The position of Poet Laureate, which in Toronto is currently held by Anne Michaels, is like a blank page. The laureate has three years to fill it.
In the case of Michaels – who inherited the position from George Elliott Clarke, currently Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate, in December, 2015 – that meant organizing a series of events in situ held in places, such as the Don Valley that have inspired the city's artists over the years, and working with non-English-language writing and literary organizations to celebrate what she calls the "incredible language diversity in the city."
"That's also a literary diversity," says Michaels, the award-winning author of five collections of poetry, as well as the novels Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault. "We need to start thinking of it in those terms, because that richness is an incredible gift to the city."
April is National Poetry Month and, to mark the occasion, Michaels was invited to read at Toronto City Council earlier this week. The poem she read, To Write, is reprinted ahead.
"It seemed like the right thing to read in City Council, because it speaks of what the power of words can be," she says. "I was able to stand in City Council and say, 'Poetry is insurrection. It's insubordination. It's defiance.' That's what poetry is. Poetry asserts. It's defiance against oppression, dispossession, indifference, amnesia of every sort, and has always been that, whether it's scrawled on a wall or written on a battlefield or whispered into the ear of a political prisoner or memorized to survive state censorship."
"It was very good to be reading it in that setting, because we need this assertion," she adds. "There's so much noise around us. Language is used with such promiscuity. We're experiencing a massive dose of opinion, and opinion is replacing thought. So we need this kind of speech more than ever."
Michaels will be hosting an evening of poetry on April 3 at 7 p.m. at the Toronto Reference Library, along with poets Phoebe Wang and Roo Borson.
Excerpted from All We Saw by Anne Michaels. Copyright (c) 2017 Anne Michaels. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved
because the dead can read
because she thought everyone
came home to find their family taken
because the one closest to her cannot speak
because he drew love into him from each body he entered
because they are keeping her from him
because the last time they met he misunderstood her
because a finger can hold a place in a book
because a book rests in a lap
because words are secrets passed one to another on a train
the same train where letters were crammed between slats
to be found by strangers
because they recognize each other over huge distances
because a true word, everywhere, is samizdat
because everything political is personal and not
the other way around
because forgiveness is not about the past but the future
and needs another word
because the true witness of your soul
is sometimes one you've scorned
because it is possible to be married to someone who died
many years before we were born
because he painted the intimate objects of their life together
not from observation but from memory; though surrounded
by the teacups, the flowers, the garden, he retreated
to his small room to paint, each object transformed
because words are mirrors that set fire to paper
because every day she risked her life for him
because he remembered this too late
because he was mistaken
because he was certain
because certainty and doubt consume each other like dogs
in a parable
because of a Sunday morning in London
because of a cemetery in Wales
because of a mountain and a river
because he imagined himself an orphan
because an infant cannot carry herself
because of drawings on fax paper
because she sends her SMS with broken thumbs
and an empty battery
because to be heard we do not need a pencil and we do
not even need a tongue and we do not even need a body
because the one who holds the pen, even if it's too dark to
see the page and even if the ink is his own blood, is free
because an action can never be erased by a word
because we set down what we cannot bear to remember
because we cannot take back what we sang
because the dead can read