How the Poet Laureate of Toronto Wants to Celebrate the City's Diversity
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How the Poet Laureate of Toronto Wants to Celebrate the City’s Diversity

Anne Michaels wants your voice to be heard.

Photo credit Marzena Pogorzaly

Photo credit Marzena Pogorzaly

Did you know that April was National Poetry Month? As we bid it adieu, ciao, shalom, ha det, γειά σου, مع السلامة, doei doei, bok, and hágoónee’, let’s reflect on the untapped wealth of literature that resides in our colourful city. Like Poetry Month, it’s happening right under our noses; and if we don’t reach out to diverse communities and make an effort to translate literature in other languages into English, we risk letting it slip away.

At least, that’s what Poet Laureate of Toronto Anne Michaels believes.

Michaels is a Canadian poet and the author of several poetry collections, including Miner’s Pond, Skin Divers, and The Weight of Oranges. Her most recent collection of poetry, Correspondences, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and her novel, Fugitive Pieces, was adapted into a film in 2007. Her poems are moody, deep, and concerned with the larger geographical state of the earth and landscape, as well as the intertwining stories that occur across space and time.

In Toronto, poet laureates have had a short life—the role was established in 2001. The job requires composing poems for special occasions, undertaking special projects, and attending certain events (Michaels, for instance, reads poetry at City Council.) She’s the fifth person to hold the title; other heavyweights include Dennis Lee, Dionne Brand, and her predecessor George Elliot Clarke, who is now the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Michaels will hold the position for the next three years.

“Every single poet laureate is earnest about the position and that’s kind of beautiful,” Michaels says. “We have poems on benches, we have a poetry map online, we have plaques on houses, we have statues. I think we’ve all really, really wanted to love the city in new ways that were practical and would outlast our tenure.”

But Michaels is perhaps more interested in lasting change that is a bit less bronze and a bit more human.

She wants to “get different language groups hearing the literature of other language groups,” and wants to open up those literatures to English-only speakers. “I think we have wonderful, strong neighbourhoods, but we ought to have those neighbourhoods start to interact.”

According to the City, there are more than 140 languages spoken in Toronto, and in 2006, nearly half of the population had a mother tongue that was not English or French. “Each language brings its own rich wealth of literature. We haven’t even begun to explore what that means,” Michaels says. “These languages are bringing to us an incredible resource, an incredible wealth of culture.”

Michaels, who was born and raised in Toronto and is familiar with the city’s diversity, hopes to bring these languages and experiences to the fore, through events and projects. For one, she is looking to piece together a poem written by students across the city. “I’m aiming to bring all the language groups, as many as I can, to interact with others,” she says. “That interaction hasn’t really been happening.”

Michaels explicates the rapidly changing nature of the city, and uses it to illustrate identity itself. “Most of us don’t live where we were born, we don’t die where we were born. Our children aren’t born where we were born,” she says. “We have a complicated relationship to place now and that’s something that one could explore for a lifetime.”

She’s also excited about the potential for exploration, and the potential new writers who are discovering Canada for the first time. She hopes newcomers will find our country to be a fitting place to thrive and create. “All the immigration here is going to lead to another generation, the next generation. What does that mean, what stories will be told being the second generation of all the immigrants who are coming now? It’s just exponentially tremendous.”

And, Michaels adds, technology has allowed Torontonians to collaborate and create in ways they never could before. “We can take things into our own hands in a way that we couldn’t before. It’s easier now to make inroads that way,” she says. “I think it’s reaching critical mass. I think people are out there and you can do it, and the internet’s allowing them to do it in ways that would’ve been so much more costly and difficult before.”

Having diverse voices share their experiences about city life is paramount, Michaels says. And there’s no better place to share those experiences than the tumultuous, lovely, and constantly evolving city of Toronto.

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