Verse Forward: A Canadian Literature Poetry Reading Series

Verse Forward is Canadian Literature’s new poetry reading series, imagined and curated by our poetry editor, Phinder Dulai. Launched on November 25, 2020, the series brings together Canadian poets from communities across our vast landscape to discuss their experience as authors and share their work with an international audience.

Our first iteration of Verse Forward: Poetry on the Front Lines welcomed Fred Wah, Kevin Spenst, Isabella Wang, and Jillian Christmas. Original poems from this event were featured in Issue 242, Emerging Scholars, Redux. For our second Verse Forward event, held on May 25, 2021, we invited Larissa Lai, Liz Howard, and Canisia Lubrin, all award-winning poets, to discuss their process. You can read their poems in this issue. Each brought a unique perspective and energy to their readings as they answered questions from emcee Phinder Dulai and the audience.

The event was created, in part, as a response to the global pandemic. As COVID-19 shut down in-person venues and cultural hubs, Verse Forward became Canadian Literature’s way of sustaining communities and offering a reprieve from the isolation and unease brought on by the disruptions of our regular lives. As our event details read,

[f]or more than six decades, the value of creative voices and publishing original poetry have been central to the journal’s critical discourse and deep commitment to Canadian writing. In the context of a global pandemic in which our various publics are at once physically distanced and virtually linked, the separation of our familiar literary communities prompts alternative connectivities and new ways of speaking creatively and critically together. What part can poetry play in articulating the complexities of our conditions in a world that appears to be transforming both too much and not enough? The Verse Forward reading series seeks to sustain literary community by amplifying Canadian poetry’s ongoing vitality on the front lines as we interrogate and imagine anew the conditions and locations we inhabit.

This poetry reading series is part of an ongoing CanLit Poets project that seeks to publish original Canadian poetry. In 2007, Matthew S. Gruman envisioned putting together a book-length collection of poetry that had only appeared within Canadian Literature’s pages. The project was meant to use our diverse poetry archive and connection to authors to show high school students a different side of writing and reading poetry, one that included poets’ motivations, writing techniques, and histories. The result was a short chapbook, CanLit Poetry, which included snippets of poems from between 1977 and 2007. Later, when we launched the CanLit Guides in September of 2012, CanLit Poets became part of our “open access and flexible learning resource that helps students critically engage with Canadian literature while encouraging and promoting independent study” (“About CanLit Guides”). In 2015, under the editorial guidance of Margery Fee, Canadian Literature produced another short poetry collection containing a “brief sample collection of poems, with questions answered by the poets about their writing process and experiences with poetry” (Fee). Since then, Canadian Literature has regularly featured author Q&As on our website to complement the poems published in the print journal.

Although Canadian Literature’s promotion of Canadian poetry reaches back to its first issue, it was not until 1975 that we began to feature poetry as a permanent part of the journal’s content. Early issues of Canadian Literature included reviews, articles, and editorials on poetry. However, Malcolm Lowry’s poetry was the first to appear in the journal (in our Spring 1961 issue, dedicated to Lowry’s work). In fits and starts, from poets such as A. J. M. Smith, F. R. Scott, and Rina Lasnier, poems were featured in issues throughout the 1960s. Some of Canada’s most well-known poets, including Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and P. K. Page, have published original work in Canadian Literature. As technology broadens our access to resources and materials, the Verse Forward poetry reading series has taken these conversations from the page and placed them in a live-event format, where poets have the opportunity to answer questions organically and to build on each other’s critical and insightful reflections.

In the second iteration of Verse Forward, Liz Howard evoked Dionne Brand’s wisdom about the multiplicity of meaning, in that “writing is a kind of negotiation between what is written and what is withheld, and . . . what is withheld multiplies” (Brand).1 Meaning is generated in manifold ways, in each time we read a poem, hear it, and even write about it. The meaning can change, too, as authors reflect on their process and inspiration for the poem, which makes poetry readings especially rich sites for context and implication—for what is withheld. The pitch, rise, and fall of the voice, or even the underlying emotion in an author’s reading of a poem, can shift how the images and ideas contained within words collide within an audience’s imagination. When Jillian Christmas reached for her classical guitar, “Marshmallow,” to complement a poem from her poetry collection The Gospel of Breaking, the melody in a minor key emphasized and conveyed the unsettling urgency of her spoken words. Each poet’s reading, through their voice, expression, or content, expressed an aspect of the collective experiences and the complexities of our current conditions.

