The Great Black North – Black Canadian Poetry

Vancouver Public Library- Central Branch

For Black History Month, the Vancouver Public Library hosted a Black poetry event. I was excited to go because I love poetry and have only ever read poetry from one Canadian poet, Dionne Brand. I was sure Canada had more to offer in terms of poetry, and this was the perfect event to find out more.

What I didn’t know about this event, and what I was pleasantly surprised to find out, was that it was actually a book launch for Canada’s FIRST black poem anthology, entitled The Great Black North, edited by Kevan Anthony Cameron and Valerie Mason-John, who also served as the MC’s for the event.We listened to roughly eight local black poets recite one of their poems.

I found the whole event fascinating. The poets all had compelling things to say. One thing that was thought-provoking was the question raised about identity. Are we simply Canadian, or are we Black, or African-Canadian? What does it all mean? The poets represented many backgrounds, such as England, Belize, Jamaica and Uganda, so I thought that was an interesting question to ask.

It turns out that in the world of poetry, there is elitism. Slam poetry is seen as easier as and less elegant than print poetry, probably because it has been likened to “rap battles.” The rumours about that were dispelled by Vancouver’s reigning poetry slam champion, Jillian Christmas.

One question from the audience was pertaining to the role of race in the poems; how big a role does race play in their poetry? One poet, who acknowledged his militant reputation, said that when he talks to a group of young kids who want to know that he understands their struggles as black teens in Canada, he is as transparent as possible and doesn’t hold back. Others said that regardless of the fact that they try not to base their poems on race, race is a big part of their life and something that needs to be brought out into the open. They also talked about how poetry can heal and make people realize that they are not alone. Another poet talked about how people expected her to discuss certain topics when it comes to her live poetry performances, because of her appearance, and how she always tries to surprise them, but she also finds it therapeutic to express her frustrations about how she is treated as a black woman, through her poetry.

All in all, a wonderful event. I came to appreciate that poetry has more power and reach than I had ever realized.


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