Toronto Community

Six GTA poets share how they're coping with physical distancing

April is National Poetry Month. As people across Canada participate in physical distancing, CBC Toronto spoke with six poets in the GTA about how this is impacting their creative practice.

GTA poets discuss their work, inspiration and how they're coping with physical distancing

During challenging times art can be a unifying force, particularly when people are required to be apart. April is National Poetry Month, and as many artists' livelihoods have been affected by the global pandemic, we wanted to highlight some of the many poetic talents from the GTA. Each poet has answered a few questions to give insight into their practice, and how its been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Get to know the poets below:

All interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Dwayne Morgan
Pickering, ON

Poet Dwayne Morgan (Dwayne Morgan)

When did you first begin creating poetry?

I began writing poetry at age 18, in my final year of high school. I was always creative, but had never written poetry before. I was organizing a Black History Month event for my school and wanted to be on stage with my friends. I figured writing a poem would allow me to do that. The poem and performance changed my life. I have been a full-time poet since that moment in 1993.

Who inspires you?

It might sound cliché, but I'm inspired by everyone. All of my poems are about people and the things we experience throughout our journey in life. I'm inspired by my daughter, the poets I mentor, the students I work with and the people who come to my events. I'm always looking for the next story to write and to see what inspires me next. 

How has your artistic process been affected by physical distancing, if at all?

My artistic practice has been hugely impacted by physical distancing. In addition to being a writer and creator, I'm also a producer who facilitates opportunities for other artists. On the night before the 20th anniversary of my When Sisters Speak show, an event featuring all Black, female poets, the event and venue were shut down by the City. While it was in the interest of public safety [due to the global pandemic], this was a major financial and morale hit for me. As a spoken word poet, the audience is key to what I do, so physical distancing has halted almost all of my artistic process.

How has your environment shaped your art?

Growing up in Scarborough taught me a lot. I was surrounded by people from various immigrant communities, with different stories and narratives. This helped me realize that my stories and ideas were important and would resonate with others. I created many opportunities for other artists in Scarborough, and tried to instill a sense of pride in those around me. In 2013, my hometown inducted me into their Walk of Fame for my commitment to the arts and culture in Scarborough.

Watch Dwayne perform 'Fairytales' alongside his daughter

The launch of Dwayne's most recent collection, 'Period & Other Lessons From My Daughter' was
cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but will be rescheduled at some point in the future.

Learn more about Dwayne's work here.

Doyali Islam
Etobicoke, ON

Poet Doyali Islam (Arden wray)

When did you first begin creating poetry?

At age 7 or 8. By age 9, I was writing short stories and collecting my poems into little books. I'd draw covers, create copyrights "(© Aladdin Inc., 1994)", and hand write my final drafts onto blank paper. I'd tape a heavily-lined sheet of paper to a window, and tape a blank sheet over top so the edges matched up. Then I'd write out each word of my final draft on the blank sheet, changing it as necessary. The daylight coming through the window allowed the lines from the hidden sheet to be my guide, so my handwriting came out in neat rows. And I'm just remembering that I always had to stand on the back of a couch to be tall enough to reach the window!

My Grade 4 teacher, Mr. Alderson, would spiral-bind these books for me, and he 'scaffolded' my editing abilities: one story contained a logical fallacy, and Mr. Alderson took the time to explain it. From then on, I knew how and when to switch from writing mind to editing brain – to read my own work from a reader's perspective, and catch errors of logic myself. (Various cultures have their own valid logics – but you understand my point.) 

By age 10, of my own volition, I was keeping a notebook of poetry forms. Learning and practicing the formal rules of poetry enabled me to disrupt these rules to create my own later on – such as in the split sonnets, double sonnets, and parallel poems in heft (M&S, 2019).

Who inspires you?

My partner Daniel inspires me every day. He is the kindest, most intelligent, most compassionate, funny, and humble person I know. Sometimes I think he is a bodhisattva who has come to earth to show me what love really is, and how it feels – which of course has expanded my writing. Cats also inspire me. I am especially inspired by senior tabbies with big bellies. I like how comfortable and confident they are in their bodies.

