetic spheres: anglo, francophone and bilingual.

Although National Poetry Month has not yet proved influential in fostering much intermingling between these spheres, the increased exposure to poetry and other writers it affords may well create a platform for cross-pollination.

The Montreal Poetry Pandemonium will take place at Sparrow, 5322 St. Laurent, on April 17 at 7:30 p.m. The event will launch six new titles, and will feature readings by Linda Besner, Asa Boxer, Gabe Foreman, Helen Guri, David Hickey, and Joshua Trotter.