Books

The best Canadian poetry of 2020

Here are CBC Books's picks for top Canadian poetry of the year.

Here are CBC Books's picks for top Canadian poetry of the year.

Mother's Milk by Sacha Archer

Mother's Milk is a book by Sacha Archer. (Timglaset, sachaarcher.wordpress.com)

Mother's Milk is a collection of visual poems made from rubber stamping. The poems in this limited edition book (only 99 copies were made) are vivid and expertly crafted. Mother's Milk is a stunning book, rich and full of life.

Sacha Archer is a poet from Burlington, Ont. He is also the author of the poetry collections Detour and Zoning Cycle. He is the editor of Simulacrum Press, which publishes experimental poetry.

Dearly by Margaret Atwood

Dearly is a book of poems by Margaret Atwood. (Luis Mora/penguinrandomhouse.ca, McClelland & Stewart)

Dearly is Margaret Atwood's first poetry collection in over a decade. The collection gathers poems about "absences and endings, aging and retrospection... gifts and renewals" and draws from the natural and supernatural world. 

Atwood is the celebrated Canadian writer who has published fiction, nonfiction, poetry and comics. Her acclaimed books include the novels The Handmaid's TaleAlias GraceOryx and Crake and The Edible Woman. She has won several awards for her work including the Governor General's Literary Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Booker Prize. Her other poetry collections include The Circle Game, The Journals of Susanna MoodiePower Politics in 1971 and The Door.

In an unforgettable interview with Tom Power, the celebrated Canadian writer also discusses her new poetry collection, Dearly. 28:21

Swivelmount by Ken Babstock

Swivelmount is a book by Ken Babstock. (Coach House Books, Helen Castor)

Swivelmount is the latest poetry collection by acclaimed poet Ken Babstock. The poems in Swivelmount explore mourning, faith and uncertainty with compassion and dark humour.

Babstock is a poet from Newfoundland who now lives in Toronto. His collection Methodist Hatchet won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize. His other collections include Mean, Days Into Flatspin and Airstream Land Yacht. He received the 2014 Latner Writer's Trust Poetry Prize, which recognizes a Canadian poet in mid-career.

Ken Babstock reads from his nominated collection Methodist Hatchet for As It Happens. 1:39

Moving to Climate Change Hours by Ross Belot

Moving to Climate Change Hours is a poetry collection by Ross Belot. (Wolsak & Wynn)

Moving to Climate Change Hours looks at the challenges humanity has created for ourselves through climate change. These poems contemplate our reliance on fossil fuels and imagines the end of the oil and gas industry. The book includes the poem that was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Poetry PrizeThe Edge of Everything.

Ross Belot is a poet, photographer, documentary filmmaker and columnist who lives in Hamilton, Ont. He was a finalist for the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize. He is also the author of the poetry collection Swimming In The Dark.

Past CBC Poetry Prize finalist Ross Belot discusses the power of poetry during this time and offers advice to aspiring writers. 7:52

The Response of Weeds by Bertrand Bickersteth

Bertrand Bickersteth is a Sierra Leone-born, Alberta-based writer. (NeWest Press)

"Storied soil" is the phrase Bickersteth uses to describe his home province of Alberta in his debut poetry collection The Response of Weeds. The collection brings to life the experience of early Black settlers in Western Canada. The Response of Weeds tells of stories rooted in the prairie landscape, including his own experience growing up as a Black Albertan. He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the book.

Bertrand Bickersteth is a poet, author and educator who was born in Sierra Leone, raised in Alberta, and has lived in the U.K. and the U.S. 

Poet Bertrand Bickersteth talks about his new collection The Response of Weeds, which is inspired by his experiences as a Black man in Alberta. 13:08

Burning Sugar by Cicely Belle Blain

Burning Sugar is a poetry collection by Cicely Belle Blain. (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Burning Sugar is a poetry collection that explores Black identity, history and the impact of colonization on Black bodies. Burning Sugar illuminates how systems, society and culture are all structured to reinforce racism. But it also explores and celebrates the nuance and joy in life.

Cicely Belle Blain is a poet and activist from British Columbia. They founded Black Lives Matter Vancouver. CBC Radio named them one of 150 Black women and non-binary people making change across Canada in 2018. Burning Sugar is their first book.