How has your artistic process been affected by physical distancing, if at all?

I haven't been outdoors since March 13, and pretty much live out of one room. Voluntary self-isolation has made my daily life feel even more compressed and intense than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Poetry and other forms of creativity thrive under conditions of compression and intensity.

How has your environment shaped your art?

I grew up in Toronto (the traditional territories of nations and peoples including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat) in the west end – Etobicoke.

Several poems in my book, heft, are set in Toronto, referencing places like Markland Wood, Golden Gecko Coffee in Bloor West Village, and a classroom at University of Toronto. And I had fun mixing linguistic registers – incorporating ordinary words like "TTC tokens" into lyrical, elegant poems.

One poem, "moving", came out of a memory that surfaced when I was on a different bus than usual, heading to my friend Pat's daughter's first birthday: looking out for street names suddenly reminded me of how, when I was about 7, my mother kept taking me and my sister to look at houses that were on the market.

A few poems in heft are domestic – what I think of as 'interior' – and are set in the kitchen of the Etobicoke home I grew up in, without obvious reference. A few are set in North Bay (the traditional territory of Nipissing First Nation), where I lived for a few years.

My work is clearly site-based, but I feel that I live in multiple places at once because of my access to global news and my empathy.

Furthermore, tenderness, rupture, and resilience are also environments. Writing heft, I wanted to know: Where is tenderness? How can I be at home in my body – my most intimate environment – given my undiagnosed chronic illness?

Read two poems from  heft below:

"poem for your pocket" and "scale" are taken from heft, copyright © 2019 by Doyali Islam. Reproduced with permission from McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Doyali was recently shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Watch Doyali in the CBC Books My Literature - Why I Write video below:

Learn more about Doyali's work here.

Terese Mason Pierre
Toronto, ON

Poet Terese Mason Pierre (Soko Negash)

When did you first begin creating poetry?

I started writing poetry in high school for assignments. I didn't take it seriously until university, where I took creative writing classes and received feedback from other writers. It was a positive environment that allowed me to experiment and take risks. University was also where I started publishing my writing and getting my feet wet in the writing community.

Who inspires you?

I'm inspired mainly by the poets and writers I surround myself with. Poets Faith Arkorful and Khashayar Mohammadi best exemplify the poetry I aim to write and center myself in. I'm also inspired by the work of Dominik Parisien, Nisa Malli, Doyali Islam, Canisia Lubrin and Souvankham Thammavongsa. Having writer friends and a community of writers who support and celebrate success is very important to me.

How has your artistic process been affected by physical distancing, if at all?

I haven't been able to create much since physical distancing started. I've been spending a lot of time on social media, which isn't always positive for my mental health. However, I'm working on the final touches of my second chapbook, published with Gap Riot this summer, and trying to write another essay. I occasionally submit some of my new poems. I try not to be too hard on myself regarding "productivity." I know a lot of artists are struggling.

Right now, writers Jenny Heijun Wills, jaye simpson, Domenica Martinello and I are creating makeup looks inspired by book covers. We've been having a lot of fun with that, and we're getting positive responses. That's where the majority of my creative and artistic energy is going.

How has your environment shaped your art?

I've always felt strange about writing things that were personal and true to me. When I was younger, I sometimes felt like my family and friends didn't really want to hear about my experiences. So, when I started writing poetry, I would invent scenarios and speakers that had nothing to do with how I personally felt or my real-life experiences. I still do this, but I'm trying to lean in to the autobiographical, to know that it's okay to be completely honest.

Read an excerpt of Terese's poetry below:

“Grand Habitat Daybook,” The Puritan, 2020 (Terese Mason Pierre)

Terese's chapbook 'Surface Area' was released in 2019 with Anstruther Press. Her second chapbook, 'Manifest' is slated to be released this summer with Gap Riot Press.

Learn more about Terese's work here.

Jennifer Alicia
Toronto, ON

Poet Jennifer Alicia (Jennifer Alicia )

When did you first begin creating poetry?