Our inaugural Verse Forward poetry event began with Kevin Spenst reading from “The Geology of a Moment,” a title that captures the evening’s conversation. A sense of relationality and social justice bridged both events as the poets picked up on the themes of race, access, privilege, and community formation. On the one hand, the virtual fails to capture the experience of bodies present in and moving through a physical space, as an author holds a book or sways back and forth during a reading or where we hear the quiet murmur of the crowd responding. On the other hand, we can see gestures emphasizing a poem’s imagery, hear the emotional tones in a poet’s voice, and witness up close a poet’s facial expressions (a raised eyebrow or the twitch of their lips during a pause): layers of withheld meaning captured within words as utterances.

While online events tend to mute our physical experiences of social events—meeting friends, feeling an electric excitement in the air, or even our Canadian seasons—they have given us the opportunity to hear from authors from across Canada and to invite visitors from around the world to join us in the virtual realm, what Jillian Christmas jokingly referred to as the “digital airwaves.” Communing on Zoom gives us a sense of “geographic collapse” and the chance to experience a different kind of transnational proximity.

Verse Forward is also a response to the disconnection generated by a global pandemic, an event that both disrupted the status quo and demonstrated the need for improved forms of social connection. While we may miss in-person gatherings, digital platforms, from Facebook to Twitter to Zoom, have allowed individuals and communities from diverse backgrounds to access events that would otherwise be financially prohibitive or difficult to attend in person due to geographic or time restrictions. It has also given voices from marginalized or underrepresented communities the opportunity to be heard in multiple ways, as social media platforms expand how we consume, and are exposed to, news stories and current events. What disability advocates have long been petitioning for has now become a cultural norm, where we have the opportunity to envision “alternative connectivities and new ways of speaking creatively and critically together.” As we look towards the future, as provincial governments move to lift restrictions, we wonder if we should hold on to online events given that they enable us to bring poets into conversation from across Canada, in a more accessible and affordable way.

When asked about the role of the poet in social justice work, and specifically how words might create change and influence audiences, Fred Wah spoke about language as a tool for change. Language is able to make realities “a-new” because it is “organic and rife and active and contradictory.” The affective dimensions of language are also important as we feel reassured by the spoken and written word: “It feels comfortable to be in language,” Fred Wah told his fellow poets and audience (present visually as a list of names and comments in the Zoom chat).

The power of the poet, then, resides in the language they have access to and how it is used. Echoing Kevin Spenst’s poem’s title and the sediment of experiences over time collected in an abstract geology of digital space, Jillian Christmas noted how poetry is a way to mark moments, as a way of “marking history so we do have a measure” of both where we have been and where we hope to go. “We have some voice from the people,” Jillian Christmas commented, “to speak to what the conditions are, what they could be, imagining beyond, and also reflecting on what injustice has happened and is happening.” Her words recall the ways in which the pandemic has brought to the forefront the injustice experienced by marginalized groups, as Black Lives Matter protests and calls for Indigenous sovereignties have become an important element of the fight for justice during the pandemic. Systemic inequality has been exacerbated by the loss of privilege in wider, already privileged communities. With the online shift, many people who have never experienced accessibility concerns suddenly feel at a loss because they are unable to interact socially and physically in ways they may be used to: no in-person conferences, limited business hours, curfews and lockdowns, restricted travel, and even limited employment opportunities. Yet, many of these restrictions mimic and indicate the prohibitive ways in which society’s infrastructures are not designed to accommodate restricted mobility, the visually impaired, those with aural limitations, individuals who find large gatherings or appearing in public intimidating because of mental health concerns, or racial prejudice, or fear of religious discrimination, and even compromised immune systems. Recognizing, recording, and then disseminating work that confronts systemic injustice is part of what Jillian Christmas sees as “the engine that moves us forward as a society.” We cannot be complacent.