The Gospel of Breaking by Jillian Christmas

The Gospel of Breaking is a book of poetry by Jillian Christmas. (@Haiklue/Twitter.com, Arsenal Pulp Press)

The Gospel of Breaking draws on Jillian Christmas's politics, family history and queer lineage, telling stories of love lost, friendship and community. 

Christmas is an educator, activist and community organizer who focuses on increasing anti-oppression initiatives in spoken word. She is the former Artistic Director of Vancouver's Verses Festival of Words. CBC Books named Christmas a 2020 writer to watch.

Black Matters by Afua Cooper & Wilfried Raussert

Black Matters is a book by Afua Cooper & Wilfried Raussert. (Roseway Publishing)

Poet Afua Cooper and photographer Wilfried Raussert collaborated on Black Matters, which explores the everyday experience of what it's like to be Black in Canada. Each of Raussert's photographs has a companion poem written by Cooper.

Cooper is the poet laureate of Halifax. She's also a historian and teacher. She is the author of five books of poetry and two novels, including The Hanging of Angelique.

Raussert is a Canadian photographer, artist and academic who currently teaches in Germany. He has authored or edited more than 20 scholarly books.

Host Jeff Douglas spoke with Halifax's incoming poet laureate Sue Goyette and outgoing poet laureate Afua Cooper. 21:05

Not One of These Poems Is About You by Teva Harrison

Not One of These Poems Is About You is an illustrated poetry collection by Teva Harrison. (House of Anansi Press, David Leonard)

In Not One of These Poems Is About You, Teva Harrison ponders what it means to live with metastatic breast cancer. From preparing to lose her husband to how the disease has influenced her identity, Harrison's poems explore life, love and death with striking honesty.

Harrison was an award-winning cartoonist known for her poignant comics about living with an incurable illness. Her 2016 graphic novel In-Between Days won the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Non-Fiction and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. She died on April 27, 2019 at the age of 42.

David Leonard on Teva Harrison's posthumous poetry collection, Not One of These Poems Is About You. 3:49

Roguelike by Mathew Henderson

Roguelike is a poetry book by Mathew Henderson. (Kellie Chin, House of Anansi Press)

Roguelike uses video game culture and notions of repetition, escapism and mythology to dissect themes of addiction and family history. The poems explore the human desire to find meaning and connection in life's events. 

Mathew Henderson is a poet from Tracadie, Prince Edward Island. His first poetry collection, The Lease, was a finalist for the 2013 Trillium Book Award and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.

Body Count by Kyla Jamieson

Body Count is Kyla Jamieson's first poetry collection. (Denis Gutiérrez-Ogrinc)

Body Count focuses on Kyla Jamieson's experience with a concussion and the resulting aftermath. Through her poems, Jamieson explores physical pain, memory impairment, anxiety and depression in search of new understandings of worth and identity.

Jamieson's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Is Dead, Room, The Vault, Guts, Peach Mag, The Maynard, Plenitude, The Account and others. In 2019, she was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize for If You Are Silent.

ZOM-FAM by Kama La Mackerel

ZOM-FAM is a book by Kama La Mackerel. (Metonymy Press, lamackerel.net)

In ZOM-FAMKama La Mackerel tells a coming-of-age story of a child growing up in the 1980s and 1990s on the island of Mauritius. This child doesn't conform to a specific gender and searches for a vocabulary and a narrative that includes and understands them. This poetry collection tells a new story of Mauritius's history, one that includes and celebrates the queer and trans stories that helped shape the island's history.

La Mackerel is a Mauritian artist, educator, poet and translator from Montreal. CBC Arts named them one of nine artists who were making a difference in Canada in 2016. They have translated several Canadian works from English into French, including I'm Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya. ZOM-FAM is their first book.

What Hurts Going Down by Nancy Lee

What Hurts Going Down is a poetry collection by Nancy Lee. (McClelland & Stewart, Nancy Lee)

In this collection, Nancy Lee confronts how power dynamics and socially ingrained violence continues to inform what it means to be female. What Hurts Going Down is an exploration of girlhood in the pre and post #MeToo eras.

Lee's first book, Dead Girls, won the 2003 VanCity Book Prize for best book pertaining to women's issues. She is also the author of the novel The Age.