The first poem I remember writing was at 10 years old, processing my pop's death. At the time, I was an only child who had experienced a great amount of violence and abuse. I inherited trauma through my DNA. With no one to talk to besides my dog, I began to express myself through art. I loved to reimagine my past, present and future. I created alternate worlds in my short stories and processed pain through my poetry. Poetry is where I found healing.

Who inspires you?

I am mostly inspired by home, meaning the land I come from, my ancestors, and my kin. Whether it's mummering, skinning an otter or poetry, storytelling is part of the people I come from and they are my inspiration. I am also now a big sister to three brothers and one sister. My fifteen-year-old sister is also an artist and I love our tender relationship. She tells me that I am her role model and I am honoured. She reminds me of myself, except, she is much braver than I was at that age. Her brilliance amazes me and I am learning so much from her. I can't wait to watch her growth.

How has your artistic process been affected by physical distancing, if at all?

I am a natural homebody and introvert with a safe place to isolate, so I have been doing fine. I embrace the stillness. Quietness was one of the aspects I loved about attending the Indigenous Storytellers and Spoken Word Residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Taking a break from Toronto and the everyday hustle and bustle gave me the opportunity to focus solely on my art. Being isolated in the mountains gave me the mental space to search inward and bring forth stories I forgot were there. I was able to block outside distractions and stressors and listen.

Similarly, I have experienced this while physically distancing and staying home. This isolation has allowed me to sit with myself once again and return to stillness. I have been able to research for those stories and they have been resurfacing. In this present moment, this is the most productive I have been since the year has begun.

How has your environment shaped your art? 

My poetry has always been a source of healing for me. When I was a child, my art helped me process trauma and those poetry books are only meant for me. When I moved to Ontario with my mom, my art changed because of my new surroundings. I was exposed to information, situations, and people that were all new to me. Injustices fed my rage and my rage fueled my poetry. It was at this time that I came across the spoken word community in Toronto. I used that platform to express a lot of my rage. For most of the years I have been creating art, the purpose has been for healing and influenced by what I was experiencing at that time. Most of those times were not great ones, and so, that was reflected in my art.

I really wish I didn't feel the need to write 'ragey' poetry anymore, but until some things change in society, I will continue to use my love and rage in my poetry. However, since achieving a sense of balance and simplicity in life, I have been able to get back to the reimagining, resurging and creating. Now I have the capacity to go back to the stories of where I come from as sources of inspiration for my art.

For example, I come from a line of trappers and I wrote a poem speaking to the importance of trapping and how it is part of who I am and where I come from. My dad and brother still trap today. I have another poem about growing up on the Atlantic Ocean and my experiences out in dory checking fishing nets and jigging squids. These are the stories I am interested in telling in my art: my own.

Read an excerpt of Jennifer's poetry below:

An excerpt of poetry by Jennifer Alicia (Jennifer Alicia)

Jennifer is currently working on a collection of stories and poetry centred on home (Ktaqmkuk/Newfoundland).

Learn more about Jennifer's work here.

Canisia Lubrin
Whitby, ON

Poet Canisia Lubrin (Samuel Engleking )

When did you first begin creating poetry?

I spent many years loving poetry, but I wrote my first serious poem in 2008 for a creative writing assignment at York University. [The prompt] was something to the tune of ''write a poem based on a central metaphor''. All of those years, I suppose, can be factored into the creative training of the form coming together. It wasn't great, but it wasn't horrendous either.

Who inspires you?

I give myself over to, or I am available to, or I am aware of, or I am in the presence of, or I am curious, or intrigued, or confused, or moved by—the world, of which I am a part.

If I am to attach something called inspiration to a 'who', and attempt to make an absolute statement, the minute I say it, it would be both true and untrue. This thing we understand as inspiration changes endlessly for me. Too slippery for me. The answer would be too long and too short. The world that once held a thing like that together has changed too much and too little during COVID-19. That's where I'm paying attention.

How has your artistic process been affected by physical distancing, if at all?

There's always great distance and great closeness in the process of writing as far as I know. Not much has changed in terms of the physical act, except the spaces between me and the people I would much rather be physically close to have expanded. And I feel this somehow. Except, too, that my imagination relies more on remembering real-time interactions by then calling them up as though they're somehow virtual. That is a big part of writing, but now it's life. Life for now.