In response, Isabella Wang discussed what she calls “critical poetry,” creative work that examines and critiques, as a non-violent form of resistance. She took up the question of what role poets play in social justice work by speaking to the process of creation, and of finding the right words to articulate our ideas. Acknowledging that “perfect ideas are the worst,” because they are harder to place and overshadow other elements in her work, she elaborated how instead she looks for ideas that trouble her as they allow her to respond. The other poets in the session agreed with the challenge Isabella Wang finds in “perfect ideas” and also with poetry’s potential to critique and unsettle. Kevin Spenst considered poetry as a tool for reflection; it allows us to pause and think. It gives us space to consider different perspectives and to challenge ingrained narratives. Responding to how poetry uses language to capture and create memory, Fred Wah pondered “the whole notion of how to look, when you don’t know what to look for.” Jillian Christmas described how it is the poems that feel a little troubling or difficult, or with which we have a longer journey, that may end up being the most emotional or profound. Those troubling passages have the potential to create sites of identification and spaces where we have the opportunity, as Jillian Christmas stated, to “learn a little bit more.”

During Verse Forward 2, the conversation focused on community and the significance of poetry as a potential mechanism for social change. Responding to a question about how multiplicity is built into every word and line of her poetry, Larissa Lai stressed the importance of polyvocality as the organic, rife, active, contradictory, and ambivalent nature of language, central to how it offers us a tool for change. The potential of poetry lies in the “possibilities for multiple meanings,” she argued, “and the more meanings falling out of the hat at the same time, the more entertained I am, or disturbed. . . . It’s very generative.” Later, Canisia Lubrin addressed an implicit “we” in the work being done by marginalized and underrepresented communities that are fighting for social justice and rights. Her words recalled Larissa Lai’s point that poetry is capable of capturing multiple realities, experiences, and meanings, and bridging gaps between cultural and social understandings of long-entrenched ideas. These are some of the ways that poetry permits readers to learn and grow intellectually.

During the conversation, Canisia Lubrin’s comments addressed the awkwardness that resides in the moments when we experiment with language—where the “velocity of meaning” in language “makes its deepest wells of sense or un-sense” and when we have to “find different ways to contort through the difficulty of having to inhabit the ‘I.’” Responding to the multiplicity of the “I” in The Dyzgraphxst, she admitted, “it’s never just a single voice. Even when . . . what can be seen or construed as a single voice arrives, it does so through a collective.” Such moments question the limitations of definitions of identity: how do we inhabit our inherited identities while we attempt to discover the uniqueness of what makes us ourselves? During the conversation, she expressed a desire to challenge the ways in which we are conditioned to accept certain identities without any criticality. Building on this, Larissa Lai asserted that, in writing, there is an “opaque space of the self as a site where kinships get built.” The pronouns in poetry represent a collective embedded into the grammar of the sentence, where the “I” and “we” of the poet merges with the “I” and “we” of the speaker, the narrator, and the readers with their imagined and real “I” and “we” communities. Canisia Lubrin’s “we” seemed to be a skeptical “we,” a “we” wary of tokenization and the burden of labour often embedded in social justice work. The “we” often ends up being the individuals who have personally felt, and live with, the discrimination and disadvantages produced by systemic inequality. In slight contrast, Larissa Lai’s “we” evoked the potential “opaque space of the self ” as a place where the “we” fighting for equality and equity can meet and form new bonds of strength and resistance, a place where the self is malleable and defies stereotypes. Both authors’ perspectives united around the contention that there is opportunity in this uncomfortable, sometimes un-sensical, place of identity to create change. As Canisia Lubrin noted, it is an endless process of revision. And this work of revision is crucial to the social justice work discussed during the second Verse Forward event.

In the work of becoming and being an ally, then, it is important to consider what it means to be a part of a community and to seek out alternative connectivities. When we do, we inevitably must address questions of inclusivity and accessibility. Whereas our earlier group of poets spoke on the ways in which language offers the possibility to make “a-new” and to creatively invite change, Larissa Lai cautioned against naive optimism since “the structure of [Canada] still remains profoundly colonial.” Although she is referring to settler colonialism more broadly, her comment brings to mind the discovery of unmarked graves at Indian Residential School sites across Canada and the at times apathetic settler and colonialist responses to these atrocities, which only demonstrate how the fight for justice for Indigenous peoples must continue. The work of the poet is to give voice to these histories, acknowledge the profound work that needs to be done, and embody previously prohibited space. When asked about the attempts of the publishing industry to be inclusive, Larissa Lai hesitated: “I’m not sure that we’re in a place where we are actually excluded. I think the difficulty in the present moment is not so much exclusion as perhaps a measure of fetishization. We have places, but I worry that these are tokenized places.” While there are certainly earnest editors and publishers out there, she sees the industry as “invested in specific kinds of stories and language and racialized people and not others.”