The Dyzgraphxst by Canisia Lubrin

The Dyzgraphxst is a poetry book by Canisia Lubrin. (Anna Keenan, McClelland & Stewart)

The Dyzgraphxst is set against the backdrop of contemporary capitalist fascism, nationalism and the climate disaster, where Jejune, the central figure, grapples with understanding their existence and identity.

Canisia Lubrin is a writer, editor and teacher. Her debut poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis was longlisted for the Gerald Lambert Award, the Pat Lowther Award and was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award.

Rising Canadian literary star Canisia Lubrin talks about her new poetry collection The Dyzgraphxst. 11:09

Field Notes for the Self by Randy Lundy

Randy Lundy is a Canadian poet and writer. (University of Regina Press, Submitted)

Field Notes for the Self is a series that takes inspiration from the poetic structuring of Patrick Lane, John Thompson and Charles Wright, but their closest cousins may be Arvo Pärt'sThis collection deals with the idea of liberation from personal and inherited trauma and memories of violence inflicted on Lundy's Indigenous ancestors which continue to haunt him. Similar to Randy Lundy's past works, this collection is rooted in observations of the natural world. 

Lundy is a Saskatchewan-based short story writer and award-winning poet. He has published three previous books, Under the Night SunGift of the Hawk and Blackbird Song, which won the Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Award in 2019.

The Cree poet Randy Lundy on Field Notes for the Self, and drawing inspiration from what's right in his own backyard. 16:50

I Am Still Your Negro by Valerie Mason-John

Valerie Mason-John is an author and public speaker. (The University of Alberta Press, Juan Luis Rod)

In 2016, the documentary I Am Not Your Negro was released in theaters. The doc was based on an unfinished 1979 manuscript by James Baldwin called Remember the House, which was to be the story of America through the lens of the lives of three murdered friends. Poet, author and public speaker Valerie Mason-John watched that documentary and it helped inspire her latest book, I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin. Mason-John's writing speaks truth about the scars and trauma of slavery, sexism and colonization.

Mason-John is a poet from Vancouver.

Valerie Mason-John discusses her stirring and personal poetry collection I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin. 19:17

As Far as You Know by A.F. Moritz

As Far As You Know is a poetry collection by A. F. Moritz. (A. F. Moritz, House of Anansi Press)

As Far As You Know is divided into six sections each dealing with a different concept, from terrorism to friendship. This collection dives deep into the poet's mind revealing his ongoing obsessions with beauty, impermanence, social conscience, responsibility and love.

A. F. Moritz is the author of 20 poetry collections. He has won the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize and an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is currently the sixth poet laureate of the City of Toronto. 

Toronto's poet laureate, A. F. Moritz, took on the grim responsibility of documenting life in the city in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. He joined Tom Power to read his latest poem, Thoughts in Time of Plague. 8:40

Washes, Prays by Noor Naga

Washes, Prays is a book by Noor Naga. (McClelland & Stewart)

Washes, Prays follows Coocoo, a young immigrant woman living in Toronto who begins to question her faith after falling in love with Muhammad, a married father of two. Coocoo wonders how she can reconcile her faith with her actions and whether her relationship with Muhammad can really last. 

Noor Naga is a Canadian-Egyptian writer. She won the 2017 Bronwen Wallace Award for her poem The Mistress and the Ping. She also won the Disquiet Fiction Prize in 2019. Her debut novel American Girl and Boy from Shobrakheit is forthcoming in fall 2021.

In her new novel-in-verse Washes, Prays, Noor Naga proposes there is space in CanLit between the Muslim terrorist and saint, for a Muslim mistress. Her book tells the story of a young Muslim woman in Toronto who has an affair with a married man, then faces a spiritual crisis. It's also an exploration of loneliness, longing, faith, and the role of technology in modern love. 38:29

Bittersweet by Natasha Ramoutar

Bittersweet is a book by Natasha Ramoutar. (Mawenzi House Publishers, CBC)

Bittersweet is a poetry collection that uses photographs, maps and language to reconstruct the history of Scarborough, Ont., the city where Indo-Guyanese poet Natasha Ramoutar grew up. It explores the themes of identity, story and what gets hidden in the narrative that becomes the historical record.