How has your environment shaped your art?

The materials of things around me have shaped my imagination. I bring an awareness of the sounds, rhythms, shapes, distances, and hopefully the wonders of the places of my life to the work. If I'm lucky, this inventory of things carries a full sensory awareness, between St. Lucia and Canada, where my life is so far evenly split. Sometimes it is one sense firing off, and a chain-reaction of things following. Then my mind is full of the places I've been.

Read an excerpt of Canisia's poetry below:

An excerpt from The Dyzgraphxst (Copyright © 2020 by Canisia Lubrin (McClelland & Stewart))

Canisia's newest book  is entitled 'The Dyzgraphxst' (McClelland & Stewart).

Learn more about Canisia's work here.

Jaime Silverthorn
Stouffville, ON

Poet Jaime Silverthorn (Jaime Silverthorn)

When did you first begin creating poetry?

I began taking poetry seriously in my first year of university. At the time, I didn't have a lot of experience with slam poetry, but I became part of the community after attending the Vancouver Poetry Slam. My first poem was a really heavy-handed piece about mental health and elephants. Luckily, some more seasoned poets took me under their wings and I started writing more.

By the end of that year, I was the UBC representative at the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Championships. I was ranked in the top third of competitors that year and met some incredible people. Since I was the second youngest participant, I had to watch the finals in a different area from the rest of the competitors because it was held in a 19+ theatre.

Who inspires you?

Anyone pursuing the arts as a career without a safety net inspires me. I'm privileged as a writer to come from a supportive family who can offer me a room when my housing falls through or gigs get cancelled by a global pandemic. There are many Canadian poets and writers who chose this career knowing this wasn't the case for them.

These artists are putting themselves on the line to share stories with us, and should be applauded and financially supported. Buying the work of diverse Canadian poets and authors encourages more publishing of diverse Canadian poets and authors. Billy-Ray Belcourt, Tracey Lindberg and Jillian Christmas are all inspiring writers you should have on your bookshelf.

I'm also inspired by the many Indigenous activist communities and their efforts to keep attention on Wet'suwet'en. They're also navigating the impacts of massive layoffs, and the ongoing lack of safe water in many communities. These activists are heroes.

How has your artistic process been affected by physical distancing, if at all?

Just like everyone else in Canada, I've dealt with a lot of stress in physical distancing, which has caused my writing to suffer. I find my best poems arise out of conversations with friends where I have been forced to grow, change an opinion, or find a passion for a topic that drives me to write about it. These conversations can be harder to have at a distance.

This year, I also had the pleasure of working on my Masters at the University College Dublin. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus, I had to move across continents with only a few days notice. I've been in self-isolation for the past two weeks. To say that has been conducive to poetry would be a lie. However, I'm sure there will be many quarantine poems making their way around the Canadian poetry circuit in a few years.

For now, I think everyone should remember that productivity is not something to be demanded from ourselves in a time of great anxiety. Everyone will respond differently to this crisis and sometimes that just means getting through the best you can. No one expects you to get a first novel or a new skill out of this.

How has your environment shaped your art?

Growing up in a musical family has shaped my poetry immensely. My grandfather was an incredible musician. He played the bagpipes, the guitar, the mandolin, you name it. Every Sunday growing up, my extended family would gather at my grandparents for dinner and a jam session. I think this taught me to find joy in the creation of art. Later in life, as we've lost family members to age and illness, art has also provided us with therapy and a shared space to grieve.

Much of my current performance work uses loop-pedal soundscapes that I create in the moment on stage. By doing this, I can pull the mood and tone of the harmonies from what I am feeling in the moment and taking from the audience. I learn something new about my poems each time I perform them with a different loop. Since I often pair my work with music, the sound and flow of my poetry are two of the biggest considerations when writing.

Read an excerpt of Jaime's poetry below:

'Minimum Wage' (Jaime Silverthorn)

Jaime is working toward her MA thesis, comprised of feminist revisionist Greek mythological poetry.

Learn more about Jaime's work here.

Support for artists

You can find resources and supports for artists affected by COVID-19 here, with a list compiled by the CBC Arts team.


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