Her comment returns us to the first Verse Forward reading and to Jillian Christmas’ thoughts about how poetry can have an impact on the world. Liz Howard also articulated a belief in poetry’s ability to imagine beyond, when she asked, “What is it that we can do or need to do? It’s the main conversation . . . that needs to be changed.” We are in what she calls a “see-change” moment, where “former marginalized writers are coming into the fore” at the same time as there is a new audience that is interested in listening to, and learning about, these diverse perspectives.

In addition to writing poetry and holding conversations about it, the poets noted the need for structural changes to systems of publishing and book culture. This also requires structural changes to how books are picked up and taught. Recognizing the importance of a postsecondary classroom taking up an author’s work, Liz Howard acknowledged how having her work taught and become part of the literary conversation has changed her experience as an author. In part, changing how authors are published and recognized is also about review culture, as Larissa Lai noted. It is about how books are read by editors and passed into the world. It is also about finding reviewers that understand the significance of diverse and complicated voices represented in non-traditional texts—texts that often challenge the authority and inherent coloniality of English as a language of oppression. Even as English, as a language, remains malleable and polysemic, it also hosts a history of inequality. Shifting the tone slightly, Canisia Lubrin carefully navigated the “we” in the call for change. Her response seemed to question the burden of responsibility that has fallen to this collective “we” evoked in social justice work—the “we” being performed by the poets at this reading, all from perceived, culturally diverse backgrounds: “speaking about the specific context, about what the main discourse is: there’s an implied ‘we’ in that, when we say, ‘how can we change those prevailing systems that keep marginalized voices out.’” She evokes different communities of “we” here, of canonical authors and publishers that are easily recognized and disseminated as the “main discourse,” and the “we” of the voices that come to us from “outside,” from the margins, in often unexpected and unconventional ways. The “we” here implicates different communities of both solidarity and exclusion, where the force of systemic change seems to be moving at a glacial pace, especially when the gatekeepers appear to represent a small, elite, privileged portion of our society.

1 Authorial quotations are from both the Verse Forward and the Verse Forward 2 poetry readings. Some have been edited and condensed for clarity. Both poetry readings can be viewed at

Even though barriers exist and are very real for many authors, these authors too find potential in the power of poetry to create change, to produce the “see-change” moment of now. We are “positioned in,” as Canisia Lubrin noted, “this radical arena where anything is possible.” Even as the gap between potential and “having resources” means that it is still a struggle for many individuals to have their story heard, the authors seemed to agree that promise remains in the multiplicity of meaning contained within poetry as a vehicle for creative change. Evoking the image of an “ever-shifting labyrinth,” Liz Howard championed the intellectual pleasure of poetry that challenges us to consider new perspectives. If language and poetry are an ever-shifting labyrinth, she argued, “you are always arriving somewhere, but how you get there is always different.”

In our technological age, how we arrive at alternative connectivities and the platforms available for speaking creatively and critically have shifted. While the pandemic is, at once, a site of social and cultural trauma, it has also allowed us to consider different ways of navigating the “somewhere” at which we are always arriving. Poetry is a large part of our literary heritage, whether we are Canadian or not. And in response to what the future holds, we can only hope we will continue to look for the multiplicity of meaning in every moment and event that has the potential to tear us apart but also bring us together in new and unexpected ways.


1 Authorial quotations are from both the Verse Forward and the Verse Forward 2 poetry readings. Some have been edited and condensed for clarity. Both poetry readings can be viewed at

Works Cited

“About CanLit Guides.” CanLit Guides, 2021, Accessed 25 May 2021.

Brand, Dionne. “Dionne Brand on that which goes unwritten: ‘What is withheld multiplies.’” Interview by Adina Bresge. Canadian Press, 5 June 2019, 05/dionne-brand-on-that-which-goes-unwritten-what-is-withheld-multiplies/. Accessed 24 June 2021.

Fee, Margery, ed. CanLit Poets. Canadian Literature, 2015.

“Verse Forward: Poetry on the Front Lines.” Canadian Literature, 25 Nov. 2020, resources/events/verse-forward-poetry-on-the-front-lines/. Accessed 6 July 2021.

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