Ramoutar is an Indo Guyanese writer who lives in Scarborough, Ont. She used to be a producer for CBC Music and currently works at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). Bittersweet is her first book.

Pluviophile by Yusuf Saadi

Pluviophile is a peotry collection by Yusuf Saadi. (Nightwood Editions, Harbour Publishing)

Pluviophile is a mix of longer sonnets and shorter meditations, all which explore humanity's relationship with divinity and how we value our bodies, our language and how we connect with each other and the greater world.

Yusuf Saadi is a poet from Montreal. Pluviophile is his first collection. He won the Malahat Review's 2016 Far Horizons Award for Poetry for the poem The Place Words Go to Die, which is in Pluviophile. CBC Books named Saadi a writer to watch in 2020.

And Yet by John Steffler

And Yet is a poetry collection by John Steffler. (McClelland & Stewart, Susan Gillis)

And Yet is a collection of poems that encourages readers to think about our connection to the physical, natural world and asks us to more deeply connect with it. They also reflect on our relationship to technology and how the two — technology and nature — are often at odds in contemporary life.

John Steffler is a poet and novelist from Toronto. He was the Canadian parliamentary laureate from 2006 to 2008. His other poetry collections include That Night We Were Ravenous, The Wreckage of Play and The Grey Islands. His novel, The Afterlife of George Cartwright, was shortlisted for the 1992 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Canada's former parliamentary poet laureate John Steffler reads and discusses two poems from his latest collection, And Yet. 5:39

I place you into the fire by Rebecca Thomas

I place you into the fire is a book by Rebecca Thomas. (Nimbus Publishing, Robert Short/CBC)

I place you into the fire is the first collection from former Nova Scotia poet laureate Rebecca Thomas. I place you into the fire  explores what it means to be a second-generation residential school survivor and is a call for Indigenous justice and empathy.

Thomas is a Mi'kmaw writer living in Nova Scotia. She was the Halifax poet laureate from 2016 to 2018. She is also the author of the children's book I'm Finding My Talk, which is a poem responding to the iconic Rita Joe poem I Lost My Talk.

In Mi’kmaw, three similarly shaped words have drastically different meanings: kesalul means “I love you”; kesa’lul means “I hurt you”; and ke’sa’lul means “I put you into the fire.” Former Halifax poet laureate Rebecca Thomas uses these Mi’kmaw phrases to underpin her first book of poetry, I Place You Into the Fire. Thomas joined Tom Power to discuss how her poetry serves as a rallying cry for Indigenous justice, empathy and equality. 18:08

Shared Universe by Paul Vermeersch

Shared Universe is a poetry collection by Paul Vermeersch. (ECW Press, CBC)

Shared Universe brings together select poems by Paul Vermeersch from the past 25 years with new works. The poems in this collection are arranged by "prophecy and mythos" and contemplate the past, present and future.

Vermeersch is a poet, artist and editor from Toronto. He currently teaches at Sheridan College. His other poetry collections include The Reinvention of the Human Hand and Self-Defence for the Brave and Happy.

Saturn Peach by Lily Wang

Saturn Peach is a poetry collection by Lily Wang. (Gordon Hill Press)

In Saturn Peach, Lily Wang explores the strangeness of our relationship to technology. These poems evoke the challenges, connection and disconnection that come from living in a world where our dependency on technology grows every day.

Wang is a poet from Toronto. She is the founder and editor of the literary magazine Half a Grapefruit. Saturn Peach is her first poetry collection.

Word Problems by Ian Williams

Word Problems is a book by Ian Williams. (Coach House Books, Justin Morris)

Word Problems is the latest poetry collection by Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning writer Ian Williams. The collection uses unusual tools, such as math and grammar to tackle issues facing contemporary society, such as racial inequality, alongside more universal problems, like how people connect to and relate to each other.

Williams is a poet, novelist and professor from Brampton, Ont., who is currently teaching at the University of British Columbia. His debut novel Reproduction won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He is also the author of the poetry collection Personals, which was a finalist for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Last night in Toronto, Ian Williams won the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his debut novel Reproduction. He joined Tom Power the morning after the awards ceremony to talk about his big win. 13:36

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now